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How To Be orthodox With A Small “o” – Part 1

About six months ago I took part in a conversation with a dear Protestant friend and mentor of mine, who likes to give me a hard time about being Orthodox – as she does with believers from any tradition – for the sake of light-hearted controversy.  She was saying that, when it comes to beliefs and doctrine, what is important is that one be orthodox – with a small ‘o.’ I completely agree with her sentiment here. The term “orthodox” comes from two Greek terms that have great depth of meaning, but on the most basic level they combine the concepts of “accurate” or “properly aligned” (e.g. “orthodontics”) and “doctrine” or “worship” (e.g. doxology). Orthodoxy is not a mere branch or denomination of the Christian faith but a place towards which believers orient themselves as the term expressed throughout the councils of Church history when “orthodoxy” was victorious over the “heterodox” dissenters of the true faith.

But my friend’s argument stems from the premise that Christians should never pledge their full allegiance to any official ecclesiastical community because none of them are truly “orthodox with a small ‘o.’” They all are doctrinally errant and we must approach every tradition, indeed every teacher in the Christian faith, with a giant chunk of salt because it is only through independent thinking, logic, and trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can arrive at the proper conclusions and interpretations.  Everyone is human and prone to error, so we simply have to do the best that we can with the material given to us, namely Scripture, in order to align ourselves with what seems to be the right beliefs and practices.  Further, God is forgiving of our honest blunders as we “do theology,” that academic task of the intellectual class within the Christian community.

My purpose in this article is to explore what could be meant by “orthodox with a small ‘o’” as well as how one can know whether one has arrived there.  Is the mentality described above effective in accomplishing this task, is it biblical, and is it the method believers have always followed in their effort to preserve the true faith, once for all delivered to the saints?

WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES

In the milieu of denominations and schools of thought in contemporary forms of Christianity, the inevitable approach of believers has come to, on the one hand, accept unity in diversity (since everyone has accurate and inaccurate theological conclusions), while on the other hand, remain suspicious of teachers and independent in how we handle theology (because a seminarian expert can be just as misled as the next guy on any given issue).  What holds the confusion together is the common understanding that there are “essentials” as well as “distinctives” of the faith. “Essentials” comprise the non-negotiable tenets that all believers must affirm to be truly Christian, while “distinctives” involve areas of theology that, while important parts of the Christian story and derived from the Bible, should never become dogmatic for anyone since they are not essential to salvation.  There is a plethora beyond a plethora of various beliefs about these distinctives, and they simply give us different “flavors” of the faith without compromising what is really important.

In general, the one agreement that all these believers uphold is the teaching of sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is to be trusted as authoritative for Christian life and practice, and inevitably this causes every expositor and teacher of the Scriptures to be treated with some level of distrust as listeners evaluate whether the teacher makes a good and acceptable argument that seems nicely based in the Scriptures.  But since it quickly becomes so foggy as to what aspects of various teachings can be embraced and what should be discarded, it seems that in order to be consistent with the sola scriptura teaching that sermons would consist solely of readings from the Scriptures rather than lengthy explanations as to what they mean. After all, if we listen to what anyone says they mean then we are going outside of the Bible for our source of authority.

INDEPENDENT CHRISTIANITY

As an Orthodox Christian I am criticized for embracing fully the teachings of my Church, because I am not being independent in my thinking and picking and choosing which teachings are right and wrong – as allegedly all Christians are supposed to do today – since every tradition has true and false elements.  I am told that I am simply being gullible, that I am just enamored by the novelty of it all as compared to my background, that I am making the central mistake that lands people in dangerous cults.  But being uncritical of the historical beliefs of one’s faith tradition is not what defines cultish behavior.  A cult is born from unswerving allegiance to a single figure who forms a certain offshoot “denomination” (if that term can be used), who claims that all previous methods of doing the faith were wrong, and who argues that God has called only them to restore everything to the way it was supposed to be.  Now everyone must listen to and follow only this figure’s opinions of what the true faith is.  But being careful to humbly align oneself with the historical consensus of what all believers in your faith at large have always believed on any given doctrine, so as not to innovate, is certainly not naïve cultish behavior.

