Orthodox Fundamentalism, A Response

Recently a friend pointed out this article, by a George Demacopoulos, who is a professor of Historical Theology and the Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.  His position and title are somewhat germane to the following analysis.

When I asked about what I thought regarding the article, I was going to write up a response, then decided not to when I ran across this response posted by Fr. John Whiteford.  My friend has since posed the following response:

I went back and reread Father Whiteford’s response. I didn’t read Democopoulos’ piece as if it were a piece of systematic theology. It was only a couple of pages long, more of an essay or a precis to an essay. I think W. Is taking D. a little too literally. I think D. was trying to relate to the reader some of his reservations with Orthodox fundamentalists (I think you and I probably agree on who he’s talking about without putting too fine a point on it). Speaking as a convert, I agree with D., generally speaking. But if I interpreted D. In W’s terms, I wouldn’t agree.

Perhaps D, could have been a little less polemical with his terms, but don’t you think D. got most of it right?

I’m going to come right out and say that, no, I don’t think he got most of it right.  Before I commence, a few caveats are important.  One is that I lean toward the traditional side in my Orthodoxy.  I have a great number of friends who are likely the targets of Demacopoulos’ piece, and I may be classified in the same group by him.  I suspect I would be.  I’m sure Fr. John would be.  The other is that Fr. John and I are both survivors, not without some injury, of the Episcopal wars that have led to an increasingly irrelevant religious body that stands for nothing except for what is in opposition to the history of the faith.  We see individuals within the Orthodox Church who make statements that are very similar to the sorts of things one would hear out of so-called Episcopal theologians say 20 or 30 years ago.  Thus, we are likely a bit sensitized to such things.  Finally, I will say that I know nothing much about the Volos conference, although I guess I’ll have to look further into it, and perhaps post back more regarding it.  My difficulties with the Demacopoulos piece are with the piece itself.

Style

I will agree that the piece was not meant to be a significant theological treatise.  However, it is much more than an offhand remark made in passing or during some form of interview.  Rather, this was a widely posted essay (and yes, really more the introduction to what could become a much longer piece) meant to effectively belittle the more traditional Orthodox.  If it was merely an introduction, followed by a more detailed essay with citations, I could accept it a bit more, although it is still replete with errors.

I think that people some times have more that should be demanded of them because of the position they hold.  Professional athletes, for instance, are chastised for behaviors that are not entirely uncommon in our society (drug use, dishonesty, etc.), and are in fact, somewhat accepted by many, precisely because of their position as role models for young athletes.  They may not have specifically set out to be a role model, but it is a necessary part of their job.  Professors and other academics have an expectation placed upon them for a certain amount of intellectual rigor.  Straw men, broad generalizations, and blatant untruths are the things of politicians, and we are right to expect better out of those charged with educating our children and our future leaders.

Professor Demacopoulos comes across in this piece as either a standard issue politician or a petulant child who’s favorite toy (in this case a conference his university hosts) has been broken by some neighborhood children.  Frankly I expect better.

The Bogey Man

Demacopoulos starts out aiming his piece at a Orthodox fundamentalist.  While Fr. John is correct in pointing out that the term is technically inaccurate, I think he gets a bit carried away.  We know precisely why Demacopoulos chooses the term.  It is because the best connotation it brings is Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which are largely held in low view throughout this country, and certainly amongst the intelligensia, while the worst connotation is that of ISIL and their current campaign to send the Middle East, and frankly the rest of the world if they have their way, back to the stone age.  By tarring Orthodox Christians who disagree with Demacopoulos and those of his view as fundamentalists, he is seeking to shut down argument immediately.  It is polemic at its very lowest.

Orthodoxy does change over time, but quite slowly.  New hymns are introduced, but slowly.  Vestments have morphed, the structure of the service has both contracted in some places and expanded in others.  All of this, however is done very slowly as we are necessarily cautious.  The controversies that led to the early church councils are the reason.  We know that something new needs to be evaluated to ensure that it is in keeping with the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”  We’ll come back to this specific point later, but it is important to note that within Orthodoxy there are those who are very hesitant to accept things that appear to be new, and in particular that appear to contradict the faith.  At times, this can take the form of unnecessary polemic, and there are certainly those who are too ready to trot out the term heretic and apply to thus and such a person.  I think that labeling a person as a heretic is best left to Ecumenical Councils, but I think it is appropriate to use the term heresy or heretical teaching.  That being said, those of us who are traditional should show more than a bit of restraint and analyze new teachings with a spirit of charity before assigning labels.

Demacopoulos attributes several statements to this fundamentalist bogey man in his piece.  However, since we have no references, citations, links, etc. to anyone or any organization actually making these statements, we are left to take him at his word (for instance, when he says “radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy”, it would be nice, given the tone, for him to provide some backup).  Given some issues he has with accuracy elsewhere in his piece, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would take him at his word.

The Bogey Man made of Straw

Strawman

The bogey man is claimed to hold four specific positions.  The first, and apparently the key error, is that he believes that “the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters”, and that Orthodoxy has never changed.

The second is that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.

The third is that the Church Fathers were anti-intellectual.

The fourth is that adhering to the teaching of the Fathers requires resisting all things Western.

Again, we have no actual examples of anyone holding these views.  I will say that I know of no one who actually holds even one of these views.  The great modern teachers that those of us of a more traditional approach like to read, such as Fr. Romanides, or Metropolitan Hierotheos, never make such claims.  I’d have to go back and look, but if ever these topics arose, I’m sure they would argue against them.  Amongst the rank and file  traditional Orthodox, I similarly have never heard such statements.

As my friend points out, we know to whom Demacopoulos is referring.  People who criticize a priest because of the lack of a beard, or who doesn’t push adherence to the fasts, or who tends to cut services short at times.  At times the priest can be accused of heresy (and similarly bishops) for these sorts of “infractions”.  Some of these represent reasonable criticisms, although there is often examples of a judgmentalism that is, itself, not Orthodox, and we all must remember to tend to our own failings first.  However, Demacopoulos, by constructing this straw man and knocking it down, seeks to dismiss traditional Orthodox out of hand.

Errors and Weak Foundations

Demacopoulos uses his straw man as the basis for arguing for the truth of the matter.  However, he is guilty of some rather significant errors, some of which Fr. John highlights.  In other cases, he is not so much in error, but there is left an ambiguity which can then become the foundation for error, as the foundation itself is in error.

The first error is the assertion that Sts. Peter and Paul disagreed over circumcision.  Orthodox and Catholics are often accused by protestants of not reading the Bible, and I fear that Professor Demacopoulos comes across in that statement as someone who has not read the Bible, and is, instead relying on someone else’s interpretation.  Acts 15 records the very first Church Council.  As we are told, St. Paul and St. Silas go to Jerusalem to address adherence to the Old Covenant practices with regard to Christians.  St. Paul clearly is of the opinion that the faith that was revealed to him by Christ after his conversion experience does not require adherence to the Jewish practices.  St. Peter arises, during the council, and makes a brief, but eloquent speech, in which he agrees with St. Paul.  The Apostles and Elders determine, based on the revelation that had been given them, that circumcision was not to be required.

Subsequent to this event, St. Paul describes an event in Galatians 2, where, unfortunately, St. Peter appears to be playing the part of the hypocrite.  It is not that he believes differently about circumcision, witnessed by the fact that he will eat with the Gentiles, but that instead of standing up to the Judaizers, he acquiesces when they are around and withdraws from the Gentiles.

A similar error, as Fr. John points out, exists in the description of what St. John of Damascus did with the hymnography.  For the Orthodox, the hymnography is one of the safeguards of theology, so messing with it would be significant, and abandoning it would be unthinkable.  What St. John did was to add some hymns into the mix.  Over time, the Biblical odes fell into disuse in most churches, and only those additional hymns remain.  I suspect this was acceptable because the hymns provided a summary teaching of the odes that preceded them.  The assumption is likely that people are familiar with the odes and their contents, and so the summary teaching, the interpretation, is more critical.

None of this is to argue that the Fathers were in complete agreement on all things.  However, what tends to happen is that people like Demacopoulos take the idea that there are disagreements in the Fathers at times, and thus all things are open to revision.  Now, this is decidedly my assertion about where he is heading, and so is necessarily unfair as he has said nothing directly like this in this article or elsewhere.  He may not even believe it, but there are those who will take what he says as the foundation for such a teaching.  This is where my history in the Episcopal Church comes into play.  I’ve seen this very thing argued.

Demacopoulos further supports my assertion when he says “The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world”.  Really?  I would challenge Demacopoulos to support that assertion.  I’m a chanter (or at least I try to be), so I can say that over the 8 years or so that I’ve been involved in that ministry I have chanted a great number of hymns about various Fathers of the Church.  For many/most bishops among the saints, the hymns read similar to this one for St. Athanasius:

You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for you did preach unto all that God the Son is one essence in very truth with God the Father; thus you did shame Arius.  Righteous Father Athanasius, do you entreat Christ God that His great mercy may be granted unto us.

Or, this one, for St. Basil

Your sound has gone forth into all the earth, which has received your word.  Thereby you have divinely taught the Faith; you have made manifest the nature of all things that be; you have adorned the ways of man.  O namesake of the royal priesthood, our righteous Father Basil, intercede with Christ God that our sould be saved.

For others that were either monastics of great piety or martyrs (that is, we know of them primarily from their martyrdom), the hymns have a different flavor, although typically it is that they were deep in piety and adherence to Orthodoxy, such as St. Pelagia.  The “soul-wrenching quest to seek God” isn’t a process for these saints of starting from something new, or attempting to create something new, but rather is a process of deep adherence to Orthodoxy and its ascetical disciplines.  While their quest is a great example, and is significant, it is not “the signficance,” or the hymnography for those concerned with dogma would be quite different.  Demacopoulos reveals a bit about himself on this point that underscores the opposition he has received.

His final major error, I would argue, is his views of Ecumenical Councils.  He asserts that Orthodox Theology has changed “or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.”  I look to a distinction that Metropolitan Hierotheos uses in his book on the Person in Orthodox Theology.  There is an experiential theology, which is the actual theology of the Church.  It is the experience of God that the saints of the Church have had.  It is this that comprises the Faith once delivered.  Over the centuries, when you read the stories of the great ascetics, you find remarkable unity, from the earliest desert Fathers up to St. Seraphim of Sarov.  Then there is dogmatic theology.  As Met. Hierotheos states, this is necessarily more polemical.  It’s purpose is to express the experiential theology in dogmatic fashion.  It is where the Fathers have had to adopt various philosophical terms and at time get quite technical.  This is what was happening at the councils.  It was not a consensus building exercise in order to develop new teaching – or worse yet, revise teaching.  It is commonly taught among certain Orthodox (and it is positively dogmatic in the Episcopal church at this point), that since the councils were constructing new teachings, we can construct new teachings now, which might necessarily mean we strike down old teachings.  Finally, it is hard to describe the entire process as one of consensus.  Certainly the dating of Pascha was essentially consensus building and harmonization.  Likely the punishments for those involved in the Arian heresy was probably consensus as the subject is quite pastoral in nature.  However, with regard to the main issue, that of the teaching of Arius, it is hard to describe the process as consensus building when the following is stated in a letter to the Church in Egypt from the council:

The holy Council has anathematized all these ideas, barely able to endure it as we listened to such impious opinions (or rather madnesses) and such blasphemous words.

Yes, as I indicated before, I am reading into some of this essay, and so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily critical.  But I hear the not so faint echoes of the sorts of things that were being taught by leaders in the Episcopal Church not so long ago.  If I imply that the Fathers are only significant as pious examples, I exclude them as sources of dogmatic teaching.  If I imply that the councils were developing new theology through a process of consensus building, I open the door to simply creating new theology now.

So, to reiterate, I find that Democopoulos got his letter mostly wrong, not mostly right.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *