Sam Noble on First Millennium Ecclesiology

I found an admittedly old comment from Sam Noble that I thought was worth sharing, because it is thought-stimulating.

If we look at the ‘pentarchy’, say, immediately before Islam, we can find a variety of different self-contained ecclesiologies: Jerusalem exists basically as a very small, tightly-knit local Church, closely tied to the imperial court due to pilgrimage and the internationalized monasteries from which it drew its bishops. Antioch was very far-flung and decentralized, both with individual bishops within the Patriarchate having a great deal of authority and far-flung ‘catholicosates’ existing with practical autonomy. Constantinople, of course, was basically subservient to the court, and when it wasn’t, exile of a bishop quickly resolved the situation. Rome followed a model of ever-increasing centralization somewhat more moderate than Alexandria (the importance of sees such as Milan and Aquileia in balancing out Rome early on is under-emphasized today and deserves reexamination) with obvious political rivalry with Constantinople.


Which is all to say, a genuine return to first millennium ecclesiology would amount to enshrining the modern Orthodox ecclesiological free-for-all, with disputes settled through ad-hoc negotiations or councils calling outside bishops from wherever seems convenient, following temporary mini-schisms. The first millennium looks very much like what is going on now between Romania and Jerusalem or what went on to resolve the messiness in Jerusalem of a few years back…

And I think such a ridiculous, messy non-system is a good thing. Very often Roman arguments for the papacy (and for much else besides!) rest on nothing more than a kind of emotional need to feel like there’s a system behind it all when really there’s not, never has been, and wouldn’t be even if we pretended there was one.

The Church, like an extended family, is a community tied together by mutual love. Of course it’s going to be messy.


Form, Beauty, Evil

The Aristotelian teaching on form becomes evident in beautiful artwork. A beautiful painting is more than just the sum of its parts. As St. Augustine tells us, “in each separate kind of Thy work, when Thou didst say, ‘Let them be made,’ and they were made, Thou didst see that it was good. I have counted seven times where it is written that Thou didst see what Thou hadst made was ‘good.’ And there is the eighth time when Thou didst see all things that Thou hadst made and, behold, they were not only good but also very good; for they were now seen as a totality. Individually they were only good; but taken as a totality they were both good and very good. Beautiful bodies express this truth; for a body which consists of several parts, each of which is beautiful, is itself far more beautiful than any of its individual parts separately, by whose well-ordered union the whole is completed even though these parts are separately beautiful” (Confessions, 13.28.43). Therefore a beautiful painting is made beautiful by the sum of its parts and the harmony existing between them, which can be spoken of as the form of the painting. We can add to this thought in two ways.

Firstly, not only the existence, but also the unity of form can be glimpsed through the example of artwork. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen a beautiful painting or heard a lovely song that its harmony transforms all of its parts, and no longer is any part what it once was when isolated. As Plotinus says, “When Idea enters in, it groups and arranges what, from a manifold of parts, is to become a unit; contention it transforms into collaboration, making the totality one coherent harmoniousness, because Idea is one and one as well (to the degree possible to a composite of many parts) must be the being it informs. In what is thus compacted to unity, beauty resides, present to the parts and to the whole” (Ennead 1.6.2). And this shows that the form pervades all of its parts.

In contrast, consider how a disordered painting does not have anything ‘added to it’ to make it disordered. Rather, it is almost as if the default state of the parts is being disordered – they are disordered until they have form added to them, which transforms them into a totally new creation. There are infinitely many ways for parts to be disordered, but few ways for parts to be arranged beautifully. This is the same in how there are many falsehoods but only one truth. And it is the same as how there are countless ways to act evilly, but few ways to act virtuously. And here we can see why the philosophers say that evil is an absence of good, rather than the other way around.

