More on infallibility

April 2, 2008

I was reading St. Photios’ Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit today, which is an interesting read, but is less a theological treatise than a near-constant stream of abuse towards anyone promoting the filioque clause (though he makes some good points). I thought, why don’t I find out more about St. Photios, to see what I think about him.

Well, according to Wikipedia, he was (though very intelligent) less the cleric and more the politician. He was elevated to being Patriarch of Constantinople from the laity, being a soldier in the Imperial guard. It seems that the Emperor’s uncle was having an illicit relationship with his daughter in law. The current Patriarch, Ignatios, disapproved and was banished for it.

From the sound of it, this was somewhat of a pattern in the Eastern church. How do you reconcile such blatant corruption with the claim of “inerrancy of the church” when the referenced judgments were sometimes made by men such as these, beholden to ungodly politicians?

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30 Responses to “More on infallibility”

  1. Ripley Says:

    I think that’s a really good question, Ben. I’ve been sitting here thinking about it for a good while. I haven’t come up with any significant gems, and I’m sure I lack important background information, but I did want to throw a thought in there and allow it to be shot down… 🙂

    As you said, “this was somewhat of a pattern in the Eastern church”. It immediately makes me believe that if it was the “norm”, then perhaps it was so ingrained in the culture that his illegitimate elevation was easily overlooked or disregarded as being a minor (or irrelevant) issue, rather than the “blatant corruption” that we label it today. Indeed, it was corruption, but the values and morals of every society change and differ, and we often easily find ways of excusing ourselves in order to render harsh judgments on other’s ideals or ideas in the world and culture we live in today. I could see it happening, is all. No excuses, just observation.

    As for how he is esteemed in modern times, you offer a good insight. It makes me wonder the types of things we may “overlook” even today.

    That said, you mentioned he was a politician. That reason alone is merit for suspicion, in my humble opinion. 😉

  2. Ben Says:

    Good point about the cultural context — it could be that Photios’ somewhat secular rise to power might be excused because of the context in which he lived.

  3. Ben Says:

    Here’s a Patriarch that is cool:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarch_Macedonius_II_of_Constantinople

    “The emperor Anastasius employed all means to oblige Macedonius to declare against the Council of Chalcedon, but flattery and threats were alike unavailing … Anastasius had him carried off by night and taken to Chalcedon, to be conducted thence to Eucaïta in Pontus, the place of the exile of his predecessor.”

    I like this guy.

  4. Danny Slavich Says:

    I have a question: why are you so interested in the Orthodox church?

  5. Ben Says:

    Hm, that is a fun question and I will give a long answer in a minute. Of course, I could just say — why not? Or in fact, “Why are you so interested in the Baptist church?” … I think our motivations may be similar. Give me a few minutes.


  6. […] Comments Ben on More on infallibilityDanny Slavich on More on infallibilityBen on More on infallibilityLee on Follow-up: Still […]

  7. MG Says:

    Ben–

    Its important to not commit the fallacy of composition when thinking about the Church, sin, infallibility, impeccability, immortality, etc. What is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. The Church as a whole has the divine energies of infallibility and immortality, just like Christ’s resurrected body did (because it just *is* his body). However, not all of the members of the Church are accessing this grace. There are particular sinners and liars and people who physically die in the Church. This doesn’t detract from the fact that the Church corporate has divine qualities; it just means some of the members of the body aren’t making use of the grace that is in Christ’s glorified humanity.

    For more analysis, go here:

    http://wellofquestions.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/the-significance-of-the-incarnation-3-ecclesiology-and-identity/

    By the way, if you can get ahold of it, take a look at Clint Arnold’s Ephesians commentary “Power and Magic”. He (Protestant that he is) actually says something very similar to this (the idea that the Church has some kind of objective existence full of grace and glory and immortality independently of the particular participants) when discussing the last verse in Ephesians 1.

  8. Ben Says:

    Oh, I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to bring down Orthodoxy because of a few bad apples. Not to downplay your statement, I’m sure that I could benefit from reading that stuff.

