The Moral Aspect of
the Dogma of the Church
by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky
WHEN AN AUTHOR offers his readers a (more or less) new explanation of Christian dogma, then, if he believes in an Orthodox manner, he reckons least of all to introduce any kind of new truth into the consciousness of the Church. On the contrary, he is convinced that the fullness of the truth is a permanent attribute of the Church’s consciousness; and if, for example, before the 4th century, the concepts of nature and persons had not been elucidated, or if before the Seventh Ecumenical Council no dogma of the honouring of ikons was defined, this does not in any way mean that the early Church did not know the correct teaching about the Trinity or vacillated between the venerating of ikons and iconoclasm. In these cases it was not the content of the faith which received a supplement in Christian consciousness, but rather the enrichment of human thought consisted in that certain human concepts or everyday occurrences were explained from the point of view of true Christianity. Even before the 4th century, the Church knew from the Gospel and Tradition that the Father and Son are one, that we are saved by faith in the Holy Trinity. But how to relate these truths to the human philosophical concepts of person and nature, --- in other words, what place these concepts receive in God’s being --- this was taught to people by the fathers of the first council and those who followed them.
In exactly the same way, if any contemporary person, even a simple, humble Christian, as for example, Khomiakov, starts discussing the truths of the faith (in new terminology), but without any contradiction of Church Tradition, remaining in agreement with Orthodox theology, then he does not reveal new mysteries of the faith. He only elucidates, from the point of view of eternal truth, new questions of contemporary human thought. The contemporary reader, seeing in the author’s words a long awaited answer to his perplexities in faith, is prepared to proclaim such an explanation as a “new revelation”. Another, a stranger to such questions, a devotee of schoolish reference books, hesitates, with distrust and ill-will, to agree with the author and stubbornly searches for heresy in him, not wishing to be reconciled with the fact that the subject is apparently explained better than in the established text-books. Meanwhile, this same Khomiakov had said nothing contrary to the text-books and an evaluation of the comparative worthiness of his exposition with that of the standard texts depends not upon the explanation of that eternal content of faith, which is identical in both these expositions, but pre-eminently upon the elucidation of the changing questions of contemporary thought.
One of the most persistent, most clearly defined questionings of the modern age concerning our faith is the moral content of its dogmatic truths. This content was never estranged from the consciousness of the Church. For obedient and enlightened sons of the Church the Symbol of Faith has always been, and always will be, an exultant hymn of praise. Almost every prayer of the Church ends with the remembrance of the Holy Trinity, precisely as the source of all moral treasures. But contemporary theology, as a science, is in want of a clearly expressed and consistent formulation of precisely what moral concepts are contained in the truths of faith and how the first are defined by the second. Thus, it is very natural that those researchers, who know Christianity only as it is expressed by scholars or in text books, being strangers to a direct experience of the whole of Church truth, --- these so-to-speak external contemplators of Christianity, --- are perplexed as to why our faith demands so persistently that its followers accept numerous apparently purely theoretical dogmas, while is Founder stated: “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments”. We said: “are perplexed” but, unfortunately, our presumptuous contemporaries refuse to be perplexed but, just like Krylov’s rooster1 prefer confidently and stubbornly to negate and defame what they do not understand. This attitude was expressed with particular force in certain works of L. Tolstoy, who, regrettably, in this instance is one of the boldest representatives of the mood of an enormous number of educated Europeans and Russians. It is these perplexities that we are seeking to answer, both in this present article about the Church and in the previous ones: about the Holy Trinity, about Redemption and about the Holy Spirit.
1. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DOGMA OF THE CHURCH IN HISTORY AND IN CONTEMPORARY STUDIES.
Of all dogmas, the dogma of the Church is subjected to the most intense attacks from the sectarians2 and the strongest hatred, silent though it may be, on the part of all pseudo-rationalists in general. With a special zeal, our would-be liberals spread translated works about the inquisition and the struggle of culture with Papism, in the not unfounded hope that the sharp-witted Russian reader will himself be able to relate to all the evil said of Papism to the Orthodox Church. But at the same time, Russian “westernizers”3 also stress the fact that the enticing grandiosity, consistency and power of conviction of the Papal system --- in a word, all that Papism can really boast of--- is all foreign for our Church administration, which such people usually run up against only the person of lay administrators supervising various restrictions in life, such as censorship, discipline and ritual. And if, in the person of the representatives of its hierarch, the authority of the Church interferes with our liberals, it usually acts passively, without flair or rhetoric, and so it is not surprising if its apostates do not think of it even as a powerful dark force, as did L. Tolstoy, but rather as a dreary old grumbler.
Yes, our modern age has just such a pitiful picture of that greatest sacred treasure of Christian teaching, without which this teaching would have remained a truly abstract, lifeless dogmatism, without which there would not have been that essential transformation in life which our faith has brought about in the universe. And if at the present time false liberals consider the teaching about the Church to be a hindrance to their faith, then why do they not want at least to ponder over the fact that it was precisely this truth about the Church which was the main force for attracting the newly enlightened peoples and nations to Christ? True, apart from the dogma of the Church, Christianity is rich in lofty ideas and compunctionate images (including here even the events of the Gospel story), but it would have been left impotent for moral regeneration had they not been again and again incarnated in the personal life of Christians and if this life had not been the constant expression of that spiritual unity, that tender mutual love and mutual solicitude which could not have been instilled into Christians either by faith in the future life, or by love for the Saviour, or by remembrance of His sufferings, but only by His words and those of His Apostle concerning the Church --- that He granted His truth and His grace not to each believer individually, but to their oneness in the Church, which is like a body, brought to life by the Spirit of God, uniting into one living union of love its members, who live by this unity and die spiritually if they should but fall away from it.
