Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dialogue on the Claims of Eastern Orthodoxy

Below is a dialogue outlining my most central reasoning as to why I go with Catholicism rather than Eastern Orthodoxy.  Of course, the dialogue is simplistic.  A real dialogue of this sort would be far more convoluted and complex.  My Eastern Orthodox interlocutor gives up more easily than would happen in a real conversation.  But, from what I have seen, I think the dialogue does capture for the most part (in simplified form) the substantial essence of how the conversation tends to go.

EO:  The Orthodox Church, unlike Protestant denominations, is the church actually founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD.

RC:  The Orthodox churches certainly have a strong, historic pedigree.  Although they split from Rome eventually, their history traces right back to the historic patristic Church founded by Christ.  So the Catholics and the Orthodox have something in common here in contrast to the various Protestant traditions.

EO:  But the Roman Catholic Church is not the church founded by Christ.  It is schismatic, because the pope, in his arrogance, deviated from the Apostolic Tradition of the Undivided Church and therefore lost communion with the true Church, the Orthodox Church.

RC:  Well, you're right that there was a break, and that does mean that one of the two churches--the Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church--is in schism from the true Church.  We both agree, with the unanimous consent of the Undivided Church of the First Millennium, that schismatics--those who separate from the true Church or from their sister churches for bad reasons or for no good reason--have cut themselves off from the true Church (though the Catholic Church, and some Orthodox churches, recognize some nuances here and don't deny that groups and persons in schism can be in some ways, though imperfectly, still united to the true Church).  But why do you say it is Rome that is schismatic?  What is your basis for thinking that the Orthodox churches were justified in the split and the Catholic Church was not?

EO:  The Church is infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit, and Rome deviated from the Church.

RC:  Well, I agree with you that the Church is guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit.  But the question is, How do you know that it is the Orthodox Church and not the Catholic Church which is the true Church?

EO:  We know it is Orthodoxy which is true because the Church's Tradition has decided it.

RC:  Where has the Church made this decision?  We both share allegiance to the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the First Millennium.  We both agree that these councils give us the deliverances of the true Church and are thus infallible, but these councils do not tell us to go with Orthodoxy over Catholicism.

EO:  Well, things get kind of tricky here.  We're still working on figuring out how to tell when the true Church has spoken.  We're not even sure right now how to tell when a council is Ecumenical.  Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware makes this point:

     But councils of bishops can err and be deceived.  How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible?  Many councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical: Ephesus in 449, for example, or the Iconoclast Council of Hieria in 754, or Florence in 1438-9.  Yet these councils seem in no way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils.  What, then, is the criterion for determining whether a council is ecumenical?
     This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solutions suggested are entirely satisfactory.  All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.  There are, so it must be admitted, certain points in the Orthodox theology of councils which remain obscure and which call for further thinking on the part of theologians.  (The Orthodox Church [London: Penguin Books, 1997], pp. 251-252).

The "orthodoxwiki" website entry on "Ecumenical Councils" makes the same point:

At the current time, the episcopacy of the Church has not as yet put forward a universal definition as to what precisely lends a council its ecumenicity.

RC:  Wait a minute.  Are you telling me that the Orthodox Church doesn't even claim to have a method to tell when the Church has infallibly spoken?  If that is so, then how can you say that the Church's infallible Tradition has spoken in favor of Orthodoxy over Catholicism?  How can you make any infallible claims about doctrine at all?  It seems to me that if you can't tell when the Church is speaking infallibly, you're in basically the same boat as the Protestants in your epistemology--having to rely on the fallible judgments of individuals as they try to sort out the true doctrine from whatever sources of doctrine are available.  Protestants claim there is no infallible guidance to be had.  You say there is such guidance, but we can't know where it is or what it says infallibly, which in practice amounts to the same thing.

EO:  I guess you have a point there.  OK, so we can't know with the Church's infallible judgment that Orthodoxy is right and Catholicism is wrong.  But that doesn't mean there is no justification for the Orthodox position.  We may not be able to know with infallible judgment that the Orthodox position is correct, but we can know with a fallible judgment.  We can look back at the Scriptures, and at the Fathers and councils of the Church in the First Millennium, and see that Rome has deviated from the Tradition of the Undivided Church in various ways, and that Orthodoxy has not, and so we can know that Orthodoxy is right and Catholicism is wrong.

