Metropolitan  Anthony  of  Sourozh
The Church of the Councils:
the "onslaught of the intellect and the potential of doubt


 'That which we have seen with our eyes'

It is important to remember that a first generation of the Church's members knew Christ as a person, and some of them from very early days. Nazareth, Capernaum and Cana are little towns or villages distanced from one another by a few miles;

it is not inconceivable that those who later became Christ's apostles and disciples had even met the Lord when he was a boy, a youth, a young man, and had thus discovered him in an exceptionally gradual manner. In due course we can see disciples gathering around him, discovering in him a unique friend, a guide and an adviser, then a leader. Eventually they are to discover him as he truly was: as God who had come to them, who had come into the world.

This progress reaches the kind of culmination to which the words of Philip point early in the Gospel of St John: 'We have found him of whom Moses and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth'. And what I said about its early stages may well explain the response of Nathaniel, 'Can there anything good come out of Nazareth?' For if you were to be told that somebody you have known practically from childhood, an inhabitant of a minute town round the corner from your village is declared to be the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, you would probably have reacted in much the same way.

The first disciples had such a direct experience of Christ, and it was important for the world that the first witnesses should be people who had been with him from the beginning, had step by step discovered him for who he was. Indeed, when Judas died his tragic death and the disciples wanted to elect an apostle to take his place, they made it quite clear that they wanted someone who had been with them from the beginning and gone through this gradual process of discovery. Thus they could all speak directly of Christ's days in the flesh as the days in the flesh of the incarnate God.

'That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you' .

The years passed, the apostles preached and proclaimed what they knew in the deepest and most personal way. Later several decades later the New Testament writings took shape. Fr Georges Florovsky once noted the importance of the fact that these scriptures were not produced as immediate, spontaneous, lyrical descriptions of what the disciples had undergone. Otherwise one could have doubted the validity of writings produced under the effect of strong emotion and deeply shaking events. Thirty, forty, sixty years later, these written testimonies appear as a mature reflection of people who had known Christ in the flesh, discovered the Christ of the Spirit and proclaimed an experience that could no longer be suspected of being merely an emotional response to friendship, love, bereavement or hallucination. Rather could it be seen as something deeply considered and true, not only autobiographically, but objectively. It could be seen as God's own truth about Christ.

With the passage of centuries these scriptures are received, are lived by, are experienced not only as the object of scholarship but as the means of communing in the experience which they convey. And not only they. To this day believers are able to assert, 'I know that God exists because I have met him': 'I know that Christ is risen, because within my experience I know the living Christ'. It may be through prayer, it may be at moments of particular illumination, it may be through the sacraments. One way or another, it is a direct conviction.

But at the same time there was a watering down of the experience in the life of many. It is easy to understand that in the heroic times when the Church was persecuted, when to be a Christian was not only costly but entailed the risk of torture and death, only the few were Christians: those who were prepared on the ground of an experience they had lived, an experience which they could not deny without denying themselves. But when the Church was permitted to exist openly, and later became the Church of the empire, floods of people came into it who would never have thought of joining the Church when it was a question of life and death. This dilution of commitment gave rise to several different factors.

On the one hand monasticism was born as a reaction against the anaemic Christian society which was taking shape. It began as a protest not against the world, but against the Church which had become weak and unsure in many of its members. It involved an exodus away from the weaklings of the Church.

It was not an escape into the desert of people who were afraid of living in the city. It was a migration into the battlefield with Satan. It was an exodus of those who wanted to fight the true fight rather than live a comfortable life of devotion within the framework of religion while yet possessed of a secular world-outlook.

The 'onslaught of the intellect'

At that stage another phenomenon came to the fore. It was what Daniel-Rops has called the 'great onslaught of the intellect'. The intellect marks the period of the Councils. People submit the faith to the criteria of their intellectual acceptance or rejection. Is it possible to believe this and that? Is it possible to accept such and such realities testified by the apostles and proclaimed by the Church? Can one reasonably be a Christian?

On the lowest level, it could have been seen that way. On a higher level, for instance that of Arius, the problem was more complex and more earnest. For Arius was a man of great culture and of outstanding intelligence. And he submitted the Christian faith to the test of philosophical assessment. One may see that he is an outstanding example of what a heresy can be when the intellect is considered as empowered to judge revelation, to judge the formulations of those who possess an experience which the observer himself does not possess, either at all or to the same degree. For Arius, the problem was basically that God could not become man since an infinite God could never become the prisoner of finitude. God was eternal, and could not become the prisoner of time. And in those days (and I refer once again to Florovsky, since for me his word has enormous value) no Arius could resolve the problem. Indeed, it took centuries of philosophical and scientific reflection and research to arrive at a vision of time which can accommodate the notion of eternity and space. For the first scientific book I know which really faces the problem (Emile Borel, Le temps et l'espace) was only written at the turn of the century. Before that, there was no scientific or philosophical basis that would allow someone to make the distinction and yet to realise that there is no contradiction in eternity pouring into time and not being a prisoner of it, or in infinity being within space and not being limited by it. Time and space, eternity and infinity were simply different categories.

One could say that eternity and infinity are God, and all the rest are created. But it is possible to go further. There is a remarkable phrase of St. Maximos the Confessor in which, speaking of the Incarnation, he says that the divinity and the humanity in Christ are united to each other in the same way in which fire can pervade a sword plunged into a furnace. The sword enters the furnace cold and gray, without any brilliance; it emerges aglow with fire, resplendent. Fire remains fire, iron remains iron. But this is imagery that would not have satisfied Arius: an image does not provide an answer to a philosophical question. Nevertheless this kind of image is an adequate description of a direct experience; and in this lies its importance.

What we find in this period of the Councils is people who try to address the gospel proclaimed by the Church from the first days to their own time against the background of classical philosophy or of the various philosophies and mystery religions that had developed later. Some harm could have been done because some of the imagery could be compared with that of the gospel and could thus be used as an accusation that the gospel itself is simply a new mythology.

Doubts were engendered in the minds of many: is not Christianity simply a more elaborate and philosophically more acceptable myth, but still of the same kind (and as unreal) as the mythology of the various nations of the past? As philosophical thought developed, as philosophy taken from the ancient world acquired a new maturity, the intellect came to feel self-sufficient, no longer in need of being guided by God himself. Thus problems arose from the confrontation of a mature intellect with the problem of faith.

The nature of doubt

Perhaps I should say a few words about the nature of doubt in this context. If you consider that your intellect is the criterion and that you have a right to submit all the data of revelation and all forms of experience to the judgement of the intellect, you are bound to condemn as unacceptable everything that does not fit within the categories of your intellect at the point of development it has reached at a given moment, and in the context of the culture which is yours at this particular time. Yet this is exactly the phenomenon before us. No longer is it the experience of the Church which is the object of this onslaught of the intellect. It is the scriptural text itself which may be taken to be faulty when it does not correspond to the intellectual expectations of the reader. The text can be reinterpreted or misinterpreted in ways which can be warranted perhaps by linguistics. But this is to forget that language forms part of a spiritual tradition and must be understood within this tradition and not outside it. Not surprisingly, it becomes a commonplace to attack the text of the Gospels, to argue that it is unsatisfactory, that it must be understood in a away in which the Church never did understand it. Here, indeed, is something which is inherent to the human approach to truth, and at the root of any progress I thought or in experience.

Let me make a parallel between the doubt, or succession of doubts, which a fever can have, and the way in which a scientist confronts created reality. A scientist collects all the existing facts of which he is aware. To begin with they are disparate; they may belong together in any way. The scientist tries to group them and at a certain moment, when a number of facts are capable of being held together, a model is built that allows him to hold all these facts together and reason about in their totality. If the scientist is honest and creative, the first thing he will do is to ask himself whether his model holds, whether it is a model that has no intrinsic flaw within itself, whether it takes into account all the information possessed to date. If he is satisfied on these counts, his next move will be to look for new facts that will not fit in with his model and will explode it. For the aim of a scientist list is not to create a model for which he will be remembered in the history of science. His aim is to create temporary models, hypotheses; models that must explode in order to enlarge knowledge and to contain new knowledge. Doubt in that respect for a scientist is a creative activity, an activity which is elating because the discovery that something does not fit in a preconceived or ready-made model allows him to discover reality on a wider scale and to see that reality unfolds wider and wider, deeper and deeper, making it possible for him to discard one hypothesis after the other, one model after the other. For him reality is unshakeable and cannot be lost because the model is exploded.

What is tragic in the doubt which we find in a believer is that instead of saying that the model of God, of creation, of the Church, of man which satisfied him fifty years ago no longer satisfied him, can no longer satisfy his intellectual and spiritual development, he makes an either/or decision: either to retrench himself in the old or to abandon his former position altogether. Whereas the developing person who rejects the model he earlier had of God or the creation when confronted with the depths and range of science or of philosophy, is proceeding with something not only legitimate but essential. By contrast, a believer who at the age of eighteen or eighty would remain faithful to a model adequate for an eight-year-old would be spiritually and mentally backward, incapable for communing with all the vastness, depth and greatness of God and of his creation.

Doubt, creative and destructive

Doubt, then, is legitimate. It is a creative, an important part of the discovery of the depths of God and the vastness of man and of the created world. But doubt in which only the intellect is used to judge the past model or the past experience is a doubt that will be destructive. Moreover, it will be destructive not only of the model, but of the very possibility of believing in the objective reality which is the object of our contemplation, our communion or our quest. And this is what I feel did happen in the period of the Councils. It is what we find in Arius, it is what we find in all the subsequent heretics: an intellectual problem does not correspond to an anaemic, insufficient spiritual experience, and the vigour of the intellect kills the abortive spiritual experience.

What we find in the Church is the contrary. It is the primacy of the experience which must be contemplated with all the powers of man, his intellect, his heart and all the powers at his disposal. I remember two definitions of theology which are entirely alien to what theology is in all its fullness. An introductory phrase in someone's Christian Dogmatics reads, 'Theology is to God what ornithology is to birds'. But this is exactly what it is not. First of all, God is no bird. You cannot catch him in the garden or in the field. You cannot take a film of him. You cannot go around him to see what he looks like from the side and from the tail end. And, what is perhaps even more serious, you cannot make a post-mortem. So you cannot know God and do theology in the way in which you can do ornithology. Another definition of theology I came across some thirty years ago states, 'Theology consists in drawing from scripture all the conclusions one can intellectually draw'. Far from it. Theology is an increasing knowledge of God through communion. It is an act of sharing in God's life, discovering it from within this communion and sharing, and so proclaiming it nothing less. It involves speaking of God from within the knowledge of God.

Unrealised potential

We are confronted with such problems in the period of the Councils. But has the Church of the Councils come to an end? I think not. It has not come to an end because the same onslaught of the intellect, the same onslaught of the godless approach to divine things, has continued throughout the ages. It is in action nowadays, within the Church and from without. And if we ask ourselves about heresies and heretics, what their position vis-a-vis the Church is, I would like to point out two things. First, the Church was right in condemning the heresies. But the Church which condemned the heresies from within an experience and a certainty often did so without explaining why this heresy could not be acceptable on the intellectual, rather than the spiritual plane. What I said about Arius, and the fact that in his time the distinction between time and eternity, space and infinity, was not philosophically and scientifically mature, allows people in our days to reason in the same terms. For the Church has not taken advantage of what philosophy and science have discovered and understood about these categories, has not explained what an Athanasius could not explain in his time in scientific or philosophical terms. And that could apply to every other heresy. Thus there is a task for people of our time who are conversant with philosophy or steeped in scientific knowledge. They have to reconsider the ancient heresies and ask themselves whether there is some sort of answer that can now be given from a point of view which is not simply the experiential point of view of the early centuries. For however intellectually mature that was, it failed to solve the problem on the level of the questioner who came from outside.

Secondly, in order to be balanced in our judgement of heresies, we should realise that the Church has been treating heresies in different way at various epochs. There is a remarkable article published more than half a century ago in The Christian East by Metropolitan Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of the narrowest traditional theologians of the Russian Church. Writing on the heresies, and in a manner contrary to what one might expect from him, he notes that the Church took an ever increasingly lenient attitude to successive heresies throughout the ages (allowing for certain exceptions when an ancient heresy was resurrected under some new guise). And he argues that one can explain this in two different ways. Either one says that the Church's sensitivity to what was true or wrong had diminished, and therefore that the Church, being less and less perceptive, accepted with ever more leniency the successive heresies. This he rejects wholeheartedly, and I think we all can and should reject it. Alternatively, the early heresies rejected elements of the Christian faith that were essential to the very existence of the Christian truth. To deny the divinity of Christ, to deny the humanity of Christ, were two heresies that denied everything that stood under the vocable of Incarnation and all that it means in terms of the nature of God, of the love of God, of the providence of God, of the nature of man, of the vocation of man, of the destiny of mankind and of the cosmos. Therefore such heresies were to be rejected without any kind of compromise as not being Christianity at all. But Antonii says that as the centuries went by, heresies attached to statements that did not hit at the very heart of the Christian faith. The monothelite discussion, or other more recent heresies of the West or of the East, were such as still accepted essentials which allow those who held them to be considered Christian. And Metropolitan Antonii uses a phrase which I find interesting: in his view every subsequent heresy or group of heretics took away with them an ever increasing amount of Christian truth and weakened it by the incompleteness of their vision of what was left. Thus were subsequent heresies more Christian and less destructive of the kernel of Christianity. So modern heresies, whichever they are - I would quote the theology of the papacy as one - would still be encompassed by the vision of the undivided Church. And this despite the fact that the teaching introduced something that was profoundly untrue as to the nature of the Church.

The Christian in his confrontation with the world

So we must again give thought to that with which we are confronted. We are confronted in the modern age with atheism. We are confronted with non-Christian religions. We are confronted with Christian heresy. We are confronted within the Church with ignorance of our faith and with an anaemic experience of the faith we hold. And all that we must examine most attentively with the same determination, courage and vision as the early Councils and the early Fathers of the Church faced their own experience. The expression they gave to this experience is something for us to heed: the way in which they could convey this experience in a way understandable to heretics or to outsiders without losing anything of the content or the quality of the message.

We should accordingly also face atheism with more understanding than is often done. For atheism - the loss of God that kills - is rampant outside the Church. It is also rampant within it to the extent to which death has power over us. When Christ identified with mankind, he identified not only with the limitations of a created world, the distortions of the fallen world, the consequences of sin, the needs of mankind in being tired, hungry and thirsty. He accepted to share with us, and not us individually but with mankind in its totality, the loss of God that kills. And when on the Cross he cried, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me', he measured in a way in which no atheist ever has or will what it means to be without God and die of it.

So if we look at the surrounding world, the alien world, the pagan world, but particularly at the atheist world, we must realise that even this world is not outside of the sacrificial, tragic, crucified experience of Christ. And we must realise that our vocation is to understand from within Christ something which the godless world cannot understand about itself. This makes us into another and different Church of the Councils.

We do not hold ecumenical councils, we are far too disorderly and too divided. But each and every Christian, each parish, diocese, denomination, is confronted with the same problem as the undivided Church when it had to face the outer world, heretical, pagan or godless. And we also need to go beyond condemnation of it in order to achieve its salvation.


* - Edited version of the Lev Gillet Memorial Lecture 1987. Sobornost. 1987. Vol. 9. N. 2. P. 6-13.


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