Ancient Faith Continued: Elastic Tradition

I was in the library last month, looking for something from Fr. Dumitru Staniloae when I came across a book by David N. Bell. It’s title immediately caught my attention: Orthodoxy: Evolving Tradition. I had been thinking about what it means to be a modern member of the so-called “Ancient Faith” (read more here), so I picked it up. It reads a lot like an introduction to Orthodoxy, except that it is more frank about our warts than some other primers.

One of the things I loved about Bell’s book was that he constantly stresses the internal diversity within Orthodoxy. The church is not monolithic either in terms of belief or practice. This gets personal for me in the last chapter of his book.

    …Tradition can all too easily degenerate into ultra-conservatism, but even if it does not, and even where creative change takes place, it tends to take place very slowly–too slowly for many people. Those, therefore, who wish to see the ordination of women to the priesthood (not just to the diaconate) may not find themselves at home within the Orthodox tradition. Those who wish to see the sacramental blessing of gay and lesbian relationships or a more liberal attitude to divorce will likewise find more sympathetic ears elsewhere.

On the other hand, there is much more room for individual opinions within Orthodoxy than many people may think. Orthodoxy has never attempted to legislate the Christian life to the same degree that Roman Catholicism has (though even there, what is actually taught and what is actually done seem to be growing ever further apart), and, … the decisions of the Church are better seen as sign-posts pointing the way rather than walls imprisoning the conscience. In some matters, of course, one is legally bound by ecclesiastical law, but even there there can be considerable latitude. Legally, for example, an Orthodox who marries in a non-Orthodox church is barred from receiving the sacraments until he or she remarries in an Orthodox church. … In practice, the rule is sometimes relaxed. Much depends on the priest, parish, and jurisdiction.

This is not to suggest that an Orthodox Christian can deny the Trinity, doubt the Incarnation, and spit on the saints while remaining wholly Orthodox. It is to say that he or she may have doubts about the need for sacramental confession, or disagree with the Church’s stand on the ordination of women, or see no problem with instrumental accompaniment to the Divine Liturgy, or wholeheartedly reject the Pauline acceptance of the institution of slavery, and still remain solidly within the Church. Orthodoxy seeks to persuade rather than enforce, and, unlike Roman Catholicism, it does not try to silence its more creative theologians. …

Orthodox Tradition, therefore, is more elastic than it may appear, and Orthodoxy in no way seeks to stifle the intelligence, creativity, and conscience of the individual believer.

Orthodoxy can sometimes feel like an uninviting place for those of us who call ourselves “theologians,” even when we make clear that we are not representing the “official” view of our hierarch’s, only our understanding of the Tradition. I have encountered more than one individual who falsely believes that the Orthodox Church speaks with one voice. Thus, I take encouragement from Bell’s words for several reasons.

They remind me that I am still Orthodox. I was drawn to Orthodoxy because it tended to limit its dogmas. There is a lot of wideness in our 2,000 year tradition.

They remind me to be humble. I like that our theology moves slowly. Whatever flashes of insight I might think I have at any given moment are always out-shined by the 2,000 year of inspired genius that has gone before me. I need to peer deeply into that blinding genius before I say what I think I see.

They remind me that the church is not out to stifle my conscience. There have always been, and will always be, those who attempt to use the Tradition like a mallet to beat out the “imperfections” in the church, but the beauty of Orthodoxy is that our tradition is more organic and pastoral than systematic and juridical. Most of our creeds and canons are not designed to root out heretics but include as many as possible within the fellowship of Christian love.

In a way, the Orthodox Church is a circle that always inverts itself, making its circumference its center. It can be a little disconcerting when the ground beneath one’s feet always shifts a bit (without ever disappearing), but faith finds little fertile ground in  rock-solid certainty.

Do you find comfort in Bell’s words, or do you think he leaves too much up to the individual?


30 thoughts on “Ancient Faith Continued: Elastic Tradition”

  1. Bell belongs to the OCA and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honour a Canadian academic can achieve in recognition of his long and very well-received scholarship. His book is excellent and I use it every semester in my introductory classes on Orthodoxy.

  2. David,

    Whether “elasticity” is good or not, I have no comment. Whether there is a wide diversity of opinions on most things in the Orthodox Church, to this I can atttest! I have gotten to the point where I no longer assume anything will “resonate” as an “Orthodox” point of view – which is why I often have more than one POV represented – because we seem to be a very “big tent”. What keeps me Orthodox now is different from what drew me. Now it is our spiritual tradition that keeps me rooted more than anything else. Anyway, for what it’s worth…

  3. Fr. John,

    εὐλόγειte ὁ κύριος!

