Correct Belief

A young abbot was counseled in this way by a holy man.  Today many people wishing for an excuse not to do what God asks of them find fault with the teaching of the Holy Church and reject correct Christian belief.  Instead, they choose to believe what they wish.  This is akin to a man not wishing to believe that he will die, simply because the notion does not comfort him.  Not only will he fail to prepare for death, as one ought to do, but he will inevitably find himself in the snare of death.  Correct belief is not based on what we wish were true, but on truth itself. 

This story, taken from the ancient fathers of the desert, emphasizes the need for our Orthodoxy, that is the true correct faith and the true glorification, as Christians. “This combinations suggests to us,” writes Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, “the truth that a true faith leads to the true glorification of the Trinitarian God.  If the faith about God is erroneous, then the glorification of God will be erroneous.”  His words are in the spirit of St. Gregory Palamas, “those who are of the Church of Christ are of the truth; and those who are not of the truth are also not of the Church of Christ.”

Belief is therefore founded not in opinion, but in doctrine, in Truth.  Saint Justin Popovich explained:

In Christianity truth is not a philosophical concept nor is it a theory, a teaching, or a system, but rather, it is the living theanthropic hypostasis - the historical Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Before Christ men could only conjecture about the Truth since they did not possess it. With Christ as the incarnate divine Logos the eternally complete divine Truth enters into the world. For this reason the Gospel says: “Truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

For this reason, Saint Kosmas Aitolos taught that “Real knowledge has been given to men by God as a grace preceding the fullness of grace; it teaches those who partake of it to believe above all in the Giver.”

Doctrine has been therefore been compared to the plans of a building.  If the plans are sound, the building, if correctly built, will be sound.  Bad plans will cause an unsound building. The reason for this is that an error in doctrine threatens to confuse the purpose of the sacrifice of Christ and our means of approaching Christ, making salvation difficult if not impossible.  Saint Symeon the New Theologian continues this building analogy when writing:

The roof of any house stands upon the foundations and the rest of the structure. The foundations themselves are laid in order to carry the roof. This is both useful and necessary, for the roof cannot stand without the foundations and the foundations are absolutely useless without the roof - no help to any living creature. In the same way the grace of God is preserved by the practice of the commandments, and the observance of these commandments is laid down like foundations through the gift of God. The grace of the Spirit cannot remain with us without the practice of the commandments, but the practice of the commandments is of no help or advantage to us without the grace of God.

Another father of the desert has therefore taught: “God requires these three things, which were bestowed in Holy Baptism, from every man: correct belief in soul, truth on his tongue, and moderation in his body.” 

St. Cyprian is credited with having said, “No human being can take God as his Father unless he takes the Church as his mother. ”  It is for this reason that Father John of Kronstadt prayed, “May Christians attach themselves wholly, with all their hearts, to the Church of Christ, that in her they may be firmly established unto the end of their days on earth.  May they all be zealous to fulfill her commandments and ordinances, and in her may they obtain eternal salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Thankfully, our mother, regardless of our Orthodox tradition, that is, the particular patriarchal see to which we are attached, affords us Truth via Holy Tradition.  “The Church, the house of God…” according to St. Basil of Caesarea, “is built upon the foundations of the faith of the apostle and prophets.” The faith of the apostles and prophets is then passed and entrusted to the faithful of each generation.  The Apostolic Constitutions attributed to St. Augustine explains:

The Holy Spirit worked in all the saints from the beginning of the world, and was afterwards sent to the Apostles by the Father…and after the Apostles to all believers in the holy catholic church.

This passing of truth via the Holy Spirit is Holy Tradition.  Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory explains that Holy Tradition is “…the experience of the saints in the spiritual sphere, an experience grown immense in close to two thousand years, the experience of thousands upon thousands of holy men and women an incredibly rich storehouse of wisdom and an immense heap of proofs of every truth of Holy Scripture.”  Like those who have gone before us, we are then, to paraphrase St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, to “stand fast and hold the traditions which we have been taught, whether by word, or epistle.”

How can we discern in love the Orthodoxy of someone’s belief?  One of the desert fathers has simply said: “Show me how a person worships and I will tell you what he believes.” Unfortunately, both inside and outside the Church, there are those who modify worship as well as their understandings of our mother, the Church, which should be of great concern. The reason for our concern is expressed in the words of a contemporary Orthodox author:

[These adaptations have] the effect in the long run, of leading people to suppose that the ills of the Church and the world can be solved by better organization and administration, more lively services, modern hymns and so on- anything but repentance and forgiveness.  Each year brings a new translation of the Bible, a new liturgy, a new way of doing things – and all because last year’s new solutions have not worked.  The fact that the ills of the Church and the world are the result of sin and that the cure of sin is the sacrifice of Christ is not part of the consideration of the problem and its solution (Upon this Rock, D. Dale, 27).

St. Maximos the Confessor likens such adaptations of the Faith to betrayal.  “Betrayal refers not only to the Revelation, the revealed truth, but also to the salvation of man.  If a man has a different teaching about God and man’s salvation, then he can never attain deification.”  He likens those who adapt tradition to men with “a two-edged sword and a sharpened razor…they slaughter souls and consign them to…a pit of darkness.”

In closing, our prayer must be that we remain one, and that our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have strayed, return to the fold.  As we therefore offer our prayers for the reconciliation of all to the Truth, Tertullian encourages the faithful to:

Maintain your respect for Tradition, whoever you may judge to have started the Tradition; be concerned not about it’s author but about its authority, and especially the authority of well-established usage.  Revere such usage, that you may not want for an interpreter to explain the reason behind it.  And if God gives you one, what you will learn from hi is not whether you ought to observe established custom, but why. 

Ultimately, let us heed the words of St. Paul of Obnor: “Have unfeigned love among yourselves, keep the tradition, and may the God of peace be with you and confirm you in love.” Amen.