The Orthodox Church teaches that it is infallible; that is, incapable of any error. The Orthodox Church claims that it is incapable of erring in not only its interpretation of Scripture but also in its teachings, dogmas, canons, and decrees. There is, in other words, no possibility of reform within the Orthodox Church and the Tradition of the Church is therefore not subject to the authority of the Scriptures.The author responds to this objection in a rather unusual way. He does not directly dispute any part of the objection, instead he asserts that it misrepresents "the origin or source of the Church’s infallibility." With all due respect, the author's assertion is incorrect. In fact, the objection as stated doesn't identify (at all!) any alleged origin or source of the EO church's alleged infallibility.
What the author seems to be trying to argue (without properly establishing the matter) is that the EO church is infallible because she is the mouth of God. Of course, if the EO church were really the mouth of God, how could she err? Can God err? But the idea that the EO church is the mouth of God is not a premise we're willing to concede just because the author asserts it.
The author also asserts: "The major disagreement between Protestants and the Orthodox, for example, is not between one’s view of “tradition” but between one’s view of Truth." This argument doesn't especially support the main thesis of misrepresentation, but it may have some value. Let's explore what the author means:
Since Protestants view Scripture as “objective truth” which we subjectively understand (and leaving the possibility that our understanding can be shown as incorrect in light of future understanding), they not only view Christ as just another “objective truth” which we need to apprehend intellectually (which is how many will define “faith”) but they view tradition and other issues in the same way as well.The wording of this comment does show the author to be less than thrilled with the academic rigor of "Protestantism." Furthermore, it is the case that some "Protestants" (perhaps even some of the Reformed) can find themselves viewing their faith in Christ as purely intellectual assent (although such is contrary to the teachings of the Reformed churches.
The author's anti-intellectual comment, though, seems to be well connected with the anti-intellectual milieu of Eastern Orthodoxy. But the author wants to drive a wedge between objective truth and what he calls "personal truth," which sounds like pure relativism, especially in light of comments like this:
Therefore, the infallibility claims of the Orthodox Church are related to “objective truth” and not personal Truth as She understands it. Truth can only be personal, for we can only be individuals in the context of a community and so it is with Truth. God’s Truth in His Holy Church is expressed to us by means of People and the faithful life of such community — of such communion. The claim to being capable of infallibility is not about having the best scholarship or the best traditions, it is a claim that what we have been given and what has been preserved by the blood of martyrs is the Personal Truth given by God through Christ and His Apostles and handed down to us through the Liturgy, Councils, Canons, Fathers, Saints, Martyrs, and Icons of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.This sounds for all the world like: "We aren't saying that our traditions are objectively true, but rather that we believe them to be true and we got them from the apostles somehow." When we examine the apostolic teachings handed down to us ("traditioned to us" if you will) in Scripture, we discover that the EO teachings (however strongly they are sincerely held by the EO churches) don't fully align with the teachings of the apostles.
The author continues:
When Protestants approach the Church Fathers, as well, they assume that the infallibility of the Church means that all so-called Fathers of the Church are infallible in everything they say.This certainly is a common mistake, both in addressing the errors of EO as well as in addressing the errors of Roman Catholicism. Of course Roman Catholicism accepts the concept of objective truth, so the response that the author is about to provide would help them, but both EO and Roman Catholicism recognize that their "saints" were fallible men.
One commenter allied with Rome noted on my blog that his church permits their saints not to agree in every respect with modern Rome. We might likewise say that the EO permit their saints not to agree in every respect with the modern teachings of whichever EO church one is considering (the EO have a much less centralized hierarchy). The author's response:
Many Fathers say things that seem to be at odds with one another, and some Fathers are even later condemned by Ecumenical Councils as heretical in their teachings, or in specific teachings (e.g. Origen, Tertullian). The problem with this approach again lies in the Protestant’s rationalistic approach to truth and understanding; i.e., that of objective truth or subjective truth. They can only conceive of Church Fathers who are making objective truth claims and therefore only approach them as sources of objective truth, forgetting all along to approach them as living people, alive with us in Christ to this very day.The author's comment here seems misplaced. It is plain from reading the writings of even fairly "Eastern" fathers (such as Gregory of Nyssa) that he thought he was providing objective truth in his writings. He sought to "prove" his positions from Scripture, and he demanded Scriptural proof from his critics. This is also seen from the councils that condemned as heretical some of the teachings of earlier "church fathers" such as Origen. They were not willing to simply accept Origen as a "living person, alive with us in Christ to this very day," but were willing to condemn his doctrines or practices as false in certain aspects.
