Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why Not Eastern Orthodoxy?

See here for a dialogue-style outline of my main line of argument in this post.

In this post, I gave an outline of some of my doctrinal progression over the past couple of decades which sheds light on our current conversion to Catholicism.  I mentioned there that a major part of what has moved us towards Catholicism was the realization that Sola Scriptura is not the default option when it comes to Christian epistemologies.  To think of it as the default position betrays a Protestant bias and a lack of historical perspective.  The gospel, and the Scriptures, do not come to us floating out there by themselves, but they come enmeshed in a larger tradition handed on to us by the Catholic Church.  Sola Scriptura is a novel position historically which requires us to divorce the Bible from its original context in the Catholic tradition.  If we are going to do that, we need to have really good reason, but I don't think we have it.  Once this is realized, we see that we need to go back to the original church, the original denomination founded by Christ, the one about which he said that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it," and that it would succeed in faithfulness where the leaders of Israel failed, and that he would guide it by his presence through his Holy Spirit into all truth, etc.  This rules out all denominations that are "break-offs" from the original denomination--which includes all Protestant churches, including Anglicans.  "Break-off" groups are groups which have broken from an earlier position clearly and definitively established by the church broken off from.  If we have reason to defer to the original denomination, then we aren't going to go with groups which have begun at some point in history to dissent from what the church previously embraced.  (Note:  I have recently written up a dialogue addressing this controversy with Protestantism.)

Things would be a lot easier if we could say that after ruling out all "break-off" groups, there was only one candidate for the true de jure church left standing, but in fact it's not quite that simple.  While it is easy to see that Protestants came into being by repudiating a previously established tradition of the Church and forming new bodies with new constitutions, this is not so easy to see with regard to the breaks between Rome and the Eastern churches.  While I think the historical evidence strongly favors the Catholic Church over the Eastern Orthodox Church and other Eastern churches, it is harder to make this case than it is to make the historical case against Protestantism.  There was no formally recognized ecumenical council in the first millennium of the Church enthusiastically embraced by all the churches, East and West, which clearly defined and declared in favor of the papal claims of Rome, for example (though papal claims had widespread acceptance in both the East and the West in the early Church, and there were times, like the end of the Acacian Schism, when Eastern churches even signed on formally to the claims of the papacy).  In short, it takes more than an easy empirical glance to determine who was the break-off when it comes to the splits between Rome and the Eastern Churches.  In light of that, why have we gone with Catholicism over the Eastern churches?

The major reason for not going the Eastern Orthodox direction, in my view, is that it lacks an adequate epistemology.  Let me put it this way:  In order find the true church, we have to have a principled way of choosing between contenders.  If we do not have an epistemology (a way of knowing) that allows us to do this, joining the true church would be a natural impossibility (and God cannot command natural impossibilities).  Rome has a coherent, workable epistemology at this point.  How do we decide between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, in their view?  We follow the bishop of Rome, who is the successor of the Apostle Peter.  Whether or not this way of thinking is actually correct, at least it is logical.  It works.  If we follow it, it will give us a definite answer to the question we need an answer to.  The primacy of the bishop of Rome provides a clear way of resolving doctrinal disputes when the church is split in such a way that we cannot easily declare one side a "break-off" position merely by obvious empirical observation.

So what is EO's epistemology?  How do they tell us to decide between such splits in the church?  Here we come to the glaring problem with the EO position:  They simply, literally have no answer to this question, and they themselves acknowledge it to be so.  Let's hear from one of EO's most well-known spokesmen, Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his famous book, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 251-252:

     This conception of the laity and their place in the Church must be kept in mind when considering the nature of an Ecumenical Council.  The laity are guardians and not teachers; therefore, although they may attend a council and take an active part in the proceedings (as Constantine and other Byzantine Emperors did), yet when the moment comes for the council to make a formal proclamation of the faith, it is the bishops alone who, in virtue of their teaching charisma, take the final decision.
     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.  With this caution in mind, let us briefly consider the present trend of Orthodox thought on this subject.

Bishop Ware then goes on to discuss some proposed solutions within the Orthodox Church to the dilemma he has described, and we'll come back to those in a moment.  But what I want to highlight now is that Bishop Ware is saying that there is no official Orthodox answer to the question of how one can tell if a council is ecumenical.  This is a crucial blind spot, because what gives Ecumenical Councils their infallibility is that they are the deliverances of the whole church guided by the Holy Spirit.  If it is impossible to know when the church is delivering something, there is no way to know which doctrines the Holy Spirit has led the church to affirm, and the whole foundation of trust in God's infallible guidance of his church is completely overthrown.  We are back to something like Protestantism, where there is no (discernible) infallible guidance given to the church to get things right.

