Fr. John Whiteford Responds to Dr. David Dunn: On Tradition

Source: Fr. John Whiteford’s News, Comments, & Reflections

– Dr. David J. Dunn has begun a series of blog posts that continue issues related to our discussion about Same-Sex Marriage on Ancient Faith Radio. His first post is Ancient Faith Continued: Theology and Symphony. I will post his comments and then my response (emphases mine):

Dr. David J. Dunn:

I have met a lot of Orthodox Christians who see the Tradition as an unchanging deposit. They basically apply a naive fundamentalist biblical literalism to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church (“Tradition” with a “big-T” in the Orthodox Church refers to the Bible, creeds, rituals, dogmas, and diverse opinions of ancient theologians). For them, “the Truth” was delivered once in history, its meaning is clear, and thus our theology is unchanging and unambiguous.

Fr. John Whiteford:

We consider the Tradition to be an unchanging deposit, because as a matter of fact, this is what the Church believes it to be. St. Vincent of Lerins, who is famous for his definition of “Catholicity,”   wrote, commenting on 1 Timothy 6:20:

But it is worth while to expound the whole of that passage of the apostle more fully, “O Timothy, keep the deposit, avoiding profane novelties of words.” “O!” The exclamation implies foreknowledge as well as charity. For he mourned in anticipation over the errors which he foresaw. Who is the Timothy of today, but either generally the Universal Church, or in particular, the whole body of The Prelacy, whom it behoves either themselves to possess or to communicate to others a complete knowledge of religion? What is “Keep the deposit”? “Keep it,” because of thieves, because of adversaries, lest, while men sleep, they sow tares over that good wheat which the Son of Man had sown in his field. “Keep the deposit.”

What is “The deposit”? That which has been intrusted to thee, not that which thou hast thyself devised: a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition; a matter brought to thee, not put forth by thee, wherein thou art bound to be not an author but a keeper, not a teacher but a disciple, not a leader but a follower. “Keep the deposit.” Preserve the talent of Catholic Faith inviolate, unadulterate.

That which has been intrusted to thee, let it continue in thy possession, let it be handed on by thee. Thou hast received gold; give gold in turn. Do not substitute one thing for another. Do not for gold impudently substitute lead or brass. Give real gold, not counterfeit. O Timothy! O Priest! O Expositor! O Doctor! if the divine gift hath qualified thee by wit, by skill, by learning, be thou a Bazaleel of the spiritual tabernacle, engrave the precious gems of divine doctrine, fit them in accurately, adorn them skilfully, add splendor, grace, beauty.

Let that which formerly was believed, though imperfectly apprehended, as expounded by thee be clearly understood. Let posterity welcome, understood through thy exposition, what antiquity venerated without understanding. Yet teach still the same truths which thou hast learnt, so that though thou speakest after a new fashion, what thou speakest may not be new (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Ch. XXII, NPNF2, 5:147).

And commenting on Galatians 1:8, but also alluding to Jude 1:3 (“…contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints), St. Vincent says:

Why does he say “Though we”? why not rather “though I”? He means, “though Peter, though Andrew, though John, in a word, though the whole company of apostles, preach unto you other than we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Tremendous severity! He spares neither himself nor his fellow apostles, so he may preserve unaltered the faith which was at first delivered.

Nay, this is not all. He goes on “Even though an angel from heaven preach unto you any other Gospel than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” It was not enough for the preservation of the faith once delivered to have referred to man; he must needs comprehend angels also. “Though we,” he says, “or an angel from heaven.” Not that the holy angels of heaven are now capable of sinning. But what he means is: Even if that were to happen which cannot happen,—if any one, be he who he may, attempt to alter the faith once for all delivered, let him be accursed (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Ch. VIII, NPNF2, 5:136-137).

This of course does not mean that Tradition does not grow in the sense that it expands through history, as the Church confronts heresy, and as saints arise and add to the writings which guide and inform the Church. But as St. Vincent says in Chapter 23 of his Commentary, this is natural growth, not alteration.

