Reversible Infallibility: When a Dogma Becomes Irrelevant

Once a second-order doctrine is recognized by the Church as infallibly constitutive of the Christian faith, must it be considered irreformable under all conditions and circum­stances? Historically, as George Lindbeck notes, this question “is not traditional, and therefore there are no clear answers given in the tradition” (“The Infallibility Debate,” in The Infallibility Debate, p. 130). The Orthodox teach that the dogmas promulgated by the seven great ecumenical councils express irreformable divine truths and are binding upon all Christians. Roman Catholics agree, but expand the list of infallible doctrines to include those defined by their 2nd millennium synods and papal ex cathedra decrees. Protestants, on the other hand, insist that the creeds and doctrines of the post-biblical Church must always be open to revision, correction, even rejection on the basis of the plain teaching of the Scriptures. No one, however, has entertained the possibility of reversible infallibil­ity; yet given “our much greater awareness of historical change and cultural and intellec­tual pluralism,” the question, says Lindbeck, can no longer be avoided (p. 130). Doctrinal formulations do not fall from heaven. Each is conditioned by its location in history and can only be properly understood within its cultural and philosophical context. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, for example, presupposes the centuries of theological and philosophical reflection that preceded it. It could not have been composed by first century Christians—the homoousion would not have made orthodox sense to them. But it did make sense to fourth and fifth century Christians and was rightly incorporated into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. From that point on the confession of the substan­tial identity of the Father, Son, and Spirit was acknowledged as an elementary truth of the catholic faith and touchstone for subse­quent theological formulations.

It is difficult, probably impossible, for Orthodox and Catholic Christians to envision the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon ever becoming dispensable, no matter what changes the future might bring. Once clearly discerned as expressing the inner structure of faith, they must continue to operate with full regulative force. We may speak of them as second-order doctrines, yet they have, as it were, the ontological and syntactical force of divine revela­tion. As Lindbeck writes: “It can thus be argued that the Nicene and Chalcedonian formu­lations were among the few, and perhaps the only, possible outcomes of the process of adjusting Christian discourse to the world of late classical antiquity in a manner conform­able to regulative principles that were already at work in the earliest strata of the tradition” (The Nature of Doctrine, p. 95). Even if the terminology of “substance” and “nature” were to disappear from our way of thinking about reality (a possibility I personally cannot conceive), the truth they instantiate must always obtain, in every culture in every time. The Church will and must attribute the divine attributes of God the Father to Jesus Christ his eternal Son; and she will and must attribute to this same Jesus those properties and acts that belong to divinity and humanity. “These early dogmas,” states Lindbeck,

are a development analogous to the technical formulations of the basic syntax of a natural language. They are a movement to a higher viewpoint, to a second-level of technical language about the primary language, and as long as the primary language remains the same language, as long as Christian speech remains recognizably Christian, these rules state the way to speak the language in order to avoid what within it is nonsense. Contrary, then, to the Protestant interpretation which I mentioned earlier, they are irrevocably binding. (“Infallibility,” p. 136)

The dogmatic rules of Nicaea and Chalcedon clearly and definitively articulate the depth grammar of catholic belief. We cannot unknow what we now know.

But perhaps there are some doctrinal formulations that are so dependent upon specific philosophical, theological, and cultural perspectives that they become unhelpful when those perspectives cease to shape Christian apprehension of reality. Lindbeck cites the example of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstan­tiation. During the eucharistic controversies that arose in the Latin Church of the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians appealed to the then-dominant Aristotelian categories of substance and accident by which to distinguish the catholic understanding of the eucharistic transfor­mation from heretical formulations: the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, while leaving the accidents intact. Eastern Christianity temporarily adopted the Latin terminology, though without committing itself to its Aristotelian precision (see, e.g., “The Confession of Dositheus“). Since Vatican II many Catholic theologians have sought to explicate the eucharistic mystery in terms other than the substance-accident distinction. One might therefore wonder whether the traditional formulation has been superseded:

The doctrine of transubstantiation may be taken as an example … of a doctrine which was once assumed to be fully dogmatic and which now even fairly conservative theologians suggest is perhaps ony temporarily guaran­teed by the Catholic language system. Expressed in our terminology, they say, in effect, that this doctrine was required by the central affirmations, and perhaps also the basic syntax, of the faith in answer to questions or problems which arose about Christ’s eucharistic presence in a particular social, cultural, liturgical and intellectual setting. It was an unnecessary doctrine in the first centuries, and the situation of the Eastern Orthodox, happily for them, was such that they never needed it. But given the way Western eucharistic piety developed with its excessive concentration on the elements, and given an Aristotelian intellectual framework, it became a necessary and in this sense infallible rule of speech. It excluded certain ways of speaking which had become vehicles of heretical affirmations even though at other periods they had been used in an orthodox sense (e.g., by St. Augustine). Now, however, with the recovery of the communal dimension of the eucharist and with the development of more adequate ways of conceptu­alizing the eucharistic presence of Christ, transubstan­tiation is losing this quality of necessity. It is no longer essential to the full integrity of the faith, nor is it guaranteed by the totality of Christian thought and behavior as this needs to be worked out in our situation. In short, it is possible for at least some genuinely infallible doctrines to lose their infallibility. (pp. 130-131)

To Lindbeck’s historical remarks, I might also add that transubstantiation ultimately triumphed over competing explanations because it firmly secured eucharistic adoration against the objection of idolatry. In any case, the critical point for Lindbeck is that a doctrine once seen as necessary to the presentation of the catholic faith has now become less than necessary. In this sense it has lost its infallibility. This does not mean that the doctrine is false, only that more adequate state­ments for the eucharistic mystery have been found. That a dogma should prove to be only temporarily infallible cannot, of course, be known in advance. It happens when it happens, if it happens.

