Friday, December 20, 2019

David Bentley Hart and Marcionism

I have long been aware of the fact that David Bentley Hart's theology was far from Orthodox, but I have become convinced -- after reading more of his writings, and listening to him speak -- that his theology cannot even be categorized as properly Christian. Especially after his recent assertion that the God of the Old Testament was mostly evil, and began as a Canaanite storm-god.

In response to DBH's recent book, "That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation," Peter Leithart, who is a conservative Protestant biblical scholar, wrote a review, entitled "Good God?" Leithart correctly zeroed in Hart's dismissal of the Old Testament. He asked Hart whether he believes that the God of the Old Testament is good, by his (DBH's) standards. Leithart didn't use the label "Marcionite," in his review, but Hart got the point, and wrote a rebuttal, which Leithart posted in full: "Good God? A Response." In this response, he leaves little doubt on the matter, though he tries to turn the Marcionite label on his opponent:
"I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism; somehow it always comes as a shock to the system.  So let me say this upfront, and then return to it: fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  That is not an accusation, but it is a lament.  You may be pure, but your premises are corrupt. 
You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.”  First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus.  The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism.  Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities.  In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense.  But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.  Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god.  Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.
Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time.  Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are.  The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope.  He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration."
Marcion's Error

One has to ask here whether Marcion's problem was indeed that he simply took the Old Testament literally, and then concluded that the God of the Old Testament was evil? The answer, from everything we know about Marcion, is that this was not the problem. Marcion was the son of an Orthodox bishop, but he was ex communicated for fornication, and later went to Rome, and joined himself to a gnostic sect that rejected the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the material world, and they believed matter to be evil. They also, consequently, denied the resurrection of the body. So his problem was that he came to the Old Testament with a foreign set of philosophical assumptions, and rejected it for those reasons... much in the same way that David Bentley Hart does.

Modern Approaches to Scripture

DBH labels the approach of Protestant "fundamentalists" as a "modern heresy," but then goes on to repeat, as if they were undeniable facts, some of the conclusions of the worst of Protestant scholarship, which is certainly no less modern in origin. It is actually not a fact that the various texts and redactors of the Old Testament originated with those worshiping an evil Canaanite storm-god, or that such a God was the original subject of their writings. DBH apparently takes for granted that the Protestant historical-critical approach to Scripture is a neutral and reliable means of understanding the history and meaning of the Old Testament text, but such scholarship is far from neutral or scientific.

Certainly, there are aspects of such scholarship that provide useful and valuable information, and there are aspects of it that are more empirical than others, but this scholarship does not come free from ideological agendas. In particular, the German Biblical Scholarship that emerged after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation had a consciously secularizing agenda. I talk about the ideological assumptions of such scholarship in my essay on Sola Scriptura, but for more on why this is the case, I would refer the interested reader to two books on the subject:
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture (1300 - 1700), by Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (New York, NY: Herder & Herder Books, 2013)
The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, by Michael C. Legaspi (Oxford University Press, 2010).
When Rudolf Bultmann, for example, argued that Jesus was not only not the Christ, but that he did not even believe himself to be the Christ, this was not a scientific conclusion that we are bound to accept unless we wish to be anti-intellectual and deny reality. This was the expression of Bultmann's opinions, cloaked in scholarly bluster in order to make it sound scientific. His opinions were not based on any hard evidence or undeniable facts whatsoever. This is true of quite a lot of what passes for biblical scholarship today.

If you take the JEDP theory of how the Pentateuch supposedly came into being from the weaving together of four earlier sources (which forms much of the basis of DBH's assertions here, along with the conclusions of the history of religions school), here you have a theory based on a great deal of circular reasoning. The scholars who formulated it selectively chose the "facts" and "evidence" that suited their agenda and then proceeded, 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" (Priestly) 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. This theory is still taught only because there has not been a new theory that has gained the consensus that the JEDP theory once held in some sectors, but even among Protestant scholars it has largely been discredited.

Even better Protestant scholars have come to see that such an approach to the text of Scripture misses the forest for the trees. For example, Brevard Childs (a Yale Old Testament Scholar, who was a Protestant, but who came closer to an Orthodox approach to Scripture than does DBH), argues that we should interpret the Pentateuch as a whole, in its canonical form, not as separate sources. It is the form that the Church has received that we regard as Scripture, and not hypothetical atomized sources (see his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,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 received is what we should concern ourselves with.
For more on that subject, see: 
A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis, by Colin Smith.
A Rigid Scrutiny: Critical Essays on the Old Testament, by Ivan Engnell. 
The Old Testament and Rationalistic Biblical Criticism, by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky.
Having said all of that, I would never suggest that Orthodox scholars or clergy should ignore such scholarship. In fact, I think it is very important that they be familiar with it, but like the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, I would encourage them to apply the same hermeneutic of suspicion to that scholarship, which its practitioners so love to apply to Scripture. As Oden observes:
"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).
"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" (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 225f).
Literal and Allegorical Interpretation

Hart went on to attempt to pit the literal meaning of the Old Testament against spiritual interpretations:
In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century.  But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.  They are not Christian in any meaningful way.  They are not Jewish either, as it happens.  They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one.  From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.  In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume.  Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”
In fact, it is for you to account for your beliefs, since they are so incompatible with the teachings and practices of the ancient church and the New Testament regarding the reading of scripture.  And, while we are at it, please go back and read Galatians several times.  Then, in fact, read Hebrews.  If you cannot see what is going on in those texts—how much of ancient Hebrew tradition is rejected and reinterpreted even in being preserved and reclaimed—then you are not paying attention.
This is of course, complete and utter nonsense. Christians believe that there is only one God not because of allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, but because of the literal sense of countless passages that tell us precisely that. We believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, not because of allegorical interpretations, but because this is literally what is taught throughout the Old Testament.

Both Christ and St. Paul make mention of the various Ten Commandments, and we find them taking them literally. Christ also spoke about deeper implications of these commandments beyond the more obvious literal meaning, but he did not undermine those literal meanings by doing so. In fact, it was the Pharisees who used creative interpretations to try to get around the literal meaning of the commandment to honor one's parents, and Christ took them to task for doing so (Matthew 15:3-9).

DBH attempts to set the literal meaning of Scripture in opposition to its spiritual meaning, because he wishes to get around the former by means of the latter. But the Fathers do not approach the Scriptures this way. The Fathers interpreted Scripture both literally and allegorically.

