One of the primary differences between Eastern and Western Christianity concerns the nature of authority in the church. I’ve already explored this issue here, so I won’t repeat myself. However, I will mention a few points that I may have missed.
- The Eastern Orthodox concept of Tradition is quite difficult for the Western mind to get around, as it really fails to fall in any Western category.
- The Church Fathers, whose teaching is part of the Orthodox Tradition, are not considered infallible; that is, even highly respected Fathers had some teachings which have been rejected as being heterodox.
- The Church Fathers are respected not because of their historical proximity to the Apostles, but because their revelation and teaching is seen as apostolic.
- Revelation is seen as continuing. Not that it is progressive, but that God continues to reveal Himself as he always has.
- The liturgy is also authoritative, as it reflects apostolic teaching.
- Tradition guides the church, however it is the church – not the leaders – who decides what is Tradition.
- The authoritative teachings of the later Fathers and the decisions of the Seven Councils – such as the decision concerning the veneration of Icons, or the incorporation of apophatic theology – is said not to be anything new, but to be what the Church has always believed.
As suggested in #6, to the West, the Eastern concept of Tradition appears somewhat circular: Tradition controls or guides the Church, but is also decided – or perhaps revealed – through the Church. There also seems – to Western eyes, anyway – that there is a presumption that whatever the Orthodox Church currently believes is what the Church has always believed, and is therefore in line with the Apostolic Tradition. For example, take the veneration of Icons, which was debated at the 7th Ecumenical Council, I believe. The Orthodox Church has not always venerated icons, and it certainly isn’t found in Scripture. However, once it was settled in favor of icons, it became Tradition.
It is also interesting that certain teachings of certain Church Fathers have at been accepted at certain times, and not accepted at other times. For example, if I recall correctly, the teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius were not really accepted until St. Gregory Palamas, who referred to him as “an unerring beholder of divine things.” It seems, then, that Tradition is hardly a straight line.
I’m sure that my Orthodox friends can bring some clarification on this point, which would be welcomed.
Next in the Series: More thoughts on items from my list of East-West differences.