Fr. Thomas Hopko · January 31, 2010
Today Fr. Tom talks about theological formulation and explanation in the Orthodox Christian Church.
Responding to some of the emails that I have received on a very particular issue, I would like to say a few words now on the radio, about the development of doctrine.
Basically, the question would be this one: Does Christian doctrine develop, in the sense that there can be teaching, even inspired by the Holy Spirit, in the history of the Christian church, new teaching that did not exist earlier? In other words, that there would be brand new teachings that earlier Christians would simply not have known and would not have had, and if they had heard about it they would say “This is not right, this is not true?”
In other words, can the Holy Spirit inspire the Church, one way or another, to have new teachings that did not previously exist, but that new conditions or new times require that there would be teachings that would be revealed by God in addition to whatever teachings, so to speak, were revealed by God earlier in Christian history, or in the Bible, or in the New Testament?
So the question would be, are there new doctrines, doctrines unknown to earlier ages, but that are really revelations of God that are given to the Church, as all things are given by the Holy Spirit, that earlier did not exist?
Would that be the Orthodox teaching? Some people think that is the Roman Catholic teaching. And I will not comment on what is or is not the Roman Catholic teaching. But there are those who claim that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there really are new doctrines, that new conditions appear in history, new issues arise. And therefore doctrines are promulgated that were unknown to Christians in earlier periods. And had the earlier Christians even heard about them, they would have either not understand them at all, or even rejected them. They would even say, “This is not true.”
So can something be true in a later century that would not be true in an earlier century, or would not be known in an earlier century?
That is the question. And the answer, I believe, as far as the Orthodox church is concerned—and I really do believe this is the Orthodox position; it is the only one I have ever heard from Orthodox teachings, Orthodox scholars, from Church Fathers—is that this would be the teaching: that as a matter of sheer fact, there are no new teachings. There are no new doctrines. There is nothing revealed after Pentecost, so to speak, that is not already given.
So I think that we can say that it would be the ancient Christian view, and certainly the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church, that when Christ was crucified, raised and glorified, and when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles, and, as it says in Saint John’s Gospel, that the Holy Spirit was poured in order upon all those who believe—certainly upon the Apostles, but if you read the account of the day of Pentecost in Acts, there were 120 people in that upper room, including the women, including Christ’s mother, Mary.
So we Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the Church, is poured out upon all Christians, and is even given to each person individually on the day that they are baptized. When a person is baptized, they are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that the Church itself is the communion in the Holy Spirit. It is the love of God and the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit. In the Church, there is one mind and one heart and one mouth and all hold the same opinions, and so on. That is what is supposed to happen in the Church.
Now we are going to see that does not happen, and it certainly does not happen automatically or mechanistically. But what we want to say now is that on the last and great day of Pentecost, when the Messiah, who was crucified, enters into His glory by having been crucified, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory, and the Christians are expecting His coming, then I think that we must say that there are no new teachings. There is nothing more that is going to be revealed, nothing more that is going to be shown, nothing more that is going to be said. There is nothing that is going to be added to what is given there. Certainly we hope there will be nothing taken away.
And be the way, that expression, “Nothing added and nothing taken away”—you find that in the Law of Moses already in Deuteronomy. And you find it in the very last words of the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, the Revelation, where it says, “Woe to anyone who adds to these words,” who adds any new teachings, adds something radically new that we do not know about. And woe to that person, even cursed to that person, who would take anything away from what was given, from what was revealed (Rev. 22:18-19).
And here I have to say, for the record, that in church history, that particular teaching of Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses, and the Apocalypse, was used by Orthodox Christians of the East in polemics with Roman Catholics and Protestants. Because the Orthodox would claim that the Latin church has added things to the deposit of faith, to the teachings of the Gospel. They have added new teachings that are not there. And whether they think they have or they have not, and whether they think that they may have but they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox would say, “No, you have added, and there is nothing that is going to be added.”