    What I would say is more like this: if your church’s authority and … epistemology? … depends on the leaders of the church in the past, and an examination of those leaders turns up as many bad as good, how reliable can that foundation be?

  9. MG Says:

    Ben–

    You wrote:

    “if your church’s authority and … epistemology? … depends on the leaders of the church in the past, and an examination of those leaders turns up as many bad as good, how reliable can that foundation be?”

    I can’t say this for sure, but maybe one could answer as follows:

    My Church’s foundation is as reliable as the degree of epistemic confidence I can have that

    (a) The historical person Jesus of Nazareth promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church.

    (b) Orthodoxy is the sole or primary referent of the word “Church” in Jesus’ statement.

    So its fundamentally my prior convictions about the infallibility of Christ (note: not assuming the inspiration of Scripture here, btw), and the meaning of his infallible statement about the incorruptibility of the Church, and the referent of that meaning (which may or may not be Eastern Orthodoxy specifically) which is my foundation. So our confidence can be detached from the failures of particular men. Divine immortality and incorruptibility indwell Christ’s mystical body, so though I’m troubled emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually by malpractice, I have good reason to think that the malpractice isn’t gonna cut too deep.

  10. Ben Says:

    Interesting. I see what you mean.
    Just for the sake of discussion, do you see (patristics aside) a one-to-one logical correspondence between “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Orthodox church” and “the Orthodox church will be sustained by God in its doctrine and structure throughout the ages” etc.?

    I could think of a couple other possible interpretations:

    a) The religion Christ founded will persist in spite of persecution
    b) The religion Christ founded will accomplish its goals (evangelism and sanctification throughout the earth)

    Something like that. Perhaps I don’t understand your point completely, but I don’t see a strong connection between infallibility of church structure and Christ’s statement indicating the church’s unspecified victory.

  11. MG Says:

    Ben–

    Do you think A) or B) makes more sense than my suggestion (that it includes, though perhaps is not limited by, infallibile authority) given that the surrounding context of the promise to preserve the Church is connected with the binding and loosing authority of the Church? I’m not saying A) or B) couldn’t be part of what’s going on, though.

    Also, it might be worth asking whether or not A) and B) would be possible if the Church were to indeed become doctrinally degenerate.

  12. Ben Says:

    A good question. I don’t have much of an answer, except to say that there’s enough ambiguity in that passage (to my reading) that I wouldn’t use it to support an infallibility claim.

    As to “doctrinally degenerate”, I suppose I would have a different view of that than you would … that is, doctrine is not a once-for-all delivered in all nuances thing. As I’ve mentioned before, I can understand the impetus to affirm two-nature Christology, but don’t see monophysitism as affecting any aspect of the life of the average person … it is a question for philosophers, not for mere Christians.

    Which is to say, depending on the extent of “doctrinal degeneration”, I think A) and B) are fully possible. If a church was to deny the Deity of Christ, for instance, A) and B) really wouldn’t be possible, since part of the “goal” is to bring people to believe that Christ is one with the Father, and to worship Him. But saying Christ had one nature instead of two? I doubt the average person could even understand what that means.

    The religion Christ founded was not one of philosophers … it can include them, but it is primarily a religion of fishermen, the uneducated, the outcasts. Meaning, I don’t think that questions like “two natures or one” need to be answered (as obviously they were not, as far as we know, answered by the Apostles).

  13. Lee Says:

    …and a few wealthy crooked financiers, one very well-educated pharisee, a physician, a small business owner, professional soldiers… The religion Christ founded was for sinners.

  14. Ben Says:

    That’s what I’m saying, though … the primary thrust of the Apostles’ ministry was not intellectual, but transformational. If the church was intended to consist in philosophical conundrums, why build it on the foundation of an uneducated fisherman?

    By the way, who exactly are you counting as Apostles here? With a capital “A”, I don’t know that St. Luke is one, is he?

