Some thoughts on Orthodox/Protestant dialogue.

GrahamI was sent an article written by the late Fr Seraphim Rose on “The Proper View of Non-Orthodox Christians” and I would like to share some thoughts on its argument.

While I do not disagree with the general intent and purpose of the article (how to cultivate φιλανθρωπία, or the love of neighbor), I do believe that the article is not as effective as it could be because it does not take into account the many nuances and complexities of Orthodox/Protestant dialogue in the 21st century.

Maybe that is because Fr Seraphim wrote during a time when globalization and the Protestant awareness of Orthodoxy in America had not grown to the extent it has today. Be that as it may, I’d like to address some of the article’s arguments. (Please note that I am addressing only the content of the argument, not making any appraisal of Fr Seraphim, his writings, or anything like that).

The article is available in many places online, e.g., here.

After making some general remarks about how Orthodoxy is the Church, the article starts by saying that

It is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Orthodox Church.

I think Fr Seraphim begins by unintentionally committing the fallacy of poisoning the well when he asserts that it is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Church. It assumes that criticisms of error and debates about the church and doctrine, at least in the majority of times, consist of people judging the personal state of those with whom they were interacting; but that is not always the case. Plus, this is not the topic of the article to begin with.

It goes on to say,

About those Christians who are outside the Orthodox Church, therefore, I would say: they do not yet have the full truth. Perhaps it just hasn’t been revealed to them yet, or perhaps it is our fault for not living and teaching the Orthodox Faith in a way they can understand.

Here, I believe Fr Seraphim equivocates on the concept of “the truth not being revealed to them yet.” Of the several possible meanings of this idea, which one is intended here? One could think that he means that people never heard in their entire life about the Orthodox Church and of Christian doctrine, and if so I think this could be a valid point.

However, most interactions in a place like the United States today are not of the sort. On the contrary, they are interactions between Orthodox people and Protestants who know what the Orthodox Church is and what it teaches; and they often are very happy to deny her teachings, in its most central dogmas, and explicitly call Orthodox people non-Christians. So they know. And they reject it.

The only other possible meaning of “God has not yet revealed that to them” would be a subjective, Calvinistic idea of God conveying some secret revelation to people in their hearts. I don’t know if Fr Seraphim meant this, but this meaning would be problematic for several reasons: first, because it is not for us to inquire about secret and hidden things; also, because the Church in its history did not simply tell those who opposed Christian truth by saying, “maybe God didn’t reveal it to you.” Well, maybe God didn’t, but truth is truth, and error was rejected. Explicitly. In many councils.

The article also makes some vague statements about using the terms “heresy” and “heretic.” For example,

Among Western converts to Orthodoxy there is indeed a temptation to speak too freely of “heresy” and “heretics,” and to make the errors of the non-Orthodox an excuse for a certain pharisaic smugness about our own Orthodoxy.

Perhaps it is true that people might use those terms too loosely at times. However, the clear, intentional, informed, obstinate, and deliberate denial of the central tenets of Christianity by many Protestants is also a reality.

It is a common experience of many practicing Orthodox people in a place like United States, who have friends and relatives who are Protestants, to be told explicitly things like, “there is no such thing as the Eucharist, there is no such thing as the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. This is idolatry and paganism. Communion is just a memorial, it’s just bread and wine, or better, crackers and grape juice.”

Or, “the Virgin and Theotokos is neither a virgin nor the mother of God. This is idolatry and paganism; she is only the mother of Jesus, she was just a pipe through which God sent the physical body of his Son.”

Or, “The Orthodox Church is not the Church; it is not in the Body of Christ. It is at best just another denomination, at worst a pagan group developed after Constantine, and people in it deny Christ and go to hell.”

Or “asking for the help and prayers of the ‘saints’ is idolatry, necromancy, paganism, it is empowered  by demons, and it is a sure sign that one is going to hell.”

I could go on with many other examples. These I report from personal interactions and listening to Protestant public teaching, from the pulpit, media, etc.

Maybe one is prepared to be confronted with such things and shrug if off in the name of love. After all, there is some truth in Protestantism (as it is inevitable – there is much truth in Buddhism and Islam as well), and, as Fr Seraphim says,

Almost all of the [Protestant] religious Christmas carols are all right, and they are sung by Orthodox Christians in America (some of them even in the strictest monasteries!).

Maybe Fr Seraphim was thinking of some of the classic Protestant hymns of John Newton and the Wesleys, not the, shall we say, interesting things sung in modern pop evangelical Jesus-is-my-boyfriend Christian rock.

