October 27, 2009

orthodoxy and development

To continue a bit from my first post

Today, while everyone else was otherwise occupied, I came across a copy of Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday on my friends's bookshelves. I took a look at the table of contents, and noticed that Andrew Louth* had an essay in there entitled "Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?".

Fr. Louth correctly notes that development is implicit in the Western view of history, and therefore also in historical theology that is conditioned by Western historical practice. As he notes, much of modern Orthodox theology is done in a historical mode: Lossky, Meyendorff, Schmemman (or, for a name he does not mention, Afanasiev).

He notes early that, if Development is to be understood as making us "wiser than the Fathers", it must be rejected by Orthodox Christians. However, Newman's senses would seem to suggest just that, especially his claim that the Development of Doctrine is truly progress.

Interestingly, Louth finds that the Doctrine "strangely" anticipates Darwin's work on evolution. I do not find this strange at all. Louth correctly notes Newman's grounding in his time by mentioning his Romanticism and his similarities to Hegel. While Darwin's On the Origin of Species post-dates Newman's Essay by fifteen years, they were both coming from similar cultural sources. Evolution in no way began with Charles Darwin, and while Newman may have been more apt to follow Paley, evolutionary concepts were thick in the air for the entire 19th c. It is not strange at all that Newman would resemble Darwin (or Hegel).

Newman's Development rules out any conception of doctrine merely 'evolving' through logical accretion. Not only is the application of new technical language, as I put it, not Development by Newman's standards, but neither would be the development of new rhetoric be. Much of the power of the Fathers is in their rhetoric; it is no accident that we remember most the most literary of them.

Louth has examples of correct uses of historical relativism to understand the history of Christian doctrine; I love his note that the Cappadocians knew more of Origen than we, and Origen more of Greek philosophy (this is true simply by their greater access to texts, and greater access to a living tradition of both schools). However, he notes the folly of attempting to relativize long-standing theological disputes into mere misunderstanding (I think that this is most evident in the monophysite controversy).

Interestingly, Louth notes two cases where ideas of history would help lead to a better understanding of theology: The essence/energies distinction as found in Palamas, and the veneration of icons. I hope to touch on the former when I review Fellow Workers With God for the upcoming symposium. The latter I am too ignorant of, but I think that Louth has an interesting case in his discussion of St. Basil the Great's treatment of unwritten tradition that occurs near the end of his essay.

As he notes, Basil's examples of unwritten tradition are Liturgical: So the doxologies anticipate the formal declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. This is a supreme example of the Liturgy as the source of theological knowledge for the teaching of the Church. That image and veneration could also be part of such unwritten tradition is no stretch; no one who has visited the Roman catacombs could doubt the early Church's relationship with visual art.

The last part of the essay is a useful reflection on the meaning of the term theology. Theology is properly the the inspired writings of sacred Scripture: St. John being the exemplar. The central task for the theologian, as it certainly was for the Fathers is "to interpret the writings of the theologoi, that is,the Scriptures, in light of the mystery of Christ".

That very mystery into which we are baptized into and feed upon.

*I regret to note that I have never read anything of length by Fr. Louth before. This is a lack that I've felt acutely the past week or so, ever since reading this review of his Discerning the Mystery. After reading this essay, I shall have to get my hands on that book as soon as I can afford a copy.

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