Thursday, January 7, 2010

Medicinal Dogma (in a "spiritual, but not religious" culture)

Medicinal Dogma (in a “spiritual, but not religious” culture)

by Fr. Symeon Kees

Whenever an Orthodox Christian has a conversation about dogma with those who have bought into the ideology of secularism, he may discover that the secularist prefers language that deemphasizes the difference between the Orthodox Christian Way and other religions and philosophies in our culture. The secularist may either consider all religions meaningless or think that all the different “religious traditions” are nearly the same and point to common truths. To those who don’t understand the Orthodox Way of Life, our dogmatic statements and detailed explanations may seem like legalistic doctrinal definitions that unnecessarily divide people instead of bringing them together. Some people prefer to talk about “spirituality” instead of “religion,” but when the word “spirituality” is disconnected from the Church and her dogma, the word may be defined so vaguely that it is rendered hollow and meaningless. There is a reason that Orthodox Christians emphasize Orthodox Christian healing instead of just speaking about “spirituality” in a general sense or “Christianity” in a broad, “inclusive” sense.

Orthodox Christians share a common Way of Life, the life of the Church. We possess one Faith, the Tradition rooted in the primal spirituality of the human race that has been passed down in its fullness from generation to generation since the time of the Apostles. We outright reject attempts by others to treat the Orthodox Church as one of many denominations, to treat the Orthodox Way as a humanly-derived religion that is one of many legitimate spiritual paths, or to treat the dogmas of the Orthodox Church as rational speculations invented to answer interesting philosophical questions. Simply stated, the Orthodox Church is the Church, the original Church planted on earth by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for our healing and good health. The Orthodox Way, the Way of health and healing, involves the personal experience of God. The dogmas of the Orthodox Church are expressions of the unchanging Faith that lead man to transformation and keep him on the path of Life.

“Orthodoxy” means both right faith and right glory. The Orthodox Church emphasizes the importance of believing correctly because we know that what a person believes is not just a matter of opinion, but affects his spiritual health. The reason that the Orthodox Church treats heresy so seriously is that heresy leads people to spiritual sickness, which also results in psychological, emotional, and relational problems.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, the second bishop of Antioch (Syria) who lived during the time of the Apostles, instructed early Christians to avoid the false teachings of heretics. In his Letter to the Trallians, he wrote,

I exhort you therefore—not I but the love of Jesus Christ use only Christian food and abstain from every strange plant, which is heresy. For they mingle Jesus Christ with themselves, feigning faith, providing something like a deadly drug with honeyed wine, which the ignorant man gladly takes with pleasure; and therein is death. (1)

St. Ignatius also warned the Christian in Ephesus, writing,

For there are some who maliciously and deceitfully are accustomed to carrying about the Name while doing other things unworthy of God. You must avoid them as wild beasts. For they are mad dogs that bite by stealth; you must be on your guard against them, for their bite is hard to heal.

There is only one Physician,
who is both flesh and spirit,
born and unborn,
God in man,
true life in death,
both from Mary and from God,
first subject to suffering and then beyond it,
Jesus Christ our Lord. (2)

As heresy leads toward spiritual sickness, the dogmas of the Orthodox Church guide people along the path of healing. They are medicines for the soul. Dr. Harry Boosalis explained,

This aspect of dogmas as medicines by which we are cured and reach divinization (or theosis) is of central significance to Orthodox Tradition. As a result of the Fall, all mankind suffers from spiritual illness. From the ecclesial perspective, every man is sick and is suffering. There is not one who is spiritually ’normal’ or healthy, except of course for the Saints, who have attained theosis—that is to say, they have been granted the gift of participation in divine life, for which man was originally created: ‘So in the Church we are divided into the sick, those undergoing therapeutic treatment, and those—saints—who have already been healed.’ Orthodox theology thus provides a therapeutic method or process whereby one is healed through the purification of passions, experiences divine illumination, and ultimately attains theosis: ‘Theology is a therapeutic treatment. It cures man.’

Herein lies the importance of Orthodox dogma. The aim of Orthodox dogma is not to subject man and to confine him within the borders of a particular religion. Rather it is to help him to be healed. Dogma leads man to therapy. It leads to the cure of the fallen human person.

However, it must be emphasized that dogmas in themselves do not heal man; they simply show the way. An intellectual acceptance of the letter of dogma is not an automatic guarantee of being healed. It is not a matter of simply agreeing with the wording; one must experience the spirit of Orthodox dogma by means of a living faith within the therapeutic life of the Church. Dogmas are truly meaningful ‘only for those who have encountered the Living Christ…and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church.’ Cut off from the ecclesial experience, dogmas remain dry, empty, and abstract formulae. Dogmas are thus not ends in themselves; they are guides that point the way toward the therapy of authentic spiritual life in Christ. The purpose of Orthodox dogma is to heal.

Heretical teachings, on the other hand, always arise from those who do not know or follow, or who have deviated from, the Church’s therapeutic process. Whenever a heretical innovation is manifested within the Church, it results directly from the fact that the one introducing this innovation neither has a correct understanding of dogma, nor has he truly experienced the proper therapeutic process of the Church. This is what led the Church to define her dogmas—in order to protect and preserve the truth of her therapeutic method of purification, illumination, and theosis. (3)

Heresies have arisen throughout the history of the Church. When the false teachings of heretics have flared up, the Church has responded. The dogma of the Orthodox Church is unchangeable. We preserve the Faith handed down to us bythe Apostles, the Faith confirmed by the experience of the Church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the “pillar and ground of truth,” in every generation. In response to heresy, the Church sometimes expresses the dogma of the Church in new ways to explain with enhanced clarity what the Church has always believed. Ultimately, the Church’s motivation for expressing dogma is the healing (salvation) of people.

The Church is Mystery and theology is the experience of the Mystery. The dogmas of the Church are not attempts to define the Mysteries of the Faith which is far beyond explanation, but they draw a line across which one leaves the experience of the Mystery and enters the realm of heresy, delusion, and spiritual sickness. Here is an example of the place of dogma within the Mystery of the Church: The Church distinguishes between the three Persons of the One Uncreated Essence in this way: The Father is Unbegotten, the Son is Begotten (eternally of the Father), and the Holy Spirit Proceeds (from the Father). This definition provides a boundary across which one will fall into heresy. These distinctions between the undivided Persons are not intended to do what they cannot - to contain or express the fullness of the Mystery of God. As St. Gregory the Theologian wrote:

What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words? (4)

The Orthodox Church calls all into her open arms, including all those who have wandered onto the treacherous, poisonous path of heresy back to the life of true personal spirituality, healing, transformation within the life of the Church. For us, the ecumenical movement is not an occasion for us to minimize what separates us from the non-Orthodox, but an opportunity to teach others what the Orthodox Church is, the only Church founded by Christ, and to invite everyone into the Church, where right belief and right worship have been preserved as our Way of Life for 2,000 years.

An important note: The Orthodox Christian defense of Orthodox dogma must never be reduced to arguments fueled by arrogance over doctrinal positions. In the West, “theologians” are considered to be scholars who hold advanced academic degrees and teach theological concepts. A true theologian in the Orthodox Christian sense, however, is not a scholar educated by books, but one who personally experiences the Existing One, the true and Living God, through a life of prayer and repentance. To know God in the Orthodox Christian sense means to know God by experience and, therefore, to manifest His radiant divine love, humility, and peace. Proclaiming Orthodox dogma and pointing out heresy is good when motivated by love and accomplished with humility and prayer. Arguing about theological ideas intellectually without personally striving to be a theologian, acquiring humility and love in the heart through prayer, is anti-theological. The Orthodox Way is not about being right, but being good and loving.

Prayer, repentance, love, and humility were essential for the Fathers who carefully expressed the Mystery of the Church through dogmas during the past centuries. Let’s follow their example and remember this:

In fact, the [Orthodox] Christian religion transforms people and heals them. The most important precondition, however, for someone to recognize and discern the truth is humility. Egotism darkens a person’s mind, it confuses him, it leads him astray, to heresy. It is important for a person to understand the truth. (5)

When the dogmas of the Orthodox Church are kept in our minds and the theology expressed by them is known within our hearts, they serve to keep us all, including health care providers, on the Way of healing. It is not enough for health care providers to rationally know about Orthodox dogmas, intellectually agree with them, and try to follow them as objective guidelines. That is not sufficient. Health care providers who truly desire to care for others within the context of the Orthodox Christian Way must immerse themselves in the healing life of the Orthodox Church, remaining obedient to their bishop, learning as much as they can, worshipping attentively, prayerfully repenting, and regularly seeking the guidance of their spiritual fathers. We must all strive to fully participate in the inner life of the Orthodox Church so that we may become true theologians who, with pure hearts full of love, know God and serve Him humbly. A health care provider who is a theologian through prayer can best offer complete healing care, guide patients toward treatment options, and help the infirm derive spiritual benefit from the experience of sickness and suffering while pursuing good physical health. All this is accomplished, of course, alongside the ministry of our bishop, priests, and deacons within the life of the Church.

(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Jack N. Sparks, “Letter to the Trallains,” par. 6-11 (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life, 1978), 94-95. Another translation of the above text is available for free at this address:

(2) St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Jack N. Sparks, “Letter to the Ephesians,” par. 7 (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life, 1978), 79-80. Another translation of the above text is available for free at this address:

(3) Harry M. Boosalis, “Life-Giving Dogma: An Orthodox Approach to the Study of Dogmatic Theology,” St. Tikhon’s Theological Journal, vol. 3 (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2005), 29-67.

(4) A free copy of the above text from The Fifth Theological Oration is available at the following address:

(5) Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, trans. by John Raffin (Limni, Evia, GRE: Denise Harvey, 2005/Originally published in Greek by the Holy Convent of the Life-giving Spring: Chrysopigi, GRE, 2003), 94.

Copyright © 2010 by Fr. Symeon Dana Kees