Form and Substance

There is an interesting contretemps currently simmering on a back burner among certain circles of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States, one involving Anglophone Orthodox from other nations, as well. This discussion, lively at times, has focused variously on the newly released Orthodox Study Bible (a, b, c, d), on Ancient Faith Radio (a), and on various aspects related to the above and other organizations and efforts of various Orthodox Americans (a, b, c, d, e). As the discussion has progressed over the course of the Lenten Fast this year, it’s become quite clear that the issues involved are deeper than a superficial glimpse at the individual posts might reveal. I have myself, as have others, described the issue as one of aesthetic, while still others have described it more clearly as one of form and substance. As these are effectively synonymous in this context, the latter is preferable for its clarity.

Let me first allay any fears that this post will delve into the vast body of philosophical discussions on form and substance, or even Christian theology touching on the subject, which it very much does. We can discuss this in quite simple language because the issue is, in the end, quite simple.

Now, down to the brass tacks.

We’ve been discussing the presentation of Orthodoxy primarily through verbal means, whether written (in the case of, for example, the Orthodox Study Bible) or audible (as in the case of Ancient Faith Radio, for example). One thing that is particularly important to keep in mind about issues of form and substance is this: there is no separation between the two. That is, form is a substance in some particular arrangement, even in verbal expression. If we think of, say, a marble statue, the form (say, Bernini’s David) is quite different from its substance (the marble it is made from). On the other hand, in the case of an essay in a book or the recording of a lecture, the form of the expression and the substance of the expression are essentially the same: both are in words. One might further specify that it’s the arrangement of the words that comprises the form, and that the particular words used comprise the substance, the two of which combined making the difference between, say, a shopping list and a novel. In any case, we’re dealing with words throughout. In the case of Orthodox Theology, the language used to describe God and things relating to God as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is no different. The verbal expression of Orthodox Theology has always consisted of both particular form (ways of saying things) and particular substance (words used in saying things).

Now, there is a very long tradition within Orthodox Christianity of a particular vocabulary that is used in theological discussions. You’ve heard the expression “not one iota’s difference”? Some find the origins of this odd phrase in the Arian controversy of the early fourth century, where the fight boiled down to two words to describe the relationship of God the Father and God the Son: homoousios (same substance) and homoiousios (similar substance): one iota’s difference. One letter, and the theology that its presence or absence implied, meant the difference between exile and livelihood for countless people over the better part of the fourth century. Orthodoxy holds to homoousios, the same substance, according to the canons of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea. As Arianism was anathematized as a heresy, to use homoiousios would be to draw down on oneself the anathemas of that Council and the subsequent Ecumenical Councils which ratified its decisions. All this is to say that a particular theological vocabulary is of paramount importance in Orthodox Theology not only historically, but also and especially in our own daily lives and the Faith that we hold as a result of those Orthodox arguments and decisions over vocabulary down through the ages. We can’t indiscriminately use words from outside our Orthodox theological tradition when describing Orthodox theology, and expect that the expression realized is still Orthodox. It is not only entirely possible that such indiscriminate language will relate something other than Orthodox theology, it is a certainty. Even a cautious use of language external to Tradition in that respect is unnecessary, and is hazardous without qualification and explicit definition. Very simply, the safest approach is to utilize Orthodox language in expressing Orthodox Theology. Thus much for Orthodox substance in theological expression.

Relatedly, we can’t simply put those words in any various patterns that we want and expect to have a proper expression of Orthodox theology. The heretical Gnostics, for instance, were quite adept at taking words from Scripture, giving them new meanings unattested by Apostolic Orthodox Christianity, and rearranging them into various extraordinary ways to support their dualistic and exclusionistic fantasies. Likewise, we have an excellent example, again one hammered out over the course of the fourth century, of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Creed that every Orthodox Christian throughout the world knows and loves. Its wording was precisely formulated throughout the course of countless discussions amongst power-hitter theologians, themselves often belonging to the educated elite of their day, in order to avoid the statements within it being misconstrued by anyone in support of their various heresies. The Creed itself is very clear, and was designed to be so. It’s only later (and modern) pseudo-sophisticates that read a “nuanced complexity” into it, a suggestion wholly alien to Orthodoxy, but quite at home in gnosticism and today’s cult of the passions. Look also to the writing Saints, whom we call the Church Fathers (under which general title we also include female writing saints as well, the Church Mothers). Orthodoxy finds not a mere historical value in them as signposts of dogmatic development, but great value in them as travelogues of fellow-travellers along the Way, the records of Saintly instructors valiantly fighting for the salvation of souls. Their words are alive to us in a way that isn’t the case with even most modern and unquestionably Orthodox writings. Part of this is the theosis that these Saints exhibit in their writings: they had so deeply and consistently breathed in the Holy Spirit in the course of their lives of prayer and struggle (askesis or podvig) that we cannot help but to recognize Him gusting through their writings in a way different from the slight and failing breezes we may experience from the writings coming from our own lazy and slothful fingers. Even so, there are and have been some modern Church Fathers by whom we are blown away (St Theophan the Recluse, St John of Kronstadt, St Nikolai Velimirovich, St Silouan, and others). What is common to these writing Saints are several things: a.) their avoidance of phrasing their writings in a way that might be misconstrued; b.) their consistent usage of the Church’s theological vocabulary; c.) their intent focus on their audience, which are instructed for the benefit of their souls. In fact, these points are precisely what one would expect of a Saint, are they not? Their Saintliness pervades their writings, from vocabulary, to expression, to intent. We can and do, in fact, say that the Holy Spirit inspired the form of their writings, through His activity in their lives. The lives of the Saints are examples for us, and that includes not only their manner of living, but their manner of writing, as well. It is a form of expression which is deeply rooted in Orthodoxy, full of the love of God and neighbor. Thus much for Orthodox form in theological expression.

Tradition is the life lived in the Church, the Body of Christ, in the Holy Spirit. In that sense, Tradition, which cannot be abstracted into a set of rules and recipes, includes within it the Saintly examples of those who formerly on this earth and currently in Paradise live out their lives in prayer and struggle for us. They are not dead, only distant, and then only as distant as we situate ourselves from them. We are certainly correct to say that the example of expression as preserved in the writings of the Saints stands supreme as the exemplar for our own paltry efforts, as for all living within Tradition, the life of the Church. We cannot simply go off in a different direction of expression altogether, utilizing phrasing (form) and vocabulary (substance) that not only can often be misconstrued, but some of which can only indicate something incorrect in relation to Orthodox theology proper. That is not only abandoning Tradition in the example of the Saints, but a dereliction of the duty of an Orthodox instructor within Tradition working for the salvation of souls.

I’ll continue in another post after Pascha, looking at some concrete examples.