  15. Lee Says:

    Sorry – I guess I missed a couple of comments in this thread! I didn’t realize you were specifically calling out the Apostles in your statement: “[t]he religion Christ founded was not one of philosophers …”

  16. Ben Says:

    Yeah, somewhere back there we were talking about “The gates of Hell shall not prevail” and what that means.

  17. drewsive Says:

    Ben,

    ‘The religion Christ founded was not one of philosophers’

    http://dialectic.wordpress.com/ghd/

    If you can afford to spring the $85, this book is well worth it; both monetarily and temporally. It is elucidating in respect to your quote above because it shows — rather conclusively, in my opinion — that the Augustinism of the West is essentially Neoplatonic, and how this baptized Neoplatonism creates all sorts of problems for the West. In other words, if you’re trying to eschew any sort of philosophical import on Christianity, you must realize that you’re standing on this ice, given that the religion bequeathed to you is so heavily Augustinian whether you’d like to think it is or not.

    You’re not going to find a stronger intellectual apologetic for the Orthodox Faith out there, so shoot, if you read it and find it wanting, you can tell yourself that you gave Orthodoxy an intellectual shot and it didn’t deliver the goods. That’s a rather crass way to put it, but you get my point.

    Peace!

    Drew Harrah.

  18. Ben Says:

    Considering that I haven’t finished all the Orthodox books that I already have, it may be a while before I can afford to buy an $85 one, but thanks for the suggestion, all the same.

    I don’t think that my statement against philosophical primacy in the church is necessarily directed against East or West specifically, but against both … I’d probably agree with you ultimately on Neoplatonism entering the church through Augustine and worming its way into the West through the centuries … but that doesn’t mean that the East didn’t have similar problems.

    I’m not a particularly, uh, Augustinian evangelical in any case.

    Anyway, what I was getting at was slightly different: that is, that fine points of dogma should not be the primary focus of the church — heresies must be countered, but the church does not consist in fighting heresy or in esoteric theological disputation. This was in response to MG’s “Could the church accomplish its goals if some doctrine was compromised?”

  19. drewsive Says:

    ‘… but that doesn’t mean that the East didn’t have similar problems.’

    Oh, it most certainly did. It is latent in Justin Martyr and other early Christian apologists, Clement of Alexandria, and manifests itself preeminently in Origen. But here’s the difference between East and West: in the East this danger of the Hellenization of Christianity is confronted head on and is defeated, primarily in the theology of the Cappadocians, whereas in the West this Hellenization is not only NOT confronted, but is instead enshrined and dogmatized.

    ‘I’m not a particularly, uh, Augustinian evangelical in any case.’

    You may be so, more than you realize. For instance, do you believe that there is capability for knowledge of God apart from and prior to revelation? Such a presupposition betrays an understanding of God that is thoroughly Augustinian and also utterly foreign to the Orthodox Faith. There is no natural theology in Orthodoxy.

    ‘Anyway, what I was getting at was slightly different: that is, that fine points of dogma should not be the primary focus of the church’

    Agreed. The Church is primarily called to bear witness to the worship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These ‘fine points of dogma’ though, as you call them, are integrally tied up with the worship of God. For instance, I sure don’t want to be worshipping the Neoplatonic ‘One’ sugarcoated in Christian terminology.

  20. Ben Says:

    Hm … obviously the East hasn’t fallen prey to the same syncretistic ideas as the West (what you call Hellenization) but I wouldn’t say that that puts it in the clear. If you ask me, I could see a pretty good case for Eastern syncretism with everything from Pagan idolatry to Roman fascism. I don’t think it’s a hugely serious issue, but I don’t think the charges are any flimsier than the charge “Protestants worship the Neoplatonic ‘One’ sugarcoated in Christian terminology”.

    “There is no natural theology in Orthodoxy”

    That’s a new one … are you sure about that? If anything, I would accuse the West of not allowing enough room for general and / or personal revelation, if that’s what you’re referring to. Or maybe you are instead referring to discovering the attributes and nature of God a priori using methodological reasoning? In which case, I doubt I’d fall into that trap.