But then the Orthodox would also accuse the Protestant churches, the churches of Reformation, of having emasculated the faith, of having taken things out of the faith, having removed things that are authentically and necessarily there, either as bona fide doctrines, or as bona fide witnesses or testimonies to the given doctrines.
So there is no adding and there is no taking away. But here we want to say that there is no adding and no taking away to what is already fully given in Christ, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh when Christ is glorified.
So it would be the teaching of the Orthodox Church that there are no new doctrines. If you put it as simply as you could, that is what you would say. No new doctrines. Nothing radically, substantially, essentially new, to what is given totally in Christ and the Holy Spirit and what was given completely and totally and fully to the catholici ecclesiae, the catholic Church, on the day of Pentecost.
And already in the first decade of the second century, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Saint John the Beloved, said that the Church is the catholici ecclesiae. And catholici—catholic—katholon— means “whole, complete, perfect, nothing missing” to its content, to its teaching, to its power, to the presence of God in the Church. There will be nothing added to the presence of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Church. There will be nothing added to what has already been revealed. There will be no new teachings. It is all there.
And what the Christians are to do until Christ comes again in glory, is to testify to the truth of Christ by being inspired by the Spirit of Truth, and therefore to worship properly, in spirit and in truth, the one true God.
But the claim would be that it is all there, it is all given. There is nothing more to be given. There is no new thing. And you could even say against the Old Testament, where it says there is nothing new under the sun—what has been is what is. But I think we could play on that particular teaching and say that the new creation, the new covenant, the new heaven, the new earth, the new humanity, is completely and totally given in Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the Christian Church, and it is all there from the very beginning.
Having said that, we now have to comment on it and explain how that is understood. Because first of all, what we want to explain is that Christianity—the Christian faith, the Gospel—is not a bunch of teachings. It is not like some kind of list of dogmas. It is a conviction about Christ through communion with Him by the illuminations of the Holy Spirit. It is a living reality. It is a reality beyond words and expressions and propositions and doctrinal and defined formulations. It is the new life. It is the truth itself in its fullness, in its completion, in its perfection, that is given in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, within the Christian church. And it is something to be experienced, to be seen, to be intuited, to be lived, to be understood.
But because it is of God, it can always be understood deeper, better, clearer, more explicitly. It can unfold in our understanding and our experience of it. But here we want to say very clearly that the “it” is there. The “it” is not added to. There is nothing there to be added to what is already there.
So the claim would be that the fullness is there. The fullness is there from the beginning because God is there in Christ and the Holy Spirit. We enter into the very life of the Holy Trinity. We enter into the boundless, limitless life and truth and being and reality and beauty and power of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit that They share and enjoy in the Holy Trinity and the Godhead from before the foundation of the world.
And we even believe that God has acted in the world in different ways, in different times—as it says in the letter to the Hebrews—but in these latter days He spoke to us through His Son, by whom He created the ages, who is the exact image of the Father and the very splendor of His glory, and in whom dwells the whole fullness of God bodily, as the Apostle Paul says (Heb. 1:2-3). And we have come to fullness of life and fullness of truth and fullness of God, through Him.
But that is at the end of a particular evolutionary process, a development. Now here we would definitely say—I believe that Orthodox Christians would definitely say—that there is a progressive development in the Old Testament. It is the same God, it is the same Word of God, it is the same Spirit of God—Yahweh and the ruach Yahweh, the pneuma. The dabar Yahweh, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God are the same Spirit, the same Word, the same God, from the very beginning of creation. There is no new different God.
Nevertheless, the apostle Paul himself says that the Old Covenant is a paidagogos to Christ (Gal. 3:24). You begin very primitively, and God has to establish himself among the gods, and He has to fight with all the idols, He has to find someone to believe in Him, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has to give the Law to these corrupted people, so that they can learn what the truth is, little by little—as Isaiah the prophet says, measure by measure, here a little, there a little (Is. 28:9-13). They have to grow in it. There is a growth taking place, a development of teachings taking place.
And we see this when we read the Old Covenant. We see how it unfolds. We see how you have first the patriarchs and Moses and the Law and the Torah. Then you see how the prophets come and they interpret that Torah and they apply it to their lives. Then we see that God is announcing new things to happen—the new heaven, the new earth, the new covenant, the new age. Then there is the Messianic King, the High Priest is supposed to come. Then there is the end of the ages when all things will be fulfilled, when God will be all in all and the whole world will be called to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a development in the Old Covenant for sure.
But Christians would say this is completed when Christ comes. This is completed in Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing beyond this. There is nothing that can be added. There is nothing more to that, that can be given.
And so in Christ is given the fullness of all things—of life, of grace, of truth. But also in Christ is given, Christians believe, the proper interpretation of the Old Covenant. We understand now the Law and the Psalms and the Prophets. We see how they all spoke about Jesus. We see how every word of the Old Covenant refers to Christ and finds its fulfillment in Him. Then Christ comes and He gives His own Torah, His own instruction as the final prophet, the final Moses, and He says, “It was written of old, but I tell you” (Mt. 5). There you have the proper interpretation.
So the teaching would be that Christ brings the proper interpretation of the Law and that He not only brings it, but He lives it, he shows it, He realizes it, He fulfills it, He accomplishes it. When He dies on the Cross and says, “It is fulfilled,” He fulfills it all. It is all there now and there is nothing beyond it.
So the key to the understanding of the Law and the Psalms and the Prophets, what we Christians call the Old Covenant, is Christ himself. The apostle Paul says even a veil hangs over people’s faces, and it is only Christ who removes it (2 Cor. 3:12-18). In Saint Luke’s gospel, the risen Christ opens their minds to understand the scriptures, to understand the unfolding of the revelations of God through Israel (Lk. 24:45). Even before Israel and Noah, there is the time before Abraham. And in a sense, holy history, sacred history, only begins with Abraham. Before Abraham you have a kind of pre-history.
But then the history of salvation, what the Germans call the heilsgeschichte, this ends with Jesus, according to Orthodox. There is no more holy history after Jesus. There is only a testimony to Christ, a martyria to Christ.
In fact, I like to list all those rhyming Greek words that you find in the New Testament relative to Christ. You have the didascalia of Christ. That is the teaching. You have the martyria of Christ. That is the testimony, or the witness. You have the homologia of Christ. That is the confession of faith. You have the apologia. That is the defense of the faith. You have the doxologia. That is the worship that is conforming with the faith. You have the diakonia. That is the service, or the ministry, that is also in conformity with the faith.
But this faith is one and the same. It is given once and for all. As it says in James, the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3), in Christ the Messiah, which we can not go beyond.
Now the teaching would also be, however, in addition, that all this that is given in Christ has to be not only taught, but it has to be explained—that is the didascalia. That it has to be confessed—that is the homologia. That it has to be defended—that is the apologia.
So what happens is that controversy arises about what this means. What is this truth? What is this fullness? What is according to the fullness? What is a destruction of it? What is simply a choosing of this part or that part?—and that is what heresy means, by the way. A heresy does not mean a mistake. The word heresy in Greek does not mean a mistake. It means a choice, where you pick and choose the parts that you like, but you do not take it all. Or you pick and choose a part, and then you either isolate that part from the whole or you use that part through which you understand the whole.
My professor of theology, Dr. Sergius Verhovskoy, always used to say that heterodoxy, heresy, is always the isolation of some particular teaching which may, in itself, even have some truth in it. But it gets distorted because it is ripped apart from the whole. Then the whole is interpreted through the part and you have distortion. So he says that Orthodoxy is when you interpret any part of the faith, any particular teaching, any particular conviction, any particular experience of any particular person, in the light of the whole, in the light of the communion of the saints and the whole teaching.
So you might dare say that heterodoxy and heresy is when you take a part for the whole, or take a part and interpret the whole through the part, whereas Orthodoxy is when you always stay in communion with the whole and see any particular part, or any particular teaching, in the light of the whole teaching.
That whole teaching is never reducible to words, as such. It is always an experience. It is a mystical experience. It is an illumination. It is having the phronema of Christ, the mind of Christ. Where you understand the fullness and you are given it, but you never can appropriate it all at once, and you always struggle with it. And then some people come along and deform it, and then it has to be defended.
So, I believe, and I am convinced personally, absolutely, that the Orthodox Christians would understand this the following way: You have the gospel. You have the teaching. You have the testimony to Christ. You have the gospel preached first. Then you have writings that testify to the gospel. In fact, the term “the gospel” was used by Saint Paul before there were any gospels written. Then you have gospels written. The only ones that we would affirm as being true are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and then the second half of Luke, which is the Book of Acts. And then we have fourteen letters attributed to Paul, three to John, two to Peter, one to James, one to Jude, and the Apocalypse.
And that is our New Testament. Those are the scriptures that we believe bear witness to the fullness of the truth, the fullness of the faith. And we believe that those scriptures have an essential harmony. They do not contradict each other.
But they all have their own particular evangelical and didactic purposes. In other words, Saint John’s gospel is a theological gospel. It is different from Mark’s gospel because it is affirming different aspects of the truth, the one and the same truth. It is holding forth and defending the convictions of those who believe in the Gospel. Maybe Mark is not defending in the same way, or maybe not even defending at all.
Take, for example, calling Jesus Christ the “Logos” of God, the dabar Yahweh. Well, Matthew, Mark and Luke do not do it. Saint Paul does not do it either. But Saint John does. And therefore, that is an affirmation of the gospel and of the truth that we find in Saint John.
But is that a different teaching from Mark and Paul? Our answer would be no, it is not. It is not different from Luke. It is not different from Matthew. It is in conformity with it. It is a revelation that is not something different or not something added or not something they did not know. It is a way of affirming what they themselves, implicitly, and even explicitly, are teaching.
So if Mark would talk with John, or Luke would talk with John, they would have a meeting of the minds right away that Jesus is the Logos. And as it says in John’s gospel itself, if everything that Jesus said and did and everything that we would know about him would be written down, the world itself would not contain the books, because it is limitless (Jn. 21:25).
So there is a very sparse economy on words, in some sense. And here the Christian faith would be very, very careful, at least Orthodox would say, you have to be careful with your words. Jesus Christ himself said we will answer for every empty word we utter, not only every false word and ugly word and evil word and lying word, but every empty word. So our words have to be full, they have to have a power, they have to be true, they have to ring true.
Saint Gregory the Theologian even said that theological discourse and teaching, in some sense, is coining new words, coining new terms—but new terms for the same reality. And that is what we want to stress right now, that there are new expressions. There are new formulations. There are new definitions. There are new defenses of the Gospel, once and for all, given by God to man; it is not man’s gospel. It did not come from man, but came from a revelation of Christ (Gal. 1:11-14). The faith once for all delivered to the Saints, the paratheke, the depositum of faith that Christians are to hold firmly and strongly and not distort in any way, or add to or take away from. That is all there.
However, questions arise, deviations appear. People say the wrong things. And then those who hold the Gospel, who hold the faith, have to defend it. And when they defend it, they have to speak, and they have to talk and they have to make formulations. They have to say, “Your formulation is not correct.”
Let us just take a couple of examples from the earliest church history. When Arias, the presbyter in Alexandria, said that the Logos of God, the Son of God, is a creature, that he is not divine with the same divinity as God the Father, then other Christians stood over against him—like Athanasius the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea and Cappadocia, and Marcellus in Anycra.
Many, many Christians stood and said, “No, you are wrong. The Holy Scripture and the gospel is that the Logos is divine. He is God’s divine Son who becomes human.”
Then someone else will say, like Apollinaris, “Well, you know, He did not really become human. Not really, not like us. He just took flesh. It says the Logos became flesh. He took a body. But He did not have a human soul or a human mind or human emotions.” Then again the Church Fathers and the saints react and say, “No, He did. He does. He has a human soul.” Gregory the Theologian absolutely fought against the Apollinarians on this point.