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.

If the church cannot tell what its own doctrine is, it cannot tell us why we should go with the EO church over against the Roman Catholic Church.  To put the state of the issue briefly, then, we have a situation basically like this:  We want to decide between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Our first question is, "Do both sides have a coherent epistemology?"  We ask Rome how, in its view, a split such as between Rome and EO could be decided, and their answer is, "follow the bishop of Rome."  OK, well, at least this is coherent and would do the job.  We then ask the EO the same question, and their answer is, "We have no idea."  Well, that is obviously not going to do the job.  So right then and there we can discount the EO position, because they themselves acknowledge no foundation for thinking they are right.  Therefore, Rome is the winner.

Before we leave off, however, we should note that EO theologians have put forward ideas as to how one might determine true doctrine.  None of these ideas are the official EO view, and so we have no basis from the EO point of view to actually think that any of them are in fact correct, so they really have no weight, but they are still worth looking at.  Let's hear Bishop Ware as he discusses one of these proposed solutions (p. 252):

     To the question how one can know whether a council is ecumenical, Khomiakov and his school gave an answer which at first sight appears clear and straightforward: a council cannot be considered ecumenical unless its decrees are accepted by the whole Church.  Florence, Heiria, and the rest, while ecumenical in outward appearance, are not truly so, precisely because they failed to secure this acceptance by the Church at large.  (One might object:  What about Chalcedon?  It was rejected by Syria and Egypt - can we say, then, that it was 'accepted by the Church at large'?)  The bishops, so Khomiakov argued, because they are the teachers of the faith, define and proclaim the truth in council; but these definitions must then be acclaimed by the whole people of God, including the laity, because it is the whole people of God that constitutes the guardian of Tradition.

The problem with this solution (besides the fatal fact that the EO church has not put it forward as certainly true anyway, so we can't have any basis for considering it correct even if it worked) is obvious.  Bishop Ware himself pointed out the fatal flaw in it (without even attempting to give any answer to the objection):  Our task is to decide between the claims of competing parts of Christendom; this is not helped at all by simply telling us to "go with the claims accepted by the whole church"?  Which "whole church"  The Roman Catholic Church?  The Eastern Orthodox Churches?  The Oriental Orthodox?  All three?  Two out of three?  Or what?  It's as if we were in a room full of people where two groups have formed with contrary views, and one side proposes that the split be decided by going with "what the whole group wants."  Well, the "whole group" doesn't have a single opinion; that is the problem we were trying to solve in the first place!  The "orthodoxwiki" page puts the objection this way (embedded links are in original text):

Another ecclesiological problem is also created by receptionism: Why is it, for instance, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council may be said to have been "received by the whole Church" while significant numbers of Christians apparently within the Church rejected it, leading to the schism which even now persists? Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.

So where do we go from here?  Bishop Ware, quoting John Meyendorff (another Orthodox scholar), puts forth another suggestion (pp. 253-254):

     It is not the 'ecumenicity' but the truth of the councils which makes their decisions obligatory for us.  We touch here upon the fundamental mystery of the Orthodox doctrine of the Church:  the Church is the miracle of the presence of God among humans, beyond all formal 'criteria', all formal 'infallibility'.  It is not enough to summon an 'Ecumenical Council' . . . it is also necessary that in the midst of those so assembled there should be present He who said: 'I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.'  Without this presence, however numerous and representative the assembly may be, it will not be in the truth.  Protestants and Catholics usually fail to understand this fundamental truth of Orthodoxy: both materialize the presence of God in the Church--the one party in the letter of Scripture, the other in the person of the Pope--though they do not thereby avoid the miracle, but clothe it in a concrete form.  For Orthodoxy, the sole 'criterion of truth' remains God Himself, living mysteriously in the Church, leading it in the way of the Truth.  ("J. Meyendorff, quoted by M. J. le Guillou, Mission et unité [Paris 1960], vol. 2, p. 313.")

Once we get past the flowery language, the suggestion here is simply this:  The way we know if an ecumenical council is infallible and obligatory is if it teaches the truth.  The "orthodoxwiki" page puts it this way:

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. What is generally held is that councils may be regarded as ecumenical and infallible because they accurately teach the truth handed down in tradition from the Church Fathers.