Dr. David J. Dunn:

I disagree with this view. That does not mean I am a “liberal” theologian. I do not think that Tradition and culture are two “texts” with more or less equal weight. The Tradition is not fixed, but neither is it in constant, ambiguous flux. I see the Tradition more like a life-giving stream. It maneuvers through history, swinging sometimes this way and sometimes that in response to its place in the world at a particular point and time.

For me, the Tradition is not nebulous, but it is nimble. We are caught up in that stream right now. We have a pretty good sense of where we have been, which gives us some indication of where we are going, but the exact “shape” of our destination and when we will get there are not entirely clear. I think that is why Fr. John Meyendorff said we have a “living tradition.” The Tradition is not an artifact of the past because it is where we live. The church is its tradition.

Fr. John Whiteford:

We have a living Tradition in that this Tradition is not just found in books, but is alive in the Church. There are still aspects of our Tradition that are not found in books, and require training within the Church… as anyone who has ever read liturgical rubrics can attest. The book may say “the priest stands in the usual place, and does the usual thing”, but only by being instructed by a priest who knows what that means can another priest really understand the rubric. We do know what the Tradition will be in essence, because it cannot be other than what it always has been.

Dr. David J. Dunn:

To see Tradition as a fixed and fully knowable “thing” is to live in intellectual dishonesty, for it requires pretending that the way we view tradition is not informed by our moment in history. It is to pretend that we look at doctrine in the exact same way as our spiritual ancestors.

Fr. John Whiteford:

If Dr. Dunn had said that we always have to be aware that our understanding of the Tradition as individuals is imperfect, then I would have no argument with him, however, the Church as a whole does have a full understanding of its Tradition, and if we remain in that Church and allow ourselves to be guided by that Church we will not stray.

But rather than speak in abstractions, let’s take a concrete example. Dr. Dunn is not sure that the Church will always condemn homosexuality, and does not think we should oppose gay marriage in the wider culture. The Church has a very clear Tradition that homosexuality is a sin, and it has a clear Tradition that marriage can only be between a man and woman who are eligible to be lawfully married to one another.

The contemporary Church has also issued numerous statements at the level of the local Church and also on the pan-Orthodox level that gay marriage is unacceptable, and that Orthodox Christians should actively oppose it in the wider culture. So the question for Dr. Dunn is, why are you rejecting the instruction of the Church?

Dr. David J. Dunn:

It is also not very Orthodox. The Tradition is about God, and the ideal way of knowing God in the Orthodox Church is to unknow God. We strive for apophasis, which is the experience of God as mystery. This does not mean God is irrational or that we should be irrational. It means God is mystery. Therefore the Orthodox Christian must always destroy her own intellectual idols. That is why I think fundamentalist views of the Tradition are unOrthodox.

Fr. John Whiteford:

Dr. Dunn asserts that this in not very Orthodox, but has yet to cite any evidence from Tradition to back up that assertion. Apophatic theology is an approach to theology, but it does not negate God’s self revelation, which we find recorded in Scripture and Tradition.

Also, introducing the word “fundamentalist” is not helpful, because basically when the word is used outside of its historic meaning (in reference to Protestant Fundamentalists) it is simply used as a synonym for “stupid”. When I have asked people who use the term in reference to Orthodox Christians, and have asked them to define what they mean by the term, I have yet to get a coherent definition that would not also condemn the Fathers and Saints of the Church.

Dr. David J. Dunn:

To put it another way, for me, I cannot think of the Tradition as a deposit because I do not think I have faith in a set of assertions. I think faith means to trust in that for which I hope, which means it is a kind of love.

Fr. John Whiteford:

Dr. Dunn is equivocating here. Faith certainly means trust, but when we speak of “The Faith”, it necessarily is a Faith that has actual content, that is either Orthodox or is not.

The Orthodox ideal is apophasis because theology is nothing more than to love God with the intellect. Truth is that which we do not understand but love anyway. That is why I think we should never treat the Tradition as if it is something everyone can understand if they only think about it rationally. The way we think about the Tradition must always unthink itself because God is love, and love is infinite. God is always an undiscovered country.

