Friday, June 29, 2007

Orthodoxy Defined

St. Gregory of Sinai lived during the late 13th to early 14th Century. He lived on Mount Athos as a monk for 25 years in a secluded hermitage. And he wrote numerous treatises on Christian theology and spiritual practice.

Here's St. Gregory's succinct definition of Christian Orthodoxy:

"Orthodoxy may be defined as the clear perception and grasp of the two dogmas of the faith, namely, the Trinity and the Duality. It is to know and contemplate the three Persons of the Trinity as distinctively and indivisibly constituting the one God, and the divine and human natures of Christ as united in His single Person - that is to say, to know and profess that the single Son, both prior and subsequent to the Incarnation, is to be glorified in two natures, divine and human, and in two wills, divine and human, the one distinct from the other."

St. Gregory of Sinai, quoted in The Philokalia, Volume IV, compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 217.


Ryan Newson said...

I like this. Now, does this mean that orthodoxy is not defined by the 'majority' opinion in the church, or at least the orthodox opinion at one time in church history? if it's not, how is it not?

Bryan Owen said...

What St. Gregory of Sinai is getting at here is what I call the "dogmatic core" of the Christian faith. That core is given fuller expression in the historic creeds, but the heart of hearts boils down to the Trinity and the Duality.

My sense of the place to begin in answering your questions, Ryan, is to say that the dogmatic core is not a matter of "majority opinion," but rather an articulation of revealed truth. How the Church formulates that truth can certainly differ and be more or less adequate, but the dogmatic core is the touchstone. And this dogmatic core continues to be accepted as the touchstone for orthodoxy by the Universal Church (East and West).

If someone is skeptical of all of this, there's no "smoking gun" proof to suddenly effect a conversion. But one thing along these lines is critically important to bear in mind: unless one believes that the early Church got something fundamentally correct with respect to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith - unless, IOW, one has faith in, trusts as reliable, the witness and councils of the early Church - then what counts as orthodox is relative to the individual's preferences. And a relativist conception of orthodoxy is no orthodoxy at all.

Ryan Newson said...

I hear that. Now I have a question about the "universal church." Is not "the universal church in the east and west" in some senses being defined as the church that holds to this dogmatic core? And is this dogmatic core then being used to define the universal church? Because if that is the case, it seems to employ a lot of circular logic. "The church is universal because it adheres to the dogmatic core; the dogmatic core is known by the creeds given to us by the universal church."

Another way of asking my question: I can see how orthodoxy is defined in this way, and I agree that the early church did get something fundamentally correct with respect to this dogmatic core of the christian faith: I affirm the creeds. So, given that: how do you define the 'universal church'?

Bryan Owen said...

Those are really good questions, Ryan. By the term "Universal Church," I mean the Catholic Church, and by the term "Catholic Church," I do not mean merely the Roman Catholic Church. Episcopal bishop Frank E. Wilson puts is quite nicely in his book Faith and Practice:

"The term Catholic has unfortunately become involved in controversial issues. It was first used of the Church by St. Ignatius ... and its simplest meaning is 'universal.' Gradually it took on a technical meaning, and was used to distinguish the Catholic Church from various heretical sects which have sprung up at different times all along the course of Church history. It implies wholeness - the Church for the whole world, preserving the whole faith, imparting the whole sacramental life, and possessed of the whole apostolic authority" (pp. 119-120).

Wilson then goes on to quote from a book entitled Doctrine in the Church of England:

"The term 'Catholic' is properly used of all those Churches which maintain the faith of the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils, the practice of the Sacraments, and the episcopate in historic succession from the Apostles" (p. 120).

So there's more to being the Universal or Catholic Church than just adhering to the dogmatic core as articulated by the creeds.

Wilson then concludes (in good Anglican fashion): "Plainly it is not a fitting title to be used for exclusive application to any particular denomination of Christians" (p. 120). Clearly, the Roman Catholic Church and the churches that comprise Eastern Orthodoxy would not accept the label of being a "denomination," but I think what Wilson is driving at in his explication of what it means to speak of the Universal or Catholic Church is something that I (and others) call Generous Orthodoxy.