The Anti-Heretical and Therapeutic Purpose of Dogma

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Empirical Dogmatics Vol 1_frontIt was pointed out earlier that dogmas are a formulation of the experience of the saints and lead to the experience of revelation. They are a record of experience and a guide to experience. This also reveals that the purpose of dogmas, which we shall examine further in this section, is dealing with heresies and guiding the faithful.

“The dogmas of the Church are the axioms that originate from this experience of purification, illumination and glorification. Dogmas are not the outcome of conjectures, as Western theologians, historians of dogma and our own people who follow them, believe.

Dogmas did not result from the speculative endeavour of clever theologians indulging in philosophy. Dogmas are formulations of the teaching of the Church, produced by the Fathers of the Church to protect it from heresies. Because every time a dogma was formulated, it was done in order to counter a specific heresy.

The Church never gathered to formulate dogma for the sake of the conjectural expertise of theologians, who sit in their university chairs speculating on the basis of philosophy, sociology and so on. No such thing has ever happened. All the Ecumenical and Local Synods, whenever they were engaged in drawing up dogma, were always opposing a particular heresy.

This is the precise historical reality. From the point of view of the patristic tradition, the formulation of dogma against heresy was an expression of the mystical experience of the Church. Because heresy was opposed to the life of the Church and contrary to the experience of the Church. What is this experience? It is purification, illumination and glorification. Orthodoxy is anything that accords with this experience.”

The Ecumenical Synods were convened in order to counter heresy and heretics, but at the same time to catechise the faithful, in order to protect them from heresy. Their purpose was also to cure people, so that they might acquire unceasing prayer and reach glorification. In this context we can see the value of dogmas.

“The strange thing is that, on account of the Arian heresy — because of the nature of Arian teaching — the Orthodox Church was compelled to introduce a new terminology into the formulation of dogmas, to word dogmas correctly, so that Christians would not stray into heresies and risk their salvation.”

“The holy Fathers, from the therapeutic point of view, were trying to find a common terminology. Essentially, from the point of view of the internal structure of the Church, which means purification, illumination, glorification, sacramental life and so on, there was no need for this formulation. But the formulation was necessary for catechetical purposes, and so the faithful could be protected from heretics and know who the correct teachers were, and be able to find treatment. This treatment did not exist among the heretics.”

It is clear that, as well as dealing with heretics, the terminology also contributes to curing people — the faithful — so “dogma is dogmatic treatment”. It has “therapeutic significance”. This being the case, the criteria of Orthodox theology “are not conventionally dogmatic, but therapeutic”.

“Now, the therapeutic part is the most important of all, because if someone does not pass through the treatment, the fact that he accepts the dogmas is of no significance, according to the Fathers. The purpose of the dogmas is to be used as medicines for man’s cure.

Dogma is a medicine. The strange thing is that, just as in the experience of glorification even Holy Scripture comes to an end, together with all concepts and words, so dogma too is abolished in the experience of glorification. What is a dogma? Is it not concept and word? Dogmas are concepts and words. They are no different from Holy Scripture and from all the thoughts in general that we have about God.

This raises the whole issue of how dogmas developed in the Orthodox Church. Was it because the Fathers wanted to understand nature philosophically, or did dogmas develop negatively, against heresies?

If you consider dogmas — and we shall consider them, if you want us to follow the whole subject from one Ecumenical Council to the next — you will see that every time the Church made one of its teachings into a dogma, it did so, not in an effort to understand the faith, but to rid the Church of heretics who were distorting the faith. The paradox is that it was the heretics who were attempting to understand the faith philosophically, not the Fathers.”

The dogmas also orientate us correctly towards the experience of glorification.

“Subsequently, we ought to be aware of the purpose of dogma in the patristic tradition, which is to help man with the concepts he has about God. These dogmatic concepts help him on the path of purification and illumination. And when he reaches glorification, the dogma, of course, comes to an end and he has before him the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

This means that no one can look at dogma apart from the path leading to illumination and glorification.

“We formulate dogmas about God, which do not express God but are signposts towards illumination and glorification. A guide towards glorification. If dogmas are taken out of the context of worship and asceticism, they make no sense. Separate the dogma of the Holy Trinity from worship and the experience of illumination and glorification, and from the rational point of view it is complete nonsense. It tells us nothing. From the philosophical viewpoint it is completely untenable. Why? Because the Fathers do not begin by thinking. They begin from that specific Person Who appeared to the Prophets. The Angel, Who is called God, appears in the burning bush. He is Christ.”

