Doctrines and Opinion

From the Desert Fathers:

Malicious sceptics visited Abba Agathon to see if they could annoy him. They had heard that Agathon possessed great discretion and self-control. They spoke directly to him, “Agathon, we heard that you are an adulterer and full of pride.”

He answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Are you the same Agathom who gossips and slanders?”

“I am.”

“Are you Agathon the heretic?”

“No, I am not a heretic.”

“Why did you patiently endure it when we slandered you, but refuse to be called a heretic?”

Agathon answered, “Your first accusations were good for my soul, but to be a heretic is to be separated from God. I do not want to be apart from God.”


candlesChristianity inhabits a confused and confusing world of religious belief. There are those among us (including the Orthodox) who use the label “heretic” too easily. There are others for whom the word has no meaning – they are indifferent to doctrinal belief.

One reason for this particular confusion is that, for many, doctrine inhabits a space called “opinion” and they are right not to give much weight to opinion. My opinion in doctrine does not matter. Others recognize that doctrine matters (the history of the Christian faith bears witness to this) but still do not make a proper distinction between opinion and doctrine.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.

It has been noted on this blog (and in many other places) that argumentation rarely brings someone into the faith. Argument may have an important role to play in the lives of some – but generally the Orthodox faith (even for those who came to believe it through argumentation) must be embraced not as the result of right argument – but as a gift from God given to us to correct our heart and rightly dispose us to the work of God within us.

For instance, it is not possible to give God proper honor nor to rightly dispose our heart to Him unless and until we acknowledge Him as our Creator (to use one of the most simple but profound doctrines of the faith). “For He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). But such a belief must be held as more than an opinion – it is a profound revelation of Who God is and how we must relate to Him. It is not a mere statement of Christian cosmogenesis. If God is Creator, then I am creature and there is a profound love and veneration due to Him.

I could take this same method and look at everything the Church holds as doctrine. The role of doctrine and dogma (officially stated teaching of the Church) is not a morbid concern with correct phraseology or ancient metaphysics: all doctrine is taught for the sake of our salvation. This does not mean that, in the end, God will reward those who get an ‘A’ on their doctrine report card. Rather, doctrine is for our salvation because it teaches us the true path to union with God, Who alone is our salvation.

Many times the statement of Doctrine is an answer to the question: “Which God?”

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:  and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds,  Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father: God from God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, etc.

Orthodoxy exists as a place for the embracing of teaching and the living out of its reality: it is not a place for the sifting of opinion.

Abba Agathon understood the role of doctrine. It was not His opinion he held in high regard (for He held his opinion with no regard). Rather He recognized the verbal icon of Christ and would never choose to be separated from Him.

It is a thought worth considering – and perhaps a place for the heart to be changed.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





33 responses to “Doctrines and Opinion”

  1. Ben Avatar

    Father, I was wondering what the Orthodox distinction is between doctrine and dogma. What makes something a doctrine and what makes it a dogma? I know the protestant characteristic, but that is unfortunately based upon making sense of their thousands of denominations and factions.

  2. Dn Charles Avatar

    A thought just to affirm what I think is your message:
    My faith became real as soon as I surrendered to the doctrine of the Chruch and began to follow the Orthodox Way of Life without arguing with it. I studied it intently, not to debate it, but to fully grasp the wisdom it contained and apply it to my own life. As a result my fath grew and grew. My relationship with God expanded. My life changed.
    The key for me was this difficult surrender and trust in the wisdom of the Chruch and its doctrine and Tradition.

  3. Sean Avatar

    “Father, I was wondering what the Orthodox distinction is between doctrine and dogma. What makes something a doctrine and what makes it a dogma?”

    I am not a specialist in English but I can tell you for certain that the word “dogma” is greek and means “doctrine”. As always, the word gets a different shade of meaning when translated and I do not know how the two words differentiate when used in the English language. In the Orthodox patristic literature, which was in its majority, written (at least in the first millenium) in greek, there is only one word used and that is “δόγμα” (dogma).

  4. Tim of Angle Avatar

    “…God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God…” No. “Light from Light, true God of true God” is the correct formula. The phrase “God from God” is a relic from the original version of the Nicene creed that is found today only in the Roman version of the Creed and its derivatives; it was dropped from the expansion ratified at the Council of Constantinople, which is the present Orthodox Creed.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is no particular distinction between the two in Orthodoxy – one is the Greek word for teaching (dogma), the other is the Latin term for teaching (doctrine).

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Writing in the fog of early morning in a very rushed day. Corrected. Wow! I really made a mess of the quote! Prostrations required!

  7. Chris Jones Avatar

    “Dogma” is not the Greek word for “doctrine.” (The Greek word for “doctrine” is not “dogma” but “didascalia.”) The Greek word “dogma” generally has two senses: the first is simply “opinion,” and the second is “a public decree.” It is that second sense that gives rise to the meaning that is familiar to us as “the Church’s authoritative decision on a disputed point of doctrine.” The first use of “dogma” in that sense is in the book of Acts, where it refers to the decision of the Apostolic Council about whether Gentiles must conform to the Mosaic Law:

    παρεδιδουν αυτοις φυλασσειν τα δογματα τα κεκριμενα υπο των αποστολων και των πρεσβυτερων των εν ιερουσαλημ

    they delivered [“traditioned”] to them the decrees [“dogmas”] for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. (Ac 16.4)

    In the language of the Church, the word “dogma” has a nuance which it does not have in secular usage of the word. It refers to things pertaining to the inner life of the Church (i.e. her worship and spirituality) which are handed down verbally rather than publicly proclaimed. St Basil the Great elucidates this distinction between “dogma” (the Church’s inner tradition) and “kerygma” (her public proclamation) in his treatise On The Holy Spirit.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are more exact. Dogma is an “authoritative decree” and generally refers to the particular statements of the Church such as those in the tomos of a council.

    Doctrine, at least in common usage, means teaching, and is often used to refer to the teachings that flow from and support the dogma of the Church, but is often used in common parlance to refer to the dogma as well.

    My use of the double term, doctrine and dogma, was to cover all bases.

    Thanks for the help.

  9. […] A new post by Fr Stephen Freeman makes this crystal clear. In it he says: Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration. […]

  10. David Avatar

    I’m a little confused, but maybe not too much.

    I still have a hard time getting past thinking of dogma as the collective opinion of the Church with no thought that the word “opinion” is derogatory.

    Though I rarely use the word opinion, I almost always say “experience”.

    That which was delivered to us and is existentially encountered in the life of the Church. If we don’t experience dogma, I wonder to what it refers?

    Aren’t all the arcane formulas the particular representation (in the time, place that they were written) of the experience of the Kingdom of God by His children?

    Won’t those of us who remain faithful, ourselves, be a living epistle to the generations to come?

  11. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Bravo, Fr. Stephen, bravo. Right on, brother. It is a very powerful statement.

    Communion is everything. When I pray before my icons I am immediately put in communion. And the same with the dogmas of the Church (I pray before them too). There is a presence in them both. I view them with my heart.

    But is my view the same as yours? Are some of our opinions not different views? If so, how do we separate some ones very valuable view from a worthless opinion?

    I think that seeing the value in other views is a wonderful thing. That is something that persons in communion do, is share views. ( each person contributes to the discovery of God’s infinite wisdom) To the building up of the Body of Christ. And I pray to develop the discernment to tell views from opinion.

    That, I think, is why this blog is so worth while. Otherwise it would be a waste of time. As it is I enjoy it very much.

    “Fides non terminadtur ad enunciable sed ad rem “ Thomas Aquinas

    Doesn’t this mean that we do not believe in the words of doctrine them selves but in the reality behind them?

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree. The Elder Sophrony spoke about what he called a “dogmatic consciousness” in which we are in communion with the reality and truth of the Church’s teaching. He said it starts with an experience of the truth, but suggested that on average there was a space of around 15 years between such an experience and its true union with our consciousness. It’s a very interesting passage. My article on it is located here.

    I have seen the word “heresy” translated as “opinion.” Strictly speaking, it is a “choosing” or “factionalism.” But in the sense of a “chosen thought” versus a revealed understanding, heresy can mean a kind of “opinionism,” where we exalt our private judgment to a place above all else. I tend to use the word opinion in this rather narrow, perjorative sense, for lack of a better word.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, in the things which the verbal icons represent. Indeed.

  14. Dn Charles Avatar

    Thanks for the link on “dogmatic consciousness” Excellent article. Do you think its hard for converts to grasp this idea because of Sola Scriptura and the mental process that goes with it is hard to overcome? It seems to me based on my personal experience that our adherence to mental justification of everything blocks real prayer.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it takes time for anyone – Orthodox, convert, etc. – it is an aspect of Orthodox life that runs counter to anything in our culture. I think it is accurately said that Orthodoxy is a way of life – but it’s a fairly rare way of life – even among the Orthodox.

  16. Aitor de la Morena Avatar
    Aitor de la Morena

    Father Stephen, nice article again. Oh, and the statement carries weight at least for one non-Orthodox: this little Roman Catholic. It’s not only a “verbal icon of Christ” but the icon of Christ trusted to the apostles.

    God bless you.

  17. Henry Avatar

    This is not a faith and works question. It seems Jesus spent a lot of time and energy telling people that Hell was something to be avoided. Generally it seemed as though his warnings dealt with wrong practices. Likewise, Jesus seemed most impressed with right hearts particularly if they led to right practices. It seems Jesus was a lot less concerned with right beliefs than I have been during most of my Christian life. There is a question in here someplace that I can’t quite express but as I grow older I am changing. Some things are becoming more important to me and others such as my orthodoxoy (small o) while still important are becoming less important. Your article addresses some of these concerns.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is hard to express – but I worry very little since becoming Orthodox about being “o” orthodox – it’s no longer a struggle in the way it was within a Church and Christian environment where doctrine is an ever changing thing. The stability of Orthodox doctrine allows the focus to move to something else – to right practice – to right heart – to actually meaning what I say and doing it. Without this internal integrity, I feel that a life (my life) has little solidity or consequence. It’s too short to waste on not living the truth.

  19. Bryan Owen Avatar

    Thank you for (yet again) a wonderful posting. I am particularly struck by Fr. Georges Florovsky’s characterization of doctrine as a verbal icon of Christ. That is very powerful and moving.

    How do you respond to the charge that the doctrine of which we speak (and in particular, I have in mind the doctrine articulated by the first two ecumenical councils and enshrined in the Nicene Creed) is actually the product of ecclesial politics – of men struggling for power and control – and thus has nothing to do with the religion of Jesus? And can you recommend any resources that provide an appropriate defense and exposition of these matters?

    I ask these questions because I hear people in my own church (The Episcopal Church) say this sort of thing all the time as though it’s not only self-evidently true, but also sufficient justification for rejecting or ignoring the creedal core of the Christian faith.

  20. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Bryan, it seems to me that there are not two sides: one being “church politics” and the other being “the religion of Jesus.” God is not helpless before his creatures. The Holy Spirit works through us, including through ecclesial politics, for God’s own purposes.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Orthodox do not believe in magical councils. Only time and the acceptance of the Church establishes the validity of a Council, in the last analysis. There were more heretical Councils than true ones (or so it is said). With the Imperial interference in the life of the Church it would have been difficult not to have politics surrounding a Council. But the true Councils were as able to withstand Emperors as well as heretics.

    But it is the understanding of the acceptance of a Council by the Church that is important. The 7 ecumenical councils and their canons were embraced by the Church and established as the doctrine of the Church. They are not the product of politics (though good works His will in situations even where politics may enter) but of the Holy Spirit. These Councils have enjoyed acceptance by the Orthodox now throughout centuries. Most of what constitutes the meat of those Councils is accepted by the vast majority of all Christians.

  22. Stanley Ekwugha Avatar
    Stanley Ekwugha

    Dear Fr. Stephen, It’s a wonderful mind rubbing. I wish to comment on the word “heresy”. Most of the time, people are depressed by the incessant tagging of their faith expression as heresy. I agree with St. Augustine in his development of Christian doctrine that there is always a subjective dimension to an objective doctrine. Even when an expression or teaching contradicts a true doctrine, it is not yet a heresy but an unorthodoxy. It becomes a heresy and the teacher a heretic only when called to order and the person refuses to recant. Heresy lies in the moral (formal) aspect of the teaching and not in the material aspect.

  23. David Avatar

    Stanley, so you are saying heresy isn’t wrong-belief but refusal to accept correction from the authority of the Church. Essentially Fr Stephen’s reference to factionalism?

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Wrong belief is still wrong belief, but the essence of the matter is still the heart – as it is in everything.

  25. David Avatar

    I guess I’m trying to differentiate between mistakes and willful discord.

    If someone asked me to write an essay on the nature of the Trinity, I might very well include some mistaken things (regardless of my past efforts to study the Church’s teaching). If my Bishop told me that I was wrong and I didn’t take correction that seems a different problem.

    I suspect I’m probably hung up on a particular way of thinking about this that is counter-productive, but I am *hung up* here. This is one of those gut-reaction things that I’m prejudiced against because of my previous tradition.

    It was commonly said that all wrong interpretations of scripture were evidence of deliberate rebellion against God. That people who disagree aren’t just mistaken, but are deceitfully feigning ignorance of their error. Behind that error is a deliberate rebellion against the will of God.

    I’m hoping you can tell me that’s not the Orthodox position (apart from the general expression that we know God imperfectly as a result of sin).

  26. Fr. Vasile Tudora Avatar

    The most important thing, in my opinion :)), about the Orthodox dogmas is that they were not exposed out of a need to explain God through reason, but they sprung out of the practical need to make sure we are on the right path to salvation.

    The first dogmas, as authoritative decrees, appeared at the first Ecumanical Council as a response to the wrong teachings of Arius, and others, that were leading the believers on a wrong path. The Fathers had to expose and crystalize the dogmas in order to make sure we are still following the Church and not a fake god.

    The dogmas themselves were not a result of their phylosophical searching but were revealed to the Fathers under the influence of the Holy Spirit that flow naturally through the right worshipping Church.

    The word Orthodox itself means right worship, right glory, not right teaching. The teaching are an expression of what is revealed through noetic prayer to a mind that listens to God and doean’t just try to build phony interpretations, opinions etc.

    As long as the dogmas/doctrine remain practical and maintain their role of leading the flock to Christ they have their important role in our lives.

    Just my 2c.

  27. David Avatar

    Thank you Fr Vasile. I’m comforted to hear you say that.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Vasile,
    Indeed. I think this is a very important point. Orthodoxy does not search for doctrines simply in order to say something about everything. Unless heresy arises, the Church has historically preferred to keep its mysteries in “silence.” It is still true that even when a dogma is proclaimed in a Council, it needs to be known in the same “silent” manner that the Church knew it before it was spoken. “Silence is the language of the age to come,” the fathers say. It is also the language of the heart. Thus dogma must be known in silence – the words are safeguards that the heart might know the Truth and not go astray.

  29. Karen Avatar

    David, with regard to the last two paragraphs in your last comment, you have my deep sympathies (as in, I have struggled with this sort of thought). It is a most painful struggle. One thing I asked myself when I nearly got caught in the vise of the teaching of the Boston Movement was if I accept this belief (really a whole mindset of which the specific teaching you cited is but one example), does it set me free to truly obey God from the heart? Does it truly free me to extend mercy, forgiveness, and selfless love to others? If not, how can it be the truth? Jesus said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them (and this had to have included the Scribes and Pharisees for whom He had reserved His harshest words in the Gospels, and who were the most directly responsible for His being there), THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.” I understand it to be consistent with the consensus of the Father’s teaching that there is always this element of blindness, a woundedness of the will and spiritual vision, not of our own deliberate doing, that underlies any truly “willful” sin (and which is the deeper problem).

  30. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    I have come to a place where I am quite happy to submit to the doctrines of the church.

    Perhaps you have already written about this somewhere, and you can direct me: but how do we differentiate the need and blessed joy of submission to the church with (for converts like me) our initial “decision” —based on facts, history, arguments, intuition and hopefully the Spirit—to “choose” to submit to the church when we got Chrysmated?

  31. Chris Jones Avatar

    Dean Arnold,

    I think you have answered your own question by putting “decision” and “choose” in quotes. What subjectively seems to be a decision is (ultimately) the result of the illumination of the Holy Spirit (see article 3 (I think it is) of the Confession of Dositheos). It is less a decision than it is simply a perception of a spiritual reality.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think its sort of an on-going, daily conversion. Always coming to the faith.

  33. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    Thank you for this reflection father.

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