[To understand what this blog is, read this first.
This is part 2 of a letter I wrote. For part 1 see here.]
Apostolic Succession, or Continuity
The much more important question you raised, and that really controls the issue of iconography from start to finish, is how do we deal with doctrinal development? You asked this question in a couple different ways. What is the true church, and how is it identified? Didn’t the church suppress doctrines and writings? Where did the “mark” of apostolic succession get its force? Answering these satisfactorily answers the question of iconography as well, I believe.
Certainly history demonstrates that the Church was no stranger to disagreement, schism, and heresy. Starting even in the time of Jesus you can find large breakaways. A good example is in John 6, during the very hard teaching on the Eucharist, many (perhaps most) of his disciples left him. You can see disagreement in Acts 15 over the gentiles. You see it in the constant pastoral correction of Paul in his epistles. You find it in the polemics against the gnostics, and the dating of easter, and on and on. We know that writings that were out of favor were suppressed, and that could be interpreted as winners writing history. The problems go on and on.
It seems to me that you have two ways of addressing this problem. One is that you can distrust the development that occurred and hang on to only the most basic items that you determine are most essential, or you can trust the developments and invest them with authority as the standard of truth. How does one decide which approach is correct? Is there anything that is trustworthy? I think it is possible to make that decision in favor of trust. First, let me point out the problems with basic Protestant approach, which is to distrust the development of the church, or some portion of it.
One problem is that it puts the individual in the position of choosing which doctrines are acceptable and which aren’t. While on some level each person is responsible for responding to the call of God and exercising faith in Him, there is no Biblical or even philosophical warrant for that sort of individualistic decision making. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find this sort of determination of truth. Not even the apostles (even Peter) exercised this sort of papal authority as an individual. When issues arose needing determination they met in council (Acts 15). So the Biblical model of determining truth is in consensus. Protestantism makes everyone a pope.
The second problem is that there is no mechanism to determine what is essential or not. Even the idea that there are some essential teachings and some teachings that can be ignored at will is absent in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find a list of the essential points of orthodoxy in Scripture, so any attempt to formulate them relies on an individual’s discretion and reading of history to determine what they think is essential. This raises problems galore. I think Ireneaus is most helpful on this point. When he dealt with the gnostics and they claimed competing standards of Christianity he told them to demonstrate the accuracy of their understanding by showing the succession of their leaders who delivered this truth. I’d ask the same of any Protestant, and I wouldn’t expect a satisfactory answer. At some point there will be a gap, where a person broke with their previous community and reformulated their ideal of Christianity based on their personal beliefs.
The third problem is that the position of distrust of development is internally inconsistent. Those who put forward a determination of what is essential to Christianity rely on sources that are themselves non-authoritative. The canon of Scripture is the most blatant example of this, but we also rely extensively on the early ecumenical councils of the Church to point out solid truths, and yet we have no means of proving the authority of either. Anyone could argue that the New Testament is incorrectly formed or corrupted (Jehovah’s Witnesses), or incomplete (JW and Mormons), and there’s not a good and consistent answer to the charge for Protestants. Relying on councils is equally problematic. So holding this position puts one in the position of denying certain developments while simultaneously accepting others of the same time period and people for arbitrary reasons. Any mechanism for explaining the accepting or rejecting itself relies on non-authoritative means for its authority. Quite circular. You could say that the position of distrust in developments is itself a development, and therefore untrustworthy.
One thing I found interesting was your use of the Vincentian Canon in your book and email. Now, personally I agree with you that Vincent’s idea is both correct and binding, however I have to point out that nowhere can you prove authoritatively that Vincent’s ideas are either correct or binding on Christians. He didn’t speak the words of Jesus, and nowhere that I’m aware of was he even suggesting that his idea derived from an apostle. Right or wrong then, it was a development. On what basis then do you derive any value from his ideas? I’d also say that it is odd to hold so highly the one idea of Vincent in regard to determining what correct doctrine is, and yet disagree strongly with his actual practices. Now I am making an assumption there, that you disagree with his practices, based on your identification with evangelical Protestantism. If I mis-characterized you please forgive me, but certainly that would hold for most Protestants.
Now I think that the problems I’ve pointed out demonstrate the circularity of the Protestant position on what truth we can know, but you suggested that the Orthodox Church rests its claims on a circular argument of apostolic succession, or perhaps multiple circular arguments of which one primary one is apostolic succession. The thought would continue that if an identifying characteristic of the Church can’t be definitively sourced in Scripture it cannot be trusted to uniquely demonstrate anything. I find a few problems with this.
