Riddle me this

I recently expressed my quandary about ecclesial primacy in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy. One commenter in particular, Chris Jones, replied at length, which I appreciate. I did however find many of his claims dissatisfying, which is what I’d like to address in this post. I’d first like to express a grave concern that I think Mr. Jones almost scandalously evades. Then I’d like to pose two riddles, or conundra, in regard to some ecclesiological points Mr. Jones made. Finally, I’d like to close with a link to several quotes from the Eastern Christian tradition that support the supreme primacy of Petrine Rome.

First, Mr. Jones’s nonchalant attitude towards contraception is deeply troubling. Not only is this an extremely important issue for me as I consider my connubial life in Christ, but it’s all an undeniably important feature of the early Church’s witness. Documentation of that fact would be almost insultingly redundant. The early Church was the anti-contraceptive Church. So, for Mr. Jones to brush contraception off as a merely pastoral issue is as tragic as it is glib.

Questions like this are dealt with between an individual Orthodox and his or her father confessor. … There is simply no need for a definitive “pronouncement” on this question. … Frankly, I just don’t see contraception as that important an issue. It’s a pastoral matter, not a doctrinal one. If the Church doesn’t have a discernible consensus on it that really doesn’t bother me. … The Bible doesn’t explicitly have a whole lot to say about contraception. It has a good deal to say about sexuality in general and its role within the overall purpose of marriage; but any specific teaching about contraception is the result of inference from the general principles laid out in the Bible. And those inferences are best done in the context of pastoral care rather than “in the abstract.”

If I may be blunt: who is Mr. Jones to decide the importance of contraception in the deposit of faith? How arbitrary can he get? Who is he to delineate so casually between mere pastoral issues and clearly dogmatic ones? Why should a modernist, Protestant nonchalance about contraception count as the voice of the Church?

Alas, here we are again at the typical Protestant impasse of solo Scriptura. The Bible is relatively quiet about c-o–t-r-a-c-e-p-t-i-o-n? Well shucks, the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the specifics of the “liturgy” or “ordination” or “monothelitic” “hypostatic union” of Christ or “abortion” or the biblical “canon” or the “theotokos” or “phyletism”, either. In fact, it’s sad to say but the Bible is often MUCH more silent or vague on MANY issues I think we’d all prefer to understand better. Mr. Jones says contraception is merely derived from the clearer, basic principles espoused in the Bible. Well, so are the precise dogmas of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc! All these definitive statements were once just as contested as contraception is (well, outside of Rome).

Even allowing for his, if I’m not mistaken, newly embraced Lutheranism, I think Mr. Jones would agree the proper place of Scripture is IN the Church, to be interpreted BY the Church. I also doubt he’s willing to jettison the clear voice of the patristic tradition on this matter. I’m simply amazed Mr. Jones can so easily ignore the vast amount of opposition in the Christian tradition to contraception, even among the leading Reformers. Of course, treating the Bible as your own will do that to you.

Enough. Now I’d like to pose a couple riddles (not meant for Mr. Jones exclusively or even particularly) about two well-known controversies in the discussion of Roman supremacy. The first is a biblical and theological query, the second a more strictly theological question.

Prolegomena to RIDDLE #1:

Countless Orthodox and Protestants cite Galatians 2 as biblical proof of (at least) two major strikes against Roman supremacy. First, this chapter is claimed to show Paul viewed Peter as a mere co-laborer in Christ, hardly the Prince of the Apostles. Second, and more importantly, this passage is supposed to show that, since Peter was able to err, and did in fact err, then his successors are similarly fallible. So much for papistic presumptions.

Although these objections have been met for centuries, let’s assume they are valid for, you know, the sake of a good riddle. Protestants, almost totally following the allegorical (and thus patristically atypical) excesses of Origen and Augustine, see Peter as the type for ALL Christians. Hence, they are perfectly comfortable granting the fallibility of Peter, since doing so only shows the biblical basis for admitting their own fallibility as mere “Peters after Peter.” Orthodox believers, by contrast, are not comfortable limiting Peter’s biblical type to individual believers. In addition, but perhaps not necessarily in opposition, to Protestant Petrology, Orthodox see Peter as the type for all BISHOPS. And, much like Protestants, they are willing to grant the fallibility of each and every bishop, again as mere Peters after Peter.[1]

But here’s where it gets interesting. For, due in particular to the work of Fr. Nicholas Afanassief (O, who can bear spelling Anglicized Russian names!), a common motif in contemporary Orthodox theology is that each local church is in fact THE Catholic Church. As long as the faithful are gathered under their bishop at the Eucharist, each local church is the full (or catholic) Church. Remember, each bishop is understood as Peter and therefore each Church AS THE CHURCH, in the Eucharist, is founded on that Rock. Rome’s Petrine chrism is, therefore, extraneous to the sufficiently Petrine stability of each parish. The holy and infallible catholic (i.e., complete) Church itself is established on the Rock of Peter, even though the totality of all such churches is not built on the Roman Rock. The global unity of the Church is a nice but, strictly speaking, unnecessary aspect of catholicity.