Very rarely in any of the Fathers do you find them saying that something described as having happened, really did not, but that the text in question should be read as having a spiritual meaning only. Most of the Fathers never do that. But even in those instances where a Father does take such a text allegorically, and denies the literal meaning, he does not ascribe error to Scripture, or suggest that the text was the work of those worshiping a Canaanite storm-god. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, does indeed say that he believed the death of the Egyptian firstborn would require an unworthy view of God and His justice, and so he sees it as having only a spiritual meaning (The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press,1990), pp. 75–77). He believed the text was not intended to be read literally because he did not believe it was literally describing what actually happened. He did not suggest that the text was in error or that God was actually evil. And his reading of this passage is a minority opinion in any case. Blessed Theodoret, for example, wrote:
"Why did he kill the firstborn of the Egyptians? Since Pharaoh was subjecting Israel, God's firstborn to such harsh slavery -- as you recall, the Lord God himself had said, "Israel is my firstborn son [Exodus 4:22] -- God quite justly gave the firstborn of the Egyptians over to death" (The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 1, On Genesis and Exodus, trans. Robert C. Hill, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 259).
St. Ephrem the Syrian likewise writes:
"The firstborn of the Egyptians died in the middle of the night, and every person in the solitude of his own house, mourned the death of his firstborn, the first of his sons. Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr, and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), p. 247f).
It is in fact a false dilemma to pit the literal meaning of Scripture against the spiritual meaning. As St. Cyril of Alexandria, wrote:
“Those who reject the historical meaning in the God-inspired Scriptures as something obsolete are avoiding the ability to apprehend rightly, according to the proper manner, the things written in them. For indeed spiritual contemplation is both good and profitable; and, in enlightening the eye of reason especially well, it reveals the wisest things. But whenever some historical events are presented to us by the Holy Scriptures, then in that instance, a useful search into the historical meaning is appropriate, in order that the God-inspired Scripture be revealed as salvific and beneficial to us in every way” (quoted in: Dr. Mary D. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, PA: St. Tikhon Monastery Press, 2915), p. 69).
What this reveals about David Bentley Hart's Theology

DBH clearly does not regard the Scriptures as divinely inspired revelation of God to man. He sees Scripture as a record of man's search for God. Gradually, over time, smart people like DBH began to reason their way towards a higher view of God. He does not really see the Scriptures as being different from the writings of the pagan Greeks, the Hindus, or the Buddhists. If you doubt me, consider what he has said in the essay we are examining:
"Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time."
And in a subsequent reply to Peter Leithart, Hart wrote:
"Again, the myths of their war god invoked by the people of ancient Israel to justify acts of slaughter were part of the history of what became Jewish and Christian monotheism.  Just as the Homeric myths were the (frequently allegorized) prehistory of later philosophical pagan monotheism." 
So, according to DBH, just as later pagan philosophers allegorized Homer's Iliad, Christians allegorized the Old Testament. Both were equally primitive myths, unworthy of the real God, but by allegory, later philosophers were able to make good use of them, by completely reinterpreting them to mean something quite at odds with the original meaning of the text.

DBH, was asked, in an interview on the show "Closer to the Truth," how it could be that many religions can be true, despite the differences between them, and he replied:
"Well, I never take any religion as a closed system of propositions, every one of which is true, or true in the same way. And that's the way you think about religion. I mean, I think of all religions -- including Christianity -- as cultural artifacts that express truths, or fail to express them, in ways determined as much by cultural history as anything else.... Among the traditions that are serious traditions, you know, not the kind of religion you might make up, if you were trying to sell a certain product rather than the spiritual life, that yes, they can all converge upon the same truths, with all of the fallibility that every human approach to truth exhibits. The same way the different schools even in the sciences are going to diverge from one another. Now, ideally, we say, well at some point there will be a theoretical breakthrough that will either reconcile the differences in the sciences, or show that one theoretical path was sterile. Well in a sense that's true also in religious experience, I mean, but it's just not going to be within the realm of empirical investigation. But yes, no, many different religions can be true, in the sense that they are speaking of the truth in the best way that the cultural tradition to which they belong allows them to do so, while at the same time differing from one another on specific affirmations which may be right or wrong" (Closer to the Truth, 12/16/2017).

It is one thing to say that there are many truths to be found in other religions. Anyone who has done much study of other religions would generally concede that point. However, it is quite another matter to say that other religions are true, and to put them on the same level as the Christian Faith. DBH sees these many religions as having much in common in terms of philosophy and morality, but he clearly does not appreciate the fact that Christ did not come to establish a philosophy -- He came to establish a Church, which is His Body. And the Christian Faith did not arise because smart people eventually developed true ideas about God, it rises or falls on the person of Jesus Christ, and His incarnation, death upon the Cross, and His Resurrection -- and if those things didn't happen in history, then our Faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). If "philosophical pagan monotheism" is equally true, then the martyrs died for nothing, because they could have just embraced this pagan philosophy, fit right in with everyone else, and not shed a drop of blood standing for the Christian Faith.

When I reviewed DBH's translation of the New Testament, I thought it was odd that he was so anxious to read into the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Jude a Gnostic interpretation, by positing that there were two distinct classes of Christians within the Church: those who were "psychics," and those who were "pneumatics." However, it does make sense if you realize that DBH is not far off from the Gnostics, and probably thinks they represented a true religion as well. The Gnostics could attach themselves to virtually any religion, reinterpret it, and simply appropriate the texts and terminology of that religion, sort of along the lines of a religious version of  "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." However, the end result was a religion that had the trappings of the "host body." but a completely different substance. DBH's theology is likewise not derived from Christ, the Gospel, or Scripture, and his theology would not be seriously impacted if you took all three of them out of the equation altogether. He could do just as well with the Iliad and pagan Greek philosophers, or with Hinduism or Buddhism and their texts.

Furthermore, what this tells us is that while DBH will spend time arguing about the meaning of various texts of Scripture, it is clear that it doesn't really matter to him what the Scriptures actually mean. After all, he thinks that much of it was written with an evil Canaanite storm-god as its focus, and yet thinks it perfectly acceptable to reinterpret those texts to fit his views. There is every reason to believe he feels just as free to reinterpret the rest of it to fit his views as well, since they are merely "cultural artifacts" of one true religion among many others.

DBH ended his response to Peter Leithart by saying:
"This is not the true gospel. And one slanders the God revealed in Christ by suggesting that it is. You need to become Eastern Orthodox."
One might say the same thing to David Bentley Hart about his theology.

For More Information, See:

The Strange Theology of David Bentley Hart

The Hart Idiosyncratic Version

Christianity or the Church? 

Stump the Priest: "What About the Violence in the Old Testament?"

Friday, November 29, 2019

Stump the Priest: Cremation and Non-Orthodox Family

Question: "A lot of Orthodox are converts to the faith. Inevitably, we will have situations within the family that would seem to be at best uncomfortable or at worst divisive. One situation would be the final wishes of parents that are not Orthodox desiring cremation as a “cost effective” solution to the high costs of funerals. As Orthodox, do we do our duty and follow their wishes, or do we state our opposition risking confrontation within the family during that time?"

Cremation is on the rise for three primary reasons. One, as you mention, is the cost of a traditional burial; but the other two reasons are the increasing ignorance among Christians as to why we do not practice cremation, combined with an increasing indifference to Christianity altogether.

