Monday, May 03, 2004

Smells & bells, incense & nonsense-2

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that sola scriptura were an insufficient rule of faith? What does the Orthodox tradition propose by way of an alliterative? This is how Florovsky poses the question:
"The ultimate authority—and ability to discern the truth in faith—is vested in the Church which is indeed a "Divine institution"…We may seem to be involved here in a vicious circle. We may be actually involved in it, if we insist on formal guarantees in doctrinal matters. But, obviously, such "guarantees" do not exist and cannot be produced especially in advance. Certain councils were failures…And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church…Again, the stress is not so much on "canonical" authority, but on the truth. And it leads us to the most intricate and crucial problem—what are the ultimate criteria of the Christian Truth?" Bible, Church, Tradition, 97.

And this is how he answers his own question:
"There is no easy answer to this query. Indeed, there is a very simple answer—Christ is the Truth. The source and criterion of Christian Truth is Divine Revelation…the source of the Truth is the Word of God…Yet, this answer does not solve the problem. In fact, it has been variously assessed and interpreted, to the point of most radical divergence. It only meant that the problem was actually shifted a step further. A new question came to be asked. How was Revelation to be understood?" ibid. 97-98.

So what's the bottom-line? Florovsky replies by a qualified appeal to the consensus of the Fathers:
"The true and authentic consensus was that which reflected the mind of the Catholic and Universal Church…the true consensus is that which manifests and discloses this perennial identity of the Church’s faith— aequaliter perseverans. The teaching authority of the Ecumenical Councils is grounded in the infallibility of the Church…It is a charismatic authority," ibid. 103.

Meyendorff mounts a similar argument:
"Irenaeus had already discovered that the tradition of the apostles, transmitted without interruption by the succession of bishops, was a decisive criterion of truth. To this consensus "in time" is also added a consensus "in space": the same tradition was confessed by all the bishops "everywhere in the church," Living Tradition, 50-51."

Even if we waive aside the question-begging assumptions on which this argument is built (apostolic succession, Patristic consensus), it just relocates the original problem. By what criterion do we identify the true church? By what standard to we isolate the perennial identity of her faith? Even on its own grounds, isn’t Florovsky taking for granted the very thing at issue?

In fairness, Florovsky does offer a definition of the truth Church:
"The Church is the unity of charismatic life. The source of this unity is hidden in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper…It was created and sealed by the Spirit in the Twelve Apostles, and the Apostolic Succession is a living and mysterious thread binding the whole historical fullness of Church life into one catholic whole…The objective side is the uninterrupted sacramental succession, the continuity of the hierarchy," Bible, Church, Tradition, 45.

"The unity of the Church is effected through the sacraments…the sacraments constitute the Church…Therefore, "the right administration of the sacraments" belongs to the essence of the church," ibid. 61.

But the problem with this definition is twofold:
i) Florovsky is offering a stipulative a definition of the church—a definition which equates the true church with the Orthodox Church. But, of course, this assumes what it needs to prove.
ii) But even if we went along with his definition, the definition not self-applying. By what criterion do we verify a valid sacrament or a valid ordination?

So we seem to be peeling an onion. Every time we peel back one layer we find another layer underneath. Although the onion may be getting very smaller, we don’t appear to be getting any closer to a hard inner core. All we're left with is a pile of onionskins.

The reason for this ought to be obvious. Opposing tradition to the right of private judgment is an illusion. Tradition is just a lofty name for private opinion. That is what tradition does: to codify one man's opinion. Today's tradition was yesterday's innovation. Tradition has to begin somewhere, and it begins with influential, pioneering individuals. Reformed tradition prizes Augustine and Calvin, while Orthodox tradition prizes the Cappadocian Fathers. Orthodox tradition prizes some councils, but not others. Anglicans prize Hooker and Cranmer, Ango-Catholics prize Newman, while Roman Catholics prize Aquinas. And on it goes.

So tradition is only the convergence of like-minded private opinion. At its best, tradition is the independent convergence of private opinions—at worst, the blind convergence of private opinions.

But in any event, tradition is no greater than the sum of the parts. To imagine otherwise is to commit the sin of the idolater, who forgets that the god he bows down to today was firewood a day before (Isa 44).

3. Criteria:

For his own part, Meyendorff comes at this from another angle:
"The entire Western ecclesiological problem since the sixteenth century turned around this opposition of two criteria, two references of doctrinal security, while in Orthodoxy no need for, or necessity of, such security was ever really felt for the simple reason that the living Truth is its own criterion," Living Tradition, 20.

