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.” Through this rhetorical sleight of hand, 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. According to the Watchtower, Jesus was a real historical figure, and it is quite true that they share this belief in common with the early Christians. They might also claim—as all heretical sects do to justify innovation—that the changing elements are a development or expansion of the original truth. However, these rhetorical moves on the part of the Watchtower do not establish actual historical continuity. Or again, 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.

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. Still, one might argue, the Orthodox church represents an unbroken line of succession from the theology of the early church when it comes to essentials (what we might call “tradition with a capital T”) but has only changed in the non-essentials (what we might call “tradition with a lowercase c”). Such an argument might work in principle if there is a clear way of establishing what counts as essential tradition and non-essential tradition. For example, perhaps the ecumenical councils could be the touchstone for essential tradition. The difficulty is that the Orthodox are not agreed on what constitutes essential tradition. Should it include the theology of the councils but not the canons? If the canons, then can these be updated or modified? Nobody knows. Another difficulty with this argument is that before one could establish that the Orthodox Church has continuity with the essential Tradition of the early church, one would first need to perform massive amounts of historical data-collection and analysis about a time period, namely the early church, for which historians know very little and on which there are a variety of competing interpretations within the scholarship. A final problem with claiming that the the Orthodox Church has continuity with the essential tradition of the early church is that the way this argument normally functions within apologetics and convert narratives does entail the same tautologies mentioned above. For if an area of discontinuity is actually identified, this is placed in the category of non-essential tradition, and if an area of continuity is identified, then this is placed in the category of essential tradition. But by this methodology the claims to continuity can never be actually verified or falsified, since this argument starts with an a priori framework that can, in principle, explain away any historical data.

But does this matter?

See Also

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.

Finally, this matters because it brings people into the Orthodox Church for the wrong reason, namely because of a misguided notion that tradition is good in and of itself. People seeking tradition as an end in itself will sometimes latch onto the Orthodox Church but for the wrong reasons. This is creating a crisis in the church, with priests having to turn away would-be converts. As priests deliberately turn people away, they are having to explain that there is no virtue in being traditional just for the sake of being traditional. The only reason to join the Orthodox Church is because that is where you will meet Jesus. That is why I became Orthodox, and why I remain Orthodox – because it is here that my encounter with Jesus has been the most genuine, the most real, and the most life-changing. I believe there are reasons for this, and it has to do with Orthodox theology and practice, but that is the topic of another article.

I will leave you with the words of Fr. Stephen De Young, from his appearance on the Orthodox Engagement podcast:

“…if you’re a high-church Protestant and your denomination starts ordaining women, and that’s the only reason you’re interested in joining the Orthodox Church; if they had never started ordaining women, you would’ve stayed there happily your whole life? You shouldn’t be joining the Orthodox Church, because that’s not a reason. And it’s causing, frankly, a crisis in the American Orthodox Church, that we have a lot of people who are sort of Russophiles and Putinstans, and they’re just on the political right, and so they’re just attracted to things that are traditional, and whatever church they were in, if any ordained women or took some biblical stance on homosexuality or something, so they want to be in the traditional place, and that’s not only unhealthy for them. Because when we bring someone into the Orthodox Church, we’re bringing them into the presence of God; we’re bringing them into the direct presence of Christ; we’re bringing them to the Eucharist. If we’re bringing people in who are in a state where they’re not able to receive that, we’re damaging them, we’re harming them. We could be killing them. So out of compassion for them we shouldn’t be doing it, and out of love for the Church we shouldn’t be doing it, because that’s bringing strife and division into the Church and into our parishes. So, yeah, we have a problem with that, of people just loving traditionalism as such and coming from a very right-wing point of view where that’s appealing.

So that’s a really bad reason for someone to join the Church, and I’m not saying we should put up a sign and throw people out and tell people: Go away. But I’m saying that catechesis is not about, again, teaching a body of knowledge. That’s not what Orthodoxy is. Catechesis is about bringing people into the Orthodox way of life, which will mean calling people who are trying to join for the wrong reasons to repentance, and trying to get them to join for the right reasons. It’s not that we don’t want these people to join at all; it’s that we don’t want them to join for the wrong reasons and bring what is really ultimately sin with them. That the length of time, one to three years in the ancient Church, of how long it took someone to join the Church was not based on how much they knew and how educated they were about the faith; it was based on how much repentance they needed to do, how much their way of life needed to change, and what fruits they needed to show of that before they were allowed to enter. And we need to get back to more of that and less of the education model of catechesis.”

Further Reading


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