Every science and every social achievement needs to be examined to see how successful it is and what results it produces. The dogmas of the Church ought to be examined in the same way. Dogmas are successful when they lead people to purification, illumination and glorification.

“What is the criterion for Orthodox theology? Success. Of what use is Orthodox dogma to us, if it does not lead anyone to purification and illumination?

There are some [the Matthewites] fanatics here in Greece* who have no idea about purification and illumination. All day long they bark like dogs in support of Orthodox dogmas and against heresies. What can we do with an Orthodox Christian like that? He is narrow-minded and has no idea about curative treatment. [Note: this same ^statement can be said of the Ecumenists!]

So what is the criterion for this individual? Can I accept as a criterion simply a blind devotion to Orthodoxy, or should I have the success of Orthodoxy as my criterion? And what is this success, other than purification and illumination?”

The same can be observed when people are conservative and accept the dogmas, but do not regard them as therapeutic means. They do not see the relationship between dogma and treatment. In fact they turn revelational life into social life.

“Some important theologians have appeared nowadays in Greece, influenced by foreigners, who attempt to translate the Gospel message, Christianity and even Orthodoxy, into social Christianity, with social action as its main concern. There are some Orthodox among them, who remain outwardly faithful to the tradition. They accept all the dogmas. In some cases they are very conservative. But they no longer regard the dogmas as therapeutic means. Dogmas no longer have any connection with treatment.

They think that the dogmas exist to be put in a cupboard and taken out occasionally to be venerated, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we celebrate one of the Ecumenical Synods or one of the great Fathers of the Church. Then we take out the dogmas, dust them, and present them liturgically. The Church really does have fine services, and we honour the dogmas. And as soon as the veneration comes to an end, we put them back in the cupboard to gather dust again, so that we can take them out again next year, dust them once more and venerate them again.

They see no connection between dogma and treatment. We have reached the point that a certain Archbishop, not from the Church of Greece, told us at a conference that Arius was a saint! We sat there with our mouths open. He said, ‘He was a holy man, but he went wrong on dogmatic issues. All the same, he was a saint.’ Obviously he identified sanctity with the fact that Arius was probably a good man.”

To help us to understand the purpose of dogma, the quotation from St Gregory the Theologian is worth noting: “It is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him.”

“We have frequently emphasised that the purpose of words and concepts in the Orthodox tradition is never the rational understanding of dogma. We have words and concepts about God, the Holy Trinity, the incarnation and so on. The purpose of these words cannot be understanding, in the sense of rational conception. The Fathers stress that it is ‘even more impossible to conceive Him’. Because it is ‘even more impossible to conceive Him,’ the purpose of the concept cannot be understanding. And ‘it is impossible to express’. So when we give expression to God in words, these words are those that cannot express God. ‘It is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him.’

Taking account of this saying of Gregory the Theologian, what is the purpose of these words and concepts? Why ‘express’ and ‘conceive’? Concepts and words. The aim is not understanding, since God is beyond man’s conceiving and expression. The purpose of the words and concepts is union with God, Who is beyond words and concepts. Actual union.”

If we do not regard dogmas from this perspective, if we do not strive to experience them, then the dogmas are not actually fulfilling their purpose and they become ‘heresy’.

“The terminology should always keep the potential for purification, illumination and so on. Because without purification and illumination, salvation does not exist. This is salvation: purification and illumination. We think now that salvation means believing Orthodox dogmas. We are like idolaters who take the dogmas, put them in the cupboard and sit there prostrating ourselves before the dogmas, which we do not live in our lives.

Dogma is not to be believed. Dogma is to be experienced. Because dogma without experience is heresy. The worst heresy is for people to sit at their desks and assume that they can reflect [contemplate] deeply and think great thoughts about dogmatic issues. That is the greatest stupidity. As a methodology it is completely untenable. Only someone who is completely naive, who has no idea at all of academic methodology, could accept such things.”

[*it was in 1980’s when this was said by Protopresbyter John Romanides]

St. Chrysostomos the New Confessor

St. Chrysostomos the New Confessor

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