The Shortcomings of Contemporary Orthodox Apologetics

I would say I am someone who is rather engaged in the online world of Orthodox conversation, so for someone like me, it does not take very long to notice particular patterns with Orthodox conversation (if one could call what I often see, “conversation”) in the realm of contemporary Orthodox apologetics with the non-Orthodox. Even though I am Orthodox, I think it is necessary to be honest about what we need to work on. So, here are some of the things I’ve observed:

“The East doesn’t define things, that’s a Western thing.”

This is one line that is frequently stated to contrast the Orthodox approach to the that of Western churches. However, such a statement is also extremely misleading. We don’t have some explicit tradition stating thou shalt not define things. There are some underlying general differences in how the medieval West developed through Latin scholasticism, but in my opinion, much of this thinking is honestly unfair to Roman Catholics, because it seems “defining things” was largely a direct result of both 1) intellectual theologians being over-represented, and 2) the pressure from the Protestants that forced them to draw lines in the sand. Had the East been the ones with the Protestants (instead of being somewhat suppressed by the Ottomans), there would most certainly have been similar developments among the Orthodox, and we need to be humble about that. Zealously pointing out that the Orthodox Church avoided such a theological crucible is not a good selling point, as it could be interpreted that Orthodoxy is simply not as developed as Catholicism, and is thus not relevant with regards to the questions of modern society.

Every Eastern Orthodox theologian was in the business of “defining things” to some extent (St Athanasius, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa, and especially Origen…all of which are Eastern), so establishing theological clarity through the refining of definitions is not automatically a bad thing. This reality is why we use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed instead of the original Nicene Creed. Some stuff needed to be reworked and added to bring further clarity in light of the present heterodoxy. Changing the creed is not an issue in of itself. Changing the creed without the approval of the whole Church is another story.

This “Anti-West” mentality seems so pervasive in contemporary Orthodox apologetics (or to be more accurate, “polemics”), and it seems to me that it is largely (if not entirely) built upon the Russian philosophical foundations of Aleksei Khomaikov and his 19th century critiques of the West, rather than something truly ancient. It was the ideas of Khomaikov that influenced the great Russian Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov, giving their theology a bit of a polemical flavor. However, I think it is not in the spirit of Orthodoxy to demonize the entirety of Western civilization just because it developed differently, and that was certainly not the approach of Georges Florovsky (as Marcus Plested points out in his book Orthodox Readings of Aquinas).

If one approaches apologetics with the assumption that the West has it all wrong, such apologetics will inevitably mutate into the barking of the deaf. Talking to others with fingers in your ears isn’t dialogue, its preaching. If you’re good with a shield, then there is no need to use a sword. In other words, we ought to forget about attacking everyone who isn’t Orthodox and focus on our defense. We need to ask the questions: “How do people attack us? What arguments would be a good defense against these attacks?” We need to stop being trigger-happy, and start getting better with the shield. I’ve seen Orthodox Christians speak to Catholics with attitudes that downright scandalized me. It’s like watching a deranged husband slap his wife for burning his dinner back in 1054. I encountered one Orthodox person on the internet who was a total jerk to Protestants and justified his hostile behavior by claiming he’s just being like St Ignatius. Indeed, some read the Church Fathers to imitate their virtue and ignore the vice. But others, like that man, prefer to identify with the vice, convincing themselves it is virtue, and then justify their own vice.

I’ve also seen many Orthodox Christians go out of their way to find things with which to disagree with Catholics, and even try to create polemic-based dogmas around those points of disagreement… not because the Western understanding is necessarily false, but because it’s Catholic (or because it isn’t Byzantine). It’s time we stop the domestic abuse, and start wooing the woman back into communion with class. Like a true gentleman, not like a drunkard. Do not the Scriptures say in Romans 2:4 how it is the “goodness” of God that leads to repentance? If you are Orthodox, and you want to be better than the non-Orthodox, be better at humility. Be better at charity. Be better at prayer. This is how we win apologetics.


“The Orthodox Church continued unchanged for two thousand years.”