Ancient Christians understood this most important condition of their spiritual life and it was in it that they found strength for the fulfillment of the most difficult task in life --- to love one another. Our contemporaries no longer understand this and they are in need of a theorematical 4 explanation of the question of the significance which the dogma of the Church possesses for the spiritual perfection of the individual. It is just such an explanation that we wish to offer.
The indicated teleological5 aspect in the interpretation of the dogma of the Church is not just contingent, relevant only to contemporary ways of thinking. The most authoritative dogmatist of Orthodoxy, St. John of Damascus, says that God revealed to us all of His properties and of His Providential decrees that is needed for our salvation and concealed all that does not have a direct relationship to this purpose. In particular, not only is the truth about the Church revealed to us for this aim, but the Church itself is established solely for this purpose. Who is unaware of the words of the Apostle about Christ: “For because of Him the whole body (the Church, tr.), joined and firmly knit together by the ligaments and joints with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, grows to full maturity, building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
And so the purpose of the Church is clearly set forth and defined: it consists in the spiritual growth of Christians. Yet as the consequence of some sad misunderstanding, it is precisely this essential aspect in the definition of the Church that is omitted by all contemporary dogmatists, who are evidently completely oblivious to the fact that the definitions cited by them suffer from even a logical incompleteness which strikes the eyes of the conscientious reader.
The majority of text-book definitions of the Church begin thus: the Church is a society which is established, united, etc. But you see the principal definition of a society is contained in its purpose, its aim, but nothing, or almost nothing, is said about this in the text-book formulation of the dogma. Not long ago there appeared in print a different definition of the Church as the body of Christ, which provoked a whole polemic. Moreover, those who were arguing said almost one and the same thing or even exactly one and the same thing, even though they reproached one another with ample vehemence. The above-cited words of the Apostle served as the main basis of such a definition, but for some reason no-one considered it necessary to read them through to the end, and the sacred quotation was discussed from every angle apart from its main thought.
If we are to examine the truth of the Church from the point of view we have set forth, then we have to set the following thesis at the head of our deliberation: for the salvation or --- what is the same --- for the spiritual perfection of man three elements are necessary: man himself, God and the Church. This third element is usually not considered to be at the basis of our salvation, for in European theology this theme has been explored preeminently by Protestants. But we know that the kingdom of God which our Saviour brought to earth is not merely a sanctification of man’s personal life through the direct action of the Being of God on him, but is also the basis on earth of a new existence, a new principle, and it is only on this basis that our Lord enters into relationships with the human individual. This existence, this principle, is the Church. It is noteworthy that even in that exceptional case when, after the foundation of the Church, the Lord called the persecutor Saul to Himself directly from His heavenly throne, even here He did not leave him outside the most intimate direction of the Church, that He did not reveal His will to him directly, as He had formerly done to Elias and the other prophets, but sent him to Ananias for instruction, for the reception of the Grace of God in the Sacrament and for the healing of the blindness of his eyes. Here the Lord indicated that He does not know His servants outside the Church. But even earlier, when He was but teaching the basics of His new teaching, in the majority of His parables He contrasted the new spiritual life not only with the sinful, two-faced personal life of the individual man, but even more often to the unharmonious divided condition of human society. In His new kingdom people will unite not only in friendly brotherhood, strangers to division according to nationality, social class and wealth, but they themselves will constitute a certain new unified existence which will grow like dough leavened by a house-wife, like a tree which attracts everyone into its shade, like a grapevine in which the vine is Christ and the branches are the Apostles.
(Continued: “The Main Idea in the Dogma of the Church”.)
1) The Rooster of Krylov: A rooster in one of Krylov’s fables who disdained a pearl in favour of a tasty piece of grain.
2) Tolstoy-ites, in the original. The Tolstoy-ites were the most vociferous of the Western-style sectarians in Russian at the time of Metropolitan Antony’s professorship in the theological academy.
3) Westernizers: A political/philosophical group who were ashamed of Russia’s past and present and sought solution of her problems by imitation of the West. They contrasted with the Slavophiles, who sought to solve Russia’s problems by a return to what they believed to be the true (Orthodox) traditions of Russian. (See The Decline of Imperial Russia, by H. Seton-Watson. London, 1952).
4) Theorematical: A systematic explanation of something which is a demonstrable reality, but which is not always readily self-evident. (Теоретцческомъ) in the original, which could also be translated as “theoretical”, but this rendering could confuse the meaning, especially in American English).
5) Teleoligical: An interpretation in terms of the purpose of a thing. Here, it refers to the fact that Metropolitan Antony is explaining the dogma of the Church from the point of view of its moral purpose.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 22, No. 1, January-February 1973, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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