But the vacillating argument of the author does not stop there. He continues:
The truth of the Church is the life of Christ Himself. Only when one assumes a “rationalistic” or “nominalistic” view of truth and the false dichotomy of “objective” and “subjective” truth would one also have trouble with the truth claims of Holy Orthodoxy. For in Orthodoxy, it is not incumbent upon every person to equally have a full knowledge and understanding of all things theological or doctrinal, as you’ll find encouraged within Protestantism[.] This is simply because Protestants and Westerners view truth as an object to be grasped while the Eastern Church views truth as Christ Himself; a Person to know and be known by through our living of his life again and again in the Liturgy and life of the Church itself. As a result, there can be no “individual” discovery of truth within Orthodoxy in the sense of rational discovery or intellectual accomplishment. The truth of Holy Tradition is found in the conciliatary nature of the Church and our living together as a community united by One Faith and One All-Holy Trinity.That first sentence sounds quite grand, but it lacks content. What does it mean that the "truth of the Church is the life of Christ"? Well, apparently (and we have to say "apparently" because there is no explicit explanation) the comment is intended to suggest that what the EO church says is true, because the EO church is, in some sense, Christ. This is actually quite the same argument that Catholicism makes, and is as unsupported by EO assertion as it by Roman assertion. While Christ is united with his church, the church is made up of all those who believe, not a particular sect.
There is another and more uniquely EO argument in that string of thought, however. The argument is that we should treat the saints not as individuals but as a collective. There's certainly some intuitive value in this approach. The major problem, of course, is that the "saints" wrote as individuals, not as a collective (leaving aside a small handful of allegedly ecumenical councils). Approaching those writings as a "collective" is a difficult task, to say the least. Indeed, individual inconsistencies within individual fathers can make fully understanding their thought difficult. So likewise, and much more so, it can be difficult to get a strong sense of the shared beliefs of a particular school of patristic thought (such as the Alexandrian, Antiochian, or Cappadocian schools). Trying to say "the fathers believed 'x'" without at least qualifying the statement by century and school seems rash, since there is so much variety of thought among them. In short, the proposal of trying to consider them as a collective is largely untenable.
Well, it is untenable if you hope to discriminate truth from error. The author, however, seems content not to separate truth from error. He quotes approvingly the following statement: "The Church is infallible, not because it expresses the truth correctly from the point of view of practical expediency, but because it contains the truth. The Church, truth, infallibility, these are synonymous."
The danger of the author's approach can be illustrated by an example. Suppose that one has a basket full of wheat and arsenic. It would be absurd to say that the bag was pure wheat simply because it contained wheat. Likewise it is absurd to say that a church which may contain both truth and damnable heresies is infallible. Does EO contain the truth? Well, they have Bibles and those Bibles teach the truth. But that doesn't address the objection.
The objection is about reform. Is reform impossible in EO? Is it impossible that the teachings of the EO are in error? If so, then it seems the objection holds, and if not - then it seems that the objection may be misplaced.
The author claims:
Regardless, the Orthodox Church never claims that She is “in every way and instance” infallible. However, there are truths of the Faith which are considered to be “trustworthy” and “without error,” and fully believed to lead one into salvation and proper devotion to Christ. It is only in these areas that the Church is to be considered infallible and that is appropriately expressed and found in various places within the life of the Church (such as Her liturgy, prayers, psalms, icons, canons, apostolic doctrines, ecumenical councils, etc.).The “in every way and instance” seems to be a straw man. Not even Rome claims that kind of infallibility.
The author's final argument:
Finally, the idea of the Orthodox Church in its infallibility not being subject to the authority of the Scriptures is a strange objection, as according to Orthodoxy, the Scriptures are truly the authoritative Word of God.I'm not sure why this seems odd to the author. Rome makes the same kind of claim. Both Rome and the EO churches say that Scripture is the authoritative Word of God, yet both view reform of official church teachings in light of the Word an impossibility. That's not "a very sincere reverence for the Scriptures" (as the author claims) but lip service.
The author also included, in his concluding paragraph, a reference to the creed:
Indeed, the meaning of the words “I believe in,” found within the Symbol of Faith (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) imply trust, and when we confess our faith/trust in the Church alongside our faith in the All-Holy Trinity (and strikingly, not in the Scriptures alone or separate from our faith in the Trinity and the Catholic Church), there should be no confusion left about how we are to view the Church.Sadly, there is much confusion in this description of the creed.
First of all, it's worth noting that the clause including reference to the church is part of the additions made at the Council of Constantinople. It's not part of the core Nicene creed, but that's at least implicitly recognized by the name the author gives it.
