Eastern Orthodoxy is Continually Evolving…and that’s a good thing

In one of Fr. Stephen De Young’s conversations with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick on the Orthodox Engagement podcast, Fr, Stephen lamented the all-too-common tendency for Orthodox Christians in America to use Roman Catholic arguments against Protestants and Protestant arguments against Roman Catholics “without actually putting forward a positive presentation of the Orthodox faith.”

An example of Orthodox using Roman Catholic arguments against Protestant is the argument that Orthodoxy doesn’t change, and that the way the Eastern Orthodox Christians worship today is how they have always worshiped. On the surface, this simplistic idea of historical continuity has enormous pull in implying that Orthodoxy is the most authentic expression of the faith. I addressed this idea tangentially in a recent Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy post about how the churches responded to COVID but I want to explore this in more detail here.

In this article, I will explore why this argument is invalid when used by Roman Catholic (RC) apologists. From there we will move to explore why the Eastern Orthodox (EO) should avoid mimicking the RC by using an Orthodox version of this argument. Finally, I will suggest why this matters, especially in the post-COVID era.

Why the RC Argument For Historical Continuity is Invalid

We’ll begin with the RC argument. If you’ve ever talked with a RC apologist, you likely noticed that one of the main arguments is the claim that their tradition has preserved, unchanged, the original faith of the apostles. If you challenge this claim on empirical grounds (for example, by pointing out that the historical record shows that Roman Catholic belief and practice has actually evolved over the years), then the doctrine of development comes to the rescue. Yes, the RC apologist will point out, the Catholic faith has changed over the years, but only in the way a fully developed oak tree is a continuation of an acorn. This means that all unchanging elements becomes proof of RC’s historical continuity, while all changing elements become, by definition, a matter of development.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Well, the a priori determination that anything unchanging must prove historical continuity and anything changing must prove development, does not provide grounds for any substantive inferences to be drawn. In fact, the Roman Catholic appeal to historical continuity merely collapses into vacuity, if not a mere tautology. By having the character of an a priori argument, the argument removes itself from the very history to which it makes appeal.

Consider, any Christian tradition, and even new heretical sects, can legitimately claim both unchanging and changing elements. An example of a heretical sect containing elements that are unchanged since the Apostolic era would be the Jehovah’s Witness belief in theism. A JW can claim, quite rightly, that their church shares belief in theism with the religion of the Apostles, but this hardly substantiates their claims. They can also claim—as all heretical sects do to justify innovation—that the changing elements are a development of the original truth; but this rhetorical move does not establish actual historical continuity. Arian heretics can claim to have continuity with the apostolic belief in the humanity of Christ; but this in no way proves that their theological aberrations are correct.

Why Eastern Orthodox Should Not Mimic the RC Historical Argument

With the recent wave of American converts into the Orthodox Church, defenders of Orthodoxy routinely use bad RC arguments to try to convince people for Orthodoxy, including the argument from historical continuity. But lazy RC apologetic strategies do not become legitimate merely when converted into arguments for Orthodoxy. Nowhere is this more true than in the argument that Orthodoxy has not changed, and that the way Orthodoxy is practiced today has continuity with the way it was practiced at the time of the apostles.

This argument isn’t completely wrong since there are significant areas of continuity and discontinuity; yet as we saw in the previous section, this hardly proves anything since the same could be said of heretical sects like the Watchtower. Yet this lazy argument often plays a central role in convert narratives as Amy Slagle documented in her 2008 dissertation “’Nostalgia Without Memory’: A Case Study of American Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (now available in book form as The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity)

When we look at the historical record, we find that the history of Eastern Orthodoxy has actually been one of constant evolution and dynamic change, and that this is a good thing.

Here is what John W Morris wrote about the evolution of Orthodox worship in his book Orthodox Fundamentalists: A Critical View, published by Light and Life Publishing.

“There has always been liturgical diversity within the Church. Once monasteries and cathedrals followed different orders of worship or Typikons…. None of the ancient Fathers ever did the Kairon or Proskomedia as we do them today. Botyh services are the product of a long development that only reached its high point in the fourteenth century. Orthodox worship only achieved a degree of uniformity and much of its present form with the publication of the Diataxis by Patriarch Philotheus of Constantinople in the fourteenth century. The Holy Fathers never celebrated the Divine Lituirgy behind a modern iconostasis. The iconostais is the product of an evolution that also reached its climax only in the fourteenth century. None of the early Fathers used incense, due to its association with the cult of emperor worship. The Church only began to use incense after the end of the persecutions. No ancient Orthodox bishop dressed like a Byzantine Emperor during the Divine Liturgy as Orthodox bishops do today. The Patriarch of Constantinople did not begin to wear the sakkos, modeled after the dress of the emperor, until the eleventh century. Other bishops adopted it even later. The Patriarch of Constantinople did not begin to wear a mitre, which evolved from the imperial crown, until after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

See Also

The list of changes that have taken place is endless. To canonize one form of nineteenth century Orthodoxy as the norm is to place Orthodoxy in a deep freezer, and to stifle the Holy Spirit that leads the Church to express the truth in different ways in different societies. Indeed, if all change is a departure from the Faith of the Church, all true Orthodox Christians must reject the development that has taken place since Christ celebrated the first Divine Liturgy in the Upper Room. If all change is a betrayal of Orthodoxy as some Orthodox fundamentalists seem to believe, the Orthodox Church must reject vestments, the iconostasis, incense and must abandon many meaningful practices and services that developed only later. The truth never changes, but the way that we express that truth does change as the Church must speak the truth to different peoples in different cultures. Consequently, the Divine Liturgy and other services of the Church have changed through the centuries.

These historical facts are ignored by EO apologists who borrow from the RC playbook to make false claims of continuity. But does this matter?

Why This Matters

When people convert to EO because of propaganda, including false historical claims, there is always the risk they will fall into doubt, or even apostasy, later in time when they get more information. I have seen this happen more times than I would like to count. But in the present case, the stakes are even higher. Attempts to put Orthodoxy in the deep freezer of liturgical uniformity, and to justify this through spurious appeals to historical continuity, has become central to the polemics of those who would divide the Church over COVID-era controversies. On the assumption that Orthodoxy never changes, and that the purity of the faith stands or falls on lack of change, it is being alleged that COVID-era changes represent a denial of Orthodoxy; ergo, it is important to join pure churches, where purity is judged retroactively by a parish’s lack of adherence to COVID restrictions. Recognizing that Orthodoxy has been in a continual state of evolution, and that this is a good thing, creates space for toleration of COVID-era restrictions, in addition to helping eviscerate our apologetics of lazy RC argumentation.

Further Reading


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