Well, it is evident that this is not going to be very helpful.  We've moved away from a Protestantism which tells us to rely on our own fallible interpretation of Scripture towards trust in God's infallible guidance of his church, only to be told that the only way to know when the church has said something infallible is if it conforms to what we've previously discovered to be the truth through our fallible interpretations of not only Scripture now but the entire corpus of the church fathers.  Thanks, that helps a lot!  Again, this is simply taking back with one hand that which was given with the other--we were promised infallible guidance, and we're given only a harder task for our own fallible judgment.  By now, it is becoming quite clear that EO has nothing of any substantial value to offer us with regard to our question.  They may offer us much flowery, mystical, cool-sounding language, but it is only a smoke-screen that covers up the fact that nothing of substance is there.  (In my experience, when one raises this concern, one is typically told that one is being too "rationalistic" or too "scholastical" in one's thinking.  In reality, we are simply asking basic, foundational questions that require a clear enough answer to warrant coming to a conclusion.  This is not "rationalism"; it is merely "good thinking."  The fact that it must be dismissed as rationalistic, though, is not surprising given that there is no rational answer to be had from the EO position to the serious concerns raised.)

At this point, the EO position will often argue that Rome has added to the deposit of faith and so has departed schismatically from the church fathers, thus warranting separation from Rome.  From what I have seen, the specific arguments put forward to substantiate this claim tend to be very subjective.  Both churches are not Protestant; both acknowledge that the church is supposed to infallibly and authoritatively interpret, unpack, and apply the faith to the church and to the world over time, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Both sides agree that legitimate doctrinal development must be an organic, natural development of pre-existent principles embedded in revelation, rather than a "development" that is really a break from the tradition that strikes off in new and contrary directions.  St. Vincent of Lerins, in chapter 23 of his famed Commonitory (taken here from the New Advent website), has beautifully described the sort of "doctrinal development" that a Catholic (here including both "Roman Catholic" and "Eastern Orthodox") view of the church leads us to expect (embedded links are in the original text):

[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.

It would be too much for this one post to attempt to evaluate all the individual issues the Orthodox tend to bring forward as proof that Rome has "innovated" in an illegitimate way.  What we have to do if we wish to examine these claims is to look at the specific Roman doctrines deemed to be problems and see if we can show that they are a distortion of the principles of Scripture or earlier Catholic tradition (without begging the question, such as by assuming at the outset that the Pope and the bishops in communion with him have no authority to develop doctrine).  I have not found that this can be proven in any case I have yet seen.  Every issue I have examined seems like a plausible (and often very logical, once one dwells on it a bit) development from the principles of the universal Catholic tradition (assuming the authority of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to interpret, unpack, and apply God's revelation and its implications).  Oftentimes, the EO accusations remind me of the saying about the "pot calling the kettle black."  For example, the EO often attack Rome for affirming the Immaculate Conception of Mary (the idea that Mary was preserved free from original sin by God's grace from conception) as a defined dogma required to be believed by the whole church.  "Why, such a thing was never mandated in the time of the fathers!"  But the fathers, for the most part, believed that Mary was free from personal sins.  She is often praised by them as being "pure," "immaculate," "free from stain," etc.  (See here for a strong example of this from the 4th century.)  The EO today sing similar hymns to Mary, and many of them at least believe her to have been free from all personal sins, and others who believe that she may have committed venial sins believe her to have been free from mortal sins, etc.  (It is often hard to pin down EO doctrine, which is probably not surprising given what we have seen earlier in this post.)  Most EO hold that it is acceptable within the EO church to believe in the Immaculate Conception (so long as one does not declare it mandated).  It is true that the question of whether Mary had been kept from original sin at conception or was cleansed from it upon conception or before birth, etc., so that she never personally sinned, was debated through the Middle Ages in the western church.  The Roman Catholic Church has since come to the firm conclusion that she was kept free from original sin at conception.  "You see, an innovation!"  A doctrinal development, to be sure, but so was the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council that icons must be regarded as appropriate in the church.  Before that council, the church had not pronounced on the issue definitively, and there were earlier fathers and leaders in the church who rejected icons.  "But that was a legitimate development, even though it was a development!"  And so we see how subjective a charge of innovation can be, and how careful we must be in handling such charges.  In later posts, it is highly likely, I will make further responses to particular charges of "innovation" in the Roman Catholic Church.  (In the meantime, see here for a great article, in three parts, on the Immaculate Conception and modern EO objections to it, if you are interested.)  Suffice it to say for now that I find the accusations too subjective to enable us to decide between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

So, in conclusion, as the EO position puts forward no objective, authoritative criteria for deciding between Rome and EO, we can dismiss their position as unwarranted.  Assuming there are no other contenders for the "original denomination" (and that Rome has no fatal problems of its own), we can declare Roman Catholicism the winner.