Second, the creed as a "symbol of faith" is a summary of Scripture teachings, not some new teachings. As Augustine (circa A.D. 354-430) explained:
We have, however, the catholic faith in the Creed, known to the faithful and committed to memory, contained in a form of expression as concise as has been rendered admissible by the circumstances of the case; the purpose of which [compilation] was, that individuals who are but beginners and sucklings among those who have been born again in Christ, and who have not yet been strengthened by most diligent and spiritual handling and understanding of the divine Scriptures, should be furnished with a summary, expressed in few words, of those matters of necessary belief which were subsequently to be explained to them in many words, as they made progress and rose to [the height of] divine doctrine, on the assured and steadfast basis of humility and charity.Augustine, Of Faith and the Creed, Chapter 1
Note that it is especially for novices, for those not yet familiar with Scripture.
Third, while the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed may be confusingly worded, the historic understanding was not that we believe "in the church" as the object of our trust, but rather that we believe in the existence of one church.
Rufinus (circa A.D. 344-410) explains with reference to the Apostles' creed:
36. “The Holy Church; The Forgiveness of Sin, the Resurrection of This Flesh.” It is not said, “In the holy Church,” nor “In the forgiveness of sins,” nor “In the resurrection of the flesh.” For if the preposition “in” had been added, it would have had the same force as in the preceding articles. But now in those clauses in which the faith concerning the Godhead is declared, we say “In God the Father,” and “In Jesus Christ His Son,” and “In the Holy Ghost,” but in the rest, where we speak not of the Godhead but of creatures and mysteries, the preposition “in ” is not added. We do not say “We believe in the holy Church,” but “We believe the holy Church,” not as God, but as the Church gathered together to God: and we believe that there is “forgiveness of sins;” we do not say “We believe in the forgiveness of sins;” and we believe that there will be a “Resurrection of the flesh;” we do not say “We believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” By this monosyllabic preposition, therefore, the Creator is distinguished from the creatures, and things divine are separated from things human.Rufinus, A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed, Section 36
The author also throws out another interesting claim:
Nowhere do we read in the Scriptures that the “Bible” (which didn’t exist until the 4th century and wasn’t readily available to Christians even up until the 17th or 18th centuries at the earliest) is the “pillar and foundation of truth” — only the Church.What the author seems to be unaware of is that there have been various interpretations of the verse he identifies. For example, the earliest implicit interpretation (of which I'm aware) is this one from Irenaeus (circa A.D. 115-202):
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1
Notice that Irenaeus considers the "ground and pillar of our faith" to be the Scriptures, not the church. In fact, he goes on to say that Gospels are ground and pillar of the church (not vice versa):
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 11
Irenaeus provides one interpretation, but Gregory of Nyssa provides another, he says that Paul is speaking of Timothy personally (link). Gregory of Nazianzen seems to have a similar view in that he refers to his father (link) and Eusebius Bishop of Samosata (link) each as a "pillar and ground of the Church." And, of course, the apostles were viewed as pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9 And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.) so it should be no surprise that the writings of the apostles, together with the other Scriptures should be the foundation of the Church whose who object and purpose it is easy to support and defend the truth.
Thus, we in Augustine's response to Petilianus' question the same thing:
David also said, ‘The oil of the sinner shall not anoint my head.’ Who is it, therefore, that he calls a sinner? Is it I who suffer your violence, or you who persecute the innocent?Augustine answered:
As representing the body of Christ, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and mainstay of the truth, dispersed throughout the world, on account of the gospel which was preached, according to the words of the apostle, "to every creature which is under heaven:" as representing the whole world, of which David, whose words you cannot understand, has said, "The world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved;" whereas you contend that it not only has been moved, but has been utterly destroyed: as representing this, I answer, I do not persecute the innocent.Augustine, Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Chapter 104, Sections 236-37
Notice how Augustine views the Church as the pillar and mainstay of the truth, not in itself but by virtue of "the gospel which was preached."
Before commending himself to Christ at the intercession of the saints, the author provides one last jab:
Indeed, if the Church was in any way successful in infallibly preserving the true Faith of Christ, then that should be made evident, and the blood of the Martyrs and lives of the Saints who have gone before us and “finished the race set before them” are proof enough for this very fact.To which I respond:
1) The Faith of Christ is passed down in Scriptures, which are able to make one wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16);
2) Scriptures are able to furnish one for martyrdom and for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17); and
3) Martyrs are a powerful testimony, but do not forget that four hundred fifty priests of Baal were slain in one day by Elijah's command (1 Kings 18) who Jehu subsequently imitated (2 Kings 10). Dying for one's faith may show sincerity, but it does not prove particular doctrines to be correct. And do not forget, there have been no shortage of martyrs who have confessed the name of Jesus but have not been in communion either with Constantinople or Rome.
Every church ought to recognize that it is a church, not the church. As such, it ought to be willing to modify its positions if it can be shown from Scripture that those teachings are wrong. Conversely, a church ought not to bind men's consciences with doctrines not taught in Scripture. Any church who seeks to be a pillar and ground of the church should have no problem with such requests, just as any teacher who wishes to be a pillar should obtain his own foundation in the Holy Scriptures.