Can Meyendorff really be that naïve? Yes, there’s a sense in which truth is self-warranting. But that appeal ignores the whole issue of how we know the truth when we see it. Not every matter of fact is either evident or self-evident. The Bible says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That’s a true statement. Yet apart from the Bible, we wouldn’t know the birthplace of Christ.

How did the 16C debate between Catholic and Protestant ever get off the ground if the truth were so transparent?
Closer to home, how does he account for the Hesychast controversy—the subject of his doctorate—if truth were its own criterion? Or the schism of the Old Believers? Unless the truth is not only self-warranting, but also evident or self-evident, a bare appeal to the criterial character of the truth doesn’t solve a single problem. There are two questions, not one: What is true, and how do I know it?

In fact, Meyendorff defines the truth in such way as makes it positively opaque to human reason. "Precisely because their understanding of the Truth was not conceptual, the theologians could not admit either that Truth was expressed by the New Testament writings in a verbally and conceptually exhaustive manner," ibid. 9; and adds that "the New Testament message" isn’t concerned with "abstract truths, but with a Person," ibid. 10. Florovsky draws a similar dichotomy: "The Truth is not an idea, but a person, even the Incarnate Lord," Bible, Church, Tradition, 20." But there are two or three problems with this definition:
i) How can a non-cognitive definition of truth function as a criterion? If our understanding of the truth is not conceptual, then we can have no concept of what the truth is or where it lies. It’s like a yardstick without markings.
ii) In this life we know Jesus by description rather than acquaintance. To believe in Jesus is to believe a number of revealed propositions about Jesus.
iii) Even in this life, communication is an essential means of getting to know a person. That entails propositional knowledge.

Actually, Meyendorff might take issue with my distinction between truth by description and acquaintance, for he claims that "the true theologian was one who saw and experienced the content of his theology...The experience of the saints would be fundamentally identical with that of the apostles," Byzantine Theology, 9."

But this defense denies the principle of historic revelation. Historic events, of which redemptive events are a subset, are discrete and unrepeatable. These are concrete particulars, not abstract universals. Like Barth and Bultmann, Meyendorff is resorting to an ahistorical definition of dogma. Not only is this contrary to Scripture, it isn't even a traditional definition of tradition—for tradition is a historical process. Meyendorff has dehistorcized Scripture and tradition alike.

B. Ontology:

Both Florovsky and Meyendorff work with a distinctive religious epistemology. And this is, in turn, is grounded in their ontology of divine and human nature, as well as their sacramental causality.

1. Sacramental causality:

Meyendorff speaks of "spiritual senses" that are "made accessible through the sacramental, communal life in the body of Christ," Living Tradition, 77. This presupposes "sacramental realism," Catholicity and the Church (St. Valdimir’s Press, 1983), 75. The "knowledge of God" is given "through Baptism" and "continuous participation in the life of the body of Christ in the Eucharist," Byzantine Theology, 77. Baptism confers "new and immortal life," ibid. 146. The "positive meaning of baptism" is "new birth," ibid. 193. Baptism is the "rite of Christian initiation," Living Tradition, 16. Moreover, "sacramental life, especially the Eucharist, requires the Church to be internally structured and hierarchical," ibid. 33." "The Eucharist required a ‘president,’ someone sitting at the very place of Christ," ibid. 48. Note here the network of epistemology, ecclesiology and sacramentology. They are all of a piece.

We find the same moves made by Florovsky:
"The Church is the unity of charismatic life. The source of this unity is hidden in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in the mystery of Pentecost. And Pentecost is continued and made permanent in the Church by means of the Apostolic Succession…Ministry (or 'hierarchy') itself is primarily a charismatic principle, a "ministry of the sacraments," or a "divine oeconomia," Bible, Church, Tradition, 65.

"The true tradition is only the tradition of truth…grounded in and by, that charisma veritatis certum [secure charisma of truth], which has been 'deposited' in the Church from the very beginning and has been preserved by the uninterrupted succession of episcopal ministry…It is a living tradition…Ultimately, tradition is a continuity of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a continuity of Divine guidance and illumination," ibid. 106.

One recurring problem with all these grandiose claims is that they consist of barefaced assertions in place of reasoned arguments. I suppose this is a legacy of national churches. If your church has a social monopoly, you never have to make a case for what you believe.