RC:  But I think your method is question-begging.  Catholics and Orthodox do not agree regarding how to interpret the evidence coming from Scripture and the Fathers.  Both sides think they are in accord with Scripture and the Fathers.  So how do you know your interpretations are correct?  You've already admitted that you have no (knowable) infallible guidance in this matter.  This is the same conversation Catholics have with Protestants.  Protestants--say, Baptists--bring forward what they think is indisputable evidence from Scripture that infants should not be baptized, and they try to use that as an argument against the Catholic Church, saying that the Church has deviated from Scripture and so is proven false.  But they are begging the question, because they are assuming that Sola Scriptura is the right way to interpret the Bible.  If, instead, God intends for the Bible to be interpreted in the light of infallible Church Tradition, it follows that interpretations derived from the Sola Scriptura method are not reliable or authoritative.  You are doing the same thing.  You are coming up with controversial interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers, and then assuming your interpretations are correct without considering whether Scripture and the Fathers are meant to be read in the way you are reading them or whether rather they are intended to be interpreted in light of a living, authoritative, infallible Church Tradition that we actually have access to--which is the Catholic point of view.  So, in short, your argument against Catholicism based on your personal interpretations of Scripture and the Fathers is question-begging because it is based on the unproven assumption that Scripture and the Fathers are meant to be interpreted using our fallible judgment rather than in light of a knowable, infallible Catholic tradition.

EO:  OK, you do have a point there.  But surely, even without infallible guidance, we can tell well enough what Scripture and the Fathers are saying to show clearly that Catholicism is a deviation from them.  For example, the Scriptures so clearly teach that Jesus is the Son of God that anyone who says he isn't would clearly be in conflict with Scripture.  We don't need infallible guidance to see that!  (I'm not, of course, saying that Catholics don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  I'm just making the point that there are some truths plainly enough taught in Scripture.)  We can also see that the Catholic Church has added all sorts of doctrines to the faith that weren't taught by the Fathers, such as the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

RC:  I agree that in some cases, with very basic, extremely foundational truths, Scripture (and the Fathers) are so clear that the right interpretation is obvious and there couldn't possibly be any other reading.  But the points on which Catholics and Orthodox, and most other groups of Christians, disagree are not so plain and obvious as that, but often involve more complex and subtle interpretative questions.  This is so even with a claim like "Jesus is the Son of God."  Sure, anyone who says "Jesus isn't the Son of God in the sense Scripture intends" would be obviously and unavoidably out of accord with Scripture, but what Christian is going to say that?  What actually happens is that different groups interpret the meaning of this phrase is contrary ways, ways that are harder to sort out from a "plain" reading of the text.  That is why the historic Church has always recognized the essential requirement that the Scriptures (and the Fathers) be read in light of authoritative and infallible (and, obviously, knowable) Church Tradition.  St. Vincent of Lerins, whom we both respect as a saint, articulates this well:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.  (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Chapter 2--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)

It is also important to remember that the Tradition of the Church develops over time, a point that both of us accept.  The revelation has all been given to us, and there is no more public revelation, but the Church grows in its understanding, articulation, and application of this revelation over time as the Holy Spirit guides her.  The decision of the Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts regarding the circumcision of Gentiles is a good example of this.  St. Vincent speaks about this as well:

[55.] The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant's limbs are small, a young man's large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled.   
[56.] In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.
[57.] For example: Our forefathers in the old time sowed wheat in the Church's field. It would be most unmeet and iniquitous if we, their descendants, instead of the genuine truth of grain, should reap the counterfeit error of tares. This rather should be the result—there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind— wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam, darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth. (Commonitory, Chapter 23--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed) 

Even Protestants admit the reality of the Church's doctrinal development.  If the Church's Tradition develops over time, this makes it especially difficult to sort out true development from false development (that is, mutation or distortion).  We cannot simply read the Fathers and make a one-to-one correspondence with what they said, how they said it, and what they were doing to our own times without critical interpretative thought.  Orthodox author Vincent Gabriel has put this well in an excellent article:

