03 June 2012

A Strange Uniate argument

We had an interesting guest at the parish today--a Byzantine Catholic whose brother is Orthodox. Both were raised Protestant. When I expressed surprise to the one brother that he would have chosen to become Byzantine Catholic, he used what I consider to be an odd explanation.

Referring to JH Newman's The Development of Doctrine, and connecting it to John 6, he claimed first, that doctrine has continued to develop (in the Newman sort of way). He then claimed that the end of John 6 is normative for the whole history of the church, and that unless a body continues to develop its teachings and bring each new generation to a crisis-point--a point at which some or many of Christ's disciples leave or are tempted to leave--unless that happens, such a body cannot be the Church Christ founded.

To him, it is proof of Orthodoxy's error that it has held no council since 787. (Of course I pointed out the council of 879, which rejected the filioque; I could also have cited the Palamite councils of the 1340's, but no matter.) In any case, I found it odd for a Uniate to argue that the Orthodox Church presents no ongoing crisis-point at which some leave, given that the Uniate movement arose precisely as a departure from the Orthodox faith in favor of Rome.

But I've seen a similar defense for western discussions of, say, original sin and justification. "We in the West have had to deal with more problems than you in the East," this argument goes, "and so our theological language is more precise than yours." It seems to me to be a little like a Saab owner arguing that his car is superior to a Honda, because it has required more time in the shop.

The Church has had councils since 787, of course, as mentioned above. But ongoing theological crises scarcely seem to be a hallmark of truth. It is good when dysfunctional homes work through troubles to achieve some modicum of stability; but it is better when no such internal troubles arise.

Homily for Pentecost 2012

            Today is the feast of Pentecost. Today God’s promises are fulfilled, our hope is accomplished, and the Church is born. Today the curse of Babel is reversed. Long ago men sought to make a name for themselves by building a tower to reach heaven, and by divine judgment their tongues were scattered. But today the Holy Spirit is poured out in tongues of flame, and God unites men and women and children of every race and tribe and tongue, by giving them the name of the consubstantial Trinity, one in essence and undivided.
            Those of us who came from western Christian traditions knew the Sunday after Pentecost as the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. But in the Orthodox Church, we mark the day of Pentecost itself as the day of the Holy Trinity—and there is wisdom in this choice. For on this day, at last the Spirit is most clearly revealed as he comes to the Church in fiery tongues. Here is how St. Gregory the Theologian puts it:
“The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely.  The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit.  Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.“
But why this ordering of revelation? St. Gregory continues, “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, and presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers; but that by gradual additions, and, as David says, Goings up, and advances and progress from glory to glory, the Light of the Trinity might shine upon the more illuminated.”  Thus far Gregory.
So the order in which God shows himself is Father, Son and Spirit. But the order by which we come to know him, reverses the order. We come in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. The Spirit makes us to know the Son, for “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul says, and Christ himself says, “when the Comforter comes, he will bear witness about me.”
By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we come to know the Son. In the 19th century, some liberal theologians wrote lives of Jesus. Finally, Albert Schweitzer wrote a history of those books. He remarks that the Jesus each of them portrayed looked a lot more like an idealized portrait of the theologian. And it happens again today, as people take Christ out of context to make him support their own agendas. At the end, we begin to wonder who Jesus is.
The Holy Spirit makes it clear. He brings us to know Jesus as the Son of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, one in essence but distinct in Person. He also makes us to know his own relation to the Son, for at the Baptism of Jesus he comes from the Father and rests on the Son. And so we believe, and so we confess, that the Spirit proceeds, not from the Father and the Son, but from the Father alone, and rests on the Son.
So in the Second Comforter, we come to know the First Comforter, the Word of God made flesh for us men and for our salvation. And through the First Comforter, we come to know the Father. On the night of Christ’s betrayal, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responded, “Have I been so long with you, and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father…I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”
Note carefully: Christ distinguishes his Person from the Person of the Father. He does not say, “I am the Father,” but “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” But he shows their unity of essence by speaking of “Father” and “Son,” for all fathers are the same essence as the sons they beget. Horse fathers beget horse sons, human fathers beget human sons. Since, in this case, the Father is God, the Son must also be God.
Through the Son we know the Father. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” The cross of Christ is not that of an innocent child crushed by an angry, abusive father.  At Christ’s cross, rather, we see the complete, self-giving love of the Father. Such love!—that he gives us the one in whom dwells all the fullness of deity bodily—utterly and completely gives him, life into death, that through his death we might share the life of the Holy Trinity.
And now, let us never go further. Let us never seek to innovate, or be creative. Let us remain in the teaching we have received, the faith given once for all to the saints. Each week we say, just before the Creed, “Let us love one another, that with one accord we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”
To remain in the Orthodox faith is to remain in love—love for God who has revealed himself, and love for all those who faithfully handed down this truth to us. And the reverse is true. To depart from love—to act out the pride of Babel—is to depart from the Orthodox faith.
So on this day of Pentecost, let us, like them, remain together and in one accord. Let us love each other fervently, not only in word but in deed and truth. By this all men will know that we are Christ’s disciples; and by this we will come, in the Spirit and through the Son, to know the Father.