Friday, November 19, 2004

Three views of eastern orthodoxy-3

"Most Protestant Evangelicals with their generally dualistic--if not epistemologically Nestorian--methodology inherited from the Scholastic heritage, which starts not with a person but with a written text, the Bible, telling us about the person of Jesus Christ...," (60).

"The differences are reminiscent of the contests between ‘personal’ (Christ himself) and propositional (Scripture) forms of revelation within the evangelical community in its reaction to Karl Barth. It would be an overstatement to label Orthodox theology as ‘Barthian,’ but the similarities are clearly there...The problem itself derives from making a disjunction between personal and propositional revelation, which itself is but a further instance of the false dichotomy set up by the Protestant Scholastics and others between Scripture and tradition, a dichotomy that implies an adversarial relationship between the two...God’s primary revelation of himself being personal through Jesus Christ...yet which is also propositional through the written Word which tells us about the personal Word," 61.

By way of reply:

i) One wonders if Barthian influence is what accounts for the resistance of Nassif and other Orthodox contemporaries to directly equating Scripture with divine revelation. Do they believe, a la Barth, that Scripture becomes, at best, a secondary witness to revelation?

ii) The reason that evangelical conservatives rejected the Barthian reconstruction of Scripture is owing to the fact that it ran counter to the self-witness of Scripture, period.

iii) One also wonders if Nassif and others find affinities between Barthian universalism and Orthodox universalism.

iv) Nassif fails to draw an elementary distinction between ontological priority and epistemic priority. Christ is prior in the order of being, but not of knowing.

v) This confusion causes Nassif in turn to misalign personal and propositional revelation. The person is ontologically prior to the proposition; but, for most of us--excepting the Apostles--our only access to the personal revelation of Christ is via the propositional revelation of Christ.

vi) Even this oversimplifies the relation. For the spoken word is another port of entry in getting to know the person. Even for the Apostles, their personal knowledge of Christ came largely through the teaching ministry of Christ.

vii) We need to guard against exaggerating the analogies and disanalogies between the personal Word and the written word. The "logos" is an economic title for Christ--one of many titles. It is a figurative title. It has its primary antecedents in the OT word of the Lord, which had written as well as spoken modes of transmission.

viii) The whole Scholastic etiology is based on a single article by Thomas Torrance, a Barthian, and hotly contested by the likes of Roger Nicole, Paul Helm, John Woodbridge, and Richard Muller. Muller, for one, is the world authority on Reformed Scholasticism. Nassif would be well advised to steer clear of issues far outside his area of expertise unless he’s going to bone up on the standard literature, which is not in evidence.

"In the area of biblical exegesis, Orthodoxy consistently manifests and tolerates a hermeneutical pluralism that generally falls within the third and fourth-century Alexandrian school or allegorical exegesis or the Antiochene school of literal exegesis," 61.

By way of reply:

i) For the umpteenth time, Nassif advertises the Orthodox incapacity for self-criticism. The central question is not, "What do the Orthodox believe?" but "Whether the Orthodox are right?"

ii) Is it coherent to affirm both literal and allegorical exegesis? Does this have any basis in the self-understanding of Scripture?

iii) Couldn’t allegorical exegesis be used with equal ease to prooftext heresy?

Quoting from a couple of Orthodox sources, Nassif cites the following:

"They [the Scriptures] are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of such, they express the Word of God in human language," 62.

"Inspiration is the operation of the Holy Spirit in the authors of the holy scripture so that they may bear witness to the revelation (Jn 5:39) without erring about God and God’s ways and means for the salvation of humankind. Expressions and concepts of biblical authors about God are inspired because they are unerring guides to communion with God...Authentic interpreters of the holy scripture are persons who have had the same experience of revelation and inspiration within the body of Christ as the biblical writers had. Therefore, it is necessary for authentic understanding that anybody who reads or hears the Bible be inspired by the Holy Spirit," 64.

Then, adding his own commentary, Nassif says that "in Orthodoxy one can be an inerrantist, as were some of the Fathers," 65.

By way of reply:

i) What we have here is a classic restatement of limited inerrancy or partial inspiration.

ii) In addition, we have a doctrine of continuing revelation, which amounts to an open canon.

iii) One can be an Orthodox churchman is good standing without adhering to the plenary inspiration of Scripture.

There’s a lot that one could say about all this, but I’ll confine myself to a few remarks:

i) We might dub this the "fits-and-starts" school of inspiration. According to Orthodox pneumatology, the Holy Spirit would evidently run out of steam if he tried to inspire the entire Bible. So inspiration must be strictly rationed.

The first job of an Orthodox commentator is to go through the Bible with a pencil in one hand and a highlighter in the other. He highlights every sentence that tells us how to get to heaven, but draws a line through every sentence that doesn’t.

At this point, my only question is, Why even pretend to uphold the inspiration Scripture? Why go through this charade of affirming the first sentence, disaffirming the second sentence, affirming the second clause of the first sentence while denying the first clause of the second sentence, and so on?

This makes a mockery of inspiration, the purpose of which is to confer certainty on the message.

ii) Some one-time evangelicals convert to Orthodoxy under the misimpression that the Orthodox Church is the last bastion of conservative values. Take a long hard look at what Nassif has just said. What we have here is just another one of the infinite permutations of liberal theology.

iii) Nassif never bothers to ask himself if his doctrine of Scripture is Scriptural. Does this comport with the self-witness of Scripture? A good place to find an answer to would be the classic essays of Benjamin Warfield on the subject.

iv) Likewise, where does the Bible ever make an inspired audience a condition of understanding? Indeed, if everyone were inspired, then no one would need to listen to the Apostles and prophets, for they could hear God directly.

v) Imagine how easy it would be for a heretic to claim inspiration on Nassif’s open-ended view?

vi) Nassif denies a dichotomy between Scripture and tradition, but affirms a dichotomy between one part of Scripture and other part, between witness and revelation, between the Word of God and human language.

vii) Yes, divine revelation is expressed in human language. But what is the source of human language? God, as Adam’s Creator, is the source of human language (Gen 2). And linguistic diversity falls under the sovereign providence of God as well (Gen 11).

viii) Ordinary language is perfectly adequate to describe historical events--as well as the divine intent driving historical events.

ix) Appeal to the ineffable is a double-edge sword. For there are things which the liberal theologian and the Orthodox theologian wish to affirm as much as the evangelical theologian. But they cannot invoke ineffability against evangelical theology without dismounting their own hobbyhorse in the process.

"Chronologically [speaking], tradition is anterior to Scripture because it transmitted the gospel within the liturgical community of the church...the church later decided which texts constituted the canon of Scripture by ‘recognizing’ their apostolic origins, content, and usage within the worshipping community...the church was inseparably united with its sacred texts as the mediating authority," 66-67.

"Whether they are aware of it or not, when evangelicals give assent to the canonical texts, they are simultaneously validating the church’s tradition as an authoritative norm of canonicity, just as it has actually functioned within the life of the Orthodox church itself...the irony of this disdain is that evangelicals rely on the church’s authoritative charismatic judgment on the colossal issue of canonicity but not on its consensual agreement on fundamental matters of historic interpretation, such as the sacramental meaning of baptism and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist," 67.

By way of reply:

i) This is a classic, High-Church objection to the Protestant faith. But one problem with such an objection is that it classic to more than one High-Church tradition. Both an Orthodox apologist and a Catholic polemicist deploy this argument.

But if two opposing communions can use the same generic argument, then how is that an argument for one or another communion in particular?

ii) Why do high churchman constantly leave the OT canon out of account when they talk about the priority of oral tradition or the priority of the NT church? The prooftexting for the apostolic kerygma came from the OT.

