An Evening with Father Christy: History as Propaganda

It will undoubtedly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me to discover that the Orthodox Church is the target, in any sense, of my criticisms here. Nevertheless, I attended an “informational meeting” tonight at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church which has compelled me to react here. Too much time reading adept apologetic theologians (e.g. Lossky) and intellectually honest historians (e.g. Meyendorff) – even my experiences with the kindly Fr. John Maxwell who was always patient and encouraging but most importantly humble – did not prepare me for the very frustrating experience of Fr. Paul Christy’s lecture. Whatever I say here and in future installments should be seen less as an assault on Orthodox beliefs and more as a corrective to the distortion of facts that inevitably occurs when I descend from my ivory tower to see the way information is being distributed on the popular level.

“This isn’t opinion folks; it’s history.”

One needn’t have a degree in history to realize that this statement is deeply flawed, and thus – since I do in fact have a degree in history – I was particularly appalled to find that it functioned more or less as a theme statement for everything that Fr. Christy had to say. The belief that history is somehow an objective reality which can be picked up, scrutinized, cataloged, and then utilized impartially is the same kind of nonsensical worldview that tripped up the reformers about the Bible. Even if everything the Father had said in his imaginative retelling of history had been factually accurate (and it wasn’t, but I’m not going to quibble over most of the little details), that does not therefore make it unbiased. There is no authoritative history, only more or less valid histories, histories which have greater or lesser factual probability. The moment the question of historical causality or continuity come into question the historian leaves the realm of concrete fact and necessarily embarks on speculation.

Early Church Math

Fr. Christy’s failure to grasp this not-so-subtle reality can be best expressed in this assertion of dubious value: “We don’t imitate the early church. We are the early church.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Orthodox Church has at its disposal a profound historical apology, if not the most valid historical apology. The above is not it. Reading that claim, I am left wondering in what sense the simple equation between the Orthodox Church and the early church (whatever precisely that means) is valid, and, having discovered its validity, how that equation is particular to the Orthodox.

Uniformity of Belief or Practice

Coming as I do from the Restorationist Movement, the most obvious way for a church to “be” the early church is through a uniformity of belief or practice. Certainly Fr. Christy beliefs in the substantial agreement between the biblical church and the present Orthodox Church in even the finest points of practice (e.g. liturgy, a question which will be dealt with at another time), but surely he would not suggest that a first century Christian could enter into the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and feel totally at home. The church, particularly from the second through the fourth centuries, underwent substantial growth and change which makes any claim to uniformity with the earliest church at best a myth.

For example, the practice of infant baptism which is so thoroughly engrained in most Christian groups and no less so in the Orthodox Church was a subject not only of development and variation in the early church, but even of controversy. There is no need to rehash Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church to demonstrate that the practice of pedobaptism was by no means standard throughout most of the early church. Even as late as the fourth century, common practice was not only to baptize adults but to delay baptism as long as possible, a fact evidenced by the lives of no less than the saints Constantine and Gregory the Theologian. The Didache continues to speak of strictly adult baptism in the second century. Towards the end of that century we have in Irenaeus and (in the early third) Origen and Hippolytus as the first concrete references to infant baptism. Not coincidentally this is also when Tertullian rages against the practice of baptizing infants.

Another favorite of Restoration historians is the monepiscopate. The biblical text is wholly ambiguous about the nature of congregational authority. The Pastorals could easily correspond either to the Orthodox understanding of ecclesiology or the Stone-Campbell one. More importantly, the earliest historical evidence is contradictory. On the one hand, the tendency towards a monepiscopate is clearly present in the East early in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. On the other hand, 1 Clement would seem to indicate that Clement is part of a plurality of “elders.” Which ecclesiological structure is consistent with the earliest church?

There are other minor but no less obvious ways in which the beliefs and practices of the “early church” differ from that of the present church. The ecclesiological concept of autocephaly is by no means an early development. The liturgy said presently in the Orthodox Church is of fifth century origin. The presence of cathedrals is at the earliest a fourth century reality. Trinitarian formulations which form the backbone of Christian theology are fourth century and would undoubtedly be foreign if not repugnant to the likes of St. Justin Martyr or the multiplicity of subordinationists in the early church. The list of minor points of belief and practice could go on.

The point is not that Restorationists, chief among those who Fr. Christy might label “imitators,” have an authentic claim to being the early church by virtue of a uniformity of belief and practice. It is that no one does. Certainly the Orthodox Church doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) object to the fact that they are not the early church by virtue of homogeny any more than the Pentecostals. The Orthodox believe in the organic growth of the church. To quote the aforementioned Fr. Maxwell, who is himself alluding to St. Vincent: “Inspite of the claims of lack of change, we must admit that many changes occur within the history of the Orthodox. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, that the “Orthodox Church is ever changing to ever remain the same.” Change is part of life and growth. It occurs in normal development. A baby becomes a child, becomes a young person, becomes an adult, and then becomes elderly.”

Genetic Association

If not uniformity of practice, than what? Fr. Christy appeals additionally to the genetic association of the Orthodox Church to the early church. He can, he assured us, produce for us the bishops roll which links the present Ecumenical Patriarch to the apostle Andrew. This certainly seems the more compelling proof to me, and one that, utilized properly, might function productively in an Orthodox historical apologetic. It is not, however, an ironclad defense for the simple equation of the early church with the present Orthodox Church.

The simplest objection would be to point out that this is by no means an exclusive claim of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church has an equally valid claim, and in their eyes, a more valid claim based on the doctrine that apostolic authority flows out from Peter to whom the bishop of Rome’s scroll establishes lineage. Nor are these two peculiar in this respect. Perhaps underrated is the fact that Anglican bishops have an equal genetic relationship with the apostles. While Henry may have instigated the breach with Rome, he did not because of this appoint a brand new priesthood. The original clergy of the Anglican Church, those who appointed future clergy, were converted from the apostolic clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. Should they be so inclined, an Anglican bishop could trace his roots back to the apostles as well. The same is true for any “schismatic” sect which has a clerical system like that of the early medieval church.

What is more, there is no reason why the genetic association must be restricted to the clergy. The very basis for Reformation was the belief that the hierarchical church had abandoned its spiritual/intellectual genealogy. The effort was not to pioneer non-apostolic churches but to restore the spiritual apostolicity of a self-invalidating church. Even rejecting this position as valid, one cannot thereby reject all genetic relationship of modern Protestants to the apostles. The ELCA is genetically related to the Lutheran Church at large (something that can hardly be denied), and Lutherans are genetically related to the Catholic Church which is of apostolic descent. Or, more dramatically, the one cup Churches of Christ are genetically related to the Churches of Christ which are genetically related to the Stone-Campbell movement at large which is genetically related to the Presbyterian Church which is genetically related to the Reformed Movement which is genetically related to the Catholic Church which is of apostolic descent.

That convoluted presentation of apostolicity in the one cup churches is perhaps enough to prove Fr. Christy’s point in some people’s minds, but it raises the question of the value of genetic relationship. Is the ELCA more apostolic than the one cup churches by virtue of a less complicated genetic relationship? If so, then the complexity of the relationship establishes legitimacy and the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church, and more all have an identical and equal claim to genetic authenticity. If, however, mere genetic relationship is sufficient than all denominations presently in existence have an equally valid claim to apostolicity since no church arose in a void but always in response to and in order to authentically continue the apostolic tradition.

Perhaps there is some other meaning to the simple equation of which I am not aware, but, regardless, the above should suffice to demonstrate the dubious value of the assertion that the Orthodox are the early church. That claim can only have value if it can first be defined and then particularized to the Orthodox. Otherwise it functions less as an apology and more as a speculative exercise in the value of static religion and genetic relationships.

History: Puddy in the Hands of Master

Beyond the unsubstantiated (and fundamentally unsubstantiatable) claim that the Orthodox Church is the early Church, Fr. Christy throughout presented a highly stylized retelling of a history that is not nearly as neat as he would like it to be. I concede that perhaps some blame may fall on the constraints of time and medium. The presentation was relatively short and extemporaneous method denied opportunities for precision or even, I imagine, for much fact checking. Some of the blame, however, must be put on the constraints of purpose. In spite of claims to the contrary, the presentation was obviously an apology for Orthodoxy tinged with notes of evangelism. There is nothing wrong with that (and I don’t think anyone was honestly expecting anything else), but to appropriate history to that end led Fr. Christy to oversimplify when it suited his purposes and, at some points, contort the facts to paint Orthodoxy in the best possible light.

Canon

The grossest oversimplification was his passing commentary on canon, which, of course, was the product of the church, not, as Protestants believe, the other way around. From the start, I should mention that I sympathize with that sentiment. The ignorant belief that the Bible was somehow handed down from God on a silver platter is perhaps the most detrimental fantasy that the mind of man has ever dreamed up. That does not, however, excuse presenting the development of canon as a coherent, deliberate event in the history of the church. The canon was a process that was undertaken by Christians as early as the first century. Certainly the canon was formalized in the fourth century, but Fr. Christy would have us believe that “there was no Bible until the fourth century.” I won’t rehash the entire history of canon here because I assume that most people who are reading this have some grasp of it. It should suffice to say that both the Gospel canon and the Pauline canon were both fixed and totally undisputed by the end of the second century, a fact evidenced by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and p46. The suggestion that the church decided in the fourth century that, according to Fr. Christy, “it needed more than just an oral history,” grossly misrepresents the situation of the earliest church. The church has from its earliest times been a church of the apostolic texts.