Catholics may take issue with Lindbeck’s choice of examples, but it should be noted that recent Catholic presentations of dogmatic infallibility approximate his proposal, though under the rubric of doctrinal re-formulation. Avery Cardinal Dulles, for example, proposes what he calls a “situationist theory of dogma” or “moderate infallibilism”:

The truth of the gospel is the saving truth of God, made personally present to us in Jesus Christ. The mystery to which the Christian stands committed is something that cannot be fully specified in explicit propositional language … In my view, historical situationism does not preclude an acceptance of infallibility, provided that the latter be moderately understood. Infallibility does not demand that a given formulation of the truth be always and everywhere imposed, but only that it be not directly contradicted. It means that when the Church, through its highest teaching organs, defines a truth pertaining to revelation, divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error. But it may well be necessary, as the generations pass, to reinterpret the defined dogma in accordance with the presuppositions, thought categories, concerns, and vocabulary of a later age. (“Doctrinal Renewal,” The Resilient Church, pp. 52-54; also see “Moderate Infallibilism,” A Church to Believe In, esp. 142-146)

There may come a time, both Dulles and Lindbeck agree, when conditions have so drastically changed that a long-accepted doctrinal formulation simply fails to communi­cate the faith of the Church.

Can we think of other possible candidates for reversible infallibility? Of Latin doctrines, Lindbeck cites the immortality of the soul, dogmatized by the Fifth Lateran Council (1513): “It could be argued that this belief is necessary to the integrity of Christian faith only when believers think in terms of a classical mind-body dualism, but not when their anthropology is Hebraic or modern” (Doctrine, p. 86). More controversially, he also mentions the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854 (pp. 96-98). The Immaculate Conception presupposes a scholastic understanding of original sin as privation of grace, an understanding not shared in the East. For this reason the Orthodox have had a difficult time affirming it, not because they wish to attribute sin and spiritual death to the Theotokos (God forbid!), but because they do not affirm the dogma’s underpinnings. The question then becomes whether the Latin teaching on original sin enjoys irreversible status in the Catholic Church. If it does not, then the Immaculate Conception might become a temporary infallible dogma, should Catholics ever move toward an Eastern understanding of humanity’s fall.

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45 Responses to Reversible Infallibility: When a Dogma Becomes Irrelevant

  1. I’ve found Lindbeck’s proposals wrt dogma and the task of theology to be very helpful. Dulles’ proposal is quite interesting here as well. I wonder to what degree the content of these “moderately infallible” is wrapped up in the form of their presentation–and if adjusting a supposedly infallible “form” would change the content or merely its presentation. I’ve had trouble working through these thoughts as I’ve wrestled with the “faith once for all delivered to the saints,” since the “delivered faith” is delivered through verbiage and philosophies at once foreign and familiar to our time. I’m just thinking out loud at this point, so I’ll wrap the comment up.

    Thanks for your posts, as always!

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  2. Ben Bollinger says:

    You mentioned that the promulgation of Chalcedon, that Christ subsists in two natures, is irreformable, however in light of this idea of being able to reform the “secondary” way we talk about “primary” matters of faith, do you think it would be possible to use this rule to reconcile Chalcedonians an non-Chalcedonians? My thinking on this being that both parties profess the same “primary” beliefs, that Christ is God and that He became man, and we only diverge on how we specifically want to speak of Christ becoming man. Just something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

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    • Steven says:

      There’s been a lot of work on reconciling Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians. Much of it involves examining linguistic differences which lead to much mutual hostility and misunderstanding. My understanding is that the growing consensus is that actual disagreement in substance over Christ’s nature was little to nil, when you strip away the language barriers. “Monophysites” became known to Chalcedonian theologians as the orthodoxy-compatible Miaphysites, etc.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ben, Lindbeck was deeply involved in ecumenical conversations throughout his career, and he developed his thoughts on the grammatical theory of doctrine as a way to address theological obstacles between divided churches. How can the churches be reconciled when they seem to have conflicting beliefs?

      Based on my limited experience, my guess is that both the Byzantine Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox are united in their practice of the two fundamental rules articulated by Nicaea and Chalcedon, despite differences at the conceptual level.

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  3. Enjoying this new series of posts. Traditionally Reformed churches have, in substance confessed the first four Ecumenical Councils (though these are not officially recognized in some Reformed communions and are in others) in the language of our own confessions. There has been a lot of damage to our Trinitarian and Christological witness, in my opinion, by a failure to simply codify these as binding. I’ve never encountered any arguments against the 5th or 6th Councils, except by universalists like myself and many here who wish to note that the anathemas pronounced against Origen et. al. were likely no part of the official proceedings of the council. But, the looming reef is the 7th Council and the question of icons.

    Now, I personally have no issue with iconography or the theological reasons behind their veneration, but obviously my Presbyterian denomination takes serious issue with the use of icons and images in worship. What I am unclear on is why (or if) it appears that veneration of icons became a dogmatic mandate that becomes binding on the Christian praxis. Was there no room for diversity on this question? Is something as significant as Nicaea II reversible if it is shown to be unnecessary. I can certainly see why the first four Councils are not reversible, and this is why even Protestants who are loath to be creedal still recognize them. I could use a little help from readers here who have a great deal more understanding than I do here. How does Nicaea II fit within this discussion?

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    • Steven says:

      I had to go back and read the council’s declaration. “… so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them.”

      I’m just shooting from the hip hear, but my initial thinking is that since this declaration was created within the context of the iconoclast controversies, veneration of icons was made a binding mandate by the council so as to prevent a loss of the orthodox faith altogether, given the ferocity of the controversy at the time. In a situation wherein Christians of various persuasions can live peaceably and work together with mutual respect, despite a plurality of views on icons, I think the binding aspect of the council’s language would cease to be intelligible and therefore “reverse infallible”, although the primary substance of the council (that icon veneration is good) would not.

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      • Thanks Steven, this is helpful.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        However, the council goes much beyond a mere “good.” The bishops in council understood the iconphile position to stand within the “ancient pious tradition” and thus should continue so as to “keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions.” They clearly situated the use and veneration of icons by Christians within the ancient faith and practice of the church through the centuries, as guided by the Holy Spirit. Veneration of icons, holy objects, relics etc. was not deemed an optional good but part and parcel of the Christian faith as it has been lived out from the very beginnings of the church – this was the breakthrough of Nicaea II. Removal of holy objects, their practical and theological space inhabited within the church, irreparably distorts the Christian faith.

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        • Robert, this is helpful for me trying to grasp the significance of Nicaea II. Like I have said I am certainly not an iconoclast, and I occupy an uncomfortable space in my own tradition because I am (a somewhat closeted) iconophile – though in a very measured manner in my own private devotion.

          But, I do have a hard time embracing the mandates of Nicaea II, even if I am generally agreeable to the theology motivating it. The problem is, I think that the NT gives a good deal of latitude on matters of praxis (whether one keeps a day as holy or doesn’t). Irenaeus picks this up in the Quarterdecemon Controversy, essentially stating that the differences in Christian practice confirms their unity in faith. It does seem that certain aspects of liturgical and devotional practice has become more regulated over time (we do it as Protestants as well, just in a less obvious way).

          I’m having a hard time understanding the bridge from a valid theological position to a necessary one.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Monasticism is a fundamental part of Christian practice. It does not however follow that all should be monks.
        Likewise, even if one accepts that the veneration of icons ought to be a mandated part of Christian practice as a whole, it is difficult to see why this mandates that all individual Christians everywhere should be required to put in a minimum quota of icon-worship in order to be saved.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Iain,

          It is not worship of images, but veneration. Huge distinction. Nor should the veneration of holy images and objects be conflated with the various vocations (such as the monastic calling) which are voluntary and diverse in nature, varying depending on one’s station in life, based on calling etc. Additionally to view veneration as measurable by degree (such as meeting minimum quotas) and as a measure of salvation is to profoundly misunderstand its theology and practice. I can recommend Leonid Ouspensky’s essay, The Meaning and Language of Icons he explains the role and meaning of iconography quite well.

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          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            I am sorry to have used the wring terminology – no offence was intended and I should stress while my own (Anglican) tradition doesn’t really do the veneration of icons, we are all at home with religious imagery in worship in the broader sense, and if this was something I knew the how’s and why’s of I wouldn’t have any difficulty with it.
            My remark about “quotas’ was meant to be absurd: my point is that it is difficult to see how it is sensible to mandate individual Christians in their private devotions in the way the Council decision could otherwise be taken to be trying to do. In the context of iconoclasm, the Council mandating the veneration of icons would seem to me to be more sensibly understood as forbidding the removal of icons and requiring their return to public worship, in a context where they have been forcibly removed.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Good point Iain, and no offence taken at all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jed, I am confident that Lindbeck would say that the first step toward the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Reformed would be for the Reformed to refrain from condemning the Orthodox for the veneration of icons and for the Orthodox to not insist that the Reformed must venerate icons.

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      • I completely agree, Fr. Kimel. My only sticking point with Nicaea II is the mandate. I think Steven brings up some valid points about why the mandate is given. Personally, while I love the austerity of Reformed worship (Calvin’s Geneva Liturgy has profound depths), I am not an iconoclast and the hostility to icons among the Reformed is bothersome to me.

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        • Ben Bollinger says:

          I would though question why “the mandate” of icon veneration would be opposed. It’s clear that veneration of icons and holy objects has a strong presence all throughout Christian history, so it just seems odd to say “I’m just not going to do that.” Yes obviously no one is trying to paint a legalistic picture here (“venerate icons or you’re damned!”) but rather trying to encourage people to do things that are spiritually healthy. I think usage of icons and holy objects greatly improves one’s spiritual life, and is a great testament to the incarnation and the cosmological scale of Christ’s redeeming work as redeeming all of creation. Fr. Alexander Schmemann discusses this at length in his books “The Eucharist” and “For the Life of the World”, that Christ’s redeeming work through His death and resurrection are made manifest to the world through the Church and Her life in worship. Because in Her worship, the Church takes a created thing, such as water, and turns it into a fountain that washes away sins in baptism. She takes created things like bread and wine and turns them into the means of eternal life. Similarly, She takes created things such as icons and holy objects, and makes them windows into the heavenly kingdom. The original purpose of created things was the worship of God. The first Adam corrupted creation, and thus distorted this purpose, but the second Adam redeemed creation and restored its purpose. This is why icons are to be venerated, because it is a true testament to the work of Christ.

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          • From a Protestant framework (which here I heartily embrace) the reason why the mandate of Nicaea II is difficult has to do with the freedom of conscience. Now I stand apart from my own Reformed tradition because I do not think that the veneration of icons is idolatrous, and I do not think that they should be forbidden either.

            Now, in a very real sense icons are as ubiquitous as the language of signification. Robert Capon once noted that Scripture itself presents us with a treasury of icons (e.g. a burning bush, seraphim before a throne, a mobile throne chariot, etc.). I would argue that the whole realm of nature contains a unique idiom of signification if one takes the analogia entis seriously, and through these we encounter the Word of God present in all things. So, it is of less consequence to me what degree of holy objects are present in the liturgy of the church.

            The great contribution, and validity of the typical austerity of the Reformed liturgy (for those Reformed churches that adhere to a liturgy) is that it is strikingly similar to the order of service laid out in the Didache. In Reformed worship, the role of faith in the Presence of God becomes vital (though I would argue no less vital, just of a different expression from other traditions), because we do not live in an epoch where faith has not become sight. So, at the invocation, it is an act of faith to believe that the individual and the congregation is taken up into the presence of God, worshiping him in heaven in the presence of the saints and angels (which is precisely what Calvin and Vermigli taught), and it is the lack of images to guide the mind that allows the mind to be transported into higher and deeper spiritual realities.

            If Nicaea II had simply commended the use of images, and stopped short of a mandate, perhaps it might be more agreeable to certain Protestants. Perhaps not for cantankerous Presbyterians. But, my opinion for now is that codifying certain modes of praxis as dogma entails real problems. Maybe Nicaea II was necessary at the time, and the theological motivations might remain perennially relevant, but are the demands on the liturgical practice of the church perpetually binding. Now, I realize that Orthodox Christians, given their dogmatic commitments cannot be expected to approach the question in the same way (or with the same liberties) as a Protestant, but for me it is something I do wrestle with.

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          • Steven says:

            This conversation interests me though I’m a little reluctant to say more than I already have, fearing my own contribution will be subpar for the general discussion. I’m Roman Catholic though I’ll say right up front I speak only for myself here and very well could be in a minority within my own communion, but…I agree with Robert that veneration of relics, icons, and holy objects is “part and parcel of the Christian faith as it has been lived out from the very beginnings of the church.” My use of the term “good” to summarize the council’s position on icons was admittedly facile, though I used it with the intent of maintaining brevity and hoping my point would be better taken. One thing that troubled me as a Protestant which helped tip the balance to my coming to Rome (and a later return) was the general lack of recognition of the place of icons in early Christianity, and sometimes outright hostility to this important aspect of our patrimony. Some are able to maintain that tension and remain within their church, but I was not that strong. Yet I also agree with you that in the grand scheme of things we’re at a point where icon veneration should be given latitude as an issue of freedom of conscience, relative to our current situation in church history wherein Christianity is fragmented into various communities which are recognized by mainstream Catholics as authentically Christian. I think the theology of Lindbeck and Dulles that’s been discussed is a promising way forward in terms of ecumenical recognition of the Holy Spirit’s authentic presence and work in the various Christian communions, without getting deadlocked into a stalemate wherein each side demands concessions the other simply can’t imagine making. I hope we’ve learned our harsh lessons from the 16th century by now, though often times (not on this thread) it seems internet discussions have not. If we’re to take Lindbeck’s proposal on infallibility seriously, I think ours is a situation wherein at least in the contemporary West, we could recognize the mandate’s historical necessity but also acknowledge its contingency, and consider that perhaps the mandate should be re-interpreted in a less strict sense, given our current situation of greater ecumenical relations between communions. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there was the same level of recognition of authentic Christian identity given to the historical iconoclasts that’s now given to Protestants who nonetheless generally remain wary of icons. Hope that helps and doesn’t come across as shallow nonsense.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            The Orthodox, and I one among them, will not be amenable to any concessions about icons. This is for the reason that with the removal of icons/objects/matter as loci of revelation the entire notion of salvation and therefore the Christian Gospel will go down with it. In other words, it is a non-negotiable for the Eastern Orthodox, as it touches upon the very heart and soul of the Christian message, its faith and practice.

            Now, that said, I will be glad to enter into dialogue with fellow Christian brothers and sisters of whatever tradition, stripe, or denomination to listen and be heard respectfully. Don’t mistake it for a hostile, belligerent intolerance.

