The Dynamics of the Orthodox
Faith in America

A Lecture by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios,
Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

4 February 2004
Fordham University
Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series

Part Three


The Orthodox Church has been from the very beginning exceedingly sensitive about the truth revealed by Christ, the Incarnate God, in the Gospel and entrusted to the Church for preservation, presentation, and dissemination. There is no need to speak elaborately on this subject or to show how the Church has made every possible effort to maintain the integrity of the revealed truth and to keep it in its fullness, undistorted, unblemished, unchanged, and absolutely precise. The tacit assumption in this case, which is also frequently explicitly formulated, is that the truth handed over to the Church by Jesus Christ the Lord is simply absolute; or, to use a hyperbolic phrase, it is absolutely, undeniably, and unequivocally absolute. As an absolute, it is unyielding to any attempt at manipulation, negotiation, or relativization.

The dynamics of the Church has functioned in this area in a superb way. From the very first steps of the new faith, there have been formidable attacks on the faith as truth, all the more as a truth that claims absoluteness and exclusivity. We could simply mention here the Gnostics among other opponents of the early Church in order to show the magnitude of anti-Church, anti-truth efforts. The Gnostics did not limit themselves to attacking directly or indirectly the fundamental dogmas and teachings of the Church; they attacked the very essence of the truth preserved by the Church. They did so by using language in such an arbitrary, inconsistent, and contradictory way that it practically destroyed any possibility to have a theologically or linguistically reasonable discussion about the content of faith as revealed truth. Let me cite here an example from a text by Basileides, the well-known Gnostic author of the second century in Alexandria, Egypt. The cited text is from the book of Hippolytos of Rome, written toward the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. It refers to a comment offered by Basileides on the first chapter of the book of Genesis describing the creation of the world. Here is the text, and please listen to the language, language that is pushed to the extreme of negation and apophaticism:

Since nothing existed, no matter, no substance, no non-substance, no
simple, no composite, no unthinkable, no senseless, no human being,
no angel, no god, nothing, nothing at all that could be named ... the
non-existing god without thinking, without feeling, without will, without
choice, without suffering, without desire wanted to create a world
... so the non-existing god made a non-existing world from non-existing
entities. (Hippolytos, Ελεγχος Z 20-21)

This is a specimen that is extreme, but it is an example of how to use language in such a way that destroys language. Here, there is no way to talk about the truth because language is completely destroyed as a means of conveying any truth.

We can understand, therefore, why the Church fought relentlessly against the Gnostics as well as against the other heretical groups in order to neutralize the deadly danger of totally hurting the truth of the Gospel. Already, Justin the Philosopher and Martyr, in the middle of the second century, had written against the Gnostics, followed by Irenaeos, Hippolytos, and Epiphanios. The Ecumenical Synods, starting with the first in Nicea in the year 325 A.D., are eloquent testimonies of the paramount importance ascribed to the truth of the Gospel as something absolute and inviolable. Throughout the centuries, the dynamics of the Orthodox faith kept the truth of the Gospel as a sacred, absolute tradition that was beyond any manipulation or relativization. The care and concern of the Fathers of the Church on this issue went sometimes even to minute details in order to secure the proper appearance of the written texts which dealt with matters of faith. Here is an amusing and charming example from Saint Basil the Great. Basil the Great, among the other Fathers, wrote about the essence of faith and the inviolable nature of truth, but he was so passionate about precision in language that he extended his care beyond the content of a manuscript, even to the quality of the handwriting. So, he writes to someone who deals with producing texts:

Write straight and keep straightly to your lines; and let the hand neither mound of letters nor slide down hill. Do not force the pen to travel slant-wise like the crab, but proceed straight ahead as if traveling along a carpenter's rule, which everywhere preservers the even course and eliminates all irregularity. For that which is slant-wise is unbecoming, but that which is straight is a joy to those who see and read it, not permitting the eyes of those who read to bob up and down like well-sweeps. Something of the sort has happened to me when reading your writing. For since your lines rest ladderwise, when I had to pass from one to another I was obliged to lift my eyes to reach the beginning of the next line. And then when no sequence was evident at that point, I had to run back again and seek the order, retracing my steps and "following the furrow."... Therefore write straight and do not confuse our mind by your oblique and slanting writing. ( Basil, Epistle 334)

What happens to our contemporary situation here in America concerning the issue of faith as absolute truth? The dynamics of the Orthodox faith helps the Church maintain her position regarding the truth of the Gospel as absolute, perfect, and complete. Here, the Church is aware of a very real phenomenon that is not exclusively American but international, namely, the galloping relativization of everything, including the truth. We are constantly and painfully reminded of the truly unique dialogue between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, recorded in the Gospel of John: Pilate said to Jesus,"So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate said to him: "What is truth?" (John 18: 37-38).

Here is a truly existential confrontation: Jesus deliberately ignores the question about being king because He understands His kingship as being a heavenly and spiritual one, and declares Himself as the messenger of the heavenly truth, which is absolute. Pilate answers skeptically, if not cynically, "What is truth?"

Pilate's answer, or question,is a question that prevails in our culture today because we are aware of the degree of relativization, lying, distortion, semi-truths, quasi-truths, para-truths, truncated information, terrifying inflation, and ruthless manipulation of language. Thus, everything is relativized and conditional. Consequently, there seems to be an eclipse of the truth of the Gospel as absolute, and such an eclipse has a dramatic impact on value systems, moral principles, and theological dogmas.

The dynamics of the Orthodox faith does not allow a submission to the pressures of the relativization of truth. The story of Pontius Pilate is almost 2,000 years old, yet his position did not prevail. We believe that the dynamism of the Orthodox faith will eventually and finally overcome the secular pressures to relativize divine truth. This, of course, is a matter of faith. But the Church is a Church of faith and not of yesterday, but of two thousand years.

In the final analysis, the absolute truth is not a theoretical scheme, but a living person, Christ Himself. He declared: "I am the truth" (John 14:6). And we faithfully respond with the phrase from the Epistle to the Hebrews (13:8): "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and to the ages of ages." He is the absolute, unchanging, ageless truth.

Reprinted with permission from Fordham University officials.

For more information about the Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series, please contact either Professors Aristotle Papanikolaou or George Demacopoulos or visit the web site of the lecture series at The next lecturer is noted Orthodox theologian and Oxford lecturer, His Grace Bishop Kallistos Ware, scheduled to deliver an address on 5 April 2005: "Ecological Crisis, Ecological Hope: the Orthodox Vision
of Creation."

Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Fordham University

George Demacopoulos, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Fordham University

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