by Gil Bailie | French historian Antoine Arjakovsky has written a penetrating exploration of the struggle to keep or restore Christian unity and his own intimations of how that effort might bear more fruit.

What Is Orthodoxy? A Genealogy of Christian Understanding
By Antoine Arjakovsky
Foreword by John Milbank
Angelico Press, 2018
Paperback, 412 pages

Last year, the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation was celebrated by some and noted with remorse by others. Though the reformers sought to rebuild Christianity on the principle of sola scriptura, without either papal or magisterial authority the movement immediately began fracturing over the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Today, the number of Protestant denominations is estimated to be somewhere between 35,000 and 47,000, a sobering reminder that sola scriptura was incapable of performing the task assigned to it.

Though ecumenical efforts to repair the damage done by such divisions have been most welcome, not a few Catholics were puzzled by the Vatican decision to commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation by issuing a stamp depicting Martin Luther and his collaborator Philip Melanchthon kneeling at the foot of the cross. In 2018, that concern quickly paled by comparison when the scandal of criminal and immoral behavior on the part of ordained priests and bishops abruptly brought to light divisions within the Church of which many of the faithful had been unaware.

At year’s end, the Anglican communion’s self-declared middle-way between Catholic and Protestant alternatives suffered another setback when the Church of England abandoned any pretense of adherence to Judeo-Christian theological anthropology by promulgating guidelines for a baptism-like ceremony for those who claim to have changed their gender. While some saw this as more evidence of how quickly churches and ecclesial traditions are succumbing to the increasingly burlesque spirit of the age, others declared it to be indicative of Christianity’s growing moral acuities.

On January 5th of this year, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, formally granted autocephalous status (canonical independence) to the newly created Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Russian Patriarchate went so far as to warn that this step could lead to the most significant break within Christianity since the Great Schism between the Greek Church of the East and the Latin Church of the West in 1054.

Alas, Christianity is deeply paradoxical – dying in order that one might live, the least being the first, and so on. The faithful have not always managed to keep the mystery at the heart of these paradoxes – and that holds the antinomies in creative tension – in focus. Nor should it surprise us that we Christians have found taking stock of our fallen nature less congenial than taking sides in contentious theological disputes.

In his book, What Is Orthodoxy? A Genealogy of Christian Understanding, the French historian Antoine Arjakovsky has given us a remarkable overview of the question that lies at the heart of all the neuralgic issues just mentioned. The author’s historical erudition is extraordinary, as is his deft analysis. As Arjakovsky sees it, the effort to restore orthodoxy can be handicapped by unquestioned presuppositions about the very nature of orthodoxy.

As Joseph Ratzinger often noted, in the ancient church orthodoxy did not mean “right doctrine.” Rather it meant the authentic glorification of God, which was to be done on several registers: liturgically, morally, intellectually, socially, and aesthetically. Being in a right relationship with God would ennoble every aspect of one’s life and give it a coherence not otherwise achievable. On this, the German pontiff and the French historian concur. Writes Arjakovsky in one of his most lapidary summaries:

Orthodoxy is not, as was commonly believed for a long time, simply the opposite of heresy, understood as a partial knowledge of the truth. Orthodoxy is a mode of relationship to the truth that prevents worship from emptying itself of the glory it seeks to proclaim, that prevents memory from ossifying itself by clinging to a remembrance as if it were an object, that refuses a moral testimony not lived out in practice, and that leads science, in danger of remaining merely at a purely theoretical level, back to its obligations of justice. It assures a relationship to the truth that is complex and embraces the fundamental metaphysical positions of worship, memory, ethics and justice.

Arjakovsky quotes the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s critique of what he saw as the Byzantine Church’s defective understanding of orthodoxy:

A crystallization of tradition began within the Byzantine Church, a tendency to define the Tradition and consider it as closed and immutable. In this sense the Byzantine mentality considered the “triumph of orthodoxy” as a decisive and total victory of orthodoxy, the end point of its historic development. Henceforth the Orthodox Church is defined as “the Church of the Seven Councils and the Fathers” and the Byzantines would regard any heresy as a repetition of former heresies and condemn it almost automatically by referring it to decisions taken in the past. This fundamentalist and conservative attitude, which is still one of the characteristic traits of the orthodox mentality and which bestows an absolute importance on the most accidental details of the life and cult of Church, can be traced to this deeply anti-historic attitude of Byzantium.

Arjakovsky points to what he sees as the risks that each of the major forms of Christianity runs in striving for orthodoxy.

… the “Orthodox” risk of imagining that stagnation is the best way to avoid being dogmatizing and thus risking heresy, the “Protestant” risk of believing that doctrinal authority only deserves obedience when it is faithful to Scripture (which presupposes another body capable of judging this conformity … but which?) and the “Catholic” risk of being led to believe that a magisterial teaching is itself sufficient because it comes from a legitimate authority.

Arjakovsky proposes several answers to the question the book asks, namely: orthodoxy as right truth, as worthy glorification, as faithful memory, and as true and just knowledge. In fact, he sees in Christian history the ascendance in turn of each of these approaches to orthodoxy: “orthodoxy as worthy glorification (33-313), orthodoxy as right truth (313-1453), orthodoxy as faithful memory (1453-1948), orthodoxy as true and fair knowledge (1948 to present).” He explores each at some length in the second section of his book.

The reader senses the passion that moved the French historian to tackle so daunting a task in his treatment of the Great Schism of 1054 and its aftermath. He appears to be particularly haunted by the failure of the Council of Florence in 1439. Under the growing threat from the Ottoman Turks, the Eastern representatives at the Council conceded to a number of doctrines of the Western Church, not least concerning the filioque issue – that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son – and the primacy of the pope. But this extraordinary achievement was resisted by the faithful and civil leaders in the East. After Constantinople fell in 1453, one of the most consequential and lamentable events in history, the 1484 Synod of Constantinople rejected the earlier agreement. A reader can feel the author’s heavy heart in Arjakovsky’s summary: “The historiography of the ensuing confessional period of orthodoxy will rewrite, over the ashes of wounded memories, a polemic and proselyte history of the council.”

The author’s hopes for the ecclesial traditions he obviously loves and his reason for writing this extraordinary book are perhaps best captured by a quotation he shares from another Orthodox historian:

…the schism is an ongoing event and not a historical fact. It is not a question of relating an unfinished history; it is a question of bringing this history to a close and recognizing the starting points of departure for such a venture. First we need to go back to the basics, to rediscover the same vision … It is the lack of dialogue and the lack of charity which hardened the opposing differences.

Arjakovsky has given us, not only a vast historical panorama, but a penetrating exploration of the struggle to keep or restore Christian unity and his own intimations of how that effort might bear more fruit. This reviewer’s genuine gratitude notwithstanding, there are a few, perhaps minor, matters which cause concern.

For instance, when Arjakovsky writes: “Truth is dependent on the degree of conciliarity among those who attest to it.” This arresting statement holds true as long as the word conciliarity is not allowed to become a synonym for political consensus. Pope Benedict XVI, for whom Arjakovsky has high regard, has warned that conciliarity must not be taken to mean, or serve as a forerunner for, a horizontal, “pluralist” or “federative” ecclesiology, as some fear the principle of synodality might presage. Benedict has boldly argued that a properly conciliar ecclesiology is one that finds its center, not in theological compromises, but in the Mother of the Lord. Happily, it appears that Arjakovsky concurs on this point. For at one point in his exposition he cites the schema of Hans Urs von Balthasar, according to whom the ecclesial architecture of the Church is configured around Peter, James, John and Paul, while all of these inflections of Christian truth are held in creative tension by the fiat of the Virgin at the center.

As the attenuation of both Christian faith and Christian cultural influence continues, the temptation to nostalgia is understandable. Arjakovsky dismisses that option as inadequate. Of its opposite danger, he seems less wary. He writes:

On the other hand, if orthodox thought were understood as being, at the same time, a mystical theology, a participative philosophy, a political science of justice and moral understanding, then contemporary thought would be able to find new resources to face the new global age of its history and propose a more fair and peaceful civilization, one more respectful of creation.

One can sympathize with this assessment while feeling some unease with both its mildly enlightenment tone and the globalist, post-national vocabulary with which it is invoked. It may be parodied as a typically American concern, but nonetheless it should be said that frustration with how national and ethno-national loyalties have often exacerbated Christian divisions is insufficient reason for assuming that the attenuation of otherwise benign or healthy forms of patriotism will favor greater unity among culturally deracinated Christians.

Doubtless Christians have often enough doctored their moral and theological principles in deference to national, ethnic, or tribal loyalties, something Arjakovsky traces back to Eusebius and Augustine. Today, however, they are more likely to set aside Christian principles in favor of the sentimental humanitarianism which is too often assumed to be Christianity’s chief concern. However indebted to Christianity secular anthropocentrism is, and whatever the merits of its economistic, political and ecological aspirations, Christ did not die on the cross and rise from the dead primarily to arouse these aspirations. They are a far cry from the spiritual, moral and sacramental transformations for which Christ commissioned his Church.

In the West, especially in the post-conciliar years, and with increased urgency since the ascendance of Jorge Bergoglio to the Chair of Peter, the temptation to embrace the political, economic, environmental, and sexual dogmata of the post-Christian secular ideologues has most often been resisted by Christians who honor the classical virtue of pietas, defined by the British historian Christopher Dawson as “the cult of parents and kinsfolk and native place as the principles of our being … a moral principle which lies at the root of every culture and every religion.” He warned that a society that loses this fundamental sense of belonging “has lost its primary moral basis and its hope of survival.”

This brings us to another concern: that Arjakovsky gives more weight than warranted to the fact that “orthodoxy understood as doctrinal fidelity no longer appeals to the present generation of American Christians.” Doubtless such indifference to doctrinal fidelity deserves attention. But one doubts whether the theological perspicacity of “the present generation of American Christians” is a sufficiently weighty datum to render doctrinal fidelity otiose. Arjakovsky does not propose this, of course, but his citation of this lamentable fact suggests perhaps something of the problem now infecting the Catholic Church, namely, a subtle capitulation to a progressive understanding of history, according to which more weight is given to the worldviews of later generations than to their predecessors simply on the basis of their chronological posteriority.

These may not be entirely minor quibbles, but they pale in light of what a rich and learned exploration of Christian orthodoxy this wise and gifted historian has given us. The book is a serious and scholarly approach to a very old and very complex problem, a masterwork in fact. We will not likely see anything comparable to it for a very long time. It makes demands on the reader, but the effort is richly rewarded. Arjakovsky urges his readers to shake off the lethargic tendency to accommodate to divisions festering in the Body of Christ that ought to trouble every serious Christian. He whets his readers’ appetite for a magisterial proposal for resolving the confusions and divisions in contemporary Christianity.

Alas, such a tidy solution is not forthcoming, for it would betray the seriousness of this book. Of this slight disappointment, the grateful reader might want to recall the lines from Robert Frost’s poem, Mowing:

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

Gil Bailie, JD, is the founder and president of The Cornerstone Forum, and the author, most recently, of God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.

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