The Cross and the Church

dsc_3274This weekend I have been in Memphis, Tennessee, at St. John Orthodox Church leading a retreat for their Church women. The topic of the retreat was “The Emptiness of God.” The following series of articles captures much of the thought that was offered this weekend (and thus a summary of my thoughts as I have made my way back home – it’s about a 400 mile trip each way). For me, these are thoughts central to the reality and life of Orthodox Christianity. Where this is lived in practice – Christ is abundantly present. Where this is neglected, the faith becomes increasingly hollow. There is other language used for what I have offered here – but the reality is Christ Himself. [This article is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog under the title, “The Ecclesiology of the Cross.”]

For those who began the Nativity Fast today – may God give you strength!

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia have been reconciled. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, next in Ukraine, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

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.





74 responses to “The Cross and the Church”

  1. Carl Avatar


  2. Jacob Ramsey Avatar

    Father bless,

    Thank you for the article, Father. It is thought-provoking and encouraging, as it is usually. Its good to have you back home.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you for taking the time to post this article. I look forward to reading it fully when I have time later tonight or later in the week.

  4. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Thank you for this article Father, your reference to the grand inquistor has inspired me to reread my copy of the Russian Church and the Papacy by Vladimir Solovev. Dostoyevsky modled Alexy Karamozov after his good friend Solovev.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’d be interested in references for Dostoevsky and Solovyev. Constantin Mochulsky’s work on Dostoevsky does not make this connection. They were friends, indeed, but with strongly divergent opinions viz. the Roman Catholic Church (of which Dostoevsky was famously critical). It is interesting that the Wikipedia article on Solovyev suggests that Solovyev was the model for both Aloyosha Karamazov and Ivan Karamazov – the two most opposite characters in the novel. Solovyev is a very interesting historical and spiritual character – among many such during late 19th century Russia. Time is still sorting its way through these various personages. I think Dostoevsky, despite personal shortcomings, is faring very well over time.

  6. Adam Avatar

    Father bless,
    This is yet another well-written article. There have been many times reading this blog when an entry has re-focused my mind and soothed my soul. It was a pleasure to finally meet you in Memphis this past Sunday.

    Forgive me.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you. I greatly enjoyed my time in Memphis (including time to visit with my youngest daughter). The community at St. John’s, clergy and laity, are a delight to be with.

  8. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless.
    Thank you so much for these words. With the call to love in a way that requires us to totally give ourselves to the other, I can’t help but think just because there are places I do not want to enter does not mean that Christ does not (and has not already) entered them. Just because I might not want to be present does not mean that Christ does not want to be present. Indeed His self-emptying love requires Him to enter the manger in the cave, the house of the leper, the depths of Hell, and the acid-pit of my unworthy stomach. Holy Mother of God, pray for us sinners who unworthily bear Christ in this fallen world!

  9. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Father Stephen, My references about Soloviev are not that deep. A few things I’ve read at various times and wikipedia. I truely love Dostoyeveski’s writing and I need to atempt to reread the Brothers Karamozov. Dostoyevsky is right to be critical of the roman catholic church. I’m painfully aware of our many flaws. Some of which are caused by me being a member of the church. My every prayer is for the reform of the church. We suffer greatly from being out of communion with the east.

  10. John Avatar

    This article is so typical of my feeling about your thoughts.

    Really, really good – “…salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies…” I have made statements numerous times similar to this while teaching about the Christian life at White’s Chapel. We must show mercy like God has shown mercy to us. What if God acted toward us like we are tempted to act toward those needing our mercy? This dovetails nicely with:

    Another really, really good – “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.” I cannot serve until I have emptied self of self. I don’t pretend to understand every conceivable facet of Philippians 2.7, but it is clear that Jesus’ self-emptying was done for me and not for Himself. God has no needs. He is infinite. What He did, He did for me.

    But, unfortunately, I find this:

    Really, really bad – “The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura….” Frankly, I don’t consider myself part of ‘modern American Christianity.’ I consider myself a part of the church that predates this, as you do regarding yourself, but we are not talking about the same church. My point is, here is another attack on the all-sufficiency of the scriptures.

    It seems to me that you and the Orthodox Catholics are history based. I believe that we in the church of Christ are Bible text based. You rely on the rulings of councils and writings of ‘fathers’ as the correct interpretation of the Bible texts. You may phrase it differently, but what I just said looks like the bottom line to me. We find no authorization in the New Testament for these post-first century councils. We discussed Acts 15 last summer and I don’t believe it is a precedent, mainly because no apostles could be present after Paul and the others had passed away.

    I wish we could have some meeting of the mind. I find many of your devotional statements very good. However, on many doctrinal matters I believe you are way off base. I think we see this differently because I am looking only to the Bible for authority, while you are looking to the Bible plus church history. If church history can be used as authority, looks to me like we would need some ‘jumping off point’ from the New Testament since it predates the councils that you appeal to. I just don’t find the text that sets up any group of men as infallible interpreters.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand the differences – and our starting places and assumptions are indeed different. History does play a certain role in things – particularly as a check on ideology. The position and assumptions you make concerning how Scripture is to be used is not ancient, old, or even pre-modern. How can it be the correct way to use Scripture when it departs from the usage of centuries and generations of prior Christians.

    Of course, it is possible to make the assumption that everyone erred after the demise of the Apostles, but that would present, it seems to me, an absurd hypothesis.

    But we’ve covered this ground. Glad you’re still reading…

  12. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    My 2 cents,

    A “primacy of love” need not be exclusive of divine authority. Even our Lord exhibits both. Love is both informative and performative in nature. A primacy of love is a primacy from God, and as you quoted yourself; God is Love.

  13. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    I just don’t find the text that sets up any group of men as infallible interpreters.

    Hi John,

    One of the scriptural ways that I have answered your question was to start with Isaiah 22:22. Here the high priest of the temple will be given the key to the tabernacle (Eliakim succeeds Shebna) to be passed on from generation to generation. The giving of the keys is symbolic of dynastic succession from high priest to high priest in the Davidic kingdom. Please note that David is long since dead, yet his teachings are preserved. This (transportable)key is representative of that deposit which the priest safeguards, because only the Truth can unlock the gates to paradise. Only the key can unlock the tabernacle to reveal the presence of God. That same verse says that “he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open”. The high priest becomes an authority on earth to pronounce judgments that can save you “i.e. dispensing of the sacraments” or damn you “i.e. excommunication”. Now take that same verse and compare to Mat 16:19.

