Is Luther Finally Winning?

Martin Luther was, in many ways, The Godfather of Protestantism. The movement arguably started before him, and definitely broadened courtesy of other major players such as Calvin and Zwingli, but Luther seemed to be the spark to the powder keg that would disrupt Christianity in the West to the present time.

During the 16th Century, Lutheran theologians reached out to the Patriarch of Constantinople. They saw in Eastern Orthodoxy a group much like themselves. They assumed, incorrectly, that Orthodoxy held to Protestant view and that led to the great schism of 1054. What they discovered, however, is that many of their views were, in fact, inconsistent with the faith of the early Church.

In the midst of the current Covid-19 crisis, we see that there are Orthodox theologians who espouse a perspective regarding the Eucharist that seems consistent only with Luther’s theology, and not with that of the Orthodox Church. This theology, in turn, is adopted by priests and others, especially those with little experience in theology, and the disease is spread throughout the faithful.

I can cite two pieces that may be somewhat independent, by Orthodox priests, that are guilty of espousing Lutheranism, and one by a lay scientist who then uses their perspective to spread an incorrect theology through fear of death to the faithful.

Both of the articles by the priests suffer an immediate logical flaw in asserting the those who insist that the Eucharist cannot transmit disease are guilty of Docetism. Of course, the quickest way to shut down any argument is to accuse someone of a defined heresy of the Church. In this case, Docetism. Perhaps they didn’t do well in their history classes in seminary, but it’s hard to tell. Docetism was the perspective that Christ’s human nature was a complete fiction. Nothing in His human sufferings was real.

Of course, Orthodoxy confirms that Christ’s human nature was entirely human. His suffering wasn’t a falsehood at all. However, even a shallow reading of the Gospels shows us that Christ did things that are not entirely consistent with a human nature. He was incarnate of a virgin, He walked on water, He raised the dead, healed the sick, performed any number of actions that were inconsistent with natural law. Does this make the Gospel writer Docetists? Of course not.

The next problem is that they equate the Eucharist with Christ having two natures – divine and human. To date, I’ve not been able to find any Father of the Church who correlates the two. That doesn’t mean that the Orthodox Church doesn’t hold to that correlation, but rather that I couldn’t find evidence for it.

I’m not sure why I never finished this piece, but I’ll wrap it up here.  The lay scientist I refer to above, in another place, posits that those who hold the position that the Eucharist will not transmit disease are guilty of superstition.  Similar to simply accusing one of a defined heresy, accusing them of being superstitious is another attempt to simply shut down argument.  She then goes on to add that people holding such a view also lack scientific literacy.  Given that I have a degree in Biochemistry from one of the top schools in the world in that subject, I don’t think anyone can accuse me of lacking scientific literacy.  It’s interesting to note that she refers to people that “claim that one cannot get infected with respiratory viruses in the church or from sharing liturgical objects with direct contact to the human oral cavity which contains epithelial cells with capacity to harbor various pathogens”.  I have to admit I am unaware of anyone who asserts you can’t get sick in Church.  We know of examples of people being killed while in Church, so this perspective, assuming it isn’t simply a straw man of her making, fails on an historical basis.  The latter definition is also a bit of a straw man.  Nobody is asserting you can’t get infected by shared liturgical objects.  The argument is that the Eucharist, given its supernatural basis, will not transmit disease.  Of course, the counter argument is that we’re referring to the spoon and not the Eucharist per se, but that becomes a how many angels can dance on the head of a pin sort of argument.  There are numerous quotes one can find in the fathers about the supernatural powers of the Eucharist, which can be found in various articles I reference in this post.  Unfortunately, since the individual who made these comments suffers herself from a lack of theological literacy, it is unsurprising that she is unfamiliar with these teachings of various of the fathers.

Since I don’t believe I’ve quoted this elsewhere online, I think it is interesting to quote Blessed Theophylact’s commentary on the raising of the widow’s son from the Gospel according to St. Luke:  “He does not perform this miracle by His word alone, but He also touches the bier, teaching us that His very Body is life.  Because God the Word Who gives life to all things Himself became flesh, therefore His flesh itself is likewise life-creating, and takes away death and corruption.”