Someone doing theology as archeology will look at a practice of the Church in the past and assume that this speaks to how we should be doing things in the present. But this is more traditional-ism than tradition. Artificially grafting something from a point in the past onto the Church of the present is an exercise in archaeology, as it discounts the organic, spiritual “development” of the Church in history. It can even convey that the Holy Spirit has somehow left the Church on her own for a number of centuries (a sort of Deism). . . . 
So no, we don’t look to the early Church for our specific forms of worship and piety (even as the same, basic elements were there in seed form). Instead, we look to the same Church of the first and second centuries that persists in the world today. . . . 
The Orthodox Church is related to the early Church not because we worship or pray exactly as they did, but rather because the apostolic charism resting on those fire-anointed apostles is the same that rests on our faithful bishops and priests in the twenty-first century. . . . 
If we’re searching for the faith of the apostles, we’re searching for the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in the world today, not an artificial reconstruction of our own imagination.

You mentioned two points of dispute between Catholics and (some, but not all) Orthodox--the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist in western Catholic rites (but not the Eastern Catholic rites) and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Your argument is that leavened bread was used in the early Church.  But the history here is disputed.  The Eastern churches seem historically to have used unleavened bread, but do we know that all the Western churches always used leavened bread?  For the sake of argument, let's say they did.  Does that prove that leavened bread must always be used?  There was no council in the First Millennium in which the whole Church agreed definitively that only leavened bread must ever be used in the Eucharist.  How do you know, then, that unleavened bread is ruled out definitively?  How are we going to come to a conclusion on this issue?  The Catholic Church's answer is that we must look to the infallible developing Tradition of the Catholic Church today to answer that question, and the answer is clear:  Both leavened bread and unleavened bread are inherently permissible.  Your answer is that we must dig through the Fathers of the First Millennium and try to infer from hints and clues in their writings what we should hold on this subject today.  But your method is inherently question-begging, because it assumes that the fallible interpretative conclusions of individuals, rather than the knowable infallible conclusions of the Catholic Church, are the proper basis upon which to draw a conclusion in this matter.  Again, this is just as question-begging as the Protestant who appeals to his own personal interpretation of the Bible to trump the infallible interpretation of the Catholic Church.  He is merely assuming rather than proving that he is using the Bible correctly when he uses it in a Sola Scriptura manner to reach doctrinal conclusions.  And you are merely assuming rather than proving that the proper way to draw doctrinal conclusions for today is not to listen to the knowable infallible authority of the Catholic Church but instead to sort through the thousands of pages of Scripture and the Fathers in an effort to reach the best inferred conclusions using your own fallible judgment.

The same could be said for your concern about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  You say that the early Church did not know this doctrine.  But the early Church knew of the sinlessness of Mary, and her purity from all stains is acknowledged today in both the Catholic and the Orthodox liturgies.  It is true that it wasn't until the later Middle Ages that the Catholic Church as a whole came to the definitive conclusion that Mary's sinlessness implies her Immaculate Conception, but how does that prove that the Catholic Church was wrong in eventually drawing explicitly that conclusion?  "But it's not in the Fathers!" doesn't cut it, unless you reject the whole principle of development of doctrine and simply assume without proof that your way of interpreting the Fathers and the proper methods of doctrinal development are correct and the Catholic views on these are wrong.

Your accusations against the Catholic Church here are also a bit hypocritical, for Orthodox doctrine depends no less on the principle of doctrinal development than Catholic doctrine does, as Vincent Gabriel noted above.  Take the question of the use of images in Christian worship.  Where in the Bible is the question of images in New Testament worship discussed?  Nowhere.  What did the early Fathers have to say about it?  Early on, they seem to be a mixed bag, with some favoring and some opposing.  It was not until the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD that the Church finally made a definitive affirmation that images are to be used in worship.  Was that council's ruling correct?  You could not determine this from Scripture alone or from the earlier Fathers alone without question-begging.  The only way to know conclusively that the council was correct is to have reason to trust the council's conclusions as the infallible deliverances of an Ecumenical Council (which the Orthodox accept, but admit they don't really know why they accept it).  Similarly, the way we know that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the correct doctrine is not by using our fallible judgment to sort out clues in the thousands of pages of Fathers who don't definitively determine this, but to trust the judgment of the living, infallible, authoritative Catholic Church.  Or, at least, that is the Catholic claim, which you ignore in your unproven assumption that we don't have to listen to that claimed authority.