Be that as it may, I don’t think that true love, in this situation, is one not to address truth. This would be simply superficial indifference and compromise. And I don’t think the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils who gave their lives to defend truth and evangelize the world would agree with that approach either.

yelling1Many Protestants say these things outlined above to Orthodox people. They deny the Eucharist, the Church, the Mother of God, the communion of saints, the Mysteries (Sacraments), and Orthodox Christology. They actively teach the erroneous alternatives to the Christian Faith.

They also say these things to other Protestants. Pastors and teachers say these things from the pulpit. Protestant churches use all available media tools to spread these errors and to keep people from being joined to the Body of Christ. I have heard, read, or been told these things hundreds of times.

The article ends by affirming that we should view or non-Orthodox people as potentially Orthodox, and live peaceably with them and not be harsh towards them.

In the end, we should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognizing that at least we have our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teaching.

I think this is a very problematic equivocation, and here’s why.

It assumes that opposing these errors I listed here, and many others, is automatically, and by definition, equivalent to being harsh, to considering people as lost causes, enemies, or wanting not to be peaceable with them.

Not only this is not true, very often the opposite is true. We speak the truth in love with the hope that people will embrace the truth and reject error, not because we don’t consider them as potentially living in the Truth.

We live in a society where truth has been, by and large, demoted from the public square and reduced to personal, subjective preferences. The  popular idea that “truth is relative” is something that many people actually believe. And one offspring of such darkness is the increase in hatred against opposing views.

We already see this in the current socio-political condition of this country, where “toleration” is something that one only wishes to apply to his or her opinion, but never to extend to the ones who disagree with him or her. More than ever, people do not accept opposing in views, and express hatred against those who hold them. We are living in an increasingly fascist society when it comes to ideas and freedom of speech. It probably won’t be too long before people can be jailed for simply saying particular Christian beliefs out loud which are out of step with current popular opinion.

This carries on to the religious arena as well. Ironically, very often, the same evangelical Christians who complain about not having the liberty to believe as they will in the secular world, will not tolerate being questioned in their beliefs by other Christians either.

I cannot count how many times I have witnessed Protestants reacting with hatred at the mere mention that their views are in error. Not necessarily by an Orthodox –  it could be a Lutheran questioning Word-of-Faith preachers, or many other combinations.

Protestants are often very eager to affirm the things I outlined above, but if one tries to explain why the affirmations are erroneous, the reaction is something like, “how dare you? Who do you think you are? How dare you judge me? You are rude and judgmental and harsh!”

Image result for yelling womanMost often, it would not matter if you were to oppose their views on your knees and holding out flowers and a box of chocolates. The mere objective mention of their error, or the defense of the Christian faith and truth, is a cause for hatred and the accusation of rudeness, arrogance, and of being judgmental.

It is no surprise that those who have been wounded by the zeitgeist (as we all have some way) get angry when confronted with the truth, even if the “confrontation” is done with respect and even gentleness.

I do not doubt that many people have failed to be gentle and respectful in their theological interactions. I am sure I have at times. We should all heed the call to gentleness and respect.

But I am convinced that more often than not, the problem is just the opposite. It is that people knowingly and deliberately reject the truth they do know, much like the Pharisees of old; they do not like being opposed in any way that does not suit their personal preference. Because for many Christians in America, Christianity, either in itself, or in its different “expressions,” is a matter of preference, not ultimate truth. That is why many Protestants now, more than ever, incessantly pursue the Holy Grail of being “relevant” to the public preferences du jour.

I do not even need to list the numerous passages in the New Testament where St. Paul and others command their co-workers to “rebuke sharply” those who oppose the truth.

I worked for a few years in countercult apologetics when I was a Protestant. I have seen how cults operate. Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on. They might be “potential” Protestants and Christians, but they are not Protestants, and they are not Christians. They’re cults. They jeopardize peoples’ lives spiritually. Maybe God has not yet revealed something to them either.

Often they also react with anger and hatred against those who very gently, objectively, and respectfully speak and publish against their serious errors. Against people who have spent their entire lives, as a calling, reaching out to them and “speaking the truth in love” to help pluck them out of the fire.

Many of those people speaking the truth are former cultists. I have met them. Many of them are very thankful that somebody reached out to them. They are thankful that people were not afraid to be hated or thought of being jerks by simply telling them the truth. They are thankful that people cared and reached out and spoke the truth to them.

Our friends and family members who are Protestants may not be in cults. But, as I mentioned above, they can very clearly, deliberately, and obstinately espouse very serious error and spread such errors against the truth of Christ. They do it here in this country. They also send missionaries to Orthodox countries to “evangelize” them – i.e., get them out of the Church and into their own groups and versions of “Christianity.”

I believe Fr Seraphim’s article, which I have seen circulating on the interwebs, and which is well-intentioned, does a disservice by implying that presenting truth is, automatically and by definition, unkind; and that we should “live in peace” and quiet alongside outspoken error and heresy for the sake of being nice and not being thought of as rude.

On the contrary, we should speak the truth in love.

As I write this, I’m reminded that last night I was invited by a friend to attend the Service at the old ROCOR Cathedral in San Francisco, when in a couple of weeks he (a Protestant convert) will be made an official catechumen so he can be baptized and Chrismated into the Church. Because people who cared (including me) spoke the truth in love and took the time to answer his questions.

Glory to God!

St Symeon the New Theologian on the Theotokos and the Eucharist

st-symeon-the-new-theologian“The same undefiled flesh which He accepted from the pure loins of Mary, the all-pure Theotokos, and with which He was given birth in the body, He gives to us as food.

And when we eat of it, when we eat worthily of His flesh, each one of use receives within himself the entirety of God made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, son of God and son of the immaculate Virgin Mary . . .

He is present in the body bodilessly, mingled with our essence and nature, and deifying us who share His body, who are become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone . . . This is the mystery all full of holy terror which I hesitate even to write, and tremble in recounting.

Thus, while from His immaculate mother He borrowed her immaculate flesh, and gave her in return His own divinity – o strange and new exchange! – He takes no flesh from the saints, but He does make them sharers of His own deified flesh. . . .

Just as we all receive of His fullness, so do we all partake of the immaculate flesh of His all-holy Mother which He assumed, and so, just as Christ our God, true God, became her son; even so we too – O the ineffable love for mankind! – become sons of His mother, the Theotokos, and brothers of Christ Himself . . .

The Mother of God is lady and Queen and mistress and mother of all the saints. The saints are all both her servants, since she is the mother of God, and her sons, because they partake of the all-pure flesh of her Son . . .

The saints therefore are triply her kin: first in that they are related to her from the same clay and breath of life given Adam;

Secondly, that they have communion and share with her in the flesh which was taken from her;

Thirdly and last, that on account of the hallowing which has come to pass in them through her by virtue of the Spirit, each conceives in like manner to her within himself the God of all, as she bore Him in herself.

For, if indeed she gave birth to him in the body, yet she always possessed all of Him in the Spirit, and has Him now, and will ever have Him inseparable from her.

So this is the mystery of the marriages which the Father arranged for His only-begotten Son, Who with Him is co-everlasting and of equal dignity. And He invited many, and sent his servants to invite those who were called to the weddings, and they would not come.”

St Symeon the New Theologian, c. 1010 AD
First Ethical Discourse

St. John of Kronstadt: “We must carefully tend the field of our heart”

saintjohnofkronstadtWhy is it necessary to pray at home, and to attend divine service at the Church? Well, why is it necessary for you to eat and drink, to take exercise, or to work, every day? In order to support the life of the body and strengthen it. So also it is absolutely necessary to pray in order to support the life of the soul, to strengthen the soul, which is sick with sin, and to cleanse it, just as you employ some kinds of food and drink to cleanse the body.

If you do not pray, you behave inadvisedly and most unwisely, supporting, gratifying and strengthening your body in every way, but neglecting your soul.

Our soul, as a spiritual, active being, cannot remain idle; it either does good or evil, one of the two; either wheat grows in it or tares. But as every good comes from God, and as the means of obtaining every good from God is prayer, those who pray fervently, sincerely, from the depths of their hearts, obtain from the Lord grace to do good, and, before all, the grace of faith; whilst those who do not pray, naturally remain without these spiritual gifts, voluntarily depriving themselves of them by their own negligence and spiritual coldness.

And as the wheat of good thoughts, inclinations, intentions, and works grows in the hearts of those who labour and pray fervently to the Lord, so in the hearts of those who do not pray, the tares of every evil grow, smothering the small amount of good that has remained in them from the grace of baptism, chrism, and subsequent penitence and communion.

We must by every means implant in the field of our heart the seeds of the virtues, faith, hope in God, and love for God and our neighbor, fertilize it with prayer, patience, good works, and not for a single hour remain in complete idleness and inactivity, for in times of idleness and inactivity the enemy zealously sows his tares. ‘While men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way’ (Mt. 13:25).”

We must carefully tend the field of our heart, lest the tares of every vice should grow in it; we must daily weed it – at least by morning and evening prayers – and water it with abundant tears, as with rain.

It is good for me to draw near to God, said David, who had tasted the sweetness of prayer and praising God. Other men confirm this, and I a sinner also. Observe, that to draw near to God is a good and blessed thing (even here on earth) while we are yet in the sinful flesh. What bliss, then, will it be to be united to God there in heaven! And the bliss of union with God here on earth is a specimen and pledge of the bliss of union with God after death, in eternity.

St. John of Kronstadt (1829 – 1908), Spiritual Counsels.

