Why You Can’t Do Orthodoxy By the Book (or the Blog)


There is a grave problem with Orthodoxy – you can’t do it by the book. Even less so, can you do it by the internet (he says as he types away at his blog). The reason for all this is simple: we teach that God has revealed Himself as Person. As I’ve noted before, God cannot be known in general or in a non-personal way. Indeed, it is God Who reveals to us what it means to be personal. Prior to the revelation of the Trinity, mankind did not know of truly personal existence. It is the gift of God.

But, because we know God personally, everything we know about Him is personal as well. All that we know about each other is personal (at least the things we know that have true value).

This is why Orthodox canons work as they do. Orthodox canons state the Church’s discipline in a maximalist fashion – a fashion which then requires Bishops and priests to apply them, pastorally. Thus Orthodoxy cannot be done “by the book” because people are not books. They are each unique and must be treated in a unique manner.

I have four children (five, including my son who fell asleep in Christ). I love all of them – but as every parent knows you do not love them equally (equality simply has no place in relationships – it’s an abstract and children are not abstractions). I love each of them for themselves, and thus could only love wrongly if I loved them all the same.

There is so much information about the Orthodox faith to be found today. Some of it is in books, some is on the web. Some of it is more accurate than others, some is just plain inaccurate. But if it is a matter of the canons, discussions of them simply must be taken before priests or Bishops who alone bear the responsibility for their application. Indeed, I cannot give someone an opinion on a canon with regard to their life if I am not their priest – I would be usurping the authority of another priest if I did so – and in many cases would need to submit a matter to my Bishop, who alone may give certain rulings of economy.

God has so ordered His Church that it remains personal. I have heard my Archbishop say: “Never let anyone tell you that you are ‘people of the book!’ We are not Muslims!” Orthodoxy recognizes Scripture and its authority, but that authority cannot exist apart from the Church anymore than it can exist apart from God.

I have seen more damage done by the mishandling of Scripture than good done by its proper handling. The reason for this is that in our Protestant culture, everyone thinks their own opinion of Scripture is as good as everyone else’s and it is not. Sola Scriptura has not worked (it has created more schisms than can be numbered). The same approach, applied to the Canons, or books on Orthodoxy will only yield the same fruit.

Thus, the best advice you can give someone with regard to the Orthodox faith is: “Go to Church.” It is the Church that St. Paul calls the “Pillar and Ground of the Truth.” The internet is a wonderful tool. It can even function to give us the Scriptures electronically. Blogs can be nice. But none of them are the Church. Here you may read and by God’s grace good things will happen. But blogs will not give you the Body and Blood of Christ. Blogs cannot anoint you. Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.

And remember to pray for bloggers.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





17 responses to “Why You Can’t Do Orthodoxy By the Book (or the Blog)”

  1. Dean Arnold Avatar

    “People are not books.”

    That was a most excellent blog entry.

    It makes me think of someone from flatland trying to reveal ultimate truth to the people in three D land. Just can’t do it.

    A couple of years back I started to shy away from debating Orthodoxy with people who showed interest. I found myself lowering myself to the level of rationality only. But we are far more than rational, and our culture is crying out for something other than rational propositions found in books, despite the fact that they will start a debate with you which implies that the most logical answers will sway their decisions.

    No, we are all crying out for the personal and the mystical.

    These days, I tell my friends to visit an Orthodox church. “Just visit a few times, and then let’s talk again.”

    If they really have more questions at that point, I’m happy to talk with them (I’m not rude about it), but the fact that I’m not viscerally invested in the discussion usually makes it end rather quickly anyway.

    Actually, what I try to do is steer the conversation away from logical debate and instead cast a vision of the mystical, of the fulfilling nature of the Living Tradition. So I’ll talk a little about the eucharist, the great connector of spirit and matter, the holy mystery of union that only be achieved in person, not by reading a book.

  2. Tia Avatar

    “No, we are all crying out for the personal and the mystical.”


    “the fulfilling nature of the Living Tradition.”

    I think this is what is pulling us towards Orthodoxy the most. We (dh and I) are so very weary of a presentation of God that is explained away, every nuance and mystery broken down into “understandable” segments.

  3. almost o Avatar
    almost o


    I hate to ask this, as it may go against the spirit of this post, but could you offer some short reflections regarding divorce and contraception within Orthodox tradition? Perhaps an Orthodox understanding of “natural law” might be helpful? How might an Orthodox talk to a Roman Catholic on these issues?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Almost O,

    I wrote an answer posted it, and then deleted it. I feel that the subject does involve lots of pastoral questions that I don’t want to treat on a blog. I will offer and say that priests and deacons may not remarry (even if our spouse dies) but that under certain circumstances, with the blessing of the Bishop, it is allowed for laity (actually not infrequently) but not more more than 3 times in a lifetime. But all of the issues surrounding this are pastoral and have to be looked at case by case. The important thing is that this is not a “legal” issue.

    I would prefer not to get into the subject of contraception on the blog. There are too many pastoral and personal issues involved to treat it broadly.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Almost O,

    I should have added, that I am not the man to ask about the Orthodox view of Natural Law. It’s outside my realm of theological competency

  6. almost o Avatar
    almost o

    Sorry. I am just finding myself unable to defend my move to my RC friends. We are, or rather were, ultramontanes. They will simply think that I am totally crazy. “Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool.”

  7. Roland Avatar

    This post touched on all of the things that make Orthodoxy hard for Western Christians to understand and appreciate. The Western obsession with “fairness” lends itself to a systematic, legalistic approach to the faith. Rules are written clearly and explicitly and applied equally to all. Standards are set low enough such that the faithful can be expected to meet them. And the catechism is laid out clearly as a series of straightforward questions and answers to be memorized.

    Here are two bits I use in trying to explain Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox friends.

    A Western catechism gives you all the questions that define what you need to know, and it puts all the answers in the back of the book so you don’t have to go the trouble of looking them up. Orthodoxy doesn’t put the answers in the back of the book. You have to do the homework – attend the Liturgy, sing the hymns, look at the icons, read the scriptures, learn the history – and along the way you have these little epiphanies.

    In the West, the rules and disciplines of the church are presented as minimum standards that, if met, will keep us out of hell. In Orthodoxy, the rules and discplines are much more difficult because their purpose is to tell us what we need to do to be perfect. It’s understood that most of us aren’t there yet – that’s why we have confession and economy.

  8. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Oh Roland, truer words were never spoken!

    As a recovering legalist, I at least had the advantage of being a Pentecostal before my conversion, so I had a bit of help with the mystical and paradoxical nature of Orthodoxy.

    But still, it is hard to change a mindset so ingrained in the very culture in which we live.

    Fr. Stephen, please greet Fr. Chris for me.


  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    almost O,

    You really don’t need to defend your choice, just do the best to live it. There are a million things that could be said and have been said for centuries about the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and us, little of it has ever convinced anybody on either side. At first, a personal subjective answer is the best response. The more objective responses may come later, or may not. Like Fr. Stephen noted in one of his other posts, we are all icons.

    I asked to be received into the Church for one overriding reason; here is where I found God. Here is where I can be in communion with a loving creator as fully and completely as I am able to bear. Here is where I found my salvation.

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Well said, Michael. The arguments and conversations between Orthodox and Rome are endless. If you want a knock down answer, there isn’t one. I hate to say it, but the ultramontanes, to use your term, want very tight fool-proof arguments, often. Orthodoxy won’t give you that. I believe that it offers the Truth, in a life lived in union with Christ. But we have not done so in a way that has championed argumentation. At least I am underdeveloped as a maker or arguments. Sometimes they can have their usefulness (philosophical and theological exploration are always helpful), but only as they are used in the context of a life. I wish I could be of more help on the question.

  11. David_Bryan Avatar

    An excellent and needed post, Father. I’m pleasantly surprised (and honored!) to find myself blogrolled here! (I was directed to this blog via a discussion forum). I look forward to continued reading of your thoughts.

  12. almost o Avatar
    almost o

    Thanks. I agree with the above sentiments.

  13. Steve Hayes Avatar

    Amen and Amen

    Some time ago I taught in a university missiology department and my boss, David Bosch, was one of the greatest missiologists of his time, and his book Transforming mission has become a standard missiological text book.

    But his chapter dealing with Orthodox missiology was one of the weakes in his book, and I dound it difficult, as an Orthodox Christian, to understand what he was saying. And the reason for the weakness, I believe, was that he was not familiar with the Divine Liturgy. He read the texts, and as a Protestant, with the emphasis on “the Word”, that was enough, so he did not see much point in experiencing “the word made flesh”.

    More recently, only last week, in fact, I attended a conference of the South African Faith Communities Environmental Institute. It was held in an Orthodox Church hall, and during the lunch break a Hindu delegate had a look inside the church, and asked me if the Orthodox Church believed in reincarnation, and I said no, because the Orthodox Christian faith is personal, and that is the chief difference between Orthodoxy and Hinduism or Buddhism. Reincarnation is the continuation of life, but not personality. He had put his finger on the core difference.

  14. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Bishop Anastasios of Albania has written on Orthodox mission very wonderfully. I can’t cite texts right now, but suggest looking them up. There are some other things going on in Orthodox missiology (from an academic point of view) that are also excellent, not to mention the excellent work of Orthodox missions. Contact the OCMC and they can give you many great references. I am with Fr. David Rucker, soon to be with the OCMC this weekend. He is an outstanding missiologist and a great resource. I recommend any conversation with him.

  15. Bernard Franklin Brandt Avatar

    While I have been at an Eastern Catholic church for the past twenty years, and not an Orthodox Church, it has been one which the local (former) OCA Bishop, His Grace, Bishop Tikhon of the eparchy of San Francisco and Los Angeles, (certainly not one interested in “ecumenism”) has described as “more Orthodox in practice than many of my churches”. (or words to that effect).

    That said, I entirely agree with Fr. Stephen that Eastern Divine Worship (or more particularly, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) is something that I can not adequately describe to those who have not served in or participated in it.

    And further, I have received a spiritual nourishment and education there that I could not have found through books, or through the Internet.

    From this rather left-handed perspective, I entirely agree with Fr. Stephen. Orthodoxy (or at the very least, Eastern Christianity) is not something one can find in a book. As Fr. Sergei Glagolev quite tellingly said: “The Church is the last oral culture.”

  16. Alex Avatar

    Thank You

  17. cp Avatar

    Thanks be to God for blog archives!
    How did I miss this one?

    Thank you for these words.


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