More or less trivially, the particular discussion of Revelation in the place of canon disturbed me. Fr. Christy described it as questionable, entering only by the skin of its teeth. Ironically, there was no questioning of the book of Revelation until the third century Dionyius of Alexandria questioned it on the grounds of its millennialism. These objections had weight in the East, but Revelation saw almost no dispute in the West. Suggesting that it be relegated to some lesser status in the canon ignores that the doubts about it arose late and that they arose only in the east.

Finally, with regard to canon, the statement was made, in the course of a dramatic reenactment, that the “church in council” decided which books were valid and which were not. I would prefer that this be how it happened. If the church had held an ecumenical council or even a very large council to determine canon, canon history would be much easier to define. The truth of the matter is, contrary to popular conceptions, there was not great council on canon. Certainly every Christian should reject the prevailing notion that canon was decided under the shadow of Constantine at Nicea. More importantly, our most critical statements in canon history come not from concilliar decrees but from particular Fathers. With Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Dionysius already mentioned, Athanasius (whose Festal Letter in 367 gave us the first perfect canon list for the New Testament) and Eusebius (who categorized the biblical literature under the headings “undisputed,” “disputed but accepted,” “disputed and spurious,” and “heretical”) deserve to be added. Certainly smaller synods were held regarding canon, the late fourth century Council of Carthage springs to mind, but the church total by no means decided in a council what books would and would not be in Scripture. By the time they got around to meeting in Carthage, the canon had substantially been set.

Schism

Fr. Christy’s greatest sin with canon was merely oversimplification. His discussion of schism bordered on revisionist. He talked at length about the unified church that existed until the eleventh century. He made no small point of discussing how, after the Catholic Church instigated schism that they then began fracturing themselves in a way totally foreign to church history. Fr. Christy’s view of the first millennium of Christendom is idyllic but false. I wonder how the 76 million Assyrian and Miaphysite (Oriental Orthodox) churches would feel having been completely written out of church history. Fr. Christy dogmatically ignored the schisms in 431 and 451, even passing out charts diagramming church history which also omitted those schisms. While it served his vision of a monolithic church well, it was fundamentally dishonest to present those substantial schisms as never occurring. In reality, the church was never monolithic. From the very moment that standardization began there has been constant and substantial schism. The Arian schism which persisted in the West long after its conclusion in the East in 381 hadn’t even healed before the Nestorian schism which persists to this day. Twenty years later, another even more substantial schism occurred which also persists into the present. The church was divided between iconoclasts and iconodules in the eighth century. The East and West ruptured repeatedly, over monothelitism in the seventh century, during the Photian schism in the eighth century before finally breaking of in the eleventh century. The church was not only not a monolithic unity through history, but schisms be they temporary or enduring (and she experienced both at every stage of her development) were the status quo of Christendom.

Even the Great Schism and its effects were distorted to fit Fr. Christy’s paradigm (in spite of almost comical reiteration that he had no agenda). Most glaringly was the inclusion of filioque in a list of five “innovations” that resulted from the Great Schism. Ironically, the handout that the Father gave us concerning the timeline of the church correctly dates the introduction of the filioque into the creed in 589, nearly five centuries before the Great Schism. I know that Fr. Christy knew the actual history of filioque, as he later answered questions regarding its meaning and origin, but that did not stop him from including it in a number of errors resulting from alienation from the concilliar church. Surely Fr. Christy realizes that the filioque cannot have been a development from the schism since it was an integral part of the Photian Schism 150 years prior to the final breach. (Of course, perhaps that schism is among the ones that do not accord with Fr. Christy’s monolithic picture of Christian history.)

I realize of course that my quibbles here may seem nitpicky to the point of tedium, but my purpose is not to correct every historical error (factual or hermeneutical) that I believe Fr. Christy made. It is also not my intention to belittle the practice of historical apology in general or of the apologetic high ground of the Orthodox Church in particular. My objection is to the misappropriation of history – both the concept and the data – for propaganda. Appeals to history are not appeals to fact against opinion. They are rhetorical reworkings of facts in order to elucidate the realities of the present. To suggest that we may juxtapose the objective nature of history to the totally subjective nature of personal opinion is to fundamentally ignore what the telling of history is. It is the speculative reconstruction of a narrative on the basis of historical data. In ignoring this, Fr. Christy misappropriates history conceptually. Perhaps the greater infraction is that his speculative reconstruction did not make exhaustive use of the data. Whatever data did not conform to a preexisting paradigm was either excluded (as in the case of the manifold schisms in the early church) or reworked (as in the discussion of canon) in order to meet an agenda that the Father swore he didn’t have.

The point: a good conclusion supported by a bad argument has no credibility. If we are to make an apology for the Eastern faith, and that is (most will know) a hobby of mine, let it be an intellectually honest one.

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