Fr. John Whiteford

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

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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.

Fr. John Whiteford Responds to Dr. David Dunn: The Hypocrisy of the Christian Left

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

In a Huffington Post article, David Dunn has pointed out what he sees as hypocrisy on the part of Christian conservatives:

It is the view that Christians should vote their values, and this means we should legislate moral evils into oblivion. Thus if we believe life begins at conception, we should vote against abortion! If we believe marriage is between one woman and one man, we should vote against gay marriage! And if we believe in caring for the sick and the poor, we should vote against “Obamacare!” …Wait a minute! Do you see the political hypocrisy? The Christian Right votes for candidates who are anti-abortion and anti-gay (at least on paper) because it believes we must pass laws to protect marriage and protect life (at least embryonic life), but it is unwilling to apply the same principle to “Obamacare.” Infants in the womb have a right to life, but apparently adults do not have a right to life-saving medical care.

There are several problems with the logic here. For one, you could simply flip this question and ask why the Christian Left thinks a baby has a right to free medicaid after it is born, but doesn’t think we should prevent that baby from having a doctor induce a partial delivery, stick a pair of scissors in the back of its neck, and then suck out its brains with a suction machine.

Another problem is a failure to recognize where the government’s powers can rightly be used, and where it cannot. Does anyone have a right to medical care? Everyone should certainly have a right to purchase it, but if you say that you have the right to medical care, you are saying you have a right to someone else’s labor. Last time I checked, that was slavery. I don’t have the right to go to a doctor, hold a gun to his head, and make him treat me or my family members.

On the other hand, does a baby have a right not to have a doctor insert scissors into the back of its head and suck its brains out? Yes. Regardless of what the Supreme Court may say, every human being has a right to life, liberty, and property that comes from God, not the government. The government cannot grant those rights, they can only respect and protect them, or allow them to be violated.

Now do the Scriptures say that we should give to the poor? Yes. The Scriptures do not say that we should lobby the government and force our fellow citizens to give to the poor. The Scriptures say that we should give to the poor.

The Scriptures certainly do not forbid a government from providing charity with tax money, but whether or not that is a good thing, and how that should best be handled is not a matter that the Church has a definite teaching on. Christians can disagree.

I have spent 20 years now, in my secular job, working in social services, which have included Medicaid, Food Stamps, TANF (formerly AFDC), and Child Support. I think some of these programs have some good aspects and should continue, but there is also a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse connected with these programs, and there are also problems with the way the government delivers them that encourage dysfunctional behavior.

Further, while all Christians agree that helping the poor is a Christian responsibility, it is not a self evident truth that the best way to accomplish that is more government welfare, or universal health coverage. I certainly would not suggest that those Christians who disagree with my take on that are not Christians because they don’t see it my way, but they should return the favor, since the Church has no clear teachings on how government should handle public charity. For more on my opinions on welfare, see: podcast.

However, when it comes to baby killing or gay marriage, these are questions that the Church does have a clear teaching on. If you think it is OK for the government to not only allow for babies to be murdered, but have no problem when the government wishes to make Christians pay to kill those babies, then you are not only a hypocrite, you have departed from the Christian Tradition.

Fr. John Whiteford Asks: What is the Mainstream Orthodox View on Homosexuality?

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Fr. John Whiteford comments on his blog News, Comments, & Reflections about an assertion made by Rebecca Matovic that professors, hierarchs, priests, and “many, many laypeople” agree with Dunn and his support of homosexual marriage. Matovic couches her views in the usual “I am loving but my opponents are bullies and dangerous” verbiage of the left, but Fr. John takes care of that in short order as well.

If Matovic is correct, why are they hiding?

Were they born that way? Have a listen:

What is the Mainstream Orthodox View on Homosexuality?

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

In the comments to a post by David J. Dunn on the flak he has been getting about his posts on Gay “Marriage” there was a comment that warrants some consideration:

Please hang around with people other than the Jacobse crowd! There are professors at our seminaries and hierarchs who agree with you; there are many, many lay people who are willing (indeed, anxious) to engage in meaningful dialogue around these issues; there are many, many priests who think about these issues in a loving, pastoral way and increasingly find themselves moving to the ‘left’ of Hopko. It says something rather sickening about the current state of affairs that I find myself hesitating to name names. But please don’t buy the PR of the AOI crowd that they represent the “true” Orthodox view, the universal Orthodox view, or even a particularly dominant Orthodox view. They are loud, and they are bullies, and the results are dangerous. But the only solution is for those of us who hold different views, while being fully and faithfully Orthodox (or endeavoring to be to the degree our brokenness and God’s Grace permits) to engage and to be heard. — Rebecca Matovic (signing my name because there’s too much silence and anonymity in the world these days)