It is also striking that when God constituted the nation of Israel, he did so by means of a written constitution (the Mosaic Covenant), just as, when he constituted the NT church, he did so by means of a written constitution (the NT).

iii) It wasn’t the church which wrote the NT, but chosen individuals over and above the church. The transmission of the message is no more charismatic than the scribal activity of the Jews who copied the OT text.

iv) When Nassif talks about an "authoritative charismatic judgment," he is imputing his own criterion to the evangelical, then accusing the him of inconsistency for failing to carry that criterion over to hermeneutics.

But this is an instance of mirror-reading. To the extent that the evangelical appeals to external attestation, this does not commit him to the idea of an "authoritative norm" or "charismatic judgment." He is simply treating the early church fathers as a historical witness to the origin of the canonical books. But an appeal to historical testimony in no sense assumes or necessitates an authoritative norm or charismatic judgment. Why does Nassif apply a totally different standard to canonicity than he ever would to archeology or historiography?

It should go without saying that a man can be a competent historical witness without being an especially competent exegete. The son of Albert Einstein may be highly qualified to write a biography about his father, and utterly unqualified to write an exposition of general and special relativity. Evangelicals don’t treat canonics and hermeneutics the same way for the simple reason that they’re not relevantly the same.

v) Perhaps Nassif would say that nothing short of an authoritative church will yield an authoritative canon. However, the Calvinist regards the historical process as under the sovereign providence of God. I also deny that the case for the canon is limited to external attestation.

vi) Did the church decide at a later date which books constituted the canon? This represents a very canned view of the process--one which is endlessly regurgitated by writer after writer. But it’s not as though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, James and Jude, Peter and Paul, or the author of Hebrews simply stuffed a scroll into a bottle and cast it upon the waves to go wherever the currents happened to take it.

To say so betrays very little historical imagination, as well as specific data to the contrary. Luke, for one, tells us that he had a specific audience for his gospel (Lk 1:1-4). John says the same thing (Jn 20:31). Same thing with the Book of Acts.

And you have only to read the beginning and ending of a NT letter to see that it had a specific recipient. Indeed, that’s in the nature of a letter. A letter is sent to someone. The NT church was a small, tight-knit association in which everyone knew everyone else. It operated very much like an extended family, and--in no small measure--really was an extended family.

There was a preexisting constituency for the NT. All of the NT writings are either by first or second generation Christians. Many of the NT writers are affiliated with the mother church in Jerusalem, either as members or via members.

The NT authors share a number of documented contacts and go-betweens. Mark is an associate of both Peter and Paul (Acts 13:5; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 24; 1 Pet 5:13). Timothy is an associate of both Paul and the author of Hebrews (Acts 16-20; 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10; 2 Cor 1:19; Col 1:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Thes 1:1; 3:2,6; 2 Thes 1:1; 1-2 Tim; Heb 13:23). Luke is an acquaintance and/or associate of Paul, Mark, Mnason, Philip, and James (Acts 21:8,16,18; Col 4:10,14; 2 Tim 4:11). Barnabas is an associate of both Paul and the Jerusalemite apostles (Acts 4:36; 9:27; 11-15; 1 Cor 9:6; Gal 2:1,9, 13; Col 4:10). Silas/Silvanus is an associate of both Peter and Paul (Acts 15-18; 2 Cor 1:19; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1; 1 Pet 5:12). And for every documented associate who is mentioned in passing, you can sure bet there are many more whom the author had no occasion to mention.

vii) Nassif is setting up a very wooden two-stage process between the phase of composition and the phase of canonization. But the process was much more organic than that. It has more to do with diffusion in time and place from a local church to the church-at-large. Geography and chronology distinguish one phase from another.

viii) Even when it comes to the church at large, it is not as though the church sat down with a random pile of books, and sorted them out book-by-book. For the books of the NT fall into several natural groupings, based on various levels of literary dependence. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are synoptic. 2 Peter and Jude are synoptic.

