Sunday, March 19, 2017

Orthodoxy Responds to the Reformation

Eastern Christianity did not feel Reformation rumblings until about a century after it broke out in the West. The Orthodox Catholic Church, as it officially calls itself, put together its own response in the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem.

A synod historically is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine or practice, in Orthodoxy a gathering of bishops. The term comes from the Greek synodos meaning assembly or meeting, which is a synonym of the Latin concilium, meaning council. The Jerusalem synod was convened by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dositheos Notaras in March 1672.

Attended by the metropolitan bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Moscow, along with 63 other bishops, the synod was called primarily to respond to charges of heresy in the form of Calvinism. The charges grew out of a 1629 work attributed to Cyril Lucaris, Patriarch of Constantinople, which offered an 18-point summary of beliefs that embraced Calvinism.

Lucaris denied having anything to do with The Confession of Cyril Lucaris, but its reputed authorship gave rise to the idea that the bishop thought Calvinism was the faith of the Eastern Church, a controversy that continued after his murder in 1638 while in Ottoman custody. The problem was made worse by Western Protestant writers who began to claim Greek Church support for their positions.

At this point it is worth recalling the state of affairs in the Eastern Church. From the 1054 break with Rome until this synod, the Orthodox communion was a network of autocephalous, or independent, churches headed by either patriarchs or metropolitan bishops in sees that traced back to the apostles. To these were added, in the early Middle Ages, churches in the lands of various Slavic peoples, especially Russia. The Crusades put Orthodoxy between Western Catholicism and Islam, whose military conflict led to the eventual capture of Constantinople and the Balkans, with the Orthodox churches suddenly subject to the political control of what would become the Ottoman Empire.

Otherwise, Orthodoxy remained very traditional and Nicene in doctrine and practice. Its bishops, who had enough trouble dealing with Islam, were not about to let the Protestant ruckus in the West disturb their peace. Like the Council of Trent, the meeting on Calvinism was the right moment to define a number of doctrines in a set of 18 decrees called the Confession of Dositheus, whose statements in number echoed the propositions of the errant Calvinist work but in content went far beyond.

The bishops restated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, emphasizing that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, a nudge against the Latin Church. Next, however, they echoed Trent’s rejection of sola Scriptura (only Scripture), including affirming the Holy Scriptures with the stricture that “not otherwise than as the Catholic Church has interpreted and delivered the same.” Lest anyone miss the point, they stated that “every foul heresy accepts the Divine Scriptures, but perversely interprets the same, using metaphors, and homonymies, and sophistries of man’s wisdom, confounding what ought to be distinguished, and trifling with what ought not to be trifled with.”

The bishops accepted the traditional teaching that an all-knowing God was aware of who would make “a right use of their free will,” but they argued that “the most wicked heretics,” who claim “that God, in predestinating, or condemning, did not consider in any way the works of those predestinated, or condemned, we know to be profane and impious.”

The synod held “the first man created by God to have fallen in Paradise … And as a result hereditary sin flowed to his posterity,” but the council fathers added a strong statement anticipating the immaculate conception doctrine: “the Mother of God the Word, the ever-virgin Mary, did not experience these.” Moreover, Christ is “the only mediator,” but the synod points out that “in prayers and supplications unto Him, we say the Saints are intercessors, and, above all, the undefiled Mother of the very God the Word; likewise, the holy Angels—whom we know to be set over us—the Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Pure Ones, and all whom He hath glorified as having served Him faithfully.”

As for authority, the bishops assert that “the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in which we have been taught to believe, contains generally all the Faithful in Christ, who, being still on their pilgrimage, have not yet reached their home in the Fatherland.” They specify that “the Holy Spirit has appointed Bishops as leaders and shepherds over particular Churches.” The bishops are, as successors of the apostles, “a fountain of all the [Sacraments] of the Catholic Church, through which we obtain salvation.”

The 15th decree lists the seven sacraments also recognized by Trent, albeit with biblical references citing each instance in which Jesus Christ instituted them. When it comes to transubstantiation the synod’s response went a bit beyond Trent: “we believe that by the word ‘transubstantiation’ the manner is not explained, by which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord—for that is altogether incomprehensible and impossible, except by God Himself.”

In an addendum to the decrees, the synod answered four questions, three about Scripture and one about saints and icons.

On the Bible, the synod affirmed a canon identical to Trent, which later varied in local usage. However, the synod fathers made the points that Scriptures “should not be read by all, but only by those who with fitting research have inquired into the deep things of the Spirit” and should not be translated to “the vulgar tongue.” They demolish the Reformation’s claim to individual interpretation, saying: “If the Divine Scriptures were plain to all Christians that read them, the Lord would not have commanded such as desired to obtain salvation to search them (John 5:39); and Paul would have said without reason that God had placed the gift of teaching in the Church (1 Corinthians 13:28); and Peter would not have said of the Epistles of Paul that they contained some things hard to be understood.”

Orthodoxy did not have the burden of indulgences to contend with, but it did have icons and in its past the parallel iconoclasm controversy. The synod therefore clarified that “it is appropriate to adore the Holy Icons.” However, the synod “anathematises, and subjects to excommunication, both those that adore the Icons with adoration as well as those that say that the Orthodox commit idolatry … and we ascribe adoration to the only God in Trinity.” Thus Jerusalem matches Trent in reaffirming the theory behind controversial practices (the use of indulgences and icons), while placing clear limits.