Here is another good, brief article from a Catholic point of view articulating some of the same epistemological concerns I have raised above (though I don't necessarily agree with every single point he makes).

I should add, briefly, that I think the Anglicans have similar epistemological problems.  Perhaps I will comment on this more fully in the future.  For example, in an Anglican podcast I am currently listening to, the speaker makes the argument that Anglicans believe in the catholicity of the church (which for him includes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, at least--the classic "branch theory" of the church), one of the implications of which being that no one branch of the church should do anything substantial unilaterally, without the agreement of the other branches.  As I recall, as an example he says that it would be inappropriate for the Anglicans to proceed with installing women deacons (even if a good case could be made for this) without the agreement of the RC and EO branches of the church.  As I listened to this, I kept thinking to myself, "So you're not OK with installing women deacons without the RC and the EO churches, but you're fine with Anglicans having formed an entirely new denomination in the sixteenth century with all sorts of unique doctrinal positions affirmed without the approval of either the RC or the EO communions!  Sounds rather like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel."  Anglicans like to appeal to the tradition of the "whole, undivided" church as authoritative, but they fail to observe that the questions that divide the existing churches cannot be settled merely by appealing to what they all hold in common.  Like the Orthodox, they also like to accuse Rome (and the EOs) of "innovations" that have departed from the patristic tradition, and yet their arguments, so far as I've seen thus far, tend often to be as subjective and superficial as the EO's also tend to be in this matter.

ADDENDUM 7/30/15:  What about the other Eastern churches, such as the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches?  From what I have been able to gather thus far, it appears that their ecclesiology (and their theology in general, for the most part) is basically the same as that of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  They seem unclear as to whether they are themselves the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church or whether they are merely part of the one church along with each other and the Eastern Orthodox.  (There seems to be a stronger sense that they are further separated from Rome.)  Either way, their justification for their distinctive positions would seem to be basically the same as that used by the Eastern Orthodox--namely, that they are in accord with the Fathers.  As I argued above, what this amounts to is that they are right and orthodox (and those, like Rome, who disagree with them are wrong and heterodox) because they are in agreement with the consensus of "the whole church" in the first millennium of the church (which is really what "agreement with the Fathers" means), the problem with this being that there is no such thing as any clear consensus of the "Fathers" or the "whole early church" on the matters dividing Rome from the Eastern churches.  There is no clearly defined early tradition from which it is empirically obvious that either Rome or the Eastern churches have broken (though I think Rome has a stronger case for this on their side than the Eastern churches do).  Rather, we see both positions developing during the first millennium (though, I would add, the Roman position is much more clearly defined and the alternate position consists mostly in a vague, unclear, unsystematic, and somewhat sporadic refusal to recognize Rome's position rather than a clearly defined alternative) and culminating in the eventual East-West split.  Here is a document that illustrates this to some degree reasonably well.

I have come across a document from from the Diocese of California of the Assyrian Church of the East which seems pretty clearly to state that the Assyrian Church (though it is not in communion with any other church at present, nor has it been for some time) does not consider itself to be the one true church, but rather considers itself only a particular branch of the one church.  For example, the document describes the Assyrian Church in this way:

The identity of the Church of the East, though intimately tied in the last centuries to the Assyrian and Indian people, was originally the Mother Church of all true and right-believing Christians residing east of the historical lines of the Roman Empire.

ADDENDUM 11/10/15:  Here (in this comment from Michael Liccione) is another good statement of the fundamental problem with Eastern Orthodox epistemology.

ADDENDUM 2/5/16:  I just came across an interesting comment by Eastern Orthodox Archdeacon (and theological adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) John Chryssavgis in a First Things article about the upcoming Pan-Orthodox council:

For Orthodox Christians, there hasn’t been an Ecumenical Council since 787, with the Second Council of Nicaea that resolved the problem of iconoclasm, namely the debate about whether icons can or cannot be used for liturgical and devotional purposes. If you’ve been to an Orthodox Church recently, you know who won that argument! However, the Orthodox believe that it is the whole church that must convene—East and West—in order for a council to be considered ecumenical. In a world where Christians are so tragically divided, the Orthodox are reserved about boasting of an ecumenical council. In any case, an ecumenical council is normally recognized retrospectively.

