28 May 2007

Principle Issues: Orthodoxy and Confessional Documents

For several years, I was frustrated in my attempts to locate the "confessional documents" of the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy has catechisms, systematic theology books, councils, canons and statements as well as church fathers. Some time ago, I read a list of "confessional documents" supplied by Bishop Kallistos Ware and thought I had finally found what I was looking for--only to be told that the list was not the list I wanted, and then to read Bishop Kallistos more carefully to learn that he himself did not claim what I hoped he had claimed.

Gradually, in time, I began to understand two key principles. First, Orthodoxy has no central body of "confessional documents" because it does not have a central hierarchical authority. This does not mean that Orthodoxy has no authority. It's authority is the authority of the Spirit of Christ, whose Word is enshrined in the Scriptures yet comes alive in the myriad chronological, historical and pastoral contexts of the Church.

Second, the closest thing that Orthodoxy has to a body of "confessional documents" is the liturgy. In Orthodoxy, the liturgy is inviolable because it is understood to be not of human origin but of the Spirit. (NB: "Liturgy" in Orthodoxy refers not exclusively or legalistically to the texts or rubrics.) Hence, as I once heard said, what is in the liturgy is what is to be believed. This puts the liturgy on par, then, with the various "confessional documents" common in post-reformational western churches.

On this latter point, the following words by the late Jaroslav Pelikan have proven quite helpful.

14.1 The Ambivalence of the Orthodox Church Toward "Symbolical Books"

Several factors in Christian history have often led to the issuance of confessions of faith, including the challenge from a hostile environment, the crisis of doctrinal schism, and the necessity of indigenization. A review of these would show that they have been at least as powerful within Eastern Christendom since the schism between East and West as they have been in the West, even in the West since the Reformation with its plethora of confessions. And yet, during most of the history of Eastern Orthodoxy, those factors did not produce a vast corpus of confessions of faith, as they had done in the early church and as they went on doing in the West especially during and since the Reformation, but only a select few statements of faith that became more or less official (and usually "less" rather than "more" official). As a result, to a degree that would not be true of most other communions that have official confessions, it is possible for two scholars almost exactly a century apart to speak about the "identity" of Orthodoxy without so much as mentioning these statements of faith. (399-400)


14.2 The Liturgy as the Church's Preeminent Confession of the Faith

A principal reason for this ambivalent position of "symbolical books" within Eastern Orthodoxy lies, however, in the distinctively Eastern versions, articulated in a special way in the Philokalia, of the inseparable connection between "the rule of prayer [lex orandi]" and "the rule of faith [lex credendi]." That connection has been important throughout Christian history, across the various boundaries of denomination and confession, also in the West. But interpreters of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, whether sympathetic or critical, are agreed on the proposition that within Eastern Orthodoxy The Divine Liturgy According to Saint John Chrysostom is an especially forceful illustration of the universal principle of lex orandi lex credendi; as noted earlier, it differs from the liturgies of other traditions, including even The Book of Common Prayer of Anglicanism, by being accorded a special position among the Eastern Orthodox confessions in the standard published collections of "symbolical books." Anastasios Kallis...introduced his edition of the liturgy with the explanation: "The identity of Orthodoxy consists neither in a doctrine nor in an organizational system, but in the correct praise of the Triune God, which has its center in the celebration of the Eucharist, or simply in the Liturgy, through which the one congregation assembled in the name of Christ becomes his body, his church." (405; emphasis added)

From Credo by Jaroslav Pelikan


mwidunn said...

Very interesting. I was at St. Josaphat Seminary (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) in Washington, DC, recently where I had a conversation with a Fr. Volodymyr who works in the chancery for the Eparchy of Stamford. He's doing a doctorate in canon law at CUA. We were specifically talking about the Eastern code of canons, and what made it different from the Latin rite's CIC. But, to your point: He mentioned that the CCEO was the first, true codification of law for the Eastern churches in a long time. Since many of the ancient canons were bound up with conciliar decisions, a codification for the various Eastern churches -- and, acceptable by their standards -- would have to be done within the context of a church council. Since the Orthodox churches can't agree to call a council, the matter languishes for them. (But, not for us, since we have the Pope. Glory to the all-wise Jesus!) Also, he mentioned that there is no distinction for the East between liturgical law and canon law. Fr. Victor Pospishil, a Ukrainian Catholic canonist, wrote an interesting piece on this in his Eastern Catholic Church Law in relation to marriage issues, namely, Orthodox canonists cannot agree on several important points because they do not have a codification . . . which, they know, is centuries overdue!

Chris Jones said...

there is no distinction for the East between liturgical law and canon law

I don't think this is right.

As far as I know, conformance to the Church's liturgical books is not explicitly required by any of the ecumenical canons, nor do the rubrics of the Typikon have the force of canon law. As far as I can tell the authority of the Typikon is entirely due to custom.

Of course, in the Orthodox Church the enforcement of orthodoxy and orthopraxis is entirely a matter of mutual recognition and mutual accountability among the local Churches, and the first thing one will look at to determine whether or not another local Church is orthodox is whether or not their liturgy conforms to the Church's lex orandi. That is what gives the Typikon its force.