Thursday, 14 July 2011

Holy Spirit, Feeling Good in Church and the Gospel Morality of the Orthodox Church

Sorry for the delay in posting.

We would like to look at a form of argumentation for innovation in the Orthodox Church’s moral teaching. This argumentation goes something like this:

The understanding by the Church of the Gospel is dynamic. It has never been full. The author arguing this way then provides a series of examples of his choice—perhaps the treatment of slavery, perhaps something else—to show us that historically in the Orthodox Church the Gospel has never been promulgated in its fullness, that there has always been an evolution in the understanding by the Church of the Gospel. They continue that being a member of the Orthodox Church is a matter of process, perhaps a matter of a spiritual dialectic in or evolution of the understanding of the Gospel by the Church. Then the author goes on to suggest that his particular candidate for innovation in the moral or even doctrinal teaching of the Church falls into exactly this category of features of the Gospel previously misunderstood by the Orthodox Church. The argument usually goes on to refer to the dynamic of being taught by the Holy Spirit, referencing Jesus’ saying in the Gospel of John that the disciples cannot bear these things now but the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth. The idea is that the Holy Spirit has decided that the time has come to lead the Church into the truth of the particular moral innovation of the person making the argument. Perhaps the person goes on to show why the Church has to respond to the particular pastoral needs or needs for human dignity of those who will supposedly be benefited by the change in the moral teaching of the Church. It is necessary to this form of argumentation to deny the absoluteness of the moral teaching of the Old Testament or even of the Epistles of Paul.

How valid is this form of argumentation? It seems to us that the key to understanding this style of argumentation is to look at how the person making the argument construes the Holy Spirit. It seems to us that they treat the Holy Spirit as a more or less subjective or inter-subjective phenomenon, not as an ontologically distinct being, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

It seems to us that only a person who had never consciously experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence in power would be able to make this sort of argument. Let us look at the evidence. In the history of the Orthodox Church, we have had a number of great saints with a very dynamic experience of the Holy Spirit: St Diadochos of Photiki, St John of Sinai, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Seraphim of Sarov to name just a few. In recent times there have been a number of Spirit-bearing Fathers on Mt Athos such as Elders Paisios and Porphyrios, to name just two.

In the case of any of these Saints or Elders of the Orthodox Church who had actual conscious experience of the Holy Spirit, has there ever been detected an inclination to change the moral teaching of the Orthodox Church? Is it not rather the contrary?

Surely, if the Holy Spirit were about to lead the Church into all truth, wouldn’t he would use such a great saint or elder, one with prophetic gifts? But it hasn’t happened.

Moreover, St Paul says in 1 Galatians 8 – 12: But if we or an angel from Heaven preach to you something different from what we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we said before, now I say again: If anyone preach to you something different from what you received, let him be accursed. For now do I persuade men or God? Or am I seeking to please men? For if I were yet pleasing men, I would not be a servant of Christ. I make known to you, brothers, that the Gospel that was preached by me is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught [it by man] but through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

So what is going on? We think that the answer is that the people making this sort of argument have a somewhat pietistic liberal Protestant understanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit—that the Holy Spirit is a good feeling ‘created in Community’, that it is that subjective or inter-subjective feeling of piety that they have in Church, that it is something that Rudolf Otto would talk about—the subjective idea of the Holy. In other words, we think that when people have not encountered the Holy Spirit, they tend to believe that the Holy Spirit is a subjective personal feeling. And if they feel holy in Church while outside of Church they are participating in—let us be frank—sin, then they are possibly led to conclude that the historical moral teaching of the Church is wrong, that since they feel good in Church what they’re doing outside of Church is not sin at all.

However, what these people are experiencing in Church is in our opinion for what it’s worth most likely NOT the Holy Spirit. Their subjective good feeling in Church has nothing to do with the acceptability to the Holy Spirit of their practices outside of Church. That much should be evident from the Spirit-bearing Paul’s absoluteness.

Now it is not our place to judge; that is God’s; and it is the place of the hierarchy to judge the meaning of the Gospel (the hierarchy of ALL the Church, not just a few in a small jurisdiction somewhere). Moreover it is also the place of the Church to approach the sinner in humility—without however compromising the true teaching of the Orthodox Church. However, surely these people are destroying themselves.

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