Luther, or at least the scholars that followed in his footsteps, would likely agree with those who believe that you can get sick from the Eucharist.  While they believe that Christ is present in the sacrament (unlike the much more Nestorian Calvinists who absolutely would agree that communion would transmit disease), He is present along side the bread and wine, not integral to it, so presumably one could get sick via the bread and wine.  Although Lutherans would agree that the material world can transmit spiritual reality, it is not clear to me that they have an understanding that God can effect physical change of the material – rendering things clean, pure, and holy.  Their view of the nature of the Eucharist seem to suggest that they don’t believe in the fundamental alteration of the nature of things.  The writers I cite above also seem to struggle with this belief.  In fact, they seem to hold a view that God is somehow bound by the laws of nature (as we understand them).  This materialist perspective is unfortunately inconsistent with Orthodoxy, and I see it spread among Orthodox I find myself wondering if Luther is winning after all this time.


Corruption and Creation

“because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” Romans 8:21, NKJV

We know from the book of Genesis that when God had completed each step of creation, He saw that it was good. What are to we make of this, though? There are some who declare that everything we seen in nature today is inherently good, because the initial creation was good. In particular, discussions of the Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2 in particular) have led some to argue that the virus is good as well. This is frequently followed by rather painful semantic argument that “disease” is separate from “disease causing organism”, when discussions around the transmission of disease arise. The disease, one can argue, isn’t transmitted, just the virus. We’ll address this point a bit later on.

It would perhaps be useful to delve into the literal 6 day creation vs. evolution debate, but I don’t think its necessary in this case. I’m interested in the state of the cosmos when man was created, vs. the state of the cosmos after the fall. We are told in Genesis 3 that God declares that the very ground is cursed because of what Adam did (I note that it doesn’t declare that God changed anything about the created order. The implication is that Adam caused creation to become corrupted). This theme is played out in some of the hymns of Forgiveness Sunday (the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise), and then again at the Nativity, where we can only then look forward to Christ restoring creation to a state where the curse no longer exists. There is no corruption.

“O miserable soul, you have departed far from God through your carelessness; you have been deprived of the delight of Paradise and parted from the angels; you have been led down into corruption, How are you fallen!” – Canticle VI, Forgiveness Sunday

“O Paradise, share in the sorrow of your master who is brought to poverty, and with the sound of your leaves pray to the Creator that He may not keep your gate closed for ever. I am fallen , in Your compassion have mercy on me.” – Canticle VI, Kontakion, Forgiveness Sunday.

In Genesis 3 we also see that because of Adam’s actions, the ground will now bring forth thorns and thistles. It appears that his actions caused new things to arise that would no longer be considered good. This is particularly interesting given that the three main theories of where viruses come from, have them starting from something else. The first theory is that they developed from genetic material in earlier single cell organisms. There are certain viruses that have traits that appear as if this is the case. The second theory, which appears to be true for other classes of viruses, posits that the virus was originally an organism capable of reproducing on its own, but came to a place where it needed to rely on another organism to reproduce. The third theory, which is somewhat more controversial, is that viruses may represent the original self replicating organism. Even in this third case, what we have now is something that relies on another organism to reproduce (I am admittedly playing fast and loose with terminology, as calling a virus an organism may imply that it is living, and that debate is still very much ongoing). What makes viruses dangerous, by and large, is that they need a host in order to reproduce, and they damage or kill that host in the process of reproduction. While it is true that in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the worst of the disease comes from our immune response to the virus, the virus wouldn’t be much of a problem except that it infects us, and starts destroying large numbers of cells.

In all cases, though, the virus is a corruption from something that existed before it. Therefore, one can easily argue that it is not part of that which God called good, but rather a corruption. The result of the ground being cursed as a result of Adam’s actions. We can only hope that restoration promised in the hymns of the Nativity and elsewhere will result in the elimination of all viruses. Fr. Hovorun’s article would have us believe, I guess, that viruses would be around even after the second coming. Apparently continuing to infest healthy cells, take over their reproductive machinery, but, not causing disease somehow?

As for the semantic argument that disease is different from disease causing organism, that argument is used to hand wave away statements from the Church Fathers about how disease cannot be transmitted via communion. Using the most precise definition of terms, of course, disease is never transmitted anyways (perhaps genetic disease would be the exception). Thus statements by the Fathers are merely absurd statements of the obvious. Of course communion won’t transmit disease, because nothing will. However, I think the Fathers meant more than stating the obvious.

One final item of note. Hovorun asserts that Christ would have carried around viruses and transmitted them. This means that Christ would be the primary cause of many people coming down with influenza, and many other diseases. Does that actually make sense?

Eucharist and Epidemic

Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. – Romans 8:21

I am posting this piece as a list of what I feel are great articles on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Eugenia Constantinou’s piece on the spiritual problems with the response in the Church to Covid-19

Fr. John Breck wrote this piece several years ago during the swine flu pandemic.

