Friday, August 31, 2018

Stump the Priest: Was James, the Brother of the Lord, Among the Twelve Apostles?


Question: "I read recently that James, the “brother of the Lord," was not one of the 12 Apostles.  Are there not two James’ among the twelve? Please elaborate and clarify the identity of these 3 (or 2?) individuals?"

Among the the twelve Apostles, there are two with the name of James. "James" is the English form of the name "Iakovos," in the Greek New Testament, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Yakov", or "Jacob". This being the name of the Father of the Israelites, it was a very common name among Jews during the the time of Christ's earthly ministry.

In the lists of the twelve Apostles, we find "James, the son of Zebedee"; and "James, the son of Alphaeus." We also find references to a "James, the less," and of course "James, the Lord's Brother."

We know that St. James the brother of the Lord could not be identified with James, the son of Zebedee, because he (the son of Zebedee) was the first Apostle to be martyred, and St. James, the brother of the Lord was Martyred not long before the destruction of Jerusalem, according to Josephus. As we have discussed previously, there is a good case that the brothers of the Lord were the sons of Cleopas, St. Joseph's brother. And James the less is likely the son of Mary, the wife of Cleopas. Roman Catholic scholars have tended to identify James the son of Alphaeus with the brother of the Lord, and many have argued that "Alphaeus" and "Cleopas" are two variations in Greek of the Aramaic name "Kalphi" -- and so if this is true, St. James the Brother of the Lord would be numbered among the twelve Apostles, and would be the same as James the less.

Many object to this possibility based on the fact that the Gospels speak of the brothers of the Lord being in opposition to Christ's ministry. However, the fact that many of the Lord's kinsmen may have opposed Him prior to the Resurrection, does not prove that all of them did. The Tradition of the Church holds that St. James, the brother of the Lord, always supported Christ.

It is also true, however, that the most common tradition in the Orthodox Church would not identify the brother of the Lord with James, the son of Alphaeus, nor would it count him among the twelve Apostles, though he is counted among the 70 Apostles. But there is no doubt at all that St. James, the brother of the Lord, was a central figure in the early Church. He was the first of the Apostles that the Lord appeared to after His Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7); he presided over the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15; and he was spoken of as being among the chief apostles (Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9). So whether he was one of the twelve or not, he occupied a very unique place in the early Church, and was more prominent than most of those who certainly were numbered among the twelve.

For more on this, see:



Saturday, August 25, 2018

Stump the Priest: Brethren of the Lord, Sons of Cleopas?


Question: "In the Explanation of Matthew by Theophylact,  He describes Jesus’ “brothers”  as the sons of Cleopas whom Joseph took in after his brother Cleopas died. I never understood that, because I thought Cleopas was still alive after the Resurrection, whereas Joseph died well before Jesus began his ministry. Could you please clarify this apparent contradiction?"

In the Gospels, there are references to a "Cleopas" and a "Clopas":
"Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18).
"Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25),
It is usually assumed that Cleopas and Clopas are two forms of the same name. However, while these probably are variant spellings of the same name, whether or not they are the same person is another question. The "Clopas" mention in the Gospel of John is believed to be a brother of St. Joseph, which makes sense, because it is not likely that two sisters from the same parents would both have been named "Mary" and so Mary, the wife of Clopas was the sister-in-law of the Virgin Mary.

There is a tradition that identifies these two men, and so holds that St. Joseph's brother was still living at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection, and was one of the two men who walked with Christ on the road to Emmaus. But a different tradition says that Cleopas, the brother of St. Joseph, had died before St. Joseph, and that his wife and children were taken into the home of St. Joseph. These children are the ones the Gospels speak of as the brothers of the Lord. We find this view laid out by St. Jerome, in his treatise "The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary," which is also supported by the 2nd century Palestinian Christian writer St. Hegesippus.  A different tradition, found in the writings of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, teaches that the brothers of the Lord were the children of St. Joseph from a previous marriage, and so were step-brothers of the Lord. Blessed Theophylact seems to reconcile these two traditions:
"The Lord had brothers and sisters, the children of Joseph which he begat by the wife of his brother Cleopas, for when Cleopas died childless, Joseph took his wife in accordance with the law and had six children by her, four boys and two girls" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 1992), p. 120).
Blessed Theophylact is alluding to the law of Levirate Marriages, found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. And so he takes a position very similar to that of St. Jerome, but instead of these children being the natural children of Cleopas, he suggests that they were children that St. Joseph fathered on behalf of his dead brother, according to this law. But in any case, what all the traditions of the Church on this matter have in common, in a completely unambiguous way, is that these children were not the children of the Virgin Mary.

For more on this, see: Stump the Priest: The Virgin Mary's "Sister," Mary the Wife of Cleopas

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Stump the Priest: What does the inscription on my Cross say?

Question: "What does the inscription on the back of my Cross say?"

There are two common inscriptions on the backs of Russian baptismal Crosses:


1. Probably the most common is "Спаси и сохрани" (Spasi i sokhrani), which means "Save and protect."


2. The next most common inscription is "Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящей Его..." (Da voskresnet Bog, i razidutsya brazi ego, i da bezhat ot litsa Ego nenavidyashchei Ego...). This is sometimes called an "Old Believer Cross", and the text is the pre-nikonian Slavonic text of the prayer said just before we go to bed, which is based on Psalm 67[68]: "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before his face." The prayer in the prayer book goes on to say: "As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the demons perish at the presence of them that love God, and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, and who say in gladness: Rejoice, O Cross of the Lord, for thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was crucified on thee, Who descended into Hades and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us His precious Cross for the driving away of all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me together with the most holy Lady Mother of God, and with all the holy heavenly powers, always, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen" (Old Orthodox Prayer Book, trans. Priest Pimen Simon, Priest Theodore Jurewicz, Hieromonk German Ciuba (Erie, PA: Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ (Old Rite), 1996), p. 45f).

For more on the meaning of this prayer, and the Psalm it is based on, you can listen to this sermon:

Let God Arise and Let His Enemies Be Scattered

See Also:

What does this inscription mean?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Orthodox Biblical Interpretation and Protestant Biblical Scholarship


The question of what Orthodox Christians should make of Protestant biblical scholarship is a complicated question. First off, what do I mean by "Protestant biblical scholarship"? I don't mean to limit this to the work of scholars who are actually Protestants -- I include any scholar who takes the approach to Scripture that Protestant scholars developed, whether they be Roman Catholics, Jews, or Atheists. Should we embrace it fully, reject it completely, or should we make use it to some extent -- but critically, and cautiously?

The Problems with Embracing it Fully

A key question to consider at the beginning here is whether Protestants discovered an approach to Scripture, beginning in the 17th century, which is essential to properly understanding the Scriptures? If this were true, that would mean that for most of Church history, people were not really able to to properly understand the Scriptures. And that is an assumption which no right-believing Orthodox Christian could possibly accept.

