Thursday, April 03, 2008

An Orthodox perspective


I have gradually been working my way through Daniel B. Clendenin's Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. At the moment I am in the middle of an article by John Meyendorff, who was dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1984 until his death in 1992. It is titled "Doing Theology in and Eastern Orthodox Perspective."

One of his central points is that for the Orthodox theology cannot be done in isolation, as an abstract academic exercise, but must always be done within a community of living faith. On the issue of dogma, he contrasts Orthodox methodology with that of the post-scholastic Roman Catholic Church. He also stresses the narrow scope of what is formally defined.

I think I would be faithful to the Orthodox general feeling on the matter if I said that in the Orthodox church formal doctrinal definitions are concerned only with essentials, without which the whole New Testament vision of salvation would not stand. This was certainly the case for the dogmas of the seven ecumenical councils, including the decree of Nicea II (787) on the veneration of icons, which in fact was not so much a decree on religious art as an affirmation of the reality of the incarnation; that is to say, it was a statement that Christ was a historical person--visible, depictable, and representable. On the other hand, particular signs such as the bodily glorification of the Virgin Mary after her death (the dogma of the assumption)--alluded to in some patristic writings and liturgical hymnology, and reflecting a belief in an eschatological anticipation of the general resurrection in her case--are simply not a matter for formal definition, but for reverence and pious respect.
[Emphasis mine]

Even in the formal definitions of the seven ecumenical councils, definitions are more markers of what goes too far or not far enough than statements that capture the truth and pin it down.

What I hope to underline here, however, is the issue of what is, indeed, considered central and dogmatic for the Orthodox as distinguished from what may be true but is neither defined nor required (not to mention what is debatable or indifferent).

When accusations are made that our Presiding Bishop or The Episcopal Church at large has abandoned the historic faith, the counter challenge is on target: Where do you see TEC rejecting the Nicene or Apostolic Creed, the sacraments, the Scriptures, or (to round out the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) the historic episcopate locally adapted? That we have strong arguments swirling about on the interpretation of Scripture is undeniable, but that is quite different from renouncing Scripture. If it were not important for all parties it would not be generating that level of discussion.

I have heard jokes about people trying to "out-pope the pope." Nowadays we seem to have various Western Christians trying to "out-orthodox the Orthodox." It is a rather arbitrary and pretentious exercise. I grew up in a religious atmosphere that was a collection of Protestant flavors more rigid than Eastern Orthodoxy. Over time I have become far more comfortable with the parameters of a generous Orthodoxy than with any modern self-styled "orthodoxy."

This illustrious festive day is the day which the Lord hath made; let us all be glad and rejoice herein with joy. For, lo, the Giver of Life is risen; Hades hath been despoiled. And the apostolic choir hear the tidings of joy today, while the doubting one, even Thomas, hath touched the Master's side and by this touching hath proclaimed Christ to be of two natures, God and human.
--Thursday of the Second Week, Pentecostarion

--the BB

1 comment:

FranIAm said...

This is a great post and I really got a lot out of reading it. I used to have a friend who was a seminarian there around 1991-92.

The confused children of God are we, all wandering, some in a most arbitrary fashion, some with grace.