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          • Steven says:

            Your comments are appreciated and also have revealed to me a blind spot to the fact that my opinions reveal a very western bias. Roman Catholicism doesn’t seem to have the same….depth (is that the right word?) of icon theology as the Orthodox do. I think that makes it much easier for someone like myself to say, “yeah, I’m cool with relegating the issue to a matter of conscience and not making much fuss about it”, without doing the type of violence to my own theological foundations as it would for an Orthodox to say the same. Or at least, this is what’s come to mind at the moment. I think it’s safe to say in Roman Catholicism that icon veneration is accepted dogmatically and enshrined in our worship, but not nearly to the same degree or with the same understanding as with the Orthodox Churches. So yeah, I think this issue will be quite different regarding how Orthodox and Protestants navigate the Nicaea II mandate versus a Roman Catholic (with ecumenical or “progressive” tendencies) and Protestants.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Steven, Fr Aidan posted a very good reflection by Cardinal Ratzinger on this issue. You stand within a venerable tradition! Cardinal Ratzinger is absolutely right to draw attention to this, and he doesn’t hold back either.

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          • Steven says:

            The selection from Ratzinger was helpful and gave me pause to consider whether my ecumenical ideas I’ve expressed here regarding icon veneration may have crossed over into what would be tantamount to equivocating iconoclasm as equally valid as the orthodox position on icons. I try to think in the broadest terms possible regarding how exactly we can consider Christian unity in our fragmented Christianity, but far be it from me to equivocate a heresy with being just another good option. If that’s what I’ve done then I wholeheartedly withdraw everything I’ve said. On the other hand, I think others here have expressed more clearly what I’ve attempted to more or less say in convoluted way, so I think it’s time for me to acknowledge that I need to take my ideas ‘back to the drawing board’, as they say. Thanks for your input and a little pushback.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I do appreciate that Jedidiah, and that helps explain the struggle.

            There’s two things that are worthwhile considering about this, perhaps these are helpful.
            The first is that the theology upon which the iconophil practice is based runs quite deep in Christian tradition, it is quite venerable and lofty. And there’s a simple yet profound reason for this. Matter, objects and images have been revealed to be – not the hindrance – but the very loci of revelation. Christ incarnate is of course the Prototype, the express image of the Father, and the pinnacle of “higher and deeper spiritual realities” and in the flesh no less!. The restoration claim of the Reformed that lack of images/matter allows the mind to be transported into higher and deeper spiritual realities runs afoul of this centerpiece of the Christian faith.

            The second point is that theology is never out there in a vacuum, as if one could separate it from practice. This is precisely the point for the justification of the mandate of Nicaea II – to change practice is to change theology. It is to impoverish Christian theology and its practice were iconoclasm supported. And why would we want latitude to impoverishment?

            A thought on freedom of conscience and dogma – the entire Christian faith is voluntary, you can believe what you want, do what you want, etc. There’s no one that is going to force you into believing and doing this or that. The mandates are there as a guide post, to let you know, if you are so interested, this is what Christians agreed upon and this is how and why it is practiced, here’s the theology supporting this, the rationale behind that, etc. The mandates are there as spiritual helps and to set us free, but not to beat people into submission, to beat uniformity into the masses. Nicaea II affirmed that holy objects and images are necessary givens to bring us to freedom.

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          • Ben Bollinger says:

            I can definitely respect where you’re coming from, but ultimately it just comes down to a difference in how we understand worship and the Church. For Orthodoxy, and all apostolic churches for that matter, the Liturgy is our ascension to the heavenly kingdom, which is made fully manifest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (once I cannot recommend Fr. Schmemann on this enough). And so I don’t read Nicea II so much as mandating liturgical use of icons and other objects, but rather mandating a certain understanding of what worship is, that is an actual participation in the heavenly Liturgy, not just as “heaven” is now, but as it will be at the resurrection of the dead. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom claims to remember the second coming, thus showing its eschatological significance, and the significance of created things participating in worship: because this is how it will be at the end of time. But then again I’m just a college student so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Jed, if the veneration of images poses a problem of sorts, may I suggest that you begin instead with the veneration of relics. In honor of the day, here is the skull of St Valentine. 🙂

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Jed, regarding the question of conscience and the veneration of icons, I suggest the real issue is iconoclasm. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger devotes a chapter to the theology of image, in which he argues that the West never adequately received the Seventh Ecumenical Council. He describes iconoclasm as “the summation of all heresies”:

          The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. There will always be ups and downs in the history of iconography, upsurge and decline, and therefore periods when images are somewhat sparse. But they can never be totally lacking. Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.

          I commend Ratzinger’s book to you. Relevant excerpts can be found here and here.

          If the Reformed refusal to venerate icons, or even to hang images on the walls of the church, is grounded in a heretical apprehension of fundamental Christian truth, then that heretical apprehension needs to be directly challenged.

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          • Perhaps among the most militant Reformed (who wish to go back to the ‘glory days’) there is a thoroughgoing iconoclasm, but in most circles this is not an issue. I still bristle against the notion that iconoclasm (which I do take to be an error) to be summation of heresy. Rejection of Nicene/Chalcedonian Christology? Yeah, that’s pretty clear. That said, I think challenging Reformed theology and practice in this area is still a fruitful endeavor.

            It is important to remember that traditionally, Reformed Christians have operated with a regulative principle of worship. Now, this is interpreted differently in different circles, but the general idea is that Scripture regulates worship, so it would be impermissible to worship in a way that is not positively warranted in Scripture. So, absent some kind of command to use icons, it would not have warrant from a Reformed POV. Now, I think that this has at least some grounding in a logical reading of Scripture, even if I am more inclined to the normative principle adhered to by Lutherans and Anglicans.

            If there is a real ecumenical discussion to be had, I would assert that it probably has to begin with Christology because the logic of the veneration of icons is likely to escape all but the most informed in the Reformed camp.

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          • brian says:

            I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s excellent short story, “Parker’s Back” as exemplary of this astute observation.

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          • brian says:

            To clarify, while Jedidiah consistently says many fine things, the particular astute observation I intend is Father’s reference of Ratzinger’s book and is point about the the “heretical apprehension of fundamental Christian truth.”

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          An interesting side note. The 8th century conoclasts did not reject all forms of veneration. They continued to venerate the cross (curious that) but most importantly the consecrated bread and wine. They regarded the Eucharist as the one true image of Christ. The Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council are declared that the Eucharist is not an image of the Body and Blood of Christ; it is the Body and Blood of Christ.

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  4. Grant says:

    I remember reading and hearing from the late Father Robert Taft, the church and liturgical historian/theologian commenting on a similar line, in his case in discussing ways forward for Orthodox and Catholics, particularly in light of Vatican II, and his advocating of ecumenical scholarship and theology. This would be one that considers the ongoing witness in the ‘Spirit-guided apostolic Christendom of the East and West’, and in the case of conflicting traditions of East and West, with preference given to the witness of the undivided Church. Particularly in areas where later polemics resulting from ‘unilateral departures from or narrowing of the common tradition during the second millennium of divided Christendom.’

    In relation to the above he had the opinion that such an ‘ecumenical theology’ would mean in relation to the Eucharist, that Latin Scholastic transubstantiation theology would be considered only a theology, not the theology of the Eucharist:

    ‘ It might also mean Catholic theologians realizing that Latin Scholastic
    theology of the Eucharist is a theology, not the theology of the Eucharist –
    a theology that has a limited cultural context and an observable
    history. As recent, fully Catholic theological studies have shown, the hylomorphic
    theory of Eucharistic consecration— based on the Medieval
    Latin theology of the priest acting at the Eucharist in persona Christi— is
    a theology that became current only in the twelfth- century West, and as
    such is a theology of the Eucharist (and a perfectly legitimate one), but by
    no means the only legitimate one.

    To recognize that, one must learn, first of all, to distinguish between
    dogma and theology, and, in my view, the failure of some theologians to do
    so, is at the root of any real or perceived theological dissonance between
    East and West on this and other issues. Our common apostolic faith East
    and West teaches that during the celebration of the Eucharistic mysteries,
    the offered bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. That is
    dogma. Theology is what attempts to explain how that can be, and that is
    historically limited and variable according to the different traditions.’

    A very interesting, highly intelligent and quite frank person which seem to at times earn the ire of certain kind of internet reactionaries on both Catholic and Orthodox sides (to judge by some comment sections under some articles about him or his interviews and works on Catholic-Orthodox relations) which seems like he was probably doing something right 🙂 , Anyway the full article is below, along with others on Orthodox-Catholic relations:

    https://www.fordham.edu/download/downloads/id/2145/robert_taft_lecture.pdf

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  5. Grant says:

    I had another thought concerning how different cultural and historically contingent time or places in terms of linguistic and liturgical practice and devotion (particularly as liturgical languages) as well as specific understandings and wider resonances of the time might lead to a dogma being understood and conceptualized in one way, but may either come or be expressed differently in another. And the thought it brought to mind was the situation of the Church of the East in relation to their reception of Chalcedon.

    And from the blog East Meets East we get this:

    ‘ Notice two differences from the original form of the Definition of Chalcedon: Theotokos is rendered “Mother of Christ who is God and Man” and the phrase “one person and two qnume” where the original has Theotokos and just “one person”, respectably. The term Theotokos is not used by the Church of the East on grounds that it is unclear rather than strictly theologically wrong. The first reason Theotokos, Yaldath Alaha in Syriac, seems unclear to the Church of the East is that Alaha (God) refers to the God-head or the Trinity so the Church of the East rejected the sense that the Blessed Virgin is the “Mother of the Trinity”.

    Also, Mshikha (Messiah or Christ) is overwhelming defined as the God-man, Jesus Christ. Indeed, in all my reading of Assyrian Christological documents and having chanted through the services growing up, I have never seen Mshikha used in any fashion other than the God incarnate. Therefore, the Assyrian theologians wonder, why would one not prefer the name of the Second Person of the Trinity, Mshikha, to the name of the whole Trinity, Alaha, when describing whom it was the Virgin bore? Here’s a nice example of Assyrian thinking on the subject:

    It is just and right and proper that Mary should be called “Mother of Christ,” for that is the name that shows that there was one Person of unity, who in His human nature was of her nature, and in His Godhead, not of her nature. But seeing that from the first moment of the conception of the Manhood of our Lord, that He took from her, God the Word dwelt in it temple-wise and unitedly, and made it with him one Son eternally, we do say that she was thus “Mother of God” and “Mother of the Manhood.” Mother of the Manhood by nature; Mother of God, in that He was united to His manhood from the first moment of its conception; and it is His temple eternally, and He is God and Man unitedly, one Son, one Christ (De unione, VII:22; Wigram 288).

    Basically, Mother of Christ is preferred for it is seen as encompassing both Mother of God and Mother of Manhood and both latter terms are seen as insufficient. Indeed the term Mother of Manhood, Yaldath Barnasha, was rejected in the AD 612 Synod of the Church of the East as equally objectionable as Yaldath Alaha. Simply, there is an Assyrian Church allergy to phases that could be misinterpreted as eliminating the human nature of Christ. Of course, caution is taken to preserve the sense that Christ is one and that the Messiah is one person: God incarnate.

    Furthermore, Chalcedon’s careful expression of Christ as both one person and two natures, with the added and strong emphasis “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably in one person” is reflected in the Christological formulae used in synodical decrees of the Church of the East. The Assyrian Church of the East expresses Chalcedonian theology with great ease. Indeed, the theology and language of Chalcedon is repeated and restated not only in the Synod of Mar Aqaq (as referenced in my prior post), but also those of Mar Isho-Yahb (AD 587); Mar Sabrisho (AD 596); and Grigor (AD 605).’

    This is also where divisions in liturgical language and how they function in the life of faith, particularly in terms of interior logic, understanding and ‘grammar’ from the inside have historically lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions (such as outsiders assuming the Church was ‘Nestorian’ when they never followed or accepted Nestorius views at all). But divided from experiencing worship as it was not only said but lived in each tradition only passing familiarity with each other’s language would inevitably lead to such misconceptions (and associated condemnations of heresy and so on). Now thankfully we have the opportunity for better understanding between Christian confessions and can move forward in clarity, charity and truth.

    But in any-case, I feel this provides a good example of how different cultural and in this case liturgical language and associated understandings, meanings and resonances could lead to a preference for different terms, expressions and so on.

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  6. John H says:

    Father Aidan,

    Reversible infallibility is an interesting concept. If Lindbeck is right and the Roman Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a secondary, reversible doctrine, than so is the proclamation of the Council of Florence that those who die in a state of original sin or mortal sin immediately descend to hell to be punished. After all, if the mind/soul dies with the body, than nothing remains to endure the pains of hell. Which would of course remove some major roadblocks impeding traditional Catholics from affirming the universalist hope. Von Balthasar might have written in much stronger terms absent the doctrinal baggage of medieval ecumenical councils like Florence. O

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    • Grant says:

      While probably a controversial position among Catholics, the late Father Robert Taft seemed to hold the view that those councils not participated in or accepted by the rest of the undivided Church, might not be considered Ecumenical Councils (at least in the big E sense 😉 ). This would then put them on the same level as the pan-Orthodox ones in the East, authoritative to a point, but not at the level of Dogmatic authority in the way the first 7 were (8 if we include the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts). This is reflected in this quote from an interview below:

      ‘Taft: Yes, much that is put forward in this excellent historic document is already a reality or on the way to being so. For instance there is no “Filioque” in the Creed Russian Catholics chant in our Slavonic liturgy, and some years ago Rome issued a clarification of its Trinitarian belief about which the late French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément said if that is the Catholic teaching on the issue then the problem has been resolved. As for “ecumenical councils,” the Catholic Church might specify more clearly its list of those, which as far as I know we have never defined. Are the purely Roman Catholic post-schism councils to be considered ecumenical councils of the undivided Church? If so, says who?’
      (whole interview here: http://www.aoiusa.org/building-bridges-between-orthodox-and-catholic-christians-interview-with-fr-robert-taft-sj/ ).

      If so, then it such pronouncements as the Council of Florence would be even more subject to clarification and revision by a possible future Ecumenical Council that did represent the undivided Church (could it be revised, or recognised as only a doctrine or theology and not the doctrine or theology as with Taft’s view on the Latin theology of the Eucharist). Presumably it could also be clarified and possibly revised (given as Lindbeck says that the situation in which it was asserted no longer exists in terms of the anthropology that no longer thinks in terms of classic mind-body dualism) but a lesser council (i.e. a purely Catholic one).

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      • Dan says:

        Grant mentions the Council of Jerusalem. Was the prohibition of eating meat from strangled animals or blood ever formally rescinded? How might that fit in the discussion?

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        • Grant says:

          Well interestingly the Council of Florence said something directly to this:

          ‘It also declares that the apostolic prohibition, to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled, was suited to that time when a single church was rising from Jews and gentiles, who previously lived with different ceremonies and customs. This was so that the gentiles should have some observances in common with Jews, and occasion would be offered of coming together in one worship and faith of God and a cause of dissension might be removed, since by ancient custom blood and strangled things seemed abominable to Jews, and gentiles could be thought to be returning to idolatry if they ate sacrificial food. In places, however, where the Christian religion has been promulgated to such an extent that no Jew is to be met with and all have joined the church, uniformly practising the same rites and ceremonies of the gospel and believing that to the clean all things are clean, since the cause of that apostolic prohibition has ceased, so its effect has ceased. It condemns, then, no kind of food that human society accepts and nobody at all neither man nor woman, should make a distinction between animals, no matter how they died; although for the health of the body, for the practice of virtue or for the sake of regular and ecclesiastical discipline many things that are not proscribed can and should be omitted, as the apostle says all things are lawful, but not all are helpful.’
          ewtn.com/library/councils/florence.htm Session 11

          The issue with sacrificing to idols very rarely pertains at least in obvious ways in many areas Christians find themselves in, St Paul addressed this in that while in his view eating meat given in sacrifice was not a problem in itself as it is being in truth offerred to nothing, and comes from God,and could be eaten. But for those in the Christian community unable to understand that distinction would be tempted to eat the meat as though offered to an idol, and lead being a stumbling block. St James might likely had a different view, but clearly this would link both involvement in idolatry and to keep peace and communion, and bearing in love within the Church. So if in situations where Christians still find themselves in such a situation it would be wise to continue to follow the advice and consider the decision as still ‘live’ as it were.

          The strangled animals is more related to Mosaic Law with a view that the blood source or container of the life of something, and in the Jewish view of the time, this both belonged to God and should not be something one should consume. However, this view blood as the direct source of life is no longer a view held by many for a long time, so that aspect is no longer a viable view (outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses I think), so it doesn’t really come into play. The other aspect, which was it’s main application, fellowship and harmony with the Jewish believers (since the particular Jewish view wasn’t one universally shared through the Gentile lands), as from many the idea of consuming blood was repugnant and unthinkable, suggests pastoral concerns were at the forefront of the ruling (along the lines of St Paul’s own discussion in Corinthians). However the mostly Jewish character of the Church has long not been the case and so this wouldn’t really apply in terms of maintaining communion in love, though if that were to change then perhaps decisions to abstain from eating blood (such as black pudding etc) might become something to consider (also just good manners, it isn’t something you’d offer or have at a meal with your Jewish friend 🙂 ).

          They key dogmatic point that does trancend the percific cultural and historical situation is that Christians are free from Mosaic Law (particularly in terms of circumcision, dietary and various other regulation) to the liberty of the Gospel and the Spirit, and it neither is part of what marks someone as a follower of Christ, nor is it a part of the Faith nor does it have any part in salvation. The only aspects that are markers of Christian life from this are both abstaining from fornication and living in communion in love towards God, without distension or causing unnecessary troubles for brothers and sisters.

          On the topic at hand though it is an interesting point you raise that the specific issues in a number of areas that the Council addressed and gave rulings on long since have ceased to operative, and that particular setting and historical and cultural understanding has not been operative, and the rationale and logic behind the ruling no longer apply, so they have long since fallen away as necessities of the faith, or do they have any bearing on keeping the full integrity of the faith as Lindbeck says.

          So this is right in Acts as Dan hints at, a possible example of exactly this process Lindbeck is suggesting happening fairly early in the life of the Church, of a dogmatic ruling losing it’s infallibility.

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  7. Fr. Kimel, if I showed up with a skull in church, I’d better be prepared to recite Hamlet otherwise I’d likely be shown the door 😉

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  8. Ben Bollinger says:

    Another thing I’m curious about is that I understand how this idea works with regard to specific doctrines promulgated by the councils. However how would this work with regard to the condemnations of people and their ideas? Must we hold the anathemas of the councils to be of the same sort of infallibility as the specific doctrines professed there? Is there something in here that could allow one to “lift” the anathemas on certain people like Origen, John Italus, etc.? And if so, would we have to change the Synodikon?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The Syndodikon is not a doctrinal source. Its authority is no greater than the synods whose condemnations it contains. What that means is that each condemnation must therefore be examined in its historical context.

      What should also ask what the point of an anathema? Here I agree with Lindbeck, Newman, and others that an anathema sets a doctrinal boundary of the mystery, i.e., it specifies ways of speech that should be discouraged. Thus Lindbeck:

      This is why it is so much easier to specify what a dogma denies than what it affirms. This is why it has been traditionally and quite rightly said that the meaning of a dogma can be more precisely determined from the canons where false views are anathematized, than from the chapters where doctrine is positively expounded.

      The other purpose of an anathema is to excommunicate, and excommunication is always for the purpose of repentance. That is why posthumous condemnations of faithful believers makes no sense. And one certainly does not condemn by name a baptized Christian who died in communion with his Church as a result of injuries sustained in persecution. We are not committed to defending the practice just because Ecumenical Councils indulged in it.

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      • Ben Bollinger says:

        I just have a hard time understanding how the Synodikon is not doctrinal, given it’s proclaimed during the Liturgy, and that’s not something to take lightly.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Ben, there is a distinction between matters of the faith (oroi, which concern dogmatic questions) and administrative matters (chiefly the canons). These are both important of course, and as you say rightly not to be taken lightly, but there is a difference. Excommunication falls under the administrative function of the church. These may not be completely and neatly separated, as for instance in an excommunication for reasons of espousing heresy. Nevertheless, I think the distinction is worth considering. I hope that helps.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Clearly the Synodikon contains doctrinal claims, Ben, but it is not an independent authority. Just survey Orthodox theology. How many theologians (as opposed to internet popes) invoke it to defend specific doctrinal positions? They do not. When they appeal to authorities, they quote Scripture, the decrees of ecumenical and local councils, the writings of the Church Fathers. They don’t quote the Synodikon because it is principally a compilation of synodical anathemas. Its recitation on the Sunday of Orthodoxy does not confer any stronger authority upon the anathemas than they already possessed. Hence we are still left with the task and responsibility of properly interpreting them and that means understanding them in their historical-cultural-philosophical context.

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  9. Brian

    I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s excellent short story, “Parker’s Back” as exemplary of this astute observation.

    At minimum, I do thank you for a great new idea for a tattoo. I haven’t read O’Connor yet, I am still trying to get through Dante and Proust, but I did very much enjoy the story and it does speak to the discussion in a way I can appreciate. As a general rule I think that fiction can capture more truth than it is often given credit for.

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