This is a very common statement, but it is also dishonest. Of course there are going to be changes. The first century Church was not citing the Nicene Creed. St John Chrysostom was not singing hymns written by St John of Damascus. We today do not use the first century liturgy of St James. There was a time when only married men could become bishops, and now it is the complete opposite. There were many years when the majority of the Church was Arian. These things cannot be adequately addressed if we continue to say simplistic things like “the Church has never changed.” Fearing the word “change” is not a good reason to perpetuate false information.

It is my belief that all apologetics must adapt to the response. If you’re a military general and you send soldiers into a forest when you get word that the forest is clear, what happens when you receive word that, actually it isn’t clear: it’s an ambush. Would you not adapt your former strategy to take into account the new development? In the same way, we can’t keep using apologetic strategies that have been unsuccessful for many years. I have seen the way people respond to misleading statements like these, and it leads to extremely zealous converts eventually coming to the realization that they’ve been duped, and Protestants thinking the Orthodox are willfully ignorant of basic facts.

Therefore, popular apologetics must transfigure and take on a form that actually answers the questions people ask, in a way that they will understand. We are quite vocal about our history with translating the Bible (as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on Latin), and yet our translation seems to stop at the Bible. Because when it comes to basic dialogue, we don’t want to validate anyone who doesn’t think, talk, dress, and act like a 8th century Byzantine.

When there is confusion among the people about what something means, the proper response is to charitably seek understanding and find a way to make it work…not ignore it because it’s a foreign language to eastern ears, and pretend like one is winning the mystical life by being ignorant.



Showing 5 comments
  • David Armstrong

    I think both a.) being a biblical-scholar-in-training and b.) engaging more deeply over the last six months with Roman Catholic theology (especially through the work of Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., who has written the essential book on East and West–Rome and the Eastern Churches, pub. Ignatius) has made me deeply weary of Orthodox apologetics, particularly in relationship to Rome, for both the reasons you list above and for others. Scholasticism is as much an Eastern thing as it is a Western one: any cursory glance at the Eastern Fathers will reveal a deep concern to be able to present the faith systematically and in the categories of the best philosophy of the day, and it’s notable that St. Thomas Aquinas and the early scholastics had wider reception (and praise!) in the East than they did in the West. The idea that Orthodoxy has been a static reality “since 33 AD” is as farcical as is the idea that the Fathers are a monolithic corpus: nothing is exactly the same as it was in the days either of the apostles or of the Fathers, and Orthodoxy as it has emerged from centuries under the heel of militant Islam and atheistic communism is in many ways a much war-wearied and indeed transformed communion from what it was previous to those impositions. There are both macro and micro examples of this. One micro example that I often reflect on is the evolution of the Liturgy, and the “vestigial elements” still present in our modern celebration of Chrysostom’s Liturgy, their meaning largely transformed because we don’t do them correctly (er, I mean, the way they were intentionally designed to be done, erm, uh, I mean…): we no longer process into the nave during the Little Entrance or into the Altar area at the Great Entrance; few churches still have “proper,” Byzantine baptismal fonts (though many Roman churches do); etc.

    Then there are the direct theological issues between Rome and us. On each of these I’ve come to the conclusion that Orthodox objections are, at best, potent requisitions of further clarification. According to Met. Kallistos Ware, the four major issues which stand between Rome and Orthodoxy are 1.) papal primacy, 2.) the filioque, 3.) purgatory, and 4.) the immaculate conception. On #1, a typical Orthodox apologetical answer shall tend emphasize ancient models of local ecclesiology, and shall especially stress the Pentarchy as the proper ecclesial reality of Christendom. Papal claims to special Petrine superiority and primacy, according to this reading, are late and un-Patristic. But this betrays an ignorance of the Fathers in modern Orthodox apologists: while abundant Patristic support exists for the idea of Rome as the quintessential apostolic see, whose bishop exercises *some* sort of significant role in the universal ecclesia (though what exactly that role entails and what its prerogatives are manifests no unanimity among the Fathers themselves), the Pentarchy is a derivative of Byzantine demography. When the Fathers want to talk about the truly apostolic faith, they often turn to the apostolic see, which itself intervened to quell the tide of heresy in the East (whence came the overwhelming majority of serious heresies) on various occasions, principally at the Council of Chalcedon. Of the remaining apostolic sees, the Mother Church of Jerusalem was scattered when the holy city was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and Alexandria and Antioch generally stood at odds with one another theologically, leaving Rome as the only possible apostolic source of unity in faith for the Church catholic in the Patristic period. (Along these lines, it’s also no accident that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is based largely on the older Roman creed.) Orthodoxy may have legitimate qualms and questions for Rome about the nature of papal primacy and authority in relationship to the rest of the Church and the Patristic corpus–points that, I think, on the whole, Rome and her doctors have done real soul searching concerning for the previous century, with some important conciliatory proposals forthcoming from some quarters–but Orthodoxy must (and has, in the person of the theologians she has appointed to official dialogue with Rome) recognize the unique character of the vocation both of the Roman church and of her teacher and shepherd, the Pope.

    On the Filioque, Orthodox apologetics have a more legitimate reply to the West: the Filioque is manifestly not a part of the original Creed as composed at Nicea and ratified and expanded at Constantinople, and so its addition represents a failure of the Church of Rome to exercise truly ecumenical conscience if she desires to represent all Christians in the true catholic faith. But even here, Orthodox apologists rarely recognize the exact path that the Filioque took to become a part of Rome’s confession. The Roman church was able to resist Charlemagne and his specter only so long, but it did make a valiant effort to uphold the original form of the Creed, as Jean-Miguel Garrigues points out, in its desire to maintain unity with the East. To paraphrase him, Rome’s soul was always more Eastern than Western.

    Orthodox theological objections to the Filioque run into difficulties of their own. Apologists often misrepresent the Latin position as suggesting that the hypostatic origin of the Spirit is in the Son as well as from the Father as though from two principles, but this is not how the Latin tradition has typically understood or theologized about the Filioque, which has maintained the essential hypostatic origin of both Son and Spirit in the Father. Moreover, two outstanding issues remain for the Eastern tradition, which Orthodox apologists frequently miss, obscure, or ignore. First, and perhaps most pertinent, Orthodox objections to the Filioque often fail to provide an alternative theological account for the eternal relationship between the Son and the Spirit: Monopatrism not only offers no answer as to how the Son and the Spirit relate to one another (other than in their mutual origin in the Father), but actually seems to obscure the Father’s character somewhat, since the Father is always the Father of the Son and the Spirit cannot proceed from the Father except as he is the Father of the Son (again following Garrigues, as summarized by Nichols). Second, Orthodox objections fail to realize that many of the Latin Fathers universally acclaimed in both East and West accepted and taught the Filioque, whether explicitly or implicitly; a typical Eastern apologetic response to this since at least St. Photius has been to stress that the Fathers are not infallible (which is a point that needs to be acknowledged anyway), or to question the sanctity of the Fathers involved (thus the myriads of Orthodox in the West today who refer to Augustine as simply “Blessed” and do not realize or confess his sanctity, despite the fact that the Fifth Ecumenical Council confessed him as a saint). Here, again, I think Orthodoxy can raise some important questions for Rome about the Filioque: how does the Filioque preserve the Father as the principle of unity in the Trinity (the one God whom we confess from whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds) and the uniqueness of the divine persons and their various points of origin (the Father as anarchos, the Son and the Spirit as finding their arche in the Father)? Ought not this dogma to be affirmed in an ecumenical context and not merely unilaterally by one of the local churches, even one as exalted as the church of Rome? But I have rarely encountered apologists who ask those questions with such sensitivity.

    Purgatory was a major issue at Lyons and Ferrara-Florence, and has been the subject of Orthodox rebuttal since at least St. Mark of Ephesus. But here I confess that our objection has never made much sense to me: some kind of purgatorial postmortem existence is clearly envisioned by several of the Fathers and seems to be implied by the prayers of the memorial service. Why, in short, do we pray for the dead if they immediately enter into either heaven or hell, as many modern Orthodox confess? Though not quite identical, the tradition of the toll houses also reflects some consciousness in the East that life after death brings for the average Christian further and final trial and refinement before enjoyment of the repose of the saints. On the whole the Roman doctrine is very conservative in what it affirms, and in its essence was implicitly affirmed by the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem with its affirmation that some of the faithful dead suffer temporarily in Hades and their suffering can be alleviated through prayer and the Eucharist. Orthodoxy speaks with a divided voice on Purgatory.

    Finally, the Immaculate Conception is often taken by apologists and Orthodox theologians as indicative of a deep divide between East and West on the issue of the nature of sin. Apart from the fact that the doctrine was not formally dogmatized until the mid-nineteenth century, the most frequent argument advanced against it is that it reflects the Western concept of original sin, paradigmatically reflected in St. Augustine, as opposed to the Eastern concept of ancestral sin. The difference, apparently, is that according to the Eastern doctrine, we inherit from Adam not sin as such but death: thus we do not share in Adam’s guilt, but simply in his punishment. As many scholars and theologians on both sides, East and West, recognize, this distinction was essentially invented by John Romanides in the 20th century (read this– East and West share an ecumenical condemnation of Pelagianism and mutually acknowledge the canons of the Council of Carthage, which affirms the Western conception of original sin, as they were received by the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Nicaea II. This is relevant to the Immaculate Conception because, as a doctrine, its intention is to explain how the Blessed Virgin Mary could have been without personal sin and thus worthy to become the Mother of God. The accusation that the dogma is “new” is as meaningless as it is untrue, because simply objecting to it fails to provide an alternative explanation to the question and the problem: how was Mary without sin if she was born from Adam? Modern Orthodox maculinism does not satisfactorily explain this. The doctrine itself is not new, either: in what is perhaps the most ironic feature of this issue, the Immaculate Conception was an originally Byzantine doctrine (espoused especially by Sts. Germanus of Constantinople and John of Damascus) and was celebrated in a Byzantine feast long before it came to the East (I recommend the chapter on this in Nichols’ excellent book, There is No Rose: The Mariology of the Catholic Church). Here, it seems, Rome’s dogmatization of the Immaculate Conception came at the end of a long process of doctrinal dispute and reflection which began with the Eastern ascription of immaculacy to the Blessed Virgin, rather than ex nihilo.

    On almost all of these theological issues, I, as an Orthodox Christian, am convinced that Rome has the better argument, even if I think there are legitimate outstanding questions from an Eastern perspective that demand ecumenical answer. But conceding the force of Rome’s arguments has not convinced me to become Roman, because Christianity is more than a purely intellectual affair. In this sense my reasons for being Orthodox as opposed to Roman Catholic are entirely pragmatic: I am Orthodox because I think I may live a more fully Catholic life within Orthodoxy in its present state, even if I think that theologically speaking Orthodoxy has retreated into a corner and stagnated, vitriolically opposing the West in a divisive fashion where it should be contributing to the conversation and opening itself to the possibility that the West has retained and developed much implicit in our own tradition. To me, the present liturgical and ascetical state of the Latin Church is abysmal, as the fallout of Vatican II continues to wreak havoc on the Mass and the Church continues to fail to impose the ancient practices of fasting on the Church. Though Orthodoxy, too, has developed over time, and is not externally identical to its form in the earliest centuries, it does resemble its earlier experience more deeply and organically than the West does. Orthodoxy has retained a deeply rich and classical liturgical life, and a life of reverent fasting and ascetic effort, in a way the West has not. Orthodoxy has retained, too, a theological emphasis on deification, not only experienced liturgically in the sacraments but also professed in devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the saints, that is present in the West though not as pronounced. To become Roman would mean walking away from an intensely formative Christian life that continually encourages and enables me to seek holiness.

    Finally, from the Western perspective, Orthodoxy is a true church with true apostolic succession and valid sacraments. Orthodoxy is, from a Roman perspective, a schism within the Church: the East is the Church’s “other lung” in the language of Pope St. John Paul II. But from the West’s perspective, what that means is that I have real grace here with which I may cooperate for salvation. I remain Orthodox not for the apologetic arguments that initially convinced me but out of the recognition that this is my home within Catholic Christianity, and in the hope that God will eventually mend the breach and make us one.

    May the Lord our God, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, end every schism and heresy among Christians, and raise up a new Peter to proclaim the fullness of apostolic truth to the whole church and unite us in the one faith of Christ. Amen.

  • Eric Lozano

    Amen, Ambrose!

    • Matt Segel

      Wow, very powerful, thank you

  • Jaacob

    Can I get an amen.

  • Orkando

    This is a wonderful piece, deserving of great praise in its honesty and willingness to seek the truth. An excellent piece.

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