On Recycling Old & Vapid Arguments: Timothy Flanders & the Orthodox Church

One has to be fairly impressed with the article by Timothy Flanders in OnePeterFive about a month ago titled, “I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for the Church Led by Pope Francis, and I don’t Regret It.” For an article whose title ostensibly promised to be an interesting story of personal experience and religious development, one finds a rather impoverished list of age-old stereotypical pop-apologetic arguments against Orthodoxy that says very little about the author’s own personal experience. In short, there is nothing really new or insightful here. The article is not written for people on the fence, but rather as something of a self-pat on the back. Perhaps that was not the intention, but I imagine that has largely been its effect.

To briefly sum up the article, here are the main points: 1.) the Roman Primacy/Supremacy is true; 2.) the papacy safeguards humility; 3.) that the Orthodox Church does not truly exist at an institutional level; and 4.) that Orthodoxy has a pathology against charity. To be brief, none of these I think are true. I will address the first three in varying detail. The final point is not worth answering.

The Roman Primacy

Flanders summons some interesting claims in support of his argument that the Roman primacy is historically and demonstrably true. To begin, he claims that the Eastern bishops during the first millennium were out of communion with the Roman bishop for at least 203 years, citing the eminent Louis Duchesne. I have no qualms about these claims, but one really has to question the implicit and broad assumption underlying Flanders’ presentation here, namely that the Christian East is already representative of a type of proto-Orthodoxy and therefore its previous errors highlight, prior to the events of 1054 and after, the fundamental inability of Eastern Orthodoxy to cope with protecting the Gospel. This view fundamentally misunderstands the actual position of Orthodoxy – which is that it is about correct practice and correct belief, not regional or ethnic affiliations. I think the string of publications by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press on the history of the Orthodox Church (the Church in History series) is quite indicative of this Orthodox view, precisely because it is a history of the Orthodox Church throughout the world, Latin (including the Church of Rome and the Latin churches outside Rome) and Greek, Roman and non-Roman. Even the most rabid anti-Latin Orthodox scholars over the past century, such as Fr. John Romanides, acknowledge and appreciate the times the Church of Rome stood up for correct belief and practice during the first millennium. And the reason they are able to argue this idea is because ostensibly, they do not limit Orthodoxy in their historical analyses to the bishops and laity of the Christian East.

Flanders also argues that it takes a rather special grace to observe the historical reality of papal supremacy as well. This argument is not serious, which isn’t to say that it is insincere. By this logic, if I am not Catholic or express some resistance to Catholicism on such and such grounds, then evidently I lack this special grace. Therefore, until I have this special grace, I cannot see the historical truth. I am not going to explicate some list of Catholic scholars who would disagree with such a position, because I find granting such credence to tribalisms in matter of scientific study (hard or soft) to be an extraordinary stupid act. Nor am I going to write some long detailed argument that “UTTERLY DESTROYS” (as petty YouTube titles are prone to say these days) the Catholic position. I have no interest in that and if I did, it would hardly be appropriate for the blogging medium. But if I wanted to suggest to my readers some scholarship, regardless of the authors’ religious affiliations or lack thereof, that is not largely confined to  some antiquated books on Archives.org or Google Books, then I would suggest reading:

George Demacopoulos’ The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (2013)

Ralph W. Mathisen’s Ecclesiastical Factionalism and Religious Controversy in Fifth-Century Gaul (1989)

Thomas F. X. Noble’s Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (2009)

J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen’s Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs (2014)

Read those books and one quickly realizes that the historical argument surrounding the papacy (and not to mention many other issues) is far more complicated than Flanders suggests, which is not to say that these books are pro-Orthodox or anti-Catholic. They are neither of those, and rather are just called scholarship. But if one wants to surrender themselves to what amounts to a fairly conceited and arrogant solipsism cloaked in religious garb, be my guest.

Papal Humility & Orthodox Pride

Flanders argues that the papacy safeguards humility. That is quite the tough sell. Take a gander at the results of the Albigensian Crusade. Pope Innocent III certainly did not intend the mass slaughter of southern Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, but the the intentions do not matter so much to those who see their families and livelihoods destroyed before their very eyes. The fact of the matter is that Innocent’s pretensions and goals for a heavily centralized papacy and government all but guaranteed that these sorts of disasters would happen, regardless or whether the man at the helm abhorred these atrocities or not. I suggest reading R. I. Moore’s The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (2012) on this subject.

There was certainly no humility from the papacy with regards to the Eastern Orthodox Christians of the Latin Crusader states in the Levant. Sure enough, the Latin Christians’ relations with the various Oriental Orthodox Christians and other factions were extremely cordial, at least during the first 90 years after the First Crusade, as Christopher MacEvitt’s The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (2008) well demonstrates. In terms of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, their treatment was quite grim and they were persecuted increasingly over time. For information on that, see the late Bernard Hamilton’s The Latin Church in the Crusader States: The Secular Church (1980).

I can go on with some more examples, but I will stop here. My central point is that, at the very least, as often as one can point to the humility that the papacy instills and represents, one can just as easily find a long history of bloodshed.

