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Against Eastern Orthodoxy (An Open Letter to Jose Miguel)

Updated: May 31

Note: this post was taken from another one of my blogs which included two important comments to complete these discussions. These two comments have been kept in their entirety and included as part of the body for this post.


Dear Jose,


This is in response to a discussion we began to have here, in response to the article I wrote here, in which I claimed that the Eastern Orthodox lack the proper mechanisms by which to determine essential doctrines.


Given the limited word count and the need to address a mixture of points and confusions all at once, it seemed better to opt for a full-form answer.


Firstly, when you asked: “Are you a Scotist, a Thomist, or a Palamist per Union of Brest?” Perhaps, at first, I didn’t know exactly what you were referring to… the three thinkers mentioned have a variety of different views pertaining to this event, and a Catholic layman is under no obligation to accept any of them.


It’s also odd that you even mention “Palamist” as an option, given that Gregory Palamas was an Easter Orthodox cleric, not a Catholic.


It is important to note from the outset that there are different grades of Catholic dogma, from what everyone is universally bound to believe, to what is open for consideration amongst the faithful, yet not binding. Theological opinions are of this second, lower kind. More is made of this in the book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott.


When I said that “the issue you mentioned is not related to any kind of dispute over essential doctrines” what I meant is that disagreements amongst theologians is not tantamount to a disagreement about essential doctrines because Catholic Dogma remains unaffected. In that sense, a particular disagreement amongst theologians doesn’t bare upon the essentials. They may be correct or in error, until the Church makes a magisterial decree.


Now, yes, the specific issue you proceed to discuss: the Trinity, is an essential doctrine. But as it happens, neither Scotus nor Aquinas present arguments that explicitly contradict the Church’s teaching on it (although Aquinas' teaching is more explicitly in line with it). Scotus emphasises different things, which leaves him open to debate, and ultimately, if his approach is tantamount to a real denial of the Church’s official teaching, it is wrong. This is how Catholic Dogma and, by extension, Catholic theology maintains its consistency.


And so, no, there aren’t 3 “systems” in Catholicism, as you stated. There is one system with a core of consistent Dogma, authoritatively supported, along with peripheral discussions that are not considered to be binding.


For this reason, your argument includes a straw-man fallacy.


You implied that 2 or more Catholic theologians have a real disagreement about a defined, essential doctrine (they don’t),


And by extension you implied that, therefore, there is a conflict within the body of binding Catholic doctrine (there isn’t).


Later, you followed my comment:


the issue you mentioned isn’t even related to any kind of dispute over essential doctrines”


With:


“That means theology isn’t essential. If that isn’t essential, what is?”


Which is a form of conflation. You are conflating some aspects of theology with all of theology. As just mentioned, defined dogmas and theological opinions are neither the same thing nor hold the same weight, though both are theology.


Hopefully, this resolves the rest of the confusion about essential doctrines and accepting councils. Yes, as a Catholic I accept the Catholic view of the Trinity as dogmatic and essential, and yes I accept the Council of Florence. Your arguments are based upon misnomers.


 

Now, as to your claims about the consistency of the Eastern Orthodox Jurisdictions…


I asked, “[is there] universal agreement about the Council of Jerusalem? Do all agree to accept it and be bound by its teachings?”


And you replied, “The Council of Jerusalem in 1672 was a Great Synod, binding to the whole Orthodox body.”


This is true. I admit that I got my facts wrong and thought that there was some disagreement about The Council of Jerusalem. There isn’t.


However, there is a modern example of a council which is simultaneously presented as pan-orthodox, yet not pan-orthodox: The Council of Crete (2016):




But the really key thing is that you have no real, consistent for criteria for saying which councils must be accepted, and which rejected.


You can’t use:


  • The number of bishops (because some “false” councils had large numbers of bishops),

  • The unanimity of bishops (because not all councils regarded as binding had full unanimity),

  • The decrees of subsequent councils (because the council confirming that other councils are legitimate does, itself, need to be legitimised by a future council), nor

  • The apparent, general, widespread acceptance of the Eastern Orthodox church because this makes the legitimacy backwards or argues in a circle: the legitimacy of the council is only confirmed once it is accepted by the very people who it is supposed to have authority over.


The full version of this argument is given here, along with other points:



Regards,


Tony


 

Jose Miguel White Hernandez


Apr 04


The reason I mention Palamist as an option is because post-Union of Brest in 1596, and with the bringing in of multiple Eastern churches into union with Rome under the same ecclesiastical principle, there are multiple groups from the Melkites to the Ruthenian Uniates who hold to Palamas' system which is incompatible with Aquinas' system. What this results in is a union of political loyalty to the Vatican not a union of the same faith, if these theological systems are part of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith that has been preserved and handed down. From your explanation, I understand that Rome sees these as distinct from the Deposit of Faith, which explains why in Roman practice they are non-essential.


This builds on what you said here: "It is important to note from the outset that there are different grades of Catholic dogma, from what everyone is universally bound to believe, to what is open for consideration amongst the faithful, yet not binding. Theological opinions are of this second, lower kind"


What the Orthodox consider to be universally binding in theological opinion is considered not so and open for consideration on the Roman side. From your original argument, Zero to Sedevacantism:

"So-called Eastern Orthodoxy has a similar problem. Although they tend to have more authority and more consistency than Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox are nonetheless divided on their views about essential doctrines"


This part of the argument could be thus thrown back by the Orthodox to Traditional Pre-Vatican II Rome. The Orthodox do have a universally binding system of theology, from the Monarchical Trinitarian Formula to the Essence-Energy distinction. Rome leaves more room for theological opinion despite having a "definitive, final authority" in human flesh on earth. The Orthodox could thus then claim, hey, we have less wiggle room on theological opinion, ergo we are less divided theologically since in our system far more is essential and binding, not secondary or up for individual laymen's choosing to believe or not to believe.This isn't a Straw-Man fallacy, rather it shows that Orthodox and Pre-Vatican II Rome differ in what they each consider essential doctrines as a matter of Faith and thus binding.


Now I don't expect to convince you of the Orthodox side being right, rather my goal is to point out this weak spot in your argument From Zero to Sedevacantism in regards to disproving the Orthodox position. What could help strengthen this point would be pointing out what supposed essential doctrines that the Orthodox are divided on. That is something I'd be interested in seeing as a system of theology isn't one of those essentials.


By the way my browser's autocorrect wants to change Sedevacantism to Antisemitism, so I'll grant that that behavior lends support to your position.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


On the issue of councils and how they are considered binding in Orthodoxy, I'm grateful you looked deeper into the Council of Jerusalem. I love it as it is the Orthodox Great Synod that anathematized Calvinism, as Calvinism is proof some demons can only be exorcised by intense prayer and fasting.


This demonstrates how councils are binding in the Orthodox Phronema. Councils operate similar to how you described in the Pre-V II theology works in terms of that which dogmas/doctrines are universally binding and which are not. I'll try to use it as an analogy where applicable. I'll describe the approach then address the bullet point claim you have to the contrary.


Be it a Great and Holy Synod like Council of Jerusalem post-Christian Roman Empire, or the Ecumenical Councils, the seven we nominally agree on or the two the East has which the West doesn't, a council that is universally binding is one which all the Autocephalous Churches receive. On the validity of Autocephaly, one simply needs to checkout the Third Ecumenical Council on its recognition of the rights of the Church of Cyprus in relation to the See of Antioch.


For a simple explanation of the phronema behind this, St Paul lays out that the Church is the Pillar and Foundation of Truth, ergo the Church as the Body of Christ will not embrace error. Thus the Body cannot receive across all its members a heretical teaching or practice. A given branch/member(s) could be infected with heresy, like in the Arian, Nestorian or Iconoclast crisis. As Christ warns to most of the 7 churches he wrote to through the Apostle John in Apocalypse, if a local Church embraces heresy and does not repent of it, like with the teachings of the Nicolaitans, Christ will cut them off. Likewise, St Paul warned the Church of Rome that they could be cut off for the same reason in Romans 11. Again not to persuade you that this is correct and Rome's system is wrong, but rather detail how the Orthodox approach the Councils.


So a local council embraced by a local jurisdiction, say Alexandria, can set canons for itself that bind those under its jurisdiction. Those canons however wouldn't be binding everywhere unless a Great Synod or EC, accepts those canons and elevates it to be universal. What makes that Great Synod a Great Synod like Jerusalem or Ecumenical like Ephesus would be its acceptance by all. An example would be the 2nd Council of Nicea which accepts the canons of the Quinisext Council in its first canon. The Quinisext council in turn affirmed local canons of 3 councils of Carthage and the Local Council of Laodicea. Though those canons were originally only binding for the local Synods of Carthage and Laodicea respectively, after all the Church received them they are universally binding canons, as the Church as a whole will not accept error.


The most recent binding universal Great Synod would be the Pan-Orthodox Council of 1998 in Sofia received by all Autocephalous Jurisdictions. In comparison the Council of Crete is easy to determine if it is universally binding or not. It was not just not accepted but rejected by the Autocephalous Churches of Moscow Patriarchate, Bulgaria, Antioch, Georgia, and the Autonomous OCA. Because a council calls itself Pan-Orthodox or Ecumenical does not make it so, otherwise we would be bound by the 5th Century Robber Council of Ephesus which declared the heretic Eutyches to be orthodox and not a heretic, when he was in fact a heretic.


