Friday, November 19, 2004

Three views of eastern orthodoxy-2

"Protestants themselves are selective with regard to the contents of the Bible, which Martin Luther demonstrated by rejecting, as a ‘book of straw,’ the epistle of James...This selectivity proves that the Bible is neither self-sufficient nor self-evident...," 175.

By way of reply:

i) Yes, both sides are selective. So how does that observation weigh in favor of Berzonsky’s side? What are Berzonsky’s own selection-criteria? Why does he privilege some traditions, but not others?

ii) I have argued elsewhere that a case for the canon can be made based on the internal evidence of cross-attestation.

iii) Whether or not the Bible is self-sufficient is an ambiguous question. The Calvinist, for one, combines a high doctrine of Scripture with a high doctrine of providence--a doctrine which is, itself, Scriptural.

Is the church self-sufficient? Does the church exist in an air-lock? By what standard does Berzonsky deem his church to be the true church?

No criterion is self-adhesive. Someone must apply a general norm to a specific case. The human element cannot be eliminated.

It is, however, Orthodox theology that looses a randomizing element of radical uncertainty into the application by its commitment to libertarian freewill.

Something can be self-evident or inevident in different ways. For example, Reformed theology has never said that content of Scripture is self-evident to the reprobate or unregenerate.

Again, the divine authority of Scripture can be self-evident even if everything said in Scripture is not self-evident. Likewise, some Scriptural teachings may be more evident than others.

The larger point is that Scripture serves the purpose which God has assigned to it. It is as clear as God intended it to be, at any particular time and place, to any particular person. To impose some uniform condition of clarity or sufficiency is an artificial exercise. It is equally sufficient for mine needs and yours, but my needs are not the same as yours, so that what is sufficient for me may not be sufficient for you. When God uses his word to harden and darken some hearers, that acquits the purpose of Scripture no less than when God uses his word to illumine and liberate other listeners.

"The Bible is, in Orthodox terms, an image, or icon, of truth, but is not truth itself in the same way Christ is truth. To say it is so is to limit Christ to the Bible and deprive the church of his continuing presence in history. To set the Bible as an abstract criterion of truth is to harness the freedom of the church to utilize its wisdom garnered from centuries of witnessing the gospel through countless thousands of Christians," 175.

By way of reply:

i) To say that the Bible is an icon of truth is to suggest that the Bible is neither true nor false, but is only symbolic of something else which is true. This seems to deny the identity of Scripture as propositional revelation. However, the propositional character of the Bible is conspicuous and pervasive. So either Scriptural propositions are true or false. To compare it to an icon is disanalogous, for an icon is a nonverbal mode of communication.

ii) To accuse the Protestant position of limiting Christ to the Bible is, even if true, a description, not a disproof. What if God has indeed chosen to delimit his disclosures to certain authorized and identifiable channels of revelation?

iii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it is a bad thing for God to restrict his revealed will to the Bible, why is it not equally bad for God to restrict his revealed will to the Orthodox Church? Why can’t Evangelical churches share in his wisdom and presence?

iv) When we read the NT, we don’t find Christ and the Apostles appealing to the Sanhedrin. Rather, we find them appealing to the OT. But by Orthodox logic, they ought to refer all exegetical questions to the Sanhedrin as the official spokesmen of the Jewish church.

"To proclaim the Bible to be self-sufficient is to open it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation," 176.

By way of reply:

i) To proclaim the Bible to be insufficient is to open it to the subjective, arbitrary interpretations of the church fathers.

ii) To proclaim the Bible to be self-sufficient is to open it to public, verifiable methods of exegesis.

"The church has an oral tradition before the gospels were written," 176.

i) So what? You may say that oral tradition antedates the Gospels. Then again, you may say that the OT antedates the NT church.

ii) We don’t know for a fact that orality preceded literality. Jews were not illiterate. Greco-Roman civilization was not preliterate. The spoken word was one method of communication, but so was the written word. As we know from the NT letters, a formal written gospel was not the only literary means of communication. There is also the epistolary genre.

"All the senses share in the earnest of the heavenly banquet feast breaking into a moment of time: the aroma of incense, the icons of grace-filled saints, the sounds of chanted psalms and hymns...," 177.

By way of reply:

i) The debate between Evangelical and Orthodox is not primarily a debate over the style of worship. Even within the Reformed tradition, there is diversity on this issue. The Westminster Directory of Worship represents one point of view, but the Dutch Reformed were patrons of Christian art, while the Reformed Anglican tradition is quite open to a wide variety of artistic media in worship.

ii) The issue turns on the relation between a specific form of art as an illustration of a specific point of dogma. For example, sacred images are one thing, but when an icon is elevated to a sacramental status as a means of grace, or when the fine arts are deployed to facilitate the veneration of the saints, then that is quite another thing.