An interview with a French theologian,

Fr. John Whiteford’s views.

A summary of some of the research on the transmission of disease via communion.

John Sanidopoulos’ Coronavirus Resource Page

A beautiful piece by a monk on Mt. Athos on the mode of being.

The chalice, the spoon, and our fear of death.

OCA piece from the H1N1 days

Does Racism Have a Place in Orthodoxy?

“All sins have some “extenuating circumstances”, but injustice has none. Injustice draws the wrath of God.” St. Paisios of Mt. Athos.

In 1872, the Council of Constantinople declared that phyletism, or the notion of dividing the Church up based on national, or more specifically, racial lines was declared to be heresy.  What underlay this decision, I wondered?  What teaching from the fathers of the Church would support this decision?

It begins, in many ways, in the Acts of the Apostle’s, at least explicitly so.  In the tenth chapter, St. Peter states that, “Truly, I perceive that God does not show favoritism, but in every nation, whoever fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”  The word we translate as nation, taken in a modern context (or at least since the thirty years war of the 17th century), would seem to indicate the nation-state, or at least that is how many of us would interpret it.  However, the Greek word in question is εθνος, or ethnicity.  St. Paul transmits a similar thought in Galatians 3:28, the famous passage about their being neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.  There is a unity of persons within the Church. Generally speaking, prior to the rise of the Christian Church, religion tended to exist among roughly ethnic lines.  The closest modern equivalent to this is Hinduism.  True Hinduism, as I understand it, is the religion of a specific ethnic group, and so the idea of other races becoming Hindu is foreign.  With Christianity, God’s revelation to the Church was that He was not the God of a specific ethnic group, but rather the God of all mankind.  Anyone could become a Christian, unlike Judaism where a Gentile could become a believer, but was always relegated to second class status.

In later writings, we see that this notion developed further.  Writers such as Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis refer to the race, or εθνος of Christians[1].  No longer is there Jew, Greek, White, Black, etc.  Rather a new race has been formed, and it is the Christian Race.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  One of the many hymns we will be singing says, in part, “When the power of the divine Spirit came down, it divinely united in one harmony the voice divided of old…”. The separation of mankind so long ago, into separate races, it brought to an end.

[1] Denise Kimber Buell, Race and Universalism in Early Christianity

On Science and Orthodoxy

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts the mind set on the things of the flesh and contrasts it with the mind set on things of the Spirit, and concludes “The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6 (EOB).  When addressing the current issue around the reception of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church, we must be careful that we don’t have our mind so focused on earthly, fleshy things, that we ignore the deeper reality of the Spirit. In particular, we must be cognizant of this when we are involving science in the discussion.

To begin, it is important to describe what we mean by “science”.  Science is a method.  We look at information that we are able to observe, we propose an explanation (hypothesis, from the Greek meaning, essentially a foundation).  We then perform experiments to test the validity of that hypothesis.  Typically, the experiments do not entirely validate the hypothesis so we refine it and test further.  That is the nature of the process.  Along the way, we hopefully have enough data that we feel comfortable relying on the hypothesis to make other decisions.  However, we must remain mindful of the limits of any hypothesis based on the scientific method.  I want to discuss three limitations to science that are important in the context of this discussion.

  The first limitation is that science can be wrong sometimes. One could argue that it is in the nature of science to be wrong, at least a little bit. We then take what we learn, develop a new hypothesis. More specifically, though, sometimes science creates a bigger set of challenges because of the errors. One is the now famous war on fat and cholesterol, with eggs being a major target. However, it turns out that science had got it wrong. However, it wasn’t just wrong, the war on fat led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We listened to what scientists told us, perhaps without an appropriate level of inquiry and created a public health disaster. More recently, we listened to what scientists told us and shut down studies on a drug that might actually be beneficial in treating Covid-19. One of the tendencies we need be aware of is that of elevating science to a religion, and its practitioners to that of priests and bishops. We must challenge its findings. Scientists are human after all. Intelligent for the most part, but prone to ego, narcissism, politics, etc.

Science is also not capable of informing us on ethical issues. Science, as a matter of fact, was used as the basis of one of the most horrific movements of the last century, that of Eugenics. Eugenics was based on the science of the day, but without any question of the ethics involved. Yes, much of the science was ultimately proven incorrect (see the previous paragraph), but at the time it was thought to be correct. To fully understand what occurred at the time, I recommend this book.

The most important area where we need to understand the limits of science is in regards to the miraculous.  Science is concerned with repeatable phenomena that follow some form of law, specifically natural law.  It cannot deal with things that don’t conform to natural law.  This, then, brings us to the question at hand.  Many things that we hold dear, both in Scripture, and in the life of the Church, have to do with miraculous events that defy the laws of nature.  Much of the Gospels has to do with miracles performed by Jesus.  If we eliminate all of the miraculous, we have a much reduced set of Gospels.  In fact, we more or less would end up with the revised New Testament of Thomas Jefferson.  A very rationalistic individual, Thomas Jefferson didn’t see a need for the miraculous.  It simply didn’t fit his scientific world view.  If it didn’t comport to natural law (as understood by the science of the time), it must not be true.

This view of the universe did not die with Jefferson in 1826.  It is a common perspective held by some who are active in the field of science (a most notable exception is John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and physicist), and by some who style themselves modern intellectuals.  A notable example is John Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop in the United States, who fundamentally disagreed with the vast majority of Christian doctrine because it didn’t agree with his view of the world.  Given his age (born in 1931) and when he received his science education, he seemed largely confined to a Newtonian world view.  Absent some of the very unusual finding of quantum mechanics, he could not see how such things as the resurrection could possibly be true.  It disagrees with natural law and science.

We see this perspective very clearly in this article by Cyril Hovorun, described by another theologian as being filled with a slew of heresies, as he states that those who believe that the body and blood of Christ cannot cause disease are mistaken and that “Their mistake, firstly, is docetic, because, like ancient docetists, they believe that the Body of Christ is exempted from the laws of nature”. Christ’s body is subject to the laws of nature, period, and to believe otherwise is to be a heretic. To be correct, he does assert the Christ’s body cannot be damaged by microorganisms, like ours, but at the same time must have them present. Why they must be present isn’t entirely clear. Fundamentally, though, he seeks to restrict the operation of Christ’s body to only those things possible within the constraints of the laws of nature. Hovorun’s article was posted to Public Orthodoxy on March 23rd, just two days before the feast of the Annunciation.  On the feast of the Annunciation, I had the privilege of chanting the Orthros service that day – absent a congregation as we were at the beginning of the Covid lockdown.  When we go to the ninth ode of the canon, I chanted the following (I used a different translation, but the same text)  “Having conceived God in ways past understanding, O Maiden, thou hast escaped from the ordinances (laws) of nature.[1]”  What? Christ’s conception defied natural law?  How could that be?  Based on what Fr. Hovurun tells us, this is not at all correct.  The doctrine of the Church, as expressed in our hymnography, is incorrect because it posits that Christ and the Theotokos somehow defy natural law.  Let’s go further, Christ rose from the dead, walked through walls after that.  His Saints died and left bodies that would not undergo corruption.  Some of their bodies streamed myrrh.  Some icons, made simply of a block of wood, do the same thing.  An article of clothing belonging to St. Nektarios when he reposed, was placed on the bed of a paralyzed man (over part of his body) while the Saint’s body was being prepared for burial.  The man was instantly healed from his paralysis. How is any of this possible?  It defies natural law.

As noted above, Hovurun seeks to have it both ways. Christ acts outside the laws of nature in that He can’t become sick from the pathogens He apparently hosts, but He must host them. In another article, I’ll address Hovorun’s assertion that all aspects of what now exists in nature is inherently good. That, and his understanding of the origins of viruses are both tried and found wanting.

Much of modern Christianity has come to follow Jefferson’s lead.  It is only Christ’s moral teaching that is true and of value.  The miraculous events, and the demands that places on us from an intellectual perspective, can easily be discarded.  The general sense that we get from much of our hierarchy on this subject, seems to support the same view. 

I understand that people struggle with this.  On the one hand there is a the risk from a very real and, for some people, a very deadly virus.  On the other hand, there is the conviction that Christ’s body and blood would not serve as a means of our death.  That takes a leap of faith (images of Indian Jones comes to mind at this point).  If some can’t overcome the fear for a period, that is okay.  It’s part of our ongoing struggle.  If you are struggling with the supernatural nature of the Eucharist, what is the point of receiving it now anyways?  Pres. Eugenia Constantinou remarked recently that one key aspect of Christianity and its sacraments is that the recipient has to receive them.  A priest can’t simply impart them.  They have to be consciously received.  If we currently struggle with what the Church tells us, that Christ’s body and blood are somehow present supernaturally, then we can’t truly receive the body and blood.  Yes, we can consume the physical elements, but we can’t truly receive.  In that situation, isn’t it best to refrain anyways?  Until you are in a place where you can?

[1] The Festal Menaion by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware