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A Homily on the Importance of Dogma according to the Three Hierarchs

A Homily on the Importance of Dogma according to the Three Hierarchs

Icon of the Three Hierarchs

Introduction.

            Moments ago, brothers and sisters, we heard the Holy Apostle Paul offer a hymn in praise of faith: “By faith Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.”[1]  By faith kingdoms have been subdued, righteousness has been worked, promises have been obtained, the mouths of lions have been stopped; by faith women received their dead raised to life again, and others fearlessly endured torture refusing release when it was offered, “…that they might obtain a better resurrection.”[2]  “Great are the accomplishments of faith,” sings the Church just prior to the Nativity: “Great are the accomplishments of faith.”[3]  Faith is truly a great virtue, but it is not a stand-alone virtue; it requires a focus.  True faith requires that we believe in something, and the focus of our faith as Orthodox Christians is the One True God who is the source of all those wonders we heard the Holy Apostle Paul describe moments ago.

So, we believe in God.  But most of us I suspect would admit that we are still children in the spiritual life, and as such our manner of living is a long way from those who are pure in heart and who therefore see God and know him well. On account of our sins and impurity, “…we see in a mirror dimly,” while they see and experience him, “…face to face.”[4]   And so we need to have them described God for us; we need to have his portrait painted and set before our minds so that we know something about him in whom we believe.  And this portrait–this precious portrait–is painted for us by the dogmas of the Church, brothers and sisters!

Today, then, as we celebrate the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the triumph of true teaching concerning God over falsehood and heresy, let us take the few moments we have together and try to come to an understanding of what dogma is, of what purpose the dogmas of the Church serve with respect to our spiritual life and salvation, and lastly of how heresy, or erroneous dogmas arise, and why they are dangerous.  And let us take as our guides in this pursuit the Holy Fathers, and particularly the three Great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, whose authority in these matters is universally acknowledged.

  1. What is Dogma?

So, first question, what is a dogma?  Dogmas are human words used to give expression to the experience of God.  The Prophets and Apostles were not philosophers. They were not like Pythagoras, or Plato, or Aristotle who simply thought about God, who used their brains to guess at what God was like without ever knowing if they were correct.  Rather, the Prophets and Apostles were holy people, and as a consequence they were allowed first-hand, infallible, experience of God.  When we speak about God, writes Saint John the Theologian, we speak of one, “…we have heard, [one who] we have seen with our eyes, who we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,”[5] not only bodily in the person of Jesus Christ, but also spiritually in the soul.  On the basis of this experience they wrote words to encourage others to advance toward the same experience they had attained, but their words were not always the same at this phase of history.

The Prophets, having met the three persons who were yet one God, described him using the terms ‘God’, ‘the Angel of Great Counsel’, and the ‘Spirit of God’, while the Apostles used the words Father, Son or Word, and Holy Spirit. With the passage of time, to the choir of saints were added the Holy Fathers–people with the same degree of spiritual experience as the Prophets and Apostles–and these saw that this difference in terms sometimes lead to misunderstandings and confusion, and so they gathered in Councils and together sought to refine and perfect the language used to describe God, they sought to make it precise so that people would not fall into error.  They determined, for example, that God should be described as Trinity; as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; as three co-eternal persons (hypostasis) of one essence (ousia). This is the dogma of the Trinity: God is three persons, who have all existed from eternity, and who are all equally God.  And the words the Holy Fathers used, because they were the product of consensus arrived at in Council where so many saints gathered together, these remain with the Church forever.

Something similar happened with the person of Christ.  The Holy Fathers came together and based on their first-hand experience of him they determined that he should be described as one person (prosopon) of two natures (phisies), divinity and humanity, which have come together without confusion, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. Christ, in other words, is perfect God and perfect man at once, and these two natures exist united in him without having mixed together and they will never come apart.

So a thread of common experience–the exact same experience, in fact–ties together the Apostles and Holy Fathers: “The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers sealed one faith for the Church,” as the Church sings.[6]  The only difference between the two is the way they express this experience.  The Apostles expressed themselves with great simplicity in the Scriptures, while the Holy Fathers at Councils expressed themselves very precisely in dogmas.