We should talk about funeral arrangements with any family member that we are likely to end up being responsible for at the time of their death. If you have a parent that is a Christian, but says that they want to be cremated, you want to talk to them about why Christians do not practice cremation (because of our faith in the resurrection and respect for the body, see Stump the Priest: Cremation), but usually, the costs of a traditional burial are the biggest factor. This is often because they cannot afford to make the arrangements themselves, or because they do not want to be a burden to their family.

The cost of a burial can be kept down significantly by pre-planning. You can usually set up a payment plan with a funeral home, and get insurance that would cover the full costs, if the death should happen before it is all paid off. You can also save a lot of money by educating yourself about lower cost options. A great resource for this is the book by Fr. Mark Barna "A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition."

Here are two articles that have some useful tips on how to save money on burial costs:
7 ways to save on funeral costs (Market Watch)
11 Ways to Make a Funeral Affordable but Not Cheap (Money Talks News)
Furthermore, you (and your siblings, if you have any) can either help with the cost, or cover them altogether. When my mother passed, she had made no arrangements, and so my surviving brothers and I made the plans together, and split it three ways. Doing this when the person has already died is the least cost-effective way to do it, but splitting the costs made it manageable. Ideally, however, you would want to work with the loved one to make the plans ahead of time, and keep the costs down.

Another point you can make with your loved one is that when they are gone, you would like to have a grave to visit. Cremated remains usually end up on someone's fireplace mantel, and they often end up getting tossed out eventually. A grave is something that all the family and friends of the person will be able to visit, and to pray for them.

In most cases, if you explain the theological reasons against cremation, and address the cost issue, you will be able to persuade a loved one to not opt for cremation. However, if you have a family member who insists on being cremated, for whatever reasons they may have, it seems to me that you would have to respect their wishes, regrettably. Hopefully, it won't come to that.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Ukraine Schism: What is a Layman To Do?

I recently received an e-mail with some practical questions about how people should deal with the implications of the mess created by Constantinople's incursion into the canonical territory of the Russian Church, and their embrace of unrepentant and unordained schismatics in Ukraine:
"I've been watching the ecclesiastical crisis over Ukraine since it began. As the crisis worsens, it's causing me growing concern about how it is affecting Orthodox life here in North America. Could you kindly formulate some advice for Orthodox Christians who wish to avoid involvement with the schismatics?
I believe the Ukrainian schismatics are indeed schismatics, and their "clergy" are unordained individuals, and that anyone in the canonical Church who communes or serves with the schismatics deserve to be subjected to the prescribed canonical penalties in due course.
However, I am aware of clergy in canonical jurisdictions who openly support the schismatics, including an OCA deacon who writes for the Fordham blog. How is an Orthodox Christian like myself supposed to act around such clergy? How would I handle it if I visited a canonical parish somewhere for a service, and a clergyman unexpectedly endorsed the schismatics during the service? (For example, Patriarch Theodoros commemorating Dumenko while serving in Cyprus.)
Another difficult issue is that Mr. Dumenko, the self-styled "Metropolitan Epifany," was in the United States in October, and concelebrated with GOA clergy for Liturgy at the GOA cathedral in New York City. During the service, Mr. Dumenko performed a ceremony to "ordain" a man named George Kazoulis as a deacon, and Kazoulis is now serving as a deacon somewhere in the GOA. As far as I know, Dumenko has no holy orders, and cannot transmit what he does not possess.
What happens during services concelebrated by canonical clergy with a man who is no bishop? What happens during services where a man like Kazoulis is serving as a deacon? What should Orthodox Christians do if we unexpectedly find ourselves in a service like this? (For that matter, what happens if Kazoulis is ever subjected to a priestly ordination on the pretext that he is already a deacon?)
I am sorry to have to send a ton of questions at once, but I really wasn't sure what or who else to ask, and I figured that if you chose to respond, you could use it for a blog post that would be helpful to a lot of people. There has been a disappointing lack of practical advice from the canonical jurisdictions. Even ROCOR says very little these days, except to stay away from the clergy and churches that have defected to the GOA.
For what it's worth, I fully expect this crisis to get much worse before it gets better, I expect it to become a practical issue for all Orthodox Christians everywhere, and I think ignoring it is an unconscionable way of downplaying a serious problem."
The schism that has been initiated by the uncanonical actions of the Patriarch of Constantinople, has created a crisis in the Orthodox world, and I think we have only just begun to see how bad things will likely get. However, we also need to rest assured that God is on His throne, and that if not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God's providence (Matthew 10:29), then certainly He will work His will in this crisis, despite the fact that it seems we are surrounded by treason against the Faith, cowardice, and deceit. On the one hand, we face problems we never thought we would encounter from within the Church, but on the other hand, God is using this crisis, I believe, to prune His vine.

The immediate issue that is stirring things up is the schism over Ukraine, but there are many other issues at work here. We have long seen those who have been pushing an Ecumenist agenda in the Church. There is also a renovationist agenda being pushed, that began with things like allowing priests to enter into second marriages, but has gone way past that point. Now we have an increasing number of voices, especially from within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but by no means limited to that Church, who are pushing for the acceptance of homosexuality, transgenderism, and a whole host of other perversions.

For example, five years ago we had the case of Gregory Pappas of the Pappas Post who publicly complained that a Greek Orthodox priest refused to commune him, because he is an active homosexual. In his complaint, there is no suggestion that he is struggling against this sin, only justification for his sin -- and in fact, a clear denial that it really is a sin. But the saddest part of this story is that, according to him, Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh told him that while the priest was "technically within his canonical rights" to deny him communion, he would commune him, and that other priests had likewise offered to commune him. This was all posted publicly, and there have been no denials or clarifications from Metropolitan Savas, so far as I have heard.