Then there are others who will say, “Well, okay. There is the Father and the Son. But the Holy Spirit is just the wind. The Holy Spirit is just the breath. The Holy Spirit is just the force. There is no personal Holy Spirit who is divine with the same divinity as the Son and the Father, God the Father and God the Son.”
Again the reaction would come. “No. The Holy Spirit is a hypostasis, the Holy Spirit is a person. There are three distinct, existential actualizations and realities of God—God the Father, and the Son of God, and the Spirit of God.
And then you have the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which took a couple of centuries, a couple hundred years, to clarify in a way that people would say, “Yes, these are the words that we believe are true. These are the words that are adequate to the reality of the faith that we have received.”
But there is nothing new there. But the words were new. The Bible did not use words like hypostasis and ousia, persons and nature. The expression triada—trinity—is not in the New Testament at all. The word trinity is not in the New Testament. In fact, in the New Testament, the Spirit of God is never called God, never called theos. And Jesus is called theos only a couple of times, because in Scriptural language, the one true God is God the Father, and He has a Son and He has a Spirit who are theos together with Him. They are also divine, they are also God.
But Gregory the Theologian was the first one to say, “The Holy Spirit is theos, God.” (There, I’ve said it.) But he did it in the 4th century. It took four hundred years for the Christians to put it that way, to say it that way.
Now were they saying something new, something different, something that the earlier Christians did not know and would not agree with? Well, our answer would be, absolutely not. They were saying something new in the sense of using new and different words.
But they were not saying anything substantially or essentially new. They were defending, explicating, articulating, defining and formulating what is already in the Gospel, even before the Gospel was written in the writings of the New Testament. And they are certainly defending what is actually written in the writings of the New Testament.
Some people say, “Whoa, the teachings of the first Church Fathers are not according to the Bible.” Well, we would say that is absolutely not true. They are totally biblical. All the holy fathers did was exegete the Holy Scriptures.
Now, when we mention the Holy Fathers, we have to mention that they were not perfect. They did not always get everything straight. Sometimes their formulations themselves had to be corrected. Sometimes, in a certain context, what they said was true, but if you change the context, then they could be misunderstood as if they were saying something false.
So again, the words themselves have to be understood relative to their meaning, and then this would lead to an absolute Orthodox Christian conviction. Words and formulations can change, but the meaning cannot. And what we would be interested in, and what we believe the real Christians through history—those whom we consider the saints and who we consider to be the ones who really were the Church and bore witness to the one holy catholic and apostolic church, and kept the true faith through history, against heresy and division and sectarianism and all kinds of madness and insanity and sin—what we would say is that those people and the Church that we claim as their church and the church that they have defended, what they were interested in always was the meaning.
And very often they would compromise on the language. They would say, “Oh, I see. When you say physis or nature, this is what you mean. Oh, we thought you meant that. Well let us decide that we will use this word this way. Let us decide that we will use the term hypostasis that way. Let us decide how we will use the term substance this way.”
And even then there were problems in the earliest Christianity, because the two main languages in which Christianity was spoken were Latin and Greek. But then you always had Syriac. You always had the Semitic people. You had the Copts from the very beginning, the Christians of Egypt.
So you had a multiplicity of languages that caused a lot of troubles. And some people even actually think that when the Syriac church and Armenian church and Coptic church broke away from the Latino-Hellenic church, the church of the Empire, that at least a good reason for it was that they had different terms and they were not understanding each other.
Some people even think that all along they had they the same meaning, they just did not know it because they did not understand each other’s language. Well, that is possible. But one thing is for sure. If you just take the Eastern Orthodox Church—words changed through history, there is just no doubt about it.
I actually believe—God forgive me if I am wrong here—but I actually believe that even the use of the term “God” changed, because in Holy Scripture God meant God the Father virtually all the time. And then it had to be understood how Jesus is the Son of God. And then, when John’s gospel says He is Theos also, and when Thomas calls Him my Lord and my God, then you have God the Father being called God and the Son of God being called God, and then you have a huge issue.
