On the Christian Theology blog, Dante Tremayne expressed his frustration with Orthodox (non-) apologetics in “Can Eastern Orthodox prove they’re the One True Church?.” His basic complaint is that Orthodox arguments appear to be circular and that they all rest on the Orthodox claim to be the Church of Christ:
Therefore, what they say is the truth, is the truth. There is no higher authority or objective standard to which they appeal. Thus, when the church says that they are the True Church, it’s true, because they are the Final Authority, and they are the Final Authority because they are the True Church. This is a rather obvious tautological statement, and completely meaningless.
I attempted to respond with the following lengthy comment on his entry:
I am sorry to hear that you have found nothing but unhelpful and circular statements from Orthodox quarters. This doesn’t help, but let me say that the above statements do make some sense once you see the Orthodox perspective.
The basic Orthodox claim is similar to that of Rome: the Orthodox Church is the Body of Christ, spread throughout the Roman empire and beyond by the apostles, and nourished by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages. For the Orthodox, there is no sudden change—no apostasy, no turbulent switch—in Christian history. From Paul to Justin to John Chrysostom to John of Damascus to Gregory Palamas to today, there is a public continuous Christian community that lives in the light of Christ’s resurrection. Rome claims the same. Protestant communities, as you mention, also claim as much, but rather dishonestly.
How should we judge these competing claims? Well, we can look for continuity. It is not enough to find some sort of precedence—we must find a general and consistent acceptance of doctrines throughout the Christian era. If you do this, you will see that the Protestant confessions are aberrations in Christian history. It is true that Luther and Calvin found their inspiration in Saint Augustine of Hippo, but his peculiar views were quite singular, and they were rejected by the Western Churches for a thousand years after his death, despite his being the greatest Church Father who wrote in Latin. In the East, Augustine’s quirky theological speculations never influenced anyone. All of the great teachers in Christian history had their individual doctrinal musings. Favorite sons of the Orthodox Church Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus also had peculiar ideas. However, such views were simply their own and did not reflect the general consensus of the faith as inherited through the centuries from the apostles. As such, they were considered the private opinions of wise and holy men—but they were not doctrine. The East had an advantage in this, as most early Fathers were Greek speaking and writing—there was no lack of witnesses writing in Greek from any era of the apostolic faith. No one person and his theological idiosyncrasies could substitute for the general catholic faith that everyone held.
It is a common Orthodox contention that most Western errors resulted from this lack of patristic diversity in the West. As the Empire in the West crumbled, fewer people knew Greek, and the knowledge of the early Church was lost in a way that never happened in the Greek East. Moreover, with the onset of the Dark Ages and fewer educated folks in the West, the place of Augustine and the few Western Fathers held an inappropriate influence over the West. Furthermore, the bishop of Rome was forced to take on secular responsibilities as civil authority either crumbled or was taken over by heretical Arians. Over centuries, this aggrandizement of power perverted Rome—from the Orthodox perspective—and made it more about princely power than about guarding the ancient faith for the salvation of souls.
Therefore, the Orthodox acknowledge that Rome has ancient roots, but they hold that historical circumstances facilitated Rome’s slow departure from the apostolic faith. Rome also acknowledges its changes, but it argues that such changes were divinely ordained. To weigh the two, you should consider the relative arguments. However, I think that the burden of proof must rest on Rome, which changed and gathered great power by those changes. Did the papacy transform into a super-episcopacy due to the will of God or due to the self-interest of power hungry men?
The Roman position puts so much stock in the power and infallibility of the papacy because it then allows Rome to justify all other changes. To any question, “Why did the Roman Church change from the ancient practice to another?,” Rome can simply answer “Because the Holy Spirit works through the magesterium of the papacy and directs the Church through Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope.” In one stroke, Roman Catholicism self-justifies.
The Orthodox reject such papal authority and rest with the ancient apostolic and patristic consensus. Obviously, new questions always arise, and new answers must develop to address them. Yet, the Orthodox position is that these new answers are based in the consistent unchanged “phronema”—the mind set—of the Church. Roman theologians often accuse the Orthodox of being stuck in the past, but for the Orthodox, God’s truth isn’t constrained by time. The Word of God is eternal.
The “truth is a person” bit that you mention is not an excuse not to engage intellectually, though many Western Christians initially think that of Orthodox Christians. Rather, it is a typical Orthodox response to what they see as the hyper-rationalization of divine matters. For the Orthodox, theology is not an academic exercise; it is not an engagement with abstract concepts but rather an engagement with the living God. Out of pastoral reasons, Orthodox priests try to steer Western inquirers to consider their faith more like a life lived—in a relationship of love—than one of propositions to which one assents. Westerners often misunderstand this move, since their prior experience with such responses usually comes from the post-modern, post-doctrinal, post-Christian factions of their own religious tradition: “Only the closet atheists say such things.” Thus, they dismiss Orthodoxy as wishy-washy feel good mystical gobbly gook nonsense.
Concerning scripture, the Orthodox rightly treasure the Bible, but they do not see it as something separate from the rest of their heritage from God. The legacy of Abraham, the law of Moses, the prophets, the apostles, the first Christian communities, the martyrs, the great theologians of the early Church, the great councils, the wisdom of the desert monks, the hymnography, the liturgical riches, and the poetry of the Church—these are all aspects of the Christian life, lived in the community of Christ’s gospel. You may hear such and interpret it as denigrating the scriptures, whereas the Orthodox are, from their perspective, putting the Bible in its greater context. The Bible isn’t a document without a home; its home is the Church, where it was written, where it has been kept, and where it has been taught for two thousand years.
So, with apostolic succession, scriptural interpretation, and doctrinal positions, the Orthodox can point to any century in the past and state that Christians held the same beliefs then. They do not see the Fathers as distant authorities—Orthodox Christians are not ecclesial archaeologists digging around in dusty cathedral basements—but rather the Orthodox see the Fathers as familiar pastors and teachers. For this reason, the Orthodox do not have the same crisis of faith that many Westerners have when it comes to learning the great upheavals in Church history. The Arian controversy is touted as evidence against the Trinity by some Protestants and apostate Christians, whereas the Orthodox remember it in the way that our parents remember Vietnam . . . it’s a family memory. They know that Arius was wrong, and they know why he was so successful for so long. The intricacies of the conflict are not arcane matters but stories that one knows because they defined a significant moment in one’s personal past—and often such moments are painful and complicated.
This is not to say that Orthodoxy doesn’t have problems. Rather, it is to admit that the problem with Orthodoxy is Orthodox Christians, whereas the problem with Protestantism is Protestantism. Anything connected with fallen man will be tainted and disappointing. Nonetheless, God has given us a path, and it is available to all.
My presentation of an Orthodox defense is highly unorthodox in that it is overtly intellectual. The more immediate Orthodox response to an inquirer of Orthodox claims would be an invitation to see if you find sanctity and spiritual nourishment in the Church. For it is easier to trick the intellect of most people than to deceive their hearts.
I, myself, don’t find the historical arguments ultimately fulfilling. Sure, they might show that the Orthodox Church has more in continuity with the earliest Christians, but it does not establish that the earliest Christians were right. Why follow Jesus at all? For me, Orthodoxy makes the world make sense; it provides better answers to my questions than any other system. But that is my own path.
However, each person comes to God in a unique manner. I wish you the best in your search.
The comment obviously does not do justice to the historical complexity of Christian history. I have “been there and done that” with endless arguments over papal claims, replete with innumerable patristic references, scriptural commentary, conciliar minutes, and canon law case precedents in cross-diocesan judicial appeals. My basic opinion, sufficient for the present purpose, is that one can build a case for papal supremacy by employing extraordinary circumstances as normative ones. During all the Christological controversies, some bishops played ruthless politics for the sake of the faith while others did so for personal power. A pious bishop in exile often sought assistance wherever he could, and canonically questionable actions were taken and justified by the higher goal of defending the faith from heresy. Rome was usually a haven of sanity during these disputes; early Western Christians were not as a theologically interested, philosophically educated, or politically connected as their Greek brethren in the East. Hence, the Roman Church was blessedly boring while the major theological controversies raged across the Empire. It was often necessary, then, for orthodox hierarchs to seek Rome’s interference in ways that defied common practice. Papal supremacists see their justification therein. The will needs very little evidence to claim the inviolable correctness of its desires . . .
Nonetheless, the normal position of ecumenical Church government was decentralized and conciliar. Such is the Orthodox ideal to this day, though it has taken many forms, with the autocephalous system’s being the current organization. At any rate, the subject has become a moot point. Rome largely abandoned its orthodoxy centuries ago, and whatever primacy the bishop of Rome should have had has become an anachronism. Petrine fundamentalism aside, the Churches’ deference to Rome rested as much on the Roman Christian community’s sobriety and fidelity as on Rome’s status as the old capital, on its being a major center of power, communication, commerce, transportation, and ideas, and on its giving the world countless martyrs, especially Saints Peter and Paul. When Rome forsook its faith, it forfeited its special honor.