As for Orthodox pride, Flanders expresses discomfort that not all of his questions have simple answers in Orthodoxy. He is right, there are numerous conflicting opinions in Orthodoxy on contraception. I do not see these differences as a big deal, but if others do, well so be it. And yes, there is divergence over time and space within Orthodoxy concerning baptismal practices, namely rebaptism for converts. Flanders seems to forget, however, that the reason why rebaptism became so controversial in the North African Church to begin with is precisely because it led to schism and bitter controversies. In contrast, present-day Orthodoxy does not have schism on account of diverging baptismal practices. Therefore, I don’t see the issue.

As for the procession of the Holy Spirit and every other doctrine of the Catholic Church since its schism, there is no reason why the Orthodox Church must necessarily pronounce on everything in response to an organization that has split itself off from her centuries ago. And in point of fact, the Orthodox Church has responded to the filioque. Whether an Orthodox takes an extreme Photian view or the more full view (in my opinion) of the Synod of Blachernae (1285), the central point remains in either case – the Father is the sole cause of the Trinity. That is a fairly substantial position, at least from the Orthodox point of view, because it protects the monarchy of the Father and divine simplicity at both the essential and personal levels. To characterize this matter as a free-for-all or knee-jerk prejudice, like Flanders does, is grossly inaccurate.

Orthodoxy as a Church

Flanders here argues that the Orthodox Church suffers from many internal divisions that make it difficult to qualify it as a united institution. This claim is extraordinary and wrong. It is true, nationalism has wrecked havoc on Orthodoxy since its rise in the 19th century. Yet, Orthodoxy retains its liturgical traditions and has a healthy monastic movement – two things I would not credit the current Catholic Church with. I do not see how Flanders could say that these problems within current-day Orthodoxy are distinctly of a different category from the problems of Catholicism today, which is what OnePeterFive is dedicated to. If problems with nationalism disqualify Orthodoxy as a church and institution, then the very existence of OnePeterFive and the accusations of heresy against Pope Francis (whom I will not comment upon) should serve to weigh on the same scale for Catholicism. I think it is also worth pointing out that nationalism and traditional Catholicism have a fairly long history together. A good example is French historiography on King Clovis I from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I recommend perusing through M. Rouche’s Clovis: Histoire et memoire vol. 2 (1997) for more on that subject.

Furthermore, Orthodoxy agrees on a lot of common and essential doctrinal points. And while the disappearance of the position of the Roman emperor makes it difficult to gain consensus on any modern controversy that might arise in the foreseeable future, I don’t think there has yet to be over the course of many centuries since the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire an equivalent to say Arianism to plague the Church. The nearest we have come to that is the Hesychasm Controversy (which is prior to the empire’s fall, but a very weakened empire), which the Palamite councils resolved. And while few Orthodox regard these councils as ecumenical, they all agree that they got the question and answer at the time right. And if something were to arise today, who is to say that Orthodoxy will not triumph? After all, from the Orthodox view, it triumphed in spite of emperor, pope, and most bishops at Florence. Disarray and heresy are everywhere, as Tertullian acknowledged in his De praescriptione haereticorum. Problems such as these aren’t some marks that one willy nilly uses to decide which church is the true one. They are marks that we live in a fallen world.

At any rate, to conclude, I think it is quite telling that Flanders writes, “Even during the current crisis, the Roman Church is united in potency — the pope has the real power to bind all in unity.” This quote here really shows what Flanders’ main concern here is – government and power, not faith.

Bibliography

J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2014)

George Demacopoulos, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

Timothy Flanders, “I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for the Church Led by Pope Francis, and I don’t Regret It.” OnePeterFive June 11, 2019. https://onepeterfive.com/left-orthodoxy-regret/

Bernard Hamilton, The Latin Church in the Crusader States: The Secular Church (New York: Routledge, 1980)

Christopher MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)

Ralph W. Mathisen, Ecclesiastical Factionalism and Religious Controversy in Fifth-Century Gaul (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press,1989)

R. I. Moore, The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London: Profile Books, 2012)

Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)

M. Rouche ed., Clovis: Histoire et memoire, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses de l’Université
de Paris-Sorbonne, 1997)

About Alura

I just do my thing.
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4 Responses to On Recycling Old & Vapid Arguments: Timothy Flanders & the Orthodox Church

  1. mainenavvet says:

    In 2016, the Chieti Agreement, concluded by the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, made these declarations:
    “The primacy of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was gradually interpreted as a prerogative that was his because he was successor of Peter, the first of the apostles. This understanding was not adopted in the East…”
    also:
    “appeals to the bishop of Rome from the East expressed the communion of the Church, but the bishop of Rome did not exercise canonical authority over the churches of the East.”
    I wonder if Mr. Flanders was aware of these statements.
    https://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/09/26/the-new-orthodox-catholic-agreement-is-a-landmark-but-theres-a-long-way-to-go/

    Like

    • Alura says:

      Hard to say. I’ve brought similar statements concerning ecumenical dialogue to the attention of some Catholics, and some have dismissed it as irrelevant because these agreements themselves are not infallible documents.

      Like

  2. Tony P says:

    Alura, where I can find the essay by Bishop Peter L’Huillier, “The Indissolubility of Marriage in Orthodox Law and Practice” mentioned in your post about marriage? I didnt find it on google.

    Like

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