Everything is in Motion

For years I have been told that the meaning of the word hamartia (translated “sin”) means “to miss the mark.” This is certainly accurate. However, the image I have always had in mind has been an arrow aimed at a target and missing the bull’s eye. Thus I have thought of my life as a moral effort to hit the target. This is not incorrect but it leaves out important information. God is the target (not an abstract moral standard) and we ourselves are the arrow. There is a great tendency in our thought to conceive things in stationary, static images. Such images are easier to conceive and explain. Setting everything in motion complicates our efforts to comprehend. However, it is essential to understand that everything is in motion. Oddly, this concept is not some post-modernist imagery of dancing Wu-Li Masters: it is part of the teaching of the fathers of the Church.

The idea of movement and change (both in time and space) was not original with great teachers of the Church (such as St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius or St. Maximus the Confessor). These thoughts originated long before with philosophers such as Plato and Heraclitus. But the fathers of the Church took up the concept and refined it for the use of Christian theology. God’s creation (as we should well know) is everywhere in motion. Every object in the universe is moving (further apart we are told). Even the particles of matter that compose so-called stationery objects (such as rocks) are in motion. Nothing is completely at rest. It is odd for a modern man to discover that such thought is in no way new. However, movement is not the only thing of importance in this patristic understanding of creation. Everything is in motion, and everything has its direction. That direction is its purpose – its reason for existence and reason for continuing in existence. This reason is its logos. The Logos of all logoi (plural), is Christ Himself.

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. All things were made through Him…  (Jn. 1:1)

Each of us has a purpose and reason for existence. For human beings (and all creation), that purpose is union with God.

… [God has made known to us] the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the economy of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth…

It is this purpose and direction that are the mark towards which we move. Whatever causes us to deviate from that mark is what is meant by the Biblical word “sin.” Moving away from the mark distorts our purpose, our inner relationship with God. The result is death and corruption. Christ restores our right relationship with God and through that living communion restores our purpose and direction. We move rightly towards the end for which we were created. Salvation, like all things in God’s creation, is dynamic and not static. Those who reduce salvation to a single moment, “I was saved,” run the risk of distorting the proper understanding of the Christian life. The injection of discrete moments of history (“I made a decision for Christ”) can be misunderstood as describing something which happens once and is finished. But we are moving. A “decision for Christ” is properly a description of a direction rather than a destination.

As directions, our lives need to be referred to Christ at  every moment and in every place. Living as part of a vast swirl of movement can be dizzying. It is little wonder that we want to re-imagine the universe in a stable, static form. But the universe will not stand still for such imagination. It continues to swirl while we stare at our delusion. It is customary in some of the monasteries of Mt. Athos to set the central chandelier in motion during the singing of the “polyelion” (the hymn “for His mercy endures forever”) of the all-night vigil. Sometimes the lamps before the icons swing as well. I have heard it described as representing the dancing of the angels before God. It certainly incorporates movement within the worship of the Church. For the liturgy is a great dance – the proper movement of creation itself. We were created as a movement. The continual offering of ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving is the fulfillment of our very being. We do not need to comprehend the universe. We need to be swept towards Christ.

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.






50 responses to “Everything is in Motion”

  1. Jacob H. Avatar
    Jacob H.

    Fr. Freeman,

    This reposting is very apropos. I sometimes get flack from both fellow Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike for grounding my faith “too much in the clouds”, but your description of things, which was structured by the Platonists and utilized by many of the Church Fathers as a means to beautify the Church, is the main – perhaps almost only – outlet that helps me to properly ground my perception of the true reality of the world.

    Regarding motion, I’ve longed appreciated St. Gregory of Nyssa’s imagery of a perpetual entering into the Divine Presence. Your article likewise reminds me of St.Dionysius the Areopagite’s statements, which I’ll add below in the hope that it helps others as much as it helps me.

    On the other hand, I’ve been recently contemplating the “stillness” of salvation as well. St. Gregory also remarked, “That which is transient is not us.” (If anyone has a source for this, please provide!) I guess we could merge these two conceptions by stating that by casting off the superfluous, we may mature in divinity. It’s all about becoming genuine.

    From this Beauty comes the existence of everything,
    each being exhibiting its own way of beauty.
    For Beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, and of community.
    Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things.
    Beauty is the great creating cause which bestirs the world
    and holds all things in existence by the longing inside
    them to have Beauty.

    And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved,
    as the Cause toward which all things move,
    since it is the longing for Beauty which actually
    brings them into being.

    Beauty is a model to which they conform…
    From the One, the Good, the Beautiful –
    the interrelationship of all things in accordance with capacity.

    From the One, the Good, the Beautiful –
    the harmony and the love which are formed
    between them but which do not obliterate identity.

    From the One, the Good, the Beautiful –
    the innate togetherness of everything.

    From the One, the Good, the Beautiful, also –
    the intermingling of everything, the persistence of things,
    the unceasing emergence of things…
    ~ St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Divine Names, 4.7

    And, adding Clement of Alexandria to the mix:

    The Celestial Song [Christ, the Logos] composed the universe into melodious
    order and tuned the discord of the elements into harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.
    ~ Clement of Alexandria

    How can I not ecstatically be “up in the clouds” at such beautiful statements!
    Thank you, Fr. Freeman, for causing my morning to start off with such wonderful thoughts.

  2. Eric Simpson Avatar
    Eric Simpson

    Very nice. Thank you.

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    This stanza: And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved,
    as the Cause toward which all things move,
    since it is the longing for Beauty which actually
    brings them into being


  4. Dino Avatar

    This insightful discussion about ‘becoming genuine’ and especially that ‘we ourselves are the arrow’ reminds me of something St Porphyrios once said to someone: “the images and symbols of tollhouses and such are metaphors, in truth, all that occurs when we ‘ascend’ once our eyes close to this life is that we become just like a droplet of water, in the sense that one can instantly tell where it has travelled and everything in its past leaves an indelible mark upon it.

  5. Andrew Avatar

    “God is the target and we ourselves are the arrow”. Thank you father, that shifted the ground underneath me.

  6. Sophia Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    I always envisioned “missing the mark” as “you must be this tall to ride.”

  7. Matthew Avatar

    Is Orthodoxy at all concerned about missing the mark in a moral infraction sense of things?

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Interesting quote!

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You might be asking the wrong guy. 🙂 I’m sort of famously associated with a strong critique of the common concept of “morality.” God is not a policeman. The question about what we do and think (our thoughts and actions) is about what they do to us as human beings (they are “ontological” questions). “Sin” is “death” – a diminishment of our being, a movement towards non-being. You could use a sort of “rules-based” analysis if you find it helpful – but it should be noted that the Pharisees were great at doing such a thing, “but inside they were full of deadmen’s bones.”

    My own take is that the “moral sense of things” trivializes sin and trivializes God and His goodness.

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Another thought. In “moral infraction” sense of things – what seems to matter are the rules. It’s a juridical problem. In an ontological approach (even to moral questions) what matters is you yourself. That you broke a rule (say, you stole something) is wrong – and you could make reparations, or be punished, etc. But, it could be that you yourself are just as corrupted within as when the whole thing unfolded. You can “pay your debt to society” but you’re still a mess.

    In an ontological approach – what matters is you. Why did you steal? What does the action reveal about the status of your soul? How do we go about healing what is broken and damaged. It might well be that prison and reparations are employed – but the point is still the healing of the soul. God is not a policeman. God is the author of our being and the healer of our souls.

    So, for example, when I’m hearing confessions as a priest, I’m not just listening for “infractions.” I’m listening for the state of someone’s soul. If, for example, they seem to be forgetting God, that is much more the problem than any particular missing of the mark that is going on.

    Famously, Canon 102 of the 6th Ecumenical Council (Council in Trullo), says this:

    It behooves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for conversion, and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest if he is injudicious in each of these respects he should fail in regard to the healing of the sick man. For the disease of sin is not simple, but various and multiform, and it germinates many mischievous offshoots, from which much evil is diffused, and it proceeds further until it is checked by the power of the physician. Wherefore he who professes the science of spiritual medicine ought first of all to consider the disposition of him who has sinned, and to see whether he tends to health or (on the contrary) provokes to himself disease by his own behaviour, and to look how he can care for his manner of life during the interval. etc….

    The point is that canons, etc., are for the healing of a soul and that is their main concern and it should be that way for the confessor-priest.

  11. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. What you describe is very, very different from the evangelicalism I was part of for so many years.

  12. Anne Avatar

    Honestly this was great to read. I live constantly learning about our life in the church and his amazing love.

  13. Simon Avatar

    If we are the arrow, then who is the archer? In “missing the mark” my understanding was that our efforts at hitting the target are insufficient. But if we are the arrow itself, then who is the archer?

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I would say that we are the archer, ourselves, in one sense, while God is the archer in another. In the sense that we ourselves are the archer – I’m thinking about the “eros” of our lives. What do we desire? The inherent desire of our life is the Good – God Himself. However, various things interfere with that desire and we change our aim – a “sinful” mid-course correction. Though, I believe that the inherent desire of our life is a constant “gyroscope” pulling us back towards the right target.

    But, in the sense that God is the archer, it is God who set us in motion in the first place in our creation. He set the “desire of our heart” within us. He also “woos” us, and draws us towards repentance (a true mid-course correction).

    In many cases, our wrong directions are a result of a distortion of our desires – a “false” good that we set our aim on.

    What I like most about the imagery is its dynamic character. It’s a recognition that we are “moving” somewhere, that we are in motion. So, it’s not static. No snapshot can capture the truth of our existence.

  15. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I appreciate your emphasis on the dynamic character of our life in Christ.

    For some of us (myself included), the “target” set up by our society is set to be attainable for some and not for others. The use of the analogy for those of us who fall in the group of the “poor aimers” expression is a stamp of disparagement.

    Once upon a time, I blurted out in a conversation that the use of the expression “miss the target” was not helpful. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful. It was more of a visceral reaction–bringing about almost a response of claustrophobia, of being put in a dark box with no way out.

    For this reason, Simon’s question of ‘who is the archer’ is very salient.

    In my early education, I’ll divulge that the term ‘miss the mark’ was familiar to me in the Ancient Greek philosophy and Jewish Late Antiquity literature that I studied. When I heard it again in an Orthodox Christian context, I still heard it within its original language and context. And I didn’t like using it in the Orthodox Christian context for that reason.

    If Christ is the target, the idea suggests that we can ‘hit it’. As far as I know I’ll never become Christ regardless of our notions of theosis. There is an eternity of movement to Christ. Again as far as I know. However, due to the grace of God alone, I have communion with Christ. As far as I know, this situation has nothing to do with my skill as an archer. And yet the arrow that lands, if one is indeed flying, lands in my heart.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I take your point. I like St. Paul’s imagery:
    “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13–14)

  17. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Beautiful, Father. Thank you for that.

  18. Simon Avatar

    The Celestial Song [Christ, the Logos] composed the universe into melodious
    order and tuned the discord of the elements into harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.

    I have been wondering about this for some time: the discord of the elements. In Genesis the world is described as And the Earth was without form, and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. I think that in Genesis 1:2 the Earth is described as existing in a state of discord, which I take as a matter of fact. I get the impression that this universe is at bottom a place of chaos and God has ‘tuned the discord of the elements in harmony.’ I am not calling discord ‘bad’.

    I am thankful for this quote from Clement of Alexandria. When musical notes are played without composition the sound will be discord. I am wondering, is it appropriate to think of primordial existence as ‘notes played without composition’ (having the potential for music) and creation is the composition, the orchestrated notes (music actualized).

  19. Simon Avatar

    Think of a song. If each song were played exactly one note or chord at a time with a a pause between each note and chord, that too would be discord. The harmony of the musical composition is perceived while the notes and chords are playing, i.e., while they are in motion.

  20. Simon Avatar

    To my knowledge the first written reference to hamartano occurs when Odysseus comes home and shoots through the 12 axes and ‘does not miss.’ I remember this from my second semester of classical Greek.

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Interesting thoughts. I’ll think about it. Central to me is that even primordial chaos is brought into existence out of nothing.

  22. Simon Avatar

    I think I lean hard in the direction of something intrinsically disordered that remains when God creates the space for creation call it a kinetic vacuum. Then God tunes the disorder or discord into something resembling the physical universe. Rather than thinking about the universe being forged into existence it is tuned into existence.

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I suppose that we are free to imagine God’s creative action in a variety of ways. The creation ex nihilo is a matter of settled doctrine – creation has a beginning. All things exist through Him, by Him, etc. “Forged” versus “tuned” are secondary to bringing it into existence. I don’t think I’ve ever imagined creation with any sort of brutal imagery (like “forging”). Timothy Patitsas, who teaches at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, has this:

    St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

    When I first read this I called him and asked for a reference in St. Maximus for it. He didn’t remember it. But it is very similar to the imagery in St. Dionysius quoted earlier. Here’s the Dionysius’ quote:

    From this Beauty comes the existence of everything,
    each being exhibiting its own way of beauty.
    For Beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, and of community.
    Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things.
    Beauty is the great creating cause which bestirs the world
    and holds all things in existence by the longing inside
    them to have Beauty.

    And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved,
    as the Cause toward which all things move,
    since it is the longing for Beauty which actually
    brings them into being. From the Divine Names, 4.7

    We are wandering in the imagination, toying with metaphors, etc. It’s easy to get lost in it. I think the point of such imaginings is that, working with the clues we have been given, we seek to know God as He makes Himself known in creation. Again, I come to Christ and the gospels as the beginning point for reading Genesis. Creation is cruciform. Shaped like the Logos Himself.

    I do think that the imagery and metaphors employed by St. Maximus in the above quote or St. Dionysius (who also sees desire (eros) as primary), is their grounding of the creation in love – which is consonant with the gospel and reveals the core of our relationship with God. These fathers are far more “playful” in their work than the near mechanical wonderiings of later Protestantism – which was often confronting a growing materialistic account (and worse).

  24. Matthew Avatar

    Genesis 1:2 says the earth was without form and void when God created it. That doesn”t sound very beautiful to me. It seems God only through some sort of divine process eventually made everything beautiful and good. Why?

  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The early chapters of Genesis are an interesting set of ideas/statements. First, it seems that they are not a set of Scriptures created “out of nothing.” Indeed, there is much evidence that what we are reading is a clear, Hebrew reworking of earlier, Mesopotamian creation stories – reworked to present something consisstent with the God being revealed to Israel.

    So, we have the “without form and void,” – (tohu v bohu). Indeed, it harkens back to the “tiamat” chaos dragon in the Mesopotamian stories. What is interesting about it, I think, is that it isn’t like your fairy godmother waving a wand and “pop!” the universe comes into existence complete with finished product. Instead, we have a narrative of “movement” and change – even, an interaction. God Himself is the “Beauty” that is drawing the creation towards its true existence (that’s the imagery in Dionysius and Maximus). So, you and I, though when we’re born are not “fully formed.” We are innocent, but not mature. We have an instinct for beauty that is planted within us, but we still have a journey before us. We might even have a bit of “chaos” within us – not fully formed – but we are drawn towards the good and beautiful (God) from the get-go.

    There’s this tendency in Western thought to think, “Bang!” there is universe and that’s beautiful, then there’s a fall and it’s broken.

    The Eastern Fathers are far more dynamic (as evidenced in the article). The creation comes into existence as a movement towards the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. And the movement is “very good.”

    What I have long found helpful about thinking in these terms is primarily in my pastoral experience. Sometimes you deal with people whose lives are far removed from “beautiful” and “good.” We are broken, or injured, or warped, even. But, I take everyone around me as “in motion.” No matter where they are, they are on a journey towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. That is the nature of repentance at any given moment. It is a restoration of the true path. It allows you to forgive more easily, to be more understanding, and to give yourself some permission to have not gotten it right just yet.

    The imagery of motion is useful. So is the imagery of medicine (as I cited from the 6th Council).

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I appreciate your question and the answer Father provides. I offer my thoughts in this comment to be helpful since in a previous comment stream you asked how I think of miracles as a scientist.

    Sometimes, I’m questioned about my beliefs while in conversation with scientists. It’s a difficult condition to navigate, mainly because if I’m asked about what I believe, the terms that come to me are Orthodox Christian in origin (at least I hope they are!) and do not have easy relations to a materialistic notion of the universe.

    For example, I have no problems with ex nihilo. It doesn’t jangle against my notions in science. Some scientists want to hold a continual motion machine understanding of the universe. But there are other notions as well. One of my preferences is to agree with scientists who want to perceive that the edges of the universe are showing curvature. However, the last time I read about it, the notion was under hot debate. I don’t worry about such things. I prefer to rest in Christ whenever the opportunity arises. I have enough on my plate in my day-to-day life to ‘jangle the nerves’ (high workloads are piling on, and the pressure is on again to put out product) without getting into the weeds on how science views the universe. There are many scientific views about the universe, and scientists speculate and argue.

    I apologize if this seems too off the cuff. Since you asked me such a question in the past about my thoughts, here they are about this topic of ex nihilo.

    Father, thank you again for St Paul’s words. They were extremely helpful when I needed to hear them.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee, Matthew, et al
    As far as I can tell, Hebrew doesn’t have a good word for nothing. It’s not the language of ontology, on the whole. Hebrew is a language of stories. Greek, on the other hand, has a propensity for ontology (however it might have come about). But it’s not an accident that the language and thought of ontology (the study of “being”) comes about in a Greek context – which was the context of the early Church.

    So, in Hebrew, we get the “story” of creation – not its ontology. If ontological questions are put to it (as was typical of the early Church) answers come out in terms such as “ex nihilo,” etc.

    Modern science represents yet a different language. I’m not entirely sure about its grammar. I know what it should be “ideally,” but, listening to a number of scientists who are doing “cosmology” – I’m not certain that I hear anything that represents an improvement.

    In the language of ontology (which is the classical Church language) “ex nihilo” is not so much a scientific claim as a statement about the nature of “that which exists.” It says that nothing which exists (on the level of being which we ourselves experience) exists in and of itself – but is dependent upon God for its existence – not just coming into existence – but having any existence at all. Thus God is the “Ground of being.”

    It is a way of saying that what we know of “this” world, is simply not ultimate. It is relative to God and subject to God.

    I think that there are common clashes when we move from one language to another. I accept the grammar of Orthodox theology – which is grounded in ontology – that everything depends on God for its existence – whether I know or ever can know anything about how the universe came into existence. I suspect that science will never have anything more than competing theories over that topic.

    Pure science has the handicap of being immoral – or amoral. It asks questions that cannot tell us what to do – only what we think about what is. I find the language of ontology to do the best job of relating us to God and understanding Him.


  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Once again, edifying words. Thank you so much for this clarification!

  29. Susan Krackpotish Avatar
    Susan Krackpotish

    Oh dear. How to say this? I see harmartia, translated ‘sin’ in the New Testament, okay. So why is eros, which is NOT found in the New Testament, the word being used in the aboves (couldn’t find agape even once) for love, rather than agape/agapao? Why? Agapao is also used when Old Testament commandments to love are repeated in the New. Eros, not. Am kind of alert to this since recently listening to Fr Emmanuel Charles McCarthy on the topic. (lectures from Knock, Ireland) Since Agape, love itself, doesn’t desire anything for itself, yet desires everything for the beloved; and Eros, not so much (if at all, ever, eros being about eros) — why cling to eros when agape has since been so richly elucidated in NT scriptures and has fully appeared in the glorious person of our Lord and Savior? And it’s okay if this gets deleted, I understand totally. It’s cool. Pardon me, please.

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Point taken, viz. Agape. Nothing supercedes Agape. However, I was working with the language used by St. Dionysius the Areopagite (who had come up in the discussion). “Eros” – desire – is a component of agape. And he uses it in its purest sense, our inherent desire for God – to be one with God. That’s simply part of the Orthodox Christian tradition. It’s not meant to replace agape, but is simply part of a larger tradition of discussion.

    As Orthodox, we stand clearly on the foundations of the Scriptures, but we’re not Protestants, limited only to the words used in the Scriptures. The conversation has been going on for 2,000 years, and some of the voices (such as those of the saints) introduce us to understandings that are the fullness of the faith.

    Is there something about “eros” that you find objectionable? I’m not clinging to it, or exalting it, just discussing it since it was a large part of the language found in a saint who has been quite seminal in the life of the Church.

    You are pardoned. 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Fr. Emmanuel would have any argument with St. Dionysius.

  31. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m not familiar with Fr. Emmanuel. Perhaps he is doing (as CS Lewis did before) a comparison of various words for “love” (eros being one of them). It’s a useful “preacher’s” technique, but it does not constitute a serious study of the word as it is used in the tradition and teaching of the Church. How could I love someone and not “desire” them? Agape desires union with the beloved – not in a selfish way – but that is at it’s heart. “The two shall become one flesh.” Reading widely, or listening widely, in the teachings of the Church broadens our understanding. I’m sure that Fr. Emmanuel would agree if the question were put to him in those terms.

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    For what it’s worth, Christ speaks of the scriptures speaking of Him (on the road to Emmaus). And the scriptures He refers to are the OT. The Song of Songs, of great beauty, speaks of the relationship between the Bridegroom and the Bride (Christ and His Church). As far as I know (relying on second-hand info–I don’t read Greek well), the word for love in these passages are those of eros.

    Christ condescended to Peter’s usage of ‘philo’ rather than agape in His mercy and love of Peter. Or so I read in the Orthodox Study Bible.

  33. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Dee.

  34. Matthew Avatar

    Forgive me for taking our conversation off topic, but this burning question came up while I was reading about Paul´s letters and their Trinitarian substance yesterday on the train:

    If it can be said that there is little evidence of Trinitarian thought in Paul´s letters (those that are directly ascribed to him and those that are not), then can it also be said that Trinitarian doctine was not established purely from the Scriptures but is rather a later development in the church´s life and history (not based on Scripture)?

    It´s my understanding that Orthodoxy does not accept the idea of doctrinal or progressive theological development. It seems, though, that the doctrine of the Trinity may have developed over time. If so, is this a problem from an Orthodox perspective? Are there Trinitarian ideas floating around in the four Gospels?

    Thanks for the help and the permission to steer us a bit off track just for a moment.


  35. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Matthew,

    I’m not sure the question’s premise is correct. Consider Philippians 2:

    5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!

    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    [end quote]

    Although the exact wording of 2:6 varies depending on translation, Paul seems to be describing the Trinity.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ll give you an image that is helpful for thinking about doctrine and “development.”

    When you are six years old, you can speak your native language fluently. You can spot a non-native speaker, both by the way they pronounce words (foreign accent) or certain grammar mistakes they may make. But, as a six-year old, you do not know how to express these things. You might say, “Why does he talk funny?”

    However, when you reach around 10 or 11 years old, you begin to be taught “grammar” in school and you begin to learn the “rules” that you actually already “know.”

    The same is true in the life of the Church and the “grammar rules” of doctrine. The Scriptures do not contradict Trinitarian doctrine (for example), though they do not flatly state the rules of ousia and hypostasis, etc. The Church already “knows” the doctrine, and has known it from the beginning. But it “knows” the doctrine as a child “knows” its language grammar.

    So, an example: Arius begins to teach “there was a time when the Son was not.” He even cites some Scripture to back up this idea. But the Church rejects it. However, its rejection needed to find the right language to state the “grammar” rule that Arius was “breaking.” If you will, what Arius was saying “didn’t sound right.” The Church had been Baptizing “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” from the beginning (as evidenced in St. Matthew’s gospel). Arius’ teaching seemed, on some level, to run afoul of that action, etc.

    There’s a “rule” that is stated: “lex orandi, lex credendi.” That is, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” Worship is the “primary” category. And the Church did this from its very beginning. Worship is the “fluent” language of the Church. On reflection (later), we begin to “tease out” or “mine” the grammar rules inherent in the Church’s life and action.

    The word “Orthodox” is best translated into English as “right worshipping.”

    The grammar of the statement, “Jesus is Lord,” is Trinitarian and always has been. The doctrine inherent in that statement, however, took some time before false grammatical challenges forced it to be stated plainly.

    Interestingly – the Church prefers not to speak its doctrine plainly or openly. One of the prayers prayed before receiving communion has this phrase: “I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies…” The “mysteries” of God are best stored in the heart and pondered there, rather than being debated with His enemies.

    Unfortunately, we often study doctrine today in the same manner that Latin was classically studied: by learning rules. I majored in Latin and Greek in college, but learning to speak either of them was not part of the training. On the other hand, I studied German in college as well, and “speaking” was the primary mode of learning. They are very different experiences for me. Latin feels more like math to me – a set of rules for solving equations. That’s not how language should be. Buy the same token, Orthodoxy is learned primarily through the living action of worship – being immersed in its language and learning to “sing” it.

    Frankly, those who made up the notion of the development of doctrine reveal that the primary grammar of their thought process is modern evolutionary theory. It’s not surprising. But, evolution (as stated in popular treatments) is not the grammar of the world – or it’s a very badly stated grammar of the world. It also does a very poor job of describing what’s actually going on in the historical process of expressing doctrine.

    Lastly, Trinitarian doctrine is a “grammar rule.” Grammar rules are not the language itself. Many people have learned the grammar rule, but do not speak Trinitarian very well. For example, most worship in Evangelical Churches is barely Trinitarian. It’s very Jesus-oriented (I don’t mind that), but not very Trinitarian. I had a brother-in-law who, when first visiting an Anglican Church (back in my Episcopal days) commented on how Trinitarian the service was. There was the constant refrain: “Glory to Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” And the hymns reflected that sort of language as well.

    If you read primitive Liturgies (the rite of Hippolytus, for example), you’ll see the Trinitarian language throughout. Same is true when reading St. Ignatius or St. Irenaeus. The Trinitarian grammar is already present. The formal declarations of the 1st Ecumenical Council (and the Second) are the “last” thing we see in the process. There is nothing “new” in the formal expression of the dogma, other than formally stating it.

    In Orthodoxy, we would say that everything – the fullness – was given us from the beginning in Jesus Christ. St. Paul “spoke” Christianity flawlessly. Indeed, only a Trinitarian understanding can make sense of the whole of his writings.

    I hope that’s of use.

    Lastly – beware of those who speak of the “development of doctrine.” It provides cover for those who would like to sneak false teachings into the practice of the faith under the cover of “developing.” I think it is, at present, a very pernicious trend in Roman Catholicism. It long ago created distortions in modern “mainline” Protestant Churches.

  37. Matthew Avatar

    Well that leaves me with a lot to think about Fr. Stephen! Thank you.

    Thanks too Mark for your thoughts.

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    No doubt – much to think about. The grammar analogy has been the best way of thinking about this that I’ve seen (it’s my analogy) – particularly in explaining how it is we “know” something before we can actually describe what it is we know. It’s an analogy that “fits.”

    Also, I’ve watched the “development of doctrine” notion over the past 40+ years and have seen it do lots of damage. It’s really nothing more than modernity disguised as a theologumenon. 🙂

  39. Matthew Avatar

    It is a good analogy Fr. Stephen.

    Are any other doctrinal matters being discussed currently or has everything basically been settled in the Orthodox world? Have the Orthodox matched all the language to all the grammar rules … so to speak?

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The largest “issues” in Orthodoxy these days center around problems of ecclesiology – or, at least – the situations brought about through modern history, migrations, etc. The problems, such as, who has the right to bestow the status of “autonomy” and “autocephaly” to a “national/regional Church.” It’s a debate that’s been going on (rather messy at times) for the better part of a century or more (probably more).

    Modern issues (particularly moral matters) do press on the Church as they do on everything. By and large, there has been no “development” on those fronts (nor should there be, to my mind). Our technology continues to push the boundaries of what it means to be human – particularly in its ability to press a sort of “transhumanist” path. At what point does a technology begin to rob us of things that are fundamental to being human? But, I do not see any doctrinal matters of a fundamental nature under discussion. We’ve been speaking Orthodoxy for 2000 years.

  41. Catherine Avatar

    My head hurts! I love all the analogies but I am twisted like a pretzel. Everyone is so bright and brilliant!
    In my Sunday school class, I taught my students that you are either moving toward God or away from Him. There is no standing still for that is moving backwards. And if there is a distance between you and God, He will make up the difference.
    Simplistic, I know, but they understood.
    Now for a cold cloth…

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I can do the analogies so long as there’s no math!

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Having been a target archer in the past the archer does not “aim” in the normal sense of the word. The archer, the bow, the arrow and the target are all one.
    But in our case we arrows have a will of our own which we can soften into God’s direction and hit X in the middle of the 10 ring. We have to relax into the form of the archer and allow the bow to shot us. His will, not mine be done.
    It gives deeper meaning to Mt 4:17: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    As I repent I am relaxing into God’s Will for me..

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Who was teaching you archery? A Zen Master?

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    No, just standard archery approach. Zen is a part of it because of the success of the Asian archers in world competitions. The coaches frequently instructed us to “let the bow shoot the arrow”.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I find the same principle in the Jesus Prayer.

  47. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Our technology continues to push the boundaries of what it means to be human – particularly in its ability to press a sort of “transhumanist” path. At what point does a technology begin to rob us of things that are fundamental to being human?”

    This is a good question. Intellectuals like Yuval Harari are saying crazy things like AI and other technologies will replace God (if he even believes there is a God)! Others are talking about certain animal species evolving to a higher level of development than that of human beings! It doesn´t seem like those who are saying things like this have any real idea about the fundamentals of what makes something a human being.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The tipping point is getting close. They are already calling out the French Army against their own people…

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The unbridled hubris of modernity has (pretty much from its inception) imagined that it can create better human beings. The project has seen many iterations and forms. Christ is the “truly human” and, apart from Him, we imagine ourselves into all kinds of trouble. At present, we seem to be “imagining” ourselves to near extinction.

    Orthodoxy calls us to repentance. An aspect of that repentance is to return to the path of being truly human. This, I think, will be increasingly difficult in our modern context. We will need to learn to say “no” to the various promises offered to us and embrace the Cross as the true tree of life.

  50. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “The unbridled hubris of modernity has (pretty much from its inception) imagined that it can create better human beings. The project has seen many iterations and forms. Christ is the “truly human” and, apart from Him, we imagine ourselves into all kinds of trouble. At present, we seem to be “imagining” ourselves to near extinction.

    Orthodoxy calls us to repentance. An aspect of that repentance is to return to the path of being truly human. This, I think, will be increasingly difficult in our modern context. We will need to learn to say “no” to the various promises offered to us and embrace the Cross as the true tree of life.”

    Amen and amen to this!

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