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