18 August 2008

Merits: Part II

In his comment on my previous post about the word merits, my friend Fr Gregory Hogg suggests that "any introduction of the concept will inevitably bring distortions in theology," and then states that, "We may recognize that at one time, the word could be used in a profitable way; but later developments have rendered the use of the word misleading at best."

In the first place, I think that if any introduction will bring distortions, then there was never a time when the word merit could be used profitably; OR, if there was a time when it could be used profitably, then it is not inevitable that any (or every) introduction of the concept or term will bring distortions in theology.

In the second place, Fr Gregory helpfully leads us to ask the following question:
  • When does a word become so helplessly distorted that the rehabilitation of its proper use must be abandoned?
Other questions, also, may be raised:
  • Is it intellectually or theologically honest to avoid a disputed or "distorting" theological term or concept either by ignoring it or by translating it in such a way that it is no longer recognizable (e.g., instead of "merits" employ "godliness" or "sanctity")?
  • What is the difference between omitting a term or concept that is dicey or requires careful catechesis and the Protestant principle (begun by Luther) of eviscerating that canon (because, in this particular instance, as the argument goes, the word "sacrifice" could not be properly rehabilitated)?
The big question for me, however, is this one:
  • If St Peter Chrysologus (and other church fathers) can speak profitably about the merits of the saints, wouldn't the argument that such language is now distorting, confusing or problematic effectively indicate a little less than the "fullness of the faith"?
I pretend to have no helpful or earth-shattering answers to these questions, and do not wish to belittle the important and significant points that are raised by Fr Gregory or others who rightly indicate that "merits" does not always (or often) mean "merits." However, I think these questions ought to be considered carefully before writing off patristic terms in favor of "simple faith."


Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear brother,

From the fact that any introduction of a concept will bring distortions, it doesn't follow that a word wasn't once used profitably. Words change their signification sometimes. The word "hypostasis" changed its signification, for example, from "substance" to "person." Once that change had occurred, its use in the old way would only bring distortions.

Whatever the word "merit" meant to St. Peter Chrysologus, has been so covered up with centuries of distortion as to make that original meaning nearly unrecoverable. Is there, in fact, a living community that has maintained his use of the term in an unbroken fashion? If not, I still maintain it's better to let things rest.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory

123 said...

Weren't there terms that were perfectly Orthodox until various heretical groups coopted them and 'tainted' them? I am thinking of some of the technical words used or set aside regarding orthodox triadology and christology (e.g., prosopon?). Another example was the declaration of images as being not merely optional or a theologoumena, but mandatory as a testament to one's christology - all this after more serious reflection on the recognition of the ramifications of the doctrine of Christ.

The dogma was there, but how to enunciate it, and then how that enunciation can be more easily applied to areas of culture, worship, society, etc. is merely an extrapolation of the fulness of the faith in new and changing situations. I think we could have a pretty good idea what the fulness of faith in Tsarist Russia should like circa 1900, same with Byzantium circa 1000 and Rome in the 400s. What it looks like in 21st Century America is quite a different thing, as it would have been in 1500s Germany.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

When a word has become so encumbered by heretical meanings as "merits" has, it is necessary either to replace it with a synonym or else to provide a somewhat lengthy, involved disclaimer with each and every use of the word.

Take your pick.

wouldn't the argument that such language is now distorting, confusing or problematic effectively indicate a little less than the "fullness of the faith"?

Oh, I don't think so. It just means that when speaking to the heterodox, we have to take into account that they lack that fullness. Further, when speaking to converts from one of the other traditions to Orthodoxy, we have to consider how they are still apt to understand certain words.

123 said...

What would the term 'merits' refer to apart from the doctrine of the supererogatory merits of the saints and the related concept that the Pope is the vicar of Christ on earth and thus the 'banker' of these merits? I would agree that the concept is not necessarily verboten and inherently wrong or heretical, but can it be separated in the minds of anyone - East or West, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox - from the supererogatory merits? And, if it can, is the investment of time in clarifying a pet term like this equal to its potential benefits, pastorally?

It is important to have an Orthodox answer to how we explain the use of this term found in patristic writing (especially Latin writers?), but I wonder if it is simply another example of how the Church matures in its enunciation of the faith once delivered to the saints and its enfleshment in culture and in contrast to various heresies that have arisen that distort the faith.

Chris said...

I believe that avoiding the use of merits is contrary to the Orthodox faith. I take my latin fathers seriously, Peter Chrysosologus is far from alone in using the term.

That is all. Nothing more, nothing less. Thank you Fr. John Fenton.

Orthonomian said...

There are no legitimate theological criticisms of the Latin word "merito" or its English cognate "merit." The word itself is frequently and consistently used by all the Latin fathers. Furthermore, the word is also used repeatedly in the numerous prayers and chants of the Latin liturgy, especially the collects. That fact alone ought to be enough to silence this whole nonsensical argument, but sadly it seems to be some kind of perpetual "problem" that certain people in the Orthodox Church feel needs to be "fixed."

The only problem I can see is a lack of serious patristic study.