In addition, there would also be preexisting blocks of material based on common authorship: This would include the Lucan corpus (Luke-Acts), the Pauline corpus (Romans—Philemon), the Petrine corpus (1-2 Peter), and the Johannine corpus (John; 1-3 John; Revelation).

So the NT canon consists of several literary units and cross-references to form a larger, interlocking corpus.

"In this liturgical setting the evangelical theology of the Orthodox Church is very vividly confessed...the necessity of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is made absolutely clear through the direct questions that are powerfully addressed to the candidate no less than three times by the priest, along with the candidate’s public declaration of Jesus as his/her personal King and God and a solemn confession of the Nicene faith," 70.

By way of reply:

i) Given that, to my knowledge, infant baptism is the rule in the Orthodox Church, I can only marvel at how precocious are the offspring of Orthodox parents. Whether or not this is a recommendation for Orthodox theology, it is certainly a recommendation for enrolling your young children in an Orthodox daycare in case some of this precociousness were to rub off.

ii) As Nassif has to admit on the next page, the necessity of personal faith is not, in fact, expressed by the baptismal candidate, but by the child’s parents or godparents.

Now, whatever you may make of paedobaptism, per se, if personal faith is a necessity, then that condition cannot be exercised on behalf of the candidate, and in his place, by a sponsor, for whatever the merits of a sponsor, proxy faith is the antonym of personal faith.

On either count, the theology of the Orthodox church is sub-evangelical: either the exercise of personal faith is not necessary after all--or else it is necessary, but that condition is not satisfied by the terms of the baptismal ceremony.

Again, I’m not commenting on whether infant baptism is a good or bad thing, or whether evangelical theology is a good or bad thing. I am simply pointing out that Nassif has, himself, stated the condition which must be met, only to fail in its fulfillment.

This is reinforced by yet another condition of his:

"Baptism does not and indeed cannot ‘depend’ for its reality (e.g., for truly being our death, our resurrection with Christ) on personal faith. this is not because of any deficiencies or imitations of that personal faith, but only because baptism depends--totally and exclusively on Christ’s faith," 72.

By way of reply:

i) If the reality of baptism "depends totally and exclusively on Christ’s faith," then personal faith cannot even be a necessary condition, for the faith of Christ, which is a proxy faith, is a sufficient condition.

ii) Where does Scripture ever say that the faith of Christ is a necessary, much less a sufficient, condition for the reality of baptism?

Once again, Orthodox theology seems to think that truth is a matter of sheer stipulation: if we say it’s so, then it must be so! If we say the moon is made of green cheese, then the moon is made of green cheese!

"The Orthodox understanding of freewill rejects the need for a special act of God’s prevenient grace, which includes the freedom of choice given to humans in creation and remaining within them in a dysfunctional condition even after the fall. Our basic orientation, or compass, toward God and the freedom to choose him remains intact, yet we fail to see that compass clearly or to exercise that freedom to believe and obey properly, because our will is now wayward and because sin has dramatically blurred our ability to see God and know ourselves.

For the Greek church fathers, sin was understood not primarily as a deliberate act of willful disobedience (which it is) as much as the inability to see and know God and ourselves clearly," 74.

By way of reply:

i) One more time: where is the supporting argument? The Orthodox theologian has it pretty easy. He never has to prove a thing. He has only to quote a church father or two. How do I know that such-and-such is thus-and-so? Because tradition says so. How do I know that what tradition says is thus-and-so? Don’t ask!

ii) Now, the imago Dei is a Scriptural category. Since, therefore, he is appealing to a Scriptural category to begin with, you just might suppose that it would be important to actually exegete his version of freewill from the imago motif in Scripture. And to do so by responsible methods.

But, no. Like an astronaut, he floats about in an evidentiary vacuum, unencumbered by any burden of proof. In this weightless environment, he has no onus to discharge. Like God’s verbal fiat, he can speak reality into existence.

iii) Note, the question here is not whether freewill in general or some particular version thereof is true, possibly true, or false. The question is not abstract, but concrete. How do we convert this hypothetical to an object of knowledge?