    Is 22:22 And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open.
    Mt 16:19 And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

    If I may ask you a question. Why do you accept the authority of the early church in deciding what writings comprise the holy bible?… but reject the theological writings of those very same early church fathers? The decision of what writings to include did not occur while any of the apostles lived.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    How such a primacy is embodied would be significant … And is an issue. I suspect that the historical separation of that primacy from the ecclesiology of the cross rendered the question problematic just as the restoration within that context makes conversation possible.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  15. John Avatar

    Actually, the position is quite old. I would humbly maintain that everyone who became a Christian in Acts did so without guidance from the ‘fathers’ or councils (we have addressed Acts 15). Why does it appear so absurd that we can simply follow the guidance they had and become what they became? Why do we need all this later clutter? If we cannot understand the apostle’s doctrine without it, how did the people in Acts understand it? In my humble opinion, this would seem irrefutable – one cannot justify the later councils without condemning the people in Acts (or, at the very least, say they didn’t know what they were doing). How could I ever know, if truth is continually evolving?

    We have always understood Matthew 16.19 to refer to the terms of admission to the kingdom, which Peter used in Acts 2, fulfilling Jesus’ statement.

    The later canonization process did not make the words earlier written truth. They were truth when penned. I trust that through God’s providence we have the Bible He wants us to have. How He did that is just not an issue with me.

    On the apostasy issue: I don’t believe everything that happened post 100 A.D. (I don’t use C.E.) was wrong. But, it is clear to me that a lot of it was. Stephen will be more familiar with the timeline on this than I am, but, as we have discussed, I am in disagreement with numerous Catholic doctrines. I am sure Stephen is also in disagreement with some of the Roman’s doctrines, as well as Calvin and others. I am no Calvinist.

    Note 2 Thessalonians 2.3-12, especially verse 7. The most straightforward reading of this text is that something bad (doctrinally) was going to happen and it was going to be sooner rather than later. Actually, it was already starting and Paul was fighting it. Given this passage, how could one not conclude that the years following the close of the NT were to be times of doctrinal peril and not some kind of golden age?

  16. coffeezombie Avatar

    John, forgive me for butting in, but I thought I might submit a few contributions, if nothing else, to get your response (in other words, I’m curious what the counter-argument would be). Also, I’m hoping that, if anything I say is not reflective of Orthodox teaching, I’ll be corrected on that front, too. 🙂

    I guess my starting point here would be 2 Th. 2:15 (just a few verses after the passage you mention), “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” What Paul seems to be saying is that 1) there are traditions we are to hold to, 2) these traditions were partly transmitted in writing (epistle) but also partly transmitted by word-of-mouth (by word).

    There are a couple other verses, IIRC, in the New Testament that seem to indicate the same thing: that the New Testament is only *part* of the teaching of the Apostles, but that there was more that the Apostles taught but did *not * write down.

    So, in other words, if you’re going by Scripture Alone, then what you think the Christians in Acts had may well not actually be what they had in reality. They had no writings, at the very beginning, only the teachings of the Apostles (as I recall, the earliest-written part of the New Testament was written decades after Pentecost). Some of the teachings of the Apostles (particularly, those relevant to the issues which prompted the epistles they wrote) were written down for particular purposes, and these writings make up what we today call the New Testament. Even the Gospels do not seem to purport to contain the entirety of Christ’s teachings and acts (John 21:25, for example).

    What this would mean is that, if we limit ourselves to the Scriptures, then we only have a *portion* of what the first disciples had (as far as specific doctrines, etc).

    Regarding the post-Apostolic Church, I don’t think anyone is claiming that it was a “golden age” of doctrinal purity. As we all know, even during the time of the Apostles, heresy was arising, and the centuries after the Apostles were a very difficult time for the Church indeed: not only were Orthodox Christians persecuted by the secular authorities, they were also vexed by many heresies that sought to distort the Faith. Many of these heresies even justified themselves from the Scriptures, or at least a portion of the Scriptures (as the exact make-up of the New Testament, in particular, was not fully decided yet).

    Even after Constantine, many errors and heresies arose and had to be defeated.

    It is because, by God’s grace, there were those who were determined to “stand fast, and hold the traditions” as Paul says, that the Faith was not swept away by the various tides of Gnosticism, Arianism, and so on.

    This is the very reason why we have the Ecumenical Councils in the first place. These Councils did not seek to define truth; certainly there was no sense of “truth evolving.” On the contrary, the Councils sought to preserve the Traditions which had been delivered through the Apostles. They tested the “new teachings” which arose against that Tradition, and found them wanting. Their decrees were essentially signposts, to warn others on the way. In many cases, the signpost simply read “Don’t go this way,” and in some, the signpost read “Go this way,” but the end result is that they only sought to place boundaries, not create new truths.

    And, so, if you trust that “through God’s providence we have the Bible He wants us to have,” why can’t God’s providence also extend to the Church, and to the Traditions which it has defended?

    This seems to be equally important, because, if we acknowledge that the Scriptures do not contain everything the Apostles taught, but only those things that they had need to write down, then, again, we must acknowledge that we’re missing something the Christians in Acts had. And if that is the case, where do we find it?

    We would say that we find it in the Church, which God has preserved from error. But if you discard the Church, saying it was corrupted or gone astray, how, then, can we, so to say, “fill in the blanks”?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I assume that the Christians in Acts did what the books says, “They continued in the Apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of the bread [the eucharist] and in the prayers [those public services of prayer that were being held by Christians]. The Orthodox faithful through the years have never done anything else. We continue in the Apostles’ teaching, which sometimes has to be stated very precisely in certain areas because of heresy, we continue in the eucharist, and in the life of prayer within the Church and at all times.

    The “later clutter” is not clutter, but the collected life of the Church throughout the centuries. The many martyrs are not clutter. The many teachings, themselves in full agreement with the apostles, are not clutter. A memory that stretches back 2000 years is not clutter. But there was not the modern penchant for “streamlining” and putting your faith in a pocket-sized edition. Apparently it worked. There are still faithful Orthodox Christians that confess the same faith that was once and for all delivered to them.

    There has, of course, never been a golden age (not even the NT period). There is obedience to Christ and His commandments and there is the enmity of the world. This is how it will be until the end.

  18. John Avatar

    Well, here we are again. The last two sentences of your last comment are great. You and I are lock-step on that.

    I gather you did not like my word ‘clutter.’ I was talking about the human creeds and decrees resulting from the councils. I thought that was clear in my context. The martyrs were introduced earlier. They are a non-issue in determining the accuracy of a doctrinal issue. The Muslims could make the same claim.

    Tradition in the NT: Here we are: 1 Corinthians 11.2; 2 Thessalonians 2.15; 2 Thessalonians 3.6. These statements were made before the NT was completed (the writing of it). All of the apostle’s teaching started out as oral (call it tradition if you like, I gave the texts above). Over a period of 50-75 years it was written down. During that time, some of the apostle’s doctrine was oral, and some was written. When the writing of the NT was complete, possibly with John’s work, then that was it – it was all written down.

    It seems to me, that to argue against what I just said, one would have to find some text in the NT that authorizes getting together in a group and making/clarifying doctrinal law. There are a number of texts that warn about adding to, taking from, teaching any other, etc. regarding the gospel. In view of these passages, where is the place where human councils that issue rules are justified? I do not recall anyone suggesting a text. If you have it, please submit it. Perhaps you do not believe such a text is necessary. If so, please kindly indicate.

    I am not sure what you mean by stream-lining and pocket sized. Are you referring to the NT minus the creeds?

    I do not agree that the ‘many teachings’ are all in ‘full agreement with the apostles.’ We can discuss some of those, if you like. It’s up to you. But, everything hinges on the question of authority. If you can prove, from the Bible, that the human councils are authorized to make binding doctrinal decisions, and that what they have said is a part of gospel truth – then you are right. If this cannot be proven, then the dictates of these councils are indeed clutter.

  19. Anna Avatar

    If everything was all written down, what about the last verse of the Gospel according to John? “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25

  20. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    I found it interesting to realize recently that the Bible itself — the book that according to the sola scriptura doctrine is all that we’re supposed to base our life of faith upon — is not mentioned in the Scriptures. If it was supposed to be the sole source of our Christian faith, I asked myself, then why isn’t it prophesied about or even talked about in the New Testament? A “book to come” if you will. I don’t see any mention of this anywhere. That’s very telling to me.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Darla, et al

    There is a make-believe about the Church and Scripture, that can only be maintained many centuries later. There was and always has been the Church, of which the Scriptures wrote in abundance, the “Pillar and Ground of Truth”, which many modern protestants want to ignore, despising what the Scripture has promised. These things are the very stuff of our life – yet they despise them as of no repute. Christ has fulfilled His promise, if only they would believe His promise. But to do so, they would have to renounce their error, and embrace the scandal of the His church.

  22. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    If we cannot understand the apostle’s doctrine without it, how did the people in Acts understand it?
    The passing on of sacred tradition. Through sacred traditions, writings, prayer, art, architecture, rubrics, liturgy, etc… All these things provide a foundation for the proper understanding of the Holy Bible. Look at it this way, St. Irenaeus heard St. John the apostle preach; he was friends with Polycarp who was also St. Johns disciple. Why not read what he says and get a firsthand account of the same truth we hold 2000 years later. To dismiss the very students of the apostles, does not seem very reasonable to me.

    In my humble opinion, this would seem irrefutable – one cannot justify the later councils without condemning the people in Acts (or, at the very least, say they didn’t know what they were doing). How could I ever know, if truth is continually evolving?

    What you are referring to in Acts was settled at the very first apostolic council, which is talked about in other areas of scripture also. This is the precedent for future councils. It can also be argued that Peters confession was the precedent for the Apostolic Council. The councils don’t change the faith, they clarify the faith under the careful protection of God. The proof of this divine protection from teaching error would be the gates of hell wont prevail against the Church and how the Father revealed to Peter his confession, and how the Paraclete remained to protect and guide. If the gates cannot prevail, then the only logical conclusion is that the church is supernaturally protected, because it is led by fallible men.

    We have always understood Matthew 16.19 to refer to the terms of admission to the kingdom, which Peter used in Acts 2, fulfilling Jesus’ statement.
    That doesn’t really dispute what I said earlier. What are the terms you speak of? Other than that you must go through the Church Jesus founded in order to attain salvation. There is only the authority given to the earthly Church to bind and loose. Such powers enjoyed by all the apostles of the nascent church are passed on through dynastic succession represented by the keys, just as in Isaiah. These are the only two verses in the whole bible where keys are used. I think perhaps I am talking past you because you think the church is an invisible group of loosely related individuals. All the writings that are contemporary to the scripture (including the scripture) disagree with the invisible church theory as it is of medieval origin.

    The later canonization process did not make the words earlier written truth. They were truth when penned. I trust that through God’s providence we have the Bible He wants us to have. How He did that is just not an issue with me
    Yes. But HOW do you know? Simply put, you have accepted the authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Or you have accepted that God worked(s) through the Church. There is no getting around this. The church could have just as easily given you a bunch of gnostic gospels, and the ones that were correctly penned could be sitting in a cave. Why do you reject the Gospel of Judas or of Thomas? You have already accepted the authority of the Church, but refuse to admit it. Sorry, but this is one of those game over scenarios.

    As for your understanding of Church as being an invisible group of loosely related individuals. I don’t know where people get such an idea, but I will leave you with just two immediate thoughts.

    Matt. 5:14 – Jesus says a city set on a hill cannot be hidden, and this is in reference to the Church.

    Matt. 16:19; 18:18 – “binding and loosing” are visible acts. The Church can’t be invisible, or it can’t bind and loose.

  23. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother


    Do you believe any of the twelve apostles were ever baptized?

    If so why, and if not, why not?

  24. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    Our priest commented this evening in our catechism class that “Jesus didn’t come to leave teachings behind, he came to establish a church” — His body on the earth. He also spoke of Jesus saying “On this rock I will build my church” right after acknowledging Peter’s statement that references His incarnation — i.e., his human body begat his earthly body (the church). It was rather nice timing that he spoke of these things this evening as he addressed the part of the creed that says, “and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.”

  25. John Avatar

    For later councils to use Acts 15 as a precedent, apostles would have to be present at them as they were in Acts 15. The apostles had certainly died out by around 100 A.D. Any ‘successors’ could not have met the qualification that Matthias met in Acts 1.21, of having been with Jesus during His ministry.

    I am not sure what is meant by the ‘invisible church theory.’ My understanding is that the keys of Matthew 16 were the terms of admission into the church (compare with keys to your house, they’re how you get in). When Peter preached in Acts 2, he told the people to repent and be baptized, they did that and thus became a group of people who had done this, we often say ‘obeyed the gospel.’ This same group is elsewhere called the church. Other passages mention faith in Jesus and confession of faith in Him.

    There are Biblical precedents for God using people or groups who were not doctrinally sound to accomplish His purposes. I simply trust in His providence that the books that have come down to us are the books He wants us to have, as I have already said. I don’t feel that the music has played yet, though I haven’t played a video game since Pac Man a couple of times 20 years ago.

    This is still all about authority. I am happy, Irenaeus, that you have responded to the points I have suggested and not engaged in suspect ad hominem maneuvers.

    I appreciate the question, but I don’t see how the question of the apostle’s baptism is relevant. They occupied a special position in the church. I don’t know if they were baptized or not, and don’t see it as an issue. Of course, Paul was baptized.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s ok to assume that the bishops that succeeded the Apostles were not successors to the Apostles. You simply would have been alone in the 2nd and most of the 1st century. Nor could you have afforded the book.

    It seems, dare I say, that the demand that everything is in the book, and for the book, is irrational. But I understand it. I do not believe it.

  27. John Avatar

    Would you mind expanding on your first paragraph above about the bishops and apostles? What do you mean by ‘alone’ and ‘afforded the book’?

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Apostolic Succession – that the Apostles left bishops in their place who then took on the leadership of the Church is simply historical fact. We have writings of some of these individuals. Most especially, St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, first bishop of the Church in that place, wrote a number of letters. He was personally familiar with St. Paul and St. Peter and many others. He had much to say on the topic of Bishop.

    St. Irenaeus of Lyon and St. Polycarp of Smyrna are others who whom we have important information, including the work of the Apostles.

    To have found a Christian who did not understand that the Bishops were successors to the Apostles would have been a lonely task indeed – since we do not see evidence for such a thing (other than among the most extreme heresies).

    You could not have afforded the book, because the cost of a New Testament or Bible, which would have been made by hand, would have been more than a year’s pay of a very wealthy man. They belonged to Churches and were kept as prize possessions, frequently hidden until brought out for use.

    God established the Church, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all. The book serves the Church and not vice versa. But we’ve been here before.

  29. Ben Avatar

    “You could not have afforded the book, because the cost of a New Testament or Bible, which would have been made by hand, would have been more than a year’s pay of a very wealthy man.”

    Much like the Torah scrolls in the synagogue. The one near my house has scrolls which cost upwards of $50,000 and was written (like many Torah scrolls) by hand in hebrew using all kosher material. To say that the early christians, who were mostly at that point descended from Jews did not hold their book in high enough respect to make it well would be an understatement indeed. The reason that we have the New Testament in such a good condition as we have it today (with little to no changes or errors) is because someone spent the delicate time and paper to write it down and copy it very meticulously, a very expensive process indeed.

  30. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    This is still all about authority.

    Hi John,

    Since the very first cracks appeared in the communion of believers, I would say that it has never been about authority. It has always been about obedience.

    I wish you well.

  31. John Avatar

    Irenaeus – I think we are talking about the same thing. I am only concerned about authority because we are obliged to obey correct authority. I believe the authority is the Bible and (my assumption) you believe authority is the church (or church + Bible). Naturally, it is about obeying proper authority.

    Stephen – I am familiar with the expense of books in that day. I wasn’t sure what book you meant since the NT, while certainly existing, had not been collected into a book at that early date. You are more familiar with the history than I am. I try to know a little about the Bible. I don’t see church history as very important, thus I have never studied it that much. You and I will likely disagree on that.

    Also, I believe we would need a forward-looking indication from the apostles that they would be succeeded by bishops. I can’t accept a backward-looking indication from church history, because I don’t accept church history after the NT as an authority. Again, I am sure we will disagree. 2 Thessalonians 2 gives me serious pause (to put it mildly) about relying on anything past the NT.

    I have done what they did in Acts to become Christians, so, I am sure I am a member of the same church they were.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, I’m sure that everything makes sense to you. And I am certain of your sincere conviction.

  33. Anna Avatar

    John, if the Bible is so important, why do you try to know very little about the Bible when, as you have stated, it is the only thing on which you are willing to stake any claim? Why accept the Bible at all as any authority? Why, for instance, do you reject the Koran and the Book of Mormon?

  34. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother


    As a member of the group of churches known as Churches of Christ, I know you are in search for the first century church. Providenitially through this blog it is right before you amid these friendly Christians striving to be reflective points of illumination. I will be praying that you will be drawn into communion with the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church for that is where you will find ultimate peace. I will also ask St. John the Evangelist to pray for you as well. God bless you.

  35. john aka jo533281 Avatar
    john aka jo533281


    It is impossible to divide the bible from church history. I struggled with this when i was introduced to the Church. I could not reject the church and still accept the canon itself that the church compiled. If you cannot trust the canon compilers then why trust the canon?

    To reject the church and not the canon is to say that it was compiled in spite of the church which pits Christ against his own body that he established.

    How can such a division be possible?


  36. John Avatar

    Thanks for commenting, Anna. I meant the exact opposite of the literal meaning of the statement. Note the next sentence for the contrast. I try to know a lot about the Bible and can never know enough.

  37. Anna Avatar

    John, forgive my misreading of your comment. Here we have a situation where I took the clear meaning of your sentence in one way despite your intention to mean it in a different light. I actually read your comment to say that you do not try to know about either the Bible or Church history as I did not see the implied contrast. Again, it seems that interpretative frame matters, but without continuing dialog how can we clarify the interpretative frame? I frequently find that I mishear, misunderstand, misinterpret, and misrepresent what people have said so I try to check my thinking. Ironically (or perhaps maybe not given the context of the conversation), Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Church is about the continuing dialog to help ensure that we, with God’s help, bring the proper interpretative frame to understanding the person of Christ, of which the Gospels form the first opportunity to see the person of Christ for those of us who need God’s condescension to the level of words on the page. May you encounter Christ and His incarnation as you prepare to observe His Nativity.

  38. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    That was a very insightful post, Anna (the part about the continuing dialog). Thank you.

  39. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    Also, the part about “God’s condescension to the level of words on the page.” So that is a starting point, is that what you’re saying? But it goes further and deeper than a book could ever provide?

  40. Anna Avatar

    God, in His mercy, always reaches to us through His condescension. Christ’s Incarnation represents, at least to my limited awareness, the fullest possible magnitude of God’s condescension towards us. That Christ humbled Himself to dwell among us in a manger boggles my mind. We who live 2000 years after this most glorious event learn of it through various means, the Gospels providing an overview par excellence. But they can never be exhaustive as the mystery of God’s Incarnation stands to transform everything about our world.

    I always have been quite partial to the accounts of Luke in the Gospel as it is the main gospel I turn to when trying to introduce people to Jesus. Recently Fr Patrick Henry Reardon offered a homily called “Luke the Historian” available on Ancient Faith Radio. “Luke is the only one of the evangelists who says explicitly as ‘I’m doing history.’” Seeing as we learn about the early life of the Church at the hand of Luke, history forms the fundamental core of our narrative of life in the early Church. Holy Evangelist Luke, pray to God that we may understand His Gospel teachings +

  41. asinusspinasmasticans Avatar

    I am trying to figure out why the completion of the New Testament is such a big deal. What changed when it was completed?

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    I can’t speak for John (what reason he would give) but I would simply characterize it as a common 19th century American evangelical (or some evangelicals) a priori assumption. It is not a big leap from Sola Scriptura (which essentially rendered the Church as non-essential, despite it’s essential place in Scripture) to the notion that Christ’s main purpose (after the Cross) was to give us an infallible book. Since that is what some Protestants had begun to think was essential, it gets read back into history as the only important point. There are several passages in Scripture (as in 1 Cor. 13’s “When that which is perfect is come”) that are interpreted by some as referring to the completion of the canon.

    The result is a distortion of traditional Christianity.

  43. John Avatar

    Jude 3 says the faith was once for all delivered to the saints. This was written before the church councils. Therefore, we understand that the faith that we are to practice is the faith revealed in the NT and that everything that God wanted us to know was revealed by the completion of the NT. If one could be a Christian in the first century with only the teaching of Jesus, the apostles, and the other inspired writers of the NT – why can’t we do the same thing? Obviously, if they could, we can. This is inescapable.

    We do not believe the church is not essential. I don’t know why Stephen would say that, unless, he means not essential as some kind of appellate court. He is welcome to clarify if he wishes. The church is the spiritual body of Christ, the kingdom, and other terms used in the NT to describe it. When one becomes a Christian, he or she becomes a member of the church. They are the same thing.

    In John 6.63, Jesus said that His “words” were life. We know those words because they are preserved for us in the gospel, the NT, “the book,” if you wish. In John 16.13, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles into “all truth.” If they were in fact, as Jesus said, guided into all truth, this would leave no additional truth for later church councils to discover. If truth includes decisions of church councils after the completion of the NT, then truth is indeed evolving. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that. But, here we are back at authority. Stephen doesn’t believe that it matters if the Bible teaches that or not because he believes church councils are sources of authority. Whatever a church council said about Mary, transubstantiation, or whatever, would be truth because they said it. If they said two and two is five, it would be, if they are an authority.

    Stephen, if I have puts words in your mouth, just restate it as you want. I want this discussion to be accurate. With humility……..John

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    The fullness of the Truth is certainly given from the beginning. Councils do not add to the Truth – but they certainly speak it and sometimes clarify in the face of heresies, etc.

    Though, interestingly, you quote Jude who says the faith was once and for all delivered to the saints (the Church). But you infer that this means the New Testament. I do not, nor do I see a reason to infer this. The faith is given to the Church. The Church expresses that faith in the writings of the New Testament. But the faith resides in the Church, not in a book.

    But because the NT is the Church’s book, and is true, it in no way contradicts the faith of the Church. They are one and the same.

    In subtle ways, I would see that you put the NT where I would see the Church, and I put the Church where you see the NT. Or something like that.

    I do not think Councils are infallible because they are Councils. Indeed, the Councils that the Orthodox accept as infallible are by no means all the Councils. We believe that Councils can and have erred. But we recognize that there are some that have not erred. There is no automatic theory of infallibility in Orthodoxy – except God. Christ is the Truth.

  45. John Avatar

    In your statement ‘Christ is the truth,’ we have a point of agreement, as I think you knew when you wrote that. We differ on how Christ revealed that truth. Jesus said in John 8 that we could ‘know’ the truth and be made ‘free’ (or saved) by it. They (in the first century) could not be made free unless they could know the truth. But, people were made free (forgiven) in NT times. Therefore, truth was revealed in their time.

    I also agree with your statement that the fullness of truth was given from the beginning. If it was, we just don’t need to be bound by anything later councils may have said, the truth had already been revealed. To say that they were needed to clarify is to imply that God didn’t quite get it right the first time. I don’t think you believe that. To argue for the councils is to create some kind of ‘rabbinic Christianity’ with the fathers in the place of the rabbis and the council decrees in the place of the Mishnah. I offer Matthew 15 and Jesus’ condemnation of binding human tradition as law.

    Our plea is to go back to the time of the apostles, the real ‘ancient faith.’ This doesn’t make us ‘protestant’ in the sense I think you are using the word. To the extent that we do what it is our intent to do, we are the church of Acts. We predate Protestantism by 1500 years. Anyone who does what they did, becomes what they became (a member of Christ’s church). If not, then the people in Acts weren’t Christians. What were they? We, in the churches of Christ, just want to be like them. That is not a flawed proposition. Call it rationalism and invoke the name of Locke, or whatever, but our plea is simple common sense.

    You see the church/councils as authority. We see the NT as the authority. I think you have basically stated the issue correctly. This is the point I have been attempting to make. For the reasons argued, I believe that our understanding is correct and your position is incorrect. I am aware that you will see it the other way. If we could agree on the question of authority, surely other matters could be resolved, since council decrees would then become irrelevant.

  46. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    “We, in the churches of Christ, just want to be like them.”

    Which Churches of Christ are you referencing? There are many brands and franchises of Churches of Christ who do things very differently. I know because I have been to many of them. Interestingly, they all read the same Bible and claim it to be the justification for their methods and teaching. So, are you the one who can provide the list of those in “good standing” scripturally, or do we just accept the fact that they are entitled to interpret the scriptures as they deem fit? Isn’t that the American way?

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are indeed points of agreement.

    A difference – I hear you describing truth as a static body of propositions or a set of knowledge. We agree that Christ is the Truth (and he is not static nor a body of knowledge). He never changes – but neither is he a set of propositions. He is known in a living relationship. We change and the circumstances that confront us change. The example of the Council in Acts (even occurring in NT times) demonstrates the problem. The Church was confronted with a new question, that of the admission of gentiles into the Church. A Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, settled the matter.

    Later councils certainly made use of Scripture. Do your congregations never have to settle disputes or deal with false teachings? I’m certain you would make reference to Scripture in doing this. How do your congregations settle these things? Is there nothing “conciliar” in the process?

  48. katia Avatar


    “You see the church/councils as authority. We see the NT as the authority.”

    We cannot assert that Scripture is self-sufficient; and this is not because it is incomplete, or inexact, or has any defects, but because Scripture in its very essence does not lay claim to self-sufficiency… . If we declare Scripture to be self-sufficient, we only expose it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation, thus cutting it away from its sacred source. Scripture is given to us in tradition. It is the vital, crystallising centre. The Church, as the Body of Christ, stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, or cast shadows on it. But truth is revealed to us not only historically. Christ appeared and still appears before us not only in the Scriptures; He unchangeably and unceasingly reveals Himself in the Church, in His own Body. In the times of the early Christians the Gospels were not yet written and could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and, what is more, the Gospel came to life in the Church, in the Holy Eucharist. In the Christ of the Holy Eucharist Christians learned to know the Christ of the Gospels, and so His image became vivid to them.
    Fr. George Florovsky

  49. John Avatar

    As we have earlier discussed, the council of Acts 15 cannot be used as a precedent because apostles were present. No apostles were present at your councils. They would have all died by that time.

    Each congregation of the church of Christ is autonomous. Using only the Bible as a guide, we have pretty good agreement. Just because a church calls themselves a “Church of Christ” doesn’t mean that they are one. There are areas of obvious judgment such as: what time on Sunday to meet, how many songs to sing at the service, whether to use spontaneous or written prayers, whether to use some kind of lectionary or not, etc. We generally pray spontaneously and don’t use a lectionary, but these are areas of judgment and thus don’t involve doctrine. We have no organization beyond the local congregation/church. That seems to be the way they did it in Acts and the epistles. We try to use that as a pattern.

    I believe the scripture does claim self-sufficiency: Matthew 15.9; John 16.13; Galatians 1.8; Jude 3; Revelation 22.18-19. Also, please note: 1 Timothy 1.3; 1.10; 4.16; 6.3; 2 Timothy 3.16; 4.3; Titus 1.9; 2.1; 2 John 9-10. None of the texts in the second list make any sense whatsoever if correct doctrine could not be identified when they were written (1st century). From the passages I have referenced in this comment and previous ones: correct doctrine could be known, additions were prohibited, and all of this was before non-apostolic councils. It is an irrefutable fact that if councils were necessary after the close of the NT/apostolic period (c 100 AD), then the Christians in Acts and those to whom the epistles were written didn’t know what they were doing. You cannot have it both ways. To say that the Acts Christians were real Christians and the human councils were necessary involves a contradiction. The apostles teaching started out orally (call it tradition if you like) and over time was written down. This process of converting oral to written ended by the death of the apostles, around 100AD.

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    Oddly, you use history to make your point. History, not Scripture. Your contentions about the presence of the apostles and the NT taking their place is a historical theory, not Scripture.

    In Jude, the faith “once delivered” says in the Greek that the faith was “traditioned” (the verb is paradidomi) to the saints. Didn’t say the faith was written – it said it was traditioned. There are many things so described in the NT. But you should admit that you use historical theory for which you have no “Biblical” justification. Just some a priori assumptions.

    The Orthodox assumptions, about history, the Apostles, the Councils, etc., are part of what was traditioned to us – from the beginning. We were there.

  51. NW Darla Avatar

    >>The Orthodox assumptions, about history, the Apostles, the Councils, etc., are part of what was traditioned to us – from the beginning. We were there.<<

    Father, bless. As we get closer to being received into the church, and when my old protestant worldview still tries to resurrect itself from time to time, this is what keeps me coming back to where we are now: that the Orthodox church is the church that was *there*. And that it never left. Thank you.

  52. asinusspinasmasticans Avatar

    John –

    I remember something I read recently –

    “The decisions of an ecumenical councils are not the foundation of unity, they are the result of unity.”

    The Unity is based in the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). Please read this verse in any other language besides English, which has an unavoidable individualistic bias due to a lack of contrast between singular and plural forms. This is the consciousness that produced the New Testament to begin with, unless you all Campbellites hold to some dictation theory.

    I remember you Church of Christ guys from my days as a Pentecostal. You don’t have truth, you have a lot of arguments. Some of the arguments are good, some aren’t so good.

    Everybody who holds to Sola Scriptura follows the same paradigm: argue, argue, argue about words and their lexical meanings and the context, which is usually fabricated via a massive leap of imagination. If the hearer isn’t convinced, you pull out the Keys to the Kingdom which no one gave you and consign them to outer darkness.

    Father, forgive me if I’m being uncharitable, but logomachia doesn’t lead to the Kingdom of God.

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    “logomachia doesn’t lead to the Kingdom of God.” That should be restated in Latin or Greek and used as a fine motto. I like it.

    Logomachia in regium Dei non ducit.

    And, indeed, you could have stated things with more charity. Logomachia in regium Dei non ducit.

  54. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    “As we have earlier discussed, the council of Acts 15 cannot be used as a precedent because apostles were present.”

    Who proffered this papal-like dictum? Perhaps human imagination is a gift from God, but John, certainly not as a license to foist an opinion on others because it fits one’s personal theory of ecclesiology.

  55. fatherstephen Avatar

    One of the fascinating things about the Restoration movement versus other Protestants (including the fact that they won’t always admit that they are Protestants) is that unlike the others, they have novel theories (first put forth in the 19th century) that argue that they are in fact the NT Church and arguments that make them the only Church, despite being founded in the 19th century.
    I’ve heard the logic set forth – but find the reasoning absurd. I’ll grant that it’s novel – no other Protestant group ever put forth such arguments. But arguments do not found a Church. Christ founded the Church which continues to this day. The authority of its bishops as successors to the Apostles is not a man-made doctrine. It is implicit in every letter of the New Testament, as well as explicit in those directed to the local authority (bishops and deacons) within a Church.
    But all historical evidence is ignored by Restorationists because their arguments would fall apart. To deny all historical evidence, it would seem to me, is to deny the Incarnation of Christ. God has entered history.

  56. John Avatar

    I guess I am a protestant with a little “p.” I certainly protest the human councils and the doctrines that came from them that are not found in the NT.

    The personal attacks on me by some of your readers are amusing. I read David’s comment a couple of weeks ago about one of your clergy (I think he was clergy) before you deleted it. I guess this is different. But, let them stand. I laugh when I read them. Actually, I’m laughing now. Seriously, thank you for the call for charity.

    Call it ‘historical theory’ or whatever. But, surely the reality that what originated from the mouths of the apostles (inspired by God, of course) found its way into the NT is self-evident. If that is not the case, then even the NT does not contain correct doctrine. I don’t believe you would claim that the NT does not contain true doctrine.

    Though I feel that the Jude reference stands, you may omit it if you wish. There are plenty of other texts. “Tradition” is not a bad word when used of the oral teaching that was eventually written down in the NT. That is the only possible favorable usage of the term in the NT itself. Your church tradition (councils) did not exist when ‘tradition’ was used in the NT, as you know.

    Stephen, surely you don’t believe that I would deny the Incarnation.

    I feel that you are not directly addressing all of the points I am making. I am going to put something up as a separate comment. Please answer it. If you had rather do this privately, here’s my email: email hidden; JavaScript is required.

  57. John Avatar

    Please answer these questions.

    Did the people who were baptized in Acts become Christians (members of the church)? Yes or no.

    If the people above lived as faithful Christians and died before 100AD, did they go to heaven? Yes or no.

    If you answered ‘yes’ to these two questions, how did they do it without your later councils?

    If you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, why can’t I do the same thing today?

  58. Anna Avatar

    I think the bigger question is “Who were the people in Acts baptized by?” And how do those same ministers continue in the same work today?

  59. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    On a quasi related topic, does anyone remember the infomercial queen, Susan Powter, who made famous the line, “Stop the Insanity”?

  60. Robert Avatar

    “I wish we could have some meeting of the mind.”

    John this is a tall order! And for what purpose?

    I really enjoyed Fr. Stephen’s entry on the healing of the heart. This would be more fruitful for all of us to focus on. Our minds frequently change, concepts and theories come and go. Let us endeavor to abundantly bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience, kindness, forbearance, purity, self control, humility, joy, peace. We can’t argue anyone into the Kingdom.

    Be at peace.

  61. Ryan Avatar

    The Councils served the primary purpose of clarifying what was “always believed, everywhere, by all”. Heresies come and go. They have a peculiar habit though of sounding a lot like right-belief. (Homoousios – of the same substance vs homoiousios – of similar substance etc. An “iota” worth of difference, but a big iota indeed!) When things sound similar to what one has heard before, it is quite easy for them to grow, and requires a consensus of the Church to put it to rest. Nothing in the Nicaean/Constantinopolitan Creed was new. I doubt that you even would argue with a single word of it! It was required to dogmatize though to eliminate the Arian heresy.
    The other 6 councils were similar in purpose if less famous: Clarifying what the Church believes regarding His human vs divine nature, His Will, His Incarnation, etc. No novelty, just clarity.
    In answer to your question: why can’t one do it today? (or at least why should it be so difficult): you don’t have the right teachers (“How will I understand Scripture unless someone interprets for me?”). I’m sure that your teachers were very pious, faithful, and even holy men. No doubt closer to Jesus than sinful me. But your teachers (you had them- whether in class or in books) were themselves taught by someone else etc. This teaching was ultimately disconnected from the teachings of the Church, thus ultimately risking novelty.
    You may claim that your teachers are the Apostles themselves in their writings, and that you follow them word for word. However, the C of C does not hold that Holy Communion is the Body & Blood of Christ. To interpret those Scriptures as metaphor was a 16th century novelty.
    You search for God, which is the most important thing. I dare not criticize your search. Recognize though that we seek out trail guides in finding Him.
    God Bless

  62. fatherstephen Avatar

    The questions you ask simply put forward the idea that there is a “minimal” Christianity present in the NT, which anybody and read and access and thereby be saved. God is merciful and can save (although what you mean by this is itself a minimum that I would not recognize – “save equals ‘go to heaven’”) by His mercy even those who approach Him in a minimal manner – but because He is merciful – not because they are minimalists.

    Here’s a different question. Can you read this?

    Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

    I’m sure you can. However neither you nor I would advocate that people start writing their letters out of order. Eventually people would cease to be able to read. The Councils add nothing to the NT, but state explicitly what the Church has always believed, sometimes in a more implicit manner. Nevertheless, it is necessary for some things to be stated from time to time lest the letters get out of order.

    Your treatment of the NT, I suggest, uses the letters but doesn’t know how to put them in order. Doesn’t mean that something can’t be read and gained in that way, only that it is an incomplete way that inevitably will lead to destruction and delusion. The Protestant movement (including the little ‘p’ Protestants) have been an inending wave of variation a letter re-arrangers for 500 years. Of course, you maintain that starting in the 19th century some Americans finally began to get the letters in the right order and that you now have just about got it right.

    The people in Acts who were baptized became members of the Church. They were united with Christ. The Church into which they were Baptized also later had councils and many other things that were simply manifestations of a Church that was alive. They also ate and drank through the years, got married and had children. They also preached the Gospel, copied the manuscripts of the Scriptures (and every other book we still have of antiquity), built Churches, painted icons, and defended the faith once delivered to the saints with their life’s blood.

    All of this they did so that others could rearrange the letters and claim to have become part of the same thing?

  63. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    Father, forgive … in your last paragraph was it supposed to say “couldn’t”? Perhaps in my meager understanding I’m not comprehending it correctly.

  64. NW Neil Avatar
    NW Neil

    Father Stephen,

    John is attempting to make the point that the councils are irrelevant to the formation of the Church because they lacked the physical presence of an apostle. I would contend that both the Holy Spirit and the “spirit” of all the apostles were present among the bishops who succeeded them through the laying on of hands (a very biblical concept). The apostles and Paul submitted to the authority of James as bishop of Jerusalem, who was not an Apostle. Surely, this would constitute some kind of precedence to the rationalistic western mind that some kind of succession was put in place. Thankfully we have a written record of the Orthodox presence, sacrifice, and steadfastness that I didn’t discover until a year ago, but has given me a rootedness and community I never could have achieved otherwise no matter how “correct” my analysis of scripture.

  65. fatherstephen Avatar

    Give me a fuller quote. Where it says “cannot” it seems that either word would work, though I would prefer to say “cannot.” Is that the phrase you mean?

  66. Irenaeus of New York Avatar

    Hi John,

    Thanks for distilling your position into those succinct questions. I think I understand your position now.

    Did the people who were baptized in Acts become Christians (members of the church)? Yes or no.

    If the people above lived as faithful Christians and died before 100AD, did they go to heaven? Yes or no.
    Just because a person has been baptized doesn’t mean they merit salvation. That judgment is up to God and it only then by the merits of Jesus Christ. So the answer is that we don’t know anything except for maybe the saints in which there is a ‘discernment’ process that lets us know if an individual enjoys spiritual communion with the Father after their death (canonization). But I would say we have joyful hope that those who lived a life faithful to our God and His Church would go to heaven.

    If you answered ‘yes’ to these two questions, how did they do it without your later councils?
    Every council that was ever called, was called to clarify the faith in order to protect it. Every single one. As time advances, people find new ways to reinterpret or twist the faith in palatable ways that draw people away from an authentic understanding. i.e. The Christians who lived in the 100’s didn’t need to know about the 7th council because nobody claiming to be Christians thought it a good idea to destroy icons venerating Mary or the other saints (only the pagans were destroying them). The people in the 100’s didn’t need to know about the 1st council because nobody claiming to be Christians were subscribing to the invented errors of Arius, etc ,etc. But what of today? How many people claiming to be Christians think icons are idolatry today? How many have an incomplete or no understanding at all of the trinity? etc, etc. The councils merely clarify and codify the faith and traditions that were always held previous to the council. It is not the faith that is evolving, it is the threats which are evolving. The deposit of faith has remained the same.

    If you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, why can’t I do the same thing today?
    There are undoubtedly authentic elements within other confessions. But even a plane that is comprised of only one element (i.e. landing gear) can’t achieve its ultimate purpose of flying. Accordingly, why would someone risk their soul with an incomplete understanding of the Faith? As one of the pre-nicaene fathers once said, If you could survive the flood outside the Ark, then you could attain salvation outside the Church. I think what he was really saying was that if you have faith great enough to walk on water, then there should be no fear of drowning. For the rest of us who would sink, we need the sacraments to increase and repair our relationship with God as we stumble along through life.

  67. NW Darla Avatar

    I apologize, Father, for not giving enough information. You said, “All of this they did so that others could rearrange the letters and claim to have become part of the same thing” in your final paragraph of the previous post. Having not followed the text closely enough, my mind thought of the “they” as the heretics and/or man-made church developers; however, after talking with NW Neil — my husband, I see that the “they” that use as the subject of this sentence refers to the councils. Is that right? If you don’t follow me, no worries, I think I understand now. Thank you.

  68. NW Darla Avatar

    [So if the subject of the sentence was the heretics/man-made church developers, I was thinking it should say “couldn’t rearrange the letters” instead of “could rearrange the letters.]

  69. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah, Darla. I was being ironic… I’ll add a question mark.

  70. […] This is a part of the comments section on Father Stephen’s blog. The particular post that this comes from is called “The Cross and the Church”. I may have linked it already but if not, it can be found here. […]

  71. Sean Avatar

    It’s quite late here on the other side of the Atlantic and it’s been a busy day, so I did not read the whole argument and may be saying something already said but:

    The books that comprise the Holy Bible in Christianity were decided upon during Ecumenical Councils. Those councils where the first after the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem. In such a context it is only natural that the Church Fathers had several reasons to decide about including or not several books to the Bible and those reasons of course had to do with the Tradition that already existed during the 300 years between the Council of Jerusalem and the First Council of Nicaea. Thus, by determining the books of the Bible, the Fathers handed down their reasoning for interpreting them and hence including them to the Holy Scripture. Later Councils expanded on that foundation. It seems to me utterly absurd to declare Holy Scripture as the only tool of salvation but refuse to accept the authority of those same Councils that actually determined its form according to Divine Grace and Christian Tradition.

  72. Sean Avatar

    ” ‘logomachia doesn’t lead to the Kingdom of God.’ That should be restated in Latin or Greek and used as a fine motto. I like it.

    Logomachia in regium Dei non ducit.”

    Λογομαχία ούκ άγει εις βασιλείαν Θεού.

    Sorry for not using polytonic as it’d be proper but PC doesn’t support it (maybe I should have used my Macbook…)

  73. Greg Avatar

    I have recently been reading the svs press series ‘The Church in History.’ It may be an excellent resource for anyone interested in following up on the period of Acts in particular. ‘To become what they were’ would mean to be a small sect within the umbrella of Judaism that was struggling with identity, heresy and imperial scrutiny simultaneously. In any case, the series is fascinating. I hope it is completed someday.

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