Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eastern errancy

I'd like to respond to this comment on my blog about the inerrancy of the Scripture and harmonisation from my Eastern Orthodox friend David Bryan, and as always, to ask him please to correct any misconceptions I've incorporated about EOC. I understand whenever you have to cut this off; moving cross-country is no easy task. But I think the problem for your position is deeper than you realise, I really do.

Men wrote the thing, yes, but "men carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). Don't you believe that your church is guided by the Holy Spirit? Why can't someone turn the same objection back on your church? I mean, it's made up of MEN.
What's really funny to me is that it's your church that believes in theosis, faithful believers' partaking in the divine nature. These 4 Evangelists were, I'm sure you'd agree, much, much farther along in their being conformed to the image of Christ than you or I will ever be (until we die). Thus they would have been much closer to God, better, deeper partakers of the divine nature than you or I. And yet, here you are
1) correcting them according to your far-removed, 21st-century perspective.
-The irony here is that EO-dox are usually the ones criticising Reformed believers for looking at early writers and the Scr from a far-removed, future perspective.
2) making a powerful distinction between man and God.
-The irony here is that EO-dox are usually the ones who, from a Reformed perspective, shrinks and blurs the distinction between man and God.

All that to say, in this line of reasoning, you are acting like a liberal Protestant. That's not a good thing, but unfortunately it's not the only area in which EO-dox do so.

Maybe it's not as apparent to you for another reason. I've asked both you and Anastasios about the role that evangelism and apologetics play in the life of the semi-serious and serious EO layman, and you've told me that the former is inadequate and the latter is barely existent. Anastasios in particular let me know that he'd never heard of an EO apologist engaging, say, an atheist in public debate. I could be wrong, but I'm not at all sure you have encountered many atheists or skeptics and really talked turkey with them about stuff like this. So let me come at it from another angle.

You're talking to Joe American Skeptic. You tell him you believe that Jesus Christ instituted a church while He was walking the Earth, and entrusted it to His disciples, and His disciples spread the good news of Jesus all around the world and appointed other people to take their places when they died in the churches and to celebrate the sacraments of Christ, like baptism and the Eucharist. So, this church has come down to us through the years with successions of bishops, which is kind of like what you'd call "pastors".

You tell him you believe the Bible, that you believe what the Bible says and also what the church has always believed down through the centuries. You know, b/c the guys who were handed down the tradition of the church from the apostles and then on down through their successors, they all taught the same things.

So he wonders if it is true? For example, what would you say the sign above Christ on the Cross actually said, in its entirety? Each gospel account stated something explicitly regarding what the sign said, when in reality only one of the four was actually right, at best, and the other three (or all four) were (in some cases drastically) in error as to what the sign actually said after all, right? (He hadn't read Seth's comment, which clears up the misunderstanding.)

You'd say you're fine with one gospel saying one inscription and another saying sthg else, because men wrote the thing. Inspiration doesn't necessarily produce airtight, factual data synchronization. There's still far and away enough agreement as to the major events (Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost) that Scripture very strongly stands as a faithful witness to the Advent of Christ and the reality of His Church.

He wonders if inspiration doesn't necessarily produce factual data, how do you know that the Resurrection, for example, actually, factually happened?
You'd answer that you have the faithful witness of the church down thru the centuries. It's a lot of people.

Here's where it gets sticky. He thought that "a lot of people" is what caused the problem in the first place - multiple ppl write these varied accts of what was written above the Cross. But suddenly more people is a good thing?

So, what will you say? That you have a succession of people who heard from the teachings of the apostles themselves, no?

But hadn't the Gospel writers also heard from them? Weren't at least a couple of them eyewitnesses? Why do you rely on early church writers when the earliest ones are untrustworthy?
Or do you trust them for SPIRITUAL truth but not other kinds of truth? How do you make the distinction when the truth in question is not only spiritual in nature, such as
1) the Crucifixion
2) the Resurrection
3) the promised Parousia
4) the new Heaven and the new Earth
5) the theosis of the faithful

On what basis do you assert that those are indeed faithfully transmitted, while other things, such as the Cross inscription, were not? Is it just b/c you don't understand how the Cross inscription accts could fit together (even though Seth explained how)? Why is it better to ascribe error to a production of the Holy Spirit rather than to admit that you don't understand how it could all work together, but God knows and, while often He does make that knowledge and understanding available to humans, sometimes He just doesn't. You talk about mystery an awful lot in EOC; why do you abandon it in this arena? Where does the Bible itself distinguish between "OK, here's some spiritual truth, so this is really the real truth, for real," and "Here's some other stuff about, you know, the physical surroundings, the historical narrative. This isn't really a big deal. In fact, you could probably skip over it, b/c 21st-century archæologists will be able to totally reconstruct the whole thing WAY better than I'll be able to tell it here. So yeah, just fuggedaboudit (2 Maccabees 15:38-39)"?