  1. Necessity of Dogma.

Now, the world around us tempts us to think that this refined teaching, this dogma, is useless.  Firstly, we are told that it is useless because it is supposedly the product of philosophical speculation about God which no one can prove right or wrong.  We have already disproved this claim, having shown that dogma is not philosophy, but it is how the saints have chosen to speak about the God whom they know.  Secondly, it is argued that dogma is useless because what really matters is how a person lives, not what they believe.  This, brothers and sisters is a very unorthodox thought!  And no one responds more clearly to this claim than Saint John Chrysostom who writes:  “It is necessary, you see, if we would wish to avoid Hell and to reach Heaven, to be distinguished for both correctness of dogma and attention to life for the Lord says blessed is he who does and teaches,”[7] and elsewhere he writes, “…even if we have sound teaching but fail in living, the teaching benefits us nothing; likewise, if we take pains with life but are careless about teaching (dogma), that will not be of any good to us either…it is necessary to shore up the spiritual edifice of our soul in both directions.”[8]  With respect to salvation, then, it is clear:  right belief, our embracing right dogma, is equally important as how we live.

  1. Purpose of Dogma.

Why would Saint Chrysostom make such a claim?  What does dogma do that makes it so important, so indispensible to our spiritual life?  First, it represents a series of road signs pointing us toward the goal of our spiritual life, which is union with God.  Our goal is to get to God.  But we haven’t been there yet.  So the saints, who have been there, leave us signs that point us in the right direction.  They get us thinking about him properly.  So true dogma, as an expression of the saints’ authentic experience of God, points us toward God who is the object of our desire; false dogma is an intellectually made-up picture of God and therefore leads us away from him. Reinforcing this point, Saint Gregory the Theologian writes that wrong dogma will, “…scatter you from the truth and send you to the mountains, to the deserts, and throw you into pitfalls, and places where the Lord does not visit; it would lead you away from the sound Faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the One Power and Godhead, Whose Voice my sheep always heard (and may they always hear it), but with deceitful and corrupt words would tear them from their true Shepherd.”[9]

Second, dogma has implications for our life.  What we believe deeply impacts the way we live. If we don’t believe rightly we will not practice our faith properly, which obviously affects our salvation.  Not only can incorrect dogma lead to an immoral way of life, our embracing incorrect dogma can actually strip whatever virtues we have acquired of their merit:  “It is pitiable, therefore,” writes Saint Basil the Great, “when the soul that abounds in bringing forth fruit of good deeds becomes prey to the adversaries [the demons], who are not satisfied without our desolation until they bring about our overthrow.  For the overthrow results from evil dogma, when the soul of those led astray is as it were dashed to the ground, and the desolation is the deprivation of what was acquired by the previous life.”[10]  The demons, then, want to harm those who live a God pleasing life, and the way they do this is by causing them to reject the dogmas of the Church, which in turn causes the good works they have done in their spiritual life up to that point to lose their value in terms of salvation.  Here we need to make an important distinction.  For someone born outside of the Orthodox Church and outside the sphere of Orthodox dogma, their good works will serve to bring them to the truth.  Saint Chrysostom says, “…it is not in any case possible for a person in error, but living uprightly, to remain in error.”[11]The Holy Apostle Nathaniel who we read about in today’s Gospel came to embrace Christ and confess him to be the Son of God on account of his being, “…an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”[12]  But if we who have seen the true light fall away into heresy and reject Orthodox dogma, whatever good works we have done in our spiritual life up to that point will actually become displeasing to God, like salt robbed of its saltiness.

And there is a third reason the dogmas are important to the spiritual life. That there is one true set of beliefs, that there is one true set of dogmas, that there are not multiple acceptable opinions, is a reflection of the fact that God is one and that his Church is one.  Our choosing to believe rightly, our choosing to assent to the dogmas of the Faith as the Holy Fathers have formulated them, is an outward display of our membership in the one Church and shows that we have truly put on the mind of Christ.  “Those who boast that they have kept the teaching of the Apostles and through the succession from them have received the preaching of the Gospel,” writes Saint Basil, ought to, “…show through their agreement in dogma that they are parts of the one Church of Christ!”[13]How do we demonstrate our membership in the Church?  By adhering to the one Faith.  Conversely, one who denies the teaching of the Church breaks from this unity and finds himself outside of the Church causing, as Saint Gregory the Theologian writes, “…the great and venerable body of Christ [to be] split and torn apart…and [leaving] the Evil One [to] rip to shreds the coat, indivisible and woven throughout and appropriated it for himself.”[14]

  1. Cause of Heresy.

For the Orthodox Christian, then, dogma is not something to be disputed; it is given to us as an aid to serve in the process of our salvation and therefore is something we ought to receive without question.  “Dogma and kyrigma (the way we speak to those outside the Church) are two distinct things,” writes Saint Basil, “the latter is proclaimed to all the world, but the former is observed in silence.[15]  So how, then, do false dogmas (heresies) arise?  Saint Chrysostom answers our question:  “…an unclean life is an obstacle to high doctrines.”[16]People will often say ‘I reject the Church’s teaching for this reason, or that reason,’ but most often the true reason is sin, hidden somewhere in their soul.  They prefer to paint pictures of God that reflect and make room and allowances for their sins and passions.  And a particular problem in this regard is the sin of pride.  Saint Basil writes that, “Some claim to believe in Christ Jesus but are found, ‘not to be established in the same mind and in the same conviction,’ and split into opposing factions; some of these through ignorance, but there are not few who do it through a love of rule and vainglory, wishing to show the public that they are wise and surpass others in knowledge.  This is why every place is full of people fighting each other and pronouncing opposing dogmas.”[17]  Why are there heresies?  Why do people rebel against the Church’s dogmas and fall away from the Church?  Because they value their own speculative intellectual ideas, their own thoughts, more than the teaching of the consensus of the saints, and want to show themselves better, set apart from others on account of their supposed intellectual prowess.  How, then, do we protect ourselves, how do we keep ourselves from giving up the benefit these monuments on the path to salvation afford us?  By being humble; both in general in our lives, but also particularly by standing before the dogmas themselves with humility and quiet reverence as Saint Basil describes, perhaps seeking to understand them but never questioning their validity and correctness.

  1. Conclusion.

Brothers and sisters, the New Testament is full of warnings against falling away from the dogma of Christ that we have received through the Apostles and Holy Fathers.  “Watch out that no one deceives you,” says the Lord, “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”[18]  Many, in other words, will come cloaked in the name of Christian, but they will teach things contrary to Christ, and inconsistent with the Apostles’ and Fathers’ experience of him.  And elsewhere he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”[19]In other word, he who comes through the door, preaching true dogma, is a legitimate pastor, but he who enters by some other way, teaching something else, comes and does spiritual harm.  And lastly, Saint Paul says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema.”[20]

We live in a time when many other, foreign Gospels are preached.  The words Saint Basil wrote concerning his own day might easily be applied to our own times:  “…now men are contrivers of cunning systems [of thought]rather than theologians [who actually know God]; the wisdom of the world wins the highest prizes and has rejected the Glory of the Cross.”[21]Let us beware, then, brothers and sisters!  In things pertaining to our faith, let us only listen to the Master’s voice and the voices of those who actually know him, believing those dogmas they have given us as signposts leading to salvation, and unwaveringly confessing, “This is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox!  This is the Faith that has established the world!”[22]  In doing anything else, we only harm ourselves.  Amen.

Rev Dr John Palmer

Sunday of Orthodoxy

5 March 2017

Fr John Palmer

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[1]               Hebrews 11:24.

[2]               Hebrews 11:33-35.

[3]               Apolytikion for the Sunday of the Forefathers.

[4]               1 Corinthians 13:12.

[5]               1 John 1.

[6]               Kontakion for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers.

[7]               Homilies on Genesis.3. 178.

[8]               Homilies on Genesis.2. 37.

[9]               Oration One. [7].

[10]             Commentary on Isaiah. 1. 23-24.

[11]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[12]             John 1:47.

[13]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 201.

[14]             Oration Six. [1].3.

[15]             On the Holy Spirit. 27. [66].

[16]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[17]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 200.

[18]             Matthew 24:4-5.

[19]             John 10: 1-2.

[20]             Galatians 1:8-9.

[21]             Letter 90. [2].

[22]             From the Synodikon of Orthodox.

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