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.

17 Replies to “Form and Substance”

  1. While I am sympathetic to the general drift of your post, numerous details aren’t filled in. Here’s a question or two: (1) how can Orthodox writings be explained to those who do not understand them if the explanations are constrained as to substance and form as you suggest? Also, (2) don’t we see change in the meaning of terms across the writings of the Fathers? It seems to me that the struggle of the Fathers to express what at least resists expression often leads them into remarkable linguistic innovation. Are we not allowed to imitate them in this, even scrupulously and modestly? –I’m genuinely (not rhetorically) asking these questions. I don’t know the answers to them.

  2. They are good questions, too.

    Your first question makes explicit one of the common objections to the use of the writings of the Church Fathers today: that they are too complicated. This is the case in some instances, certainly. One could not toss a copy of the Areopagitica at a catechumen, bark “Learn this!” and expect any but disastrous results for the souls involved. But it is not universally the case, and in large part the opposite is in fact true. The Church Fathers were generally writing not treatises of theology, but answers to questions, just as I am to you, whether in the form of extended letters or homilies. We can utilize their methods of teaching the faith, particularly the methods of those who were recognized as Orthodox, recognized as excellent speakers and writers, and recognized as Saints of the Church. We have many such Saints through the ages. What was very successful indeed for them can also be very successful for us, if we would only try it.

    The answer to your second question is partly tied to the above, as well. While we can recognize that there was a crystallization of understanding in the development of the language used in theological expression in the Church, and neologisms did play a certain part, the former is already accomplished and the latter are quite rare. That is, we don’t exist in that period in which the discussions took place. The discussions are over, and what was appropriate then is not appropriate now. We have an established theological vocabulary, and this needs to be passed on within the Tradition of life in the Church to all. Part of the problem is the “scrupulously and modestly” that you mention. These are not the adjectives used to describe the results of willful rejection of the established theological vocabulary and its usage in the Church, which is essentially what is at issue here. One sets oneself up for a fall in doing so. Likewise, this is not any kind of real education for the people of the Church, in that it would avoid the usage and terminology that is part of its two thousand year old Tradition in favor of something that is much less venerable and external to its own established and perfectly functional standards. Orthodox theological language is extremely important, and shouldn’t be monkeyed around with. It may be done with the best of intentions, but we all know which road is paved with those….

  3. Thanks, Kevin. I’ll think about this some more. The idea that continue to trouble me is this, I guess. Like you, I want to see the writings of the Fathers as normative for Orthodoxy, but I fear your way of securing their normativity is too, well, mechanical. I may be satirizing what you actually mean (and I apologize if so) but it looks as though (on your view) I could determine whether a bit of new writing is Orthodox by simply tabulating its lexicon, checking it against the Fathers’ tabulated lexicon, and then investigating the work’s sentences to see if the approved words appear in appropriate apposition. What I wouldn’t have to do is actually read and think about the new work.

  4. You’re welcome. These are just some initial impressions of mine, the result of pondering the subjects buzzing around over the last couple of weeks, really.

    In a way, though, your “satirizing” is correct. Would a statement of beliefs not have to exactly match the language of the Creed, using the same terminology and phraseology? When the Creed exists, why insist on something else? Expanding on it is certainly a valid endeavour, but the core of the belief, its truly normative/canonical formulation, is established in both letter and spirit, and can’t be altered. Focusing purely in an instructive mode of writing, I’d suggest that hewing as closely to these normative/canonical formulations is the ideal, and in fact the normative/canonical approach. Formulations which don’t directly reflect that ideal, that are sloppily composed and thus construable to mean something else are clearly outside of the practice of the Fathers in their writing and outside of Tradition. Very careful writing that is solidly founded on the normative/canonical formulations (including careful attention to both vocabulary and phrasing) is necessary for the Spiritual health of all of us, whether teacher or student. That’s the lesson we learn from the Fathers.