The same questions go for early church authors. Only, there were alot more of them! You think the 4 accts are irreconcilable, but 40 different early church authors all saying different things is a better situation? Will you retreat to "oh, well, ____ was just speaking as an individual, private theologian, and the church's reaction to it over time bore out that he was mistaken"? But when all the church fathers hold the Scr in highest regard and ascribe no error to it thru hundreds and hundreds of years and thousands of pages, somehow *you* know better, with your 21st-century wisdom and insight?

Is this where following EO tradition leads someone? Is it really that far out of the vein of EOC tradition to hold to the inerrancy of the Bible?
And of course, we must ask, if it is, how would anyone know for sure? After all, if God-breathed Scripture is errant, what hope have non-theopneustos writings from men who were *not* "carried along by the Holy Spirit"?

(cross-posted at my blog)


Lvka said...

All that I can say is that the Protestant interpetation of the meaning of 'divine inspiration' is outright bizarre. And it's based on what they think is "worthy" of God (like the Catholics do).

David Bryan said...

Response forthcoming. Thanks for engaging this.

David Bryan said...

Hello, all,

First of all, I'd like to thank the moderators for allowing this topic on the blog. As Rhology said, I'm in the process of moving cross-country to attend an Eastern Orthodox seminary in hopes of (God willing) being ordained, so please forgive me if I don't respond to subsequent responses as quickly as I could. Yesterday's being a "day of rest" presented a good opportunity for a first response, however, so off we go.

I suppose I'd respond firstly to the charge of "acting like a liberal Protestant." I understand that certain camps within Protestantism label themselves as "conservative" and others as "liberal," other camps label themselves as "liberal" while others resent the label given them by a self-appointed "conservative" wing of Protenstantism. Certain hot-button issues seem to be the litmus test for this (inerrancy of Scripture, satisfaction atonement, authority of Scripture, for example), complete with lexical definitions for each issue which are provided as well by the "conservative Protestants" themselves, thus framing the debate before it even gets started.

I would state at the outset that I view your rather arbitrary claim to be the, well, arbiters of "conservative orthodoxy" (little "o") to be rather unfounded and, therefore, not pertinent to this debate. The more I read of the way the Church Fathers (most particularly Chrysostom, Irenaeus, and Basil) interpreted and read the Scriptures, the more I'm convinced that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" -- and, in particular, the way they are arbitrarily used within some Protestant circles -- means very, very little to an Orthodox Christian. I do not mean to cast aspersions on your desire to be faithful to the Scriptures or to the saving events to which they attest. Rather, I would state that the degree to which you are forced to stretch in order to do so sufficiently (at least, in your own eyes) is misguided. I do hope that that caveat can be made clear at the outset.

The dichotomy that is often drawn by some Christians between God and men is not based on a sound Christology. You say that I make a "strong distinction between God and man," yet a sound Christology demands just such a distinction, as the human and divine natures of Christ were, in fact, sharply distinct one from another. As a man, Christ needed to sleep. As a divine One, however, He "neither slumbers nor sleeps." As a man, Christ thirsted. As a divine One, He has no need of any sustenance.

Likewise, as a document written by humans, the Scriptures contain minor, inconsequential inconsistencies, such as exactly what was written above the cross. I realize that Seth's comment looked to harmonize the four accounts by distinguishing between a τιτλος and a επιγραφη της αιτιας, but such a resort misses the point of a biblical account entirely.


David Bryan said...

(cont. from first post...)

From the Orthodox point of view, it makes no difference whatsoever if the precise words on the sign are reported incorrectly. What is important here is that there was a Cross onto which said sign was nailed, and a divine Savior hung on said Cross for our salvation. This major event was reported by all four evangelists with σταυρωσαντες δε αυτον (Matt.) and εσταυρωσαν αυτον (Mk., Lk., Jn.). It is clear to us that we may never know what the sign said, as the gospel writers, being men, reported different things. Yet this, ultimately inconsequential, detail does not get in the way of the Scriptures providing a faithful witness, consistently, to the Crucifixion (not to mention that the discrepancies are not ones of contradiction but rather mere addition or subtraction of details. As you've mentioned, Rhology, the former would be a much more severe charge than the latter).

Just as we do not see every minor detail in Scripture as needing to be airtight, neither do we see every detail in icons as needing to be historical; St. Paul is present at Pentecost. Mary is depicted in the Ascension icon. These are included to make theological points. While, granted, the differing inscriptions (and/or "accusations," if you prefer) make no other theological point than the fact that He was accused of being the "King of the Jews" (which He was, of course, the Church Fathers later preferring to place the title "The King of Glory" over icons of the Crucifixion), the fact that minor discrepancies were present in no way invalidates the divinely inspired proclamation of our Lord's suffering on the Cross. Any skeptic who would dismiss the unanimously attested-to latter proclamation based on the former inconsistencies is so insincere a searcher and so blindly dismissive of Christianity at the outset that it would be fruitless, in my opinion, to engage such a person in the first place.