I have dear loved ones who belong to a non-denominational group, whose doctrine is essentially based on the opinions of a single figure who started the movement in California a few decades ago.  However, for them this is justified as not being cultish, as well as for most of contemporary Christianity, because most churches do not really care whether their congregation totally affirms the church’s statement of faith.  It remains unclear why the statement of faith even exists, except to offer a preview to visitors of what flavor of sermons will be preached there.  My loved ones would not totally identify with the views of their church’s founder, and indeed this is seen by most Evangelicals as a very good thing since we should not be followers of any man or woman as they are fallen and all make doctrinal mistakes.  Believers are called to study the Scriptures thoroughly for themselves and make their own conclusions.

In light of all this, a chilling, suppressed question begins to lurk in the subconscious of this contemporary, individualized approach to the Christian faith: How can one know for sure that anyone is right about anything?   When it comes to groups, for example, that deny the Holy Trinity or the two natures of Christ as fully God and fully man, how can one know for sure that they are interpreting the Scriptures incorrectly, since they are also using Scripture to prove themselves?  In the early fourth century the Church was dealing with the Arian heresy, where a man named Arius was teaching that Christ was not eternal God, but was rather the first Creature God made.  It is significant that the man used very applicable Scriptures to back up his views – such as “My Father is greater than I,”[i] or “He is . . . the firstborn over all creation.”[ii]

BY WHAT STANDARD OF MEASURE?

As important as thorough exegesis of the original biblical languages is, it soon becomes evident that if the objective, non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith is confined solely to the dissection of the linguistic arrangement of the scriptural text, then one is really in no superior position than the most grotesque heterodox sects who are doing the exact same thing.

Under the “essentials” and “distinctives” approach, A, B, and C essential doctrines are taught to be vitally important for one to truly be a believer because being confused on these hinders one from embracing the true, full gospel.  But how does one consistently evangelize this to newcomers to the faith? How does one explain to the thoroughly confused inquirer: “You must affirm the A, B, and C essential doctrines but the X, Y, and Z distinctive doctrines are unimportant tenets we simply like to discuss and debate based on our own reading of Scripture; the XYZ distinctives are important details, but they are also not important because NO ONE has the scoop on whether ANY of them are for sure or not.  Oh, and the deeper you dig into the faith you will discover more and more people who cannot agree on which tenets even belong in the ABC essentials category versus the XYZ distinctives!”

It is therefore imperative that an ultimate standard be in place by which to differentiate essentials from distinctives.  What is needed is an authoritative exposition of Scripture by which to determine whether an interpretation is erroneous.  The only way one can take the upper hand in, say, the previously mentioned issue with heretical non-Trinitarian interpretations, is to appeal to the historical understanding and application of the Scriptures by God’s people over the ages. When it came down to the final decision of the first ecumenical council, Arius’ views on Christ being a “creature” and not fully God were condemned not because someone came forward with a counter argument with other Bible verses.  He was condemned because his views did not line up (“canon” in Greek) with any teaching of any Christian prior to that period.  Thus even if the Scriptures seem to suggest one thing, it is clear that they are being misunderstood if the suggestion is outside of the way that they have historically, always been received and applied within the Church community.  The “canon” of Scripture is named thus because these books were determined over time to line up with what was believed and practiced by all Christians historically.

Rather than going on and on with the Jehovah’s Witnesses at our doorstep over the implications of the absence of a definite article before theos in John 1:1, as well as theos and logos both being in the nominative case (etc., etc.), we can simply say, “This belief of yours was universally rejected by the Church at the first ecumenical council because it did not line up with the belief and practice of the Christian community up until that time, and it died out until Charles T. Russell resurrected it in the nineteenth century.  It is unorthodox.” – period, full stop, end of discussion.

In part two we will further discuss the role of history in providing a grounded coherency in our adherence to Christian tenets and continue the consideration of pursuing “orthodoxy with a small ‘o.’”


