(This is my first post as as communing Orthodox Christian, as I was baptized and chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church on September 7, 2014)
For those of us who live in the “Western” part of the world; IE: Western Europe/the Americas, we live in an era that is becoming ever more increasingly relativistic and in some regards pluralistic. The philosophical notion that truth is relative to the individual – “I decide for myself what is true for me” – is becoming a cultural norm along with the notion that “all paths lead to the top of the mountain” which essentially says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe because all beliefs are equally valid. Relativism is a product of secular society while Pluralism (in its religious context) finds its roots in the Asian religious traditions – both of which are on the rise in our culture – but it’s safe to say that neither of these are rooted in the Christian faith. In the face of relativism, Classical Christianity has always upheld that it contains the fullness of God’s self-revelation to mankind – not to say that all other belief systems are completely devoid of any truth (for an early Christian discourse on this, one need only to turn to St. Justin Martyr’s “Second Apology” sections 8, 10, and 13) – and in response to the claims of Pluralism we stand firm in the words of Our Lord Himself, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) I can recall how it was shortly after my conversion to Christianity, in an Evangelical community,that I began reading Christian Apologetics and in it I found that Christianity affirms “Absolute Truth”. To try to deny absolute truth one needs to make an absolute statement, which in itself is a contradictory statement, thereby affirming absolute truth. But despite the claims that Evangelical Christianity makes that Christianity is the true religion, when it comes to the beliefs of individual Christians it tends to be quite relativistic and pluralistic.
With its myriads of denominations, divisions, and doctrines, Evangelical Christianity (I’ll use the blanket term “Protestantism” for here on) is anything BUT absolute – save perhaps their adherence to the “Five Sola’s” that were articulated by the early Reformers of the 16th century. In our Protestant dominant culture today, it seems that it does not matter if one is a Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal, or even a “non-denominational” Christian. Some people may refer to this as a “Unity in Diversity”, which I could be sympathetic to if these denominations weren’t contradicting each other (take the case of Calvinistic and Arminian theologies which are mutually contradicting). Based off of the principle of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) Protestantism has fractured itself into thousands of divisions, because when dogmatic scriptural interpretation rests on the individual – rather than the Church – it turns the individual reader into the sole authority. Despite Protestantism stressing that it is “the Bible” that is the sole authority, this is problematic. How does the Bible tell an individual how to interpret Scripture? If the Bible is the sole authority, then I beg the question: Who’s interpretation? Since the Reformation in the 16th century we have seen that the principle of sola scriptura has been the foundation of the fracturing of Protestantism. When Tradition was thrown out there became no boundaries to interpretation and new ecclesiastical formations appeared all over the place. All these divisions has lead to the popular conclusion that there is no “Visible Church”. The Church consists of all the true believers scattered throughout the fractured Christian communities and no one group can lay claim to being the “True Church”.
I have now laid out the popular Christian culture we Westerners find ourselves in. Relativism and Pluralism has seeped into the faith and we are told that this culture is Christianity. Interestingly enough there have been many Christians within the Protestant scope who have begun to realize that our current situation doesn’t seem right. Over the last few decades there has been an emphasis in some Christian circles – particularly among Charismatic and Pentecostal groups – to “Rediscover the Church in Acts”, but this concept of theirs presupposes that the Church has been lost. This belief called the “Great Apostasy” states that sometime after the death of the Apostles the Church fell into heresy, and was only reclaimed by the Protestant Reformers. But if this is true than this renders our Lords words in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church to be a lie. It also presumes that the Holy Spirit, who Christ assured the Apostles would lead them into all Truth (John 16:13) failed at doing so, as well as that the Apostles failed at handing over the faith that was delivered to all the saints (Jude 1:3). So we are faced with the question of what did the Post-Apostolic Church look like? If we look at the writings of the early Christians will we find that it matches our contemporary Christian culture? I contend that the post-apostolic Church did not look like our contemporary Christian culture. Scriptural interpretation did not belong to individuals, it belonged to the Church. There was no belief that a myriad of Christian communities who taught different doctrines were all part of some invisible Church, there was only one visible Church who taught the same thing across the Christian empire. Scripture alone was not the sole basis for Christian life but was handed down alongside Apostolic Tradition. Finally the true Church was able to trace itself back to the Apostles by their bishops, IE: Apostolic Succession. To backup my claims I will turn to the writings of the second century bishop and Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who’s writings are of critical importance.
St. Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons, Gaul (which would be modern day France) in the second century. He was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who in turn had been a disciple of St. John the Theologian (aka: John the Apostle). I contend that the witness of St. Irenaeus is reliable in regards to his testimony of the state of the second century Church. Since the appearance of the Judaizers, the Church was constantly finding themselves having to protect the faith against those who would distort and corrupt her. St. Irenaeus affirms that the Church in the second century has carefully guarded the Apostolic teaching she has received,
“We obey thy direction, (placed as we are in the office of dispensing the Word,) and labour every way according to our ability, to furnish unto thee very much help against the gainsayings of the Heretics, and to draw back them that err, and convert them to the Church of God; to confirm also the mind of the Novices, that they may keep unshaken the faith, which they have received thoroughly guarded from the Church, that in no wise may they teach them amiss, and to lead them away from the truth.” (Against the Heresies, Book 5, Preface) The Church was in need to guard her teachings carefully because already by the second century there arose many competing groups, called “gnositics”, who laid claim to holding the true teachings of Christ. To combat these gnostics St. Irenaeus wrote the five book “Against the Heresies” to uphold the true Christian teaching and to expose and refute the heretical claims made by the gnostics. To give an impression on how many different gnostic groups there was I will list all the groups mentioned by St. Irenaeus in his first book: The followers of Simon Magus and Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, the Ebionites, the Nicolaitans (the same as mentioned in the “Revelation” of St. John), Cerdo, Marcion, Encratites, Tatian, Valentinus, the Barbeliotes, the Ophites, and the Cainites. As we can see there truly was a multitude of gnostic groups. In this respect the second century Christian atmosphere wasn’t too different from our present day situation. While the second century contained a plethora of gnostic sects, we encounter a plethora of denominations. Our present plight of denominations is the product of scriptural interpretive authority belonging to individuals – as is my opinion – which gained popularity and practice with, and has continued since, the Protestant Reformation. This is because the various denominations have picked passages from the scriptures to arrange a theology of their own, which lead to the multiplicity of denominations. Interestingly enough, St. Irenaeus observes this same methodology of scriptural interpretation in the second century, only that it belongs to the gnostics rather than the Church!
“They try to adapt to their own sayings in a manner worthy of credence, either the Lord’s parables, or the prophet’s sayings, or the apostle’s words, so that their fabrication might not appear to be without witness. They disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures and, as much as in them lies, they disjoint the members of the Truth. They transfer passages and rearrange them; and, making one thing out of another, they deceive many by the badly composed phantasy of the Lord’s words that they adapt. By way of illustration, suppose someone would take a beautiful image of a king, carefully made out of precious stones by a skillful artist, and would destroy the features of the man on it and change around and rearrange the jewels, and make the form of a dog, or a fox, out of them, and that a rather bad piece of work. Suppose he would then say with determination that this is the beautiful image of the king that the skillful artist had made, at the same time pointing to the jewels which had been beautifully fitted together by the first artist into the image of the king, but which had been badly changed by the second into the form of a dog. And suppose he would through this fanciful arrangement of the jewels deceive the inexperienced who had no idea of what the king’s picture looked like, and would persuade them that this base picture of a fox is that beautiful image of the king.” (Against the Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 8) St. Irenaeus uses the jewels in the illustration to represent the Holy Scriptures. The correct image of the jewels is that of a king – most likely representing Christ – which was constructed by a skillful artist; the Apostles. The gnostics are rearranging the jewels to contruct their own image by which they mislead others into thinking that their picture of the dog, or the fox, was the true image. We can see a similarity with the interpretive methods employed by Protestants, how they too rearrange passages of Scripture to construct a theology of their own fabrication, meanwhile trying to convince people that their interpretation is merely the “plain meaning of the Scriptures”.
So now we are forced to ask, what does the image of the King look like? What is the proper construction of the Scriptures?
“The Church, indeed, though diseeminated throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in the one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets preached the Economies, the coming, the birth from a Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, and His coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things and to raise up all flesh of the human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, Saviour and King, according to the invisible Father’s good pleasure, every knee should bow [of those] in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess Him, and that He would exercise just judgment toward all; and that, on the one hand, He would send into eternal fire the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became rebels, and the godless, wicked, lawless, and blasphemous people; but on the other hand, bestowing life on the righteous and holy and those who kept His commandments and have persevered in His love – both those who did so from the beginning and those who did so after repentance – He would bestow on them as a grace the gift of incorruption and clothe them with everlasting glory.” (Against the Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 10) This is the correct image of the Holy Scriptures given to us by St. Irenaeus in contrast to the complex – and bizarre – systems constructed by the gnostics. I imagine that his presentation would be accepted across the board by Christians, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox – except perhaps by select groups such as the Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other ‘cult’ groups. A Protestant Christian at this point may protest against me – no pun intended – and respond, “You have compared us thus far to the gnostics, yet we don’t adhere to their teachings. In fact we agree with St. Irenaeus, hence your argument is invalid.” Now it is true that mainline Protestants would approve of St. Irenaeus’ “Rule of Truth”, but let’s see if they would agree with what St. Irenaeus has to say immediately following his “Rule of Truth”,
“The Church, as we have said before, though disseminated throughout the whole world, carefully guards this preaching and this faith which she has received, as if she dwelt in one house. She likewise believes these things as if she had but one soul and one heart; she preaches, teaches, and hands them down harmoniously, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, though the languages throughout the world are dissimilar, nevertheless the meaning of the tradition is one and the same. To explain, the churches which have been found in Germany do not believe or hand down anything else; neither do those founded in Spain or Gaul or Libya or in the central regions of the world.” (Against the Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 10) The Church which has received the Apostolic teaching can be identified by the fact that her teachings are the same everywhere. He lists other marks as well, but for now we shall briefly look at this one.
This visible sign of the same doctrine being taught and believed across the geographical landscape is labeled as “Ecumenicity” by Vladimir Lossky in his article “Concerning the Third Mark of the Church”. This mark of ecumenicity is identified by St. Irenaeus in contrast to the gnostics,
“So many diversities are there amongst them concerning one and the same thing, maintaining as they do different meanings for the same Scriptures.” (Against the Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 35) At this point it seems that the Protestants are once again showing a similarity with the gnostics. If one of the marks of the Church is the same doctrine everywhere then Protestantism falls short due to the thousands of competing denominations, so while they may affirm St. Irenaeus’ “Rule of Truth”, they cannot lay claim to ecumenicity of doctrine.
As I have noted earlier on, this multiplicity of factions of Protestantism is due to the belief in scriptural interpretation belonging to the individual, and that there is no authority which the individual is bound to in making their interpretation, but was this the practice of the early Church? Who were the Scriptures given to? Individuals, or the Church?
“It does not behoove to seek further among others for the truth, which can be obtained easily from the Church; for the apostles most abundantly placed in her, as in a rich receptacle, everything that belongs to the truth, so that everyone who desires can take from her the drink of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3) The Apostles teaching which was “first preached orally, but later by God’s will they handed it on to us in the Scriptures” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1) was delivered to the worshiping community, not to sole individuals. The Church possesses the Truth, because it was given to her by the Apostles, and this she “distributes to her children” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Preface). The true doctrines are found in, and belong to, the Church, and the Church, no matter where she is found, retains this Truth,
“The Church, however, throughout the whole world, inasmuch as it has a solid origin from the apostles, continues in one and the same doctrine about God and His Son.” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 12)
Now the Church which possesses the whole of Apostolic teaching received so orally and only later on in the form of Scripture. Here we come to another mark of the early Church that draws a sharp contrast to our contemporary Christian culture: Tradition. Protestant Christianity upholds that Scripture alone is the sole authority in all matters of Christian doctrine, dogma, practice, etc… Yet once again it turns out that on this issue they have more akin with the gnostics,
“When, however, we refer them to the tradition that derives from the apostles and is guarded by the Churches by the succession of presbyters, they are opposed to tradition.” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2) The Church founded by the Apostles received from them the Apostolic Tradition and the Church keeps safe the Tradition, and it is the Church then who holds the correct teaching of the Scriptures. There is no early Christian opposition against Tradition, except from heretical groups. St. Irenaeus even ponders on what would’ve happened if there had been no Scriptures,
“What if the Apostles had not left us the Scriptures; ought we not, then, to follow the disposition of tradition, which they handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches? (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3)
So far from St. Irenaeus we have seen that the Church founded by the Apostles was given everything that pertains to the Truth through both Tradition and the Scriptures, and no matter where this Church is located geographically she retains what has been given her. There is one more mark given by St. Irenaeus that we shall presently address: Apostolic Succession. The Church of Christ is able to trace their continuity to the Apostles by their bishops. The Apostles handed down their tradition to the men they appointed as bishops, these men in turn passed it on to their successors, and so on,
“We are able to enumerate the bishops who were established in the Churches by the apostles, and their succession even to ourselves …. the tradition received from the apostles, as well as the faith proclaimed to men, which has come down to us through the succession of the bishops.” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3) St. Irenaeus then proceeds to list the succession of the bishops of Rome back to Sts. Peter and Paul (which I shan’t list here), and that her tradition is the same everywhere,
“It is necessary that every Church, that is, the faithful who are everywhere, should agree, because in her the apostolic tradition has always been safeguarded by those who are everywhere.” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3) Since our contemporary Protestant churches are not rooted in the apostolic tradition, nor do they all the same doctrine, even if they could trace themselves back to the Apostles – which they cannot since the farthest back they can trace themselves is to one of Reformers, IE: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Simmons, Cranmar, etc – their succession would be void because they do not contain the fullness of Apostolic Tradition (such as the case of the Church of England and the Roman Catholics)
Now let us conclude this article. The Apostles passed on the entirety of their teachings, through both their Tradition and the Scriptures, to the bishops who oversaw the Churches that were spread out Every Church contained the same Apostolic Tradition and were able to trace themselves back to the Apostles. This is the early Church is presented to us by St. Irenaeus of Lyons. As we have seen this stands in sharp contrast to our contemporary Christian culture which is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, and we have seen that they have more in common with the heretical gnostics than the early Church. There was no individual interpretation. Multiplicity was outside of the Church. Tradition was kept. Teaching was universal, and there was a visible lineage by the bishops to the Apostles. As an Orthodox Christian, I fully believe that the Orthodox Church is the Apostolic Church that carries on the marks given by St. Irenaeus. I do not write this as a “hate document” against Protestantism – or Roman Catholicism – but to show where I see them to be our of line with the Apostolic Church, with the desire that they “do not remain in the ditch they have dug” (Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 25) and would find the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Nicene Creed) of Holy Orthodoxy.