I have previously been told by Greek Orthodox clergy that in the Metropolis of Chicago, they have been told that they are not to refuse active homosexuals from receiving communion, and just this past week, this was confirmed in a report on the most recent clergy meetings of that Metropolis:
"On Monday, November 18, during a Clergy Syndesmos meeting for the Metropolis of Chicago, His Eminence Metropolitan Nathanael forcefully instructed his priests that they were no longer permitted to announce the parameters for receiving Holy Communion prior to its distribution at any time, even on festal celebrations such as Pascha and Nativity, when there are multitude of unknown persons in the Church.
Nathanael said he knew that his priests were doing this, that he himself had heard them make such announcements and read them in their bulletins and on their websites — no longer!
Nathanael, a noted deep theological thinker and pastoral wizard, explained that if St. John Chrysostom, “the author of the Divine Liturgy” (uh…no…) had wanted such an announcement to be made prior to the distribution of Holy Communion then it would have been encoded in the service itself. As it is, the only “announcement” is that people should approach with the “fear of God, faith and love.” Since the blessed Patriarch of Constantinople included no other warnings, the priests of the Metropolis of Chicago will here after be forbidden from saying anything more than that, hence, as of November 18, 2019, Holy Communion is OFFICIALLY OPEN in the Metropolis of Chicago. No public announcements describing who ought not approach the Chalice will be permitted, Canons be damned.
Nathanael explained that the clergy have no right to discourage anyone from approaching the Chalice, and after all, he said, it makes us “look like bigots” if we forbid people.
He further explained that if a person is told not to approach the Chalice to receive Holy Communion because he / she / it is engaged in sinful behavior that, according to CANON LAW, forbids their participation, they might not come back to Church. He reminded the priests that we don’t want to discourage people from attending Church" (See: "Nathanael Announces Open Communion in the Metropolis of Chicago").
His Eminence would do well to read St. John Chrysostom's homily that is read a few days prior to Pascha:
"O my beloved and greatly-desired brethren who have gathered in the Holy Church of God, in order to serve the Living God in holiness and righteousness, and, with fear, to partake of the holy, most-pure, and immortal, awesome Mysteries of Christ: Hearken unto me who am lowly and unworthy. For it is not I who am speaking to you and instructing you; rather the grace of the Most-holy and Life-giving Spirit; for I speak not from myself, but as I have been instructed by the divine canons, and the God-bearing Fathers, as the Church received instruction from the divine Apostles who received their wisdom from God, so do I myself speak, who am lowly and least of all. I know not your works; I consider not that which you have begun; and so, as one who fears God, I give counsel to everyone among you, whether man or woman, whether great or small, to anyone of you that may be guilty of sin, convicted by your own counsels, that first you must repent and confess your sins, that you may dare, considering yourself unworthy, to approach and touch the Divine Fire Itself. For our God is a consuming Fire, and they, therefore, who with faith and fear draw near to the God and King and Judge of us all, shall burn and scorch their sins; and It shall enlighten and sanctify their souls. But It shall burn and scorch with shame, the souls and bodies of them that draw near with unbelief. Therefore, many among you are ill and sleep in sickness, that is, many are dying unconfessed and unrepentant. And furthermore, my brethren, I beseech you, and I say: no one that swears oaths, nor a perjurer, nor a liar, nor one that finds fault with others, nor a fornicator, nor an adulterer, nor a homosexual, nor a thief, nor a drunkard, nor a blasphemer, nor one that envies his brother, nor a murderer, nor a sorcerer, nor a magician, nor a charmer, nor an enchanter, nor a robber, nor a Manichean, shall, unconfessed and unprepared, approach, touch, or draw near the dread Mysteries of Christ, for it is terrible to fall into the hands of the Living God. For the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the joints and marrow and bones, and thoughts and hearts. See, therefore, my brethren, that no one approach, unrepentant or unprepared or unworthily, to partake of His dread and most-pure Mysteries. For He Himself saith: I am He, and there is no god besides me; I kill, and I make alive; neither is there any that can deliver out of My hand; for I, Myself, am King forever: to Whom is due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen" (Homily for Holy Thursday (See The Great Book of Needs, Volume II, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1998, pp. 332-333)).
Given the support that the Greek Archdiocese gives to publications like "Public Orthodoxy," which incessantly promotes the acceptance of perversion within the Church, this should come as no shock to anyone. This is the fruit of nearly a century of spiritual drifting on the part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which St. John of Shanghai spoke of in 1938, in a report to the 2nd All-Diaspora Sobor. It may be that repentance will turn Constantinople around, but it is not likely to happen in the near term, if it happens at all.

So to get to the practical answers you are looking for here, we need to stick to the royal path between the extremes, neither turning to the right nor to the left. In the history of the Church, there have been heresies and schisms. Many times heresies have brewed for long periods of time, and at times it has taken centuries for those heresies to either be finally put down, or for those who have refuse to be corrected to finally be cut off from the Church entirely. During these periods of controversy, the lines have often not been clear and things have been messy.

St. Basil the Great compared such times to a naval battle:
"To what then shall I liken our present condition? It may be compared, I think, to some naval battle which has arisen out of time old quarrels, and is fought by men who cherish a deadly hate against one another, of long experience in naval warfare, and eager for the fight. Look, I beg you, at the picture thus raised before your eyes. See the rival fleets rushing in dread array to the attack. With a burst of uncontrollable fury they engage and fight it out. Fancy, if you like, the ships driven to and fro by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens all the scenes so that watchwords are indistinguishable in the confusion, and all distinction between friend and foe is lost. To fill up the details of the imaginary picture, suppose the sea swollen with billows and whirled up from the deep, while a vehement torrent of rain pours down from the clouds and the terrible waves rise high. From every quarter of heaven the winds beat upon one point, where both the fleets are dashed one against the other. Of the combatants some are turning traitors; some are deserting in the very thick of the fight; some have at one and the same moment to urge on their boats, all beaten by the gale, and to advance against their assailants. Jealousy of authority and the lust of individual mastery splits the sailors into parties which deal mutual death to one another.
Think, besides all this, of the confused and unmeaning roar sounding over all the sea, from howling winds, from crashing vessels, from boiling surf, from the yells of the combatants as they express their varying emotions in every kind of noise, so that not a word from admiral or pilot can be heard. The disorder and confusion is tremendous, for the extremity of misfortune, when life is despaired of, gives men license for every kind of wickedness. Suppose, too, that the men are all smitten with the incurable plague of mad love of glory, so that they do not cease from their struggle each to get the better of the other, while their ship is actually settling down into the deep" (On the Holy Spirit, Ch. XXX).
We should neither be indifferent to these issues, nor should we take the "landmine" view of the canons, and assume that everyone in the Ecumenical Patriarchate is already outside of the Church because of the actions of their leaders.

What should a layman do under today's circumstances? A lot would depend on what parish you are in, and what options you may have. There are many priests within the jurisdiction of Constantinople that I know to be devout, and firm in their stand for the Faith. Were I a layman in such a parish, I would certainly not make any hasty decisions, particularly if there was not a better option in the area  that I lived in. However, it is hard to see how much longer faithful clergy will be allowed to remain so, given the kind of instructions they are getting from their bishops.

I would say that one should absolutely not participate in any service in which one of the Ukrainian schismatics, or anyone ordained by them was serving. As time goes on, this is a line that will become increasing difficult to draw within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because of ordinations such as the one you mention, which was clearly done as a means of forcing those in America to accept this schism, whether they like it or not.

One thing I think we all need to avoid, is allowing anyone to paint this crisis in terms of it being just a matter of Russians vs. the Greeks. This is not about ethnicity, this is about Orthodoxy. This is not Russian vs. Greeks -- it is Orthodoxy vs. heresy and schism. I know too many Greeks who are standing for the Faith, and know enough Russians who are not, to see it in those terms.

Everyone should look to their conscience, and ask their guardian angel to speak them through the voice of their conscience. One should also seek wise counsel with regard to their specific circumstances, and pray that God would show them the way, and then they should take the wiser path that is in accordance with their conscience. They should also pray that God would correct them, if they should stray from the right path.

There is a Chinese proverb, which I think is a good and wise one: "A wise rabbit has three holes." I think it would be wise for those within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or any other jurisdiction that has bishops who show signs of wavering in terms of the Truth, to at least contemplate their alternatives now, and keep their options open.