  21. drewsive Says:

    ‘but I don’t think the charges are any flimsier than the charge “Protestants worship the Neoplatonic ‘One’ sugarcoated in Christian terminology”.’

    Perhaps you should look into the issue, especially the relationship between post-Augustinian Western Triadology and absolute divine simplicity. That’s what Farrell’s work God, History, and Dialectic would help with. But you’re busy, I understand.

    ‘That’s a new one … are you sure about that?’

    Yes, because it’s centered in Orthodox Triadology. There is no ‘god-in-general’ that we can reason our way to and determine his existence, because that would be to identify the essence of God with existence, or absolute being. But for the Orthodox, the essence of God — the ‘stuff’ that makes God God — is absolutely unknowable. We come to know God through the divine energies, or operations, made active through the persons of the Holy Trinity. All knowledge of God is because of His lovingkindness, His grace, His divine condescension — all these being energies of God — which come to us and affect us personally.

    That’s my understanding, at least. And I think it’s faithful to the teaching of the Church. Of course, I invite dissenting comments if I have explained this in a manner that is unfaithful to the Tradition.

  22. drewsive Says:

    And actually, Ben, I think this comes back full circle to what you were driving at intuitively; re: God is not the ‘god’ of the philosophers. Because Orthodoxy teaches that knowledge of God is only received through experience with God, that is why the ‘theologians’ of the Church are first and foremost those who lived lives in communion with God via intense prayer and ascesis. That is why such credence is given to humble God-bearing elders (who are/were often illiterate!). It reminds me of the troparion for Pentecost:

    Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast made manifest the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Ghost: and by them hast drawn the world into Thy net. O Lover of mankind, glory to Thee.

  23. Ben Says:

    “There is no ‘god-in-general’ that we can reason our way to and determine his existence”

    I don’t think that God can be identified logically if He does not choose to reveal Himself, but this does not mean that special revelation is the only source of truth about Him.

    We are “made in His image”, therefore some of the things we experience and feel must be rooted in the nature of God … and again, “the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead,” and further, “the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.” I don’t think I would add anything to what Scripture is saying here … so if you aren’t denying that, then there doesn’t seem to be a distinction.

    As to “humble, uneducated elders” … what of St. Photios, the subject of this post? The nemesis of the filioque is neither humble, uneducated, illiterate, or, strictly speaking, an elder. He is remembered chiefly for His great intellect, not his great piety, and does not seem to have been a particularly religious person before becoming something of a “Merovingian Patriarch”. It takes all kinds, of course … but the Orthodox church isn’t a fairyland where all the problems that beset other churches magically disappear … if philosophical problems plaque the West, then they plague the East as well.

  24. Ben Says:

    “the relationship between post-Augustinian Western Triadology and absolute divine simplicity”

    I think you misunderstand me … I would not doubt that divine simplicity affects Western (especially Thomist) Christian thought … but, the way in which divine simplicity affects Western doctrine and practice is subtle, hard to root out, and reflective of the unavoidable truth that we as Christians cannot live a totally uncompromised life.

    The East, though it may fail in different areas, has the same achilles heel … that is, syncretism. The problem with syncretism, as well, is that to defeat it you must identify it, and what community is really serious about revealing and removing their own faults?

    In any case, divine simplicity is such an esoteric philosophical construct that even most seminary students couldn’t understand it. Only the attitude that strains out a gnat and lets in a camel would hang all of Christianity on whether or not one is in some vague way affected by philosophies you’ve never even heard of, and ignore the weightier things: holiness, faith in Christ, love for God and others. If the West is captive to the philosophers, then I charge that the East is captive to the Caesars: demanding total conformity, exchanging piety for politics, seeking strength through unity to the exclusion of the things that matter. I’m big enough to say that, faults and all, the other side can still produce saints, though. What about you?

  25. drewsive Says:

    ‘I don’t think that God can be identified logically if He does not choose to reveal Himself, but this does not mean that special revelation is the only source of truth about Him.’

    ‘Special revelation’ is a modern term specifically used to distinguish itself from ‘general revelation’. I reject the dichotomy (or, as one might say, the dialectic of opposition!). All knowledge of God is ‘special’ in the sense given above: we cannot reason our way to a ‘god-in-general’.

    ‘what of St. Photios, the subject of this post?’

    Not all the Saints of the church are elders, with ‘elders’ being specifically defined as monastic, charismatic, Spirit-bearers. Forgive me; I miscommunicated.

    ‘but the Orthodox church isn’t a fairyland where all the problems that beset other churches magically disappear’

    This seems to be coming out of the blue. I certainly wasn’t saying the Orthodox Church is a ‘fairyland’.

    ‘if philosophical problems plaque the West, then they plague the East as well.’

    That’s an assertion. Perhaps you should write a future post that substantiates it.

    ‘syncretism’

    I suppose you mean the amalgamation of such ‘pagan’ practices like the veneration of the saints and the Mother of God, relics, the sacraments, etc., with ‘authentic’ Christianity. I understand where you’re coming from, I really do. I was there once too. The problem, though, lies with where this search for ‘authentic’ Christianity ends. Any attempt to ‘demythologize’ Christianity a la Adolf von Harnack is one, extremely subjective, (i.e. who decides what is ‘authentic’ or say, ‘truly apostolic’, or even more pristinely, ‘truly Christocentric’), and two, to put it frankly, impossible. The historical-critical methodology that the ‘syncretistic’ charge is rooted in leads one nowhere. It’s a dead end street.

    The rest of your rejoinder was fun to read, and somewhat interesting, but in glancing over the post of yours on ‘Calvinism’ and seeing that you enjoy being provocative for the sheer joy of getting a rise out of people, I’m going to let it go.

  26. Ben Says:

    “comparing me to Adolf von Harnack”

    You accused the West of syncretism because they inherit principles from Neoplatonism. I’m wondering why I couldn’t apply the same process (with other non-Christian concepts) to the East?

    “sheer joy of getting a rise out of people”

    Hm … well, if we’re going to get into personal attacks … which is worse, being naturally provocative, or having a compulsive desire to convert others to whatever has most recently caught your interest? As far as I can remember, you were just as vigorously partisan when a Lutheran. I appreciate the debate, but I’d just as soon dispense with the paternalism. No offense, I hope.

  27. drewsive Says:

    Ben,

    ‘You accused the West of syncretism because they inherit principles from Neoplatonism. I’m wondering why I couldn’t apply the same process (with other non-Christian concepts) to the East?’

    There’s a difference between the two. I’m not trying to recreate ‘authentic’ Christianity by way of sola scriptura or the Jesus Seminar (which are two sides of the same coin, for my money), I’m trying to hold Christianity accountable to its own Tradition — a Tradition that is foolishness to the Greeks — and in the case of Augustinianism, its own patristic ordo theologiae. Augustine is at variance with the other fathers in this respect, and he ought to be held accountable for it.

    ‘Hm … well, if we’re going to get into personal attacks … which is worse, being naturally provocative, or having a compulsive desire to convert others to whatever has most recently caught your interest? As far as I can remember, you were just as vigorously partisan when a Lutheran. I appreciate the debate, but I’d just as soon dispense with the paternalism. No offense, I hope.’

    Ben, obviously the tone of my remark didn’t come across as I had hoped it would. I was trying to make a silly comment, that’s all. I meant no offense. I should’ve inserted an emoticon. But if I cannot post without upsetting you, I’ll happily bid you farewell and not comment here again.

    Peace!

    Drew.

  28. Ben Says:

    Sorry if I misinterpreted your silly comment … I’m not angry, and I don’t hate you, feel free to continue commenting, but I did feel the need to defend myself.

  29. drewsive Says:

    By the way, Ben, is your copy of Mystagogy Farrell’s translation? If it is, the introduction might be of interest to you.

  30. Ben Says:

    Nope, my copy doesn’t have an introduction, or even a translator’s name … I downloaded it off the internet. If Farrell’s translation isn’t public domain, I would guess that I don’t have it.


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