"To properly understand the Orthodox approach to the Fathers, one must first of all understand the mystical characteristic of Orthodoxy theology and the tradition of the apophatic approach to understanding--if ‘understanding’ is indeed the proper word--of what the hidden God in Trinity reveals to us...This makes the requirement for gaining of true knowledge (gnosis) the abandoning of all hope of the conventional subject-object approach to discovery," 178.

By way of reply:

i) This claim entails yet another denial of propositional revelation.

ii) The position is self-refuting. Berzonsky’s essay consists in a string of theological assertions. But if Berzonsky cannot say what God is, if he is unable to distinguish between the object of knowledge (God) and the subject of knowledge (the Christian), then what he says bears no relation to the truth. He cannot affirm anything to be true. What he says is neither true nor false, for it has no referential force. All his positive claims carry this nugatory disclaimer.

iii) If God is not an object of knowledge, then God is not an object of worship. If God is opaque to human reason, then there is no distinction between truth and false worship.

"The doctrine of the kenotic Son of God (Phil 2:6-11) offers insight into the greatness of God’s love," 180.

Does Berzonsky subscribe to the Kenotic heresy? He would do well to read the standard commentaries (Bockmuehl, Fee, O’Brien, Silva).

"What followed? Descent into Hades...," 180.

Did our Lord descend into Hades? That is what the creed may say, but is the creed correct? For my money, Grudem has much the better of that argument.

Elements of Berzonsky’s position can also be gleaned from his reply to other essays:

"Evangelical Christians must take into account the period following the era of the apostles, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in every generation, reexamining what may be a presupposition too easily held, namely, that the Holy Spirit went to sleep and awoke in the 16C with the Reformers," 268.

By way of reply:

i) Orthodox Christians must take into account the period following the Renaissance, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in every generation, reexamining what may be a presupposition too easily held, namely, that the Holy Spirit went to sleep after the death of John of Damascus or Gregory Palamas, and never woke up.

ii) Berzonsky goes on to quote Florovsy about an ecumenism of time as well as space, but he himself seems to believe that the working of the Holy Spirit is coincident with the geography of the Eastern Orthodox communion.

"The call at the midpoint of the sacred service to imitate the cherubim...and lay aside all earthly cares is impossible for one who is held in bondage to his reason and immersed in negative thoughts of criticism and judgment. Christianity, like Judaism, is a religion of revelation. It is God who acts, and he does so despite the limits of the human being’s ability to comprehend what he is doing for the life of the world...We all worship a God Unknown. Serious theologians understand that speaking of God is better done apophatically, that is, by telling what God is not rather than by trying to describe who he is...We come to know the Unknowable One not by thinking or by understanding but by progressive unions," 225.

By way of reply:

i) Of course, an Evangelical could say that it is Berzonsky who is enslaved to reason, and at several levels of bondage:

a) Tradition is human tradition. It codifies the reason of the church fathers.

b) Berzonsky has swallowed Neoplatonic epistemology hook, line, and sinker.

c) For Berzonsky, divine revelation is a revelation of nothing. Revelation is a revelation from God, but not a revelation of God. We know as little about God after revelation as before.

ii) It is clear that Berzonsky has no use for the Bible, because the knowledge of God is not obtainable by propositional revelation, but by mystical experience.

iii) Berzonsky fails to draw an elementary distinction between what reason can know apart from revelation, and what reason can know in light of revelation. To say that God is unknowable apart from revelation--even if we were to credit such an extreme thesis, which denies any natural knowledge of God--does not imply that God’s sovereign self-disclosure is unknowable as well.

"The heresy of Anabaptism begins with rejecting all traditional authority...When, therefore, the anathemas are read on Orthodoxy it any wonder that the Reformationists are included along with Arius and others?...It is imperative to continue telling the truth (Eph 4:15), 226.

By way of reply:

i) Needless to say, Evangelicalism is not conterminous with radical Anabaptism.

ii) But there is a far deeper flaw in Berzonsky’s indictment: how can a commitment to apophatic theology sustain a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy, truth and error? If God is unknowable--except in some noncognitive encounter--if the truth cannot be captured in propositional form, then in assenting to the creed, we affirm absolutely nothing. And if there is nothing we can affirm, then we cannot deny its contrary or contradictory. There is nothing to be believed or disbelieved. Berzonsky worships at the feet of the Great Sphinx.

The longest and strongest essay in support of Orthodoxy is by Nassif. This may be, in part, because he is the most ecumenical of the three, and has therefore made the most effort to get inside the opposing position.

He says that the classic evangelical view of the atonement has its roots in Anselm. This may true, although it is important that we not equate the two. Anselm marked a turning point in dogmatic reflections on the atonement, but the Protestant Reformers at most took Anselm as a cue to go even further back in time to St. Paul. If, for example, you consult the index of the Institutes (in the classic edition by McNeill & Battles), there are all of two footnotes on Anselm, neither of which referring to Cur Deus Homo, whereas the entries under Augustine go on for pages and pages. So this is a question of exegetical rather than historical theology.

"The Orthodox view baptism as both a justifying event and the beginning of theosis. As long as justification is proclaimed in terms of the ‘union with Christ’ model for imputed righteousness from Christ’s divinized humanity, without the basic assumption of an Augustinian anthropology of inherited guilt, it comports well with today’s emphasis on...sanctification...Unfortunately, Orthodox theologians...have at times viewed justification in an exclusively forensic sense and wrongly rejected it chiefly on that basis.

Justification cannot be interpreted in any sense apart from the incarnation, from which it derives its benefits. Justification derives its forensic sense of imputed righteousness from the hypostatic union," 39.

By way of reply:

i) This assumes, without benefit of argument, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. That is something the Orthodox have in common with Lutherans and Anglo-Catholics, but not with other Evangelicals in the main--who have argued to the contrary.

ii) Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, by what internal logic does regeneration entail justification? Where’s the supporting argument to fill the gap?

iii) To make baptism the justifying event, especially in conjunction with infant baptism, which is the norm in Orthodox circles, is hardly harmonious with justification by faith.

iv) Baptismal regeneration is traditionally associated with infused merit rather than imputed merit.

v) Although the incarnation is a necessary precondition of imputation, the grounds of our justification are directly indexed to the cross, and not the incarnation.

Indeed, it is unclear from Nassif’s incarnational soteriology that the cross figures at all in our justification. Rather, the moral transfer seems to be an automatic consequence of the hypostatic union. We are righteous because of what Christ is, rather than what he does.

Christ is righteous apart from the cross, and if we are righteous by virtue of our union with Christ via the deification of humanity, then the cross is rendered superfluous. And by the very same token, faith is rendered superfluous.

vi) You can’t have imputed righteousness without inherited guilt. Vicarious atonement assumes federal headship with respect to Adam and Christ alike.

vii) Likewise, guilt and righteousness are correlative. The merit of Christ answers to the demerit of the sinner.

viii) Both Reformed and Lutheran theology insist that justification is exclusively forensic. And they have made an exegetical case for that very position.

Nassif refers to the "new quest for Luther’s theology," but these are liberal Lutherans, suffering from an identity crisis and searching for foster parents to have mercy on their orphaned status and adopt them.

ix) This assumes, without benefit of argument, that Augustinian anthropology is false. It also disregards the case to the contrary.

x) This assumes, without benefit of argument, that theosis is true.

Although Nassif is a more conscientious writer than either Rommen or Berzonsky, he seems to illustrate a common pattern in Orthodoxy reasoning: they appear to be oblivious to the sheer number of individual claims into which their position factors out, not to mention the evidentiary gap between so many claims outpacing so few supporting arguments. Is there something about Orthodox theology itself that breeds this persistent lack of mental discipline?

Nassif invokes the Nicene Creed to explain the Trinitarian structure of salvation in Orthodox soteriology. However, the Nicene Creed doesn’t give us a Trinitarian soteriology. It describes the role of the Father in relation to creation rather than redemption, and in relation to the person of Christ rather than the work of Christ. It describes the part played by the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture, as well as the vague phrase about his role as the giver of life--which could allude to natural life instead of spiritual life.

By contrast, Calvinism does have a Trinitarian soteriology: those chosen by the Father are redeemed by the Son and renewed by the Spirit. Again, the redeemed are adopted and justified by the Father on account of Christ’s redemptive work, and are kept to the day of their death by the Holy Spirit.

Here we have what is at once a clear division and coordination of labor in the economy of salvation. This is something you get in Calvinism, and Calvinism alone.

Commenting on the seminal slogan by Athanasius, "God became man so that man might become divine," Nassif goes on to claim that this tradition goes all the way back to,

"the NT documents themselves that contain Pauline teachings on adoption, sonship, and the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8; Gal 4); and John’s promise of the gift of divine glory (Jn 17:5,22-24). It assumes that the starting point of the fallen human predicament is death from sin, not guilt, and so life through Christ is the only appropriate redemption (Rom 5:21-21)," 45.

By way of reply:

Once again, you can only wonder what the Orthodox see when they read the Bible. Because they deny sola Scriptura, they have no incentive to do painstaking exegesis.

How could anyone read Romans or Galatians and decouple sin from guilt? To be a sinner is to be guilty of sin. And the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). It was the sin of Adam that sentenced the human race to death (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15). Sin and guilt are inseparable, and the root-cause of death is sin. In Paul, adoption and sonship are forensic categories, not ontological categories.

"On that basis [the incarnation], Christ’s self-offering in death was a sacrifice in which he acted to pay the debts ‘on behalf of all’ (hyper panton) and ‘in the place of all’ (anti panton)--an apparently clear reference to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement," 46.

By way of reply:

i) Penal substitution presupposes a guilty party or parties: the guilt of Adam imputed to his posterity; the guilt of Adam imputed to Christ. By refusing to cast redemption within the forensic framework of guilt and acquittal, Nassif is rejecting a presupposition of penal substitution.

ii) If Christ died to pay the debt of all, on behalf of all, and in lieu of all, then why are all men not saved? If some of the redeemed are damned, for what are they damned if they are accounted innocent by virtue of universal penal substitution?

"The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are ways in which the incarnate Christ communicates his divine life to believers in the church...One of Cyril’s favorite Biblical texts...came from [Jn 6:53,55]," 49.

By way of reply:

This appeal takes for granted the sacramental reading of Jn 6. Where is the supporting argument? As usual, Nassif is assuming what he needs to prove. Is there any other way in which the Orthodox reason?

I realize that each contributor may not have space enough to defend all his contentions, but when we find a systematic omission of evidence, when every step of the argument is suspended in thin-air, then the conclusion will carry no conviction for the outsider, and, frankly, you wonder what reason the insider has for believing it.

Even if space constraints prevent the contributor from bolstering his case, he could at least refer the reader to polemical literature where supporting arguments are to be found. Absent even that, one begins to suspect that there are no supporting arguments--that the tradition is self-reinforcing.

"It is difficult to avoid observing a major theological inconsistency in evangelicals who give verbal allegiance to historic Christianity as represented by Cyril and the Chalcedonian Definition, while at the same denying the equally strong witness of the church’s eucharistic doctrine of the real presence of Christ maintained by those same church fathers as a corollary to orthodoxy Christology and soteriology," 51-50.

By way of reply:

i) I think the explanation ought to be pretty transparent: Evangelicals believe that Orthodox Christology is more firmly founded in Scripture than Orthodox sacramentology.

ii) As a matter of fact, Calvin and Calvinists such as Benjamin Warfield, Paul Helm, and John Frame are critical of Nicene Orthodoxy when it comes to the subordination of the Son.

"The christological maximalism of the Orthodox Church in its Trinitarian framework takes the implications of the incarnation light-years beyond the christological minimalism of the evangelical movement," 54.

By way of reply:

i) There’s a tension between christomonism and a Trinitarian framework. To the extent that our soteriology is Trinitarian, it cannot also be so lopsidedly Christocentric.

ii) Nassif is assuming that the Incarnation ought to supply the focal-point and reference-point for soteriology. That, however, is not maximal, but minimal inasmuch as this selective reductionism collapses salvation into one particular event in the life of Christ. How is it maximal to orient the atonement around the Incarnation, but minimal to orient the atonement around the cross?

iii) What is more, the Bible itself is cross-centered when it comes to the atonement. The Incarnation is a prerequisite of redemption, but the Incarnation is not, of itself, a redemptive event. No only is Pauline theology cross-centered, but so is Johannine theology. All four Gospels essentially consist in a biographical prologue leading up to the Passion, followed by an Easter epilogue.

"In what became known as the famous ‘essence/energies’ distinction in the Trinity, Palamas clarified the difference between God’s unknowable essence and his knowable energies...It was Palamas’ defense of the knowability of God through participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and the monastic practice of hesychasm (stillness), with its psychosomatic methods of prayer (not to be confused with yoga), that gave to Orthodoxy its personalist emphasis on Christian spirituality," 57.

By way of reply:

Once more, the reader strains in vain to see any trace-evidence of a supporting argument. Why should we dichotomize the divine nature into a knowable energy and an unknowable essence? Why should we believe that God is made known by means of sacramental participation and psychosomatic prayer?

What’s the difference, if any, between Orthodox theological method and creative writing? We might as well get our theology from Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles.

Reading Orthodox theology is like going to the movies. It may be fun to watch, but at the end of the movie you must to go back out into the real world.


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  3. If sola scriptura were true, one would think that the first Christians who dreamed-up the idea would be revealed in the Scripture. If God wants everything we believe, as Christians, to be revealed in Scripture, would he not reveal the identity of the true expositors of Scripture? Obviously, He does not do that? So, how are we to know who is interpreting Scripture and Christian doctrines correctly? The real truth is, the Church that wrote the New Testament came before the New Testament. The Scripture does not say of itself, the Scripture is "the pillar and ground of the truth". The Scripture calls "the church of the living God" ... "the pillar and ground of the truth" (I St. Timothy 3:15). It is the Church that is the basis of epistemology and exegesis of Scripture. The real question is, what is, and where is, the Church founded by Jesus Christ (St. Matthew 16:18), which Jesus promised to protect from the gates of hades (hell)".
    Take care.
    God save and bless us all.
    In Erie PA Scott Harrington (Easternman)