Where is the argument for prelacy, for sacramental realism, and apostolic succession? Florovsky and Meyendorff argue from these assumptions, but there is precious little by way of argument for their assumptions.

Florovsky talks about a Pauline model of the church (ibid. 67), yet he offers nothing by way of a stepwise argument from a Pauline pattern to Orthodox ecclesiology and sacramentology.

Meyendorff talks about sacramental realism, but the most he has to offer is a passing reference to the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6), the parable of the true Vine (Jn 15), and Jn 7:38, with a gloss by Basil. And that’s it! Yet this is just another case of assuming what needs to be proved. It takes the sacramental reading for granted.

One again we have the specter of mirror-reading. Because liturgical tradition has applied these verses to the sacraments, the worshiper is conditioned to read those verses with sacramental overtones. But that's a direct effect of tradition, and not a foundation for tradition.

The proper context of the NT is not prospective, but retrospective; not historical theology, but OT theology. For the Apostolic church is in dialogue, not with the sub-Apostolic church, but with Israel. Consider, for a moment, how a real Bible scholar approaches the sacraments:
"To understand such feasts, it is necessary to remember the Biblical attitude to meals in general...Meals were...used to inaugurate covenants...the animals to be eaten were first offered in sacrifice to God, with the result that he became the Host, inviting men to his table, and that the sins of men were taken away by the shedding of blood before they approached (Heb 9:16-22)...Those who neglected the annual Passover meal were rejected by God and became liable to the visitation of death (Exod 12:15,19; Num 9:13). Now, in 1 Cor 10:14-22, St. Paul compares such feasts with their pagan counterparts and with the Holy Communion, and he dwells upon the function of all of these in cementing koinonia (communion, fellowship, partnership) not just between worshiper and worshiper, but more especially between the worshippers and the deity (vv. 16f.,20)," R. Beckwith, Priesthood and Sacraments, Latimer Monographs 1
(Marchman Manor, 1964), 91.

"The sin of 'not distinguishing the body,' and the physical judgments which it is liable to bring (1 Cor 11:29-31), can be paralleled from the corresponding judgments incurred by profaning the sacred feasts of the OT, in which no one imagines there to be a bodily presence of the Lord in the elements (Lev 7:20f.; 22:3)," The Service of Holy Communion and its Revision. Latimer Monographs 3 (Marchman Manor, 1972), 33.

One of the pragmatic problems with sacramental realism is that, if true, it should have practical consequences. Baptism effects a state of grace while communion sustains a state of grace.

Yet experience doesn't seem to bear this out. How can we account for the national apostasy of so many countries where nearly every citizen received baptism or communion? Such a massive defection rate is hard to square with the logic of sacramental realism. If the sacraments are a means of grace, then where's the grace?

2. Theosis:

Underlying Orthodox sacramentology is its soteriology, and that, turn, revolves round the category of theosis—which presupposes a very peculiar notion of God, man and their interrelation.

Borrowing a page from Gregory Palamas, Meyendorff draws a distinction between God’s essence and his "energy," Byzantine Theology, 77—although, he’s quick to add, "Palamas does not try to justify the distinction philosophically," ibid. 77. God’s essence is "totally unknown," "unknowable," "undefinable," and "indescribable," Living Tradition, 182-83. But his energy is an object of knowledge, and we can participate in God’s energy by virtue of the Incarnation and sacraments. (Cf. Byzantine Theology, 77; Living Tradition, 77,184.)

He also speaks of "man as being called to overcome constantly his own created limitations," Byzantine Theology, 4; of "a peculiar property of man, which permits him to reach outside the created’s capability of transcending himself," ibid., 13, so that "’Nature,’ therefore, designates that which is, in virtue of creation, distinct from God. But nature can and must be transcended, ibid. 143."

Florovsky moves in the same general orbit. The "ultimate aim and purpose of human life" is defined as "theosis, Bible, Church, Tradition, 114. On the one hand, we should not cast this in "ontological categories," ibid. 115." But, on the other hand,
"The problem remains. How can even this intercourse be compatible with the Divine Transcendence?…The paradox was especially sharp in the Eastern theology, which has been always committed to the belief that God was absolutely "incomprehensible"…and unknowable in his nature or essence.

This mysterious mode of the Divine Presence, in spite of the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence, passes all understanding," ibid. 115,116.