    One thing that this would require to be more obvious to everyone involved would be a both broader and deeper knowledge of the writings of the Church Fathers, in good, modern translations. That old online set of ANF/NPNF translations is no good in that regard. I’d recommend every volume in the St Vladimir’s Press Popular Patristics Series. They’re excellent in translation, introduction, and format, being small paperbacks that fit easily in a large pocket. Likewise there are a large number of very good translations with very good introductions in the following:
    Cistercian Press — tucked away in the various series produced by Cistercian Press are translations and studies of various Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers. Among my favorites are the The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, a study of St Isaac by the Orthodox Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, by Sebastian Brock.
    Paulist Press — Paulist Press publishes two enormously valuable series of annotated translations of Church Fathers: Ancient Christian Writers and Classics of Western Spirituality. The latter includes the writings of numerous Eastern Fathers, including two absolutely essential ones that leap to mind: Pseudo-Dionysius–The Complete Works, and Ephrem the Syrian–Hymns.
    Catholic University of America Press publishes the excellent Fathers of the Church Series.

    Anyone writing on Orthodox theology needs deep and broad familiarity with its basis, which is the Fathers. This includes not only the catechists in our parishes, but especially those who are publishing works that are designed to assist them. One thing that a reader prayerfully immersing himself in the writings of the Fathers will find is that the language and the phrasing of the writings themselves will become internalized the more time is spent with them. That’s why so many Saints have recommended reading the Fathers. If we’re wanting to truly become Orthodox inside and out, this is part of the game plan.

  5. Thanks so much for the list of publishers, etc. Like I said, I’ll have to continue to think about this. I realized yesterday that part of what kept nagging at me about your way of putting things is a line of Florovsky’s: “‘To follow’ does not mean just ‘to quote’ the Fathers. ‘To follow’ the Fathers means to acquire their ‘mind,’ their phronema.” Prayerful frequentation of the Fathers, active, inward and sympathetic, is imperative (I know this from my own case), and it is imperative because it is the way in which their phronema is acquired. And (although I of course have not acquired it) I believe that anyone who has acquired their phronema need no longer worry overmuch—and certainly need not “worry” mechanically—about whether or not what is written from that phronema is Orthodox: it will be.

    I suspect that we are in agreement about the importance of acquiring the Fathers’ phronema; further, I suspect that we are in agreement that having the Fathers’ phronema is distinguishable from quoting the Fathers. So I suspect the real difference between us is slight. I worry that what all you’ll end up counting as Orthodox are rote pastiches of the Fathers; you worry that I’ll end up counting free-wheeling (especially, free-writing) speculation as Orthodox. But neither of us wants what the other worries he wants, right?

  6. I forgot what Church Father said this, but it’s not about what one says, but it’s about what one means by what they say.

    You seem to be leaning towards some type of legalistic formalism. I know Roman Catholicism likes to be picky about words, but I didn’t know we were the same way.

    It’s onething to read the Fathers and understand their mindset and frame of mind, but it’s another thing to be mechanical.

    What good is it to use those words if we don’t know what those words mean?

    What good is it to know those words, if we can’t explain these ideas to other cultures?

    I don’t see a problem with using words that are not Eastern. We already use alot of words from the western World. We use the word “Sacrament”.

    I think as Long as we tell people that our understanding of that word is differant from Rome, then I really don’t see a big deal in using other words.

    What words are the Western Rite gonna use? If they can’t use Latin and English words then how can Orthodoxy grow in other cultures?

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m not understanding you correctly.


  7. Norm, yes, you’re missing me. I should probably have spent more time to explain better.

    Since we don’t know which Father you’re quoting, or the context, such a soundbyte is not really all that helpful. The Fathers are not sources of soundbytes. In this case, that statement is entirely capable of being misused. If I say, “I hate you” but say that I mean “I love you”, then we have a problem, as that is simply cruel and ridiculous. Language is meant to communicate, and we need to hold absolutely to the highest possible standards when communicating the Theology of the Church, which is the most important information we have and can share.

    My particular complaint is with loose and incautious language used in theological instruction, such as in the new Orthodox Study Bible notes and most of the articles therein. This is a perfect example of what not to do. While the blurbs on the box/dustjacket proclaim it to be full of patristic commentary, there is none of that, actually. There is short commentary very loosely based on the authors’/editors’ understanding of the Fathers, much of which commentary is so poorly phrased that it actually contradicts the Fathers. It’s sloppy usage like that that is my target.