 

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Joseph Green

Joseph Green

Joseph is committed to reading, writing, and meditating on, as well as experiencing the infinite love and wisdom of God as He has revealed Himself within the Christian Church. Having obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies at Regent University, he went on to complete a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Columbia International University in 2013. In his last semester of seminary he began investigating Orthodox Christianity and the ancient Church, and after much research, prayer, and attendance at the closest Orthodox parish an hour and a half away, he was received into the Orthodox Church in America. Joseph currently lives on his family’s farm in South Carolina and works as a videographer. His website is www.framedandshot.net.

  • Benjamin Winter

    You make excellent points about the need for authority within the broad community of orthodox believers. I also liked your discussion of those who might accuse you of being “cultish.” Two places I would push back a little ar:e 1) In making your valid point against hastily dividing Christianity into essentials and non-essentials, are you saying that the Orthodox Church does not have certain doctrines that must be believed (we call them “de fide” statements) and other doctrines that are secondary? A specific example would be the doctrine of the Trinity (de fide) and the doctrine that Christ would have come if humanity had not fallen. 2) I appreciate that thrust of your statement which makes “being uncritical of the historical beliefs” less than a crime. However, I do think it is important to consider the history of one’s beliefs, if only to ascertain whether the Church one finds oneself in is indeed linked to the Church of Christ’s Apostles…

    • Forgive me for not being involved in this conversation. I am currently in Suprasl, Poland and do not have access to a computer with a physical keyboard. As for essentials and distinctives, I would not use the term “doctrine” in describing tenets within Orthodoxy that, say, optional viewpoints. These are usually referred to as “theologoumena” and are very minor things that may be a part of tradition or advocated by this or that Church Father, but are not established Ecumenical dogma. But they are helpful for our faith and pursuit of God. Say for example, C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” is a very helpful work in our approach and understanding of Hell and how to deal with something like this that is very difficult for us to understand and accept, although this story is not ratified apostolic doctrine. It is simply helpful and allowed to be believed among the faithful. But it is not required. In general however, there is union within Orthodoxy when it comes to established Church dogma. There is not such confusion as in the multiplicity of Evangelical perspectives. I would add, though, that while Protestantism is want of doctrinal conciliarity, the relational harmony that exists despite this plurality of views is something Orthodoxy needs to pay attention to and learn for themselves. But that is difficult in a global organism encompassing so many cultures, “small t” traditions, and leaders who are fallen human beings prone to carry their own agendas. But thankfully it is not only a human institution. St Basil compared the Church to Jacob after he wrestled with God, we stride on with one good leg and one bad leg, for we are both a human and a divine entity.

  • Ok, here’s my in between position. Scripture says the church is the pillar and support of the truth, therefore I agree that it is. But which church? Here’s my example.

    I think that the Orthodox and I agree that bowing down in front of statues is wrong. I think that you would hold that realistic 3D is not okay, and the iconish 2D is. (I’m not sure the reasoning, but I’m pretty sure I heard that from a good source. Please correct me if I’m wrong.) Personally, I am also appalled that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has a different list of commandments than all the Orthodox branches and the Jews, the banning of making images being removed and exchanged for a second “do not covet” command.

    We would also agree that the pope does not have “supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Catholic Catechism, par. 882). This is so big an issue that the bishops of Constantinople and Rome (post mortem) excommunicated each other over it in 1054. It’s a big enough issue that many Orthodox believers feel quite free to refer to Roman Catholicism as a heresy.

    If we are to follow either the Orthodox or Roman churches because they can claim a succession back to the apostles, how do we know which is which? How can we just trust the church and its handed down tradition when the “catholic churches” had gigantic splits in 432 and 451 and the largest possible split of all in 1054. Yes, they’re making efforts to restore communion, but it’s been a thousand years as far as the RCC goes and 1500 years for the excommunicated branches (Assyrian, Coptic).

    I grant to the Orthodox, though it’s more difficult to grant with the RCC, that they have maintained many truths, and thus they have some extraordinary, amazing insights into many areas because their theologians have been mulling those doctrines for many centuries. I grant that I can’t trust myself to be the interpreter of Scripture who will set myself and others on the right course.

    But to unswervingly commit myself to the authority of apostolic succession without putting to question what the Orthodox churches and the RCC have handed down, I cannot do, because doing so leads to important conflicts. I can acknowledge that I must look at what’s been handed down by East and West is almost certainly true, but I cannot give in to fully certain.