Just as both Christ -- who experienced weakness and humiliation as man yet was ever omnipotent God -- and Scripture -- which contains minor, inconsequential inconsistencies yet remains god-breathed and inspired -- simultaneously show forth divine and human natures, so the Church manifests itself as theanthropic, both vulnerable to horrible abuses within it, yet still guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. Bishops engaged in power struggles, they anathematized whole swathes of Christendom out of sheer ego…yet the council of Nicaea declared Christ to be ομοουσιους with the Father and with us.

The idea of an incarnate Lord, susceptible to weakness and death, Who is yet the unchanging Source and Ground of all Being…is scandalous.

The idea of a Bible written by men who got some details wrong yet preserved a Holy Tome breathed by God…is scandalous.

The idea of a Church whose very shepherds have beaten and neglected the sheep in shameful ways and to shameful degrees yet which has yet been led into all truth and continues to be the Pillar and Ground of said Truth…is scandalous.

Yet there it is: Divine. Human. Incarnate. Salvific.

Rhology said...

David Bryan,

Thanks for your thoughts and the tone in which they are offered. And kudos on getting Greek to work in the Blogger combox.

There is a decent pedigree of definition for "liberalism" out there, I'd say. You were mostly right in your generalisation; it goes further than that, but it's a start. I see it all the time in, say, my parents' worldview. It seems clear to me that many, many American evangellyfish are syncretists of varying degree between biblical Christianity and liberalism, much like most Mexicans are syncretists between paganism and RCC. I don't know enough about EO history to identify how it got like that for your worldview, though I doubt it had alot to do with Western liberalism. Who knows? Maybe it did. I went recently to a Discover Orthodoxy seminar near where I live and the "What is the Gospel?" message one of the priests preached fell on similar lines, and he was a converted Jew from NY. Anyway...

I think I might have been sloppy when I said "strong distinction between God and man". I know you're not a monophysite, however much I think the EO doctrines of theosis and especially the Eucharist flirt, at minimum, therewith. Your 2nd half comment helps me focus my thought on this matter. You seem to be operating under the assumption that to be human = to err. I don't see why that's necessary at all. The Scr is God-breathed, and written by human authors. Aren't there many other ways for the Scr to express the humanity of the human authors? Like intimate greetings to friends? Salutations? Heartfelt farewells? First-person narrative and introductions? Excerpts from the amanuensis of the epistle? Emotional almost-hyperbole? Different writing style? Better and worse levels of knowledge, fluency, and fluidity of Greek and Hebrew? The list could go on! Why are mistakes the hallmark of the human side of the writing?
It seems to me it gets down, again, to two things, as I said in the OP:
1) You are correcting them according to your far-removed, 21st-century perspective...But when all the church fathers hold the Scr in highest regard and ascribe no error to it thru hundreds and hundreds of years and thousands of pages, somehow *you* know better, with your 21st-century wisdom and insight?
2) You are wedded to the assertion that "It is clear to us that we may never know what the sign said". Again, it comes back to what YOU think. I think you've left a lot of the points I made in the OP unanswered, but let me focus attention on the sentences that begin with "Why is it better to ascribe error..." and end with "fuggedaboudit (2 Maccabees 15:38-39)".

Which, come to think of it, is another hallmark of liberalism - the "Dang it, I know how the world is, and there's just no way I can see that these accounts could be harmonised. Therefore, they're not harmonisable. Contradiction!" You sit in authority over the Word of God. May the Lord have mercy upon all who would dare such posture.


Acolyte4236 said...


I think your Christology could use a bit of work. Natures don't sleep, persons do. There is only one person in Christ and that is a divine person who sleeps, suffers, etc.


Theosis could only flirt with monophysitism is it posited a transfer of essences, which it does't. It posits a transfer of energies, which is what was sanctioned by Chalcedon and successive councils. If you don't believe me, just read it from a Reformation source in Chemnitz' Two Natures in Christ. And for yourworry about monophysitism, I think its be better if you worried about Reformed monoenergism.

Rhology said...

Fair enough as regards theosis.
But I think your position is far from off the hook wrt the Eucharist and monophys. But that's still in the works.

David Bryan said...


Saw your comment and wanted to reply briefly, as my move precludes lengthy responses of any kind. Read again what I said regarding Christ (emph. mine): "As a man, Christ needed to sleep. As a divine One, however, He "neither slumbers nor sleeps." As a man, Christ thirsted. As a divine One, He has no need of any sustenance."

Again: "Christ -- who experienced weakness and humiliation as man yet was ever omnipotent God"

And again: " incarnate Lord, susceptible to weakness and death, Who is yet the unchanging Source and Ground of all Being"

You are correct that natures don't sleep and that persons do. The former is not what I said, while the latter is, as I hope I've clarified. There is indeed one Christ who does all these things as man and as God. I don't believe I've stated otherwise.

Off to pack.

Acolyte4236 said...


I think you'd need to first grasp the Orthodox view of the Eucharist, which isn't isomorphic with Rome.

Consequently trying to argue that our view entails or implies monophysitism is ill conceived for the same reasons why theosis doesn't imply monophysitism, there isn't a transfer of essences or a replacement of one with the other.