Dear Dr. Clendenin,
Although your article in Christianity Today, Why I am not Orthodox is by now three years old, I have only recently discovered it on the Internet. (It was the tone of the title that caught my eye.)
It was most refreshing to read an article by a Westerner as well informed as you are about Orthodox Christianity. You know much more than most Protestants about the externals of our Orthodox faith. During your four years in Russia, though, you seem to have missed the opportunity to learn about the inner life we lead. Its no wonder you often felt schizophrenic. Lack of understanding of our spiritual life will inevitably produce that divided feeling (with which I am very familiar, having lived with it for 10 years). One feels drawn to Orthodoxy by an enormous sympathy, yet the mind rejects it. This happens because it is from our spiritual life, our Life in Christ, that everything else flows. Only in the context of that inner life can anything and everything anything else about our faith be understood: Tradition, the place of Scripture, the Church, Sacraments, icons and saints, faith and works, salvation and deification, and even such details as priestly beards.
You must have received hundreds of replies since your article was posted on the Internet. If you can bear with one more, I would like to try to describe something of what our invisible life is (and is not), and how all the visible aspects of Orthodoxy are extensions or expressions thereof.
Life in Christ
Our spiritual life can be summed up in one word: Christ. Jesus Christ is our Way of living, because we are all members of one another in His Body. [Rom. 12:5] Jesus Christ is our Truth, the subject of our faith and the content of our doctrine. Jesus Christ is our salvation because it is His Human-Divine Life we now lead, blossoming into immortality, and no longer merely our own human life, leading inexorably to decay and death. We have no separate category of religion called spirituality or mysticism because Christ, in whom we live, is not merely an aspect of our faith, but is everything, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. To be Eastern Orthodox is, above all, to live in Christ.
This new and immortal Life in Christ is not merely a definition about which we read in Scripture and then feel happy to apply to ourselves. It isnt that we come across verses of Scripture that tell us we are a new creation [II Cor. 5:17], having been passed from death into life [I St. John 3:14], and then say to ourselves, Oh, isnt that great! Im a new creation; I must be, because the Bible says so. Far more than an abstract doctrine, it is concrete experience at the core of our being, which the Bible here articulates, confirms, and illumines for us. For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. [Philippians 1:21]
Nor is the new creation, our Life in Christ, a forensic theory or legal fiction whose purpose is to get us off the hook with respect to sin. It is not as though God were saying, Now, since you have repented and called upon Me, I am willing to consider you and your sins dead. From now on, lets say you are living a new life. Instead, with wonder and awe, with tears and trembling, we actually know ourselves as truly “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. [Eph. 2:10] The new life in Christ is a reality quite perceptible to faith. When we read in Ezekiel, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh [Ez. 36:26] we recognize a description of what Christ is doing in us day by day. The New Life is not de jure, but de facto.
By new life or transformation in Christ, we do not refer merely to a change of lifestyle, the taking on of new attitudes, or the embracing of a new belief system. It includes all that, yet the new life is not simply an overhaul of the old. It exists and is lived upon an altogether different plane. It is not life such as any son of Adam might lead, except transformed by means of having acquired a Christian slant. That is still the life born of flesh. Instead, Life in Christ is an entirely new creation, born of spirit. [St. John 3:3] Hence, the Apostle Paul can say, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me [Gal. 2:20]
It is a supernatural life, for nature is not capable of producing it. We are people who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.[St. John 1:13] As the beginning of Life in Christ is supernatural, so is its end: eternal, immortal union with God in His uncreated energies (deification). Nor can natural man (in reality, fallen and therefore unnatural man) understand spiritual things. [I Cor. 2:14] Nor does the supernatural Life accommodate fallen nature (the flesh) along the way. [Rom. 13:14] In fact, spiritual life is incompatible with it. [Rom. 8:1-13]
Our Life in Christ is a true re-birth into the spiritual realm, the realm to which Protestant preachers often allude at funerals. They assure us the deceased is yonder. Yet, in a great mystery, we find ourselves already participating in the Resurrection Life here and now. God has already raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. [Eph. 2:6]
Life in Christ is spiritual and transcendent, not earth-bound. Spiritual does not signify merely that it is a life filled with devotional thoughts, feelings and practices, but that it is a life created and given us by the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire. [St. Luke 3:16] The Holy Spirit indwells us, the Holy Spirit leads us, the Holy Spirit teaches us.