    Should I acknowledge that the Roman bishop has supreme authority over the whole Church, an authority he can exercise without resistance? Should I do so even when there is no bishop of Rome, but only a claimant in Avignon, France who has never been to Rome? If I am supposed to think for myself about that issue, which is so important it divided East from west for a millennium now, then why cannot I examine for myself other claims, noting their complete absence in the Scriptures and the second century churches?

    So here’s my alternative. The Scripture not only makes the claim that the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but they also say that the Anointing will guide the local church into all truth and be true and not a lie (1 Jn. 2:27). This is put into effect by speaking the truth in love to one another and every part doing its share and thus being protected from being blown about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:11-16). I know Peter Gilquist took a large non-Catholic/Orthodox group into Orthodoxy (Greek, I believe, after being ignored, then rejected by Constantinople). We can’t do that because despite an eighth-century council’s approval of icons, we can’t conscientiously accept their use in worship, and iconoclasts are not going to be welcome in Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. So we remain local, trust the work of the Holy Spirit, and do our best to hold to the traditions of the churches of God by listening to the Orthodox and the RCC, but living with the fact that traditions that we see to be clearly not apostolic are separating us from true communion with them.

    Sorry for the long comment. Hopefully, it’s worth it. I’m sure you can delete or not approve it if this is too much.

    • Benjamin Winter

      I hope you don’t mind if I chime in and ask a question! To your main point, I’d say that it’s just as difficult on both sides (“East” and “West”) to believe that the Holy Spirit works through the Church in spite of (or perhaps through?) the ups and downs of history. It is my position that this working of the Holy Spirit must be believed faithfully, nonetheless, because of the witness borne to Truth by the Church and the promises of Christ fulfilled through the Church. I don’t think any local Church can be separate from this larger framework of love and truth manifesting across time in the communion of saints.

      A secondary question, why are you making such a sharp distinction between “2D” and “3D” images? Am I correct that you describe your community as “iconoclasts” in the second last paragraph?

      • Well, there are doctrines the Orthodox espouse, I simply cannot consider to date back to the first century. The evidence against icons and most of Mariology is too strong. So, I’m stuck in my position unless I completely denying my ability to think. As for 2D vs. 3D, I don’t think that’s important. I’m almost certain an Orthodox believer told me that about 20 years ago, explaining why the Orthodox only “venerate” icons and not statues. I was just pointing out that even the Orthodox object to the RC veneration of statues, but again, perhays I got that wrong. I have only one person, two decades ago, for that. I haven’t had time to go look it up. I will, though.

        • What do you mean the “evidence against icons and most Mariology is too strong?” I wonder at the acceptance of images in the Jewish Temple—the commandment of God to Moses to adorn the temple with images, etc. And the acceptance of this throughout Christian history—culminating in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.

          • I don’t see icons, at least the veneration of icons, supported until at least the third century, and I would argue the fourth. Mariology starts in the third. I’m puzzled by the claim that Irenaeus’ terrific teaching on recapitulation is taken as “co-redeeming.” While Irenaeus does a terrific job of showing Jesus and Mary as undoing what Adam and Eve did, there isn’t a suggestion anywhere that this makes Mary a co-redeemer. Praying FOR dead saints can be found in the second century, but prayer TO passed saints is not, including Mary. Mary is hardly mentioned in the second century writings, as compared to how she would be mentioned if the Orthodox church wrote those defenses and explanations of the faith now. Finally, every mention of images in the second century writings is negative. Veneration of images by Christians is never mentioned in the Scriptures nor in the early writings I have read (pretty much all the ANF series through Hippolytus and Dionysius. That’s just impossible to ignore.

            • I sympathize with your critique. It is important to look in the early centuries of the Church. I wonder, though, if this can also be a problem when applied to other tenets of the faith such as the Trinitarianism and Christology, and even the Canon of Scripture, which is hotly disputed—which are *vehemently* defending in the 4-6th centuries.

              As the Church developed in history, it define and defending the dogmas (and essential drew lines in the sand of what is and is not acceptable) only as the dogmas were brought to question by such figures as Arius, Sebellian, etc.

              With this in mind, it seems natural, to me, that we do not see a “strong defense” of icons and what not in the 2nd and 3rd centuries since the iconoclasts (proper) did not arise until the 6th century. However, we do have the witness of archeological finds such as the Church of Dura-Europos.

              • Benjamin Winter

                I agree with Ben’s comments, and would like to add this: if you don’t believe in the continuity of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church through the centuries, you must “draw the line” somewhere. What I mean is that you have to pick a certain time to be the “pure” or “primitive” or “true” Christianity, and then find an event or time period you don’t like in order to blame it for the “corruption” of the ideal. The problem is that Christianity has never been an otherworldly and ideal institution. It is, at core, the group of Christ-followers united at table and in charity. The union, from the earliest times of the Church’s spread across the world, was solidified by means of bishops in communion with one another. Without going too far down the tangent of “whose authority,” I think it’s safe to say that the privileging of first and second century Christianity (hello, Harnack?), in order to be consistent and tenable, must also be the privileging of theological diversity when it comes to the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. Paul, are you willing to admit such diversity? Thanks for participating in this fascinating dialogue, both of you.

                • I’m a little confused why “the privileging of first and second century Christianity … must also be the privileging of theological diversity when it comes to the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity.”

                  • Benjamin Winter

                    Sorry about that. The full line of reasoning is as follows: Before the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) the doctrines of Trinity and of Christ were not specifically defined by the Church. These doctrines were, of course, part of the deposit of faith that Christ handed down to the Apostles, but the doctrines had not fully developed into full-fledged affirmations (which, as Ben pointed out above, arose out of the need to counter heretical interpretations of Scripture on these topics).

                    Thus we have great second-century Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Origen using the language of subordination when describing Christ’s nature. A century or two later, this type of language would be labelled under the “Arian heresy.” John Henry Newman, in his Development of Christian Doctrine, argues that such Fathers cannot be condemned for their theological reflections, despite the fact that, later on, the Church would rule their reflections. Another example is how some of the great scholastics (like Saint Bonaventure) said things about communion contrary to the Council of Trent (specifically apropos the agency of the priest in forgiving sins).

                    So when I said you’d need to privilege theological diversity about Christ and the Trinity, I was assuming you agree with Nicaea and Chalcedon, and would be uncomfortable with the fact that–without these Councils–we would have difficulty selecting which second and third century Fathers to follow when it comes to such central theological issues. Hence how can you privilege any one era of Christianity (including 1st and 2nd centuries)? To do so is to rip it out of the historical tapestry of God’s intervention in the world through the Church across time.

                    • Only Nicea & that is because the bishops there agreed with their predecessors. It is not just Justin; everyone teaches subordination prior to Nicea. I reject Chalcedon as the wranglings of men talking about things that are way over their heads and beyond their understandings. I have been willing to consider that I –no, we–are too confident in asserting that even orthodox and Catholic claims must be subject to scriptural and historical proof, but I believe I am pretty much ready to go back to our old stand and require not claims, but proofs and good fruit.

              • I’m not really looking for a strong defense, but even a mention of the veneration of icons. Surely this would have caused a controversy with the Jewish brethren, but not a breath on the subject. The Trinity is discussed often. (See, for example, http://www.christian-history.org/support-files/chapter-16-17.pdf.) Christology is discussed, but not quite the same as during the 5th century controversies. I don’t see any hot dispute over the Scriptures except with Marcion. Maybe that’s not even what you are saying.

                Thank you for your honest, calm answer. I don’t always get that.

                • Benjamin Winter

                  Haha no problem man, trust me I’m just happy you are willing to chat. It’s always a pleasure to clarify what we are saying so that both sides can see where the other stands.

                  You are correct that icons aren’t a big issue in the first few centuries, and that the Trinity and Christ are discussed often. My comments, though, are not addressed/limited to the specific issue of icons (the other Ben seemed more concerned about that). Rather, the thrust of what I’m trying to say is that it’s problematic to pick and choose, to privilege one period of Church History over another.

                  The Church did reject the arguments of the iconoclasts (John of Damascus deals a crippling blow in Three Treatises on the Divine Images). And today, icons are still used in both East and West (I’m not familiar with the “statue” controversy at all, maybe Ben could confirm that Orthodox do not use them. It is interesting to note that, before Protestantism, the Church in the West never had big iconoclasm controversies–albeit icons didn’t play as large a role in worship/art).

                  TL;DR Unless you’re willing to say that the Church “messed up” when it affirmed the use of icons, you’re left endorsing one period of history (when icons were not used, i.e. pre 842AD) over the rest of AD time…

                  • Oh, yeah. Exactly. I am endorsing what can be shown to have come from the apostles. I see repeated claims from the Orthodox that their doctrines have been around since Pentecost. The RCC has such a claim in its Catechism, though it gives itself some leeway to “develop” the faith once handed down. So do the Orthodox. So to me, the issue is the second century. If something begins in the third or fourth, but is unknown in the second, then it didn’t come from the apostles, but from later tradition. I am much more suspect of confident claims of being “the Church” after Nicea, when so many eastern apostolic bishoprics were held by Arians, and almost all were chosen by emperors.

                    Btw. http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/questions.html says, ” That is one
                    reason you will find no statues in Orthodox temples – their inclusion in our
                    tradition never developed as that too closely resembled the pagan piety of
                    the early days of our Church, during the time of the Apostles. But icons,
                    rather than attempting to depict reality, point to the Kingdom of God. They
                    are often referred to as “picture windows to Heaven”. That explains what I was told, but the fact is that the Orthodox don’t have an objection, per se, to 3D images. One other Orthodox site lists a history of statuistic Jewish and Christian artwork dating back before Jesus was born.

                    • And for all of you, this gives rise to the question of living in Nicomedia (and later Constantinople) under the rule of the heretical Eusebius (not the historian). Do I move? Simply frequent the assembly of the, uh, saints(?) (the ones who dragged a Roman general into the streets, burned down the house where he was staying, and beat him to death) without concerning myself that the bishop is rejecting the combined counsel of the bishops of all the churches at Nicea? In fact, not only rejecting, but doing his best to change it? Cyprian warned congregations that they could not escape the contagion of sin if they communicated with a sinful prelate. These are the kind of questions I can picture even in the 4th century. How much more in the 21st?

                    • Benjamin Winter

                      You state, “I am endorsing what can be shown to have come from the apostles.” This statement raises the question of interpretation. What is meant by the phrase “can be shown to have come from…?” Given an ecclesiology where the Apostolic Church plays an essential role in bringing Scripture to light, all of its dogmas “come from” the apostles.

                      On the other hand, those who are skeptical about the ‘Apostolic-Church-Connection’ (hehe) are stuck choosing for themselves which doctrines appear most-Apostolic. Which is exactly what you do in this assertion: “If something begins in the third or fourth, but is unknown in the
                      second, then it didn’t come from the apostles, but from later tradition.” Choosing the second century in this way isn’t so simple, due to theological diversity among the Fathers (see above) and the lack of a defined Scriptural cannon.

                      Furthermore, time marches on. We cannot return to the past. What we can do is prayerfully study the events of Church history; but to do so we must be grounded in a faith tradition. In light of the conundrums raised by privileging one era of Church History over another, I assert that the faith tradition equipped for this task is one that can explain the changes/developments of the past without violating the principle that the Holy Spirit never left the Church, or stopped guiding her course.

                    • You describe my chosen course pretty accurately here. We have discussed it, and for now I see no reason to back off from it. So I think I will drop out of this discussion now.

                    • Benjamin Winter

                      Thanks, Paul. You gave me many things to think about, and I respect your (informed) view. Peace!

                • I guess I slightly differ in conclusion on whether or not the jews used images in worship (when Moses was instructed to build the temple he was instructed to weave all kinds of images into cloth, and make a Golden Ark / Angels, etc.). But as the Incarnate Christ came, things changed. It’s kind of mind blowing. The question is, “How does this change things and how should we worship?” Church Tradition is that St. Luke painted the first icon.

  • Wonderful article, Joseph. Thank you for writing!