The prestige and the authority of dogmas
From what we have said so far, it has become obvious that:
A. Dogmas acquire their prestige from the constancy that they display towards the initial form of existential relationship between God and the world, which is not only revealed as a noetic “knowledge”, but is realized as a communion between God, the world and mankind in Christ; also in the experience of the first Disciples and apostolic communities, and as recorded in the New Testament.
Β. In order for the dogmas to have prestige and authority, it is imperative that the eucharist community functions properly; in other words, it must be built properly, with the elements that we mentioned previously, and it must function as a community that consists of all the charismas and all the social classes. Consequently, the prestige of the dogmas is not imposed from on high, in the name of an authority that is perceived juridicially (=as already existent by definition in an institution), but is made evident and is consolidated as the “Amen” of the entire community. Thus, from the moment that the dogma has been completed in this manner and is consolidated in the conscience of the Church, its prestige becomes irrevocable, and the only thing that is permissible from then on, is the experiencing and the interpretation of that dogma (by dogmatic theology, by ascetic living, by hymnography, hagiography, etc..).
Thus, whatever was “decreed” (in the above sense) as a “dogma” has absolute prestige and authority, and no pursuant synod or theology is allowed to “rescind” it, only to interpret it, perhaps formulating new dogmas, which, however, in order to become dogmas with prestige and authority of an equal stature to the preceding dogmas, must fulfill the same prerequisites that we mentioned above.
C. From the above, we can comprehend the meaning of infallibility in the dogmas (and the Church). To the Orthodox, infallibility is not contained in any institution per se (for example in synods or in bishops), not even in any moral perfection or individual experience, or its acknowledgement through experience. The saints or the fathers, as individuals, are not automatically and by definition infallible. Infallibility is the result of the “communion of the Holy Spirit”, Who “composes the wholeness of the institution of the Church”. Therefore, no-one as an individual can be infallible; in other words, on his own, without any reference to the other charismas and functions of the Church. But, each individual can empirically express the truth of the Church as formulated by the synods of the bishops in an “infallible” way, provided the individual is faithful to this truth (as, for example, a hymnographer, or a hagiographer or an ascete or a martyr or an ordinary Christian who lives faithfully and humbly as a member of the eucharist body of the Church.)
D. Especially in the case of dogmatic theology, it is obvious that it cannot claim infallibility in the same sense that the decreed dogmas do. Many theologians confuse the dogmas with the theology of the Fathers when speaking of authority: “This was stated by Father so-and-so, therefore it must be infallible”. This can lead to a dangerous confusion. In order for a patristic position to acquire full authority, it must be passed through the furnace of “the communion of the Holy Spirit” that we described above, and neither the holiness nor the personal prestige of that Holy Father qualify enough to make it of an equal stature to the dogmas. For example, Athanasios the Great had correctly phrased the faith of the Church, before the 1st Ecumenical Synod (Council) had convened to dogmatize. But it was only when the teaching of the 1st Ecumenical Synod was established in the Church, that Athanasios’ theology was rendered an infallible “dogma”, with a compulsory, overall acceptance.
Of course the question is raised, as to what happens in those periods when ecumenical synods are inoperative and dogmas are not decreed. In this case, the Church continues to live and confess the truth of God’s Christophany, through various forms of experience and confessions, through the its contemporary Fathers (the Church always has Fathers); the Patristic era did not come to an end in the 9th century, as was predominantly believed by the West.
However, these Fathers interpret the existing dogmas without producing any new ones; in other words, without expecting the overall acceptance by the Ecumenical Church of whatever they say. Thus, in the case of Dogmatics (for all of us who are preoccupied with the holy dogmas as teachers or as students), what we strive for is an (existential) interpretation of the dogmas, which is something that cannot demand any kind of prestige.
It would be somewhat excessive – if not audacious – for a theologian to expect his own interpretation to be the one that fully and validly expresses the interpretation of the dogmas. Every one of us is capable of erring, and that is why we must all be humble enough to listen to each other’s views. Without this humility, we are at risk of proclaiming ourselves infallible popes, which is something that often appears in Orthodoxy, whereby each theologian tends to become a “pope”. The truth is revealed and is consolidated (=becomes infallible) only through our humble incorporation in the body of the Church, and by resigning ourselves to the communion and the community of the Holy Spirit.
Because God, after all, is recognized only “in the Spirit”, through Love. But we shall speak of this in the next chapter on Gnosiology.
Professor Metropolitan of Pergamus and Chairman of the Athens Academy I. Zizioulas