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

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8 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/

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    • 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.

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      • John Church says:

        I’m not trying to stir the pot, and God bless us all who seek the truth.

        When one first comes across the claim “the Pope did not exercise canonical authority in the East” it sounds like a slam
        Dunk against the papacy, but really it is not. In the ancient Church, canons weren’t always sources of procedure, often they were mere codifications of procedure already in place, already as existing in ecclesial tradition.

        For example: The Council of Sardica may have been the first council to canonically formalize the See of Rome’s prerogative of acting as a court of high appeals, but the See of Rome did not receive that right from Sardica — it was already exercising it well prior. Before Sardica, when expelled by his see, St. Athanasius appealed to the Pope and was reinstated as bishop.

        So canons really are not the heart of the debate. Especially given that the papal dogmas are so binding upon Catholics, the matter comes down to what the faith of the fathers was, not the mere praxis. That isn’t to say that praxis gives us nothing, but it doesn’t give us everything either.

        “This understanding was not adopted in the East”

        Both true and false. Just because it didn’t become the regular mode of thought in the Easr does not mean that it was never voiced by any Eastern Fathers. Further, the Catholic-Orthodox debate often centers too much around Christianity as practiced within the Byzantine empire. Outside the realms of the empire, i would say you are more likely to find Eastern witnesses that have more explicit references to the lofty nature of the Bishop of Rome’s authority. Examples: The 5th Centruy Persian Acts of Nicea, 9th century Theodore Abu’Qurrah

        I can’t speak for Flanders, but I know he’s done a lot of reading. He has an article on his own website where he basically posits that the Orthodox schism is a result of their treating the Latin Fathers as second tier compared to the Eastern ones.

        God bless us, May He lead us ever closer to the truth.

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        • Alura says:

          John,

          No worries about stirring the pot. If anyone is about to do that, it might just be me.

          In answer to your reply, I would just say that the points of the Cheti agreement were not brought up in the comment section as a slam dunk against Catholicism (And do keep in mind too that this entire article of mine itself openly disavows that effort, at least here). It would be odd for the Catholic Church to agree to something that totally undermines it. The Cheti agreement was initially brought up in the comments because the picture of the papacy and its powers that Flanders presents in his article that I am writing about here is extremely simplistic, while the Catholic Church today has openly agreed to documents and statements that are more complicated. I read mainenavvet’s comment as simply asking what would Flanders say about this specific ecumenical agreement. And my reply was that many Catholics of Flanders’ bent have in my experience dismissed it out of hand as irrelevant and without authority.

          As for Flanders’ article pertaining to the filioque and the lack of appreciation of the Latin Fathers, I don’t entirely disagree with some of his ideas, although I certainly disagree with his conclusion. True enough, the Eastern Roman Christians did not have access to many of the Latin Fathers and on numerous occasions showed a great disinterest or scorn for them. That said, there were always some Latin Fathers whom they appreciated, such as St. Cyprian of Carthage or St. Gregory of Rome. Furthermore, there is now a mountainous heap of evidence that the Orthodox Church had an enormous interest in Latin scholastic thought, used it, and had dialogue with it. Here are just a couple of links of interest:

          https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/aquinas-between-east-and-west-2/

          https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0198708890/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

          It would be worth mentioning too that the Latin churches likewise demonstrated similar hostility towards the Fathers of other traditions, dismissing them as outright wrong or forgeries. Many of the Greek Fathers summoned at II Nicaea were rejected by the Frankish Church because they were unfamiliar with them. This rejection allowed them to bolster their rejection of the council in its entirety. St. Columbanus of Bobbio openly flaunted only British and Irish Fathers in a number of letters to counteract the Frankish and Roman proclivities to dismiss Columbanus’ own traditions. And St. Maximus the Confessor was dismissed at Florence by the Latins as a basis for reunion. These sort of instances go on and on for both Catholics and Orthodox.

          I find it very strange that so many traditionalist Catholics read Thomas Aquinas and then maybe one or two Fathers prior to him (usually Augustine), but that is all. They aren’t familiar with the Glossa ordinaria (which dates from the High Middle Ages even), they aren’t familiar with St. Hrabanus Maurus, they aren’t familiar with the Postilla, etc. The list goes on. This has been my experience at least. No one can be familiar with everything, but I do think, at the social level of any church, it is bad to be so narrowly focused on the whole. It sort of reminds me of the general Protestant trend, at least in the United States, of not being familiar with Christian history between the Apostolic era and the Reformation. I don’t regard these type of gaps, especially when they are so common and widespread, as healthy for any church.

          Orthodoxy has done a ressourcement in this or that direction on an occasion or two, often discovering that it was more engaged with Latin theology than has previously been thought. This has been treated both negatively and positively in Orthodox circles. In any case, to be frank, to say that the Orthodox Church has totally ignored the Latin tradition or denigrated it to some sort of plebian status, especially when going to seminaries in Russia for many years required learning Latin because Latin was the language used and with much of its theological apparatus, sounds a bit like a superficial treatment on Flanders’ part.

          I don’t doubt that Flanders is well-read. I have no doubt that he knows a lot more than I do about a lot of things, especially theology. And I imagine that his language skills with Latin and certainly Greek, which I know nothing of, are far superior to mine. Nonetheless, it just appears to me that given his simplistic arguments and presentations, he should read more history.

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          • Alura,

            Thanks for your gracious reply, and the forgiveness of my typos.

            I was speaking from highly personal experience as to the “slam dunk” comment, for that was my initial reaction when was discerning between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and I have seen some Orthodox treat it that way as well. Perhaps this was improper of me.

            I agree with very much with a lot of your own experience. I have no doubts that you have had engagements with Traditionalist Catholics who completely disengage that sort of evidence. I have had the same sort of encounters. And it has frustrated me. True that the Roman Church gives Aquinas a place of centrality for her theology, but many trads have treated centrality as to mean exclusivity. But a true “trad” should love the Fathers. Aquinas loved the Fathers, and cites them frequently. He even compiled commentary on the Four Gospels composed of nothing but Patristic quotations.

            Further, you’re correct that the Catholic Church has, in the past, both showed unfamiliarity and hostility towards the Fathers of other communions. In more recent times however the Catholic Church has gone leaps and bounds as far as reincorporating the Greek Fathers into its thought, and largely because of this finds much less amiss in Orthodoxy than in days prior. (This is something I learned from… Flanders!)

            I have yet to read Plested’s work but it’s been on my wishlist. Another good voice is Fr. Kappes.

            Before he went loud and proud with his crossing the Tiber, while still formally Orthodox, Flanders had a blog called “Pater Noster.” Very ecumenically minded, though one can see he was already falling on the Catholic side of the camp by that. You will definitely find much more nuance and more thorough historical awareness on that website. In my opinion, his “Holy Father” essay, originally published on Devin Rose’s blog but also up at MeaningOfCatholic, presents a great picture into why he, and anyone, should consider siding with Rome. I expect you’ll probably still find disagreements with it, but considering the aspect of both research and prayer, you’ll find something not so “old and vapid.”

            Pax

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  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.

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