Sunday, March 19, 2006

Have Eastern Orthodox Doctrines Always Been Taught By The Church?

Some of you may be interested in an exchange I've been having with Perry Robinson, an Eastern Orthodox, on Al Kimel's blog. The discussion has primarily been about church infallibility. But other issues have come up along the way.

One of those issues is the history of some Eastern Orthodox doctrines, namely praying to saints, infant baptism, and the veneration of images. Below are some quotes from Perry and my responses.

I'm only quoting some portions of what Perry said. In other portions, he tries to dismiss the early absence and contradictions of these Eastern Orthodox doctrines by referring to how most people were illiterate, how some of the sources in question were heretical, etc.

Perry said:

"Trinitarianism was always taught by the church. The same can be said for your examples about icons, invocation of the saints, and infant baptism."

How do you know that those three concepts were always taught? You don't. None of the earliest sources mention them, and their later appearance in the historical record doesn't suggest that they had existed all along as teachings of the church.

If the church was teaching something like prayers to the saints, illiteracy wouldn't have much relevance. Understanding oral teaching doesn't require an ability to read or write. And once some people were taught to pray to the saints, they would go about praying to the saints in the presence of other people. They would also mention the concept to other people. Furthermore, our information on early Christian views of prayer doesn't just come from illiterate people ignorant of church teaching. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and other early sources write about prayer. In addition to an absence of any mention of praying to the saints, we find some sources, like Origen, saying that we're to pray only to God. He refers to Christians in general praying only to God, not to any creatures. Origen wasn't illiterate, he had significant knowledge of church teaching, and no other data suggests that he was wrong in his generalization about Christians praying only to God. Any historical judgment on such an issue is going to be a matter of probability, not certainty, but why would anybody think that the evidence suggests that it's probable that the church always taught prayers to the saints?

You mentioned Tertullian again, but, as I said before, he didn't become a Montanist until later in his life. He contradicts Eastern Orthodox doctrine in some of his pre-Montanist writings. And Tertullian wasn't illiterate or highly ignorant of what was happening in churches around him.

If you actually read my comments on infant baptism in my discussion with Paul Owen, then you know that I cited the patristic scholar David Wright on the subject. He's studied the issue in depth and has published a lot of material on it. He refers to the baptizing of all infants as a gradual development that was widely contradicted (including rejection by church leaders) before it became normalized a few hundred years into church history.

Let me ask you about Gregory Nazianzen's view on this subject. He was a bishop. He suggested that people baptize infants only if the infants are dying. In another forum, you told me that Gregory's view is different from what Baptists believe. Yes, it is. It's also different from what you believe. Was the bishop Gregory Nazianzen an illiterate man who was ignorant of an apostolic tradition always taught by the church? What about the many Christian parents who didn't baptize their children? Or the other early Christians who wanted to baptize only dying infants? Were they all ignorant of what the church had always taught on the subject?

With regard to the veneration of images, the issue is what Christians thought of venerating images, not what they thought of using images. Some Christians did criticize even the use of images, but their veneration can be rejected without rejecting their use. I don't deny that there's some artwork in early Christian contexts, such as the catacombs. The Eastern Orthodox patristic scholar John McGuckin, while acknowledging the existence of some early Christian artwork, writes:

"Christianity in the earliest period seems to have shared the aversion common in Judaism (though not an absolute aversion as is demonstrated by the highly decorated second-century synagogue at Dura Europos) to painted representations in religious contexts." (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 32)

Let's pause here for a moment. Would anybody describe modern Eastern Orthodoxy as an environment in which there's an "aversion to painted representations in religious contexts"? No. The contrast between early Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy on this issue is stark. McGuckin goes on to say that the church in general (not just some illiterate, ignorant laymen) "turned from it [art] as part of their apologia against false cult" (p. 32). He goes on to give examples of men like Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Epiphanius. He could have mentioned other names as well, and these people include bishops. Early enemies of Christianity, such as Celsus and Caecilius, criticize Christians in general for their opposition to the veneration of images. (I'm aware that the early enemies of Christianity sometimes misrepresented the faith. But they also sometimes represented it accurately. In this case, what these enemies said is plausible in light of the other data we have. Thus, their testimony adds further weight to my case.) The situation is such that even a conservative Roman Catholic like Ludwig Ott will write:

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

But you tell us that it's an apostolic tradition always taught by the church. You don't reach that conclusion because of historical evidence suggesting that the earliest Christians taught the concept. Rather, you assume that the church always taught it in spite of the evidence that suggests otherwise.

You said:

"I am simply unmoved by your spoof texting from scholarly sources, primary texts and the Bible. It is not just that I think you aren’t qualified to do so, its that your arguments are bad AND you are unqualified."

Let's see you produce evidence better than mine. Where's your evidence that the church always taught prayers to the saints, infant baptism, and the veneration of images? The issue here is the church in general, so it won't be enough to show that some individual here or there held the view. And you can't claim that there weren't many contexts in which such doctrines could have been mentioned. Prayer was discussed frequently and at length in the early centuries, including in entire treatises on the subject or lengthy sections of works of another nature. Baptism, too, was discussed frequently, as were artwork and images. People discussed the relevant subjects a lot. But they didn't say what we would expect them to say if your church was the one true church established by Christ and had always taught these doctrines.

You said:

"As to practices, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. You seem to be confusing these two. Your argument here would overturn every major Christian teaching. No Christian literature for the first 30 years of Christianity. No proof for the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc, guess the Church didn’t believe in such things!"

Your comparison is ridiculous. 30 years isn't nearly the amount of time that the Eastern Orthodox doctrines in question are absent. And we don't expect doctrines to be mentioned in documents at a time when there were no documents. But the Eastern Orthodox doctrines in question are absent or widely contradicted at times when many hundreds of pages of documents from dozens of sources are extant. Those documents include many discussions of relevant topics. It's not as though a subject like prayer or baptism is something that's never discussed by the early sources. You claim that your doctrines were always taught by the church, yet you give us no evidence leading to that conclusion, and you keep trying to explain why the doctrines are absent and contradicted early on.

You said:

"Lots of people who were professing Christians contradicted the Trinity. Modalism was the majority belief among the laity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Do you think Modalism was the faith of the Church?"

I haven't studied the percentages of people who held a belief in Modalism, so I don't know how accurate your claims are. Regardless, I don't claim that Christ founded an infallible church that always taught the entirety of the apostolic faith. Furthermore, Trinitarian doctrine is significantly different from something like praying to saints or infant baptism. How difficult is it to understand the concept of praying to saints or baptizing infants, especially with an infallible church teaching the doctrines in every generation? The concepts involved in Trinitarianism are more abstract and complicated.

And I note, once again, that you aren't giving us any reason to think that these Eastern Orthodox doctrines were always taught by the church. Instead, you're trying to explain the lack of evidence for them and why, in some cases, they're contradicted.

You said:

"Popular belief doesn’t amount to church teaching."

I didn't suggest otherwise. The point is that your claim that these doctrines were always taught by the church is the sort of thing that can be evaluated in the historical record. If you give us no examples of the church teaching these doctrines early on, and the doctrines are absent in the earliest generations and sometimes contradicted, then why should we believe your claim that the doctrines were always taught by the church?


  1. Please, do more on Eastern Orthodoxy! This is an area of apologetics that Reformed people have really dropped the ball on!

  2. >Any historical judgment on such an
    >issue is going to be a matter of
    >probability, not certainty

    Nice admission here. When the New Testament church became confused on an issue, they looked at what the Scriptures and the Spirit was doing, and if necessary met in council to rule on it (Jerusalem).

    They Orthodox Church knew and read the same things you have, but they decided differently. But like the NT church, once they met in council and the Church accepted the ruling as its own mind, the issue ENDED. What we have in protestantism now is every man and his dog revisiting 2000 years of the Spirit's work in His Church. "Everyone did what is right in his own eyes".