I think Dr. Dunn will be hard pressed to produce a single Father or Saint of the Church who would say that the Truth of the Orthodox Faith is something that “we do not understand, but love anyway,” or that “The way  we think about the Tradition must always unthink itself because God is love…” This may fly in a liberal Protestant seminary, but it is completely foreign to the Tradition of the Church.


  1. Geo Michalopulos

    Well put, Fr John. May the Lord forgive me, but I despise the irrational, fuzzy thinking that Dr Dunn is peddling as acceptable to Orthodoxy.

  2. How sad that David Dunn has twisted the venerable understanding of apophaticism into a fashionable fundamentalism in which we can make our own Orthodoxy into any shape we feel “The Spirit” leads us. Mr. Dunn’s treats the Fathers of the Church like a choose your own adventure novel.

    Academics aside this view when lived in real life is damaging to people and the Church. Its not theology its just a tragedy.

  3. M. Stankovich

    Apparently Fr. John’s commentary is so profound and so compelling that it was not sufficient for a direct response on Dr. Dunn’s blog, on his own blog – where he interestingly does not entertain comments himself – but now in syndication. Let me, then, syndicate my response from Dunn’s blog first:

    “Words, words, words… the satirical rogue says here.” And that would be Hamlet.

    Fr. John, those who stand by the Tradition of the Church are “Orthodox,” they are not traditionalist. This is a contrivance of exclusion, that ignores St. Chrysostom’s instruction that, “our God is a jealous God,” who equally invites “those who ignored the Fast.” the “minimalists,” with those who have kept it from the first: “The table is heavily laden,” he says, “and the Lord welcomes the last even as the first.” They are both, first and foremost, Orthodox. We are wisely instructed to “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well,” (Prov. 5:15) and the water is “living water,” (Jn. 4:14), not stagnant. And throwing around the word “maximalistic,” is not helpful because it it is simply used as a synonym for “superior.” I do not find his view “contrary” to Tradition.

    Secondly, I was not “hard pressed” to find this statement of Dionysius the Areopagite, “On the Divine Names,” in Migne Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 3, p.3:

    And yet since, as the [ἀγαθότητος ὕπαρξις] ultimate essence of goodness, It, by the very fact of Its existence, is the Cause of all things, in celebrating the bountiful Providence of the Supreme Godhead we must draw upon the whole creation.

    I have highlighted the Greek phrase “ultimate essence of goodness” (ἀγαθότητος ὕπαρξις) because it conveys a fullness of Truth – a Divine Name of our God – yet Dionysius concludes, “Conscious of this, the Sacred Writers celebrate It by every Name while yet they call It Nameless.” Sometimes, Fr. John, it is wiser to cut the line on a fish, lest you appear obsessed with the “catch” (something about Ahab…), and recall that the tradition icon of Blessed John the Evangelist depicts him covering his mouth.

    • Michael, as usual, your arguments are compelling and make sense only to you. I fail to see how your quote from St. Dionysius proves anything. Also, you never responded to my response to you:

      What would be helpful would be for you to lay out reasons why your string of assertions are believed by you to be true and actually address what I said.

      Also, Michael, take a look at St. John Chrysostom’s homily for Holy Thursday, and let me know if you think he was a minimalist:

      • M. Stankovich

        Fr. John, I will do this once:

        You said one would be “hard pressed to produce a single Father or Saint of the Church who would say that the Truth of the Orthodox Faith is something that “we do not understand, but love anyway.” I have offered you a statement from Dionysius the Areopagite – and if you are familiar with The Divine Names, this is one example among a thousand or more – because it expresses a paradox. The paradox is that a name ascribed to God the Father is “ultimate essence of goodness.” Dionysius is saying that we humans cannot fathom, cannot grasp, cannot understand the fullness of Truth contained in this Divine Name, “ultimate essence of goodness.” And even though the “Sacred Writers celebrate It” – and I presume it proper to say “love” It – their fundamental lack of knowledge compels them to “call It Nameless.” In other words, our understanding is so limited, better to call Him “Nameless” than what I do not understand. How Andrew concluded that Dr. Dunn has “twisted” apophatic theology is beyond me, and his statement opposes no tradition.

        Secondly, how have you concluded I think St. Chrysostom to be a “minimalist.” I used “minimalists,” as a free modifier of “those who ignored the Fast.” Nevertheless, I hardly find it appropriate to pull a sermon out of the context of Holy Thursday – “The Lord who is going to His voluntary Passion for us and our salvation” – and declare it the “rest of the story.” The Pascha Homily is the “rest of the story,” its culmination and fulfillment.

        • Fr. Hans Jacobse

          How does Dr. Dunn twist apophatic theology?

          Simple. He uses the term to relativize things that are certain, such as marriage is between one man and one woman.

          Sure, God is beyond knowing, but that does not mean that all knowledge is an illusion.

          Sure, paradox exists, but that does not mean that everything is paradox.

          Sure, no man can know the fullness of Truth, but that does not mean that Truth cannot be known.

          Finally, theology and anthropology are different categories through which the Church expresses truth. Anthropology is not apophatic. Morality is not plastic. Met Hilarion (Alfeyev):

          Secularism is dangerous because it destroys human life. It destroys essential notions related to human life, such as the family. One can argue about the role of the church. One can even argue about the existence of God; we cannot prove that God exists to those who don’t want to believe that God exists.

          But when the difference in the world outlook touches very basic notions such as family, it no longer has to do with theological truths; it has to do with anthropological issues. And our debate with secularism is not about theology; it’s about anthropology. It’s about the present and the future of the human race. And here we disagree with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly, and we believe that it destroys something very essential about human life.

          Ignorance is not becoming to the Christian, and we should not twist theology to make it appear that it is.

          • M. Stankovich

            You got all that from “Truth is that which we do not understand but love anyway?” I am not an apologist for David Dunn, but you have run wild with a simple figure of speech that I find does not significantly differ from the words I offered from St. Dionysius: aware that they could not comprehend, figuratively better to call Him “nothing,” yet they loved. And how does it significant differ from the natural expression of hesitancy and awe in St. Basil’s Anaphora:

            Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to serve at Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon the earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar…”

            “We do not understand why you allow us, nor can we comprehend Your Mercy, but because of it, we dare.”

            I see no basis to suggest even an implication that knowledge is an illusion, “everything” is a paradox, or that Truth cannot be known. And while the quote from Met. Hilary is certainly true, it has no bearing on the issue at hand. If you would chastize and scorn Dr. Dunn, at least make it a point not to confuse what he said with what I said.

        • Michael, your quote does nothing to discount my statement. Do I need to point out the distinction between “our Faith” and the Divine Essence? Our Faith tells us that God is in His essence unknowable, but we know Him to the extent that He has chosen to reveal Himself, and through His energies. Our Faith is not a Zen koan.

          And as for which homily is the “rest of the story”, when it comes to the question homosexuality, the homily that says that no unrepentant homosexual may approach communion without eating and drinking damnation unto himself is clearly the one most to the point. That homily is not only valid on Holy Thursday, it is valid every day of the year… including Pascha. St. John’s Paschal homily says nothing about unrepentant sinners approaching the chalice. It speaks of people who have been less diligent during the fast — not the same thing.

        • Michael Bauman

          There is no paradox between male and female. The male/female synergy is not antinomical. Only those who wish to normalized homosexuality believe that they are.

          There is a vast difference between that DA says and the which is that we stand before God in awe and wonder at His mightiness and can never reduce Him to mere human understanding and the propositions of Dr. Dunn which are quite the opposite.

    • And here is the text of that homily by St. John Chrysostom:

      Homily of our Father Among the Saint, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, for Holy Thursday

      O my beloved and greatly-desired brethren who have gathered in the Holy Church of God, in order to serve the Living God in holiness and righteousness, and, with fear, to partake of the holy, most-pure, and immortal, awesome Mysteries of Christ: Hearken unto me who am lowly and unworthy. For it is not I who am speaking to you and instructing you; rather the grace of the Most-holy and Life-giving Spirit; for I speak not from myself, but as I have been instructed by the divine canons, and the God-bearing Fathers, as the Church received instruction from the divine Apostles who received their wisdom from God, so do I myself speak, who am lowly and least of all.

      I know not your works; I consider not that which you have begun; and so, as one who fears God, I give counsel to everyone among you, whether man or woman, whether great or small, to anyone of you that may be guilty of sin, convicted by your own counsels, that first you must repent and confess your sins, that you may dare, considering yourself unworthy, to approach and touch the Divine Fire Itself. For our God is a consuming Fire, and they, therefore, who with faith and fear draw near to the God and King and Judge of us all, shall burn and scorch their sins; and It shall enlighten and sanctify their souls. But It shall burn and scorch with shame, the souls and bodies of them that draw near with unbelief.

      Therefore, many among you are ill and sleep in sickness, that is, many are dying unconfessed and unrepentant. And furthermore, my brethren, I beseech you, and I say: no one that swears oaths, nor a perjurer, nor a liar, nor one that finds fault with others, nor a fornicator, nor an adulterer, nor a homosexual, nor a thief, nor a drunkard, nor a blasphemer, nor one that envies his brother, nor a murderer, nor a sorcerer, nor a magician, nor a charmer, nor an enchanter, nor a robber, nor a Manichean, shall, unconfessed and unprepared, approach, touch, or draw near the dread Mysteries of Christ, for it is terrible to fall into the hands of the Living God.

      For the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the joints and marrow and bones, and thoughts and hearts. See, therefore, my brethren, that no one approach, unrepentant or unprepared or unworthily, to partake of His dread and most-pure Mysteries. For He Himself saith: I am He, and there is no god besides me; I kill, and I make alive; neither is there any that can deliver out of My hand; for I, Myself, am King forever: to Whom is due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen.

      See “˜The Great Book of Needs,” Volume II, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998, pp. 332-333

      Obviously, this homily has a lot more bearing on the subject than the Paschal homily. As Paul Harvey might say, this homily is the rest of the story.

  4. Looks like we have Franky Schaffer 2.0! What’s ironic is that they both are liberals masquerading as “enlightened” Orthodox Christians writing articles for the Huffington Post letting their leftist pals know not to worry about us Orthodox Christians. Just give us time and we can root out our fundamentalist throwbacks and count one more on the list of fallen churches now safely in the liberal/progressive/polically correct camp.

    “Tradition is not fixed, but neither is it in constant, ambiguous flux. I see the Tradition more like a life-giving stream. It maneuvers through history, swinging sometimes this way and sometimes that in response to its place in the world at a particular point and time”

    I’m sorry, but Dr. David Dunn is a schismatic at best and a heretic at worst. Thank you Fr John for being an example of an Orthodox leader that is not taking this sitting down. I only wish our bishops would do the same. Hey, is there anyway we can convince Patriarch Kirill to loan us Met. Hilarion for about 20 years?

    A favorite tactic of liberals is to try and place those who disagree with them outside of what is considered acceptable public discourse with dismissive terms like “homophobe”, “islamophobe”, “fundamentalist”, etc.

  5. Fr. John W. Morris

    Just what qualified Dr. Dunn to call himself an Orthodox theologian? As far as I can discover he never studied at an Orthodox seminary or any other Orthodox institute of higher learning. In any case, he is dead wrong. If he taught his ideas at an Orthodox seminary, he would very soon be looking for a new job. The Holy Tradition of the Church does not change because truth does not change. God is not schizophrenic. He does not lead His Church to teach that something is sinful for almost 2,000 years and then change His mind just because the secular society has allowed a rather small minority to intimidate it into accepting behavior that was considered morally wrong and perverted before the gays began their movement. He needs to get some education on ethics from legitimate Orthodox sources before he presumes to speak as an authority on Orthodox moral teaching.

    Archpriest John W. Morris


  1. […] Pick it up!☦Nothing But Orthodoxy☦ var pulltime = 'Tue, 03 Jul 2012 23:39:27 +0000';1) Fr. John Whiteford Responds to Dr. David Dunn: On Tradition Fr. Johannes […]

Care to Comment?