This so-called “eucharistic ecclesiology” is based very much on the heterogonous ecclesiology of Cyprian (especially his _De unitate ecclesiae_)[2] in his heated feud with Pope Stephen about the re-baptism of heretics. In order to win his case, Cyprian was at great pains to undermine the pope’s PECULIAR Petrine power as a common power for all bishops. In this way, he could circumvent Stephen’s opposition as the voice of one bishop among many, one pesky Peter among the equal Apostles.

But here’s the problem. If the Church lives as a mystically full microcosm of the “whole Church” in each church, each church must be infallible and indefectible. The cardinal marks of the Church – unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity – must exist in each local church, otherwise that church is ipso facto not the CATHOLIC Church. And yet, two other essential marks of the Church are its infallibility and indefectibility (or its indefectible infallibility). You cannot simultaneously claim 1) the WHOLE Church is indefectibly infallible, 2) that each Church is THE Church and 3) that each Church is defectible and fallible. Each local church – like every human – must possess the essential fullness of the whole Church – or of humanity in se – or it is not THE CHURCH. Hence, if each local Peter is fallible, but each local church possesses all the marks of the whole Church, then the whole Church is fallible.[3]

RIDDLE #1: If the gates of Hell would never overcome the Rock of Peter, and if each local Church is headed by Peter, how can hells of apostasy overcome a single church without also overcoming the whole Church?

Fortunately, the second riddle is a little easier to present. Mr. Jones claims the ultimate doctrinal authority does not rest in any single bishop or patriarch, let alone in the clergy exclusively. Rather, he says, it is the power and duty of all Christians, lay and ordained, to uphold the truth infallibly. As Mr. Jones says,

When a person is catechized in the Orthodox Church in preparation for baptism and chrismation, the Apostolic Tradition is imparted to him. That is the purpose of catechesis. Once that catechesis is complete and the person is baptized and chrismated, it becomes his responsibility to keep, guard, and pass on that Apostolic Tradition – the Catholic faith in its fulness – without either adding anything or taking anything away.

That responsibility to guard the deposit belongs to the whole Church and also to every Christian individually. It cannot be delegated to any priest, bishop, patriarch, or pope. While it is the office of the bishop to teach the faith and govern his local Church, it is not his responsibility alone to keep the Apostolic Tradition. All of his faithful as well as all of his brother bishops and their faithful are also charged with this responsibility.

Sounds good. No bishop babysitters. No top-down passivity. We are all members of a royal priesthood. We are all living stones in the Church. We are all collegial and equal members of the People of God.

But here’s the tough question. How can each Christian have a legitimate and equal spirirutal authority if it derives from the episcopacy? Mr. Jones says all Orthodox Christians receive and possess the fullness of the Tradition. But he ignores a crucial detail, to wit, the MEANS of this reception. Where or how do Orthodox Christians get this Apostolic fullness? From baptism and chrismation and catechesis BY THE CLERGY established OVER them by Christ. That is, each Christian’s apostolic authority DERIVES FROM and DEPENDS ON the antecedent and sacramentally superior authority of his priest and/or bishop.

Now consider the Roman Catholic Church. The RCC claims each bishop receives his authority FROM CHRIST BY VIRTUE OF his union with the head of the episcopacy, Peter-in-Rome. Each bishop under the pope is a legitimate and authoritative successor of the Apostles, but the pope is to them what Peter was to the Apostles. At this point, however, Orthodox critics say this “papocracy” negates the validity of each bishop, rendering them mere emissaries or functionaries of the Pope, not of Christ. And yet, paradoxically, only moments before we saw how each Christian’s apostolic duties are not nullified by their episcopal origin.

RIDDLE #2: How can a Christian have a valid spiritual authority in Christ if it depends on a bishop, while each bishop cannot have a valid episcopal authority even if it depends on the pope?

Let me close with the link to the many quotes about papal supremacy: here they are.

[1 What I find so electrifying is that the Catholic Church can and does admit the full range of the patristic understanding of Peter: Peter is the layman, the bishop and the pope. Mysterious as it may be, none of them are said to conflict.

[2] “Episcopus unus est, cuius a singulis in soldium pars tenetur.” Strangely enough, the same proponents of this Cyrpian Petrology all too easily ignore his living witness of relying on Rome when the chips were down.

[3] Two handy deliverances from this dilemma for Catholicism are 1) the very guarded acceptance of such “eucharistic ecclesiology” and 2) the derivative infallibility of each local bishop by virtue of his organic union with the ultimate infallibility of the Pope. The original college of the Apostles was obviously and indisputably headed by Peter. Peter, in turn, was obviously and indisputably headed by Christ. Hence, the Apostles were headed by Christ IN the headship of Peter. I am at a loss to explain how that clear structure is not an essential feature of the deposit of faith. It is, by extension, beyond me to see what crucial difference (gradually or suddenly) came to exist between that primal collegial structure and the current episcopacy FROM WHICH IT DERIVED.

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About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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