1) Succession is something that is sourced very early in Christianity, as you underscore in your comments and your book. It is found in the New Testament, and in the early writings of Clement and Irenaeus, where the succession of bishops is shown to be quite important from the very beginning. You make a distinction between apostolic succession, which you reject, and episcopal succession, which you accept. I take it from that statement that you associate “apostolic succession” with the idea that bishops all share in an equal authority with the early apostles in the sense of delivering revelation, but that is not the way that Orthodox use the term. Otherwise I’d have to say this is an early concern for the church, and not a later development.
2) This rejection relies on overly Roman Catholic understandings of succession. The Orthodox understanding of the succession in the church isn’t the same as it has become in Rome. Rome overly emphasizes the bishop and locates succession as a peculiarity of the office of bishop. Orthodoxy puts the locus of succession squarely in the community, and uses its central identifying member, the bishop, as the marker for that succession. The consequence of that is that “apostolic succession” in Orthodox terms means that the community, not the bishop, is the continuous embodiment of the Church founded by the apostles, holding fast the deposit of truth from the apostles. It’s an apostolic church, in the Nicene creed, not an apostolic bishop.
3) This same criteria being applied to other doctrinal positions would lead to the rejection of all central teachings. If one could only source doctrinal positions from what is unassailable in Scripture and/or the earliest Christian writings one would have to reject the canon of Scripture itself, since it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture or the earliest writings. One would have to reject the findings of the ecumenical councils. One would have to say that it was acceptable to see Jesus as a created being, as the Arians did and successfully argued from Scripture. One would have to reject the deity of the Holy Spirit as a necessary mark of Christianity. One would also have to accept the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal, which is about as clearly delineated a doctrine as you could hope for from Scripture and early writings and church practice.
4) This ignores the organic nature of the church and the power of the Holy Spirit. Taking the position that anything a person, in their own judgment, can’t find proved to their own satisfaction from the Scriptures and early writings can be freely rejected is a misunderstanding of the nature of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit. The church is a temple being built up by the Holy Spirit, over time, by the various gifts and the promise that it would be led into all truth. Therefore we must accede to the clear evidence of that work, that building up, in the history of the church by accepting the things that have been accepted. We do good to maintain the accepted canon, and the ecumenical councils. We should also hold to the practices of the church that have been accepted and approved in that God pleasing way as the work of the Holy Spirit. This would certainly hold for all 7 ecumenical councils, whether we agree with them or not. It would also hold for the icons.
If one is approaching this question as a believing Christian then we have a better way to rest our convictions than mere philosophical or historical contentions. We have Scripture!
“Christ promised that he would never leave us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). We know that he is ever-present with the church by means of the person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18). Also, through the Holy Spirit the ascended Christ has gifted the church with not only first-generation apostles and prophets, but also enduring leaders called evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). The implication is that the truth-telling and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit will prevail in the church against the hellish attacks of Satan.” [a quote from the author’s book]
I think this is key in understanding the development of doctrine. The Holy Spirit will be working to produce ever more clarity in the Body of Christ on all truth, and I think that is guaranteed by the words of Jesus. (John 16:13) Let’s not forget also that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15) Taking all of the Scripture together paints a picture of a Church triumphant and pure, that is protected and guided by the Holy Spirit.
I think the implications of this is that you wouldn’t expect there to be any significant and long term apostasy in the Church. Certainly there have been heresies that have affected the Church, but you would have to believe that the Holy Spirit will actively correct those. That is in fact the contention you make in your book on page [XX]. Therefore you can (and do) have correction of the Church, but never re-formation.
In this light I think it’s good to recognize that the Nicene Creed, when it makes the statement on the church, shouldn’t be seen as a set of beliefs about the church, but rather a statement of belief in the Church. I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They did, and I do too.
The common Protestant understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Church is much more limited than what I outlined. The Holy Spirit will keep the central things intact, but all else is fair game. Protestants have really been maneuvered onto the horns of a dilemma in order to accept this teaching, which is far from the understanding of the early Church and the Scriptures. The Reformers needed to be able to justify breaking communion with Rome, but they also needed to feel that they were maintaining continuity with the early Church. They declared that the Church is an invisible union of people who believe ([believe] like me), and ceased to recognize any authority outside themselves short of God. This allowed them to break communion with the church as they knew it, and reorganize themselves in new ways. However, in avoiding one horn, they dropped all Protestants squarely on the other, which is a self-authoritative individualism that has nothing to do with Christianity.
(Of course all of this was avoidable. There was another option available to the reformers, which would be to rejoin the Orthodox. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to read the correspondence between the theologian successors to Luther at Wittenburg, and the patriarch of Constantinople. It’s interesting.)
Protestants still seek unity, but because they are stuck with the individuality they don’t have the means that have always been effective for the Orthodox, clarity through consensus and communion. All they are left with is a smaller and smaller set of “core” doctrines which they can hold to as agreeable. The core beliefs then become Christianity because no other course seems possible. The ecumenical movement has solidified this thought ever more strongly as the only path to unity.
However, this minimization of Christianity isn’t the Biblical model, and it’s not the model of the early Church. In the Bible and early Christian history we can see time and again that when differences arose the Church met in council to achieve consensus and return to a state of unity. Over time you see a sense of what it means to be Christian with increasing clarity. But post-Reformation the trajectory is the opposite, with less and less to agree on. This leads me to have no hope in the future of unity in Protestantism. Recent history agrees with me. I fear for the future of evangelicals. If things keep up on their current trajectory I expect to see more and more people fleeing the relativity of Protestantism for the solidity of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
What seems unsupportable about Protestantism is that by severing the community they’ve destroyed their ability to recognize what Christianity is. They accept the Bible, but not the way we got it. They accept the content, but not the way it was historically understood. They accept only what interpretations seem right to them. They accept the conclusions of (some) councils while simultaneously rejecting the Christianity of the men at those councils. This picking and choosing makes their doctrine arbitrary, and thus ultimately meaningless. This has never been the way that Christians arrived at truth. Looking at the disunity that has resulted it appears that it still isn’t.
Unity requires continuity. As Vincent told us, “everywhere, always, and by all.” You cannot have unity by forgetting or disowning the work of God in prior generations. Since you just wrote an entire book on this I know you’ll agree with that. You also can’t have unity by rejecting the remaining continuing presence of the first millennium catholic church (by that I mean the Orthodox Church, not the Roman Catholic Church) here through the second and now into the third millennium. Given that the work of the Holy Spirit is to guide the church into truth and protect it from being overcome one must conclude that the organized community of believers has been progressively becoming more attuned to the will of God, and that has dramatic consequences for how one views issues like iconography. It is simply unthinkable to assume that the Holy Spirit left the Church in a state of idolatry for 1,300 years until the Reformation. Rather one must conclude that it is the Protestants that have rejected the work of the Holy Spirit as it built the church into the magnificent temple it has become.
I think Protestants should strongly consider the possibility that the Reformation replaced one distortion of Christianity with another distortion, and the new one may be much worse.
Given the nature of the Church you can never say that it develops in ways contrary to prior revelation due to the activity of the Holy Spirit. It can implement revelation in new ways, though. This may be the case with iconographic use. It’s possible that the earliest church did not have art in their house churches, and it’s certain that the early church didn’t have the developed sense of iconography that the Orthodox do today, but there’s nothing inherently contradictory between the two states. And there’s nothing wrong with the Church stating that iconography is necessarily true Christianity, as a valid understanding of revelation, just as it has every right to insist on the Chalcedonian formulation of Christology, the canon, and the Nicene creed, all of which the earliest church did not have and were developments. One can’t accept the development in some cases and reject it in others. They are parallel cases and equally valid.
So, to sum up:
- The Holy Spirit leads the church into all truth, and protects it from failure.
- Therefore the Body of Christ can never fall permanently into error or cease to exist.
- Finally, any long term and accepted development must be considered the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore essential to what it means to be Christian.
Over time I have looked through all the problem doctrines in Orthodoxy (including iconography, infant baptism, real presence in the Eucharist, saints, etc.) and have yet to find anything that I could say was clearly anti-Scriptural or anti-historic. I know this is my own estimation only, but so far as I can see it is true. I really appreciated your thoughts and your candor. It’s been a helpful exercise to reconsider iconography, and to put down some thoughts on “paper”.
I know this has become a very long email, and you are under no obligation to read it or respond. If you find the thoughts here useful, or care to respond in any fashion I welcome it. If you have additional reading you think would be valuable on any of these topics I’m always willing to delve into new books. Otherwise you can always just say a prayer for me and my family, and I’ll be grateful for that.