The following is part 2 in my Book Review of:
Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.
The Orthodox accept all ecumenical councils as “infallible” and desire to protect primitive beliefs and practices of the church. However, only the first seven major councils are considered truly “ecumenical.” Although Catholics went on to have more councils the Catholic Tradition would consider “ecumenical,” the Orthodox do not recognize them as ecumenical at all, and therefore do not recognize them as authoritative.
The Orthodox often consider the “apparent changelessness” of the Orthodox Church as one of its distinct characteristics: its “air of antiquity” and faithful continuation of the ancient practices of the church (195). According to Ware, this is also partly why some of the Orthodox fall into an “extreme conservatism” and fail to distinguish between Tradition and traditions (198). The “outward forms” that express the Orthodox Tradition include the Bible, the seven ecumenical councils (the Creed), later councils, The Fathers, the Liturgy, Canon Law, and Icons.
The Bible is honored and venerated as authoritative within the Orthodox Church, but not over the Orthodox Church. Within the Orthodox Church, Scripture is considered God’s supreme revelation (199). Therefore, its teaching has authority. However, “it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture” (199, italics added). Individual readers will inevitably interpret the Bible as they read it, but individual interpreters will always be “in danger of error” if they do not accept the authoritative guidance of the larger Orthodox Church. Unless an individual’s interpretation is accepted by the broader church, it is not authoritative. In this way, “it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority” (199). Furthermore, the Orthodox Church does not dichotomize Scripture and Tradition, for they see Scripture as itself a part of Tradition.
It would be an understatement to say that Orthodox biblical interpretation is heavily influenced by the readings of the Septuagint: the Septuagint translation is considered “inspired of the Holy Spirit” and therefore constitutes God’s “continuing revelation” (200). This also means the ten additional books of the Septuagint are part of the Orthodox canon, although Ware concedes that many Orthodox scholars now consider the Deutero-Canonical Books of the Septuagint as “on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament” (200). Although Orthodox scholars have not enjoyed a prominent role in the critical-historical study of the Bible, Ware assures his readers that Orthodoxy “does not forbid” such study (201).
Even if all the doctrinal definitions of the seven ecumenical councils are “infallible,” the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the cornerstone of all the creeds, surpassing all subsequent creeds in its importance (202). Orthodox theology is also heavily influenced by subsequent definitions of certain local councils and letters or statements of faith written by certain influential bishops. Ware conveniently lists the most important of these, sometimes called the “Symbolical Books” (203).
While the theology of the Fathers produced the first seven ecumenical councils, “as with local councils, so with the Fathers, the judgment of the Church is selective” and “Patristic wheat needs to be distinguished from Patristic chaff” (204). The Orthodox do, however, see a consistency of mind in the Fathers. This they call the “Patristic mind” (204). Although there is a particular reverence for writers of the early church—especially the fourth century Fathers—“the Orthodox Church has never attempted to define exactly who the Fathers are,” so Ware is optimistic that unless God has “deserted the church,” more Fathers will come (204). The most recent “Father” mentioned by Ware, however, was the fourteenth century Saint: Mark of Ephesus (the one who refused to sign the Florentine Union document).
Ware claims that “other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority” as Scripture, the Creed and the Ecumenical Councils (197). When speaking of the Liturgy, however, he emphasizes that certain doctrines that the Orthodox express in their worship can be “just as binding as an explicit formulation,” even thought they have never been defined or proclaimed as dogma by Orthodoxy (197, 204). The maxim Lex orandi lex credendi [our faith is expressed in our prayer] is particularly applicable here. Orthodoxy has made very few dogmatic statements, for example, about “the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, about the next world, the Mother of God, the saints, and the faithful departed,” even though their services and the Liturgy reflect these beliefs (205).
Protestants often appreciate the theological definitions of the early councils, but Orthodox take the ecclesiastical declarations with a similar seriousness. Declarations of the ecumenical councils dealing with Church organization and governance are called canons. Certain writers compiled these canons, along with other local canons, and wrote explanations and commentaries. Today, the commentary of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1800) known as the Pedalion [“Rudder”] is the standard Greek commentary on canon law. Although much of this ancient canon law is outdated and out of use, if and when a new general council of the Orthodox meets (which so many Orthodox despair will never happen), Ware hopes they will “revise” and “clarify” (read: update) Canon Law (205).
The Orthodox Church’s devotion to the veneration of two-dimensional icons is perhaps one of her most striking features. The Orthodox consider them as means to attain to “a vision of the spiritual world” (206). God can be revealed through art, yet because the Holy Icons are an expression of Tradition, “icon painters are not free to adapt or innovate as they please” but only within the limitations of “certain prescribed rules” (206). Their art cannot be a mere reflection of the artists ascetic sentiments but “must reflect the mind of the church” (206).