Staniloae on Knowledge of God and Pain

staniloaeEvery Christian knows God in his providential action by which the Christian is led in the particular circumstances of his own life, sometimes having good things for his lot, at other times – as a kind of training – being deprived of them. This latter form of guidance Saint Maximos calls leading through judgment . . .

Everyone knows God in the qualms of conscience he feels for the wrongs he has committed and, finally, everyone knows him in his own troubles and failure – temporary or lasting – in his own illness or that of those close to him that results from certain evils done or as a means of moral perfections and spiritual strengthening; but everyone also knows God in the help that he receives from him in overcoming these and all the other barriers and difficulties that stand in his way. This knowledge helps in leading each man on his own way of perfection.

It is a thrilling, burdensome, painful and joyful knowledge; it wakens within us our ability to respond; it gives fervor to prayer, and it causes our being to draw closer to God.

In this knowledge, our being experiences in practice the goodness, power, justice and wisdom of God, his attentive care for us, and God’s special plan in its regard. In this connection the human person experiences a relation of particular intimacy with God as supreme Personal reality. In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care and regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal.

This intimate relationship which God has with me certainly does not remove me from solidarity with others or from obligations I have towards others, towards family, nation, my home, my age, all the contemporary world. But God makes himself known to me through the appeals that he addresses to me especially, so as to stir me up to fulfill my duties, or through the remorse that I feel when I have not fulfilled my own special duties . . .

This is why God puts me in circumstances like those described, and through them makes himself transparent on account of the interest he takes in me. It is especially with this purpose in mind that he is the mysterium tremendum.

christ-praying-620x349The difficult circumstances which pierce our being like nails urge us towards more deeply felt prayer. And during this kind of prayer the presence of God is more evident to us . . . the state of prayer is a condition in which through an increase of sensibility, we apprehend God as a “Thou” who is present . . .

The existential experience of God is combined with the apophatic experience of him [and these two combine] with the knowledge of God as creator and providential guide of the world (cataphatic knowledge) . . .

Through these three kinds of knowledge [cataphatic, apophatic, and existential] the personal interest God shows towards man, together with his mystery and greatness that are beyond understanding, come into relief. Through all three, God is known as lover according to the measure of our love for him and for our neighbor.

 

Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology vol. 1), pp. 117-122.

Faith and Reason, Theology and Philosophy – what do we know and how?

Faith and ReasonFor Aquinas, philosophy considers the nature of things as they are in themselves, whereas theology considers things as they are in relation to God.

The distinction, first, involves the point of view. From the point of view of theology, there are things that can be known by reason alone, and some of those things have been revealed by God, but they might not have been. These are things revealable.

They are encompassed by theology when they are investigated and understood in their relation to God as their source and their end. In addition, theology also involves those things that can be known only by revelation. For example, that God is a Trinity. These are the revelatum.

In this way, all things can be considered within the scope of theology because they are treated sub ratione Dei, under the logic of God, within the context of God being their source and end, and of the ordering of all things within a hierarchical structure of all reality towards God. For Aquinas, theology is a science of revelation, acquired from the Word of God. This is his idea of sacra doctrina  – the sacred doctrine of God and of the beatorum.

From the point of view of philosophy, things that can be known apart from revelation can be extracted from their theological context and be viewed as they are in themselves, judged from the point of view of natural reason. In this way, not only the physical sciences, but also metaphysical knowledge, can be investigated in its own right, as well as be inserted in a theological structure without losing its strictly philosophical nature.

There is a science of reason that can be integrated with the science of revelation without compromising the structure of either (although, when integrated, the science of reason is subordinated to and ordered according to the science of revelation). Philosophy investigates creatures as they are in themselves, and theology investigates all things as they are in relation to God.

In this way, there are things that are accessible to human understanding and reason; for example, mathematics, physical sciences, metaphysical inquiry in which the existence of a simple Being whose essence is identical with its existence is the Prime Mover of all creation, etc.

These things are in principle knowable by human reason unaided by revelation, even though some of them have been revealed. They are the revealable, the revelabilia.

This human learning, then can be incorporated into theology. Some of these things have been given through revelation: for example, a metaphysician can, by reason alone, demonstrate the existence of God. But since not all men are metaphysicians – they do not have the training, the aptitude, the time, etc. – God has revealed that in order that all men might be saved.

There are also things that can be known only by revelation. This is the realm of the revelatum. Examples are the Trinity, the Incarnation, sin, etc. They are not accessible to human reason save by revelation; this is not to say they conflict with human reason, quite the contrary. But it is to say that human reason alone can neither attain, deduce, or prove those things.

AquinasTheology therefore depends solely on what is revealed by sacred scripture, and order all things – even things that are known by human reason alone, some of which have been revealed and some of which have not – sub ratione Dei.

