eMo 2006.6 Notes: Orthodoxy in the Shadow of Theotokos

There goes Alwyn again … with a quick follow up post Orthodoxy in the Shadow of Theotokos. I’m still very much in a Sabbath posture right now – thus no intensive blogging. I’ll just repost Alwyn’s post for the benefit of those who come to this garden for refreshment 🙂 For graphics, italics, etc go to his link. I’ll just copy and paste his excellent text – “unplugged” …

This is the second part of the notes on the EMO Meeting held last Saturday at BLC. The first was on post-colonial orthodoxy as outlined by Sherman. Now I’d like to share a bit about Father Daniel Toyne’s brief (though still almost 1.5 hours!) explanation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its uniqueness.

Father Daniel began, as a sound theologian might, by explaining the Orthodox’s source of authority which, according to him, was epistemically superior to the Reformed position which relied on Sola Scriptura (which more often than not produced far less agreement on doctrines other than Sola Scriptura which itself is not unambiguous – cf. my thoughts on how greatly evangelicalism reflects the Derridean myriad gush of meanings, interpretations, etc.) and also the papal authority of the Roman Catholic church, whose universal juridiction was decided at a point in time – what then of authority before the pope?

Therefore, one is ineffective in producing consensus, the other historically dubious. The best option would be, failing direct divine revelation on a regular basis (smile), a return to apostolic continuity in the form of the early Church Fathers. Hence, Father Daniel’s talk was sprinkled with names like St. John Chrysotom, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Athanasius and so on. Don’t even try to keep up (grin).

This, really, is the capstone of the Eastern Orthodox Church: Whilst the Fathers themselves were not infallible, their consensus (on doctrine, on ecclesiology, on the liturgy, on Christian spirituality, etc.) is deemed to be. “We believe in the holy apostolic church,” has, I suppose, never been more crucial in a theological thinking as the early Fathers are usually recognised as the right successors of the 12 (minus-1, plus-2?) apostles.

Which leads us to the issue of a core element of the faith which should and must be independent of culture (and here Father Daniel delightfully affirmed his belonging to the English culture but also his conviction that this culture simply cannot be said to be “Christian”, what with legalised abortion, war-hungry politics and football hooliganism). This is also why Eastern Orthodox churches have a similar look regardless of time and nation-state. It is believed that such worship and liturgy constitutes the one true apostolically inspired/ordained manner of doing so, allowing only for variations in icons and maybe the music. And if I heard Father Daniel correctly, any other form of worship (including the addition of musical instruments) would imply a poor incarnational theology.

Whilst nobody pushed the point, I think it’ll be only honest to say on behalf of most of the non-Orthodox participants that this is one of the element that will be hardest to accept, not least because the forms of worship are simply not prescribed in Scripture, to say nothing of how an under-ground church could take such form. I also wonder if incarnational theology might be expressed in ways other than a strict requirement about the appearance and feel of the inside (and outside) of a church, for the sake of appealing better to the contemporary experiences of ordinary folk, thereby connecting better with them. Nevertheless, such reverence for apostolic continuity in all expressions of the faith is certainly something worth admiring.

I’m certainly not the best qualified to write about the Orthodox Church (those interested can find far better material on sites like Orthodoxinfo.com, Wikipaedia, etc.) but there was at least one more point from Father Daniel’s talk worth taking to heart.

I was touched by his sharing of how the Orthodox Church has grown in missions and how they’ve grown throughout the world. At least anecdotally, it can be said that there is now no country which doesn’t have an Orthodox Church (they even have churches in North Korea and Cuba! Praise God for that!). And it isn’t just sanctuaries they’ve planted but schools, clinics and welfare institutions.

I would like to think, and I’m sure Father Daniel wouldn’t mind someone saying, that such a wholistic program of mission reflects their holistic theology in which every ‘piece’ in Orthodox theology is related to each other. One cannot understand God without understanding the Trinity, which doesn’t make sense without the Incarnation, which would be diluted and devoid of full significance with the theotokos (a unique view of Mary which, like that of Church authority, charts a strong path between Mary the Mother of God, a’la Roman Catholicism, which could mean too much, and Mary the ordinary humble carpenter’s wife and nothing more, a’la evangelicalism, which means too little). Mary’s identity, in fact, is almost the capstone of Orthodox theological and ecclesiological construction, as it serves as the key to unlocking the links between theology and worship, between between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter, and (I think) between God and Man. Remove the theotokos and one could confidently say that you would have no Orthodox Church.

The Incarnation and theotokos, then, is the soil from which is nurtured liturgical worship (which includes incense and iconography, all of which reflects the beauty of holiness – no shortage of “multi-sensual” worship here!) which provides the backbone of an understanding of the church (or ecclesiology) whose duty it is to manifest sacramental and pastoral ministry, an important element, I suspect, of what it means for God to be “in the world” and loving it. And so we’ve come full circle.

Father Daniel also talked a bit about the gift of tongues (including a fascinating story of how two people speaking different languages could communicate with each other, each thinking that the other was speaking his own language!), fasting (“We empty ourselves in order to be filled with the Spirit”), being a spiritual father to his church members (which included the task of passing on Biblical teaching as distinct from his own opinions i.e. “I think” is not something a preacher/teacher of God’s Word should use), all of which I won’t elaborate on here, as even he stated that he didn’t consider these very unique to the Orthodox church.

It was refreshing to learn, however, that even within such a robust theology, Father Daniel admonished that we must never forget the element of mystery in the faith. He and Sherman were one in suggesting that maybe the phrase, “I don’t know”, should be used more often in theological circles.

How fitting for an incarnational way of life, one which not only embodies God’s Spirit and presence on earth but continually seeks to plug-in, ponder and receive from the Way, Truth & Life. I feel privileged to have heard from someone who has undoubtedly done so.

Once again thanks Alwyn for being our fast-blogging and deeply reflective scribe!

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