The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (16)

In this article we will look at some ideas we have already looked at, then go on to a new topic. If we ask ourselves what the ultimate source of authorities in a church, or if we ask what the ultimate criterion of truth is, we will get different answers. For example, many Protestants would say that the ultimate source and criterion of truth is the Bible. An English protestant once wrote that “The Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of the Protestants.” In other words, many Protestants would say that they don’t need tradition or church councils or bishops and priests to interpret the Bible. Individuals can read the Bible and understand it. Not all Protestants would put things this way, but many do.

For Roman Catholics the ultimate authority and criterion of truth is the Pope. That means that when the Pope teaches with his full authority on a matter of faith and words, he is protected by God from teaching error. This does not mean that everything a Pope says or writes is infallible. Actually the Catholic Church is very careful to make clear those occasions when he is teaching infallibly, so as not to make the Pope a kind of magical oracle.

When we, as Orthodox, look at Catholicism and Protestantism we may ask what the ultimate authority and criterion of truth in our church. It is the bishops and the ecumenical councils. In other words, the Catholics have the Pope, Protestants have the Bible and we have the Councils. However, there have been many times a council of bishops was called by the emperor, declared something to be an ecumenical council and yet the church has not accepted these councils as legitimate councils. Indeed when councils have met and issued some decree, the people of the church, that is the clergy, the monastics and the laity, did not passively accept what the council taught. When a bishop brought the teaching of a council back to his diocese there were periods, even decades, of fierce debate, polemics and arguments before the council’s ruling was accepted.

Therefore, as Orthodox we would not say that the Bible or the Pope or the councils are automatically infallible. If we want to use the word infallible we would have to say that the whole church, clergy, monastics and lay people, is infallible. This does not seem a simple and clear way of making decisions as the Catholic and Protestant approaches, but actually this is how the church has worked throughout history. We believe there is no authority above or beyond the church itself, led by the Holy Spirit from within, that is the ultimate authority and criterion.

The reader may now ask why all this material has been reviewed again in this series of articles, but this exposition was necessary before moving to the new topic, the filioque (we will explain this later) in which we will discuss how the above-mentioned criteria of truth functions in this specific case. We will see how these criteria operated differently in the Orthodox and Catholic Church in defining something. By the way, the word “filioque” means “from the son” and this refers to how the words of what we sing at the Divine Liturgy in the Creed got to be part of the Creed.

Fr. John