Orthodox and Catholic Use of Protestant Polemics

Adrian Fortescue was an English Roman Catholic priest and Eastern Christian scholar who was active during the turn to the 20th century (died 1923). As one may guess from when he lived and wrote, before the papacy of Pius XII and before Vatican II, he was highly critical of both Anglicans and Orthodox (what annoyed him most was Anglican-Orthodox ecumenism; he wrote articles in Roman Catholic magazines sharply attacking it). Yet he did write a bit about the Orthodox, not all of it polemical, and some of it very well informed and profitable even today. His great work seems to be The Orthodox Eastern Church. Writing about the 1895 Patriarchal encyclical written by the Patriarch of Constantinople Anthimos VII against the Roman Catholic Church, Fortescue remarks:

He even affects to doubt that St. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome – a fact that the Orthodox liturgy continually asserts, and that none of the old Churches have ever doubted. This is a little piece of rationalism from Tübingen, of the kind that Orthodox bishops generally strongly resent in their clergy; but anything will do here if only it is anti-papal (pp. 436-437).

This is a very good point. Anthimos does seem to be trying to use (liberal) Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric here. What is funny, though, is that about a hundred pages back, Fortescue does the same thing:

The Greeks often bitterly complain of the mighty progress of the Catholic Propaganda; but they must themselves own that the best schools and hospitals in Turkey belong to the Catholic Orders. . . . It is no good scolding and complaining. If the monks, like their Western brethren, would work for the education and social improvement of their people, then the monasteries would have a real reason for their existence. . . . The more cultured people, who are full of Western ideas, look on monks with scorn, even with hatred, and the unlimited reverence that simple folk once had for the ‘good old man’ is visibly disappearing.

This certainly appears to be a use of Protestant anti-monastic polemic against the Orthodox. The Anglican John Hartley, in an earlier work, Researches in Greece and the Levant uses an extremely similar argument, although in a way which would have irritated Fortescue:

The Greeks are also superior to the adherents of the Romish Communion in regard to the marriage of the clergy. To contract marriage is indeed forbidden after orders have been received; and bishops, and the prelates of superior rank, are debarred from it; but ordination may be conferred on married persons: hence a very large number of the clergy are married. As Monasticism had its origin in the East, and received high reputation from the encomiums bestowed upon it by many of the Fathers, and from their own example, it is not to be wondered at, that, by many of the superstitious class, it is still considered as a superior degree of sanctity, and that by some it is still styled “the angelic life.” But, amongst well-informed persons, a strong feeling of hostility to monasticism is gaining ground. The corruptions of religion are constantly charged on the monks, and a strong wish prevails to put a stop to the whole system by Legislative enactments.—”We have resources susfficient for the education of all the Youth in Greece,” was common language in Aegina.—”Appropriate the revenues of the monasteries to this purpose, and nothing else is requisite.” (pp. 76-77).

Turning to the Fathers with Fr. John McGuckin

One podcast I really enjoyed listening to at MyOCN was called “Turning to the Fathers” which featured Fathers John McGuckin and Chris Metropulos talking about saints and the spiritual life. Unfortunately, it appears that recently the audio files have been removed, so if you try to play an episode, nothing will load. Happily, has backups of all the MP3 files. Enjoy!


  • Tom Holland has an article about how his moral views have been influenced (unknowingly) by Christianity: “Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian” (h/t Larry Hurtado).
  • At The Atlantic there is an article about Native American tribes in the United States that refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. The author claims that this may, in the government’s eyes, make them seem unjust, thereby endangering their rights to self-rule: “When tribes choose Indian rights over civil rights, they run the risk of being labeled unjust. In many instances, the protection of tribal customs and traditions may warrant this risk. The question is whether same-sex marriage bans fall into this category.”  This will be a sensitive topic for (secular) liberal people, since they generally consider objections to same-sex marriage bigoted, and also generally consider Western attacks on other cultures bigoted. In this case, these two values seem to conflict.
  • Over at Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Fr. Christiaan Kappes has recently written two posts about this blog’s patron saint, Georgios Gennadios Scholarios: part 1 and part 2.
  • The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars has a page with homily-like commentaries on different passages, all written by different scholars. This one, about Christian women who had to flee from Iraq, is my favorite: And so you hear them proclaim, as one of the women in the New York exhibit does: “My strength is in Jesus Christ.” She is grateful for what ISIS has unintentionally done for her. “Honestly, this was an awakening for me, because I was completely absorbed in my work, my kids, their homework, the things I have to do. I was completely distracted.” Her faith, she confesses, was cold. “Before I had everything but I was unsatisfied, now I have nothing and I am joyful.” […] When she feels sad, she says, “thinking about what we used to have,” she focuses instead on Jesus. “I have Jesus and he is enough”.