Initiation into Christian life is by Baptism, which removes us from slavery to sin, guilt, and death.
Our experience is that sin is far, far more than a moral problem. Although it has moral ramifications, it is at root ontological. This distinction matters vastly; it makes a whole universe of difference.
We do not inherit guilt from Adam and Eve. We incur guilt for our own sins only, for God is just. But guilt is far from the only effect of sin. When we recall that Adam and Eve walked in the garden with God, and could freely hear His voice, and that the animals were not afraid of Adam, but came to him to be named, then we have some inkling of the drastic and wide-ranging effects of the Fall. Our First Parents, by their sin,
radically changed their relationship with God, with Creation, with each other, and with themselves. In so doing, they debased and debauched their very humanity. It is that fallen Creation and that deeply altered humanity-sick, wounded, corrupt, and above all, mortal-that we inherit from them. We no longer hear God’s voice, because our spiritual senses are dulled. Instead, we live more by our five bodily senses. Instead of finding our true Joy in God, we seek transient pleasures from earth. Instead of our bodies obeying our souls, our souls perversely allow themselves to be ruled by our bodies. Our intellects are darkened by our passions. Our bodies sicken and die. (Death is not so much a punishment for our sins, although it functions as such; it is the unavoidable outcome of a terminal illness.)
That sin is basically ontological has numerous all-important implications. One is that sin carries a lesser stigma for us than for Protestants or Catholics; for as Adam and Eve were tricked by the serpents deceit, so we too are not only perpetrators but also victims of evil.
Another implication (paradoxically) is that it encompasses much more and is therefore a far more serious issue than it would have been, were it merely moral. That sin is ontological means that anything in us that falls short of the perfection in which Adam and Eve were created is a manifestation of our sinful condition. So, for example, we pray for forgiveness of sins known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary. A purely forensic framework for sin and salvation (in which sin could not be imputed if it were done unknowingly or involuntarily) would work if sin were merely moral. However, for the actual, ontological situation in which we find ourselves, it is entirely inadequate. St. Paul certainly did not mean that God had merely substituted a new forensic framework for the old one. He meant that the New Covenant transcends legalism altogether. [Rom. 10:4]
For our guilt, we need atonement, repentance, and forgiveness. For our sickness, we need curing by the Great Physician. For mortality, an ontological condition, we need an ontological reversal. Salvation implies all of these things and Baptism gives us access to them. It washes away our guilt. It grafts us into the True Vine. It implants in us the seed of immortality. There are thousands of other things we can say about Baptism, but at least a whole book would be needed, and such books already exist.
It is not, however, as though Baptism could be of any effect at all apart from grace and faith. To make mockery of a sacrament by partaking of it without faith is worse than useless. To suppose that a sacrament replaces grace would be blasphemous. No sacrament is a replacement for grace or faith; a sacrament is a way in which grace and faith interact under concrete forms. Nor is a sacrament an exclusive channel of grace, which comes to us in countless ways. But the grace of Baptism is unique; that is when we are born of water and the Spirit [St. John 3:5] as Christ said we assuredly must be.
For those who suppose the Orthodox do not sufficiently emphasize the role of faith, here is a prayer that pious Orthodox Christians pray every day:
My most merciful and all-merciful God, O lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: He who believes in me shall live and never see death. If faith in thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mothers womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. (Morning Prayer)
Since we all recognize that salvation is by grace through faith, how is it that from the beginning, we have always baptized babies, still too young to have faith? The apostles baptized entire households, which presumably, though not necessarily, included small children. [Acts 16:35, I Cor. 1:16]
One answer is that grace is given before faith occurs. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [Rom. 5:8] Indeed, it is grace that makes faith possible in the first place. [St. John 6:44] With infant baptism, chronologically, grace comes first and faith, years later. This matters not to us, for Christ transcends time and space, and so does our Life in Him. [II St. Peter 3:8] God knows whether the child will or will not attain to faith eventually. Trusting that by the grace of his baptism he will, we meanwhile do not deny him membership in the Body. Jesus said, Let the little children come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. [St. Matt. 19:14, also 18:3-4] Since the best way to learn Christ is to live Him, we do the same for a baby when we baptize him as for an adult: we let him participate in the great Mystery, the supernatural life of the Church, to the fullest extent of which he is capable. (Adults, too, have a lot of growing to do to perfect their faith. Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief! [St. Mark 9:24])
All else being equal, the child does grow up to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Prov. 22:6 The on-the-job-training we provide him works very well. It is not usual with us, as it is in Western confessions, for our children to experience crises of faith in their late adolescence.
