Sam Noble on First Millennium Ecclesiology

…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).

George Demacopoulos and Orthodox Creationists

Today on Twitter George Demacopoulos, a well-known professor of Orthodox theology at Fordham, criticized Orthodox creationism:

I would guess, however, that it actually has more to do with certain presentations of Orthodox theology than a copying of Protestant fundamentalist polemics. You will often hear anti-evolutionists support their position by saying “according to Orthodoxy, God created everything good.” For some reason, a lot of American Orthodox love to emphasize that creation is good, which (based simply on my experience) is likely something imported from outside than taken over from Protestants. It is important to note that there were quite a few attacks on the Origin of Species from Greek theologians in the 19th century, though there was never an official condemnation from the Church (Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy, p. 181). And slightly more recently, St. Paisios criticized it. Finally, there are not a few creationists in today’s Russian Orthodox Church. So there is no lack in non-American origins of Orthodox attacks on evolution. Further, it is noteworthy that creationism (superficially) appears to be the position taken in some patristic works (most notably, St. Basil’s Hexameron). For these reasons, I will have to disagree with Demacopoulos that American Protestant fundamentalism is the source of anti-evolutionism.

I do agree, though, with Demacopoulos that Orthodox creationism is not as faithful to tradition as it claims to be. One Church Father who is often used to justify completely literal interpretation, St. John Chrysostom (which is probably why Demacopoulos mentions him in another tweet), says this: “We interpret some passages by the letter, others with a meaning different from the literal, others again as literal and figurative” (In Ps. 9, 4; cited in C. Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, vol. 1, p. 171). The Philocalia of Origen, which was compiled by Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great, also undermines the idea that the Fathers were all strict literalists.

Anti-evolutionists are not totally wrong, however. Evolution in its materialistic form, which is so often how it’s presented, should be rejected. All Christians must believe that humans have an immaterial, immortal soul.


Charles Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2011).

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 Dialogue on Ecumenical Councils

This one is more of just a draft. I probably don’t represent the Catholic side perfectly, but the views of some Catholic apologists are not too far off.

A—According to your church, what makes a council ecumenical?

B—Our theologians have said that a council is ratified by being received by the Church. They’ve also used the term sobornost, I believe, to refer to the loving conciliatory nature of the whole Church in making decisions.

A—I’m sad to hear you say that.

B—Why is that?

A—I’ve heard not a few Orthodox give an explanation like that before, and I was hoping you would give me something different; in other words, something more coherent. It’s simply begging the question to talk about “being received by the Church”: when one party accepts a council, and one party rejects it, both claim to be the Church. So sadly your response and whole talk about the Church’s “loving conciliatory nature” have just confirmed my suspicions that the Orthodox don’t have a rigorous approach to defining ecumenical councils as we do, and so end up having to refer to sentimentality.

B—What is your approach to ecumenical councils, then?

A—It’s simple: the Pope’s support of a general council makes it ecumenical and infallible.

B—A little too simple. Say what you want about reception theory and sobornost: at least they have the advantage of implying that the Church decides on doctrine in a dynamic process.

A—What do you mean?

B—The way you would have it, there is a box to check off: if the Pope agrees with the other bishops, then it’s dogma. But if we look at history, it was never that simple. The Church deciding on even a single doctrine often times did so without any major involvement of the Pope. Instead decisions might be made only after many theological debates, movements of the majority over a long period of time toward one position or another, smaller councils, and later refinements of ecumenical councils.

A—Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail over his Church. But according to you, whenever there is a doctrinal controversy, the Church is thrown into hellish chaos until a decision gradually emerges. Contrast this to the Catholic doctrine, which claims that the Pope, when he speaks in his role as the teacher of the Church, will be guided by God only to speak the truth.

B—But according to the Catholic doctrine, the Church doesn’t know the truth until a Pope makes a declaration of it. That sounds just as much as of a “hellish chaos” as my theory.

A—That is not what I said. The Church always know the truth, the Pope merely clarifies and restates it.

B—You are right to say that the Church always knows the truth, otherwise, what would the point be of esteeming tradition? And we are also agreed that ecumenical councils and Papal proclamations serve more to clarify what has always been believed.

A—That does not sound terribly wrong, but again: how do we distinguish councils that clarify what has always been believed and ones that merely proclaim error? There have been robber synods that have claimed to just be restating Christian tradition. This goes back to my objection that such an approach begs the question.

B—All I can say is that there is no “one size fits all” approach. The approach that our churches use to sift true councils from false ones works, even though it is not a clear-cut process. This is similar to how a person with prudence manages to find the right thing to do, despite never following a straightforward procedure to do so. Someone who lacks prudence will think such a person is being dishonest when they are unable to put into words exactly how they make their decisions, although in truth this is a fault in the former, not in the latter.