  • A very touching article about a Canadian family that took a Haitian orphan home temporarily for medical care and the difficult trials and decisions they faced along the way.
  • Hieromonk Enoch has a post about divine simplicity, featuring a lengthy passage from St. Gregory Palamas’s Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite.
  • An article about a diet, ignored by many researchers, to treat multiple sclerosis. It’s pretty good overall – other than the part that says science is never certain (hasn’t anybody read William A. Wallace?!). More seriously, a quick Google search led me to a pair of articles from 2008 talking about the diet, with opinions from different MS experts, so I think the author is likely guilty of exaggerating how uninformed about the diet healthcare professionals are.

Orthodox Writers, Philosophy, the Trinity

In his short work on the Trinity, the Orthodox bishop Theodore Abu Qurrah manages to fit in the following arguments showing that the Trinity isn’t contradictory:

  • Using the analogy of human nature: how it is one, even though Peter, James, and John are three hypostases (also used by St. Gregory of Nyssa, in On “Not Three Gods”)
  • How both the sun and the rays of the sun give light to humans (somewhat similar to an argument used by St. Athanasius in De Decretis)
  • Comparing the Trinity to the unity of person, his word and his spirit  (used by St. Augustine in De Trinitate, St. John of Damascus in On the Orthodox Faith, ch. 6-7, later on by Thomas Aquinas in De Rationibus Fidei and many places elsewhere)

And this is in addition to his scriptural arguments and responses to objections that ask questions to try to show that Christians must speak incoherently about the Trinity. Abu Qurrah’s general method is to give an analogy and then complete it by saying “but unlike creatures, God’s nature is such that the three hypostases are totally undivided.”

We do not think that the heat belongs more properly to the fire than does the Son to the Father, nor that the heat is more closely united to the fire than the Son to the Father, notwithstanding that each of the two is a hypostasis. This is because the divine nature is not subject to composition as are bodies, nor is there in it matter and form, nor is any change found with regard to any of its hypostases. Rather, the Son is to the Father as the fire’s heat is to the fire and rays are to the sun and speech is to the mind, notwithstanding that we hold the Son to be a full hypostasis – and this, because the divine nature is too refined to be found to have change with regard to any of its hypostases, as we have just said.

Source: Theodore Abu Qurrah, trans. John C. Lamoreaux (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), pp. 186-187.

This adds to my list of Christian writers who don’t immediately jump to “it’s a mystery” but rather provide some philosophical reasons for why the Trinity isn’t incoherent. But I think I was also able to find a counterexample to this. From Part I of St. Peter Mogila’s Confession:

Q. 10. How can the Trinity be understood more clearly?

R. No example can perfectly illustrate or clearly represent to our mind how God can be one in essence and three in persons. But, that which no example can illustrate, Jehovah himself indicated as he spoke through the Prophet: “To whom have you likened me, and made me equal, and compared me, and made me similar?” And so far, neither human nor angelic mind can capture, nor can any tongue express this; wherefore, it is not without reason that we must say with the Apostle: “destroying counsels and every lofty thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every understanding into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” We firmly believe that God the Father, existing from eternity, is from nothing and even before the ages generates the Son from his essence and sends forth the Holy Spirit. Athanasius discourses more fully on this in his Creed. But so believing, we do not investigate, for the investigator of the Divine Majesty is forbidden, according to Scripture: “Seek not the things that are too high for you, and search not into things that are above your ability; but the things that God commanded you, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious.” And so it suffices for us that Sacred Scripture of the Old Law, in professing one God, expresses three persons in saying: “Lord God said: Let us make man to our image and likeness.” And later: “Behold Adam is become as one of us.” In like manner: “Come, therefore, let us go down and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” This very same thing the Prophet expressed in saying: “And they cried out to one another and said: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, God, all the earth is full of his glory.”‘ And the Psalmist says: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were established, and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth.” Concerning these things there is fuller treatment in Sacred Scripture and Church Doctors.

Yet some of the things he writes (“Athanasius discourses more fully on this in his Creed” and “there is fuller treatment in Sacred Scripture and Church Doctors”) could be taken to mitigate what he writes about not probing into divine mysteries. It still stands, though, that he does not give an analogy. Perhaps in his more scholarly works he gives one, however.