When speaking about Protestants in general, it is necessary to make generalizations that are not going to be true to the same extent in every case, but generally modern Protestant biblical scholarship attempts to do the same thing with interpreting Scripture that Protestants attempt to do with Church history. They assume the Church became corrupt over the course of its history, and so it is necessary to leapfrog over the centuries and reestablish (more or less) the early Church. When it it comes to interpreting the Bible, they argue that have have to make that same leap, and get back to the understanding that prevailed when the Scriptures were written, in order to properly understand them. But the problem is, absent a time machine, we can only go back to the first century, in a sense, via the living Tradition that connects us with that time and with the apostles and saints of that time.

How do we know what St. John meant in his Gospel? We of course start with the text, but we then look to those whom he taught, and then to the Church as whole which received his teachings, and preserved them. We do not believe that the connection we have with St. John and the preservation of his teachings is either tenuous, or only partially reliable -- we believe the Church to be an infallible guide to what St. John meant.

Protestant scholars approach the Gospel of John like a crime scene investigation, or an archaeological dig, where they have to piece together fragmentary evidence, and then try to put together some sort of a plausible hypothesis about what to make of it. This, however, would only be true, if the Scriptures were not really the inspired word of God, and if the Church was not really the pillar and ground of the Truth. The Church understands the Scriptures because it knows the authors, and it is guided by the ultimate author of the Scriptures -- the Holy Spirit.

We also have to understand that Protestant methods are not neutral "technologies." They are methods that come with theological assumptions... assumptions which we generally do not share. If they were neutral technologies we should expect to see consistent results from their use, but in fact what we see is that they are used to produce speculative and subjective scholarship that is all over the map -- the likes of which would make the most speculative Freudian psychoanalysts blush, and shame the worst Gnostics the Church has ever encountered in its history.

But some might suggest that surely no Orthodox Christian would just accept this kind of scholarship, whole-hog, but such people would be wrong. Fr. Paul Tarazi is a case in point. If you look, for example, at the first volume of his three part introduction to the Old Testament, you will find that his entire text is based upon the assumption that the JEDP theory is a fact. Part one of the text is entitled "The Yahwist Epic" (the "J" source, which ends with an excursus entitled "The Case of the Elohist" (the "E" source); part 2 is entitled "The Deuteronomistic Tradition (the "D" source); part 3 is entitled "The Priestly Writings (the "P" source); and part 4 is entitled "The Post-Exilic Historical Traditions (which discusses the final redaction of the four sources into the Pentateuch as we know it). Fr. Paul does not present the JEDP theory as a theory, or discuss its merits. You would never know that any serious scholars questioned it. He simply assumes it to be true, and analyzes the separate histories and theological perspectives of the four sources. A good protestant introduction to the Old Testament generally does a better job of laying out the various theories, and they do discuss their merits and demerits. In fact, Brevard Childs (a Yale Old Testament Scholar, who was a Protestant) comes closer to an Orthodox presentation of the question, because in the end, he argues that we should interpret the Pentateuch as a whole, in its canonical form, not as separated sources (see his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979).

Is it possible that the Pentateuch was comprised of more than one source? It is possible. Is there any way that we could confidently know which source was which in the Pentateuch, given the information available to us today? No. But even if we knew for sure that the Pentateuch was composed of four sources, and even if we could confidently identify which source any particular portions of the Pentateuch came from, if we believe in God, and believe that the Scriptures are inspired by Him, and have confidence that the form that we have received is the form that God intended for us to receive, then the form we have receive is what we should concern ourselves with.

But as a matter of fact, as is often the case, Protestant scholars selectively choose the "facts" and "evidence" that suit their agenda and then proceed, with their conclusions essentially predetermined by their basic assumptions, to apply their methods to the Scriptures. And so if you assume, for example, that any mentions of liturgical worship would be later than the time of Moses (because you're a Protestant, and see that as a later corruption), and obviously, the work of later priests, your starting assumption is how you identify the "P" source, and then you know the "P" source, because it matches your assumptions. The reasoning is circular, but because it is presented with confidence, by people who sound like they know what they are talking about, people too often assume there is something objective and compelling about it, when in fact, it is completely subjective.

The Problems with Rejecting it Completely

Having said that Protestants did not discover anything new that is essential to properly understanding the Scriptures, the fact remains, we live in a world in which the fruits of Protestant biblical scholarship are everywhere. If we could establish an isolated community on an island somewhere, completely disconnected from the rest of the world, such a community could afford to ignore this scholarship... but that is not the world we live in.

One fairly obvious reason we should want to understand this field is that if we want to reach Protestants, we have to be able to communicate with them in ways that will be meaningful to them. We have to understand where they are coming from, and be able to answer their questions. We should not only be able to identify where they deviate from the Orthodox Faith, but also to acknowledge where they do not.

What is not usually obvious, however, is that even Orthodox people who live in the west have been heavily influenced by this kind of scholarship, and they more often than not do not realize it, or recognize where so many of their assumptions about Scripture come from. Even though we live in a culture that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian, it is nonetheless a culture that is immersed in Protestantism. Our people watch documentaries, read articles, or have teachers or professors who make appeals to biblical scholarship, and often what is presented in the name of biblical scholarship is in fact a fairly radical set of conclusions that are not even in the mainstream, but because someone with a Ph.D. is quoted, the assumption is that this is what people who are educated on the subject ought to think. And so if you have a parish priest who has not critically studied Protestant biblical scholarship, he may not recognize how his flock has been influenced by it, much less recognize its influence upon himself, nor will he be equipped to give convincing answers when people ask him if it is really true that the Gospel of Judas is a reliable text, or why we should accept the testimony of the canonical Gospels, or even how we know that Christ was even an historical person.

And as a matter of fact, the enemies of the Church are not unaware of this scholarship. For example, we have a letter Maxim Gorky wrote to Joseph Stalin, in which he discussed his strategies for eliminating religious faith in Russia, and among many other things, he said:
"We cannot do without an edition of the "Bible" with critical commentaries from the Tubingen school and books on criticism of biblical texts, which could bring a very useful "confusion into the minds" of believers" (Letter of Gorky to Stalin).
The liberal German biblical scholarship Gorky refers to may very well have played a role in his own atheism. If it did not cause him to become an atheist, it certainly did nothing but confirm him in that atheism.

Making Medicines from Poisonous Snakes

The Church Fathers obviously didn't have to contend with liberal German biblical scholars, but they did have to contend with an issue that has some analogies to this question -- and that is the question of what use, if any, Christians should make of pagan Greek learning. In the wider culture, pagan Greek philosophy, rhetoric, and literature was the intellectual gold standard, and to educated people of the time, you either were conversant in these things, or you were not to be taken seriously.

On the one hand, you had those like Tertullian, who dismissed Greek philosophy by asking: "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" (Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 7). And on the other hand, you had those, those who adopted Greek philosophy in such a way that they ended up with a pagan faith with only a thin Christian veneer. Tertullian's extremism lead him out of the Church; and most of those who fully embraced pagan philosophy belonged to heretical groups that never were in the Church to begin with.

