Greek Church & Orthodoxy

Mon 02 November 2015

With the end of the Jewish Church (early second century) the Church as whole was more or less dominated by the Greek culture until the Roman Church started to dominate the West. It seems to me that we still carry the inheritance of that era more than we generally recognize, and that perhaps the Greek tradition in the Church was the bigger break from the original Christianity (whatever this term means) than for example many times blamed Constantine taking over of the Church by the state.

I agree with Paul (1Co 1:22) that the dominant feature of this Greek Church was search for wisdom based on the tradition of the Greek philosophy. Importance of the Greek Church and its inheritance lies in my opinion in the stress on the link between the true faith and correct theology. The biggest fruit of these early centuries of the Christian history is in my opinion a deep dive into the understanding of God, development of the Trinitarianism, and starting a huge tradition of the Christian theology. Unfortunately, the flip side of this love for study and understanding was in my opinion too much stress on orthodoxy as the most important characteristics of Christian and less stress on other aspects of the Christian life. The flower of this understanding is for example the Athanasian Creed claiming that “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. … This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.” Suddenly the salvation is not based solely on the true relationship with the living Jesus Christ [1] and it is now more concerned with exactly correct intellectual understanding of the God [2]. Suddenly having wrong understanding of some minutiae of theology makes oneself a heretic and excludes you from the salvation.

There seems to be now an emerging agreement from many sides that the extreme stress on the theological unity was crippling the Church in the war of the fifth and sixth century, but also that the exact minutiae of this fight are now mostly irrelevant (J. P. Jenkins 2011). This idea was (kind of surprisingly) partially supported by Cantalamessa and Valli (2015):

The situation in the beginning of the third millennium is not same as the one in the beginning of the second millennium, when the Eastern and Western Church separated. It is not the same either as the one in the middle of the second millennium, when the separation between Catholics and Protestants. Are the mean by which the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (the Filioque controversy), or the exact description how the godless is justified, are these questions something which makes the blood of our contemporaries boiling, or are they the questions which makes the Christian faith stand or fail? The world goes on and we got stuck with the problems and formulations which are completely alien to the contemporary people.

Later fights about the true definition and nature of God and Jesus seems to be a clear reflection of the Greek nature of the Eastern Church [3]. Do we consider these “Greek issues” really SO important? How many especially Western Christians actually care about the distinction between dyophysitism and monophysitism? Do most current Christians even know what’s the difference? Or to return to the Athanasian Creed, do we still really believe that all Arians and Nestorians are in The Hell, just because of incorrect understanding of the nature of Trinity, when we all accept that nobody actually really understands the Mystery of Trinity?

That is not to say that I consider these discussions to be useless, or that I would like to doubt the Trinitarianism. I believe that the Trinitarianism and the ability to maintain (more or less successfully) balance between the two Natures of Christ are two most important distinctions between the Christianity as a religion and other religions of the world. So, I don’t think the theology is the problem, but the too high stress on the correct theology as a qualification for the membership in the Church or even for the salvation itself.

My claiming that the current Church puts too much stress on the Greek inheritance may seem too theoretical and abstract. Let me present here as an example what I am thinking, the discussion around (Ratzinger 2006). [4] It is obvious that this speech was completely misunderstood equally both by the Moslem religious fanatics and secular journalists. While everybody was excited about the citation taken out of context, we missed what the whole speach was all about. I more or less agree with (P. Jenkins 2009) that “Benedict insisted that authentic Christianity had to be based on the Greek philosophical tradition, establishing the European intellectual model as the inevitable norm for all future ages.”

See for example this rather surprising statement

“[…] it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

Squeezing fourteen centuries of the Church of the East into “some significant development in the East” (and ignoring the Church in Africa completely) is a rather strange statement. Or, see the following passage proposing an intriguing idea:

The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us!’ (cf. Acts 16:6-10) — this vision can be interpreted as a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

Getting from this Biblical story to the God’s ordinance of linking the faith with the Greek philosophy seems to me tortuous at best. Yes, anything can be interpreted to mean anything, but the path here truly seems complicated. Suddenly in the Ratzinger’s view it seems that the Greek philosophy (I suppose in its transformed Thomistic version) is an integral part of the Gospel message?

Also, it doesn’t seem to me surprising that the Orthodox church as the most pure heir of this Greek Church is the strongest opponent of the ecumenical movement. I know that documents like (The Theological Committee of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos 2007) are not 100% faithful representation of the stance of all Orthodox Christians, but certainly it presents a strong and authoritative voice and it seems to present the absolute rejection of any ecumenical process other than return of all non-Orthodox back to the Orthodox church.

[1]Could we call it ορθοσχέση [orthoschési̱], right relationship? Haykin (2005) suggests the term “orthopaty”, right affection, for something possibly similar.
[2]This stress was then made even more salient by the Protestant tendency to sola scriptura. See (Schmelzer 2015) for comment on this Protestant trend.
[3]The Western church was mostly not present in these discussions because it steadfastly kept its party line, true to its quasi-military(?) character; or perhaps because of most of the time it was struggling for the mere survival during the Fall of Rome era.
[4]What I discuss here is the speech by Benedict XVI. only. I do not discuss here his other works or his thinking. I am perfectly aware of his statements like Ratzinger (2007b) and Ratzinger (2007a) which show clearly Joseph Ratzinger acknowledging the existence of the Church of the East.
Cantalamessa, Raniero, and Aldo Maria Valli. 2015. Serving the Word: My Life. Cincinnati, Ohio: Servant Publications.
Haykin, Michael A G. 2005. ‘ORTHOPATHY’. Historia Ecclesiastica (blog). 2 October 2005.
Jenkins, John Philip. 2011. Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. Reprint edition. New York: HarperOne.
Jenkins, Philip. 2009. The Lost History of Christianity. Reprint edition. New York, NY: HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHERS.
Ratzinger, Joseph. 2006. ‘Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections’. presented at the Apostolic Journey to München, Altötting and Regensburg: Meeting with the representatives of science, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, September 12.
———. 2007a. ‘Aphraates, “the Sage”’. General Audience of 21 November 2007: Aphraates, ‘the Sage’. 21 November 2007.
———. 2007b. ‘Saint Ephrem’. General Audience of 28 November 2007: Saint Ephrem. 28 November 2007.
Schmelzer, David. 2015. ‘Why Blue Ocean Is Sola Jesus’. The Blue Ocean Blog (blog). 28 May 2015.
The Theological Committee of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos. 2007. ‘Memorandum on the Participation of the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches’. Orthodox Christian Information Center. 18 February 2007.

Category: faith Tagged: ecumenism utUnumSint theology ecclesiology greek orthoschesi


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