One thing that is clear, is that if Constantinople does not correct itself, everyone in the Church will eventually have to make a choice to either take a stand against what they are doing, or to accept the growing apostasy that we are seeing unfold.

If push comes to shove, obviously, one should go to a parish that is standing for the Truth. That may mean another parish down the road, or it may mean a parish that is far away, and doing reader services at home when you are unable to make it to that parish. See: What should Orthodox Christians do, when there is no parish nearby?

For more information on the Crisis in Ukraine, see:

What's Going on in Ukraine? Part 1: The Historical Background

What's Going on in Ukraine? Part 2: The Canonical Issues

An American Perspective on the Ukraine Crisis

Sermon: The Schism over Ukraine

Sermon: St. Maximus the Confessor and the Schism in Ukraine

Sermon: Papism and Neo-Papism

Friday, November 15, 2019

Trying to Make Silk Purses Out of Sows' Ears (Response to "A Theology of the Erotic")

In the second installment of Aristotle Papanikolaou's latest argument against the concept of there being unchanging moral teachings of the Church, "A Theology of the Erotic," he begins by once again invoking the authority of St. Maximus the Confessor:
"If there is to be consistency in the Orthodox Tradition between theology and ethics, dogma and canon, an ethics of sex must be a theotic ethics; that is, it must be such that the performance of sexual eros is potentially sacramental in the sense that the experience of God is possible through eros, as with all of material creation (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names). God’s material creation is not the enemy of God; it is that which God has made in order for us to experience God. That materiality includes eros. No less than St. Maximus the Confessor has affirmed that eros is the driving engine of nature, the fuel that propels us to union with God when all cognitive functions have ceased as a result of encountering the saturated phenomenon of the divine light. As he says, “When in full ardor of its love (eros) for God the mind goes out of itself . . . through love the mind is ravished by divine knowledge and in going outside of creatures has a perception of divine transcendence” (Four Hundred Centuries on Love 1.10 and 1.12; also 1.19, and 1.100, among many other references). In fact, when speaking about love for God, St. Maximus only uses the word eros. Eros in itself is good, as all creation is good, but it can be misdirected.
It is for this reason that St. Maximus gives detailed analysis and description of the various parts of the soul and their interrelation to one another, more than any other patristic writer in the Orthodox Tradition. He is trying to give advice on how to reshape the architecture of the soul so that eros is progressively directed to God and not simply to finite objects. This architecture is constituted by various parts that include desire, emotions having to do with such reactions as fear, hatred, anger, courage, and the cognitive/rational activity of the soul. How any one part of the soul functions depends on its entanglement with other parts, and for one part of the soul to function optimally, the other parts must also function optimally. For example, envy causes our desire to become greedy, which then clouds the way we see (cognitively) the truth of God’s creation, which, in a vicious cycle, can further fuel other destructive emotions and desires. The measure of this optimal function is participation in God, that is, love for God and neighbor, which includes enemy and stranger and which occurs to a greater or lesser degree. (For a more detailed analysis of St. Maximus on the soul and theosis, see my article, “Theosis”).
It is true that in discussing a sexual ethic within the Church, attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic. Furthermore, human nature has something to do with the architecture of the soul and the landscape of emotions and desires. The real ascetical struggle is how to optimize the relation of the various parts of the soul so that eros progressively is directed toward God and, in that sense, is an experience of the divine life.
What does this mean for an ethics of sex? If the goal of life is union with God, then ethics are not rules for the sake of rules; they are not rules to follow in order to score points with God; they are about principles, practices, and rules that are discerned to regulate the architecture of the soul in such a way that facilitates our ascent to God, and in so doing affect our relation to our neighbor (social ethics). Sexual desire, like all desire, needs an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality, which means its capacity for manifesting the presence of God."
What St. Maximus the Confessor was not doing was providing grounds for a theology of sex. Eros is a power of the soul, which is perhaps best described as the longing of the soul for God, as seen for example in St. Augustine's Confessions:
"Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." (Confessions 1:1).
Sexual desire is a part of eros, but the longing we have for God is not to be confused with the sexual desire one person may have for another that they are sexually attracted to. This is true even in the most natural and wholesome expressions, within the context of a loving Christian marriage, much less is it related to perversions of that natural desire. St. Paul does indeed use marriage as an image of Christ's relationship with the Church, but this is using an earthly image to speak of spiritual things, and like any analogy, one should not press the analogy beyond its intended purpose.

In Papanikolaou's previous essay, he began with a hypothetical question that he seems to think compellingly makes a point in support of his general thesis:
"Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay."
The problem here is of course the false premise that people living in an immoral relationship could nevertheless be "manifesting the virtues". The foundation of any manifestation of the virtues on the part of fallen men is repentance, and repentance requires both a change of mind about sin, and a change of behavior with regard to sin. Papanikolaou intentionally leaves these "friends" genderless in his analogy, because he is pushing the door open for the acceptance in the Church of homosexual relationships.

But let's consider a real world example. There was a man in Corinth who was in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. We are not given a lot of additional details about the nature of this relationship, or how it came about, but it is likely that this man's father had been married to his mother. His mother probably had died at some point and his father remarried, perhaps in old age, and to a much younger woman. His father likely died at some point, and these two people ended up in a relationship. This relationship was far more natural than a homosexual relationship. There was no biological incest at work here, however, according to the laws of the Old Testament, this was a forbidden sexual relationship (Leviticus 18:6-8). Among the basic requirements which the Apostles laid out for gentile converts was that they abstain from sexual immorality (porneia), and the only standard of what constituted sexual immorality they could have had in mind is that standard found in the moral law of the Old Testament (Acts 15:28-29).

Did St. Paul admonish the Church of Corinth to explore how to make this sexual relationship work within "an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality"? No, he commanded the Church in Corinth to ex communicate this man (i.e. no potential for sacramentality), and to have no fellowship with him until he repented (1 Corinthians 5). In the very next chapter, when addressing homosexuality and transgenderism, St. Paul says that those who engage in such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). This is stated in no uncertain terms, and so one has the choice of denying the inspiration of Scripture and thinking they know better than St. Paul, or to accept that what St. Paul says is true -- but they don't get to have it both ways.

Regardless of whatever jesuitical arguments Papanikolaou may engage in, if his reasoning leads to the conclusion that it is OK for Christians to engage in any kind of sexual immorality, and yet be members of the Church in good standing, and receive Holy Communion, he is obviously wrong, because, as the saying goes, "you can't get there from here." The Scriptures are clear. The interpretation the Church has given of these Scriptures is equally clear on this subject. If you want to invent your own religion, you are free to make up whatever beliefs you wish, but if you wish to be an Orthodox Christian, you have no such freedom. Even if we granted that Papanikolaou was properly interpreting St. Maximus, St. Maximus is not of greater authority than the Scriptures. But he clearly is trying to twist St. Maximus to support an agenda that we know for a fact St. Maximus would never have had anything to do with.

When Papanikolaou says "attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic," he is alluding to Fr. Richard RenĂ© thesis in his "Meeting Michelle" essay, which Tikhon Pino has already demonstrated, was a clear distortion of St. Maximus the Confessor (See Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 1).
"The Church has historically discerned that this ascetical structure would entail a long-term committed relationship between a man and a woman. This relationship, however, must be ascetical in the sense that the human beings involved must engage in the ascetical practices that facilitate the manifestation of the virtues, which shape the flow of eros such that it is sacramental. The ascetical nature of this relationship runs throughout the entire relationship, but in terms of sexual eros, a very simple and basic example of an ascetical approach to sexual eros would be to listen and be attentive to what the other is saying about likes, dislikes, fears, and hopes in relation to the sex act.
Is this a “new asceticism” in the sense that the patristics writings do not point to those specific practices? It may be speaking with the Tradition in a way not yet articulated, but it is not a “new asceticism” if asceticism has always been about restructuring the architecture of the soul to shape eros toward God and, thus, in accordance with nature. Asceticism cannot be self-control or self-renunciation for the sake of those acts, which would reduce asceticism to simply rules to follow rather than practices that experience has confirmed are effective in reshaping the soul. Furthermore, there are several ways that one could interpret self-control and self-renunciation: to engage in practices of honesty and vulnerability throughout one’s sex life with a life-long partner can be seen as a loss of self for the sake of finding the self (Mt 16:25). The good news is that the sex act itself, the movement toward the other, is potentially a moment that is sacramental, that is, iconic of the divine presence, while also simultaneously shaping the flow of eros toward God.
There is more, however, to sexual desire than simply movement to the other who is loved. As human beings, we are fallen creatures because of misdirected eros away from the God who created us. As a result of this fall, sexual eros can be messy, as it is not always clear what is involved in the incitement of sexual desire.  It can be simply wanting to be close to the other, but it also might have something to do with our genes, our biological and neurological infrastructure, how we are feeling at the moment, the time of day, the season, the temperature, what someone was wearing, our own history. Much more tragically, it may be knotted to an experience of rape or other forms of violence and trauma. These interlocking factors often have something to do with the presence of fetish or fantasy that may incite the sex act and even accompany it.
When we pay attention to the details of what’s possibly involved in sexual desire, arousal, and the performance of the sex act, it is not so simple as saying that sex is blessed, pure, made right, correct, neutral, morally allowed within marriage. This claim also forgets that rape has and does occur within many marriages.  Sexual desire is, indeed, complicated, and it is probably because of its complexity that St. Paul said that is was “better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Following St. Paul’s lead, the Church recognized that marriage potentially provides an ascetical structure to erotic desire that does not cancel its complexity, but has the power to shape erotic desire in a way that leads to participation in God even amidst this complexity. Asceticism does not resolve complexity; it simply does not allow complexity to be definitive in such a way that would lead to objectification, demonization, or violence. And for those who have been traumatized as a result of sexual violence or other forms of violence, research has shown that practices that one might describe as ascetical may be a path toward recovery and healing."
So somehow, we are to believe that the same St. Paul who called for the ex communication of a man who was in sexual relationship with his step-mother, and who said that those engaging in homosexuality, or indeed any other kind of sexual immorality, will not inherit the Kingdom of God -- in the very same epistle in which he said these things, no less -- was opening the door to approving of homosexual relationships in the Church, because it is "better to marry than to burn with passion." How far down the sewer things have gotten that we have gone from St. Paul, who said that such things should not even be so much as named among us (i.e., they should be unheard of as occurring within the Church, see Ephesians 5:3), to the likes of Papanikolaou arguing for the Church embracing these sins?

Now we come to the conclusion of this essay:
"What does all this mean for the experience of homoerotic desire? First, even though the authoritative sources weigh heavily toward condemning homoerotic sex acts of a particular kind, I have argued that ethical norms, rules, and practices, codified mostly in the canons of the Church, are discussable in a process of ongoing discernment. Given that, I have tried to provide a framework for discussing erotic desire in the hope of providing discernment for shaping sexual desire so that it leads toward God and not away from God."
Even though God clearly has forbidden such things, we nevertheless need to discuss whether or not God really meant it, or whether there might be some way to dance our way around these clear commandments, and do the opposite anyway. Again, we have theology done the devil's way (Genesis 3:1-5).
"If marriage is discerned to be, in part, an ascetical partnership, and if part of that ascetical partnership has to do with being attentive to the complexity of erotic desire so as to maximize the sacramental potential of this eros, the question for discussion is this: Is the structure of homoerotic desire different than that of heteroerotic desire? And if not, why is homoerotic desire precluded from the same ascetical shaping and sacramental potential that is affirmed of heteroerotic desire?"
What is the difference? St. Paul tells us the homoerotic desires are "dishonorable passions" which are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). On the other hand, he says of lawful marriage: "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled..." and then reiterates, "but the sexually immoral and adulterers God will judge (Hebrews 13:4). One involves violating nature to fulfill base desires, and the other is in accordance with nature, and results in the fundamental building block of society (and the Church), which is the family.
"There is ample evidence that homoerotic desire is shaped in long-term committed relationships in a way in which the virtues are manifest, and if there is to be discussion, then the Church should listen to those bridging voices of experience."
Does Papanikolaou really believe St. Maximus would agree that two men having sex with each other in a "long term relationship" was a means to manifest the virtues? The fact of the matter is very few male homosexuals have long term "monogamous" relationships to begin with, and only a minority of lesbians have relationships that actually end up being truly long term (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 452-460), but even if the opposite were true, it would not matter. St. Paul did not condemn the man in an immoral relationship with his step-mother because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. St. John the Baptist did not condemn Herod's marriage to his brother Philip's ex-wife because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear, and you cannot make a relationship that manifests the virtues out of an inherently sinful relationship.

If Papanikolaou was calling for a dialogue on how best to help those struggling with the sins of homosexuality or transgenderism, I would be very much in favor of it. This is an area that we could certainly use further exploration of, and it would be of benefit to the entire Church, if it were done on the basis of the moral teachings of the Church, rather than in spite of them. Sadly, this ain't what they're up to.

For More Information, see:

On the Writings of Archimandrite George (Kapsanis): A Correction

Discernment or Scaffolding?

Moral Heresy?

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

The Living Church 2.0

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Friday, November 08, 2019

Discernment or Scaffolding?

Aristotle Papanikolaou has just had two articles posted on the misnamed "Public Orthodoxy" website. If you had any remaining doubts that they really intend to push for the full acceptance of sodomy by the Church, these articles should remove them. I will respond to the second one in a separate article. This article is in response to ""Orthodox Morality" On Sex or an Ethics of Sex?"