You also have a huge issue when the psalm says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’”. When they called Jesus Kyrios you had a huge issue, because Kyrios was the name of God. It was the Hebrew Yahweh. It was the Greek Old Testament name for Elohim, for Theos, for God.
So there is always a certain inaccuracy about words. There is a kind of volatility about words. Words are never absolute. Words always have to be explained. But what is important is the meaning.
Now when we speak about words, we hear the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, who said that theologia is ultimately a mystical communion with God—theology is a mystical communion with God beyond words. But when one is actually in the living, experiential communion with God, then they are given the grace of speaking human words truly and accurately, of using words properly, of even receiving those words as a gift of God. Anthony the Great actually said, “We praise God in the words that He himself inspired in us.”
Now, we do believe that in history, God can inspire words. That is not a new doctrine. But it may be a new formulation. It may be another way of speaking.
I will just give you an example of that. The Council of Nicaea was accepted universally, ultimately after a lot of blood and fighting, as the accurate formula that is really appropriate to the Gospel. It is the true one—the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed. But you know that in the original time of Nicaea, the Council said that if anyone says that the Logos Son is a different hypostasis, or ousia, from God the Father, let him be anathema.
But guess what? Within 40 or 50 years after Nicaea, even less, the Cappadocian Fathers were saying, “No, we are going to useousia for what is common in God and we are going to use hypostasis for what is distinct. We are going to use ousia for divinity, and we are going to use hypostasis for the divine persons—the Father, Son and Spirit.
So they changed the meaning of hypostasis and used it in a different way. That is, in fact, the way that Eastern Orthodox, and even Oriental Orthodox churches—the Copts, Armenians—use these words to this very day, because all of those eastern churches accept the Council of Nicaea.
So certain formulations became acceptable when they were properly understood. And sometimes they even changed the meaning of the words in the church itself. But it was the meaning that was there.
Bu what we want to say right now is that that meaning was there from the beginning. It was inherent in the Gospel. It may have been implicit and not made explicit. It may have been somehowin nuche, kind of like in an acorn, so to speak, that has to grow into a mighty oak as it spreads its branches and begins to develop itself. But the development is only articulation, formulation, definition and explanation. It is not new doctrine. There is no new Christian doctrine after the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification of Christ with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There is no new doctrine. But there are new doctrinal formulations.
And it is very interesting that some of the main saints, like Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian—then we could hop over a thousand years and speak about Saint Gregory of Palamas—they were accused of being innovators. They were saying, “You are using new terms. You are coining new terms. You are changing the teaching.” And they all argued, “We are not changing the teaching. We are preserving the teaching because we have new questions and we have to articulate in a way so that the meaning, the truth would be preserved. But we are not making new truths. There are no new truths.” There is the defense of the one truth—that Christ is. He said, “I Am the Truth.” There is the inspiration of the Spirit of Truth, the one Truth, who brings us to remembrance of every thing that He said and did and who Jesus is, and inspires us to understand things properly, and even to know everything correctly.
But the words change, the words develop, the issues change. New issues grow up. And sometimes even, these new issues grow up from outside the church. Take, for example, modern science. I hope still, sometime, to reflect upon Darwin and darwinianism, and Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. I am an amateur there, but I am fascinated by it.
But I think a lot of the new scientific development and things that we know will require us to adjust our explications of the faith. But they will not change the faith at all. The faith will remain one and the same and there will be nothing new there, but there may be new issues, new questions, that we have to try to answer.
One more thing, and that is this: How do we know—or at least let us put it more humbly—how would Orthodox Christians claim to know what explications, what explanations, what formulations, what definitions, would boundaries of the mystery, what language, when you understand what it means, is true and acceptable, and what is not? What words are just false and misleading and leading you into darkness and into ignorance and into foolishness and stupidity? How do we know that? How would we claim it? How would we defend what we believe are true formulations and what are not?
In other words, what developments of doctrinal formulation would we say are good, proper and true, and which ones are not, and how do you know that? And here, it seems to me, that the answer is pretty clear. They answer is, when you can demonstrate that all of the churches on earth who recognize each other as Orthodox, and who say that they are in continuity with the Bible, with the Prophets, with the Apostles, with the earliest Christianity, with the Holy Scriptures, and with the formulations through history, when they who recognize each other as being true and real Christians and recognize the churches as being the real, one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ, you can tell which explanations and formulations and definitions and defenses and witnesses – and they may not even be in writing, they may be in icons, for example, the defense of the holy icons.
But how can you tell when it is right or wrong? Or, even if you are more modest, how can you tell when the Orthodox would think that it is right or wrong? And the answer would be, when all of the churches who recognize each other accept it. When they all say, “Yes, this is what we believe is right. This is what we believe is true.”
Now, that is a process that takes place in history. For example, after the Council of Nicaea, there were many who said that Nicaea was wrong. The children of Saint Constantine the Great said that those emperors were wrong. They persecuted the saints that we believe are the Orthodox saints. They exiled Athanasius the Great five times.
Or take another example—the icons. Saint Theodore the Studite was persecuted, exiled also five times. John of Damascus was mutilated. Saint Maximus the Confessor was mutilated.
But sooner or later they are verified and affirmed as being true. And how do you know when that happens? That happens when all the churches who claim to be Orthodox say that they are true, when they say, “Yes. We recognize that this is the truth.”
But then that raises the next question. How do you know when that happens? Here, it seems to me, that the answer to that is also very simple and very clear—when it becomes part of liturgy. Whenever any conciliar decree, or any teaching of any saint, or any council, is affirmed liturgically by all of the Orthodox churches, then the Orthodox churches would say that this is the Orthodox faith, and it is according to the Gospel.
And what that faith is, is not new. But this conciliar decree, or this creed, or this formula, is different. It is new, in the sense that it did not exist previously. But it exists now to defend the truth of what does exist, previously and eternally.
So, for example, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—without the Filioque, the section that was added in the west—is used in all Orthodox churches. So all of the Orthodox churches would say that this is the truth and it is according to the Christian faith and Holy Scripture, and there is nothing new in there, it is just a defense. Even though it uses one word that is not found in the Bible—homoousion to patri—of one essence with the Father.
We would say the same thing about the Council of Chalcedon. We go to church—I am going to church pretty soon tonight. We are going to hear in church that Jesus Christ is one in person, but two-fold in nature, that He is truly divine and truly human. Well, that is a formulation of the Council of Chalcedon. But that becomes part of our church life.
And then you can even go to church some days and you will have a commemoration of the Fathers of Chalcedon. Or you will have a church commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Or you will have a commemoration of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, which is another example. That council took place in 787. It was only finally, officially accepted throughout Christendom by the churches who recognize each other as Orthodox in 843, almost 70 years later.
So there is no automatic truth. And here is a very important point. We do not have a Magisterium. In preparing for this talk, I looked in the Catholic Catechism, the new Roman Catholic Catechism, about development of doctrine. Well, there was nothing there explicitly, but there were a couple of sentences that you might want to look up, where it says that the Roman Catholic Church has a Magisterium that pronounces on what these truths are. That is done formally when it is done by the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, who have their legitimacy by being in communion with the Pope of Rome.
Well we Orthodox Christians would say, “That is not our view.” There were Popes of Rome who were wrong. And anyway, a Christian truth is not affirmed as the truth of the church because it is validated by the Pope of Rome. It is claimed to be a truth of the faith and of The Gospel itself when it is universally accepted by all of the churches who claim to be Orthodox.
Now, not all Christian churches universally accept what Orthodox accept. They do not. There are churches that are against icons, for example. There are churches who would not accept Theotokos for the Virgin Mary. There are churches who would not accept the Palamite Distinction, about the unknowable super-essence of God and the knowable divine energies that act into the world that are equally divine. There are theological formulations that Christian churches do not accept.
In fact, I was at ecumenical meetings where—I remember once at the United Church of Canada—people were discussing the symbol of faith of the Council of Nicaea and Constantinople, and these people were representing their church and they did not even know what it was. They had no idea even what it was. And they said, “Who cares about it anyway? It is just old, ancient stuff, fourth century, Greek language, and so on.”
Actually, the meeting took place in Russia. And once, these very same people were deeply moved about how the poor and needy under Communism were singing in the Monastery of Saint Sergius, and they were weeping and saying, “Oh Tom, how beautiful they are singing! These poor people, they are such committed Christians. By the way, what are they singing?” Because they did not understand church Slavonic. I said, “Oh, they are only singing the creed, you know, that thing that is useless, meaningless and nobody knows what it is.”
Well, they know darn well what it is, because every Orthodox Christian memorizes it. That is one of the things that you have to memorize if you are Orthodox: The Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and perhaps a few other prayers and psalms, too.
But in any case, Orthodox Christians would say that there is a development through history. And these councils and these teachings and these formulations and these ways of speaking, they are inspired by God as a defense of the truth, once and for all given to the world in Jesus Christ, and preserved in the world by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His people who are pure at heart and who live by faith and by grace. That would be our teaching.
So to sum up, very simply, we have a development of doctrinal and theological formulation. We have a development of the defense of the Christian Gospel. For example—the holy icons, and we certainly have a development in liturgical hymns and prayers. We celebrate the Divine Liturgy today in a way that was certainly not celebrated in the first or second century of Christianity.
But it was essentially celebrated exactly the same way. There was the Word of God, there was the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper, there was the offering of one’s self, together with Jesus Christ, to God, and there was a participation in the bread and the wine as in the very body and blood of Christ. And that is testified too in the New Testament itself.
But to have a long four-hour liturgy with bishops with crowns and thrones and whatever —well, a lot of that is Byzantium, a lot of that is the Turkish yoke, a lot of that is Russia. Whatever it is, some of it is good, some of it is not so good. But one thing is for sure, what is essentially prayed there, we Orthodox Christians would believe, is an authentic defense of the once and for all truth of God revealed in Jesus—the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
And there is nothing essentially or substantially new there. If you go to a four-hour divine liturgy in Moscow, you have essentially exactly the same faith of a eucharistic celebration of the first Christians in the first century. The trappings are different, the words are different, the hymns are developed. Now, you have to sing about the holy icons and you have to sing about the Theotokos Virgin Mary as really being the Mother of God, whose son is really the Logos incarnate. That was an explication of Christian doctrine in the fourth century. But it is not anything new.
So there are no new doctrines. There are new doxologies. There are new teachings in the sense of formulations. There are new definitions. There are new hymns. There are icons that are new. But the faith is the same. And that would be the teaching of the Orthodox Christian church. And we believe that is ancient Christianity.
Ancient Christianity held very strongly to two things, it seems, very, very clearly. Number one is that it is all given in Jesus and there is nothing beyond it. The second thing would be that the Holy Spirit is given to the Christians to explain it, to defend it, to unfold it, to bring it to remembrance, to adorn it, to beautify it, and that the Holy Spirit continues to live among us. Not making new doctrines, but making new defenses, new witnesses, new embellishments, new adornments, new definitions, new formulations. And we believe that will go on until the end of the world.
Now how do you know which ones are of the Spirit and which are not? Our answer would be, those that have been universally received by the Orthodox churches as demonstrated in their liturgical prayer and their sacramental life, those are the ones that are dependable, and anything that is contrary to that is not true. It is in error. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding. But then that would have to be straightened out. But if it would be substantially different, then we would claim it is not the faith.
But the faith is given. There is one faith, one hope, one baptism, one Lord, one God and Father of us all. There is one church. There is one truth. And that is there from the beginning. But the teaching about it, the defense of it, the explanation, the testimony, the witnessing, the praying, the doxologizing, the hymning, in a sense, you might even dare to say that the expressions of that are virtually infinite, because as we move through history, and as new people come and as new questions arise, those explications and formulations and defenses will continue. But the truth is one and the same.
It says in the letter to the Hebrews, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” He brings all things new, but beyond Him, there is no new thing essentially to be added.