Assume, for the sake of argument, that it is the case. How does Nassif or anyone else happen to know it to be so? How is the reader in a position to judge the claim?

iv) On the face of it, though, his claim is incoherent. If an ability to clearly discern the will of God is a precondition for choosing to obey his will, then an inability to discern his will renders it impossible to do his will. And in that event we would need a special act of prevenient grace to choose between good and evil.

Why is it that Nassif cannot connect his own dots? Presumably because he is reciting rather than reasoning. He is faithfully reproducing his tradition instead of asking whether his tradition makes any sense on its own or is faithful to the Scriptures.

There is nothing wrong with commitment to a theological tradition. But there is something very wrong with blind commitment--with a commitment which is not answerable to the word of God.

I could comment on some additional things, but why bother? At one level, it’s entertaining to poke fun at this, but there’s a deadly serious side to it. On my deathbed, as I look over my life and the lives of those I’ve taught, and as I stare into eternity, should it not be a matter of no little concern whether I founded my faith on solid ground rather than quick-sand? Rommen, Nassif, and Berzonsky are too wrapped up in the part they’re playing to step outside their role and see how much they’ve taken for granted.

The Orthodox do not have a monopoly on groupthink. One can find this in the Reformed community as well. But because the Reformed tradition is also a polemical tradition, used to debating its claims with the Romanist, the Remonstrant, the Lutheran, the Socinian, and a host of others, it has a capacity for criticism and self-criticism alike--whereas the Orthodox, who boast of never having had a Reformation, are so used to seeing the world through their Orthodox window that they cannot see either the window or the world apart from the window. This renders them unteachable.


  1. Hello, just visited your bible blog, I also have a bible related website, it's about some books which is helpful to understand the God's Words

  2. Dear Triablogue.
    My blog name is Easternman.
    I don't like it much when an apologetic for a particular Christian confession of faith [Christian tradition] is primarily negative. The Basic Orthodox Apology is totally Positive [but Apophatic]. Faith in God is not limited to words alone; nor can any-one ever comprehend the nature of God: God as He is In-Himself is a Mystery, and incomprehensible One.
    Orthodoxy states The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. From the Father alone. St. John 15:26, that is, the Person, Jesus Christ, says so. To deny this is to deny the Sovereignty of Christ as Truth.
    This is positive, not negative; but the Filioquists add to God's Word here. It is not whether the Orthodox are right, and others wrong, but whether Eastern Orthodoxy is objectively right. It is. There are other issues besides John 15:26, such as the meaning of Matthew 16:18, or the Protestant dilemma of Romans 3:28 in Luther's Bible contradicting James 2:24. But in John 15:26 the Orthodox Church keeps faith with the Words of Jesus Christ. That's enough for me to believe they are telling the truth, and the critics of Eastern Orthodoxy may be sincere, but they are not honest. They are in error.
    Scott R. Harrington

  3. Dear Triablogue,
    Have you demonstrated that Berzonsky has a Neoplatonic epistemology? Have you demonstrated that Neoplatonic epistemology is incompatible with whatever is a generic Christian epistemology?
    Scott Harrington Easternman
    Erie PA

  4. Dear Triablogue, Have you read "The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit" by Saint Photios, of Constantinople? If not, you are missing out on the basic dogmatic issue which separates Orthodox from non-Orthodox Christians. While there are other important issues which divide non-Orthodox from the Orthodox Church, such as the basic issue of ecclesiology versus ecumenism or syncretism, this basic issue of the simplicity of the Holy Trinity which is exhibited in Eastern Orthodox doctrine needs to be addressed if any non-Orthodox Christians desire to understand the Trinitarian theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Take care.
    God bless you.
    See: Saint Photios. (1987). THE MYSTAGOGY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Joseph P. Farrell, trans. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Sincerely, Scott R. Harrington, Erie, PA

  5. Dear Triablogue, Which person wrote the "Three views of eastern orthodoxy-3" column?
    Sincerely, Scott R. Harrington
    Erie PA

  6. Dear Steve,
    Why do you conclude that the Eastern Orthodox are "unteachable"?
    Who taught you that view? Are you unwilling to admit that the Eastern Orthodox are indeed teachable? I have been non-Orthodox. The Orthodox have taught me that "Filioque" is a seriously bad heresy. On this, I have been teachable by them. In agreeing they are correct on this doctrine, my understanding of doctrine has become Orthodox on that point, at least. I am also willing to admit the Orthodox are open minded. Why are you certain they are unteachable? I've met some Orthodox Christians, and non of them seem unwilling or unable to be taught. We need to remember that Saint James warns "let not many of you become teachers".
    I'm a student, a student of why "Filioque", for example, is wrong, and the Orthodox theology correct. God bless you.
    Sincerely, Scott R. Harrington
    Erie PA USA

  7. Dear Steve and friends,
    If you want to know more about Eastern Orthodoxy, it is in more than books. But in one book you may find much of the Orthodox Faith on a key issue. See, exempli gratia (e.g.), Saint Photios. (1987). THE MYSTAGOGY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Joseph P. Farrell, trans. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
    Sincerely, easternman Scott R. Harrington Erie PA
    God bless.

  8. Dear Triablogue , I have met Orthodox Christians, and they do not appear to me to be unteachable. Anyway, I look at myself closely before I start criticizing others. I am not criticizing anyone here, or your
    blogue. There is room for agreement between Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy; most mailine, non-fundamentalist Evangelicals (I'm not criticizing anyone by saying "fundamentalist", just being different from their sometimes anti-intellectual approach)agree with everything in the Nicene Creed that Orthodox Christians believe, except too many Evangelicals add "Filioque" "and the Son", without understanding what they are saying in "Filioque" "and (from) the Son" is a heresy that contradicts John 15:26; (though they are surely not intending to teach heresy). God save us all.
    In Erie Scott R. Harrington

  9. The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you, save you in Christ Jesus, and give unto you His peace; Amen.
    In Erie PA Scott R. Harrington

  10. Dear Triablogue, Those who are interested in how a person can feel comforted by the Holy Spirit to believe the Orthodox Church doctrines should read:
    Gillquist, Fr. Peter E. (1992). Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press.
    Also, kindly do yourself a great good: order an Orthodox Study Bible, New Testament and Psalms, NKJV (New King James Version). The Bible is complimentary (free of charge). See: Our Life In Christ Orthodox Christian Radio
    See also
    and for more on Eastern Orthodoxy.
    You really can trust the Bible, and John 15:26 is the testimony of Jesus Christ Himself regarding the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit, from God the Father. Amen.
    God save us all.
    In Erie PA USA
    Scott R. Harrington

  11. I know Mr. Nassif having met him many years ago at St. Vladimir's....your impression of his "liberalism" is generally correct. After all, he IS a member of a modernist Orthodox Jurisdiction, the Antiochian Archdiocese (yes we have the SAME problem in Orthodoxy as you do with liberals). Mr. Nassif seems to forget that in the Orthodox understanding, Holy Scripture, and in paricular, the Four Holy Gospels, as the VERBAL IKON of Christ. Take anything coming out of that jurisdiction as suspect until proven otherwise. If you don't believe me, get a copy of its current Metropolitan's book, OUT OF THE DEPTHS HAVE I CRIED...and be amused, and repulsed..

    Yours cordially, JFP

  12. Well, I have to agree with Anonymous above about missing out on the fundamental difference of Orthodoxy from the rest. Not even the same planet. He cites Dr. Farrell. Even more to the point is his magnum opus: God, History, & Dialectic, available at: