Chapter 4: The Church as the Instrument for Preserving Revelation

As Bishop BASIL (Essey) introduced Fr. Zacharias to his clergy during one of their retreats, he made mention of the idea of paradosis (παρὰδοσις, the Greek word we usually translate as “tradition”).  Not so much like links in a chain but strands in a tapestry, is the way in which the tradition of the Church is passed from person to person, from group to group, from generation to generation.

An icon written on a woven piece of cloth.

It is with this in mind that we move on into chapter four of Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatics.  “Tradition”, Fr. Staniloae states, “cannot exist without the Church (p. 53).”  The Church, it must be understood, is the community that came into existence at the time of the Apostles, and continues — being formed by tradition, and also forming tradition:  “The Church begins with tradition, tradition begins with the Church (p. 53).”

The Church is also bears the work of the Holy Spirit, which means that God’s action (as evidenced in natural and supernatural revelation)  is also an integral part of tradition (p.53).  God acts, and the community continually works to reflect in better ways the manner in which God is acting.

There is a mutually dependent connection between the Church, tradition, and it’s subset, Scripture.  The Church is the agency through which Scripture is “activated”.  Tradition is the lens through which Scripture is comprehensible.

Fr. Stanlioae notes with particular emphasis that the Protestant Church’s rejection of the Church has resulted in a loss of παρὰδοσις, the handing off of the faith from one person to another, which is an integral part of the continuity of tradition. Also, the rejection of the Church means that whenever Scripture is interpreted in the Protestant world, it is done without the fullness of tradition, which by extension means that the depths of the Scriptures themselves are not fully understood or plumbed.

This obviously stands in direct opposition to any notion of Sola Scriptura, the foundation of many of the disparate Protestant denominations.  Scripture is understood as self-interpreting, or the interpretation of Scripture is left up to the individual.  The Church is not necessary for correct interpretation to occur.  Paraphrasing Luther, a layman with the Scriptures is superior to any Pope without them.

Some, like the Methodists and their notion of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (which was not Wesley’s at all), expand the sources of authority to include not only Scripture and tradition, but reason and experience as well.  Putting the four on an equal footing shows the same diminution of the Church and the tradition of the Church, because experience can be either individual or corporate, and reason can be intra or extra ecclesial.  Quoting Stanley Hauerwas, “I was raised a Methodist. That means before I was twelve I had already had all the experience I could take…. Methodists should not be allowed to use the word ‘experience’ because they usually mean by that salvation consists in having the right feelings at the right time and in the right place. Rather than our confrontation with God being an occasion for challenging our endemic narcissism, the emphasis on experience thus only underwrites our fatal narcissism [cf. Michael Cartwright, “Afterward: Stanley Hauerwas’s Essays in Theological Ethics: A Reader’s Guide”, in John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 650-51.].” The problem then is that a person left on their own to determine the meaning of existence can easily fall prey to self-deception. An Orthodox (or Catholic – note that Fr. Staniloae is only criticising Protestantism at this point) vision of Church as Staniloae presents it, defining and being defined by tradition, providing context and meaning for revelatory experience, enables a person to narrate (Hauerwas’s word) one’s own experiences truthfully.

Ultimately, the plan of salvation and deification is found in tradition, Scripture, and the Church and is the reason why they are of any importance anyway.  Dogmas are the points at which salvation and deification are preserved within tradition.  Dogmas are revealed either naturally or supernaturally.  These revelations occur between two actors who are open to one another, through a tangible relationship.  This openness implies a certain degree of vulnerability: defenses are dropped, so if trust is not a part of the relationship, a person can get hurt.  The trust is brought about by faith, that the relationship will lead to theosis, rather than to destruction.  Faith and revelation are mutually dependent.

Dogmas themselves have been the focal point of a great deal of derision over the last several centuries.

The examples of this are legion. From David Hume, whose theological convictions were vague at best, to Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, adherence to the dogmas spelled out in the Ecumenical Councils hold little weight. Dogmas are seen as restrictive or outdated/outmoded. A classic example of this is found in Charles Ketcham’s A Theology of Encounter (University Park, PA and London: Penn St. University Press, 1978) where he argues that classical philosophical categories found in Plato and Aristotle are no longer relevant or sufficient and that what is needed is a re-presentation of concepts like revelation, justification and salvation based on new philosophical approaches (Buber, Heidegger and Husserl) are required.  While this book itself is somewhat obscure (he was my first religion professor), the opinions expressed are much more far-reaching.

Properly understood, dogma is neither restrictive nor constraining, but rather dogma preserves the capacity for spiritual development within human beings (p. 65). Dogma is not limiting, it is freeing.  It presents the opportunity for human beings to be in communion with God the Person.  So while dogma presents the domain of faith (and therefore it circumscribes certain aspects of the faith) it also places Christians in a position where they can be in direct relationship with the Supreme and Divine Person, which in itself is the epitome of freedom (ibid).

Dogmas in the Christian context are not just a set of teachings, constrained by a person’s sitz im leben.  Rather, they provide the context or the framework for the divine-human relationship.  Dogmas are the interpretation of Christ’s reality as this reality is being extended in human lives…. Christ is the living dogma, universally comprehensive and at work to bring about the whole of salvation (p.67, emphasis mine).”

The content of Christian dogma centers on the Holy Trinity.  In that the Son reveals the Father and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity is the perfection of communion.  Thus, through the divine community of the Holy Trinity, humanity is raised up into eternal and divine communion.

This communion is dialogical and interpersonal.  Fr. Staniloae notes that this dogmatic understanding is unique when compared to faiths apart from Christianity.  Pagan beliefs in a god hold that the persons of gods ultimately dissolve into an impersonal essence.  Judaism and Islam maintain that God is so closed up in Himself that for man no communication with God is possible.

So far it’s been established that in the Christian dogmatic sense man’s relationship with God is interpersonal and dialogic.  In the dogma of the Holy Trinity, “God is a Trinity of persons who have all in common, that is, their entire being, yet are not confused with one another as persons. This implies perfect love (p. 68).”  This also means perfect community and perfect relationship, and the ultimate end for humanity as well, when man and God will be united in perfect community as well.

The dogma of the Incarnation is another crucial matter.  God is not merely united with a man (p.69).  Were this to be so, Christ, as man, would not be in the full communion with the Holy Trinity.   So the two natures – divine and human – are united in one hypostasis, one Person.  “The hypostasis of Christ is the basis of this highest union between two different natures just as a common nature is the bridge that unites persons of the same nature (p. 69).”

So Christ does not become a new species.  He is fully Divine, He is fully human.   As such He becomes the real mediator of our communion with God (ibid), bringing our humanity to Divinity and Divinity to our humanity.  Through Him, then, we experience the fulfilment of our yearning for ultimate meaning (p. 70).

This eternal communion is our because of the resurrection of our Lord.  The resurrection along with the Holy Trinity are what Saint Cyril of Alexandria calls the fundamental dogmas of our faith.  The Father raised the Son, not because the Son was unable to raise Himself, but because whatever the Son does out of love for the Father and obedience to His will  (p. 72).

Fr. Staniloae’s discussion of St. Cyril is worth noting, because he shifts the emphasis found in him and elsewhere within the patristic corpus from incorruptibility to perfected communion: “Living as they did in a period when the ideas of person and of interpersonal communion were still not very well developed, the Fathers, in their treatment of the resurrection, placed greater emphasis on the share that human nature had in the incorruptible divine life. (p. 73)”

This is a very interesting comment, since a great deal of modern or  neo-patristic thought has returned to this emphasis on incorruptibility at the deficit of perfect communion.

The remainder of the chapter is an emphasis on the perfection of communion that comes from union with God, the need for the human body to be perfected in order to participate in the divine communion and the hell that awaits those who do not live in communion with God, a resurrection of eternal solitude (p. 75).

So in this chapter, Fr. Staniloae creates his framework for the need for the Church to be the locus of the tradition of the faith, how it both forms and and is informed by tradition as it progresses.  Moreover, he emphasizes the  central role of natural and supernatural dogma as it helps to set the framework for humanity to progress along the road to theosis and perfect communion with the Divine Person.  This Person, of course, is the Holy Trinity, the ultimate expression of perfect community.  Humanity has access to this participation in divine community through the completely human, completely divine Christ, the Son of the Father, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.  Through the resurrection,  which is the complete work of the entire Trinity, perfection is then communicated to the whole human race.