Church Authority: Reply 1

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When engaging with a sophisticated and elaborate ancient worldview that has been held by thousands of brilliant minds and many a pure heart, it is important to give that tradition the benefit of the doubt. Giving someone or something the benefit of the doubt does not imply assuming it can answer all of the objections that can be leveled against it and make an airtight case for its plausibility. But it does imply assuming that the tradition one is critiquing has answers to what seem like obvious problems with its core teachings.

(Special thanks to a phantom menace for providing many of the resources and ideas for this post.)

One thing that I started to realize as I read popular Catholic apologetics is that the standard Protestant objections leveled against the Roman doctrines of justification, the mass, the papacy, etc. sometimes are just tossed around in Protestant circles without interacting with half-serious Catholic scholarship that attempts to answer those objections. In fact, in retrospect, I would have to say that the obvious objections are easily-handled and that the answers to them are fairly accessible for people who seek them out. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t deeper, more serious objections; but if the first thought that comes into your mind when you are hearing about an ancient and sophisticated spiritual and/or intellectual tradition that you don’t know very much about is “wow, that’s stupid/implausible/obviously false/obviously heretical (if it’s a Christian thing)”, then you probably either misunderstand or your argument against the tradition is not very potent. I started to realize that this is also true of Reformed theology when I began to read sophisticated Calvinists. The wimpy objections that seem to carry so much weight when you’re a highschooler just don’t work.

So it is with Orthodoxy. Standard objections to Orthodoxy have a significant overlap with standard objections to Catholicism: the Orthodox believe you can earn your way into heaven by works, which Paul obviously denies; you’re killing Jesus again every Sunday morning if your doctrine of the Eucharist is true; there are evil heirarchs in the Church so it can’t be infallible; and so on. And there are others: do you think you can become gods like the Mormons?

When we’re in the position of being new to a tradition like Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Reformed theology—whether we are examining, joining, or critiquing it—it seems like we should be cautious about assuming we have found decisive objections. That, at least, is the strategy I have tried to take. It seems like there are basically two ways to approach looking at other traditions. We can take the route of assuming they are false and finding whatever looks like it might be a problem, and using that as an excuse to not join the opposing tradition. Or we can try to immerse ourselves in the literature and conceptual framework of a worldview and try to see things from the inside out. This usually involves trying to construct arguments for the tradition under consideration and answers to objections against the tradition.

This process of forcing oneself to think carefully about “how would I respond to that if I, an Orthodox person, were a Calvinist?” can result in refined, sophisticated criticism; or it can result in concession and conversion. If I don’t understand a tradition or relevant facts that have bearing on whether or not its claims are true or false, then it is wisest to not put a lot of weight on the assumption that apparent problems are actual problems. And that brings me to a response to some arguments against Orthodoxy. I will be responding to several select posts that attempt to demonstrate that there are fatal problems in the Orthodox view of authority.

The following is my response to: (http://bywhoseauthority.blogspot.com/2008/07/questions-about-nicea-invitation-to.html)

David—

You wrote:

“For the purposes of this post I will assume my own ignorance. I admit that I do not fully understand the Orthodox teaching on church infallibility, and so I invite my Orthodox brothers to help me by interacting with my musings and perhaps answering my questions.”

I appreciate your willingness, and hope that my responses can be of some help.

You wrote:

“(1) The Council of Nicea was called by the Emperor; the secular power, not the church. This seems odd to me. In fact, it seems entirely likely that had not Constantine wished to keep his Empire whole and secure, we might have seen fracturing in the church not unlike modern Protestant denominationalism today. The bishops of Christendom were quite content to argue amongst themselves, and there doesn’t seem any reason to think that such a council would ever have been called had Constantine not stepped in. Moreover, Constantine made it clear that the council’s decisions would be enforced, again by secular power. This also seems odd. If there was a clear understanding of church infallibility from the days of the Apostles, and indeed if the bishops at Nicea were also well aware of it, would such enforcement be necessary? I suppose it could have been merely precautionary. In any event, the fact that the whole affair was conducted, from start to finish, in such a stately, secular manner, casts some doubt on what I take to be the Orthodox understanding of the nature of church infallibility.”

(a) The state was not considered secular in ancient Christianity. Ancient cultures viewed the state as founded upon the families and their deities. Affairs of state were necessarily connected with religious affairs. A state authority calling a council would be considered entirely acceptable in a culture that wasn’t sharply secularized. It is not surprising that ancient Christians adapted this view to their incarnational understanding of reality (Col 2:3, 8-9). The Church and state were joined synergistically. The Christian-influenced state was understood to be ontologically united to Christ’s mystical body, and this indwelling energized the state to work together with the Church. It was altruistic of the Church to become conjoined to the state, a way of selflessly and riskily taking on the corruption of the world, and in doing so, purifying humanity and nature. This all fits very well with Romans 13 and its account of submission to political authority, though it is not explicitly contained in it.

(b) When you say that it was likely that if Constantine hadn’t wished for imperial unity and tried to enact it by supporting a council, I don’t see how this counts against the legitimacy of what happened. Isn’t it a good thing that the empire and Church didn’t fracture? If this was a result of the Church-state synergy, then doesn’t that show that maybe Church-state synergy has something going for it?

(c) While it is true that Constantine agreed to enforce the decisions, how does this affect the legitimacy of the council? You don’t seem to be claiming that he forced the bishops to decide what they decided. If that’s what you’re getting at, then it would probably be a problem. But it is hard to support the view that he coerced the bishops to make their decisions against their will from the historical data. And this would disagree in principle with the doctrine of the divine energies that was implicit throughout the teachings of the conciliar theologians. For the divine energies cannot be activated without personal exercise of libertarian freedom. If the hand of the council was literally forced by the power of someone outside the hierarchy, this would instantly nullify any claim it could have to authority.

(d) You ask why, if there was a clear understanding of Church infallibility from apostolic times, there would be a need to enforce the decision. It seems like sometimes there are rebels against authority, who need to be told to bend the knee. I don’t see any reason to think this couldn’t happen at Nicea. It doesn’t imply that there was no belief in the doctrine of ecclesial infallibility, it just implies that some people aren’t willing to accept the infallibility of particular ecclesial decisions. Here’s a different question: if the doctrine of Church infallibility wasn’t held by Christians up until and at the time of Nicea, why did the Nicene Fathers seem to understand the Council as infallible?

(e) Overall, I don’t think that your accusations about a stately, secular manner hold much water. It seems to be anachronistic to say that the council even could be secular in anything like the modern sense; and the fact that it was called by a statesman doesn’t seem intrinsically bad if we don’t view nature and grace as dialectically opposed. The Church is an institution of grace; the state is an institution of nature. They are not inherently opposite (they can work against each other but they don’t have to). If the Church and the state aren’t necessarily incompatible in what they do, what is the worry about secularism? Does this assume that the Church and state must act in opposite spheres?

You wrote:

“(2) The wording of the Nicean Creed was such that many of the bishops (perhaps more than half) were able to sign it, while still remaining fully Arian in their thinking. They affirmed the words, but not their orthodox spirit. And in a short time they were again preaching their Arianism. This leads to another important question: if the majority of the bishops at the ecumenical council didn’t even truly agree with what was (later to become) the orthodox position of the church (and supposedly the council), where is infallibility located? Again, I am mostly speaking from ignorance here and I’m open to correction, but my understanding of the Orthodox position is that infallibility resides in ecumenical consensus. And yet, it seems that the true consensus of Nicea, at least at the time, favored Arianism. And it seems very strange that many of the bishops present at an ecumenical council, and responsible for its decision, would be so blatantly (and sinfully?) duplicitous in their actions. God can use sinful men, to be sure, but when it comes to the infallible descisions of the church, I assume the presumption is that He is using holy men.”

(a) The majority of the bishops did agree with what was to become the Orthodox position. A large number of bishops before the council were Semi-Arian. This was a reactionary position to Modalism in the previous century. They were dwelling on the need to distinguish the Father from the Son, but didn’t have an articulate way of saying it. The only way that many of them thought they could do this was by a semi-essential subordination within the Trinity. But once they heard Arius’ teaching, most sided with Alexander and the Orthodox party wholesale. This supports the idea that they were more-or-less Orthodox teachers who needed some clarification and something to define themselves in comparison to.

(b) It seems that Arians since Nicea haven’t been able to confess the creed in good conscience. Does that not imply that the wording is clear enough to exclude an Arian profession?

(c) Ecumenical consensus of the living bishops at one particular point in time is one way that infallibility is manifested, but not the only way. And ecumenical consensus does not necessarily mean the consensus of every single individual person.

(d) If God cannot use sinful men to make infallible decisions, what do we make of the power of the scribes and Pharisees, to bind human consciences—even though Jesus told them not to do as they do (Matthew 23:1-3)? Or take Caiaphas: did he not prophesy? Wouldn’t it be funny if the Church wasn’t even as authoritative as the scribes and Pharisees (Hebrews 8:6)?

(e) I would like to see the support for the claim about them not agreeing with the creed but signing. I’m somewhat concerned that post-signature Arian preaching by the bishops couldn’t really prove what some might think it would—namely that they disagreed at the time when they signed the creed. It would be strong evidence, sure. But anyways, I would like to see the argument produced for them believing otherwise than how they signed; and preferably, I would like to see an argument for them believing in Arianism at the time they signed.

You wrote:

“(3) Many times I have heard from an Orthodox brother that such-and-such was the “majority” position of the early church (this is often used as a defense against the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, for example). But just a short time after Nicea, and especially after the death of Constantine, the vast majority of Christendom became Arian. There were times when it seemed as though Athanasius alone was the voice of orthodoxy, which is where we get the phrase “Athanasius contra mundum.” It won’t do to argue that the church was simply falling away from orthodoxy, for “orthodoxy” was still being established. Nicea was the first council called to deal with questions regarding Christ’s deity, and in a sense, Nicea lead to an Arian church. And when Athanasius so vigorously defended Christ’s full deity, he did so primarily by making arguments from Scripture, not by arguing over the meaning of the words of the Nicean creed.”

(a) It would make sense for Athanasius to defend his view from Scripture against people who didn’t accept the assumption that that particular council was authoritative. That’s just good argumentative strategy—appeal to common ground. Athanasius clearly believed in the infallibility of holy tradition; he thought you had to learn the creed to properly understand Scripture, which implies the normativity of tradition.

(b) I think you have misinterpreted the meaning of “Athanasius contra mundum” (Athanasius against the world). This is not a statement about the whole Church becoming Arian and Athanasius having to fend them off. When Jerome says that the whole world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian, that’s not talking about the Church either. The Church is not the imperial order. The Roman imperial order is not identical to the Church, which largely maintained its integrity as teaching the Nicene faith. A change in imperial policy by a pro-Arian emperor is not the same as a change in Church policy.  So Athanasius was against the empire (world)–not the Church.

(c) Athanasius spent entire synods defending the wording of Nicea, so apparently it was quite important for him and his cause as defender of the Gospel.

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9 Responses to “Church Authority: Reply 1”

  1. David Says:

    MG,

    In response to your introduction, I’m not sure how helpful your suggestion is, or how well it actually applies here. After all, the Protestant tradition which holds that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions are incorrect is now 500 years old and has also been held by many intelligent and pure-hearted people. Does Orthodoxy deserve the benefit of the doubt simply because it is older? That’s not what I thought you were saying. I thought you were saying that Orthodoxy deserves the benefit of the doubt because it has been around for a very long time and has been held to by many smart and pure-hearted people. But then, why give Orthodoxy the benefit of the doubt over Protestantism?

    Lord willing, I’ll try to address your specific responses next week. But I don’t really have much to say. I was merely asking questions and putting some quasi-coherent thoughts out there. Your responses make sense, and I’ll just have to think about them more deeply for a little while.

    Thanks for the response!

  2. David Says:

    Oh, in regards to your final point (3c), can you point me to any specific sources that discuss Athanasius’ defenses of the Nicene Creed?

  3. Jordan Parro Says:

    i would definitely like to read more posts on church authority 🙂 i find the debate style blogging to be very helpful.

  4. David Says:

    Hey Jordan! How’s New Mexico? Out of curiosity, what made you decide to leave Biola?

    It’s good to see you around the blogosphere.

  5. Jordan Parro Says:

    Hey David! New Mexico is pretty great! I love Albuquerque. It’s a quaint metropolis.

    I left Biola for a number of reasons. I didn’t really want to leave and I didn’t decide until halfway through Christmas break. But the long and short of it is that I want to go into Philosophy of Mathematics, and Biola/Torrey simply aren’t geared to help me become a competitive grad school candidate in that area. I felt that B/T were preparing me very well in some select areas of philosophy and phil. of religion, but the math dept. wasn’t sufficiently developed in order to facilitate the training i was asking for. So i came back to UNM.

    are you still at talbot? what’re your plans?

  6. David Says:

    That makes perfect sense. It sounds like a wise choice.

    I will be attending Westminster Seminary in Escondido this Fall. Currently I’m enrolled as an M.Div. student, but I have a strong feeling that I’m not called to be a preacher, so I’l probably be switching to the M.A. in Historical Theology.

  7. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “In response to your introduction, I’m not sure how helpful your suggestion is, or how well it actually applies here. After all, the Protestant tradition which holds that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions are incorrect is now 500 years old and has also been held by many intelligent and pure-hearted people. Does Orthodoxy deserve the benefit of the doubt simply because it is older? That’s not what I thought you were saying. I thought you were saying that Orthodoxy deserves the benefit of the doubt because it has been around for a very long time and has been held to by many smart and pure-hearted people. But then, why give Orthodoxy the benefit of the doubt over Protestantism?”

    I was not saying the benefit of the doubt (in the sense that I have defined it) shouldn’t be given to Protestantism; I even implied otherwise when I talked about sophisticated vs. unsophisticated objections to Reformed theology. What I said was true of Orthodoxy is also true of parts of Protestantism–we should be careful when we first hear a position to not assume that the most obvious objections will work.

    Thank you for talking about this stuff David; I look forward to your response.

  8. MG Says:

    Jordan–

    Im glad you find this style helpful. I think debate can be of some use in trying to search for truth (though admittedly the usefulness is limited), especially if it is done respectfully and carefully.

    Expect some more posts on Church Authority coming up soon.

  9. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “Oh, in regards to your final point (3c), can you point me to any specific sources that discuss Athanasius’ defenses of the Nicene Creed?”

    I will get back to you on that once I locate a book or two that talks about this.

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