That last sentence is reiterating what was pointed out in my article above about how the only way to know whether a council is ecumenical (and therefore authoritative) or not is to wait to see if the "whole church" accepts it.  I discussed above the somewhat nebulous and question-begging nature of that criterion.  What I found more particularly interesting in this comment, however, is that Archdeacon Chryssavgis points out another reason why the Eastern Orthodox have not had an ecumenical council since 787:  Since the Church has been divided between East and West (that is, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic), neither the East nor the West by itself has had authority to convene one or to recognize one.  I've heard that this is a concern of the Orthodox from other people talking about what they think, but this is the first time I've been able to find it articulated by someone who is Orthodox himself (and theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew no less!).

This position illustrates further the serious problem the Orthodox have in terms of epistemology.  The reason why it is important to know whether a council is ecumenical or not is because ecumenical councils, being the thought and decisions of the whole Church, are definitively and infallibly authoritative and reliable (being certainly guided by the Holy Spirit).  Non-ecumenical councils aren't.  So the underlying principle here is that only East and West together can be ultimately authoritative.  The Roman Catholic Church (the West), by itself, has gone off into all kinds of errors, according to the Orthodox.  But here's the problem:  It also follows from this thinking that the East is no more reliable and authoritative than the West, which means that, in articulating this principle, the Orthodox are implying that the distinctive doctrines of the Orthodox Church are not infallibly authoritative or reliable, for the Orthodox Church by herself can't deliver anything on that level.  But if this is so, why should we believe what she teaches?  For example, when she tells us that the Church is supposed to function in a conciliar manner without a visible head on earth (the Pope) and doesn't need the Bishop of Rome intrinsically, according to this principle, we have no infallible reason to think this to be true.  All the Orthodox Churches can do, then, is try to prove their positions from the Bible and the Church Fathers without any reliance on any authoritative, infallible guidance from the Holy Spirit (imitating how Protestants function), thus falling into a morass of subjectivity (as I talk about more here).  In short, the Orthodox complain against Protestants that they do not rely on how the Holy Spirit guides the Church infallibly and authoritatively, but then they themselves are forced to go the same route by undercutting any basis for themselves to claim any such infallible guidance.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is the only Church that claims God's infallible guidance and which actually puts forth a way in which that would work that doesn't contradict or undercut itself--reliance on the See of Peter as the foundation of doctrinal integrity and unity within the Church.  There simply is no other existing alternative, and there never has been.  By cutting themselves off from the See of Peter, the Orthodox have undercut their ability to ground their own doctrine and authority, because they have abandoned God's plan for how such grounding is supposed to occur.

ADDENDUM 2/9/16:  Here is another good article articulating how Eastern Orthodoxy cannot ground its own claims and how it ends up being in the same fallible, subjective mess as Protestantism because it rejects the See of Peter.  A couple of quotations from the article's conclusion:

To be sure, Protestants are right to respect the authority of Sacred Scripture, and Orthodox are right to respect the authority of both Scripture and Church Councils. But trying to hold to either Scripture in isolation from the Church, or Councils in isolation from the papacy, and the end result isn’t the elevation of Biblical or conciliar authority. Rather, it’s the exact opposite: by reducing the Bible to a fallible collection or the Ecumenical Councils to a fallible list, they’re stripped of true authority. . . . 
The infallibility of the Church isn’t a threat to the authority of Sacred Scripture. On the contrary, when the infallible Church clarifies which Books of the Bible are inspired, that brings the revelation of God into focus. So, too, the infallibility of the pope serves the Church collective, rather than undermining or supplanting it. It’s through papal infallibility (and the particular role of the pope in accepting or rejecting Councils) that Catholics can know whether or not a particular Council is valid and infallible.

ADDENDUM 2/24/16:  This is a fascinating article by an Orthodox writer who agrees with Catholic papal claims and makes a very interesting and insightful (and challenging) case for the Catholic Church addressed towards Eastern Christians.

ADDENDUM 3/1/16:  Here is another good article by a Catholic author articulating the key fatal flaw in Eastern Orthodox epistemology.

Orthodoxy’s Achilles’ Heel is its inability to offer a positive principle of unity for the Church. . . . What does Catholicism say the principle of unity is? Answer: St. Peter, the bishop of Rome, and his successors are the principle of unity. . . . 
It is not enough for the Orthodox to propose negations to positive Catholic statements. They must also present positive alternatives to the Catholic position. But on the all-important issue of authority and unity within Christ’s Church, the Orthodox have no compelling answer.

The link within the quotation above connects to another good article about how St. Cyprian taught that the principle of unity is the primacy of Peter and his successors in the Church of Rome.

In short, we ought to follow the method of St. Jerome.  As he put it in the year 393 (Against Jovinianus [Book I], section 26--New Advent website),

[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.

St. Jerome therefore appealed to Rome to resolve disputes that were causing schism in the Church, such as in this letter (#15) of Jerome to Pope Damasus written in the year 376 or 377 (New Advent--added biblical references removed):

Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.

Here we have a living, authoritative voice that can truly guide us.  In the papacy alone have we truly escaped from the subjectivism that has plagued much of Christendom for centuries.

For more on the early church and the papacy, I highly recommend the work of an Anglican scholar Edward Giles, in a book entitled Documents Illustrating Papal Authority AD 96-454, which can be found here.

See also another article I have recently written up that is relevant to this topic, in which I argue that the Eastern Orthodox Churches, having abandoned the See of Peter as the principle of visible unity, have ended up with the same subjectivism that plagues Protestantism, although instead of Sola Scriptura they have substituted Sola Primitiva Ecclesia.

ADDENDUM 5/9/16:  I have been increasingly impressed over the past year at the evidence from the early church supporting the view that the doctrine of the papacy, in its various facets, was nearly universally accepted and practiced in the early church from the beginning.  That is not to say that the practice was always consistent, or that development in understanding and articulating this idea did not occur.  But the recognition of Roman primacy, often in a theological form, seems pervasive in the early church, both East and West.  It is often strongly asserted, by popes and others (including prominent Easterners), and it is hardly ever contradicted, and no alternate theory of the preservation of unity in the Church or how to determine whether a council is fully authoritative or not was, to my knowledge, ever proposed by anybody.  (Even today, as I note above, there is no accepted answer to these questions in any of the Eastern non-Catholic churches.)

I've cited Edward Giles's book above, including in the last "Addendum," and I would refer anyone to that book to see what I am talking about in the centuries from Apostolic times up to Chalcedon.  One might also take a look at the fascinating events of the Acacian schism in the 6th century--see here and here--and the council which took place at Constantinople from 869 to 870--see here--in which the majority of orthodox Eastern bishops, it would seem, signed a formula that went like this:

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; especially . . . [here follows a list of names]. 
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.

Chapter four of Session Four of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century referred to this formula as evidence that the papacy was not foreign to but was affirmed by the Eastern churches in the past.

Granted, the Eastern Orthodox have their own ideas about what all this really meant and implied, and there are lots of arguments that could be had.  In the case of the above formula, it could be argued that pressure from the emperors influenced people's actions in signing formulas, for example.  So perhaps (although I am not certain of this) it cannot be maintained that the East as a whole (or even the whole Chalcedonian East) ever formally accepted the papacy in an absolutely clear, empirically obvious way.  But it seems we can maintain just about the next step down from that, and that is an important testimony.  The doctrine of the papacy was never just "Western"; it was always an important part of the thinking and activity of the early Catholic Church in both the East and the West.

See also this article, which provides some quotations showing the high regard had for the papacy by many Eastern writers through the centuries of the early church.  (Again, note that Eastern Orthodox have their own explanations of these things.  His Broken Body is a good Orthodox source which provides a careful, honest appraisal of the evidence arguing ultimately for an Orthodox rather than a Catholic point of view.)  Here is one quotation from St. Maximus the Confessor, a very important Eastern saint of the 7th century and a saint in both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches today (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):

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.

ADDENDUM 5/11/16:  Here is a nice, succinct statement of the problem with Eastern Orthodox epistemology written within a conversation on an internet forum by a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  (The whole conversation is quite interesting.)

The Roman Catholics have a criterion by which they judge: the Pope. Love him or loathe him, he is at least a consistent principle of authority on the face of things. We, seemingly, do not have any such criterion. So why should an honest seeker, looking for the authority of the true Church, go with the Orthodox, which can't even tell you how they know to accept/reject what they accept/reject, rather than the Catholics, who have an historically consistent standard by which their claims may be judged? 

ADDENDUM 6/13/16:  Here is another way of looking at the whole question of how to evaluate the claims of Rome vs. Eastern Orthodoxy and other Eastern churches:

The Protestant churches are clearly break-off groups, because they formed by breaking off from a previous agreed-upon position.  (For example, the Anglicans used to be Roman Catholics, but they changed their theology and their accepted allegiances in order to do something different and contrary to what they had been doing before.)  Although it's more subtle, it could be said that the Eastern churches also came into being as break-off groups.  To see this, we must think of the time when the various Eastern churches broke from communion with Rome, and then we must ask:  What was their justification in doing so?  From what we have seen above, it is clear that they had no justification whatsoever.  So if we went back, say, to whenever the Eastern Orthodox broke with Rome, and right before that point (I'm oversimplifying the history a bit here, of course) we contemplated that there were just about to be two churches instead of one, and we were trying to decide which one to follow (should we break with Rome and stay with the new EO church, or vice versa?), we would note that the EO group had no official justification for thinking they were right.  Even to this day they don't know what the basis of their own claim is, so it is clear they didn't know back then either.  If we asked them, "So, you are about to break with Rome; on what basis are you going to do this?" their answer would have been, in effect, "We have no official basis to know we are right in doing this."  In that case, it is clear that their position would be schismatic, because to break communion with a sister church for no reason is by definition to be schismatic.  Unless the EO party could prove that they had good, conclusive reason to break with Rome, their position must be considered schismatic.  So that is what we would have to conclude, and so we would, of course, stay with Rome.

Although there was (perhaps) no formal, binding agreement made that acknowledged Rome's view of the papacy before the Rome-EO split, unlike with Protestant churches like the Anglican church, yet we cannot say that the tradition of the undivided Church did not provide the answer to the question of who would be right in the split.  That tradition had produced only one answer to the question of how to tell who is right in such disputes, and that answer was the papacy.  Rome, and many others (including many Easterns) had been putting that answer forward from as early as our history records, and no other clear answer was ever put forward by anybody.  But when a split like the Rome-EO split occurs, in order for the tradition to remain viable, we must have an answer as to how to tell who is right--for if we can't tell that, then it will be at that point impossible to know where the true Church is, making it impossible for us to rely on the Holy Spirit's guidance of that Church.  So if the tradition has put forward only one answer by the time the split occurs, and one side in that split professes that answer as their basis for continuing existence while the other side has no answer, then it is clear that the tradition at that point has spoken definitively as to what the right answer is.  If it is a choice between the papacy and nothing, the papacy obviously wins.  So, if we were there when the Rome-EO split occurred, then we could say that as soon as the split was decided upon, the Church's tradition, if it had not before, definitively at that time decided upon Rome's view of the papacy, and definitively labeled the other side schismatic.  And therefore, in the end, we can say that the EO group was a break-off just as much as the Protestant groups would later be.  (And this goes for the two other earlier Eastern churches as well--the Nestorians and the Oriental Orthodox).

ADDENDUM 6/16/16:  I've just written up a new post that puts the basic arguments made in this post into a dialogue format.

ADDENDUM 11/10/16:  Here is a nice list of Eastern fathers through the centuries talking about the Roman church and its authority.  Of course, if I were going to use any of these quotations definitively, I would want to go back and check them out, their full context, etc.  Proof texting can be dangerous, particularly when it comes to a very controversial subject.  But I know from my research that the Eastern church did indeed have a very high view of the papacy from the earliest times, and this list helps to illustrate this.

ADDENDUM 9/21/17:  Here and here are a couple of helpful articles on the Acacian Schism and the Formula of Hormisdas.  This was a schism between Rome and the Eastern churches in the fifth and sixth centuries that lasted for a number of decades.  The Eastern churches had adopted a kind of watered-down Christology that was supposed to avoid deciding between Chalcedon and Monophysitism.  Rome opposed this, and communion was broken between them for some time.  What is especially interesting in terms of our topic of focus is that the schism was only ended when the Eastern churches agreed to sign a formula written up by the pope which basically affirmed that the papacy, by Christ's promise to Peter, is always free from heresy and apostasy, that communion with Rome is the way to preserve the purity of the Christian religion, and that those who are not in communion with Rome are not in communion with the Catholic Church.  I quoted it above in the 5/19/16 addendum.

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