What if a person baptized in infancy does grow up rejecting the faith? (Stalin, for example, was baptized.) Well, this would leave us in some quandary were we to insist upon defining exactly who will or will not be saved, who is or is not a true child of God. But we do not so insist. It is nothing new for there to be tares among the wheat [St. Matt. 13:24-30] or goats among the sheep. [St. Matt. 25:31-46] Even Jesus had a traitor among His twelve most intimate companions. It is entirely possible for someone even to work miracles in Jesus Name, only to be told on the Day of Judgment, I never knew you. [St. Matt. 7:22-23]
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. [Rom. 8:14] This is something only God can (or need) know, and He will sort it all out in the end. We are forbidden even to try. [St. Matt. 7:1]
(The priest who replied to your question about whether you were a true Christian by saying, I dont know actually gave you the only possible answer. He would have given the same answer had you been Orthodox and asked him to judge you.)
We do believe that a person who has been given the incalculable advantage of Baptism will be judged more strictly than he otherwise would have been. [cf. St. Luke 12:48, II Peter 2:20-21]
Growing in Christ: Tradition
An initiation is just that: a start. Being a Christian doesnt automatically equate to being a spiritual person. [I Cor. 3:1-3] Whether we were baptized as babies or adults, the seed of immortality that was planted in us must be cultivated until it becomes a full-grown plant bearing much fruit. We are aware that if, having once known Christ, we should fall from Him, we will be worse off than if we had never known Him at all. [II St. Peter 2:20-21] We are mindful of the Parable of the Fig Tree and of the fig tree that Jesus withered because it bore no fruit. Moreover, as the Parable of the Sower shows, it is possible to receive Christ with joy and yet allow the Living Word to die out in us without bearing fruit.
We know that barren faith has no power to save. [St. James 2:11-26] A so-called faith that does not produce good works can scarcely be expected to produce the mightiest work of all, the salvation of our souls and bodies. A fruitless faith is an ersatz faith; it is bogus; it is dead and useless. Certain it is that we cannot buy, bribe, or earn our way into heaven with good works, but it is equally certain we cant get there without them. We also know that our reward in heaven will be commensurate with our works on earth. [Gal. 6:7-8, St. Matt. 16:27], and many others (Here, we are speaking only of works proceeding from faith, which are the only ones that count. We note that it is not just our sins, but our righteousnesses, if they be our own and not Christs, that are as polluted rags. [Is. 64:6])
In contrast to some Protestant theologies, we find that in virtue of the grace of Baptism, it is both possible and necessary for us to cooperate with God, to contribute our own efforts and struggles. When, and only when, we try our very best, even if our best is feeble and pathetic, God adds more grace to our poor efforts so that the results are beyond what we had any right to expect.
Serving God in every possible way is not only necessary; it is also the Christians most burning desire. We are in constant sorrow for everything in us that keeps us from fuller union with our Lord. We are more than comforted by such union as is already realized and by the promise of its most glorious fulfillment. For those who live in Christ, no other sorrow even remotely approaches this, and no other joy. For this reason, we can say along with St. Paul,
I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected, but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. [Phil. 3: 8-15]
So, with fear and trembling we work out our salvation, yet it is God who works in us, [Phil. 2:12-13] for without Him, we can do nothing. [St. John 15:5] The effort can be compared with an athletic contest [I Cor. 9:24-27] or with warfare. [Eph. 6:10-17]
Spiritual warfare has two main aspects. The first and lesser aspect of it is learning how to cope in a spiritual manner with the external adversities common to every child of Adam, such as being rejected by a friend, or getting fired from a job. We learn to glory in our earthly sufferings and turn them to spiritual profit, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. [Rom 5:3-5]
The second, and greater, aspect of spiritual warfare is dealing with the inner realities. Here we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. [Eph. 6:11] We do battle against sins, vices, bad habits, temptations, distractions, and every other fiery dart the enemy aims at us.