The Church Fathers, however, took a balanced approach. For example, St. Gregory the Theologian wrote:
"...as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction.  Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs" (Oration 43, Panegyric on Saint Basil," A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. vii, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 18871900), p. 398f).
Likewise, St. Basil the Great said:
"Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose, according to the Doric proverb, 'testing each stone by the measuring-line''" (Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, IV).
Simply put, we eat the meat, but spit out the bones. Use what is useful to us and to our purposes, and reject what is not. The appropriation of terminology and useful elements of Greek philosophy is already evident in the writings of the Apostles in the New Testament, and so what the Fathers did was entirely in keeping with the Faith that they had received from the Apostles. But the criterion of where to draw the lines here has always remained the Faith once delivered unto the Saints (Jude 3).

We should approach Protestant biblical scholarship in precisely the same way.

Taking a Critical Approach to Biblical Criticism

The key to approaching this scholarship in order to make good use of it, without falling prey to its pretensions, is to apply the same  "hermeneutic of suspicion" to Protestant biblical scholarship, which its practitioners so love to apply to Scripture. As, Thomas Oden observed
"Scripture criticism is more firmly captive today to its modern (naturalistic, narcissistic, individualistic) Zeitgeist than Augustinianism ever was to Platonism or Thomism to Aristotelianism. Trapped in modern prejudices against pre-modern forms of consciousness, reductionistic exegesis has proved to be just as prone to speculation as were the extremist forms of Gnosticism and as uncritical of its own presuppositions as supralapsarian Protestant scholasticism" (Agenda for Theology: After Modernity What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) p. 111).
 “We violate a primary ethical demand upon historical study if we impose upon a set of documents presuppositions congenial to us and then borrow from the canonical prestige of the documents by claiming that it corresponds with our favored predisposition. That lacks honesty. The modern attempt to study Christ has done this repeatedly. The text has often become a mirror of ideological interest: Kant’s Christ becomes a strained exposition of the categorical imperative; Hegel’s Christ looks like a shadow-image of the Hegelian dialectic. Schleiermacher’s Christ is a reflection of the awkward mating of pietism and romanticism; Strauss’s Christ is neatly weeded of all supernatural referents. Harnack’s portrait of Christ looks exactly like that of a late nineteenth-century German liberal idealist; and Tillich’s Christ is a dehistorical existential idea of being that participates in estrangement without being estranged…. The historical biblical critic was “not nearly so interested in being changed by his reading of the Bible, as in changing the way that the Bible was read in order to confirm it to the modern spirit”” (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 224f).
"Historical biblical criticism has been allied with polemical concerns since its eighteenth century inception as an ideological agent of "Enlightenment." It has expressed a determined interest from the beginning in discrediting not merely the authority of Scripture, but authority in general -- all authority as such. Just read the biographies of Reimarus, Rousseau, Lessing, Strauss, Feuerbach, and of course Nietzsche (cf. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other). It has operated especially as a partisan "ideology for the demystification of religious tradition"... It is astutely described as the strike force of modernity, "the Wehrmacht of the liberal Church"... The hermeneutic of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of the historians. It is now time for the tables to turn. The hermeneutic of suspicion must be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself... One obvious neglected arena is the social location of the quasi-Marxist critics of the social location of classic Christianity, who hold comfortable chairs in rutted, tenured tracks. These writers have focused upon the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Yet that principle awaits now to be turned upon the social prejudices of the "knowledge elite" -- a guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university" (Ibid., p. 225f).
Whenever you read a claim by a modern biblical scholar that seems questionable -- question it. Ask how he knows what he claims to know? What actual hard evidence does he have? Usually, you will find the actual evidence is very slender, and the rest is filled in with speculation and wishful thinking. And it is often the case that you will find that bad scholarship of that sort is refuted by better, more conservative Protestant scholars. Even with those scholars, you have to be discerning, but it should be understood that not all of these scholars are equally wrong-headed, or equally hostile to the Traditional understanding of the Scriptures which we hold to.

I would also add that it is not just for apologetic purposes that we need to be familiar with this kind of scholarship -- there are some good and useful things that these scholars have produced over the centuries. For example, until there is a good Orthodox Bible dictionary that is available in English, there is no reason we should not make use of such handy resources that helps a reader figure out who is who, and what is what as they read through the Bible. Why should we not make use of a good Greek or Hebrew Lexicon, even if those who compiled it were not Orthodox? As a matter of fact, there is no translation of the Bible in English that is not either entirely the work of non-Orthodox scholars, or at least dependent upon their work to some extent. It would be foolish, and practically impossible to make no use of heterodox scholarship when studying the Scriptures.

As Clement of Alexandria put it, we can take the spoils of Egypt and turn them into the furniture of the Tabernacle. That requires that we do not simply import pagan furniture into the Church, but whatever is true and good can be put to good use in the Church, and this is true of Protestant scholarship as well. We simply have to be discerning, and to remain faithful to the Tradition of the Church in the process.

For more information:

"Sola Scriptura," particularly the section on Historical-Critical Exegesis

Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700, Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker

The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology) 1st Edition, by Michael C. Legaspi 

For an Orthodox critique of Fr. Paul Tarazi's approach to Scripture, see "Fr. Paul Tarazi: From Study to Heresy! A Critique of his Book Introduction to the New Testament: Paul and Mark," by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible

Skeptical Biblical Scholarship: Part 1

Skeptical Biblical Scholarship: Part 2

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top


Back in the 70's,  there was a song that expressed the ethic of the sexual revolution: "Love the one you're with," by Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, & Nash), which was based on a saying coined by Billy Preston: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." The logic being that you can't expect a man to remain faithful to his wife (or "main squeeze," as the case may be), if she isn't around. It's "unrealistic" to expect such a man to be celibate, when circumstances separate him from her. Take this logic into the contemporary period of homosexual advocacy, and you also have to conclude that if someone wants to have homosexual sex, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from it, simply because the Scriptures and 2000 years of Christian Tradition say that they should. But who would expect that similar logic might be advanced by an "Orthodox Theologian"? Well if you can't imagine that being possible, you probably are not familiar with the folks at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

In his essay, "Sex, Marriage, & Theosis," which is part of the latest issue of The Wheel (which deals with issues related to homosexuality in several of its articles), Aristotle Papanikolaou makes various observations regarding the Church's understanding of marriage and sex, and uses lots of contemporary buzzwords before he gets to his real point in his last two paragraphs:
"Forced celibacy can actually unleash the potentially objectifying force of sexual desire, albeit in a repressed form. In other words, forced celibacy is a recipe for an anti-theotic state of being, especially since it may incite fear, anger, and hatred. If that is the case, then long-term committed relationships, or marriages, are also spaces for working through the objectifying potential of sexual desire ascetically, such that it contributes toward and does not mitigate against sacramentality. A Christian tradition with theosis at its core, and, as a result, with attention to the dynamics of the various constitutive aspects of the human condition, recognizes that when it comes to sexual desire, simply to say “struggle” can be spiritually harmful and, thus, not ascetically discerning. Sexual desire just does not stop when we struggle; in fact, the struggle may even incite it more intensely.
It is unrealistic, as Saint Paul I think insightfully recognized, to expect someone simply to deny or turn off such desire; it is spiritually discerning to allow such a desire to be expressed rather than “to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9), in long-term committed relationships or marriages, whose aim is presencing God through the virtues, which, in the end, are manifest when the various constitutive parts of the human condition are configured so that one can be agapeic toward the other, and one can increase in eros for the divine" (The Wheel 13/14, Spring/Summer 2018, p. 97)
Note the use of the phrase "long-term committed relationships, or marriages..." The Fordham folks are not yet ready to argue that the Church should give a sacramental blessing to gay marriages, but they are arguing that we should accept "long term committed relationships" that are homosexual as being compatible with the Christian life.

And if we accept that "forced celibacy" is "unrealistic" and "unhealthy," what should the Church say to a husband who is separated from his wife for years at a time, by circumstances beyond his control? This is not some unusual circumstance in the history of the world. In World War II, for example, many husbands did not see their wives for years at a time. Many a married couple in the Soviet Union were separated by the war, and in some cases never knew the fate of their spouse. Even in our current circumstances, military deployments still separate spouses for very long periods of time. Even non-military employment can require lengthy separations. Should the Church tell the husband and wife in such cases, "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with"? If not, we are telling them that they should be celibate, which Aristotle Papanikolaou takes to be "forced celibacy."

And if we can't expect celibacy from adults, when they are either not married, or separated from their spouses, on what basis would we expect it from 15 year olds? It's not even legal in most states for 15 year olds to get married, even with their parents' permission, and so either we are asking them to remain celibate -- which is "unrealistic," and "unhealthy," (we have been told), or we are left to let them have sex outside of marriage in some form or another.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is espousing a position on sex and celibacy that you will find expressed in precisely 0% of the Fathers and Saints of the Church, and nowhere in all of Scripture. Nowhere in the Christian Tradition do you find the idea that sex of any kind outside of marriage (between a man and a woman) is acceptable. The only remotely historical connection such views would have in Church history would be found among certain gnostic groups in the early Church period, which were absolutely condemned by the Church. And yet this is apparently where these folks want to take the Church. How is it possible that the bishops of the Greek Archdiocese tolerate this nonsense?

You can use Trinitarian language, and you can talk about theosis all you want, but when you end up with a morality that is identical to that of the Unitarian Universalist Church, you are not Orthodox, no matter what you might call yourself. And from a purely practical standpoint the Greek Archdiocese might want to study up on the rapid decline the Unitarian Universalists have experienced since they threw out any semblance of adherence to Christian morality. In fact, the same pattern has been repeated in most of the mainline Protestant denominations, and there is no reason to think the pattern won't be repeated in the Greek Archdiocese as well.

Now some will probably suggest that I am reading too much into this essay, but I don't think so, for three reasons: 1) I asked the author directly to explain his use of "long-term committed relationships, or marriages...", and he declined; 2) this is the same person who stated that while dogma was not up for debate, morality was ( see The Living Church 2.0); and 3) I was told by a former student of his that the promotion of gay marriage was a frequent topic pushed by both Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos at Fordham. If they want to deny that I am reading their intentions accurately, they should say what they really do mean, and say so clearly.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Response to Giacomo Sanfilippo


Giacomo Sanfilippo

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Giacomo Sanfilippo, of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, began by focusing on an erroneous statement I made in the original version of the article "The Living Church 2.0":
"My response begins by exposing an outright lie by Father Whiteford when he writes, “The most recent issue of ‘The Wheel,’ a journal whose general editor is a lesbian….”*"
The asterisk is there to note that when it was pointed out that I was mistaken, I corrected the article, and added an apology to it. So on the point of whether or not my original statement was correct, I concede that it was not, and I sincerely apologize to Inga Leonova for the error -- I have done so privately, and publicly -- I have no desire to misrepresent anyone.

Making an erroneous statement, and telling a lie are not exactly identical things. For something to be a lie, it has to be not only false, but it has to be intentionally false. This is not the case. In his note at the end, he chides me for  "seem[ing] to have no hesitation to broadcast others’ sins such as he imagines them and potentially to ruin reputations in the process." To begin with, lying is also a sin, and were I indeed guilty of it, Giacomo would now be guilty of hypocrisy, because he would be broadcasting my sins. However, I think there are occasions in which calling people out in public is very appropriate, and if someone publicly posts a lie, I think calling them on it is  justified... just like I believe that a person should be called out in public if they publicly deny that the moral tradition of the Church is true and should be followed, and yet claims to be an Orthodox Christian.

First let me explain where my I got the mistaken idea in the first place. Inga Leonova has been pushing the LGBT agenda in the Orthodox Church for a very long time. Back in 2011, there was an irenic article by an Orthodox priest  on the subject of those struggling with homosexuality, which nevertheless did not give any ground on the principle that homosexual sex is a sin that needs to be repented of, and that an Orthodox Christian is obliged to not indulge in that sin. Inga had a pro-homosexual Orthodox Facebook group (which I believe she started) that discussed this article, and most of the posters thought it was positive, but she took issue with it, and wrote:
"I think the point of the article is crystal clear even though the author is very careful in actually NOT spelling it out. He addresses the perception that gay people are "persecuted" by the Church in being required to live celibate lives by saying that everyone is called to transform their lives by the ascetic ordeal of Christian life. This is yet again a very clever way of dismissing the question of gay companionship." 
Then a poster asked her to clarify what she really meant:
"?"gay companionship"? What is that, may I humbly ask? Like David and Jonathan? Not sexual? Why call it "gay"? I get so confused on what people are saying in these groups. Forgive me." 
Inga never responded, because to clarify would be to state something that apparently she was not yet prepared to say in public, in no uncertain terms (the latest issue of the Wheel crosses that line, however, if she has not crossed it previously).

I wrote about this in an article entitled  "The bottom line in the current debate," which pointed this out, and ended by referencing an article that suggested the problem of "gay companionship" could be dealt with by men and women who are struggling with homosexuality, but who desire to overcome it, marrying someone of the opposite sex, who is likewise struggling. My recollection is that Inga responded to that post by saying "Watch out folks! They are trying to marry us off".  Unfortunately, I did not save that post, and so cannot cite it verbatim. In any case, these comments combined with her relentless advocacy of the homosexual agenda led me to my conclusion, but I have been assured by several people that it is not true, and so I accept that must have misread her at some point.

Now Giacomo is free to believe that I intentionally made this statement, knowing it to be false, but I think a reasonable person would know that you don't have to be a genius to realize it is a bad strategy  to make a point that is easily refuted, and allows your opponents to focus on that one error, and ignore most of what you actually did say.

Furthermore, the point I was making is not really changed by this correction. My point is that the Wheel's general editor has a clear pro-homosexual bias, and she clearly does. That is easily documented. Also, I don't think anyone who is familiar with her position on homosexuality is likely to have a better or worse opinion of her based her either being or not being a lesbian. In fact, were she a lesbian who accepted the teachings of the Church as they were, that would be far better. Personal sins are still sins, but sins that involve other people in your sin are worse -- but heresy by far, much worse than either of those kinds of sins. Teaching that a sin is not really a sin is a heresy, and it is a heresy that closes off the possibility of repentance for those who believe it. You can't repent of a sin that you don't believe to be a sin. And Inga does not believe that homosexual sex is inherently sinful, and she is spreading that view now through the Wheel.



The Benedict Arnold Option

Giacomo then goes off on a weird tangent:
"Speaking of lies, Father Whiteford, are you aware that Rod Dreher’s unrepented lies about an African-American professor have endangered the man’s life to the point where he needs police protection? Have a look at the addendum at the top of this article. In fact, as the husband in an interracial marriage, you might want to read the whole article. I mention this because your blog post seems to suggest that you admire or at least make common cause with Mr. Dreher. We should choose our bedfellows a little more carefully."
I am not sure where this comes from. Prior to my most recent article, I find only two posts since 2004 that mention him. I certainly have no personal animosity towards Rod Dreher, and I am sure we agree on most matters of the Orthodox Faith. When it comes to his political commentary, I probably disagree with him as often as I agree with him. I do not regularly read his articles (which I am not criticizing, I just have only so much time). I have not read any of his books. Most of his opinions I only see in snippets on Twitter. What perhaps sparked this comment is that in my recent article, his name came up, only because I quoted a comment that mentioned him by Aristotle Papanikolaou. Apparently Rod Dreher made the comment that the moral teachings of the Church are not up for debate, and Aristotle Papanikolaou denied that this was so. On that point, I agree with Rod Dreher without any hesitation. It is a betrayal of the Orthodox Faith to suggest that our moral tradition is on a different footing than the dogmatic tradition of the Church.

If Giacomo wants to dispute that, he needs to make an argument, and provide something like evidence to back it up.

Context

Giacomo made the following assertion, which either means he only quickly scanned my article, or he is willing to misrepresent his opponents:
"In response to Metropolitan Kallistos’ Foreword in The Wheel you suggest that “his comments are due to the weakness of old age.” Shame on you, Father Whiteford."
I actually made no such assertion. He might as well have quoted me as saying I hoped the Metropolitan was kidnapped. In fact, I mentioned several possible mitigating circumstances that might excuse the text of the article in question, but then said that only God knows the truth of that, and only God can judge his heart -- but that we have an obligation to judge whether what he wrote was right or wrong.

Appealing to Homophobia

Giacomo closed with a suggestion of what he thinks is my real motivation:
"...you may be dealing with unresolved, perhaps unacknowledged inner conflicts of your own."
This is a common tactic of homosexual apologists. They suggest that anyone who stands for traditional morality in the face of the push for the acceptance of the homosexual agenda is probably a closeted homosexual himself. This, they hope will cause someone who does not want be thought of as a homosexual to shut up. It has been tried by others on me, and sorry, but it's a ploy that I am not going to be intimidated by.

You might just as well argue that those who oppose pedophilia are motivated by their own pedophile tendencies. If the day comes when pedophilia is being promoted by some in the Church, I will speak out against that too, and if someone makes a similar suggestion then, it won't work then either.

As an Orthodox Christian and as priest, I have an obligation to stand for the teachings of the Church. If I were making up a religion of my own, it would look very different, but if we want to be part of the Church that Christ founded, we don't get to make things up according to our own wishes. We have to take what the Church teaches as it is, and on this issue, the Scriptures, the Canons, the Fathers, and the Saints are all perfectly clear. If you want a Church that says homosexual sex is OK, you need to look elsewhere.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Living Church 2.0

Alexandr Ivanovich Vvedensky, head of  the "Living Church" 1923-1946

When St. Paul met with the presbyters in Ephesus for the last time, he left them with a warning:
"For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30).
The truth of this warning has been demonstrated throughout Church history. The most devastating heresies in the history of the Church have been those which have arisen from within the Church. The reason why this is so was well summed up by Cicero:
"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague."
Of course the Church not only can, but always will, survive such traitors, because Christ has promised us this, but the damage done to souls by traitors from within is far greater than that done by foes from without for the reasons Cicero gives.

When the Bolsheviks were seeking to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church, they found a group of willing accomplices among its clergy, who supported communism, wanted to allow widowed priest to remarry, married priests to become bishops, the adoption of the new calendar, innovations in the services, and the acceptance of other novel teachings. This group formed the so called "Living Church." The Bolsheviks did not create the Living Church out of thin air, they simply allowed renovationists from within the Church to establish their own version of "Orthodoxy," as a means to undermine the real thing. For a time, it was even recognized as the legitimate ecclesiastical authority in Russia by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. However, the "Living Church" failed, because it was rejected by the faithful of the Russian Church, and when it became clear that it was no longer useful to the Soviets (since they had no real support), they were allowed to wither away, and finally disappear. But the damage done by the "Living Church" was very real and extensive.

Today, we see the beginnings of a new renovationist movement, and this group is so radical that it makes the "Living Church" look quite traditional by comparison. Among the ideas that they promote are the ordination of women as priests, ecumenism, modernism, liturgical innovations, and universalism. However, the most base part of their agenda is their promotion of relativism when it comes to Christian morality, and in particular, their promotion of the acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism.

There are three online journals now which incessantly promote their renovationist agenda. "Public Orthodoxy," "The Wheel," and "Orthodoxy in Dialogue." These journals have hardly attempted to camouflage their agenda, but they usually have tried to use enough weasel words to allow for some implausible deniability. Lately, however, they have become even more brazen.

The most recent issue of "The Wheel," a journal whose general editor is openly pro-homosexual  and has argued that homosexuals do not need to remain celibate)* featured an introduction by no less than Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). Since there are now several very thorough refutations of what he says, I won't focus on it myself. I will only echo the disappointment expressed by many, as well as the appreciation for the many good things he has done in the past for the English speaking Orthodox world. I hope we discover that the real Metropolitan Kallistos has been kidnapped, and someone else is writing under his name, but the Metropolitan Kallistos of 10 years ago did not agree with the mealy-mouthed approach he takes now to homosexuality. The Orthodox Faith has not changed in the last 10 years, the only thing that has changed is that western culture has tipped on this question in favor of homosexuality. Whether his comments are due to the weakness of old age, or some other mitigating factor, God knows, and only God can judge his heart. However, we can and must discern whether his words are sound or not.

For the best articles answering Metropolitan Kallistos, see:
"Metropolitan Kallistos and The Wheel," Fr. Lawrence Farley
"Ambiguity Serves No One: A Review of the Foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) to the latest issue of The Wheel," by Dr. Edith M. Humphrey
"Anatomy of a Foreword: Metr. Kallistos on Sexual Morality," by Fr. John Cox.
What I would like to focus on in this article is the response of Sister Vassa to these articles, and then recent comments from Aristotle Papanikolaou of Fordham University, who has let the mask slip a bit more than most of these people have, thus far.

Sister Vassa Strikes Again


Sister Vassa herself has been the subject of controversy on the issue of homosexuality, but in a recent video, she defended at some length Metropolitan Kallistos' recent article.

She argues that he is "just asking questions." The problem is, he is just asking questions about matters that are not questionable. The Serpent just asked a question of Eve when he said: "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" (Genesis 3:1). Entertaining that question didn't work out so well.

She asks why we can't just give people like Metropolitan Kallistos the benefit of the doubt. The problem is, you can't give someone the benefit of the doubt where no doubt is left. If someone had suggested that they heard tell that Metropolitan Kallistos was arguing that a gay couple that was in a committed relationship ought to be given communion, and that their spiritual father should take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to their relationship, I would have given His Eminence the benefit of the doubt that he actually would have said such a thing. However, I think it is rather unlikely that "The Wheel" published a forgery written under his name, and so we have to deal with what he said, and we have to judge whether what he said was right or wrong.

Sister Vassa repeatedly questioned the qualifications of those who have responded to Metropolitan Kallistos, by saying that they are "not the peers" of this great man. This of course all depends on what you mean by "peers." As a scholar, Dr. Edith Humphrey is certainly a peer. But as a bishop, the bishops of the rest of the Church are certainly his peers, and every time they have spoken on this issue, they have spoken with clarity that directly contradicts the mealy-mouthed approach taken by the article in question. But even the laity have the right and obligation to challenge a bishop who is in error. I am sure few of the faithful in Constantinople were the intellectual peers of the bishops who returned from the false council of Florence, having made a shameful and heretical union with Rome, but they felt like peers enough, as members of the Body of Christ, to not only disapprove of their union, but to greet them with a shower of debris of various sorts, in order to make their opinions unmistakably known. The people of God are the guardians of piety, as the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848 (in reply to Pope Pius the IX) states. It is therefore not only permissible, but obligatory for all of the faithful, and even more so for the clergy, to oppose these attempts to infect our Church with the same heresies that have wreaked such havoc in mainline Protestant Churches, and are in the process of doing the same in the Roman Catholic Church.

Sister Vassa suggests that those criticizing this article are guilty of the sin of Ham. Ham's sin was to reveal his father's nakedness when he was drunk (Genesis 9:18-23). Had Noah run around naked for all to see, Ham would not have been wrong to have suggested his father ought not to have done so. The nakedness here is the error of this article. The article was not made public by those criticizing it. If anyone is guilty of the sin of Ham, it is perhaps the editors of "The Wheel" who published the article in the first place, and I am sure that all of the critics of this article would have been far happier had someone committed the article to the shred bin, and thus actually covered the nakedness of His Eminence.

And to defend the article in question, Sister Vassa had to equivocate on what is in dispute here. She said:
"Some people want to pretend that there aren't questions... we have all the answers... Is that true? Is that true, that we are finished perfect works as human beings? Or do we still need a little bit of work? Do we still need to be developed? Of course we do. We are all God's precious works in progress. And we grow in our faith. We grow not only as individuals, but hopefully as Church... right? Can we imagine that we as the Church in this world have nothing else left to learn? Can that be possible?"
The question is not whether any of us are perfect, nor is the question whether any of us as individuals have all the answers. The question here is whether the indisputably consistent teachings of the Church on this issue, found in both Scripture and Tradition, are correct or not, or whether we might today be in a position to revise such clear and consistent teachings -- teaching that even heretics have not generally disputed in Church history.

Metropolitan Kallistos suggests that somehow if a gay couple is in a committed relationship, this is a mitigating factor. However, the man in Corinth who was in a sexual relationship with his step mother was also in a committed relationship... and yet this does not seem to be a mitigating factor for St. Paul, who said that this man was to be barred from the fellowship of the Church until he repented (1 Corinthians 5-6). Likewise, Herod was in a committed relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip's ex-wife, and yet St. John the Baptists did not suggest that this was a mitigating factor in his sin either (Mark 6:14-29). And in both cases, the sin was far less of a violation of the natural order than that of homosexuality.

Aristotle Papanikolaou Let's the Mask Slip Further


For those of you who might be confused by the abbreviations and the Twitterisms here, let me put his statements into clearer English:
"One more thing: the heart of the debate is on what can be talked about in Orthodoxy.  [Public Orthodoxy, the online Journal he helps run] simply asserts that everything except the dogmas (statements of faith, not morality--contra[ry to Rod Dreher], whose 'Orthodox morality' is ironically a modern neologism) is up for discussion."
Is there any basis for separating Orthodox dogma and Christian morality? No. Let's go back to the very first Council of the Church, the Council of the Apostles in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. The question was to what extent ought gentiles be held to obey the Mosaic Law. On one side, there were those who argued that gentiles had to become Jews, and live according to all of the ceremonial and moral laws of Moses. However, the Apostles said that gentiles were to be held instead to the basic laws God gave to Noah for all of mankind (see Genesis 9:1-17), and to the Moral Law of God, particularly with regard to sexual morality. They wrote to the gentile converts:
"...it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well" (Acts 15:.28-29).
Some will object that Christians do not observe what the Apostles wrote with regard to eating the blood of animals, but while this is generally true of the heterodox, it is not true of the Orthodox (See "Stump the Priest: The Council of Jerusalem on the Blood of Animals").

And when the text speaks of "fornication," the word is porneia (πορνεία), which refers to any sex which is unlawful, and in the Jewish and Christian context, this means any sexual relations forbidden by the moral law of God, as expressed in the Scriptures, including homosexual sex (see The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 6, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964-1976), p. 587-595) .

So is this decree of the Apostles, that all Christians must refrain from sexual immorality, dogma? Well the Scriptures say that this is exactly what it is. The Apostles obviously did not post their epistle to their website. The way this epistle was disseminated to gentile converts was by people like St. Paul himself. We are told in the chapter immediately following the record of the Council of Jerusalem that St. Paul and his companions delivered this epistle as they went on their next missionary journey:
"And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decrees, that were ordained by the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4).
And what is the Greek text for "the decrees"?  "τα δογματα" ta dogmata (i.e. the dogmas).

How far does Aristotle Papanikolaou think anyone would have gotten with St. Paul or any of the other apostles, if they had suggested that the dogma forbidding sexual immorality was up for debate? I would think that they would have had little patience with such an argument.

We seem to be heading into a period of Church history in which we will be increasingly confronted by renovationists of this kind. We must stand firm, and we must, as the People of God, reject what they are trying to sell.

*In the original version of this article I wrote that the general editor was a lesbian, based on things I had read from her. I have been informed that my reading was incorrect, and I apologize for making the error, and ask for her forgiveness.

See Also: 

Response to Giacomo Sanfilippo

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

Friday, May 25, 2018

Stump the Priest: Let the Dead Bury Their Dead


Question: "What did Christ mean when He said "Let the dead bury the dead"?"

We find this statement recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
"And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead" (Matthew 8:21-22).
"And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-60).
Blessed Theophylact gives a concise explanation:
"He is saying, "Let your dead relatives, that is, those who do not believe, take care of your unbelieving father in his old age until death." To bury means here to bestow care on him even to the grave. Even in common parlance we say, "So and so buried his father, " which means not only that he placed him in the ground when he died, but that he also did every other good thing for him that was necessary, caring for him until his end and his burial. Therefore, let the dead bury their dead, that is, let those who are unbelievers take care of your unbelieving father, but because you have believed, you must preach the Gospel as my disciple. The Lord said this not to forbid us from caring for our parents, but to teach us that we ought to place piety above the demands of unbelieving parents. We must allow no obstacle to our doing of good, and we must scorn nature itself when it stands in the way" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 1997), p. 106).
When faced with the demands for complete commitment to the Lord, we are often tempted to make excuses, and we usually to try find the most noble excuses possible. The Lord who commands us to honor our fathers and mothers does not forbid us to provide proper care or burial for our parents, but the Lord's claim on our time, treasure, labor, and devotion, must always take the first priority. Even love for parents, spouse, or children cannot come before our obedience to the Lord.

For More, See: 

St. John Chrysostom's 27th Homily on Matthew

St. Cyril of Alexandria's 58th Homily on Luke

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dr. David Ford: An Open Letter to an Advocate of So-Called "Gay Marriage"



An Open Letter to
an Advocate of So-Called “Gay Marriage”

by

Dr. David C. Ford
St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary

May 19, 2018



Glory to Jesus Christ!

Thank you very much for reading my recent lengthy letter, and for your thoughtful, respectful response to it.  I appreciate your calmness and civility in approaching the controversial topic of homosexuality, and I will endeavor to respond to you in a similar way.

I also thank you for being, I think, quite fair, for the most part, in representing/summarizing my words.  On one key point, though, I would like to offer a crucial clarification.  I'm sorry if I may have given the impression in my letter that I believe Tradition to be an “ultimately static system,” as you describe my position.  I do, in fact, agree with your words: “we can see that the corpus of theological writings has, in fact, grown—theology has been and is creative.  Theologians strive to receive the gospel—the apostolic faith—not simply to preserve it but to preach it.  And preaching requires that we address the gospel to an audience—we engage the world with the gospel.  When we look at the history of theology, this is what we see: the apostolic tradition alive in various figures who work out its meaning in their historical context.”

Yes, the Tradition, ever guided by the Holy Spirit in the Church, has always been and still is “alive” and “creative.”  But at the same time it has always been internally consistent.  With every fresh presentation of the Gospel to each new generation, in each new cultural setting, the Church has adapted her preaching to the specifics of the cultural context, but never to the extent of being inconsistent with what she has always preached in every other context. 

Hence, I'm surprised that you're calling for a “radical re-imagination” concerning “issues of sex, gender, and sexuality.”  For these words certainly imply at least the possibility of a radical change in the content of the Tradition itself.  Yet there has never before been even remotely anything like a radical change in the content of the Tradition in the entire history of our Church.  So it would be very much inconsistent for such a radical change to ever occur, either now or in the future.  After all, we do believe in timeless Truth – since Jesus Christ, the Truth Himself, is “the same: yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

So I think the basic point of our disagreement lies in the extent to which we believe and understand that certain elements in our Tradition are open to change.  Certainly there can be a vast array of local customs in music, iconography styles, rubrics in the services, certain relatively minor pastoral practices, etc., where there is great room for variety.  And these local variations often are in flux.  Yet they all are consistent with the Tradition as a whole.

Veneration of local saints is perhaps a good example.  As far as I know, there has never been an instance, in the entire history of our Church, when one portion of the universal Orthodox Church glorified/canonized someone as a saint whom another portion of the Church explicitly rejected as being a saint.

So we see that among all these variations in local practice, there is no departure from basic, foundational belief.  Your analogy using WonderBread and artisanal San Francisco sourdough bread, and asserting that they are still both bread, reveals how radical indeed your re-imagining is!  For how many true-blue artisanal sourdough bread lovers would see in WonderBread anything consistent with what they know to be truly bread!

From the point of view of consistency within the Tradition through the ages, it's inconceivable that the Orthodox Church as a whole would ever endorse sodomy – or any other form of same-sex sexual activity – as an acceptable practice, as something consistent with the quest for holiness and purity in spirit, soul, and body which her members have always preached and endeavored to practice.  It cannot ever be seen as being consistent with the Holy Scriptures, which as you know strongly condemn the practice, or as being consistent with the teachings of our Church Fathers and the canons of our Tradition, all of which also strongly condemn that practice as not being consistent with the life of purity to which our Church has always called us all:  “Pursue holiness, without which no one can see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  And I think it's very significant that immediately after St. Paul declares to the Thessalonians that the Lord's will for them is their personal sanctification, he then commands them to “abstain from sexual immorality, so that every one of you should know how to possess his body in sanctification and honor” (1 Thess. 4:3-4).

I fully realize that for many Christians who identify themselves as homosexuals, they are convinced, by their experience, that same-sex sexual relations are compatible with a life of holiness, especially if their same-sex sexual activity occurs within a loving, committed relationship.  But the foundational problem here is that they reach this conclusion based on their own experience and reasoning, and not on the experience and reasoning of the Church as a whole. 

For we Orthodox Christians are always taught not to trust our own experience and reasoning – for we know how easily we can be deceived but rather to measure and adapt our experience and reasoning by and to the experience and reasoning of the Saints and Fathers of our Church all of whom have always deplored and continue to deplore same-sex sexual activity as deeply sinful and highly detrimental to a life of true holiness.  Of course, all heterosexual sexual activity outside of marriage is also similarly condemned by our Church.

While I empathize with self-identified homosexuals who are trying to reconcile their sexualized SSA with their Christian faith, it seems to me that of all Christians, Orthodox Christians should be able to understand that if they do have sexualized thoughts and feelings of SSA, these thoughts and feelings cannot possibly be approved or blessed by our Lord.  So whatever the complex origins of such thoughts and feelings may be, in the universal and timeless understanding of our Orthodox Church these thoughts and feelings must be resisted with the help of our Lord, and through the guidance of His Church and her deep understanding of spiritual warfare and dealing with ungodly thoughts (logismoi), in order for a life of real holiness to be experienced.

*     *     *     *    *

I also agree with you that theologically we need to delve more deeply into the mysteries of human sexuality, to try to ascertain more fully why indeed our Lord Jesus fashioned mankind into only two sexes, and what this means as we seek to live as faithful Orthodox Christians – especially in today's cultural setting in which many are seeking to minimize the importance of the many distinctions between the two sexes. 

If sexual complementarity had not been our Lord's will for humanity, He certainly could have simply fashioned another man to be Adam's longed-for helpmate.  But He did not.  Rather, He desired for Adam and Eve to rejoice in the glorious and wondrous mystery of male/female complementarity. 

In addition, Christ declares that the man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wifenot to another man (cf. Matt. 19:5).  He also teaches concerning marriage, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).  Since in the Orthodox understanding it is God Himself Who unites one woman and one man in marriage, it would be enormously inconsistent to His age-old way of acting, through His Holy Church for two thousand years, to suddenly believe and assert that He is now uniting two men or two women in “marriage.” 

Can it be a reasonable expectation that our Lord in our own time will change His mind on this very major issue, just because the Supreme Court, or Hollywood, or modern science (which in our time has abandoned its standards of objectivity on sexual issues due to its capitulation to political correctness),  or many others in our secularized and sexualized contemporary society have changed their mind on it?  And even if we may happen to hope that there's a chance that our Lord, acting through His Church, will some day change His mind on this, I believe it's unconscionable, and in egregious disobedience to our Church and our Tradition, for us as Orthodox Christians to now be encouraging anyone with SSA to engage in same-sex sexual activity in the hope that one day the Church will consider such activity acceptable.

Indeed, I believe it's unconscionable for anyone in our Church to encourage people with SSA to engage in same-sex activity for any reason – because encouraging such activity implies that it's something good and acceptable to the Lord, when it so obviously is not, according to the consistent teachings of our Church for two thousand years in a multitude of different cultures.  When this is made crystal clear to people wrestling with SSA, it gives them a sure foundation to inspire them to fight against any impulses towards same-sex sexual activity.  Otherwise, so often there is heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching uncertainty, which can amplify, sometimes with disastrous consequences, the confusion that people struggling with SSA so often feel.

In addition, I would assert just as strongly that everyone else in the single state also must struggle just as much against inappropriate heterosexual sexual behavior in order to live chastely before marriage – no matter how strong their feelings and impulses might be in a sinful direction, and no matter how strongly the surrounding society is urging them to indulge in sexual sin.  And for the married, this is also just as important for them – to ensure that they will not engage in inappropriate sexual activity within marriage, and that they will resist even the slightest thoughts of possibly committing adultery.

*     *     *     *     *

Christ also made men and women so different so that they could reproduce sexually – which, of course, is biologically impossible for same-sex couples.  Their bodies are not even designed for becoming “one flesh,” as Christ says the man and woman will do in marriage (Matt. 19:5).

Furthermore, I believe, along with Fr. John Breck, that the current many-faceted effort to reduce the importance of, and indeed to renounce entirely, binary human sexuality, is indeed a heresy – an anthropological heresy which can be called, as he does, unisexism.  As we quote him in the Introduction to the book of essays which my wife and I helped to edit entitled Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (SVS Press, 2016),

“Unisexism” is perhaps the Arianism of our day, the seductive and convenient, if heretical, solution to the intractable problem of sorting out gender roles in a workable and equitable fashion.  Only it's inverted.  Whereas Arius dealt with the antinomy of God-manhood by denying consubstantiality, the unisex heresy deals with the problem of gender by denying differentiation (p. 12; our emphasis).

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You asked for a deeper reflection on Jesus Christ Himself as an avenue to help us sort out the current controversies regarding human sexuality.  I'd like to make an effort in this direction by suggesting that the heresy of unisexism has affinities with one of the most major heresies of Christian history, that known as Monophysitism.  In this heresy from the 5th century, there is a tendency to blur and obscure the distinctions between our Lord's divine and human natures – perhaps in a way parallel to the current efforts to blur and obscure the distinctions between the two sexes. 

But as the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (451) proclaims, the two natures of our Lord are united in Him “without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division; and without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature being preserved” (my emphasis).  In the Church's rejection of the related heresy of Monothelitism at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681), this doctrine is further refined with the assertion that “in Him are two natural wills and two natural operations, existing indivisibly, uncontrovertibly, inseparably, and unconfusedly” (my emphasis).

In transposing this unchanging understanding in our Tradition of our Lord and His two natures to humanity existing in two sexes, we can assert, in a similar way, that humanity exists in two sexes without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division; and without the distinction of the sexes being taken away by such union, but rather the distinctive properties of each sex being preserved.

Unisexism, with its strong endorsement of homosexual relationships – wherein the opposite sex is actually totally eliminated, and wherein a man is said to be a “wife,” and a woman is said to be a “husband” – is also related to the heresy of Iconoclasm.  In that highly destructive heresy of the 8th and 9th centuries, the veneration of icons, a crucially important practice of the Church praised by the Church Fathers and approved in the Canons, was “cursed out of the Church” by bishops under intense pressure from the Emperor. 

In our own time, we recognize the intense pressure of many elements in our surrounding society, including many governmental authorities (all taking the place of the Emperor), pushing towards acceptance of sodomy and same-sex “marriage” by everyone, including by all the Christian churches.  And in this effort, just as the Iconoclasts destroyed the icons, this new form of Iconoclasm is intent on destroying historic Christianity's understanding of marriage as only being ever between one man and one woman, as well as historic Christianity's understanding of sexual relations as only being ever approved and blessed by God within heterosexual marriage.

Furthermore, it's clear that unisexism also has close affinities with the ancient yet constantly recurring heresy of Gnosticism, especially libertine Gnosticism.  In today's version of libertine Gnosticism, one aspect of the secret cosmological knowledge that grants salvation is now the assertion that sodomy (and transgenderism, for that matter) is acceptable, and therefore that it can be practiced with no detrimental repercussions for the spiritual life. 

Gnosticism, of course, is centered in the belief that all of Creation is a vast cosmic mistake, with matter itself being evil at least to some extent.  Therefore, the human body must be somehow evil also, and have nothing to do with salvation.  Hence, the Gnostics saw no moral significance in the body's natural form and functions.  So it's not surprising that the Gnostics of our own time see no moral significance in what has traditionally been seen as the glorious and fruitful complementarity of the two sexes.

Indeed, for the Gnostics, the body is seen as a tomb from which the soul must escape in order to find salvation.  In this view, since those having the secret knowledge are believed to be automatically saved, and since for them the body does not participate in salvation, it can be used – and abused – at will, without any damaging repercussions. 

The Gnostic worldview, of course, is far removed from the Orthodox understanding of the goodness of Creation, including the human body, created by the Good God Who loves mankind.  Hence, our Tradition understands that the body does very much participate in the ongoing work of salvation, which includes the constant endeavor to live in purity of spirit, soul, and body.  Furthermore, our Tradition sees great moral significance in the God-given natural form and functions of both the male and the female body – which is why, for instance, there are Church canons prohibiting castration and cross-dressing.

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I believe what I've shared above is a step towards your call for “a shift from a defensive to a constructive mode” in doing theology – though I would never minimize the importance of what might be called “defensive” theology, since every one of the seven Ecumenical Councils met precisely to defend the timeless, universal Faith against specific heresies.  Yet as the Fathers at each of these Councils defended the Faith, they did so in very positive ways – preserving the sound and pure doctrine which is crucial for underlying and shaping sound and pure living.  And they did so in creative ways – using new wording in order to most effectively address each new heresy – while always remaining completely consistent with what the Fathers had taught before them.

I also believe that current Orthodox writing on the glory of marriage is also a step in this direction.  So I would suggest that we are seeing expressed in our own time within Orthodoxy a deeper and richer appreciation for the glory of traditional marriage as a path to holiness as equally valid and meaningful as the monastic path.  A wonderful example of this is expressed by an illustrious contemporary Athonite monk, Elder Aimilianos, in his homily, “Marriage: The Great Sacrament” (which is available on-line by that title).  In this homily, the elder says that a husband and wife truly living the Gospel are “a theophany” as they exhibit iconically Christ the Bridegroom's love for His Bride, His Holy Church, in their marriage. 

You might also be interested in the 30 essays on various aspects of marriage by 26 Orthodox priests and scholars, including two monastic elders, in Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2016).


Thank you for considering these thoughts.  May they be helpful to you and to many!

Yours, in Christ,

Dr. David C. Ford
Professor of Church History
St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary
South Canaan, PA

This essay is part of an exchange of views conducted on the blog of The Wheel journal over the last few months