    When we discuss theology, we can’t just say “we use these words differently than someone else” like Humpty Dumpty does. We have an entirely adequate theological vocabulary in Eastern Orthodoxy, passed down to us in Greek, Syriac, and Russian, which made its way into other languages as well, as loanwords. Thus we have words used in English books on Orthodox Theology like hypostasis, ousia, and apophatic, which don’t have precise English equivalents, and some few words that are “Englished” like mystery (for must

  8. I dissagree. We use alot of pagan greek words, but we don’t mean the samething they meant.

    Also in regards to the Nicene creed. The word “homoousios” was a word used by Modalists….you may not know them by that name. ….So I will use the term ” Sabellianism”.

    The Sabellianists used that word, but the Orthodox used it with a different meaning in mind.

    What about the whole issue of Toll houses? Do we mean the samething as the pagans that used it?

    What about the word “deification”? We don’t understand that in the same mannor as the Roman pagans did?

    I can go on and on and on! When the Jews translated the Hebrew into Greek, they had to use words that were associated with pagan concepts and ideas.

    Do we understand the word “KOSMOS” the sameway the greek pagans did?

    Also In Romans chapter 9. God said “He Loved Jacob, but hated Esau!

    Now this is a case in which we do call hatred a “type” of love…… a lower form of Love. For God is Love! He is Omnibenevolent!

    So yes we can understand words differently according to its context.

    Also, what will you do with the Miaphysites? Scholars from both sides pretty much said it was mostly symantics. We don’t use the same words, but in alot of ways we are saying similar things, if not the samething.


  9. I meant to say:

    “So yes, we can understand words differently according to another context.”

    From what I see from Eastern Church History. We have been using pagan words and making them our own…….and the meaning we give them is different from the meaning that the pagans used it in.

    In transforming cultures, we have to use the language of the culture.

    What will you do in China? Will you make use of their word “TAO”? or will you force the word “LOGOS” down their throats?

    From what I see in Orthodoxy, we can change the meaning of words by using our tradition. Our tradition is the context by which words have meaning.

    What will you do with the term “Original sin”? Did you know that the decrees of the 6th ecumenical council embraced the local north African council of Carthage? (I already know that the decrees were added later)

    The doctrine of Original sin is stated in the council of carthage. Now, if we use your principle, then we would have to use the Augustinian interpretation of that term.

    But guess what? The semi-pelagians were also at that council, and they disagreed with Saint Augustine on a number of points, so we can understand the term “original sin” in light of semi semi-pelagian understanding of “Ancestral sin”.

    So what I am trying to say is, we can have a different interpretation for the same words. The west does it all the time when reciting the Nicene Creed! They obviously don’t have the same understanding as us.

    But we both use alot of the same words.

    I am willing to agree to differ, but how can your system make room for what the Christian East have been doing for centuries?

    And why can’t we do that now?


  10. You’re entirely missing my point.

    Of course words have developed over time within languages. That’s the nature of language. And particular words are used in a particular way today, as opposed to centuries ago. It doesn’t really matter how they were used anciently, but how they’re used now. It’s the misuse (or avoidance) of such precise theological language that is the issue here. There is already an established theological vocabulary IN ENGLISH (the book I’m writing about is in English, after all) which we have to utilize. Using lame and imprecise language will get you lame and imprecise statements, which the theological language is specifically meant to avoid.

    And it’s not “my” system. As you see in the second part, precision in theological expression is actually common to a number of good Orthodox writers in English, and in translations of those writing in other languages.

  11. I’ll take a gander, or whatever the ear-based metaphor would be (certainly not “a goose”!). I’ve seen a few good mp3s there before, too. I know I’ve listened to some of them and enjoyed them. Anything by Metropolitan Kallistos is going to be worth the listen, if only to enjoy the kind of British accent and way of speaking that is long out of fashion, but a real pleasure to the ear.

    I’ve seen Met. and Metr. and even HE (for “His Eminence”). Anglican types will put one + in front of a bishop’s name and two ++ in front of an archbishop’s name, and I’ve seen Anglican/Episcopalian converts to Orthodoxy use that, but it seems odd to me (they’re plus signs after all “Double-plus Kallistos”? Is that, like, “super bestest”?). Also, technically, one should capitalize a bishop’s name in full, so Metropolitan KALLISTOS. But this is something that is usually done in print, formally. I’ve no idea where that comes from.

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