    My ears were burning… The idea that I should join yet another Yahoo Group in order to “engage” you is akin to Commissioner Gordon activating the “Bat Signal”; with the difference being that response is generally epic, and Gotham, in the end, is saved.

    The ability to see myself as others see me is a gift – and I immediately recall the saving words of Nathan to David the King: “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7) – but you have transformed my words, “You present as mean-spirited,” into “ad hominem attack: I’m a meany.” My intention, Fr. John, was to enunciate appearances and impressions. While “novelty is in fact a synonym for ‘heresy,’” can you appreciate that I might resent the introduction of such a foul insinuation as unnecessary? As I look around the Orthodox internet, I see enough venom among us unnecessarily to last a lifetime. And lastly, you are well aware of the Scriptural “ethos” regarding hospitality, and you are rightfully defending the “electronic” analogy. But it is incumbent upon us to leave our weapons – and our cowboy boots – at the door.

    I have read the majority of your writings, Fr. John, and I have no question as to your heart. But as I have noted to you elsewhere, while St. Paul has clearly instructed us, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” (Gal. 3:28) and that we are, after all, of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” (Eph. 4:5-6), neither is there a distinction among us as to “Traditionalist” or “Rigorist,” but we are all equally Orthodox.

    1. Fr. John,

      I am going to repeat what I said to Alex already. I invite you to read the book for yourself if you’d like. I will update my blog so that the book is hyperlinked.

    2. David, I don’t see why I should have to read the book to find out if an author is Orthodox or just writing about Orthodoxy from a non-Orthodox perspective. I am just trying to evaluate the quote you provided. I would venture a guess that the answer to the question is “no”, because if it were “yes” I can’t imagine any reason why you would hesitate to give an answer. As King Solomon wrote, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That being the case, before I invest in purchasing a book, and take the time to read it, I like to have some idea that the money and effort will be worth the time and weariness.

    3. Fr. John,

      I did not answer because I did not know. I have a vague recollection of some affiliation, but I do not recall specifics, and I think it is unfair and unwise for me to guess.

      I also did not answer because I did not think it mattered. You disagree with the view of tradition implied by my brief quotation. Thus had I said he was not Orthodox, you would have said, “Well there you go! He does not know what he is talking about.” If I had said he is Orthodox, you would have made a case for why he is wrong. I am actively working to avoid debating you, Father. Thus I think inviting you to borrow the book from your local library is the best thing I can say right now.

      P.s. You still have not responded to my last comment (i.e. the holding doors analogy). I would like to hear your thoughts. I would not presume to tell you how to be a priest. Rather, I am genuinely curious if you think Michael’s assessment has weight and, if so, how you relate the apparent lack of equity vis-a-vis online interactions to your calling and vocation.

    4. I did respond David. You are welcome to run your blog as you see fit, and I am free to do the same. I explained to you why I run my blog the way that I do. If you had answered my question with “I don’t know”, I would have left it at that.

    5. Right. I saw that. Did you not see my comment in which I noted that you did not actually answer the question that was posed to you? Your answer invoked rights (as you just did). “David has the right to do this. I have the right to do that,” etc. Yet the question was not about rights. The point was about courtesy and the impression you leave others about yourself when you comment to excess on their blogs but are unwilling to receive comments on your own posts. In short, you answered a question that was never asked.

      To reiterate my earlier example. If a person walking ahead of you holds the door for you, you are not obligated to hold the next set of doors for them. But your obligations were never at issue, only the message you send others by a seeming lack of courtesy.

      Now, you chocked up any negative opinions about you to liberals not liking logical arguments (which is pretty ironic considering that your point was actually an ad hominem fallacy), but I think that dismissal is too simplistic.

      You are an intelligent man, Father. Thus I am having a very hard time believing you do not understand the question. Maybe I am being overly presumptuous, but this leaves me wondering why you seem to be dodging it.

    6. I am not dodging it. If you don’t want people to comment on your blog, then don’t let them. I don’t want comments on my blog, because that is not what I see as the function of my blog. I have multiple venues in which people can engage me online, if they wish, I don’t see why my blog needs to be one more. Now if you don’t think it is fair that some people allow comments and others do not, you can join those taking advantage of that liberty by not allowing them too. If you take that option, I can respond on my blog, as I have previously, if you post something that inspires me to do so, and you can always respond to my blog the same way, as can Michael, or anyone else.

      And for the ad hominem fallacy to take place, there has to be an actual argument that is being dismissed by an ad hominem response. “You’re a meanie” is not an argument.

