Friday, November 19, 2004

Three views of eastern orthodoxy-1

The Evangelical assessment of Eastern Orthodox theology is underdeveloped. That is only natural, for Evangelicalism has framed its position in relation to the conflict with Rome, in relation to varieties of Protestant faith, and in relation to religious and secular humanism in the West.

Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, J. Stamoolis, ed. (Zondervan 2004), is therefore a useful exercise in interfaith dialogue. The chief value of the book, for me, is in the case made for Orthodox theology by Nassif, Berzonsky, and Rommen. In this review I will therefore concentrate my comments on their essays. I will not comment on the evangelical contributors because I can speak for myself with regard to that position.

Rommen and Berzonsky are the two hard-liners. Their essays are the least irenic and ecumenical in tone and substance. They therefore present the contrast between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in its starkest terms. Let us commence with Rommen:

"From an Orthodox perspective, biblical texts must be interpreted with the help of historical-grammatical exegesis and the rules of hermeneutics within the context of the church, i.e., in light of what has been passed down from generation to generation from the apostles. The basic assumption here is that not everything our Lord and the apostles did and said is contained in the written canon," 237.

By way of reply:

i) But how does one verify that assumption? In the nature of the case, oral tradition is resistant to verification. For it requires a written record to document the existence of oral tradition in the first place.

ii) What exactly is the process of transmission? Is this open to public inspection? One constantly runs across the claim, but I’ve never seen any evidence of how we have a continuous transmission of oral tradition from century to century. Is this learned word-of-mouth in some secret induction ceremony or hazing ritual--a la the FreeMasons? Is there some apostolic shibboleth or blood-pact or secret handshake which identifies those in the know?

iii) How distant in time and place can tradition be to be a historical witness? If Symeon the New Theologian (11C) or Gregory Palamas (14C) are considered to be authentic trustees of apostolic tradition, why not Huss or Luther or Wycliffe?

iv) In the absence of any positive evidence of apostolicity, why should we assume that a church father knows more about certain parts of the Bible than a modern-day Egyptologist or Assyriologist? Is Gregory Palamas an authority on the Bronze Age or the Iron Age?

"One of the difficult things about the discussion at hand is that we are dealing with two very distinct mind-sets, two cultures and conceptual frameworks...(1) the East tends to be more interested in relationships, whereas the West concentrates on propositions; (2) the East emphasizes the person; the West focuses on the nature...." 239.

By way of reply:

i) Can we really generalize about national character when different ethnicities and nationalities are in view, viz. Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Slaves, Persians, Rumanians, &c.?

ii) The fountainhead of Eastern Orthodox theology is Greek Orthodox theology. Is the Greek mind really such a stranger to abstract analysis, viz., Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Euclid, Archimedes, Philoponus?

If anything, we could turn this around and say that Roman character was more sociological in orientation, viz. patriotism, filial duty.

"Thus, it might be said that the evangelical doctrine is a subset of Orthodox soteriology," 244.

Is it? We shall see.

"What is this God-intended goal of humanity? Scripture teaches that God created man in his own image and in his own likeness (Gen 1:26-27). In Orthodox theology the terms ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ are considered to be distinct, and this distinction provides an important element in the context in which soteriology is developed.

Image is a static term and ‘signifies a realized state, which in the present context constitutes the starting point for the attainment of the likeness.’ Likeness, though, is a dynamic term that points to a potential [for deification]...’Likeness to God, while it constitutes the goal of human existence, is not imposed on man, but is left ox his own freewill,’" 245-46.

By way of reply:

i) Rommen appeals to the creation account, but it should go without saying that there is nothing in either the original account or later canonical reflections on the imago Dei motif to draw a conceptual distinction between the two terms, to further invest "image" with a static import and "likeness" with a dynamic, teleological import, or to further introduce the concepts of freewill and deification.

At this point the church father is simply making up his own theology on the fly, fabricating whatever distinctions he needs out of thin air, to serve his immediate purposes. That's no different from the theological method of the cult leader, be it Basilides, Boehme, Blatsky, Mani, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, or Joseph Smith--to name a few.

ii) Even if we deny the principle of sola Scriptura, yet when explicit appeal is made to Scripture to ground a given dogma, then such an appeal must be exegetically sustainable.