Misusing the Writings of the Fathers

Papanikolaou begins his piece with this anecdote:
"Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay.
As this story illustrates, ecclesial ethics on sexuality have been primarily about sex and the criteria for establishing a morally right sex act."
It seems almost every article recently published by "Public Orthodoxy" makes some reference to St. Maximus the Confessor. One would almost get the impression that St. Maximus was some pot smoking hippie, who advocated free love, and sodomy. However, in a recent Twitter exchange on the subject, Papanikolaou acknowledged that in fact St. Maximus believed that any sex that was not for the purpose of procreation, and within lawful marriage, was sinful. That would obviously preclude homosexual sex, and yet these people continue to disingenuously appeal to his authority as if he supported in the slightest their agenda. Why do they do this? Because St. Maximus was a very deep thinker, and many of his writings sound very obscure to the casual reader... and so they use this obscurity as a smoke screen, since they cannot honestly cite either Scripture or the Fathers in support of their renovationist and homosexualist agenda. More on this when we deal with the second article by Papanikolaou.
"From the start, someone might argue that there is nothing to talk about, as the Church’s teaching on sex has been clear and succinct from the beginning. It must be admitted that the overwhelming body of shared authoritative sources of the Orthodox Tradition—Scripture, Councils, Writings/Sayings of Saints, Canons, Liturgy—does limit sexual activity to marriage, with some even restricting the performance of the sexual act for procreation. This raises the question of what can or cannot be talked about in the Church; it is a question of how we should interpret these shared authoritative sources."
For starters, as we decide how to interpret these shared authoritative sources, the "overwhelming body" of which teach that sex outside of lawful heterosexual marriage is sinful -- which of them do not teach that? The verdict is not just "overwhelming," it is unanimous. They have literally nothing to support their position, and so they can only try to use specious arguments which appeal to obscure texts, while ignoring all we know about the Fathers who wrote them.
"Recently, the phrase “Orthodox morality” has been invoked to name a definitive and unchangeable body of teaching on moral rules, but one cannot find such an expression in any of the languages—Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian—used for the texts that have been constitutive for the Orthodox Tradition."
"Morality" is certainly not a new concept in the Church. The only reason why one would perhaps not have needed to use the term "Orthodox" to modify "morality" in the past is because in the history of the Church, even among heretics, few have ever challenged what everyone has always understood as Christian morality -- and within the Church, this was unheard of. Now, however, we have people who claim to be Christian and even claim to be Orthodox who would have us believe that it is acceptable for a Christian man to have sex with another man, not repent of that, and still receive communion. So now, what is Orthodox morality is a matter in dispute, at least by some.

The Nicolaitans and Moral Heresy
"Some even argue that the word “heresy” was used for moral infractions and bring up as proof the Nicolaitans. The Apostle makes passing reference to the Nicolaitans for both their works and teaching (Rev. 2.6, 15), after which they are mentioned only rarely and linked to Gnosticism (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3.11). They came to be included in the lists of “heretics” as a result of this affinity with Gnosticism and not for the acts of eating food sacrificed to idols or sexual immorality."
Here Papanikolaou is referencing exchanges he and I have had on this subject, but he is misrepresenting what I have said. I never said that moral infractions (i.e. the actual sins) are heresies. I said teaching that a sin is not really a sin is a heresy. I in fact have repeatedly clarified that this is what I was saying, and so to continue to misrepresent what I have said is simply dishonest.

The Nicolaitans were not heretics because they struggled with certain sins -- they were heretics because they taught that one need not struggle with certain sins, namely with regard to sexual immorality. Papanikolaou claims that they were condemned because they were Gnostics, and not because of their teachings on sexual immorality, but he cannot cite a single Father who would support his claim. The Fathers consistently taught that the Nicolaitans were indeed heretics, because of their teachings on sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Not a single Father gives any description of their teachings as involving any other specific heresy. So Papanikolaou is simply making things up here, because he does not want to have to deal with the implications of a clear example of a moral heresy.

He references St. Irenaeus, but what does St. Ireneaus say about the Nicolaitans when he actually describes why they are heretics, and what they taught?
"The Nicolaitans are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 1:26:3).
It is also interesting that he claims "The Apostle" makes reference to the Nicolaitans in Revelation 2:6,14-15, when in fact if you look up the text, in a red-letter edition of the Bible, you will see that these words are indeed in red. Christ Himself condemned this heresy, and not just in passing, but rather quite directly.

In Revelation 2:14, the Lord speaks of them thus:
"...thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication."
The Fathers consistently describe the heresy of the Nicolaitans in precisely these terms.
"For the Church, actions were never labeled with the adjectives of “Orthodox” or “heretical,” only beliefs centered around the Trinity or the person of Christ (the dogma on the icon is an extension of the debate on the person of Christ). As St. Basil argues in his “Letter to Amphilochius, Concerning the Canons,” “by heresies they meant those who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith” (Letter 188). The dogmatic proclamations of the Council were always separate from the canonical proclamations. Morality was codified in the canons of the Church. Yes—there must be a consistency between theology and ethics, between dogma and canons, but while dogmas are non-negotiable, canons are part of the ongoing discernment of the Church."
It is not the actions of the Nicolaitans that made them heretics, but their teachings about sexual immorality. Teachings are not actions, and teachings can be heretical, and teaching that a sin is not a sin is heretical. That the Nicolaitans were heretics is repeated throughout the Fathers. The nature of the heresy is only described in terms of their teachings on sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Therefore, continuing to claim that there is no such thing a heresy when it comes to teachings on morality is false.

For more information on this subject, see: Moral Heresy?

"While the Church has always condemned both beliefs and actions, moral infractions are dealt with through penances: a sanction is imposed for breaking moral rules, whereas rejection of the divinity of Christ qualifies for “heresy.” This also explains why, as is readily evident, there are ample examples of once morally forbidden actions that the Church now allows. One of the clearest examples is usury, but the Church has also revised its guidance on divorce, slavery, consulting Jewish physicians, and other canonical matters."
These are red-herrings, but let me address them briefly:

Usury: It is certainly true that as times and circumstances change, how the Church applies unchanging principles to different situations will vary... but that does not mean that the principles are up for grabs. In the case of charging interest, the Church was opposed to charging interest... in the context of a society that had currencies that did not inflate in value (being based on things like gold, silver, and copper that tended to either retain their value or increase in value over time), and in which individuals lent money to people without regulation, usually at exorbitant interest (i.e. actual usury), and in a context in which debtors who could not pay their debts ended up in prison or being sold into slavery (and quite likely their wives and children along with them). In our current context, in which the value of our money decreases with inflation, money is lent in a regulated fashion, in a context in which people who cannot pay their debts can walk away not only without paying the debt but in many cases without losing all that they have purchased with the money they borrowed, and without any fear of jail or slavery, things are just a wee bit different. In the former context, to lend money to the average person with interest was exploitative, and could lead to their complete and utter ruin. In our current context, when a bank refuses to lend to someone because the bank doubts their ability to repay the debt, this is considered to be an injustice. Anyone lending money at no interest today will not only not have the use of their money in the mean time, but will be repaid with money that is worth less than it was when it was lent in the first place. And of course they also run the risk of not being paid back at all, and without that risk having any potential benefit to themselves. To argue that the fact that the Church does not treat these very different circumstances in the same way therefore means that gay sex may not really be a sin is not an argument made by a person who desires to illuminate the truth -- it is the argument of one who willfully obscures the truth.

Divorce: Has the Church "revised" its stance on divorce? Christ taught that one should not divorce except for cases of infidelity (Matthew 19:1-10). St. Paul speaks of one further reason for divorce, and that is abandonment, in which case he says "A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases" (1 Corinthians 7:10-15). All the legitimate reasons for divorce are extrapolations from these two teachings. For example, if a husband beats the snot out of his wife or abuses their children, this is taken to be a form of abandonment, even though the husband may not desire to leave the home, because his actions force the wife to leave the home, if he cannot otherwise be made to change his behavior. Divorce is in fact provided for in the canons, and even for those who are the guilty party in a divorce, there is a path to restoration in the Church. Divorce is always a sin on the part of at least one of the spouses. It is not an unpardonable sin.

Now are there bishops who are too lax when it comes to dealing with divorce? Probably so, but that actually is a pastoral matter, not a matter of a change in principle. In other words, you don't hear bishops or clergy teaching that divorce is no longer a sin. Likewise, when it comes to dealing with homosexuals, there are some clergy who may be too strict, and some who may be too lax, but so long as they all treat it as a sin, this is a matter of pastoral discretion. However, if a clergyman tells people that this sin is not really a sin, he is guilty of teaching error, as well as pastoral malpractice, because he is deluding his flock and giving them a bum steer on the path of salvation.

I am not David Bentley Harts biggest fan, but he actually does make some good points on this subject in his recent essay "Divorce, Annulment & Communion." See also "Divorce."

Slavery: I have addressed this previously in "What about Slavery in the Bible?" But in short, the Church has not reversed any principle here. No one was ever commanded to own slaves, and slavery was never seen as a good thing. Circumstances have changed. We still have some forms of involuntary servitude that are allowable by law (as a punishment for a crime, and in the form of the military draft). In the future, perhaps these will no longer be permissible by law. And perhaps in the future, society may decide that paying someone to flip hamburgers for only $7.25 an hour is immoral too. None of this changes the principles of Scripture or the canons.

Jewish Physicians: In the ancient world, there was no such thing as secular medicine as we know it today. At the time of the canon in question, Non-Christian Jewish doctors mixed their beliefs with their practice of medicine and so it was a religious issue for a Christian to go to such a doctor. Going to see a modern secular physician is an entirely different matter. If one went to a Jewish doctor who mixed faith healing into his practice, then this canon would apply, but I don't know of any modern examples of such things.

Unlike these red herrings, there is nothing about sodomy that has changed since the times the Scriptures and canons of the Church were written. Only if you don't really believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the Church would you think that we might need to revise the teachings of the Church on an issue about which the Church has been so clear.

Biblical Morality

Papanikolaou argues that speaking of "biblical morality" muddies the water, but then proceeds to muddy the water himself by trying to conflate Old Testament ceremonial law, and the moral law:
"How can we be sure that our ongoing discernment within the Church is faithful to the Tradition? Some might define this faithfulness in terms of “biblical morality” or in terms of length of time the Church has proclaimed a particular moral principle, moral rule, or canonical prohibition. Phrases like “biblical morality” muddy the waters as it gives the impression that morality is reducible to literal interpretation of injunctions from the Bible. One look at Leviticus would dispel such a way of interpreting the Tradition of our Church, not to mention the New Testament prohibitions that the Church today does not follow to the letter (Mk 10:11-12 [depending on how one interprets this obscure passage]; 1 Cor 11:6, 14:34). Orthodox Christianity is a religion of the person, not of the book, and the Scriptures, which are foundational, authoritative, and sacred, point to the person of Christ who becomes the hermeneutical key for how to read Scripture."
He brings up Leviticus, and obviously is referencing the many ceremonial laws that we in the Church do not observe. The Fathers make a distinction between the moral law of the Old Testament, ceremonial laws, and purely civil laws. Even in the Old Testament, you never hear of a Prophet condemning non-Israelites for things like eating shrimp, or having garments made from different kinds of cloth. I have addressed this question in more detail in "Shrimp and Homosexuality" and "The Continuing Validity of the Moral Law of the Old Testament."

He then again brings up slavery, and laws and canons that regulate it. I have already addressed the question of whether such things constitute an endorsement of slavery in "Laws about Slavery." If there were laws and canons that required one own slaves, and then the Church later reversed them, or if there were laws and canons which prohibited slavery, but then the Church later reversed them, Papanikolaou would have an argument. But this is not the case.

"Some might argue that to say that ethical norms and practices are subject to discussion is a form of relativism and a result of being influenced by secular, modern, liberal discourse that is diametrically opposed to Orthodoxy. First, discernment is part of the Tradition of the Church and it does not involve relativism since there is a clear telos in sight for this process of discernment—theosis. Second, “diametrical opposition” is itself a form of dualism that is theologically problematic, since the Holy Spirit is “every present and fills all things.” In fact, all heresies are a form of dualism, and the dogmatic Tradition around the person of Christ resisted this absolute dualism between the created and the Uncreated. Moreover, the Fathers and Mothers of our Tradition have always identified what is good in Greek pagan philosophy. Is recognizing what was right in Platonism a capitulation to Greek pagan thought? The very structure of the soul used by St. Maximus (see part 2) to make sense of a life in theosis is itself an appropriation from Greek pagan philosophy. Does that invalidate the theological anthropology of St. Maximus? Finally, why is discerning ethical norms in light of new information a surrender to a diametrically opposed form of discourse? Could not the absolute rejection of modern, liberal discourse itself be a form of defining Orthodoxy in light of this self-opposition? And if the opposition itself is what is defining Orthodoxy, is this distorted apophaticism—we are what we are not—really being faithful to the Orthodoxy that in the end is about our ascent toward union with God?"
So we have a moral issue that Papanikolaou admits the Scripture and Fathers "overwhelmingly" address in a very clear manner. In other words, God has spoken. And yet Papanikolaou says we nevertheless need to use "discernment" on this issue. So he wishes to put a question mark where God has placed a period, if not an exclamation point. This, he wishes to argue, is how the Church "does  theology." This is in fact not how the Church has ever done theology, but it is how the devil does it.
"Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:1-5).
Papanikolaou and his fellow travelers say "We're just asking questions." The devil was just asking questions too. "Did God really say that?" And then after "just asking questions" the devil went on to undermine what God had said, in order to persuade Eve that it was actually OK to do precisely the opposite of what God in fact did say. This call for "dialogue" and "discernment" is not being called for because these folks aren't sure where the "dialogue" will lead. This "dialogue" is just the scaffolding necessary to construct the edifice they already have designed.

We have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. No thank you.

For more information, see: 

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

The Living Church 2.0

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality