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Stylianos Harkianakis, Archbishop of Australia

Dogma and Authority in the Church

Phronema 12/1997, pp. 8-23

The sacred authority and theanthropic validity of dogma

In an attempt to promote properly and constructively the sacredness and the inviolate character of dogma in the midst of the general instability and questioning of the world's values. we often speak of the authenticity and validity of dogma, unthinkingly using these two terms in the same sense, almost as if they were synonyms. Careful study shows that this is a grave error which testifies to an unacceptable confusion of meanings that leads in turn to a gross inaccuracy of expression. This verbal recklessness unfortunately goes beyond formal terminology. Greater damage is caused by the fact that such inaccuracy seriously obstructs the correct understanding of the deeper essence of dogma which -as has been already stated and as shall be shown below in more detail- lies in its theanthropic character.

To avoid fatal confusion, then, we must distinguish between the meanings of "authority" and "validity" by carefully examining the precise content of each. When speaking of "authority", we do not mean of course the moral force and binding character of dogma, but rather the "fatherhood" and "source" from where the truth which becomes dogma emanates. This is more easily understood if we consider the corresponding Latin termauctorirtas which refers more directly to the notion of fatherhood. In these terms, it is clear why "authority" is identified only with the Divine factor (9). On the one hand, because the truth of faith was given from above "once and for all to the saints" (Jude 1:3) and, on the other, because any subsequent development of these truths in the conscience of the faithful, expressed as a conscientious teaching and theology, continues to be accompanied always by the extraordinary attributes of faith. These prevent it from becoming assimilated, or even compared with, any form of merely rational knowledge.

Having established from what has been said the main meaning of the "authority" of dogma, as its transcendent starting point and source, we can now recognise more easily and unhesitatingly that it is natural to infer the moral and religious power and binding character of dogma for the faithful, as a product and secondary notion of"authority" which is very close to the notion of "validity". If, however, this notion of "validity" stems from the transcendent origin and source of dogma - to which its strength and sacredness can be mainly attributed- then both the nature of the truths of faith as well as the nature of the human person nonetheless compel us to acknowledge the moral contribution of the human factor also in the manifestation and consolidation of the validity of dogma. Being in the salvific, theandric or Divine human form, the human factor does not even remain neutral in the extraordinary process of irregular revelation, nor in the subsequent task of sanctification and eternal salvation towards which this aims.

In analysing the theandric nature understood in the light of the nature of the truths of the faith, namely the "synergy" of the Divine and human factors in the original manifestation as well as the further formulation of dogma, we mean that the truths of Divine revelation are salvific principles of life, not simply neutral educational material. This is precisely because the human person is called in freedom to acknowledge and confess that such principles come from the God who speaks, and then to live responsibly according to them so that he or she may receive salvation in Christ. This is the main reason why the faithful must be ready at every moment to sacrifice if necessary even their God-given and unique gift of life for the sake of the truth of the faith (martyrs-new martyrs). This would otherwise rightfully be considered as the greatest sin in the world, equal to suicide for which the Church refuses to give a funeral service, despite pressure to the contrary from social movements of recent times, and despite the fact that such a ruling does not apply even to the hardest criminal. (10)

That this synergy between the human and the divine is implied by the nature of the human person is clearly obvious given the fact that only in freedom and in the related degree of responsibility is the human person realised and developed until the very last breath. For, the nature of the person is by definition "ec-static" which, according to the etymology of this term in Greek, means to "go out of one's self'. (11)

From the viewpoint of the Divine and human factors alone, it is possible to evaluate correctly the importance of the following vital ecclesiological realities at least. It is on the basis of these realities that the human-Divine validity of dogma is based and, through these, it is uninterruptedly maintained from generation to generation, viz·. -(a) the Divine inspiration of Holy Scripture; (b) the infallibility of the Church; (c) Apostolic succession; (d) worship and popular piety in general; and (e) the blood of the martyrs shed for the faith.

Not one of these great ecclesiological realities could possibly be studied or correctly interpreted as a phenomenon which has an inspiration and inclination purely from on high, monophysitically. It has more to do with an essential synergy of the Divine and human factors in the full scope and depth of these functions in the life of the Church. It is therefore imperative that we develop these ideas here. The first two truths (a) and (b) require no further explanation, other than what Orthodoxy teaches today in its dogmatic manuals in response to other denominations, especially from the middle of this century. when with God's blessing, a Patristic renewal commenced. Indeed, as a result, it is now possible for fundamental dogmatic truths to be sensitively reformulated in theological language which is more genuinely Orthodox. Previously the Orthodox themselves had used a language which belonged rather to scholastic theology or to irreverent rationalism, since most of their theologians had more or less been unconsciously influenced by western universities where postgraduate studies were undertaken.

At this point it should be said very briefly that those things which relate to the Divine inspiration of Holy Scripture in general, despite the honest efforts up until now to state the axiomatic Orthodox positions and the proper hermeneutical criteria of most Orthodox biblical scholars, have not yet been presented in such a dynamic theological synthesis that they can be counted rightfully and equally among the wonders of God's love which occur according to Divine economy in each historical period. We only hint at these, mainly in worship services, when we exclaim: "God is wonderous among His saints" (Ps. 68:35). Yet in such an anticipated panoramic synthesis, it is certain that the entire Orthodox theory on Divine inspiration shall not merely avoid the extremities of some heretical positions such as verbal or word for word inspiration on the one hand and the complete divesting of Holy Scripture's transcendent character on the other. It will also use ample proof to make clear that irregular Divine inspiration belongs organically to the Church, not only because it alone could define and recognise the canon of the authentic biblical texts, but more importantly because biblical revelation in itself was recorded by the Church and in the Church. Therefore only in the Church, and in the "communion of the Holy Spirit" unceasingly guaranteed therein, is it possible for Scripture to be interpreted properly, that is to say authentically, as the word of God.

Similarly, one could say that the infallibility of the Church has been sufficiently articulated, at least as far as the major aspects of the related theological issues are concerned. There have been, however, - and there probably still are - individual Orthodox theologians who, while otherwise well meaning, have the strange belief that the term "infallibility" reeks of western influence and expresses a so-called institutionalised legalism(12). However, it must be emphasised very strongly that much has yet to be said and published, mainly with regard to the remaining ecclesiological realities, points (c), (d) and (e), and their deeper contribution to the theanthropic validity of dogma which is continuously being verified anew.

Of course, this is not the appropriate place to present in broader terms the ecclesiological principles which have been mentioned in other more popularised articles (13). Nonetheless, several things about them must be presented in general terms in order to show their great importance in establishing the validity of dogma which is the issue at hand.

First of all, it is necessary to develop further the implications of Apostolic succession which one could justifiably call the "chromosomes" or the guarantee of the identity and continuity of the true Church in time and space. This is even more necessary today when, due mainly to the worldwide association of Christians through the ecumenical movement, there is the direct danger that the theological senses will become so carelessly blunted that they will be unable to diagnose or recognise the authentic features implied in such a central and neuralgic ecclesiological term (14). In particular, one could consider the Bishop, the distinct and historical figure within the entire body of the Church, through whom all the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the other parts are, by the grace of God, communicated, activated and perpetuated, thereby manifesting the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in the world. No misinterpretation or quick judgement is permitted concerning this God-given institution which responsibly and with full measure (plenitudo potestatis) embodies the authentic successor of the Apostles in the midst of the people of God, but which is sometimes unfortunately attacked by naive or malicious accusers as being a supposedly impious remnant of outdated despotism or medieval absolutism(15).

The countless patristic testimonies to the purely Christocentric - or perhaps it would be more theologically accurate to say Christological-nature of the episcopal function in the Church, which describe the Bishop as being in the "place and form of Christ", the one who presides over the Lord's Supper and, by extension, over all of the eucharistic community of the faithful rather than just in strictly liturgical settings and worship, are a great scandal for the rational mind. For indeed, only the "foolishness of the cross" (1Cor.l:18) could possibly overlook the claims derived from so-called natural law concerning the absolute equality of all people. According to this, it would be impossible to acknowledge that one person has the right to be considered the regulatory factor for the authenticity and prosperity of institutions and functions of free persons gathered into the communion of the faithful, even if this is done in the name of the "mystical body" of Christ.

To refute these arguments, we must briefly remind ourselves of basic aspects of the teaching of the Church concerning the role of the Bishop. First and foremost, we need to underline certain astounding truths which can be easily derived from the liturgical practice surrounding the ordination of the Bishop. Thus the general conviction and teaching that the Bishops in the Church are "by the grace of God" successors of the twelve Apostles themselves who placed them in various regions as the unmistakeable and visible head of the local Church, is eloquently commented upon and interpreted by the ordination service. This, moreover, is clearly distinct from the liturgical content of the corresponding services for the other two ranks of priesthood (Presbyter and Deacon). In the case of the ordination of a Presbyter or Deacon, no public statement and confession of faith is required apart from that which is given by all members of the Church during their baptism. The candidate is guaranteed to the Church by his Bishop following his own wish and request. On the other hand, although the candidate for the episcopal office in the initial stage does not have the right to submit a petition, since the Church alone - and only through the Holy Synod - can take such an initiative and make this decision, the entire responsibility is then transferred publicly to the elected candidate, who must make an official and lengthy confession of faith during the sacred moment of his ordination.

It is especially significant that, after the newly ordained Bishop recites the Creed, he is invited to "confess" and declare the faith "more broadly" in the midst of the Church, as if unreservedly accepting with an oath everything and everyone that the Church has ever accepted through its Ecumenical Councils, while rejecting and anathematising, with the same decisiveness, that which the Councils have condemned for all time. Taking into account the concluding verification that one who is ordained a Bishop shall keep all these things "until his last breath", it is obvious that he submits and even identifies his own conscience for a lifetime with the voice and conscience of the Church, infallibly spoken through the Ecumenical Councils. The Bishop is officially "offered" as the person who empties himself more than anybody else in faithful obedience to the Church militant, in accordance with the example of the incarnate and only begotten Son of God who, in obedience to the will of the Father, became "obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:8).

The purely Christological character of the office of the Bishop is inferred from this mystic parallel, if not from the identity according to Grace. By analogy and by virtue of the mystical parallel that exists, all that Christ rightfully proclaimed about Himself by saying "he who has seen me has also seen the Father" (John 14:9), also applies to the Bishop. Thus "by the grace of God", the Son who has absolutely become a servant of the Church, somehow automatically becomes the Father of all the faithful. Only through such obedience and kenosis can one understand and accept thereafter the supreme responsibility and authority recognised in him by the Church. Unfortunately, the legal vocabulary of canon law has not managed to express this in a more suitable or effective term than the scholastic plenitudo potestatis borrowed from the west. The entire spiritual force of the episcopal office is found in the evangelical law that "my power is made perfect in weakness" (2Cor. 12:9) and "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2Cor.12:10). It could not have been otherwise, since the role of the Bishop is mainly described in the New Testament as a "ministry of conciliation".

If through the Divine inspiration of Scripture, the infallibilty of the Church and Apostolic succession there has been a sufficiently broad recognition on the part of the faithful of their importance in directly and substantially contributing to the Divine-human validity of dogma, we are not able to say the same about worship, popular piety and martyrdom. On the contrary, the dominant impression is that the validity of dogma - which it has of itself - is in fact the chief cause and creative force in the development of worship and all facets of personal or collective piety, as well as of Christian martyrdom. Yet, without for a moment questioning the power and formative influence of dogma on all activities of the people of God, we must also emphasize the reverse effect. For one cannot overlook the witnessing which each generation of the faithful has given throughout the centuries to the truth and sacredness of the very dogma which they live out. Is this not the value of witnessing which is declared by God when He emphatically calls all people to this? Is this not the meaning of the exhortation: "be my witnesses and I too am a witness, says the Lord God"(Isaiah 43:10).

Matters relating to worship, and by extension all that relates to popular piety, are not determined by personal desires or according to prevailing secular fashions, but rather by strictly traditional guidelines so that all things sing together - as equal expressions of the one faith - in the confession and praise of the Trinitarian God. Given this fact, it is even clearer that worship, and the power of various traditions and customs, are a further affirmation of the Divine-human validity of dogma.

If all of this is true for the harmless and, so to speak, regular and collective witness of the host of faithful who are ecclesiastically gathered together, one can appreciate how much greater the moral force and witness the blood of the Martyrs and Confessors of the faith must be. Undeniable proof of this of course is the fact that, very early, the blood of martyrdom was considered by the Church as being an equally valid path of salvation as the sacrament of Baptism. The purifying and salvific power of martyrdom as a "font of rebirth" was apparently pointed out by God who said through the prophet: "let them bring their witnesses to justify them. and let them say " It is true'" ( Isaiah 43:9). Of course it is not without special significance that this statement highlights something more wonderous, namely that the blood of Martyrs is sufficient to justify" not only themselves, but also all the faithful who are with and among them. However, we must immediately add that such a "justification" of the Old Testament should not be confused with the ultimate justification, sanctification and salvation which are through Christ, and His blood alone.

In summarising all that has been examined with regard to that which is officially consecrated, but also with less apparent mystical sources which perpetually "irrigate" Church dogma, so that the faith will always be alive and victorious over the world, it must be stated in conclusion that, only through a correct evaluation of all sacramental parameters made with the fear of God, is the Church of God indeed proven to be the "communion of the created with the Uncreated by grace. without confusion or division. for the salvation of the created and the glory of the Uncreated"(16).


9. Cf. C. Androutsos, Dogmatics, p.12

10. Even recently, Prof. John Konidaris who teaches ecclesiastical lawin the School of Law at Athens University expressed the urgency of the issue of funerals for those who commit suicide (cf, The Sunday Vema, newspaper in Greek, June 16 1996).

11. Refer to paper by this authoror "The Mystery of Person and Human Adventure" in Or thodocx Globe, Brookline, USA, v.1, no 4 June 1996.

12. Thus, for example, the ever-memornble and benevolent D. Moraitis. Dean of the School of Theology at the Universitv of Athens, when examining the author's doctoral dissertation on "The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology", did not hesitate to state in all sincerity that he was totally unaware that "infallibility was an article of faith in our Church"! Other close friends and colleagues, namely Archimandrite Athan. Jevcic (now Metropolitan of Bosnia) and Prof. Christos Yannaras, immediately criticised this study, but of course without convincing arguments.

13. These articles, originally published in the Voice of Orthodoxy, the monthly periodical of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia. are to be reprinted by "Domos" publications in a series of books, the first of which will have the title "Incarnations of Dogma".

I4. It was a very painful surprise for the Orthodox, as well as for eastern Christians generally to witness the new outburst of audacity with which certain Christians in the World Council of Churches approached - or rather distanced themselves from - the issue of Apostolic succession in an international theological conference some four years ago. A group comprised entirely of women from America who were supposedly ordained as "pastors attempted to convince the assembly in one meeting of the 5 th World Conference on Faith and Order (held in 1993 in Santiago de Compostela and with the theme "Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness"), that "the place of the twelve Apostles in the Church and in history does not in any way deserve greater importance or distinction than that of any of us who believe in Christ, whether man or woman, educated or layman". Only when the author, as head of the Orthodox delegation at that conference. publicly asked the most intransigent of the furious women if she would dare to propose to the modern world any writing of her own as an equal authority to the sacred texts which constitute the canon of Holy Scripture, did that "batrachial battle" - which was not a discussion at all - end.

15. See article entitled "The Bishop in the Church" in the Voice of Orthodoxy,. v.5 (May 1984), p.49.

16. ibid.

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