"Rather than seeing the sacrifice [of Christ] as an attempt to assuage the offended honor of God or to silence his anger, the sacrifice is aimed at the root problem, which is the corruption of man’s very nature and the inevitable result--death. Using the curse of death itself to defeat that which held humanity in its grip, Christ atones for our sins--but not by providing a payment of human debt owed to God but by assuming the consequence of our sin, namely, death itself," 247.

By way of reply:

i) On p244, Rommen told the reader that the evangelical doctrine of salvation is a subset of Orthodox soteriology. But it ought to be obvious from what he says here, on 247, that what we in fact have is a completely different conceptual scheme. Why does Rommen say one thing on p244 only to contradict himself three pages later?

ii) What Rommen offers the reader is a description of the Orthodox model rather than a defense of the Orthodox model. But this leaves dangling in mid-air the entire question of why we should affirm his model over against the Evangelical model. How is this any way to treat rival truth-claims?

iii) Rommen makes not the slightest effort to engage any of the standard exegetical literature for the evangelical position as offered by the likes of Leon Morris, John Murray, Roger Nicole, Thomas Schreiner, and Anthony Hoekema--to name a few. This utter neglect of the opposing literature betrays a want of moral earnestness and intellectual seriousness on his part.

One is tempted to suspect that this is why he was a convert to Orthodoxy in the first place. He had lacked an elementary knowledge and grasp of his original position. But theology is not for day-trippers.

iv) Even on its own terms, his chosen framework is scarcely coherent. The orientation is lopsidedly androcentric rather than theocentric. But are death and depravity the "root-problem?" If Christ atones for our sin, then sin is the root-problem. And sin entails a relation between God and man. Death is a penal sanction for sin. This is why forensic categories such as redemption, justification, and propitiation cannot be sidelined, but must be kept front-and-center.

v) Elsewhere, Rommen writes that "the Orthodox, taking the gravity of sin seriously, regularly emphasize themes such as sacrifice, atonement, propitiation, and justification...How is it that my evangelical colleague refuses to accept my expression of commitment ox these biblical themes?" 155-56.

The answer is simple: he is confounding words with concepts. He uses all the right words, from time-to-time, but empties them of their conceptual content and then makes them synonymous with his adopted theology.

It isn’t a question of what words we use, but what our words denote. A word is just a cipher. For example, both a Catholic and a Calvinist use the word "justification" to denote a particular locus of theology, but they don’t share the same doctrine of justification. Likewise, cult-leaders pirate Christian terminology, but they use the same wording to flag a very different belief-system.

"For most of the Protestant world, salvation is the immediate change in a person’s status before the Judge of all things...Due to the extremely individualistic approach and the judicial understanding of salvation, a person is either saved or not saved. There can be no other state, no progress, no spiritual journey, and no loss of that status.

However, the New Testament clearly speaks of salvation in the past, the present, and the future tenses, indicating that it is a process that has a clear beginning and a definite goal," 248.

By way of reply:

i) Once again, this rather jumbled summary reflects an elementary ignorance of Evangelical theology in general and Reformed theology in particular. For one thing, it fails to distinguish between the static categories (e.g., redemption, justification, adoption, propitiation), and the dynamic categories (e.g., sanctification, glorification).

ii) And this, in turn, sets up a false antithesis between the static and dynamic categories. It is precisely because the static and dynamic categories are different modes of grace that the objects of grace are progressing towards a foregone conclusion. Their destiny is assured. They were redeemed and justified in order to be sanctified and glorified. Where’s the tension?

"If the church has formally declared a particular teaching to be unorthodox...any further discussion becomes useless and counterproductive...There is in these statements no room for discussion, no compatibility possible other than submission to the teaching of the church," 249.

By way of reply:

i) The problem with this move is that Rommen has done absolutely nothing to justify his rule of faith. Had he justified his rule of faith, then the rule of faith could, in turn, justify the essentials and distinctives of Orthodox theology. But his appeal to the church comes out of nowhere. Where has he laid the groundwork to establish this appeal?

ii) If this is the best he can do, then the opposing side wins by default, for Rommen has surrendered the argument to the opposing side and retreated from the field of battle.

iii) One wonders why he even bothered to contribute to the Counterpoint series if he is unwilling to make a case for his own position.

One final point from his reply to Horton:

"He [Horton] cannot see the difference between the diverse work of the Fathers and the councils, which defeated heretics and preserved the unity of the church for centuries, and the schismatic aftermath of the Reformation, which dissolved into countless theological interest groups," 156.

By way of reply:

i) It wasn’t the church fathers and church councils that preserved the unity of the church, but the Byzantine emperors who enforced the party line. This is a coercive, conformist unity, and not a conscientious, confessional unity--which is precisely why it began to unravel with the rise of nation-states and the loss of the church's temporal authority.

ii) There may be countless theological interest groups, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the superficial diversity all boils down to how one answers four basic questions: (a) Is the Bible the only rule of faith? (b) Is there freewill? (c) How is the OT fulfilled in the NT? (d) Are the sacraments a means of grace?

iii) There were plenty of theological interest groups in the ancient church as well. It’s just that one of the theological interest groups was more successful at suppressing its rivals. That does not, of itself, make it purer or truer than the others. For example, I happen to believe that in the Donatist and Novatianist controversies, the Catholic party was not entirely in the right or the opposing party all in the wrong.

iv) The relation between his high ecclesiology and low soteriology exposes other arbitrary tensions. For Rommen, the Christian is defectible, but the Christian church is indefectible. Saving grace is amissible, but the grace of holy orders is inamissible.

Moving on to Berzonsky’s essay--in tracing the roots of Evangelicalism, he offers a historical analysis:

"Here is a religion of the Spirit setting itself in opposition to all authority. Not accidentally emerging in the era of the Age of Reason and the Age of the Enlightenment, it announces and champions the rights of the individual to know and accept what he or she believes, without help from outside," 171.

By way of reply:

i) It is anachronistic to unpack the Reformation with reference to the Enlightenment.

ii) At issue in the Reformation was not individualism as over against authority, but the locus of authority. Was authority situated in the Scriptures or in the church?

iii) Scripture is no less an external authority than the church.

"It is not a mere abstract theory, but the core of Protestantism...Grace comes from God alone, not via anything earthly or man-made. There is nothing a person can do to accomplish his salvation. Even to say that he or she cooperates with the grace that saves is to be in error. God’s power is manifested in human weakness.

To understand that relationship in this way, namely, that God is Judge and the Christian is a forgiven sinner who has done nothing to deserve the grace that saves him or her, is from the Orthodox Church’s point of view to limit both God and the human, the One as little more than Judge, the other as no more than a sinner," 171-172.

By way of reply:

i) Notice how, on the one hand, Berzonsky endorses an authoritarian view of the church while, on the other hand, his doctrine of salvation is more synergistic and humanistic. Where the church is concerned, he denies individualism; but where salvation is concerned, he affirms individualism.

ii) Also observe the implication, on his view, that fallen man is actually deserving of divine grace. So salvation is, on the Orthodox view, something of a human meritocracy.

iii) To say that on the Evangelical view, grace can never come by means of anything earthly is an overstatement. We believe that grace came in Christ, who became incarnate, lived among us, died on the cross, and rose from the dead.

"When Scripture says that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human nature in the incarnation, it means that all human beings are given the possibility to receive the very uncreated energy of God by opening themselves to union with the Holy Trinity through incorporation into the God-Man, Christ. Here we find the meaning of the mysteries of baptism and Eucharist. Here we grasp the sense of Jesus’ claim: ‘I am the vine...’ (Jn 15:5-6)," 172.

By way of reply:

The problem with this paragraph is that Berzonsky presents the reader with an assertion instead of an argument. Why should we believe it? Where is the exegesis to support this stupendous claim?

Notice how many separate claims are packed into this brief paragraph:
a) when Scripture says such-and-such, it means this-and-that
b) all human beings are given something
c) this something is a possibility, not an actuality
d) they are given the possibility of receiving the uncreated energy of God
e) to realize this possibility, they must open themselves up to something
f) this something is union with another.
g) to wit: union with the Trinity
h) union is effected through incorporation with Christ
i) herein lies the meaning of baptism and communion
j) herein lies the meaning of the True Vine discourse

So Berzonsky’s sweeping assertion breaks down into at least ten distinct, connected claims. To make good on his blanket assertion, he would need to offer ten separate and interlocking supporting arguments.

What the reader gets instead are ten barefaced assertions without a single argument to back up any of his specific contentions. We don’t even get an outline of what form such an argument would take. One wonders who Berzonsky thinks he’s writing for. Is he writing to persuade the reader?

"Adam was to have united the entire world to God; now the second Christ has come to earth to complete the recapitulation. Human nature discovers itself joined to the nature, or hypostasis, of Christ. This is the specific and unique work of the God-Man," 172.

By way of reply:

i) Once again the reader is treated to an empty claim. Berzonsky is better at making a claim than making a case.

ii) Adam’s relation to humanity and Christ’s relation to humanity are clearly disanalogous. Adam’s relation is genealogical as the forefather of the entire human race, whereas Christ receives his human nature from Mary.

iii) Although Berzonsky is too indolent or arrogant to turn his assertion into an argument, it may be useful if we do it for him to assess the quality of the argument. The implicit argument seems to run something like this:

a) Every man has a human nature
b) Christ has a human nature
c) Ergo: every man is related to Christ

There’s a general sense in which this is true, but the relation is too generic, in and of itself, to support the specific work of Christ. The fact that I am related to you at a generic level doesn’t imply that what I am or what I do has any effect on what you are or your situation.

To make this argument work, what we would need is not an exemplum/exemplum relation, but an exemplar/exemplum relation, like the oak/acorn relation. If the human nature of Christ were an abstract universal in which all men and women participate, then the relation between Christ and humanity might support a transitive relation.

But the human nature of Christ is just another property-instance--a concrete particular among many. Humanly speaking, Christ was a clone of Mary, like identical male/female twins. Mary is both his mother and his sister. Such is the miracle of the Virgin Birth.

This supplies a necessary condition for a more specific relationship, but it does not supply a sufficient condition all by itself. So the implicit argument in Berzonsky’s position falters on a level-confusion.

"When the Lord appeared among his apostles in the upper room (Jn 20:22-23), he breathed on them, conferring the Holy Spirit, giving them power to bind and set free the sins of human beings. This is the gift of the Spirit to the church as the body of Christ," 173.

By way of reply:

Observe the leap of logic: from the Apostolate to the sub-Apostolic church. There is nothing in the text to justify this transference. At the very least we’d need a subsidiary argument to warrant the extension. Once again, no such reason is forthcoming. All we have are Berzonsky’s dogmatic dicta.

"The second gift of the Holy Spirit is from the Father on Pentecost (Acts 2). Here is grace poured out on persons--not any arbitrary men but on the college of apostles," 173.

By way of reply:

i) Talk about blinkered exegesis! If you turn to the account in Acts, you will see that the promise of the Spirit was by no means limited to the Apostolate (2:17-18,33,38-39). And the rest of Acts illustrates the further fulfillment of this prophecy.

ii) Berzonsky’s restriction runs counter to his doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

"Protestants hold in greatest esteem the personal quest for truth. Unfathomable to them is the need for submitting their own subjective comprehension to the objectivity of the church. To test one’s private opinion by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit at work through the body of Christ does not compute," 175.

By way of reply:

i) In what sense is the church "objective," but the Bible is not?

ii) Don’t the Orthodox merely codify one set of private opinions over against another? The private opinion of Cyril trumps the private opinion of Nestorius.

iii) For Berzonsky to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church begs the question of how we identify the true church. In which church is the Holy Spirit to be found? What are Berzonsky's criteria?

iv) Why assume that the Holy Spirit cannot be at work in Evangelical communions as well?

"The Bible requires interpretation. St. Hilary wrote, Scriptura est non in legendo, sed in intelligendo (Scripture is not in the reading but in the understanding)," 175.

By way of reply:

This statement is true, even a truism, but such a truism amounts to an empty norm. It doesn’t adjudicate between one church and another. Every side can lay claim to this truism.


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