There are several curious things about this comment. For one, if the views of those who stand against the acceptance of sodomy as compatible with the Christian life are really just a vocal minority, why are the priest and bishops that Rebecca refers to unwilling to come out of the closet and say what they really believe? In the history of the Church, I cannot think of a single example of a champion of Orthodoxy that hid his views until the situation was more favorable… though I can think of many heretics in the history of the Church who did so. If what they believe is true, they should be willing to stand up for it, and let the chips fall where they may. The fact is, however, that these clergy (whoever they may be) are clearly cowards, who will not say what they really believe, clearly and unambiguously, because they know their views are at odds with both the Tradition of the Church and the vast majority of the clergy and faithful of the Church. It is just a fact that every conciliar statement that has been made by the Orthodox Church on the question of homosexuality or gay “marriage” has taken a clearly Traditional view, and declared homosexuality to be a sin, condemned by both Scripture and Tradition, and gay “marriage” to be a distortion of the meaning of marriage and something that Orthodox Christians should oppose publicly — and that includes the OCA, the jurisdiction that Rebecca belongs to.

As for the charge of bullying, this is a typical liberal red herring when they find themselves without a substantive argument, and have nothing else to appeal to. If one takes a clear stand, and challenges their opponents to do the same, and refute their opponents, this is what is known as rational discourse. It is in fact those on the other side of this issue that prefer to engage in personal attacks rather than deal with the issues. All that they have are emotional Oprah-like arguments, and ad hominem. On the substance of the issues, they have nothing… and they generally don’t have the courage to come right out and say what they really believe.

And here are two lectures by Dr. Robert Gagnon that lay out how the other side has nothing, in great detail:

The Secular Argument Against Gay “Marriage”, and
St. Paul on Homosexuality.

Ancient Faith Live Tonight (Sunday June 17) at 8pm Eastern — Same-Sex Marriage

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Is Same-Sex Marriage a Church vs State issue? Does the Church have anything to say to the larger culture about marriage? No, argues David J. Dunn, the author of an opinion piece that ran in the Huffington Post several months ago (Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage). Dunn argues that traditional marriage (one man and one woman) is a moral construct invented by the Church and thus applies only to Christian believers and not the larger culture. Let the Church be Church and the State be State.

On the other side is Fr. John Whiteford who argues that traditional marriage is not merely a moral construct invented by the Church, but exists in nature. Nature itself reveals the law of God; the natural order reveals the social context in which children are brought into the world. How so? Check out the biological plumbing. One man and one woman create a new child. Homosexual relationships on the other hand are naturally sterile, biologically closed to procreation. This reveals an intent and purpose that has its source in God. That’s also why traditional marriage is practiced almost universally across all cultures and time.

Traditional marriage is blessed by God, even for the non-believer. If people live in accord with the law of God, even if that law is discerned only through the operations of nature, then they obey God. We should not erroneously conclude that no blessing exists merely because the marriage was not sanctified in the Church. To do so makes the same mistake Dunn makes but from the other direction. Natural marriage is as real as a sacramental marriage and should be honored and supported as such.

It is important for Christians to realize that Dunn’s distinction between the natural and sacramental is artificial. Sacramental reality never negates nature. Rather, the sacraments elevate nature because natural operations become a means by which God’s grace is imparted to us. Ritual purification by water becomes baptism for example. Anointing with oil becomes a means of healing. The transformed bread and wine maintain their capacity to nourish the body while becoming nourishment for the soul. Sacramental reality never, ever, negates the natural workings of the created order. Rather, those workings take on a divine dimension congruent with their natural function.

Finally, we hear that the State should have no interest in marriage and it would be better for everyone if the State removed itself from marriage questions entirely, even from establishing contract law around traditional marriage (libertarians are fond of this argument including the Orthodox variety). The problem with this argument is that State has an interest in cultural stability, or to put it more correctly, the culture has an interest in stability and thus grants the State authority to affirm those natural relationships in law. By decreeing that same-sex coupling is a morally legitimate marriage however, the State arrogates unto itself an authority that runs contrary to nature and proclaims itself as the source and arbiter of moral law. Under this scenario rights are not discerned in nature or, ultimately, seen as coming from God. Rather, rights emerge only from the will to power of the elites — those who pull the levers of State power. The moral barriers against tyranny are removed.

The program runs on Ancient Faith Radio (click link) starting at 8pm Eastern.

Addendum: While hunting for the link to Dunn’s original article I came across this: My Year as a Pro-Gay ‘Orthodox’ Heretic. Somebody sent me the link to his blog posting (same content) but I had not idea it was published on HuffPo. The title is a bit misleading (I never called him a heretic) and the only argument I put forward so far are the ones I posted above: Dunn ignores natural law and has a skewed understanding of how the sacraments work. He should have given me a heads-up, but I will craft a fuller response this week sometime.

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