Idols are Excuses

From a post by Toby Sumpter:

“It occurred to me as I finished my sermon yesterday on the Second Commandment that the reason God prohibits carving other images to bow down to and serve is because they always function as excuses. They are lifeless but they demand our time and energy. You must light candles in front them, burn incense to them, bow down and say your prayers to them or through them, but meanwhile your wife needs help with the dishes or your husband could really use some encouragement or your children would really be blessed by a good wrestle or a book or just attentive conversation.”

Read the whole thing here.

Knowing God

Apophatic theology is an Eastern Orthodox doctrine that says we know God best by what He is not, that the knowledge of God is best acquired by negation, not by affirmation. Vladimir Lossky: “Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of total ignorance. For even as light, and especially abundance of light, renders darkness invisible; even so the knowledge of created things, and especially excess of knowledge, destroys the ignorance which is the only way by knowledge one can attain to God in Himself.” Robert Letham points out this concept of knowledge is not what we usually understand as knowledge, but total ignorance. It’s a blind mystical ecstasy.

The Apostle Paul puts the knowledge of God in a much more accessible category. How do we get to it? Not by negation, but by possessing God’s own Spirit. “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:10-11). Like we possess our own spirits and therefore know our own thoughts, so God has given us His Spirit to know His depths. This really throws down false humility, asceticism, negation, and every secret or gnosto-mystical means of getting at God. Go stand on a pole in the desert or hide away in Egypt, you come more easily to the Father. Knowing the mind of God so closely makes us uncomfortable, for what excuse does it leave us? What knowledge or “degree” of relationship is left to attain? How can religious guys pretend to be holier or more steeped in the mysteries of theology if God has simply poured the Spirit out without measure upon the church, even the great unwashed Corinthians? Jesus continues to put the first last and the last first. He invites the meek by way of the Holy Spirit to come directly to Him. “Now we have received not he spirit of the world, bu the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).

EO Holy Underpants

Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemman notes that the cult of the saints, including veneration of saints and relics, was not mediatory or sanctifying. “It was sacramentally eschatalogical. It was “sacramental” in the sense that the presence of Christ attested to by the marty’s exploit was manifested in his body. It was eschatalogical because the martyr by his death demonstrated the power given to him by the Church” (Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p. 187).

But it didn’t stay this way.

The “emphasis” in the cult of saints shifted from the scramentally eschatalogical to the sanctifying and intercessory to meaning of veneration. The remains of the saint, and later even articles belonging to him or having once touched his body, came to be regarded as sacred objects having the effect of communicating their power to those who touched them. Here is the basis of the cult of the saints which appeared in the Church in the fourth century. The early Church treated the relics of the martyrs with great honor–“But there is no indication,” writes Fr Delehaye, “that any special power was ascribed to relics in this era, or that any special, supernatural result would be obtained by touching them. Toward the end of the fourth century, however, there is ample evidence to show that in the eyes of believers some special power flowed from the relics themselves.” (p. 189)

So for the Eastern Orthodox, it doesn’t have to be biblical in the sense of actually occurring in Scripture to be permissible. The Church, or part of it, simply recognizes something that has been done, even if invented out of whole cloth–like the saints can hear our prayers or that relics have power–and thus it becomes part of Holy Tradition. And their is no higher authority than Holy Tradition. It is the final word, above or on par with Scripture. This is EO’s version of holy Mormon underpants.

My Church, Right

Few doctrines are as tangled as the Eastern Orthodox views of church infallibility and unity. Whereas Rome insists on the infallibility of the Pope, Constantinople gives us “the Church as a whole.” Because the church is united to God, the argument goes, it is exempt from sin. “We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven and cannot sin”, says Timothy Ware in his book The Orthodox Church (p. 244). So, say the Orthodox, though individuals sin, “The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this “something different” is the body of Christ” (ibid).

This distinction is completely arbitrary because no where in the Bible does it indicate that the Church as such cannot sin. When the Church at Corinth needed a warning to refrain from sin, Paul tells them “that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses….”  They ate spiritual food and drank from Christ, and still that generation of the church perished in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-6). It is precisely the church’s connection to Christ that Paul highlights in order to warn the New Testament church against the same sins. The saints have always been individually and corporately united to Christ, and this unity does not negate the real possibility, indeed probability, of both individual and corporate sin. Paul’s letter is to the church, and he addresses sins that the church is committing. To say that individuals sin but the church does not is akin to saying that members of a family tell lies but this family does not. What is the point? Of course the family is against lying and its members help one another to be honest. But for the family to say it never lies, only its members, is simply to evade reality, responsibility and to reveal a nasty bit of famiolatry. It’s not “my church, right or wrong”, which at least has the humility to admit fallibility. It’s “my church, right.”

The Orthodox doctrine of unity functions similarly to infallibility. “Unity is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, and since the Church on earth, despite the sinfulness of its members, retains its essential characteristics, it remains and always will remain visibly one. There can be schisms from the Church, but not schisms within the Church. And while it is undeniably true that, on a purely human level, the Church’s life is grievously impoverished as a result of schism, yet such schisms cannot affect the essential nature of the Church” (Ware, p. 245).  It is helpful to recognize that unity in the church is not something we generate or produce on our own, but something that we maintain: “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). And it is helpful to recognize that just because the church sins against her unity she does not destroy the foundation of that God-given unity which is provided by the Spirit. But again, to say the Church “remains and always will remain visibly one” just forces redefinition and evasion. So when Isidore of Moscow, Patriarch of Russian Orthodox church, was condemned by the church in 1441 for uniting with Rome, did this maintain visible unity? How about when the next Patriarch Jonah was elected unprecedentedly without the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople? Visible unity is broken and bond the Spirit grieved by one or both sides, as has been common in church history. The Orthodox either has to say this incident was somehow not part of the Church, or was not visible, or they can do the usual and necessary thing and just ignore it.

Ironically, to deny the broken state of the church’s unity is a means of perpetuating the sin. The first thing someone must do to correct a problem is to admit that such a problem really exists. How do you repent of division when you deny such a thing can be visibly manifest? How can you confess error and sin when you have decided beforehand that such error is impossible? And this is the sad reality of this true but mistaken communion. In the name of exalting the church as the pillar and ground of the truth, the Orthodox enshrine its errors. In the desire to magnify the unity of the church in Christ, it refuses to put back together the pieces which are unmistakably lying on the floor.