One of the chief methods of spiritual growth is ascetical practice; that is, fasting and abstinence, vigils, and other disciplines aimed at weaning us away from earthly pleasures, that we may focus upon true Joy. St. Paul points out that Those who are Christs have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [Gal 5:24] Jesus Himself says, If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. [St. Matt. 16:24]
Asceticism with us does not have morbid connotations. We do not engage in it for punishment, but for growth. We do not consider it any virtue in itself, but discipline to encourage virtue and inhibit sin. It is not an exercise in self-loathing, but in re-ordering our lives. I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, says St. Paul, lest, when I have preached to others, I should become disqualified. [I Cor. 9:27]
Orthodox asceticism takes a more positive than negative approach. That is, while we definitely fight very hard against our worldliness, we emphasize more the cultivating of spiritual life. Were we only to purge ourselves of evil, we would simply be empty—i.e., vulnerable to anything. The demon we had cast out might return and bring seven other wicked spirits to re-occupy the empty house of our soul. [St. Matt. 12:43-45] Hence, our emphasis is upon developing the virtues, which in turn displace the evils.
Ascetical practice puts our love of Christ to work. So, you love Him; can you keep the fast for His sake? It amazes us, how much of our supposed great love for Christ, when put to the practical test, turns out to be purely imaginary. With what bravado have we, like Peter on the night Jesus was arrested, persuaded ourselves we are his fervent followers to the end! Asceticism keeps us realistic, honest, sober.
The goal of spiritual growth is deification in Christ. St. Paul prays for us to attain it:
that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height-to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. [Eph. 4:13-15]
Other practices for spiritual growth include prayer, reading of Scripture and other writings, almsgiving, receiving the sacraments, repentance, and many more.
Collectively, all the ways in which we conduct our Life in Christ, grow in Him, and guard and cultivate the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church are called, Tradition. Tradition includes everything from major issues to seeming details such as crossing ourselves, bowing to one another, lighting candles (usually for the living), and icons.
Holy Tradition is greatly to be contrasted with worldly tradition, the customs of men, [Col. 2:8] against which Jesus and the apostles warned. Traditions of men tend to be crusted over, hidebound, while Holy Tradition is dynamic. Customs of men tend to be tyrannical, while Holy Tradition guides us into freedom in Christ. It teaches us such things as how to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love (Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina). Earthly tradition does things a certain way just because they have always been done that way; in other words, is a function of conservatism. Holy Tradition does things a certain way because those ways have spiritual value, tried and true. (Neither conservatism, nor liberalism, nor any other ideology has any place in spiritual life.) We have learned that to the extent any aspect of Holy Tradition is omitted (or worse, abused), the Holy Spirit withdraws from the church. Holy Tradition, in other words, is the sum of our experience, over all the centuries, of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Holy Tradition is something St. Paul exhorts us to guard carefully. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. [II Thess. 2:15; I St. John 2:24]
Tradition is not something dead and gone, some archaeological treasure. (Its literature, if torn from the living matrix, is indeed only a dusty historical artifact. Thus, you cannot recover Holy Tradition by reading the literature and alluding to it in books of theology. Nor can you recover it by immersing yourself in the patristic past, for Holy Tradition, above all, is lived in the present. It certainly includes the past, but because spiritual life transcends time, the past, too, is always present.) Holy Tradition is the ongoing life and legacy of the Spirit in the Church, or of the Church in the Spirit.
Although probably each facet of Holy Tradition is described in writing somewhere, Tradition is something one also has to absorb by example and by the practice of it. Books are priceless aids, but trying to learn Tradition from a book exclusively would be like trying to understand marriage from a marriage manual exclusively, without ever having been married or ever having known any married people. We need on-the-job training, and we need living examples.
