Archive for the ‘Doctrine’ Category

Here’s a report in rather confusing English from Interfax: “Bishop Hilarion requests the Theologian Commission to examine the ambiguous document adopted at the Orthodox-Catholic conference in Ravenna.”

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The Ravenna Document is stimulating great and profound thoughts in the Orthodox-Catholic blogosphere.

First, from an Orthodox perspective, John at Ad Orientem has two posts on Ecumenical Councils (post I and post II). I’m encouraged to see this sort of constructive, rather than nitpicky and dismissive, response from a fellow Orthodox.

Since Orthodoxy for whatever reasons (I would opine there are many) has not held an oecumenical council since 880 AD, and therefore has not formally condemned the Latin innovations, they could be treated as theologumen. Granted, I think there is far greater unanimity among the Orthodox hierarchs and the lay faithful that many Western doctrines are heretical, than there is support for some of them among the Roman Catholic faithful. But it still boils down to theologumen on our side. But if you remove Rome’s carved in stone claim that those doctrines are infallible truths binding on all of the faithful, then we may move back to square one.

This would not of course end the schism or restore communion. But it would have the effect of saying both sides have strongly held contrary OPINIONS of great import that need to be resolved. On that basis it might be possible to convene a Great Council of The Church to begin the process of sorting things out and resolving them one at time …

Partly in response to John’s posts, Dr. Mike Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae) has some excellent reflections from a Roman Catholic perspective. This point in particular is of great interest to me:

As evinced by Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as other pertinent documents since that council closed, the Catholic Church has undergone and fostered the development of ecclesiological doctrine in such a way as to give an account of how the EOs and OOs relate to “the Church,” which is said to “subsist” in the Roman communion as a perduring whole. As a matter of fact, John’s challenge to us Catholics makes use of that development. But something analogous does not seem to have occurred in Orthodoxy. We have Zizoulas’ eucharistic ecclesiology, which dovetails somewhat with Ratzinger’s theology of communio and has clearly influenced the Ravenna proceedings. But further progress in Orthodox ecclesiology is necessary if the process embodied by Ravenna is to continue. What direction could and should such progress take? That’s the question that Orthodox like John need to consider.


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Hieromonk Maximos, at the Anastasis Dialogue, takes issue with some comments by Father Thomas Hopko on the issue of the Latin Catholic understanding of Purgatory.

There are, in my opinion, some pretty crazy “pious” speculations on the afterlife on both sides of the isle. And it’s crucial to isolate the actual official teachings of the Roman Church on the subject from both the “pious” elaborations (which can be tolerated to an extent) and the misconceptions/polemical distortions of outsiders (which, with a little charity and humility on both sides, can be easily set aside).

The Roman Church only affirms two things about Purgatory: (1) That it exists (that is, a state or process of purification for the faithful departed on their way to eternal bliss); and (2) that we ought to offer our prayers for them here on earth.

As far as I know, the Orthodox beef with Purgatory at the Council of Florence was with an overly literalistic description of the “fires” of Purgatory (again, such things fall outside of the category of official dogma in the Roman Church). There was no dispute over the existence of a kind of purification after death, nor with the idea that our prayers can assist the faithful departed in their preparation to meet the Lord in eternity.

As an Orthodox Christian, I can’t see anything church-dividing here. There are a lot things about the way that Roman Catholics sometimes talk about Purgatory that will be provocative and offensive to Eastern ears; but, again, this should be distinguished from serious dogmatic disagreement.

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But some one will say, perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.


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In the combox to “The Fathers Gave Rome the Primacy”, a slightly off-topic discussion of the Catholic understanding of the “development of doctrine” began. I would like to divert the discussion to this post’s combox, because I think that doctrinal development is a very important discussion for this blog – not merely because it’s identified by some Orthodox writers as a major difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but because the Catholic understanding of the Papacy really does hinge on the possibility of the development of doctrine.

I propose that we take some quotes from Michael Liccione’s Sacramentum Vitae posts on doctrinal development as a basis for discussion. Dr. Liccione has, in my view, done an excellent job in explaining this difficult and often misinterpreted Catholic concept. Liccione shows (quite convincingly in my opinion) that orthodox Catholic theories of doctrinal development* by no means involve “additions” “innovations” or “improvements” to the original apostolic deposit of faith (as if what Christ entrusted to the Church were incomplete or imperfect). Still less does legitimate doctrinal development have to do “new revelations” or “new truths” somehow esoterically communicated to Popes or Ecumenical Councils (that, of course, would differ little from the Mormon theory of continual revelation).

In The Embryo and the Deposit of Faith (10/15/2005), Liccione explains doctrinal development in terms of what we know about DNA:

Recall that you are spatio-temporally continuous with a blastocyst. Within that microscopic you, there were and remain all the DNA instructions for what you physically became. Your body was once “virtually”—in the classical sense of that term derived from the Latin virtus: “power”—what it is now. Indeed, your body now is the same body as that blastocyst; the difference is that what “it” contained were mostly the codes for producing what you now see (and a lot of what you don’t see). The difference is one of development not identity.

The Catholic Faith is like that. That the authoritative documents of the Catholic Church, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are collectively much, much longer than the New Testament is not a sign of undue human elaboration of the Word of God. The primordial Word of God is God the Son and thus God himself: “In the beginning was the Word.” What’s more often called the “Word”, embodied in the preaching of the Apostles, the Bible, Sacred Tradition, and dogma, is but the transmission of truths from and about the primordial Word. Such media of transmission and elaboration are but the making explicit of much that was implicit in the primitive kerygma. That entails development fueled by explanation. Thus the Apostles would not have known what the Council of Nicaea meant by saying that the Son is homoousios with the Father, yet that phrase signified an authentic, organic development of what they did preach. The basic deposit of faith was indeed “delivered once for all to the saints” from the start; but it took centuries of meditation, heresy, and definition to bring forth to maturity much that was inchoate. The right codes were always there, but what contained them needed time and nourishment for the growth they have regulated.

In Cardinal Newman on the Depositum Fidei (10/4/2006), Liccione presents an important quote from Newman in order to show that for Catholics, legitimate doctrinal developments (yes, there can be illegitimate doctrinal developments) are merely explications of what was implicit in the minds of the Apostles, in that Faith which Christ “once delivered” to the Apostles, and which the Apostles then passed to the Church:

I conceive then that the Depositum is in such sense committed to the Church or to the Pope, that when the Pope sits in St. Peter’s chair, or when a Council of Fathers & doctors is collected round him, it is capable of being presented to their minds with that fullness and exactness, under the operation of supernatural grace, (so far forth and in such portion of it as the occasion requires,) with which it habitually, not occasionally, resided in the minds of the Apostles;—a vision of it, not logical, and therefore consistent with errors of reasoning & of fact in the enunciation, after the manner of an intuition or an instinct. Nor do those enunciations become logical, because theologians afterwards can reduce them to their relations to other doctrines, or give them a position in the general system of theology. To such theologians they appear as deductions from the creed or formularized deposit, but in truth they are original parts of it, communicated per modus unius to the Apostles’ minds & brought to light to the minds of the Fathers of the Council, under the temporary illumination of Divine Grace.

In Ampliative Development of Doctrine (Part I) (12/20/2006), Liccione likens legitimate doctrinal development to “the pattern in the unfolding of divine revelation itself”, that is, the gradual unfolding of the plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, as reflected in the Old Testament and New Testaments:

Consider how Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14 to support the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. Matthew was relying on the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which uses the term parthenos, meaning “virgin,” to translate Isaiah’s almah, meaning “young woman.” Why that translation? After all, not all virgins are young women and not all young women are virgins. Perhaps the “seventy” Jewish scholars in Alexandria who produced the LXX believed that the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin; but then, perhaps not. We really don’t know. They may simply have chosen parthenos as a decorous synonym for ‘a young woman’ with the implication that the Messiah would be her first-born. At any rate, we have no evidence that first-century Jews assumed the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin. There doesn’t appear to have been any consensus among Jews about how to construe Isaiah 7:14 on this particular point. Yet Matthew, or at least the early Church that received his Gospel as canonical, seems serenely confident that it prophesied that Jesus the Messiah was born of a literal virgin.

This is but one instance of how the New Testament in general treats the Old Testament. The NT even has Jesus himself explaining “the Scriptures,”—i.e., the works comprised by the LXX—as referring to him in various ways that either the original authors of the Scriptures or their audiences do not seem to have had in mind. So if Christianity is true, then the material sense of those Scriptures is far broader than what they formally say. The full material sense—what Scripture scholars call the sensus plenior—is formally brought out only in light of later events, reflections, and interpretations. And that, I believe, is how a great deal of DD also proceeds even after the complete divine revelation was fully given to the Apostles. The process of coming to understand the deposit of faith, given once-for-all to the saints, recapitulates the unfolding of divine revelation itself during the long period leading up to and including “the Jesus event.”

Accordingly, if such controverted doctrines as papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception are instances of authentic DD, they are so because they are derived from the faith-once-delivered in a way very similar to how christology is derived by the NT from the OT and by the first several ecumenical councils from the NT and other early Christian sources. They are not strictly deducible from what everybody professed formally in common during the first millennium of Christianity; they formally express what was there all along, to be sure; but they could not be derived, by any means generally acknowledged as logically reliable, from what was there all along. I don’t think ‘induction’ is quite the right term for that. I can think of no better term than, simply, ‘ampliative inference’.

Liccione’s many other posts on the topic are well worth reading as well:

* By modern orthodox theories of doctrinal development, I mean those of Moehler and Newman; as opposed to heterodox modernist theories of doctrinal development, as proposed by the likes of Harnack, Loisy or Tyrell.

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