Florovsky goes on to say that the "source and power" of theosis is not the "divine essence, but the grace of God." Yet this "uncreated grace or energy" is not "just an ‘accident,’ for these divine "energies ‘proceed’ from God and manifest his own being," ibid. 117.
What are we to make of all this?
i) We need to be clear on the place of mystery in the Christian faith. It is valid to end on a note of mystery of that is where revelation leaves us. It is invalid to invoke "mystery" just to prop up a shaky explanation. The Palamite distinction is a rationalization. And there is necessarily nothing wrong with this except that you are not entitled to mystify and rationalize at the same time. To disclaim ontological categories while insisting on the "uncreated" character of God’s gracious action borders on the oxymoronic.
ii) The conception of man as a being poised on the knife-edge of nothingness, of God as essentially unknowable—is taken over from Neoplatonic emanationism and apophatic theology. (Cf. Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, 34,236; The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, K. Parry et al. eds., 36-37,159,384-6.) Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with philosophical theology, but philosophy is not a substitute for revelation.
iii) The Palamite distinction implies primary and secondary grades of divinity. But to posit degrees of divinity in which we participate is characteristic of Neoplatonic pantheism.
iv) Apophatic theology is incoherent. As Duns Scotus long ago noted, negations presuppose affirmations; for unless some positive knowledge of God supplied the point of contrast, we wouldn’t know if our negation had reference to God. In other words, you cannot disaffirm that something is true of God unless you already know what is true of God.
v) The privative definition of evil redefines sin and salvation. Instead of falling from well-being to ill-will, Adam fell from being into nonbeing. And salvation is not by redemption but participation in the divine being‚whatever that means.

Florovsky's disclaimer notwithstanding, apostasy becomes an ontological rather than ethical category.

Likewise, theosis is ontological and impersonal. In principle, the Incarnation automatically effects a reunion of divinity and humanity—not just with respect to the Hypostatic Union, but with mankind in general. An Incarnational soteriology implies universal salvation. Meyendorff denies this by invoking freewill (Byzantine Theology, 163). But that appeal would require a supporting argument which, true to form, is not forthcoming.

Meyendorff attacks the forensic character of Western theology. "There would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt," ibid. 143. "Chrysostom...specifically denies the imputation of sin to the descendents of Adam," ibid. 145. Byzantine theology never develops the idea of redemption "in the direction of an Anselmian theory of ‘satisfaction,’" ibid. 160. "In the East, the cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which ‘satisfies’ a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for man’s sins," ibid. 161. "Salvation" is understood "in terms of theosis or ‘deification,’ rather than as a justification from sin and guilt," ibid. 226."

Meyendorff admits that "Byzantine theology did not produce any significant elaboration of the Pauline doctrine of justification expressed in Romans and Galatians," ibid. 160."

He might have added that we find the same forensic framework in Petrine theology (1 Pet 2:24; 3:18), as well as Johannine theology (Jn 1:17; 1 Jn 2:1-2; 3:4-5; 4:10). Cf. G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Westminster, 1980), 159; A. Lincoln: Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Hendrickson, 2000).

Refreshingly, he offers a threefold defense of his position:
i) Latin theology ignored "all the other concepts with which the Bible describes salvation: sanctification, new life, union with God, participation in the divine nature," Catholicity & the Church, 67.
ii) In Rom 5:12, "death" is the antecedent of "because of which," thereby rendering the verse to read "because of death, all men have sinned," Byzantine Theology, 144.
iii) In this same verse, "'sinned' "refers to personal, actual sins of men," ibid. 149."

Is this sufficient to establish Meyendorff’s case? Every step of the argument is a misstep:
i) How does the rejection of some soteric categories by Latin theology justify the rejection of other soteric categories by Byzantine theology? Is Scripture bereft of divine authority?
ii) Appeal to 2 Pet 1:4 commits a semantic anachronism by equating Petrine usage with the dogmatic categories of Byzantine theology.
iii) Although Meyendorff’s rendering of Rom 5:12 is grammatically possible, this construction disregards larger considerations:
a) In 6:23 and 1 Cor 15:56 Paul expressly attributes death to sin, and not vice versa.
b) The forensic focus is front and center in vv.18-19 and 1 Cor 15:56.

As to making the passage refer to the personal and actual sins of the many,
a) It ignores the force v.14,
b) It ignores the fivefold emphasis on the one-to-many relation with reference to the one sin of the one man imputed to the many.
c) It ignores the parallel fivefold emphasis on the one-to-many relation with reference to the merit of Christ imputed to the many.

In place of penal substitution, he proposes an Incarnational soteriology: "The hypostatic union implies also that the Logos made humanity his own in its totality," ibid. 155 "When the Logos became incarnate, the divine stamp matched all its imprints," ibid. 159. "In his divine hypostasis the gulf created by the Fall between God and man has been bridged forever," Catholicity & the Church, 73. This, of course, is the standard Greek Orthodox position.

By way of reply:
i) If the incarnation automatically reconciles humanity with God, then the cross of Christ and work of the Spirit are superfluous.
ii) The very same principle would render the sacraments superfluous.
iii) The NT never develops an Incarnational soteriology. Byzantine theology imports the conceptual content from an alien philosophy.
iv) To assert that humanity is such an organic unit that a divine incarnation would affect the whole is a very ambitious philosophical claim. Where's the supporting argument?
v) Colorful metaphors (stamps & imprints, chasms & bridges) may serve to illustrate an established doctrine, but picture language is no substitute for doctrine or prooftexting. When the NT conceptualizes salvation in such categories as election and reprobation, inability and faith, merit and demerit, collective condemnation and vicarious satisfaction, these aren’t picturesque expressions for some ineffable truth, but are direct and definable ideas.

Meyendorff also mentions the defeat of the devil as an aspect of redemption. (Cf. Byzantine Theology, 146; Catholicity and the Church, 72.). Is this an alternative to the Latin conception?
i) Even if this were a neglected aspect of the atonement, it is a supplement rather than a substitute for blood atonement.
ii) Given the way in which Meyendorff demythologizes the creation account, we wonder if he even believes in a personal devil. Or is this just another of his metaphors?
iii) If we take the devil seriously, then we must take the phenomenon of occult bondage just as seriously (Jn 8:44; 2 Cor 4:4; 2 Tim 2:26; 1 Jn 5:19). But in that event, what becomes of his easy resort to freewill?

Finally, let's consider a few other miscellaneous arguments for theosis. Orthodox theologians sometimes appeal to the "in Christ" formula. By way of reply:
i) The "in Christ" formula is not a separate soteric category but rather a summary expression. Moreover,
ii) It isn’t an ontological category denoting a metaphysical union with God. Instead, it denotes the federal identity of Christ with his people by virtue of eternal election (Eph 1:4-5,9b,11) and its existential realization in the life-history of the elect (10,13). Furthermore,
iii) Its validation is grounded, not in the Incarnation or person of Christ, but in the cross or work of Christ (7). As Martin Hengel observes, "the characteristically Pauline notion of living ‘in Christ’ (en christo) or ‘in the Lord’ (en kyrio), which today is once again being interpreted mystically, was originally formed as a parallel construction to en nomo (‘in the law" or, as the case may be, hypo nomo ('under the law')," Conflicts and Challenges in Early Christianity, D. Hagner, ed. (Trinity, 1999), 27.

Two remaining lines of appeal are to "Paul’s preaching on adoption to sonship and the indwelling Spirit (e.g., Rom (8), [and] in John’s promise of the gift of divine glory (Jn 17:5,22-24)," Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, 321.

Here again we see how Byzantine theology is unable to emancipate itself from ontological patterns of thought. Paul’s teaching on adoption and sonship has its roots in the divine election of Israel (Rom 9:4,26; 2 Cor 6:18; cf. Exod 4:22; Deut 14:1; 32:6; 2 Sam 7:14; Isa 1:2; 43:6; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:9; Hos 2:1; 11:1). And in its New Testamental realization it has reference to filial rights and responsibilities (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 3:26-4:7). So it is a judicial and redemptive rather than ontological or existential category, having reference an objective standing rather than a subjective state of being. The very idea of "adoption" removes it from the sphere of "nature."

As to the analogy between the glory of Christ and the glorification of Christians, even a cursory review of the doxological motif in the Fourth Gospel quickly discloses that this is a highly inflected theme. One cannot, therefore, draw a horizontal correspondence between the preincarnate glory of Christ (17:5) and the glorification of his people. (Cf. G. B. Caird, "The Glory of God in the Fourth Gospel: an exercise in biblical semantics," NTS 15 (1969), 265-77.)

The are other possible arguments for Eastern Orthodoxy that I've not addressed here. And that's because there are some generic arguments which are the common coin of every high churchman, whether Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. Because I've already disposed of those arguments in my various postings on Roman Catholicism and the sacraments, I've felt free to confine my remarks in this essay to the specifics of the case for the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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