So it seems to me that when all is said and done, what it comes down to is that you Orthodox split from Rome without any reasonable or conclusive justification, and we would both agree, along with the unanimous consensus of the Undivided Church of the First Millennium, that to do this is to merit justly the label "schismatic."  So I conclude, reasonably, that the Orthodox churches are not the true Church, but are schismatic churches that have separated themselves from the true Catholic Church founded by Christ (though, again, there are nuances here we don't want to forget).

EO:  I don't know what to say.  But, if we are schismatic because we have no justification for our separation from Rome, how do you Catholics justify your separation from us?  How can you avoid being in the same boat?

RC:  The answer to that is simple.  Christ appointed Peter the head of his Church, and made him the means of avoiding schism in his Body.  As St. Jerome said,

[T]he Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.  (Against Jovinianus [Book I], section 26--New Advent website)

Peter's authority was passed on to the bishops of Rome, who continue it to the present day.  The bishop of Rome, as head of the Church, prevents schism, because when groups within the Church become divided in such a way that it is not empirically obvious who is right, we can know who is right by following the authority of the bishop of Rome.  As the great 7th century Eastern theologian St. Maximus the Confessor (recognized as a saint and a great theologian by both Catholics and Orthodox) put it,

All the ends of the inhabited world, and those who anywhere on earth confess the Lord with a pure and orthodox faith, look directly to the most holy Church of the Romans and her confession and faith as to a sun of eternal light, receiving from her the radiant beam of the patristic and holy doctrines, just as the holy six synods, inspired and sacred, purely and with all devotion set them forth, uttering most clearly the symbol of faith. For, from the time of the descent to us of the incarnate Word of God, all the Churches of the Christians everywhere have held and possess this most great Church as the sole base and foundation, since, according to the very promise of the Saviour, it will never be overpowered by the gates of hell, but rather has the keys of the orthodox faith and confession in him, and to those who approach it with reverence it opens the genuine and unique piety, but shuts and stops every heretical mouth that speaks utter wickedness.  (Footnotes removed--the quotation is from "The Ecclesiology of St. Maximos the Confessor," by Andrew Louth, published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2004, p. 116)

Or we could cite the words of that formula signed by the Eastern churches in the 6th century and again affirmed in the 9th century:

The first salvation is to keep the rule of right faith, and in no way to wander from the laws of the fathers. And that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said: Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, etc., may not be ignored is proved by the result: because in the Apostolic See religion has always been kept immaculate. Desiring therefore by no means to be separated from this hope and faith, and following in all things the laws of the fathers, we anathematize all heretics . . .  
Wherefore we receive and approve all the letters of Pope Leo, whichever he wrote concerning the Christian religion. Hence, as we have said, following the Apostolic See in all things, and teaching its decrees, I hope that I may be worthy to be in the one communion with you [referring to the pope], which the Apostolic See teaches, in which is the full and true solidity of the Christian religion. Promising also that the names of those who are banished from the communion of the Catholic Church, that is, those who do not consent to the Apostolic See, are not to be recited in the holy mysteries.

EO:  But how do you know that this doctrine of the papacy is the correct doctrine, and the correct method of settling schism?

RC:  Because this doctrine was the only doctrine developed by the Undivided Church of the First Millennium which addresses this issue.  The Patristic Church was clear and unanimous on the need to trust the infallible, living Tradition of the Catholic Church.  But this cannot be done if we have no viable method for determining who is right when splits like the Orthodox-Catholic split occur.  As we have seen, and as they tend to admit, the Orthodox have no clear, authoritative, or viable answer here, and neither do any of the other churches which have separated from Rome over the centuries.  No one has ever put forward any answer other than the papacy, while the doctrine of the papacy has Scriptural roots and has been taught and respected in the Church, both East and West, since the beginning, so far as we can tell from the historical records, and as St. Maximus the Confessor testified.  So our choice of a viable way to recognize the Church's Tradition boils down to this: the papacy or nothing.  Obviously, given this choice, the papacy wins.  And so we know that the papacy is the right answer, and from this we know that it is the Catholic Church that is the true Church and that the Orthodox churches are schismatic.

For more detailed development of the arguments made here, see this article.  (And see this article for a similar-style dialogue between a Catholic and a Protestant.)

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