In our last article we saw that the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church are important sources of Christian doctrine. There were Fathers who wrote on theological subjects and others who wrote about asceticism and the spiritual life.
However, not all saints are referred to as Holy Fathers. There are many other categories of saints. For example, the prophets of the Old Testaments are considered saints. The evangelists who wrote our four Gospels are saints. We know, of course, about the twelve apostles who are saints but there are also 70 (or 72) less well-known apostles who are also saints. Confessors are saints who suffer for the faith and martyrs are those who die for it. There are monastic saints and lay saints. Lay people who are saints are referred to as ‘righteous’. Of course, all these categories of saints are also known to Western Christians, although sometimes the names and categories are different. However, there is another category of saint that is more typically Eastern.
They are the “fools for Christ’s sake”. These are saints who live with a total indifference to what is considered normal. They may dress in bizarre or ragged clothing, they may be homeless, they have no concern for their reputation or security. But because of this indifference God sometimes grants such fools great insight into the Orthodox faith and the human heart. They are totally fearless and so can speak the truth.
To learn about saints we go to their ‘lives’. A ‘life’ in the technical sense is not a biography. It omits many things that a biographer would be interested in. They are written to bring out the spiritual significance of the saint’s work and deeds, as inspiration for us. The lives of many of the saints were written centuries ago so the style of writing may seem strange to us. But if we are patient and keep reading the lives of the saints we will see great spiritual benefit.
To round out our series of articles about the sources of Christian doctrine we consider two other sources. The first is canon law. Canon Law comes from the decisions of ecumenical councils, local councils and writing of the Fathers. The word Canon means norm or standard. There are canons that are considered unchangeable.
For example, they include canons about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Canons about the moral law are unchangeable. But there are other canons that are changeable as need arises. For example, the canons say that a man cannot be ordained before he is thirty years of age. The idea here is that a clergyman should be a mature individual and is important, but in response to the need of the church men are sometimes ordained at an early age. The canons are not laws which are somehow above the life of the church, ruling it from above but rather they show us how life in the church is to be lived.
Finally, we have to consider icons as a source of Christian doctrine. We will consider icons in more detail later, but we should mention one point here which relates to what we said earlier about lives of the saints. Just as a saint’s life is not a modern biography concerned with all details of the saints life, but rather seeking to depict the spiritual significance of the life, icons are not realistic portraits of the saints (or Jesus Christ or His mother). Rather, through artistic technique and style the spiritual meaning of the person depicted is emphasized. When we read the lives of the saints we are not always familiar or comfortable with the genre of literature. Sometimes the convention of iconography may seem strange to us too, but if we can persevere in trying to understand icons and the lives of the saints we see why they are sources of Christian doctrine.
Finally, we should know that church music and architecture can be considered as sources of Christian doctrine, though these topics do not enter into our presentation at this point.