Dogma and tough love of the Holy Fathers

Dogma and tough love of the Holy Fathers

Today we honor the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Synod convened in Nicaea (present day Turkey) in A.D. 325. Why? Because they proclaimed the truth, formulated in the Creed they gave us, which we recite to this day, and in which we declare that Christ is “of the same essence” with God the Father (the famous homoousios).

The actual Creed or Symbol of Faith they formulated was shorter* than the version we recite today, which was completed by the Second Ecumenical Synod convened in Constantinople in 381, and it added the following:

But those who say “There was a time when He was not,” or “He did not exist before He was begotten,” or “He was made of nothing” or assert that “He is of other substance or essence than the Father,” or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or susceptible of change, the Catholic and apostolic Church of God anathematizes.

I would like to briefly comment on the statements of faith made by the holy Synods, and on the anathemas pronounced by them.

In the first place, for us Orthodox, creedal statements have the same authority as the holy scripture. The Church has accepted both as reflecting her faith. The Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Note well: the truths of the Church, like the pillars of a beautiful temple, support the edifice called truth. The claim of the Orthodox Church that She is the true Church is anathema to the world, yet She is as unique as her divine Spouse who said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (Jn 14:6)

The holy synods are the infallible mouthpieces of the Church, particularly those synods we call ecumenical. They have great authority not because they were general councils, not even because they were “approved” by the people, but because they were composed of holy people who were illumined by the Holy Spirit, so they were able to clearly express the faith. They are “the God-bearing Fathers,” “the mystical trumpets of the Spirit” (Doxastikon, Matins) through whom Christ guides to the true faith all Orthodox Christians (Apolytikion). Listen to this account, given to us by the historian Theodoret (A.D. 457) about the assembled Fathers:

[M]any, like the holy apostle (cf. Gal. 6:17), bore on their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ... Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, ... had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands from the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had contracted and were rendered dead. Some had had their right eye dug out, others had lost their right arm, among them was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs” (Ecclesiastical.History, ch. 1, edited).

These confessors of the Faith had Christ in them, which is why they could express the truth. Truth (Christ) is shared by those who are united with Him. There have been many synods, including synods convened which were declared beforehand to be “ecumenical,” like the Latrocinium (Robber Council) of Ephesus of A.D. 449 and the Council of Ferrara/Florence in 1438-1444, which were not accepted by the Church. Both Councils were too politicized, and the majority of the assembled bishops were heretical: they did not have the truth in them to speak it and thus guide unfailingly the faithful to the truth.

We Orthodox insist on the dogmas of faith although they are divisive. Why? Because they are not optional. As Fr. Dumitru Staniloae says, dogmas “are necessary for salvation, because they express Christ in His saving work.” Dogmas are formulations of truths which critically concern our life. That is why we speak so much about dogmas: because truth is our life and our way. Truth illumines our path, not only in an intellectual way, but also in an existential one. Truth is of essence. We do not dismiss it as something slippery, uncertain, subjective, relative, or irrelevant.

In Orthodoxy we are not asked to reinvent the wheel. We are not left alone to figure out what kind of faith suits us today, what kind of faith is agreeable with our contemporary society. Converts to this Faith chose it because the Church, Christ’s Body, is also the same, today and always. The Church guides us unerringly to communion with our Savior—and keeps us united with Him.

Now we come to the second point. The same Fathers who were full of the Holy Spirit, and who were inspired by Him, cast their anathema against the heretical Arians. Why did they do this? After all, the Arians were Christians. They were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity with triple immersion (although they did not believe in the full divinity of Jesus Christ, that He was equal with God the Father). Yet, note well: the Fathers did not say: “It doesn’t matter. They believe in God as much as we do. They believe in Jesus Christ too. They believe in the same Holy Scripture as we do. They have the same Liturgy, the same apostolic tradition, the same priestly ordination, the same sacraments. Why are we going to let a complex theological issue divide the Church? Isn’t it better to preserve unity? Let’s be in dialogue with Arius. After all, he is a priest of the Church, and a professor of dogmatic theology. Isn’t anathematizing someone un-Christian? Would Christ have acted that way?”

The Fathers did not say any of the above. Instead, they cast an anathema against Arius, cutting him off from communion with the Church. Why? So that he might come to his senses, repent, and join the Church of the true believers.

Today, however, we have discovered that we have a greater love than the Fathers of old did for “our brethren in Christ” who do not share with us 100% of what we believe about Christ, and say: “The Fathers lived in different times. We know better how to treat our brethren in Christ: with respect, with brotherly love. We do not ostracize them from the Church. That’s un-Christian.” Is it?

St. John the Theologian says:

“If they do not accept Christ in the flesh, don’t even say ‘hi’ to them.” (2 Jn. 1:7,10)

The Apostle Paul says:

“If a heretic (a heretic is someone who does not have the faith of the Church) does not accept the teachings of the Church, after you have warned him twice, have nothing more to do with him.” (Titus 3:10)

And what did the Lord say?

“If your brother trespasses against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone; if he will hear you, you have gained your brother; but if he will not hear you, then take with you one or two others, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established; and if he neglects to hear them, tell it to the Church; but if he neglects to hear the Church, let him be to you as a heathen and a publican.” (Mt. 18:15-17)

That is, have no dealings with him. Again, not in order to punish him, not because you are a bigot, not because you don’t display Christian love, but precisely because you love him truly, and you want to bring him to the truth, to Christ, to salvation. That’s true love. Love does not say, “Let’s all be one big happy family; Faith doesn’t matter; love is what counts.” No. The Apostle Paul did not say to neglect preaching the truth and insist only on love, but “preaching the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15)

The Lord insisted on knowing what the people, and especially His disciples, considered Him to be. (τίνα Με λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι; Mk. 8:27) He blessed Peter on account of the good confession he made: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (8:29) And Ηe blesses everyone who makes the true confession about Who He truly is.

The Church is an oasis in the midst of our confused and confusing world. Here we find that limpid water which alone can quench our thirst.

Fr. E.H., 2011. Edited by A.H., 2024

Apolytikion of the Holy Fathers, chanted by Fr. E.H. and A.H.

* We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
the only-begotten of the Father,
that is of the substance of the Father.
God of God, Light of light, true God of true God,
begotten not made,
homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father;
by whom all things were made, both which are in heaven and on earth;
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down, became incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day;
He ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.
[We] also [believe] in the Holy Spirit.

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