Theology contains both what has been revealed by God and our rational understanding of that revelation. Theology receives what has been revealed and then spreads itself to consider all things under that point of view, ordered from God and to God. The things necessary for salvation are the articles of faith, which God has revealed.

Other things, which can be incorporated into theology, are not necessary for salvation, but they make the understanding of things necessary for salvation more explicit.

For Aquinas, then, sacred science can consider all things – all branches of philosophy –  from one point of view, insofar as they are revealable, and ordered according to God as their source and end. Faith and reason can be viewed as two intersecting circles, because there are things that are included in both at the same time (things knowable by reason alone which have also been revealed). The circles also have their content which do not intersect – e.g., the Trinity belongs to the realm of theology and faith and it is not attainable or proven by reason (these are things necessary for salvation), and there are also things known by reason alone that God has not revealed, even if he could have.

Reason and faith therefore are neither put in opposition, or in isolation, or in identity.Each has its proper realm according to the point of view of how they are considered.

Theology, however, is the higher science because it can encompass everything philosophy can discover, but it also includes things revealed that philosophy cannot discover. Also, when theology consider all revealable things sub ratione Dei, it does so in a way that is in accordance with human reason, because human reason, while limited and unable to attain to the revelatum, is never in conflict with it. Even when faith and reason cover the same territory, they each retain their own characteristics.

For human reason, sensible objects are always the point of departure of all of our knowledge, even as they have retained vestiges of the divine nature as their cause. Reason thus can have a preliminary role of pointing us to investigate the Ultimate Cause. It can also have a didactic purpose of explaining what has been revealed: either in the different ways of apologetics (confuting Christian or pagan error, etc.) as well as developing Christian theology in a coherent and encompassing way, approximating the knowledge of all things to the knowledge God has of himself and the knowledge that the blessed in heaven have.

Reason is used by theology to clarify the truths of faith. But the truths of faith that depend of revelation – the revelatum – cannot be attainable by reason alone or proven by reason alone. The attempt to do so is to confirm the unbeliever in his unbelief.

In this way, Aquinas is neither a rationalist nor a fideist.

He is not a rationalist because he makes very clear that things that are necessary for salvation can only be known through revelation and received by faith. He is not a fideist because he both preserves the legitimate realm of philosophy in which things can be considered as they are in themselves, as well as incorporates it into the realm of theology in which all things are considered from the point of view of revelation, while being understood in accordance with human reason.

Aquinas protects theology from rationalism and creation from contemptio mundi. In this way, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.

St Symeon the New Theologian sees God

st-symeon-the-new-theologianOften when one thinks of the essence/energies distinction in God, one thinks primarily of St Gregory Palamas, since the issue rose to the level of controversy during his days. However, the distinction, and the vision of the uncreated light, have been discussed and addressed by many Fathers since at least the 4th century.

In this venerable line of tradition, we find very moving passages in the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). We commemorate his Feast day this Sunday, Oct. 12. Here’s an excerpt of his writings On the Mystical Life, where he gives a very vivid account of encountering God.

Here St Symeon describes his experience in the context of relating it to his monastic elder. It is almost as though what was prefigured in faint shadows in the life of the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1-10) comes to fulfillment in a face to face, as it were, vision of God. And that does not leave him unchanged.

This, invariably, is just what occurs concerning the invisible God. Whenever someone sees Him revealed, he sees light. While on the one hand he is amazed at what he has seen, on the other he does not know immediately who it is who has appeared, yet he dares not ask Him. And how could he? He is unable even to lift up his eyes and look on that grandeur. With fear and trembling he looks instead, as it were, at his own feet, knowing fully only that it is Someone Who has appeared before his face.

And if there happens to be some other man who has told him beforehand about such things, as having known God from before, he goes to this man [St Symeon’s elder] and says: “I have seen.” And the other says: “What did you see, child?” “Light, O my father, so sweet, sweet! So much so, father, that my reason has not the strength to tell you.”

And, while he is saying this, his heart leaps and pounds, and catches on fire with longing for what he has seen. Then, with many warm tears, he begins to say again: “That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.”

The other then answers and says: “It is He, child.” And, at this word, he sees Him again and, little by little, comes to be completely purified and, purified, grows bold and asks that One Himself, and says: “My God, is it You?”

And He answers and says: “Yes, I am He, God, Who for your sake became man; and behold, I have made you, as you see, and shall make you, god.”

– St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), On the Mystical Life (Vol. 2), pp. 53-54

Is the Theotokos “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim”?