    7. Well, that is a little bit closer to an answer, but the fundamental question was about manners. Let me be specific. In the past, I have allowed you a wide latitude to criticize me on the comments on my blog, including allowing you to post links to your own blog posts where you respond to my blog posts. I can neither comment on those posts nor post links to my own blog where I respond to your criticism (not that I would, since I prefer to avoid polemics). This is what I mean by a lack of equity. What I am hearing you say is that, (1) this is not rude and (2) if others think it is rude, it is their problem.

      As for the ad hominem, I was pointing out was that you seemed to say, “(1) I make logical arguments; (2) liberals do not like logic; (3) therefore liberals do not like my arguments.” Point 2 is an ad hominem because it accuses a whole group of people of being inherently irrational. Point 2 is also ironic because it contradicts point 1. To wit, it is not a logical argument.

      Thus, I was not saying you were being a meanie. I just felt obliged to point out that when you responded to Michael’s original question, you made a goof there, as far as your own logic was concerned. Just a note for future reference.

    8. And by the way, David, I have “comment[ed] to excess” on your blog because you have had a series of post entitled “Ancient Faith Continued” in which you have be elaborating on issues we discussed on AFR. When you get to “Ancient Faith Concluded” you will likely see me comment a lot less frequently.

    9. David, you provide a wide latitude to anyone that you wish to, since this is your blog. You are welcomed to subscribe to some of the Yahoo groups that I moderate, and depending on the topic that the list is devoted to, you can post links to your blog there, and I won’t be offended that you don’t have a Yahoo group where I can post.

      And as for your statement: “As for the ad hominem, I was pointing out was that you seemed to say, “(1) I make logical arguments; (2) liberals do not like logic; (3) therefore liberals do not like my arguments.” Point 2 is an ad hominem because it accuses a whole group of people of being inherently irrational. Point 2 is also ironic because it contradicts point 1. To wit, it is not a logical argument.”

      David, you don’t understand the ad hominem fallacy, and I was not making an argument out of the blue, as you suggest here. I was actually responding to an assertion, which was in many ways ad hominem itself… and I was not responding to you either. For the ad hominem fallacy to take place, you have to make a personal attack with the intent of dismissing an argument. You can actually engage an argument, make a personal criticism that may be relevant, and not have engaged in the ad hominem fallacy. It is only when you attempt to dismiss an argument by attacking the person that you are engaging in ad hominem. And so if you made an argument that dogma develops, and my only response was to say that you are a former Nazarene, and so what would you know, that would be the ad hominem fallacy. If however, I address your arguments, but point out that you are a former Nazarene, because it is somehow relevant to the discussion, that is not ad hominem. [and for those who don’t know, we are both former Nazarenes, and so this is not a personal jab, just an illustration.

    10. Fr. John,
      Points 1, 2, and 3 comprise a syllogism.

      I note that you are still not answering the question. I thought the original challenge was very interesting for reasons that go well beyond our personal and theological differences. It raised issues of the nature of public theology, social media, Christian discourse, and your own sacred vocation that concern me as well. But I will not press the point anymore, Father. Have a good week.

    11. That is a syllogism that I did not lay out too. You did.

      And you can keep “pointing out” that I haven’t answered the question, however, it doesn’t change the fact that I have done so several times. I don’t accept the premise of the question, but I addressed it.

      If you want to subscribe to the ROCOR yahoo group, you can post links to your blog there, if you wish.

  4. David,

    What is Bell’s argument for his position? Specifically, 1) how does he support the idea that creative change takes place, and 2) how does he support the contrast he makes between things like the Trinity and the Incarnation on the one hand, and women’s ordination on the other. Also, what does he mean by “creative theologian”? Does he think that the Orthodox church has a doctrine of doctrinal development?

    As for what you wrote, can you clarify what you mean by “In a way, the Orthodox Church is a circle that always inverts itself, making its circumference its center”?

    1. Alex, I mean no disrespect, but I just do not have time to clarify arguments Bell raises. I invite you to read the book for yourself.

    2. David, I’m not looking for clarification at this point, since no argument of Bell’s has been presented for the two specific things I asked about. Could you perhaps just lay it out in a few sentences? I’m not looking for an essay, but since you read the book, maybe you can give us a rough idea of why he thinks what he does.

      And wouldn’t the argument be the interesting part? If he can’t support his position, should we be taking comfort from what he says?

    3. There is development of doctrine and practice in the history or the Orthodox Church. Sometimes these developments go beyond the bounds of what the Orthodox Church, in it’s history, has define as acceptable in its councils, but it is important to remember that Orthodoxy does not
      do what western churches often do. Rather that closely regulate the lives of the faithful and their particular expressions of their faith, the Orthodox Church prefers a minimum of dogmas. Of course, many would like to see more uniformity in the church and are thus quick to condemn beliefs and practices they see as heretical.

