For Clarity’s Sake

I’ve added a new tab up top called A Note on Authority. Make sure you read it and keep in mind what it has to say as you continue to read my musings here. I’ve also added a few new blogs to the blogroll. Be sure to check them out as well. Carry on.

I want to make a bit of an apology for the previous blog post (Orthodox Degree Holders). I do not apologize for anything that I said in that post, only the things I have left unsaid and unclear. I have forgotten one of the first rules of theology is the defining of terms, and I largely ignored that rule in my last post, instead blaming my lack of precision on time and space constraints. So, in attempt to every day become a better clergyman-in-training than I was the day before, allow me to explain to you exactly what I mean when I use the terms Orthodox and Apostolic Succession.

First, Orthodox. I obviously don’t (and I pointed this out in the post) mean Greek Orthodox. Not that I don’t love our Eastern brothers and sisters. In fact, I have a healthy respect and fascination for Greek Orthodox theology and look forward to hopefully attending a service at the cathedral down-town in the fall, when they hold their annual Greek festival. I firmly believe that the Greek church has a lot of what the Western churches lack: an emphasis on mystery. But that’s a post for another day.

When I say Orthodox (or Orthodoxy) what I’m referring to is the word’s original Greek meaning: “right belief” (ortho-doxos). It’s a hard word to define, outside of that Greek meaning, but I’ll do my best. Essentially, Orthodoxy refers to something, usually a doctrine or a practice, that is recognized by theologians and other clergy historically as correct. This does not mean that popular opinion is Orthodoxy, nor does it mean that if something hasn’t always been historically designated as Orthodox, it automatically isn’t. Orthodoxy is not to be equated with a rigid dogmatism or an unrelenting doctrinaire attitude.

Historically, Orthodoxy has been defined as the beliefs of Christianity as laid out by the first seven ecumenical councils (Nicea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II and III, and Nicea II). Not all churches (including the Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox churches) recognize these councils as ecumenical, but I think they’re a good starting point. These are the councils that attempted to codify a disparate Christianity and produced the creeds that many of us continue to recite in our churches. These are the councils that dealt with some of the great questions of Christian theology, including the Arian and Nestorian controversies, the monophysite question, and iconoclasm. They weren’t perfect, but who is? They aren’t the gospel, but they are, in general, a solid, orthodox expression of the Christian faith.

This doesn’t mean we should be unquestioningly Orthodox however, or allow various figures to invoke Orthodoxy in an attempt to convince us without much arguing that their position is correct. For example, a fundamentalist preacher may attempt to persuade you that a literal reading of scripture is an Orthodox position. While it is a popular opinion among many conservative evangelicals, no church father or council ever supported a fully literal reading of scripture, and many, including Augustine and Origen, stood firmly against such a reading. Orthodoxy does not require our blind obedience, but rather our careful consideration.

Which leads me to carefully consider the second term I left woefully ill-defined: Apostolic Succession. This one’s a bit more complicated (and controversial). While most Christians can agree that there is some form of Orthodoxy out there (and simply can’t agree on what it is) there are many in the modern church who deny the doctrine of Apostolic Succession altogether. But before we open that can of worms, let’s try a definition, shall we?

Apostolic Succession is the belief that the successors of the Twelve Apostles (Christ’s Disciples), when rightly ordained as bishops and presbyters of His church, continue to inherit spiritual power, ecclesial and sacramental authority, and the heavy responsibility of governing the Church. Certain sects of the Christian faith, most notably very conservative Roman Catholics, believe that only bishops and presbyters ordained in their tradition continue the line, and that those who rightly follow the teaching of the Church are infallible in matters of faith and morals, and are the only ones equipped to administer valid sacraments. These churches believe in an unbroken chain of authority from the current bishop all the way back to Christ.

I do not go this far. There is, in my mind, no one right denomination. There is no True Church in the Roman Catholic sense. We Christians are all members of the True Church insofar as we follow Christ and do our level best to engage His Church and His world as he has tasked us to do. The clergy of many Christian traditions have inherited this authority, not just those of the Roman Catholic tradition.

I do believe in a passing on of authority, but it is not a vague spiritual power or the passing on of the temporal power of governing a physical church. For me, Apostolic Succession is the passing on of knowledge, experience, and Orthodoxy that passes from teacher to student. Whether that passing on takes place in the classroom or via some kind of ministry internship (ideally, through both) there is the clear imparting of the teacher’s wisdom into the student. The student can choose to maintain that authority or ignore it, but it has been imparted at some point. This is what I mean by Apostolic Succession.

I apologize for forgetting my training. In the future, I will always be more careful to define the terms of these discussions. Be sure to read An Education, Part II: Orthodox Degree Holders, in light of what you’ve learned here.

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