Saints and Icons
A living example of what it is to be incorporated into Christ, we call a saint. Every Christian is properly called a saint, but we use the word particularly for those in whom Christ is especially manifest.
A saint is not a moralist, a prig, a merely devout person, somebody conscious of being a Hero for Christ, or (as is often remarked in the West) somebody who would be hard to live with. Such characterizations confuse a saint with a Pharisee. If God should ever grant you to live with a true saint, even for a day, you might well find it the greatest blessing of your lifetime. You would know Love as perhaps you never did before.
A saint is someone who has succeeded to a very high degree in living no longer his own (earthly) life, but Christs life, given to be his own. Therefore, when you meet a saint (an experience not so rare in the East), in a very real sense, you meet Christ. You react accordingly. You may want to fall at the saints feet (knowing he or she wouldnt let you). You immediately feel a sense of kinship, love, and even deep intimacy, with this person. You find your heart brimming with joy and gratitude, your eyes brimming with tears. You would eagerly do anything for a saint; you would even rebuke yourself if you neglected to think of it before he asked. Given a chance, you would pour out your whole heart to him. You would never feel judged, not even in the smallest degree. A saint of Christ is meek as a baby. You want never to be parted from him.
When you do part, you discover that he or she is still with you in a mysterious and miraculous way. Neither distance nor time can separate any true Christians, much less saints. The Christ in them reaches out to us even in their writings and biographies. Our love and reverence for saints is not diminished by our living across the ocean, or in another century, from them. Saints of the past are not dead, but alive in Christ, in Whose own Body the Spirit unites them with us and us with them. Christ and all His saints and all the angels are present at every worship service. Yet, since their presence with us is neither physical nor visible, we remind ourselves of it by means of icons.
We do not worship icons. (You can find Orthodox writings asserting that we do, but the error is usually in translation. The writers native tongue is probably not English.) We worship the Holy Trinity exclusively. Neither are icons a violation of the Commandment against graven images, which is aimed at images to be worshipped; that is, idols. The ancient Hebrews had images. Above the Ark of the Covenant, for example, were images of Cherubim.
When we meet a saint in the flesh, we can fulfill our hearts wish to fall at his feet, kiss him, serve him, etc. In the case of a saint who has gone to his rest, we cannot, so we express our love and devotion in front of his icon. We bow as we would if he were bodily present (as we who are bodily present also bow to one another). We kiss one another; but if the saints cheek is not there to be kissed, his icon is. (In the East, it is also quite common to kiss a photograph of a loved one.) We light candles in front of an icon to honor the saint and the priest includes the saints, via their icons, when he blesses us all with incense.
The reverencing of icons has sometimes gotten out of proportion in history. In fact, it was rank abuse that fuelled the iconoclastic movement. Nevertheless, the Church came to consensus on the matter, and in 787 defined the proper and improper uses of icons and concluded that Iconoclasm was not the cure, but was in fact heresy. A reading of the proclamations issued then will show that although there is no direct scriptural warrant for icons, yet their proper use in the Church is firmly grounded in scriptural doctrine; specifically, the Incarnation.
Nor are icons unchristian novelties introduced as the Church allegedly lost her pristine purity. In the first place, icons have been used by the Church from the beginning. There are icons in the catacombs at Rome that look virtually no different from icons of today. In the second place, Christians have never been ideal human beings, as the epistles to the Corinthians make clear. Yet Christ mysteriously takes our imperfect humanity and sanctifies it by joining it to His perfect, glorified Humanity, which in turn is joined to His Divinity. So from the imperfect members He constitutes the Church, His Body, eternally perfect and pure. For the Church is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. [Eph. 2:22-23]
Icons have nothing to do with aesthetics (our thoroughly aesthetic tradition ).
They can never teach us all the doctrine we need to know; the priest who reportedly said they could was giving a pious and perhaps defensive but unsophisticated reply.
It is not true that we would rather see an icon than hear a sermon, provided the preacher were Orthodox. Icons do not replace sermons, but supplement them.
Nor can they ever replace Scripture, although some of them are spiritual depictions of scriptural persons or events.
Of all the sources of Holy Tradition (sources, rather than forms, as though Holy Tradition were fossilized), the single most important is Holy Scripture.
The historical relationship of Scripture to the Church is straightforward. The Church, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, defined the canon of Scripture. Nor was it immediately obvious which books did or did not belong. That is, the canon did not automatically reveal itself. It had to be discerned. Discernment often was a matter of distinguishing not merely the inspired from the uninspired, but different degrees of inspiration and authoritativeness. For the various churches to reach final consensus took some 400 years.
The New Testament was written by members of the Body of Christ for members of the Body, as God inspired them. Thus, Scripture is not only a source, but also a product, of Tradition. God gave us the Scriptures not independently of His Church, but through her.
The Head of the Church is not the Bible, but Christ. Eph. 4:18, Gal. 5:22, etc. The Chief Cornerstone of the Church is not the Written Word but Christ, the Word Incarnate. [Eph. 2:20] Christ is the foundation, together with the prophets and apostles [Eph. 2:20, I Cor. 3;11] Not the Bible, nor yet the pope, but faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is the rock upon which the Church is built. [St. Mt. 16:16-18]
What does not arise among us is the hypothetical nightmare sketched by Protestants in support of private interpretation, in which one finds the Churchs interpretation of some passage(s) blatantly twisted and in all good conscience asks himself, Now what? The Church says one thing and my conscience, another-which shall it be? There are three main reasons we do not find ourselves in this predicament.
The first reason is that we walk in the glorious liberty of the sons of God. [Ro. 8:21] Our consciences are not bound. No church authorities dictate to us how to interpret Scripture. We do not even have church authorities as that term is understood in the West. Our bishops (Christs bishops, rather), including patriarchs, are administrators. They administer everything from sacraments to finances, but they cannot dictate to us spiritually. When they try, we smile (or scoff, where appropriate) and ignore them [St. John 10:4-5] Yes, it is the major duty of hierarchs to uphold and teach true doctrine. When they do not, we oust them. They are not the Head of Christs Church; Jesus Christ is, Who really is alive and present, and truly does leads us Himself, in Person. (Although this admittedly sounds too good to be true, it is the Orthodox experience.) Even decisions of an Ecumenical Council are only valid if the whole Body of Christ accepts them. The Council of Florence, for example, was immediately, resoundingly rejected by the people, who hounded from office (sometimes even from the country) every bishop who had put his name to its documents.
The second reason is, we find that the Orthodox faith in sober fact does not have bizarre interpretations of Scripture such as we can long object to in good conscience, once they are adequately explained to us. We therefore give free, full, and joyous assent to them.
The third reason the hypothetical dilemma does not arise is that an Orthodox Christian would feel suspicious of his conscience if it insisted upon its own private interpretation as against that of the whole Body of Christ for two thousand years. A question of pride would definitely enter here, or of other unworthy motives. (Invariably, Scripture ascribes very bad motives to false teachers, that is, heretics. The Bible does not leave room for sustained, honest disagreement with the Truth. [St. John 3:19-20]) Besides, our consciences are more inclined to let Scripture judge us than the other way around.
The Bible itself warns us against private interpretation. In I St. Peter 2:20, we read, …knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation In 3:16, referring to St. Pauls epistles, the writer notes that they contain some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. Anyone who is unstable or untaught, then, is likely to misinterpret Scripture.
We do experience the Holy Spirit teaching each one of us directly, but not as separate, independent individuals; rather, as members of Christ and of His Body.
We approach the Scriptures prayerfully, humbly, and with an effort to receive them with purity of heart. Before the reading of the Gospel in Church, we pray:
O Lord and Lover of mankind, make the imperishable light of thy divine knowledge to shine in our hearts. Open the eyes of our understanding, that we may apprehend the preaching of thy Gospel. Implant in us likewise awe of thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life, thinking and doing such things as are pleasing to thee; for thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto thee we give glory, with thine eternal Father and thine all-holy, gracious and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
If, after reading a passage of Scripture prayerfully, we do not understand it, we go and ask someone who does. We consult one another until we find someone who knows the answer. We consult especially the saints, both saints of today (for God leaves no generation without saints) and the saints of previous generations. Even a saint can be mistaken, but because he or she is purer in heart than we, he is less likely to be. [St. Matt. 5:8, St. John 14:2]
We may not always get an answer right away, either because we cannot find the person who knows or because we are not ready to hear (or both). For example, suppose a wise person senses we are asking a question merely to indulge idle curiosity. He or she may not tell us outright that Scripture is not to be used as an intellectual toy, but the conversation is likely to go something like this:
So then, have you finished acquiring all the virtues?
Well, have you at least conquered all your sin, then?
Life is short, my child. Go and do the important things first. Do not spend precious time puzzling over this now.
Likewise, if, say, a spiritual father senses we are asking with a critical or rebellious spirit, he will not try to impose any teaching upon our unready hearts. He will tactfully decline to answer us, understanding that if we hear the truth and reject it, we will be worse off than if we do not hear it at all.
When we do ask an honest question, and find the correct answer, our inner reaction is immediate and unmistakable. Our hearts leap to the truth, as the babe leapt in Elizabeths womb at the Lord’s approach. Beauty, mercy, love, and new life flow into us. The truth we apprehend brings joy and freedom to the soul, repentance to the heart, peace and awe to the Mind, often tears to the eyes-and sometimes feels like fire. The disciples at Emmaus described it that way: Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us? [St. Luke 24:32] Or, before we realize the depth of the truth, our lesser reaction may simply be, Thats charming!—a response that will deepen in time.
This is the practical nitty-gritty of what it actually means when we say Scripture is interpreted by the Church. The process seems perfectly simple, straightforward and natural. Yet the fact that the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive [St. John 14:17] teaches us all the same things, in every place and in every generation, attests to its supernatural character.
A similar process operates in the formulation of doctrine. That same Spirit guides us into all truth. [St. John 16:13-15] Doctrine has nothing to do with theorizing. (Your statement, Different Orthodox theories exist is a double oxymoron, different being the other half of it.) Rather, doctrine is the articulation of our whole knowledge and experience of God in Christ; in other words, our Life in Him. This is true to such an extent that, in some cases, a wise spiritual father may elect not even to instruct a catechumen in doctrine at all. He may instead concentrate upon instructing the catechumen in the living of the Christian Life, knowing that once that is in place, all the rest will follow.
Our Life in Christ, the source of doctrine, is chiefly informed by Holy Scripture; yet it could never be fully contained between the covers of any book, not even the Holy Bible. [St. John 16:12] Book learning is critically important, [II St. Tim. 3: 15-17] but the Church grounds the Scriptures in Life, without which the words become concepts, theories, ideas, sometimes even fossils. Doctrine, like Scripture itself, is none of these, but instead testifies to that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life [I St. Jn 1:1] That is why, according to the Bible, the church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth. [I St. Tim. 3:15]
To require absolute, external authorities such as a book or a pope appears to us as distrust (or absence) of the Holy Spirit. To try to restrict the Spirit to revealing truth via this Book or that bishop is to misunderstand Him altogether, Who cannot be confined. It also shows considerable doubt as to the ability to hear Him correctly.
There are three that bear witness on earth says St. John: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself. [I St. John 5:8-10]
The blood is of course the Blood of Christ, the Blood of the New Covenant, shed for many for the remission of sins. [St. Matt. 26:28]
Jesus said we must drink His Blood and eat His Body to abide in Him and have eternal Life in us. [St. John 6:53-57]
These are hard words to understand. Catholics and others, to guard the doctrine of the Real Presence, declare that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ physically, materially. Most Protestants, to guard against magic, call transubstantiation hocus pocus and insist the bread and wine are symbolic only. Orthodox Christians point out that both sides of this argument rest upon a common assumption; namely, that for anything to be real, it must be physical. Conversely, if a thing is not physically real, it must be metaphorical or symbolic. This assumption, frankly, is unvarnished materialism.
But Christians are called to be spiritual people. By the eyes of faith, we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. [II Cor. 4:18] The presence of Christs glorified, resurrected Body and Blood in the Eucharist is spiritual (or mystical), meaning not carnal, not merely symbolic, and absolutely real.
When Jesus disciples had difficulty understanding His words on this subject, Jesus explained, It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. [St. John 6:62-63] That His words are spirit does not mean they are symbolic, as it would in worldly thinking; it means having to do with the Holy Spirit, Who accomplishes the Mystery of the Real Presence.
In another place, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman the time is coming when true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. [St. John 4:23-24] In spirit does not mean, having the right attitude, as it would among secular people; it means having the Holy Spirit.
That Christs Presence in the Eucharist is spiritual by no means implies it cannot accomplish physical things or is devoid of physical consequences. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. [I Cor. 11:29-30] Hence, both before and after receiving Communion, we pray that it may not be to our judgment or condemnation, but to the healing of soul and body.
Freely Thou has given me Thy Body for my food, O Thou Who art a fire consuming the unworthy. Consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart. Consume the thorns of my transgressions. Cleanse my soul and sanctify my reasonings. Make firm my knees and body. Illumine my five senses. Nail me to the fear of Thee. Always protect, guard and keep me from soul-destroying words and deeds. Cleanse me, purify me, and adorn me. Give me understanding and illumination. Show me to be a temple of Thy One Spirit and not the home of many sins. May every evil thing, every carnal passion flee from me as from a fire as I become Thy tabernacle through communion —Post-communion Prayer by St. Simon Metaphrastes
When we obey Christs command, Do this in remembrance of Me, we do not remember as carnal people would, but spiritually. That is, we do not simply cast our minds back to someone dead and gone, or to something over and past; but the Holy Spirit makes us enter into a living communion with Christ. As we become one with the risen and glorified Christ, incorporated body and soul into Him, we are loosed from the boundaries of time, space, language, our bodies, and the grave. Together with the glorious Apostles, the saints of all the ages, the martyrs and all the heavenly ranks of angels, we are made witnesses of all the Lord’s saving deeds, and participants in all the saving events, especially the Last Supper, the Cross, the Tomb, and the Resurrection, the Ascension into heaven, and the sitting at the right hand of the Father. We live those events with Him.
It is in this sense that our Liturgy is rightly called a real sacrifice. We do not presume to repeat or add to what Christ did on the Cross, as if that had been ineffectual or insufficient; but in Him our experience of the once-for-all Sacrifice is renewed time and again.
(There are some additional offerings and sacrifices that, in love, we offer at every Liturgy. We offer God the bread and wine, as Jesus also did in blessing them. We offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise and almsgiving, [Heb. 13:15-16] of contrition, [Ps. 51:17] and of our bodies, meaning our whole lives [Rom. 12:1] We are a royal priesthood, and it is appropriate for us to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [II St. Peter 2:5])
With all this going on (and so much more that is terribly important but outside the scope of this discussion), you can probably appreciate that while our rote Liturgy might be stultifying to someone who walks according to the flesh, it is quite the opposite for those who walk in the Spirit. It floods us with new Life and kindles a supernatural Love that seems to set not only our hearts but also everything around us on fire.
I hope that this paper has given some indication of how each external facet of Orthodoxy is an outward manifestation of her inner life. This is because nothing about Orthodoxy is merely theoretical, conceptual, abstract, academic, emotional, cultural, or symbolic; but concrete Life in Christ. Hence, in order to understand it, one must see it with the eyes of faith, from the perspective of Spirit, from within the experience of an Orthodox Christian. From that perspective, but only from it, everything falls into place, becomes one seamless, consistent whole, and makes perfect spiritual, intellectual and theological sense. the schizophrenic feeling disappears. (This does not mean that from our own perspective there is nothing to criticize; only that the criticisms will then be well-founded.)
Because we are constantly sinning, we are constantly repenting; and the Holy Spirit faithfully guards and keeps the Church despite the weakness of her members. Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. [Eph. 5:25-27] That He does miraculously accomplish this is our confident hope.
There is one Body and one Spirit,
Just as you were called in one hope of your calling;
One Lord, one faith, one baptism;
One God and Father of all,
Who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph. 4:4-6)
(An Overview of Orthodoxy by Way of a Reply to Daniel Clendenin, by Anastasia Theodoridis)