    4. So, what’s his argument that there is development of doctrine in the history of the Orthdox Church? Does he offer examples of new doctrines or of changes in doctrine? Does offer some other support for that idea? What’s his argument? Is their reason to believe that his position is correct? I’m not asking for an essay, just a brief sketch, a few sentences, laying out the basic idea.

      As for doctrines going beyond certain bounds, in what sense are they Orthodox or developments? If person X comes up with some theory, that doesn’t make the theory Orthodox just because he or she happens to be Orthodox.

      As for your statement that “[r]ather that closely regulate the lives of the faithful and their particular expressions of their faith, the Orthodox Church prefers a minimum of dogmas”, I think the two concepts are not of the same sort. A body can require certain beliefs while not closely regulating the lives of the faithful or their particular expressions of faith. And likewise, a body could require few beliefs while closely regulating the lives of the faithful. A body could also do both or neither, as well.

      Requiring doctrinal conformity isn’t necessarily “close regulation”.

    5. See, Alex, this is why I did not really want to answer the question in the first place. I mean no disrespect, but you do this thing where you ask for a few clarifying sentences (which I offered by the way), then a few more, which then transitions into a debate of some sort. I am sorry, but at this point I am going to say that if the particulars of the argument are of that much interest to you, then you should read the book. Otherwise, we would end up debating the argument of a book which you had not read, which seems weird to me. Besides, I decided a while ago that I am really not going to have debates like this on my blog anymore. Good night, and I pray your Sunday is full of rest and devotion.

    6. I’m not asking for particulars or clarification, I’m asking what his argument is supporting parts of his position. It’s one thing to make assertions, it’s another to back up and give reasons for those assertions. If he has no argument or reasons, then I’m not sure that we should give much weight to what he says.

      When I ask what’s his support for ” the idea that creative change takes place”, I don’t see how “There is development of doctrine and practice in the history or the Orthodox Church” amounts to more than repeating the question in the form of a statement.

      In regards to “debates”, which you’ve mentioned more than once in response to Fr. John, I’m not sure what you mean by the word. I would think that “rational discussion” or something like that would be what a debate is, but it seems like you think they’re something bad. Do you think I’m interested in some sort of discussion other than civil, rational discussion?

      If the purpose of your blog is not to put forth logical arguments and respond to reasonable criticism of those arguments, then perhaps you should be clear about that up front. But if the blog is an outlet for rational discussion of the sort you engage in as an independent scholar, then I don’t see how my questions would be inappropriate (even if I weren’t only asking for a sketch of someone else’s argument).

    7. Alex,

      That’s a fair point. I guess the difference between a debate and a discussion in my mind is that, when two people have a discussion, they recognize that they come to the table with bags of prejudices, but are more interested in learning from each other than convincing each other, which would be the purpose of a debate. The questions you pose often seem like leading questions, which are characteristic of the latter. I just do not have time or energy to use my blog in that way.

      On the other hand, it’s possible I’m being a bit paranoid. For that, forgive me. Nonetheless, I also do not have time to answer multiple, successive questions that do require more detail than you seem to realize. For instance, in order for me to demonstrate that Orthodox theology does develop, I would have to do a genealogy of several figures from multiple epochs, covering several doctrines.

    8. How does this sound: people can rationally discuss things, make arguments and respond to objections, while still recognizing that they may have certain prejudices. I’m not sure what would be a better way to learn than to have others put forth and defend positions and likewise object to one’s one. How are we to learn from you if when we disagree or think there might be a problem, you say you won’t “debate”?

      And for readers not commenting, they lose out if commenters’ objections are essentially ignored because of a real or imagined character flaw they may have or because their intentions are not what you think they should be. I can understand not wanting to to waste time with people that won’t concede things when they should, but one can desire to convince others without at the same time refusing to accept valid points. And if that’s the case, then I don’t see why someone’s desire to convince is all that relevant to engaging in a rational discussion with them.

      If you don’t have time to defend your positions on your blog, that’s fine. But I don’t think anyone looking to engage in rational discussion is out of line putting forth objections, unless you explicitly say that you will not entertain objections.

      As for “leading questions”, my questions are aimed at getting at places where I see what I think are problems. I think learning often requires thinking about potential problems.

