I don’t want to write a long article about the modern day rejection of the idea of absolute and transcendent truth. I spoke about this in a lecture I gave at the SCOOCH youth conference in New York this year. The video of my lecture is here…. Video Lecture It is an important subject, because many of the problems we face today are due to the non-Christian idea that there is no truth, just what I believe, and therefore that we should never suggest that there is a truth which applies to everyone.
In these few words I want to consider the criticism that is sometimes raised against the Orthodox Church that it is unreasonable in considering itself to be the True Church, or in a unique manner, the Church of Christ. It is often presented as an unwarranted and un-Christian claim. But I want to show that this only makes sense if we adopt the view that Christian truth does not matter. It also requires the adoption of an attitude which says that disagreeing with people is somehow unreasonable, and lacking in love. It requires ignoring almost all the history of the Church and all Christian groups, since the idea that every group is equally Christian and equally the Church has no greater history than the middle of the 20th century.
The Scripture is clear that there is truth and that which is not true. Our Lord Jesus says,
Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many… Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.
If it is possible to be deceived then there must be a difference between the truth and deception. If it does not really matter what people believe then it would be impossible to say that anyone had been deceived. If I believe X, and you believe Y, but we must both be considered to be teaching Christianity, then it means that neither of us can say that we are right and the other is wrong, and so every view must be considered as reasonable as any other. But if it is just what is right for you, or for me, then it is only the modern post-modernist rejection of all truth working itself out in a Christian context.
St Paul was very clear,
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
The issue I want to note here, is not so much what the Gospel is, but that it is clearly possible to teach something else, and it is not the Gospel at all. St Paul does not show any sympathy at all for the idea that lots of different teachings are all equally valid. The Gospel is those things he has taught by his word and letter, and anything else is to be rejected entirely. When St Paul speaks about people who disagree with his teachings, he doesn’t say that they must also be considered to be just as Christian, on the contrary, he says,
If a man is a heretic, after the first and second admonition reject him.
He does not suggest that if someone teaches something else he is to be treated just the same as if he was a teacher of the truth. Rather, if someone teaches error, then after giving him every opportunity, he is to be rejected and avoided. What does it mean to be a heretic, it seems to me that it means someone who does not teach what St Paul preached everywhere. Indeed, his instruction is,
Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
If it is necessary to stand fast and hold tight to the traditions which had been received from St Paul in his preaching and letters, then it is because it is possible to fail to stand fast, and to fail to hold on to the traditions he had taught, and such a condition is not acceptable according to St Paul, but is to be condemned. I have not asked what St Paul taught because my intention is not to consider his Gospel and those things which are error, but to show clearly that from the very beginning it was always understood that there was truth and there was also error, and it was necessary to hold on to the truth and avoid error. There is no sense in the teaching of St Paul that it does not matter what we believe, on the contrary it matters very much. As St Paul says,
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.
What does this say to us, except that we are to avoid those who teach things which are different to the teaching of St Paul. Again, the issue here is not to say that this or that group are teaching the truth. Everyone thinks they are teaching the truth, after all. But to show that we are not to consider these differences as insignificant, and certainly not to treat differences in doctrine as being of no consequence. There is a unity which we must seek, but it is a unity based on the teaching, the tradition, of which St Paul has spoken. Those who have embraced this teaching are those of whom St Paul speaks when he says,
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
The one faith, and one baptism, refer to the unity of St Paul’s message, and the unity of the community who confessed that message. He is not saying, there is one body and it includes everyone, rather he is saying, there is one body, and the boundaries are set by the calling, the faith which I preach, and the baptism of the one body which is the entrance into such a unity.
In the earliest Church there was the same understanding that the Church was a community with one clear teaching, and with a unity based on that doctrine, which excluded the teaching of error. St Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, and learned the faith from him. He told his own disciple, St Irenaeus, of an occasion when St John had found himself in the same place as the false teacher, Cerinthus. Cerinthus certainly believed in Jesus, and believed he had died on the cross, and risen from the dead. But he had many ideas which were contrary to the teaching of St Paul and the true Gospel. St Irenaeus tells us,
Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.
We see that St Irenaeus had first hand knowledge of St Polycarp, and he had known him personally in his youth, and he had always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church – the actual and particular Church of which he was a member – still taught, and it is clear that, as an early Church leader, he considered only those things which the early and Apostolic Church taught to be true. He continues,
He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.
In this passage, St Irenaeus tells us that St Polycarp had travelled to Rome, from the city of Smyrna where he was bishop, and he had been able to turn people away from those who taught error. And he had proclaimed one, sole truth, which came from the Apostles and was preserved in the Church – meaning not an invisible community of everyone who respected Jesus, but the actual community which the Apostles had established and of which St Polycarp and St Irenaeus were bishops. We can see that the early Church was interested in ideas of truth and believed that they alone taught the truth, while those who taught something else were heretics, and that people needed to be helped to understand the truth. There is no sense in St Polycarp or St Irenaeus, that it did not matter what people believed as long as they loved Jesus. On the contrary, truth was only found in the teaching of the Church of the Apostles which everyone was to belong to. The Church of God, in the teaching of St Polycarp and St Irenaeus – the disciples of the Apostle John – was a particular visible community, the community to which they belonged.
Finally, St Irenaeus remembers St Polycarp saying,
John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Do you know me?” “I do know you, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sins, being condemned of himself.”
This is a useful passage, because here we find St Irenaeus, taught by St Polycarp, who had been taught by the Apostle John, and he is using this passage from St Paul which describes how both St John and St Polycarp avoided those who taught error. He places the passage from St Paul into an actual and Apostolic context. Again, it is not so important what the teaching of St Paul, or St John, or the heretic Cerinthus and Marcion might have been. What is important here is that the Church always made a clear distinction between the actual, visible Apostolic Church which alone taught the truth, and those outside the Church, who taught error.
Who was St Polycarp? Where did he get his authority? As St Irenaeus has said,
Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna.
This was the guarantee of the truth, as far as St Irenaeus understood it and had been taught it. St Polycarp could be trusted, and the Church in Smyrna could be trusted, because he had been instructed by the Apostles, and had known the eye-witness of Christ, and he had personally been made the bishop of Smyrna by the Apostles. If there is a truth, and if there is a Church that teaches the truth, then this is how the early Church understood how any group could be validated – Who is your bishop? Where did he come from? Were are the origins of your community?
Now the intention of this post is not to show that Orthodoxy is true, though in fact the witness of St Irenaeus and St Polycarp do just that. Rather it is to show that just as Scripture teaches a distinction between truth and error, so the earliest Church also had the same view, and practiced a necessary exclusion of error to preserve the truth which they had received and which they passed on. If the Orthodox Church is wrong to make a distinction between truth and error, between the true Church and other groups, then we must say that the Lord Jesus is wrong, and St Paul is wrong, and the early Church was wrong. But if all of these were wrong then this only proves that Christianity is false, since those who established it cannot be trusted. But if they can be and must be trusted then they teach us that there is truth and error and error must be rejected.
I want to jump ahead in time and show that all Christian groups until the last decades have held just such a view, that truth matters, and that error must be rejected. What did Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism think about the Roman Catholic Church? Did he believe that Roman Catholicism was just as acceptable to God as his own community, and was the same Church of God? In fact he said,
The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.
Is this a nice thing to say? Would it be criticised if an Orthodox said it of a Protestant group? I would not encourage such harsh words myself. But this is what a Protestant says about the Roman Catholic Church. We can at least say that Martin Luther considered his opinions to be the truth, and that is strong words were intended to express his rejection of what he saw as the error of Roman Catholicism. He also said, when speaking about other Protestant leaders,
I have bitten into many a mutt, believing it to be good, only to find it wormy. Zwingli and Erasmus are nothing but wormy mutts that taste like refuse in ones mouth!
He was not at all hesitant in abusing those with whom he disagreed. And much more problematic, he was willing to condone violence against his opponents. When he wrote about the Jews, he said,
Let their houses also be shattered and destroyed . . . Let their prayer books and Talmuds be taken from them, and their whole Bible too; let their rabbis be forbidden, on pain of death, to teach henceforth any more. Let the streets and highways be closed against them. Let them be forbidden to practice usury, and let all their money, and all their treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put away in safety. And if all this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.
This opposition was not based on racial grounds but theological. Luther did not agree with the Jewish teaching about Christ and believed it should not be allowed to be taught. He was not at all willing to consider that whatever people believed was true for them. There was only truth, and error, and error must be rejected. When it came to the Anabaptists, those who rejected the sacraments, and much of the tradition of the Church, he was implacable. He said of one of their leaders,
Dr. Karlstadt has fallen from the Kingdom of Christ and has suffered shipwreck with respect to faith. Dr. Karlstadt actually is a gentile and has lost Christ.
From a modern perspective, Dr, Karlstadt was still a Christian, since he considered himself a follower of Christ, but Luther rejected the idea that truth was a matter of personal perspective. And this was no different to the view of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Churches of the East. Speaking of another Anabaptist, he says,
I have deemed it unnecessary to answer his kind of book. For who can stop the mouths of all people, even of all devils? I have long ago found that if I stop one mouth of the devil, he opens ten others, and the lie grows constantly greater.
Again, the issue is not what Luther believes, but that he is certain that there is truth, and that there is error, and that error is the teaching which disagrees with his. This is why he expended so much effort in Germany in overturning the existing spiritual tradition. He was sure that what he believed wast the truth. He says of his activities,
Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments. . . . We have indeed overthrown monasteries, mass-priests, and clerical celibacy, but only by showing the clear and certain scriptural arguments against them. Had we not done this, we should truly have let them stand as they previously existed.
He has overthrown so much because he is sure that he teaches the truth, and if he does, then those who disagree must be teaching error. This is not an unusual position to hold at all, though Luther is rather violent in his expression of it. Finally, in regard to Luther, he writes about the Anabaptist missionaries, but he does not have a good word for them, because they are not teaching what he understands to be the truth and so are teaching error. he says,
I have been told how these infiltrators worm their way to harvesters and preach to them in the field during their work, as well as to the solitary workers at charcoal kiln or in the woods. Everywhere they sow their seed and spread their poison, turning the people from their parish churches. There you see the true print and touch of the devil, how he shuns the light and works in the dark. Who is so dull, as not to be able to discern that these are messengers of the devil?
The issue is not what is being taught, but that these Protestant groups, Luther as well as his opponents, all believed that they were teaching the truth and therefore that those who disagreed with them were teaching error. This was a reasonable attitude since it is not possible that all opinions are equally true. We see this in the writings of John Calvin, another Protestant leader,. He writes about the Anabaptists, saying.
My intention is only in short or few words, to show to all faithful Christian men even if simple and unlearned, what and how dangerous a poison this doctrine of the Anabaptists is: and also arm them by the word of God against the same, so that they be not deceived; or if there be any, which already be wrapped in their snares, that they may be brought again unto the right way.
What do we see here? It is that the Protestant John Calvin also had no sense at all that every teaching was acceptable. He also considered that there was a truth which must be preserved, different to that of Luther, and error which must be resisted and rejected. He calls the teachings of the Anabaptists poision, and these are essentially the teachings of modern Evangelicalism. Calvin calls them poison. Luther called them the teachings of the devil. Protestantism had no idea that everyone who called themselves a Christian was a Christian and that whatever they believed was of equal value. We can certainly say that for the first 1600 years of the history of the Church, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants were all agreed that there is truth and error, and there was no group which believed, as many modern Christians, that everyone is a Christian if they say so, and irrespective of their beliefs.
In England in the 17th century, the same idea prevailed. Both Catholics and those who did not wish to be Anglicans, members of the Church of England, were penalised. There was no sympathy at all for those who held different views. The Act of Uniformity in 1662 required all clergy to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and to have received ordination from a bishop of the Church of England. Those who refused to do so were ejected from the Church. Anyone who preached without submitting to this new law faced three months in prison for every offence. Another Law passed in 1664 forbade the gathering of any group of more than five people for worship that was not according to the Church of England.
These restrictions were eased a little in 1689 for many of those Protestants who rejected Anglicanism, but the harsh treatment of Roman Catholics continued. The Law says,
Be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that neither this act, nor any clause, article, or thing herein contained, shall extend or be construed to extend to give any ease, benefit or advantage to any papist or popish recusant whatsoever.
There was no sense in the 17th century that everyone should be able to hold whatever views they wanted, and certainly no idea that everyone’s views were of equal value. On the contrary, most Protestant groups were forced to operate under restrictions imposed by other Protestants, and Roman Catholics found life almost impossible. Had the attitude changed in the 18th century? It would seem not, Charles Wesley was an ordained Anglican minister, but as the leader of the Methodist movement he often faced hostility because of his teachings. One record from his diary in 1743 says,
To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.”Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!”
The intention is not to suggest that such violence, or the legal restriction of religious groups, is acceptable or reasonable. But it does show that the Orthodox insistence that there is truth is not some unusual position at all. It is one which has been held in all places by all Christians in all ages until the last few decades, and the influence of post-modernism which denies the existence of truth.
In the 19th century such violence continued in the Anglican Church, with riots taking place against those ministers seen to be introducing Catholic ritual, which might be as little as the placing of flowers or candles on the altar. But there were also many more, less violent expressions of the holding onto particular views as truth, and the rejecting of other views as error. This can be seen in the rapidly increasing growth of Protestant denominations. In Scotland, for instance, in 1733, ministers left the Church of Scotland and formed the Associate Presbytery. But in 1747, this group divided into the Burghers and anti-Burghers, based on the acceptance or rejection of civil control of the Church. Both of these groups then divided on other theological grounds in 1798 and 1806. Theological principles, doctrinal truth, mattered to Christians.
In my own background, I grew up in a movement called the Plymouth Brethren. It began with much hope in 1829, and considered that all other Christian groups and churches were in error. One of those Anglican clergyman who left the Church of England to join the Plymouth Brethren wrote,
No other way … have I to escape these evils, to ‘keep myself pure, and not to be partaker of other men’s sins’, than by fleeing out of Babylon. Lastly, I secede from the Church of England because I can find in her scarce one mark of a true church. She tramples upon one ordinance of Christ, by sprinkling infants, and calling it regeneration, – (the word of God allowing no other than the baptism of Believers, and that by immersion,) and profanes the other, by permitting the ungodly to participate.
We don’t need to side with this man, but he is right in one thing. We cannot hold all views as being equally true and therefore equally Christian. If the baptism of infants is permitted, as I believe and Orthodoxy teaches, then this clergyman is wrong. But if he is right, and the baptism of infants is forbidden, then I am wrong. This surely matters. He felt it necessary to give up his career in the Church of England for the sake of what he believed was truth. He rejected the error, as he understood it, of the Anglican Church.
But this concern for truth led to further division in the Plymouth Brethren movement. In 1842 the group split in two over Christological issues. Then in 1881 another group split off known as the Kelly Brethren. In 1885 there were the Stuart and Grant divisions. In 1890 the Raven division took place, and the Glanton and Lowe. Even in the 1970’s there was a further division caused by the Taylor family. These were not insignificant causes of division, though they were not always handled well, but they were to do with the desire to preserve truth and resist error.
If we consider modern times, the Pentecostal movement has been insistent that a real Christian must receive what they call the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, and must speak in what they call tongues, as the sign of this. One of their official statements says,
The baptism in the Holy Spirit is an experience in which the believer yields control of himself to the Holy Spirit. Through this he comes to know Christ in a more intimate way, and receives power to witness and grow spiritually. Believers should earnestly seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. The initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance.
Most Christians do not agree with this statement, and most Pentecostals believe that other Christians are missing out on the fulness of what God wishes to give. The Pentecostals may be right or wrong, but they very clearly insist on those things they teach, and believe that others are in error when they reject them. Is this unreasonable or un-Christian? I do not believe so. A teaching or practice may be non-Christian, but believing in truth and rejecting error seems entirely reasonable. I do not believe that the modern, Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues is the same as the New Testament practice at all. Pentecostals clearly believe that it is. Either view is reasonable, and can be considered against the evidence. But suggesting that it does not matter, and that both views are the same, is not reasonable at all.
Finally, I have written elsewhere about the Protestant missions in Egypt. I will not repeat the evidence here, but it was clear that the Protestants did not consider the Orthodox in Egypt to be properly Christian at all. They were very explicit in their opinion that Orthodoxy was not Christianity. That being so, if Protestantism is not the same as Orthodoxy according to Protestantism, it does not seem unreasonable for Orthodox to suggest that there is indeed a difference in many respects. These differences are not simply semantic, but are based on theology and spirituality – they make a difference.
What does all this mean? It is that for 2000 years Christians of all backgrounds have been in agreement that there is a Christian truth which must be preserved and error which must be resisted and rejected. Of course the nature of the truth is subject to disagreement, and violence has been used in the past by some to promote their own understanding. But the intention to hold on to the truth and reject error is always reasonable. This does not require us to treat others with disrespect, but the idea that all views must be allowed is neither Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. It is a sign of the penetration of post-modernism into the Christian world, representing the idea that my faith is only to do with me, and that truth is what I say it is and what you say it is, even if mutually contradictory.
When Orthodox say that they believe they are the true Church, this is only what St Irenaeus taught and all the Christians of his age. When Orthodox say that they have the truth, this is only what every group of Protestants has said. It is what those who are concerned with truth must surely say, even if they are teaching error. Who can deliberately teach error? Every heretic is sincere. But Christians of all backgrounds have never taught or believed that all opinions and understandings are equally valid, just as true as any other, or even to be accepted when we disagree with them for the sake of unity. This is not Christianity.
But Christianity does require us to say – I disagree with what you are saying, it is not what the Church teaches, but I love you and respect you, and believe that you love our Lord Jesus Christ, as I do.
When a Protestant tells me that I am teaching error, I do not feel he is being rude or unreasonable or un-Christian. If we correspond then we can consider why he and I believe as we do, if he is serious. But believing that he holds the truth and I am in error is not un-Christian. How can contradictory teachings all be true? They cannot. Protestants have always disagreed with others and each other. Catholics have always considered that they teach the truth and that Protestants are in error, and vice-versa. It really should not be surprising that Orthodox Christians also take the truth seriously, and if we take the truth seriously then we must also be politely clear that we do not believe that everything is true. It never has been, and it is not now.
What about truth? We believe it exists. That is was taught by the Apostles in the early Church, and is preserved in that same Orthodox Church. We cannot apologise for this truth. But may we be given grace to share it more gently and charitably.