This criteria is consistent with Orthodox ecclesial practice for two millennia. Now, you may say this violates the 4th bullet point you have from the two brothers: "The apparent, general, widespread acceptance of the Eastern Orthodox church because this makes the legitimacy backwards or argues in a circle: the legitimacy of the council is only confirmed once it is accepted by the very people who it is supposed to have authority over."


The central reason why this counterargument doesn't work is because of where Church Authority comes from in the Orthodox Phronema. The Father invested all Authority in the Son, who invested the Authority of Binding and Loosing in His Apostles, who in turn invested that Authority in the Bishopric. The "circular root" is the Person of the Father. St Paul, an Apostle, points out in his letter to Timothy, in turn a Bishop, to "behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."


Councils are not the source of Authority, they are the written expression at a particular time of the Authority invested in the Bishopric that descended from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. The Church of the living God, the Body of Christ with Christ as its head, is the pillar and ground of the truth and thus cannot accept universally a falsehood like the 5th century Robber Council. Any part of the Church that embraces heresy will be cutoff if they do not repent as both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul warn in Scripture.


The acceptance by the Body is not where the Council's legitimacy or authority derives, as the 4th bullet point argues, it is a confirmation of the Council being True if what the Apostle Paul wrote in Scripture is True. As Christ says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by Me." As Christ was, is, and will be True, what the Councils declare to be True was True before the Councils were even convened. IE, if you believed and taught Arianism in the first century, you were still a heretic teaching something distinct from the Apostolic Deposit of Faith despite the council anathematizing Arianism not having happened yet.


I hope that it helps you understand that the Orthodox do not hold to the Councils as the source of Authority and Legitimate Teaching the way the Protestants hold to the Bible as the only source and legitimate teaching. If that was the case, the Brothers' argument would be valid. In the Orthodox Phronema both the Councils and the Bible are grounded in Christ's Body, the Church, where Authority and Legitimacy are, not the other way around. Does this explanation help you understand what the Orthodox position in regards to Councils is?


"It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord...For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us" - Acts 15


Without the Holy Spirit and the Authority Christ invested into His Church a council is meaningless.


 

Tony Lowe

Apr 05

Replying to

Jose Miguel White Hernandez


Dear Jose,


Thank you for taking the time to formulate your response. This may be the last response I have time to write, on account of my current workload.


Also, thanks for clarifying your position vis-a-vis Palamas. His relevance is clear now.


The opening part of your challenge related to the Union of Brest, so let’s address that, first.


When you say “there are multiple groups from the Melkites to the Ruthenian Uniates who hold to Palamas' system which is incompatible with Aquinas' system” you imply a wholesale acceptance of the Palamite “system” with all the trimmings. Yet, the Thirty-Three articles of the Union of Brest state that all involved will adhere to the Catholic view of the Trinity, as found in the first article:


1. Since there is a quarrel between the Romans and Greeks about the procession of the Holy Spirit, which greatly impede unity really for no other reason than that we do not wish to understand one another—we ask that we should not be compelled to any other creed but that we should remain with that which was handed down to us in the Holy Scriptures, in the Gospel, and in the writings of the holy Greek Doctors, that is, that the Holy Spirit proceeds, not from two sources and not by a double procession, but from one origin, from the Father through the Son.


Note: the term “procession” is often understood differently by East and West. Some Catholic sources will claim a “double procession” i.e. emphasising that the Holy Ghost proceeds through both the Father and the Son (together), whereas others claims a “single procession” i.e. emphasising that it is ultimately one activity/principle. The point is that, with the semantic understanding of “procession” aside, the formula “through the son” is the Catholic formula, as confirmed by the Council of Florence:


For when Latins and Greeks came together in this holy synod, they all strove that, among other things, the article about the procession of the holy Spirit should be discussed with the utmost care and assiduous investigation. Texts were produced from divine scriptures and many authorities of eastern and western holy doctors, some saying the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, others saying the procession is from the Father through the Son. All were aiming at the same meaning in different words.”


and as confirmed by the Second Council of Lyon:


"the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, not as from two principles but as from one single principle (tamquam ex uno principio)" (DS 850).


Hence, the situation is this:


To the extent that any of these churches are teaching a version of the Trinity that contradicts this, they are at once heretics and breaking the terms of their agreement.


If they adhere to some doctrine of Palamas which does not contradict Catholic dogma, there is no issue. If they do, there are in heresy, even if they publicly swear allegiance to The Catholic Church.


When you say that they have these systems you say nothing about what parts of the system, whether all parts are embraced by all members, whether all members interpret Palamas in the same way, and so on. But again: if their beliefs contradict the faith, they are heretics.


That’s really all there is to it.


---


Now, as to your other claims…


You said, “The Orthodox could thus then claim, hey, we have less wiggle room on theological opinion, ergo we are less divided theologically since in our system far more is essential and binding, not secondary or up for individual laymen's choosing to believe or not to believe.”


This is an odd kind of red herring. The number of essential doctrines is completely irrelevant to the core, logical argument that has been made. The question is not the number of essential doctrines, nor whether non-essential doctrines can exist. The only argument that was made was that there are essential (universally binding) doctrines, and that The Catholic Church has a consistent, definitive mechanism for determining what those doctrines are.


If you insist on your point, your argument is essentially, “by Eastern Orthodox standards, Catholics don’t care as much about essential doctrines, because we have more of them.”


To which the obvious response is, “and by Catholic standards, the Eastern Orthodox are a collection of schismatics whose views on doctrine are completely irrelevant to the functions and standards of the True Faith.”


It’s a red-herring to even imply that we are going to judge each-other by the standards of one-another’s doctrines. The common appeal is logic, and the appeal is made to determine whose approach to doctrine accords with reason, and whose does not.


Which brings us onto the next point…


Your statements show that the concept of Eastern Orthodox authority is ultimately baseless.


Of course, you appeal being rooted in The Father and to the work of the Holy Ghost, who is the real Spirit of Truth. But the problem of course is that every denomination of Christianity claims that as the basis of their true faith and true interpretation.


You claim the work of the Holy Ghost? Great, so do we.

So does every Protestant “church” and even every individual with a Bible quibbling over whether Mary had multiple children or whether you can be “once saved, always saved”.


This is, of course, to say nothing against the work of the Holy Ghost. He Truly operates in the True Church of Christ.


The only question is: what, beyond the mere statement, makes it clear that your church has the Holy Ghost teaching through it? Your argument is essentially, “because we know we’re the true church.” which is a circular argument.


The Catholic case is: we trust that the Holy Ghost is working through us because we have an authoritative system, which comes back to a final arbiter, that visibly ensures that the magisterium is clear, definitive and consistent.


The Easter Orthodox case is: we trust that the Holy Ghost is working through us because we know that the Holy Ghost is working through us.


You said, “What could help strengthen this point would be pointing out what supposed essential doctrines that the Orthodox are divided on.”


The question of whether a particular council is binding or not seems like a good place to start!


Because if it is binding, then its doctrines are essential and must be universally recognised and if it is not binding, they can be rejected. Therefore, a disagreement about councils is a disagreement about essential doctrines.


Hence, when you mentioned “what supposed essential doctrines that the Orthodox are divided on” the problem goes even deeper… the problem is: what even are your essential doctrines, and how do you know? When judging the authority of doctrines,


  • You can’t point to the number of bishops,

  • You’ve already said that councils aren’t really authorities,

  • And as has been explained, this general, ethereal appeal to “acceptance” doesn’t make any sense.


This leads us back to the problem with the Council of Florence. As explained in the video, you have no clear criteria by which to say that the bishops during that council were in fact wrong. As a result, as you sit in rejection of it now, you represent a theological disagreement between yourself aligned with current bishops, and bishops of the past.


The problem applies to every council in which a minority of bishops dissented.


How do you know that the masses of bishops and the people who followed them were not wrong?

Your answer is basically, “because if they were wrong, they would not be the mass of bishops, and people would not follow them.”


You say that the Eastern Orthodox church is generally guided by the Spirit of Truth (as exercised through its bishops, in particular)...


A large number of bishops, including Patriarchs accepted the Council of Florence, and then, later, most didn’t.


One option is that the Holy Ghost gradually guided the majority of Eastern Orthodox away from accepting the Council of Florence.


Another, equally logical option is that the Holy Ghost led Eastern Orthodox bishops to sign and accept the Council of Florence, but the so-called Eastern Orthodox gradually moved away from it and now have an almost universal rejection of it because they are a collection of schismatics who have hardened their hearts to the work of the Holy Ghost and the acceptance of the True Authorities and the True Faith.


You’re argument is tantamount to: “the fact that it is no longer generally accepted as a true council, proves that it wasn’t a true council.” to which the response can be, “the fact that it is no longer accepted as a true council may well mean that it was a true council, but that schismatics have simply been unwilling to accept it.”


You said “Any part of the Church that embraces heresy will be cut off” but how do you know that it wasn’t the big part that was in fact cut off? According to what you’ve said, the answer is: because it’s the big part.


As explained in the Zero to Sedevacantism post, Catholicism can appeal through logic to the fact of an arbiter to establish its consistency and Divine support. The case you’ve presented means that Eastern Orthodoxy is ultimately irrational, circular and baseless.


Regards,


Tony

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