      Finally, I haven’t asked you to support the idea that Orthodox theology develops. I’ve asked what Bell’s argument is supporting that idea. I don’t think that requires all that much detail. In fact, if he offers a “genealogy of several figures from mulitple epochs…”, you can just say so. But if he doesn’t offer support, then I’m not sure why we should give much thought to his words.

    9. Alex,

      I think it is fine to want to convince a person of something as long as one is equally willing to be convinced by them. I think of a debate more as rhetorical posturing, but we seem to intend the same thing. So let’s not argue over semantics.

      Sometimes I also do not respond to your comments because they are very long.

      I am going to give you Bell’s explanation, which you may not like because it is not all that detailed. This book is like Ware except that it focuses more on the diversity between various Orthodox jurisdiction (both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches) and within jurisdictions and even local churches. Bell does not attempt to make much of a case *that* tradition evolves because his book is a primer, not an argument.

      I quote:
      “In this book, therefore, I have tried to indicate both the good and the bad points of the Orthodox Tradition, though not all Orthodox will be happy with the attenmpt. Indeed, there are those who will object too the title itself, maintaining that there is no evolution in Orthodoxy, and that the Tradition of the Church has remained unchanged, immaculate, and inviolate since the time of the Ecumenical Councils. In many fundamental matters this is true, but the nature and vision of today’s Orthodox Church in America (for example) must obviously be different from the nature and vision of, say, the Moscow patriarchate under Communist rule. Orthodoxy is a living faith, not a dead legacy, and if Tradition is not open to inspired and creative development, then it becomes rather like a stuffed animal: pretty to look at, but not a great deal of use. Traditions, like animals, are better alive.” (Bell, 8)

      For what it is worth, I discern a little postmodern theory happening in that statement. To wit, there is no Tradition except insofar as it is received, and it changes with each receiver. The Tradition is not simply an object whose meaning is knowable to all because the meaning of the tradition exists at least partly within those who consider themselves a part of it.

      Now, throughout the book he bolsters his point in the above quotation, but, again, he is not developing an argument for evolution but presuming it in his investigation.

      Insofar as there is an argument for development, it appears in the final chapter. The author quotes Ware, who makes a similar point about Orthodoxy’s preference for a minimum of dogmas in order to accommodate wide opinion. He reviews what I have also said about conciliarity in earlier posts. To some extent, acceptable doctrine is determined by the inspired consensus of the faithful. He also mentions theologians like Bulgakov who pushed the limits without going beyond them (some would disagree and insist that Bulgakov is a heretic, but I think most credible scholars would say otherwise, even those of us who disagree with Bulgakov in some significant ways).

      Again, I complain that this ended up being a long response. Brevity takes more time and effort than rambling. This response actually took me about 25 minutes to write. Perhaps your questions do not take nearly so long for you to ask, and your responses are more ready to hand than they are for me. I do not mean that sarcastically. The point is, what this means is that if I give these kinds of responses three times, I have lost over an hour. I think you are asking more than you realize you are asking. Or maybe I am just long winded. The difference is irrelevant. My kids are nearly done napping, and I have not picked up that book I wanted to start.

    10. It seems like what you’ve given as his argument, insofar as he is giving one, as you said, doesn’t really go towards doctrinal development, as it would towards diversity of opinion, without commenting on whether in fact his premises are true and do support diversity of opinion. Not looking for a response necessarily, just saying.

      In the future you should always feel free to just say you don’t have time to respond. Posts without defense in the face of objections may not do as much for the reader as ones with responses, but if you don’t have the time, you don’t have the time.

    11. Except I think the postmodern theory needs to be given due consideration. (Postmodernism is often not taken seriously or dismissed as relativism by those who find the lack of objectivity discomfiting.) There, we are not just talking about diversity of perspective but pointing out that the perspective cannot be neatly separated from the thing itself.

    12. Like I said above, just because a person who happens to be Orthodox has a theory or belief, that doesn’t make the theory or belief Orthodox.

      I’m not all that sure what you’re getting at wiht you’re comment, nor if you’re arguing for Bell or for yourself. Perhaps the postmodern theory you identify is supposed to get us development as the “Tradition” changes from individual to individual. I don’t think this does so. Inasmuch as Tradition is something that the individual “receives”, if at some point what the receiver has is not what he received, then it’s not clear why we should call this different thing “Tradition”. The individual has lost what he received.

      The idea that “the tradition exists at least partly within those who consider themselves a part of it” isn’t a clear one to me. One can consider oneself a part of something while not being a part of it, and I’m not sure how we don’t end up with a circular defintion otherwise. What is it that those people think they are a part of?

      It may be that conceptually distinguishing perspective from the thing itself is a difficult task, but I don’t see how that fact would help Bell/you.


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