A friend, exploring the Faith, particularly in relation to the Theotokos, presented some concerns about her role and work as viewed, expressed, and experienced by the Church. Here is a summary of his concerns:

  1. There is one Mary in Scripture who was a humble woman that was chosen by God to bear Jesus and she accepted God’s will to be the mother of His Son. Then I see a second Mary in the modern church, and there are Bible verses that I see as contradictory to the statement that Mary is more glorious than the Seraphim and more honorable than the Cherubim (e.g. Ps. 8). Humans are “lower than the angels.”
  1. Prophets and Church councils say things, and those are valid if they can agree with the data of Scripture.
  1. There are also practical questions like, how can Mary (or the Saints) hear two people during Paraklesis that are simultaneously praying to her if the two persons are on two opposite sides of the Earth? How can they hear millions of people all over the world at once? God is omniscient and omnipresent, but are Mary and the Saints also omniscient and omnipresent? Maybe there is a way they can hear, but I am not aware of that “valid data”.

Here’s some preliminary responses:

JoyofAllWhoSorrowFirst, I think some good reading in Church history would be helpful. So I will give you a list at the end towards that purpose. The reason is that, in this particular topic, you say that there is a disconnect between the Theotokos in Scripture (and presumably the first few centuries) and the Theotokos of the “modern” church. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The earliest Church Fathers – beginning most clearly with Irenaeus – had a very rich theology of Mary as the Second Eve.

In redemption, the Father sends the second Adam in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about union again. The divine Logos comes and takes residence in a womb that becomes “more spacious than the heavens.” The Father sends the Son in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the new Temple and the new Ark of the covenant in the Theotokos. The Ark now contains the true Manna – the very Flesh and Blood of God, the Bread from Heaven – the true eternal Word, and the true Aaron’s staff that budded.

As the first Eve had received the words of death from the angel of death, turning from the Spirit in disobedience, so now the second Eve receives the words of life from the angel of life (Gabriel) and becomes the dwelling place of the very Word of God, as she submits herself in love and wonder by her fiat to the Holy Spirit who comes upon her.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the center of the garden (paradiso) became the tree of death, its fruit the fruit of disobedience, disunion and death; and in redemption, the cross, the tree of death in the garden of death (Golgotha) becomes the tree of life, as death is trampled upon and destroyed, because the Fruit of the tree is the Son who offers himself to the Father and to creatures. Paradise is regained.

The Resurrection consummates the deification, the Ascension consummates the objective union in heaven, and at the same time starts the impartation of this work, in the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost.

Eve was the mother of all living who became the mother of all who are dead while living. The Second Eve, who bore the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:45, Rom. 5:14) becomes the mother of all truly living because she is the mother of the Living One, the One Who Is.

As the platyteras of Orthodox temples depict, usually behind the altar, Christ is born in the center of the Theotokos, the God Bearer – which then becomes true for all who are united to him in faith; Christ is “formed in us” objectively through baptism, subjectively through faith, and this is rooted in his objective birth in creation and restoration of union effected in the Holy Spirit. We become God bearers in the Holy Spirit, icons being restored to the image of the Son.

Platytera at St Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine

Platytera at St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA

The Theotokos is not the main subject of the Gospels. The Incarnation, life, work, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God is. Therefore, it is expected that one would read of the “maidservant of the Lord” and not about the one who is more glorious than the highest order of angels. Just like it is expected that we don’t read fundamental Christian belief in theologically developed forms (such as the Trinity properly defined, or the hypostatic union) in the Gospels or the epistles.

We begin to learn about definitions of fundamental Christian belief and theology when the Church (1) had the ability to discuss such things, after the cessation of persecution in the 4th century (no earlier) and (2) was challenged to do so because of significant heretical movements.

Not surprisingly, we learn about those things which such movements questioned, but not so much about other fundamental beliefs which were not challenged. For example, which council defined infant baptism? Prayer to the saints? Justification by grace through a living faith which includes the working of love? The Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ? Etc.

None, of course. Because all those things have always been proclaimed (in the Liturgy, the prayers, the common life of the Church) and practiced, taken from granted from apostolic times; and it crossed the mind of no one to challenge those things until 1,500 years later and only in the West. Similarly, we learn of the controversy related to the “Theotokos” only because the Patriarch of Constantinople (Nestorius) was striking at the heart of Christology, and thus of salvation. Not because honoring her was a new thing.

The problem with applying the model you describe, where the statements of a “prophet” or a “council” are then compared to the “data” (of Scripture) in order to be validated, is that first, of course, there are no singular or independent “prophets” in the Church defining dogma. Second, and most importantly, you seem to be confusing the hierarchy of revelation here. Remember that:

  1. When you use “Scripture” as something against which to compare anything, you are already assuming the ultimate authority of the Church. Simply because there is no “Scripture” apart from what the Church has said is Scripture. In other words, the fact that writings (technically, anonymous) about the life of Jesus were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and canonized as the Gospels of Scripture, makes evident that this was done by the authority of the Church in whom indwells the Holy Spirit. The same goes to the fact that the epistle of James, or the Apocalypse, etc. are “Scripture;” and say, the Didache or Clement’s letters, or the Shepherd of Hermas (or other early writings) are not. Councils defined the Bible, not the other way around.
  2. This same authority that writes and canonizes Scripture is the authority that interprets it. Given my years of work in biblical and systematic theology, as well as being proficient in Greek and Hebrew, I can personally attest to the fact that Scripture, in its totality and in each of its parts, can be interpreted in many different (and even contradictory) ways in a plausible, scholarly fashion. For every given passage, 4 scholars can give you 5 plausible interpretations, following the strictest rules of hermeneutics and exegesis. At the end of the day, however, it is the Church (whom Jesus instituted and builds, she who never falls because the gates of hell will never prevail against her) the one who determines what the Scriptures mean, in conjunction with the fuller orbit of the life of the Church – which precede Scripture (the prayers, the liturgies, etc.) and of which Scripture is a part.

Arius, Nestorius, and many others, who knew Scripture by heart, were rebuked and condemned by the Church when they came up with their own interpretations – they could and did use many “verses” to support them, and yet they were in conflict with the whole mind of the Church.

The Councils’ definitions of the Trinity, of the hypostatic union, etc., are not found in verses of Scripture. There is nothing said in Scripture about three co-equal and eternal Persons sharing one Essence. Nothing there about one divine Person uniting two natures “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.”

To keep to those two examples, Arius and Nestorius came up with all kinds of verses and passages that plausibly supported the ideas of a lesser god or two separate natures. Their interpretations did not conflict necessarily with the “data,” (as you say).

There are many other examples. It might seem trivial to us that statements like “the Father is greater than I” or the fact that there were things Jesus did not know, only the Father, etc., do not affect in the least Christian definitions of the Trinity or the hypostatic union. But that’s just because we have 1,500 years of explicit conciliar Church doctrine behind us.

And yet the Church, out of all the “data,” affirmed her doctrine based on a scriptural hermeneutic that incorporated the unbroken life and practice of the Church. The Church neither builds her doctrine and proclamation on Scripture alone (but rather, as I said, in the liturgies, prayers and Tradition of which Scripture is a part), nor does she use isolated passages exegeted in purely grammatico-historical methods when she uses Scripture. All comes together in an organic whole.

So, thankfully, it is not up to individual Christians to judge the Church’s doctrines against a Scripture that is already given by the Church; it is not up to individual Christians to judge using an independent, sovereign hermeneutic that puts oneself as the final authority on what the Bible means (and thereby what God says). I have written a short blurb on that a while ago on my blog:

https://luminousdarkcloud.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/some-thoughts-on-fundamentalism/

Once again, to address your example (that angels are higher than human beings), it is precisely the point of Hebrews 2, citing Ps. 8, that Jesus Christ became incarnate and a “little lower than the angels” (in a limited sense) so that he could, through his death, burial and resurrection, bring humanity to the very presence of God, deified, with all enemies under His feet, and thereby under the Church’s feet.

It is a human nature united to a divine Person which is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, not a seraph. It is a human being who is chosen to bear God in herself, not a cherub.

It was to no angel (as again, the author of Hebrews states) that God has ever said “you are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And yet this God deified human nature. In the same way, to no angel, cherub or seraph, has God ever said, my Spirit will come upon you because you are the Chosen One to bear the infinite God in your womb and become God’s Mother.

To no other creature God has given the full measure of the Holy Spirit so that her own soul, flesh and blood are united forever with the eternal, incomprehensible, infinite God. No seraph ever burned brighter than the true Burning Bush that contains the living God and is never consumed. Not all the angels of creation, together, could become more spacious than the heavens to contain God himself as she did.

Further, from the totality of Scripture (see, e.g., Rev. 12) and Tradition, no creature has ever been blessed and honored as the Theotokos. She is not called blessed by all generations merely in the sense of one more blessed person out of myriads. She is the blessed one because she is the chosen one. And she chooses back. She submits and reverses the curse, unties the knot.

She is described as the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is indeed Mother and Bride, because she is the Mother of God and the embodiment of the Church.

You objected that to be Mother and Bride at the same time would be a weird confusion of categories; but in fact, this is basic Christian theology. Jesus Christ is our Brother and our Bridegroom. We are his brothers and his Bride. She is his Mother and our Mother – “behold your Mother!”

She is the Mother of the King, and thereby the Queen, the lowly maidservant elevated to the highest heavens, just like lowly fallen human nature has been deified. She is the one lower than the angels who is turned into the very dwelling place of the Most High. She was there at Pentecost, but she did not even have to be.

You also state that, in practice, worship and veneration often become the same thing. I think that is a very bad misunderstanding, if it ever happens; one that has been clearly and exhaustively addressed many centuries ago in the Church. This strikes at the heart of Christian life and worship. If one either mixes the two, or thinks the veneration of the Saints is idolatry, one is not really Orthodox, because then one would reject the life of the Church in the communion of Saints.

PentecostChrist has destroyed death, and those who have died in Him are alive. As universally attested by all Christians since the first century, beginning with the martyrs, those who are recognized by the Church as being Saints with a capital “S” are those who have united themselves to the Trinity in the fullest way in this life (a life of holiness and self-giving love).

They now live to intercede and assist the rest of the Body just as they did in their earthly lives (except that now they are glorified and have no hindrances, fully transfigured and linked to the rest of the Church in the Holy Spirit). We venerate them as holy, as models, as inspiration, as helpers, as intercessors, as loved ones.

They are our Fathers and Mothers. They are not our buddies and fellow beggars. They are not beset by sin anymore, and they are no longer limited by human frailty. They don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t forget.

We don’t just “like” them and hang out with them. We venerate them. We bow before them, much like the Old Testament people (and modern people in many parts of the world) bow before their fathers, their prophets, their kings. Except that the Saints are much more than those people. We bow and venerate them. That is by no means polytheistic worship. It is Christian love and unity in the Holy Spirit.

And only one of them is the one who has given soul, flesh and blood to God as his Mother – the one before whom the demons tremble and flee.

You said Mary did her work already. Nothing is further from the truth. First, she is not simply “Mary” – she is the Theotokos. The Mother of God. That’s how Christians address her. She is not merely one more of us, for all the reasons I stated above (and these are not merely my own personal views, but an attempt at a summary of what the Church affirms).

Her work is not done, in the same way that the work of the Saints is not done. We join them and they join us on “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The work of the Church is never done – even in the eschaton it won’t ever be done. The work of help and intercession continues now uninterruptedly, along with the unceasing worship and the continuing process of deification and conformity of finite creatures to the infinite energies of God, which will never end.

And yes, they can hear a virtually infinite number of people at any time, anywhere. Why? Because they do not hear with the physical ear, nor do they process physical sounds in the brain. They are connected to us in the Holy Spirit.

Saints on this earth already can know and hear others who are physically separated from them; they can see their souls, know their hearts. Why? For the same reason. They know in the Holy Spirit in whom they live because of their close communion with Him. There is no temporal or physical barrier.

This is the universal experience of the life of the Church on earth from the the beginning to this day; one needs only to read the life of saints past or present, even living ones. Better yet, have the privilege to meet one of them.

So much more, beyond compare, are the Saints in heaven. They know us and hear us in the Holy Spirit. They live entirely in the Holy Spirit now, to begin with. They intercede for us, speak to us, and help us.

My own patron saint has appeared to more than one person that I personally know. And he is alive and continues to work on my behalf and on behalf of those who ask for his help. This is the universal doctrine and practice of the Church, East and West, since the first century.

In this way, the supplicatory prayer of the Small Compline says,

“O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians . . . as the Mother of God Who loveth mankind, show thy love for mankind and mercifully have compassion upon me a sinner and prodigal, and accept my supplication . . . at the time of my departure taking care of my miserable soul, and driving far away from it the dark countenances of the evil demons . . .

O my Sovereign Lady, most holy Theotokos, in virtue of thine intercession and protection, through the grace and love to mankind of thine only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His unoriginate Father, and His Most Holy and good and life creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

This is why we affirm, in every single Divine Liturgy (of St John Chrysostom) celebrated since at least the fourth century (hardly a modern concept!):

It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!

 

Hope this helps. Here’s a short list of books on Church history, and a few others with overviews on the Church’s history and theology, from which you can read the relevant sections:

http://www.amazon.com/Early-Church-Penguin-History-v/dp/0140231994

http://www.amazon.com/Early-Christian-Doctrines-J-Kelly/dp/006064334X/ref=pd_sim_b_6/182-9643628-1295620

http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Tradition-Development-Doctrine-Emergence/dp/0226653714/ref=pd_sim_b_9

http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Tradition-Development-Doctrine-Christendom/dp/0226653730/ref=pd_sim_b_3

http://www.amazon.com/Orthodox-Veneration-Mary-Birthgiver-God/dp/0938635689/ref=la_B00J3EPDEC_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409682355&sr=1-2

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103322.htm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Life-Virgin-Maximus-Confessor/dp/0300175043/ref=pd_rhf_se_s_cp_8_YC9X?ie=UTF8&refRID=13KR5MKEV38T8312DSTB

http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Mother-God-Sermons-Gregory/dp/0977498301/ref=la_B001JS17R2_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409687930&sr=1-4

http://www.amazon.com/Celebration-Faith-vol-III-Virgin/dp/0881411418/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409687972&sr=1-7