When encountering adherents to Eastern Orthodoxy, the issue of authority is pivotal. Orthodoxy and Rome agree, at least formally, with Protestants on at least this much: God is the final authority and only he is in a position reveal himself to mankind. Thus if we are to know anything about him –– or, indeed, anything about ourselves and the world around us –– he must reveal himself to us. The doctrine of divine revelation necessarily plays a central role in all Christian traditions. But where is this revelation to be found? The Protestant answer is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
“Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.”
While God reveals himself through his creation (general or natural revelation) and this revelation leaves men without excuse, the corruption of sin has made men unable to interpret this revelation correctly. Consequently, God gave special revelation through many means to his people to declare to them the way of salvation. And though this revelation previously came by many means (theophanies, prophets, signs, miracles), it culminated in Jesus Christ. With the accomplishment of redemption through Christ and the (speaking through his authoritative apostles) God reveals no more to mankind. In order to ensure that he previous revelation would not be lost, God inscripturated it in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. This now is our only source of special revelation. This recognition of Scripture’s supreme authority was the battle cry of the Reformation. The reformers taught and defended the view of sola scriptura; Scripture alone is the final authority for the church. The reformers contended that this view of Scripture is taught by Scripture itself. And if they are correct, the debate between Protestantism and Rome (and so also Eastern Orthodoxy) is effectively over since each of these traditions recognizes Biblical authority. That is, if this recognized authority teaches its own sole authority, all other purported authorities are thereby invalidated.
But proponents of Orthodoxy do not concede this point. They dispute the Protestant interpretation of Scripture and insist that there are other ways God reveals himself. The nature of this dispute is the very heart of the issue that divides Protestantism and Orthodoxy.
Authority and Tradition in Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy agrees with Basil of Caesarea in affirming that there is authoritative tradition outside of Scripture: “We do not content ourselves with what was reported in Acts and in the Epistles and the Gospels; but, both before and after reading them, we add other doctrines, received from oral teaching and carrying much weight in the mystery of the faith.”
This is confirmed by all Orthodox theologians. Panagiotis Bratsiotis, professor of theology at Athens University, is representative. “In Orthodoxy the sources of Christian doctrine are the Bible and Tradition. Together they form the treasure-house of supernatural revelation.”
The problem with oral tradition, however, is that it is notoriously unreliable. There is always the possibility, indeed likelihood, that such tradition will distorted in transmission. The further one is from the source of the oral tradition, the less reliable that tradition is. This problem of passing information on orally is well attested by our common experience. How often have we heard a story or rumor that, when we track down its source, turns out to be completely different from the original?
Indeed, Scripture itself provides an example of the distortion of an oral tradition. At the end of his Gospel, the Apostle John felt it necessary to clear up a misunderstanding regarding a statement Jesus made concerning him (John). Speaking about John, Jesus said to Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:22) The other disciples misunderstood Jesus to mean that John would not die, but John takes the opportunity to correct this error (John 21:23).
In a similar vein, Paul praises the Corinthians for holding fast to the traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2), but then goes on to correct them for departing from tradition (see 11:3, 17; 12:1-3). What is remarkable is that while Paul ministered in Corinth for over a year he still needed to send at least three letters to correct their errors. Thus even in the apostolic age, oral tradition is shown to be unreliable.
Not only is oral tradition easily distorted because of human frailty, but men often have a motivation for misunderstanding what was said. Parents know this very well. When Mommy chastises little Johnny for not cleaning his room, Johnny’s excuse is predictable, “I thought you wanted me to clean it tomorrow.” Johnny is motivated to intentionally distort the clear instructions of his parents in order to escape culpability. How much more do wicked men (and the evil one) wish to corrupt and suppress God’’s clear revelation in order to escape divine judgment.
More sophisticated Orthodox theologians recognize this inherent problem of oral tradition (though not nearly to the extent that they should) and understand that there needs to be a way to test such tradition for authenticity. Bishop Timothy Ware concedes: “Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true… There is a difference between ‘‘Tradition’’ and ‘‘traditions’’. [The Orthodox Church has had to] distinguish more carefully between Tradition and traditions. The task of discrimination is never easy.’’
To help in the task of discrimination, Ware asserts that the Orthodox Church recognizes a hierarchy of Traditions. At the top is Scripture and the doctrinal definitions of the ecumenical councils. These traditions are used to test lesser traditions for authenticity and value. Let us concentrate on the authority of ecumenical councils for the moment.
The Authority of Church Councils
According to Bishop Ware, “The doctrinal definitions of an ecumenical council are infallible.” Recall that Orthodoxy recognizes seven councils as ecumenical. Rome, however, recognizes twenty-one. Given this disagreement, there must be some criterion to distinguish ecumenical councils from other councils. This criterion is typically said to be that the council is representative of all the church, having bishops from all, or at the least, the vast majority of patriarchates and dioceses. The first six councils have relatively strong credentials in this regard since they were attended by bishops from all over Christendom. Nevertheless, this criterion of ecumenicity and thus authority is shown to be faulty for at least two reasons.
First, since both Rome and Orthodoxy endorse this principle, and since they come up with a different number of councils, this criterion is in itself insufficient. Because Rome and Orthodoxy each claim to be the true apostolic Church, their application of this criterion is quite different. Rome, of course, deems a council ecumenical when it is represented by bishops from diocese under the Pope’s authority, for Orthodoxy, the bishops must be in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Second, there have been church councils that satisfy the criterion of being ecumenical, but are rejected as such because their pronouncements were heretical. The most notorious of these is the Council of Ephesus in 449, the so-called Robber Council. At this council the monophysite heresy (Christ has only one nature) was endorsed. Two years later at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 this heresy was repudiated. Nevertheless, on the basis of the ecumenical criterion alone, the pronouncement of the former council should have just as much authority as the latter. Indeed, five eastern churches (the Syrian Church of Antioch, the Syrian Church of India, the Coptic Church, the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Church) sided with Ephesus over Chalcedon to accept the pronouncements of Ephesus and reject the Symbol of Chalcedon.
Another embarrassing example of this criterion of ecumenicity being met is the second reunion council of Florence between Rome and the East (1438-9). At this council the East, in order to obtain aid in fending off vicious attacks from the Turks, acknowledged papal authority, the Double Procession of the Holy Spirit and the Roman doctrine of purgatory. Dogmas which Orthodoxy has before and after rejected as heretical.
These examples clearly illustrate that the criterion of ecumenicity, by itself, is insufficient in establishing a council as authoritative.
Ultimate Authority of the Church
At this point the obvious recourse is to fall back on another criterion to establish a council as authoritative. Protestants, of course, maintain that the authority of a council’s pronouncement must be based upon the superior authority of Scripture. Orthodoxy offers a different defense of conciliar authority. According to the Eastern Church, the authority of a council is established when its ecumenicity is recognized by the Church itself. Thus the ecumenicity of a council can only be established by the Church. Indeed, not only councils, but Scripture itself derives its authority from the Church’s
According to the Orthodox theologian George Florovsky, “The church is ecclesia, an assembly which is never adjourned. In other words, the ultimate authority –– and the ability to discern the truth in faith –– is vested in the church …… The teaching authority of the ecumenical councils is grounded in the infallibility of the church. The ultimate authority is vested in the church, which is forever the pillar and the foundation of truth.” Thus, the domain of the Church’s authority does not range merely over the councils and other traditions, but over Scripture as well. According to Ware, “It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority.”
Putting the remarkable nature of its claim that it is the church that establishes Scripture rather than vice versa aside, how does Orthodoxy defend this contention that it, and it alone, is the one true catholic and apostolic church?
The Orthodox Church as the one true church
The initial problem with its assertion that it alone is the true church is that many other churches make the same claim. The Churches of the East, Rome, and many cults say the same thing. And so the question is not whether Eastern Orthodoxy views itself as the apostolic church, the question is whether it is the apostolic church. What proof does it offer? While the Protestant church appeals to Scripture at this point, Orthodoxy cannot make such defense since it is the church that is the basis of Scripture’s authority. Thus the Orthodox Church must appeal to itself, the mystical body of Christ, as establishing its own claim to supreme authority.
Thus, we have come at last to Orthodoxy’s ultimate self-attesting authority. And in order to analyze this claim we must engage in transcendental reasoning. We must offer an internal critique in order to discover whether its ultimate authority avoids inconsistency and arbitrariness and whether it provides the necessary preconditions of human experience. In my next (and final) installment on this study of Eastern Orthodoxy, I shall offer such a critique and try to demonstrate that it fails, on its own terms, to make good its claim to be the one true church.