Sunday, May 24, 2009

Authentic Orthodoxy, II

There is more to orthodoxy than "right belief." In fact, it is better translated as "right worship" or "right "glory," from the Greek adjectival ovrqw/j, meaning "rightly" or "uprightly", and do,xa, meaning "glory" or "worship." Orthodoxy, then, has more to do with right worship than right doctrine, though they are hardly mutually exclusive.

The paramount source of Christian doctrine is not a catechism or handbook of theology, but the sacred liturgy. The hymns and prayers found in the liturgical books in both the Latin rite (e.g., Roman Missal, Liturgy of the Hours) and the Byzantine rite (e.g., Horologion, Lenten Triodion, Pentecostarion) enshrine the Church's confession of faith. As St Prosper of Aquitaine reminds us, "ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" (The Call of All the Nations, 1.12; cf. Denzinger, 246).

Perhaps the most prominent example of the appeal to the "rule of prayer" can be found in Pope Pius XII's apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus defining the dogma of the Assumption. In n. 18, Pius XII appeals to the Gallican sacramentaries as well as Byzantine liturgical books as evidence of the Mother of God's Assumption. In n. 20, he wrote, "...the liturgy does not engender the Catholic faith but rather springs from it." Here, Pius XII understands faith as the primordial source of Catholic doctrine that finds its most basic expression in the Church's liturgy: as a theological virtue, the act of faith directs the Christian soul to God, and it is only natural that such direction finds its expression in worship. When a lover loves the beloved, the instinct is to give flowers, to sing a romantic song, or to write poetry; it is only in hindsight that the lover comes to understand the meaning of his love for the beloved. Similarly, the corporate act of faith has led the Church to develop her liturgies, and only subsequently does the Church come to understand her act of faith--and here Christian belief is engendered.

"Faith" and "doctrine" are not coextensive. Faith, as a theological virtue, is necessary antecedent to doctrine; doctrine is a meaningful formulation of the content of faith.

Too often, in discerning the content of faith, the first instinct is to turn to a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Neuner and Dupuis, or Denzinger. While such instincts are laudable provided that the statements or formulations found therein are properly interpreted, it runs the risk of dichotomizing liturgy and doctrine. I take the dichotomy between liturgy and doctrine to be one of the more problematic methods of theological study in the Roman Church, because it fails to address the liturgy as a locus theologicus. Aidan Kavanagh has written what is perhaps the best treatment of this question:

Belief is always consequent upon encounter with the Source of the grace of faith. Therefore Christians do not worship because they believe. They believe because the One in whose gift faith lies is regularly met in the act of communal worship--not because the assembly conjures up God, but because the initiative lies with the God who has promised to be there always. The lex credendi is thus subordinated to the lex supplicandi because both standards exist and function only within the worshiping assembly's own subordination of itself to its ever-present Judge, Savior, and unifying Spirit.

Dom Kavanagh then turns to the example of Moses, who encountered the Burning Bush even before his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses' faith was engendered by the presence of God.

Presence, faith, worship, doctrine, necessarily in that order. Because liturgy is necessary anamnesis of Divine Revelation, it follows that in liturgy we encounter the Holy Trinity, and there is born the act of faith. In the Paschal Vigil, for example, at the Exsultet the deacon sings over and over again, "This is the night....this is the night..." In the various Proper Forms of the Communicantes of the Roman Canon, we are treated as contemporaries of the mysteries of Christ being commemorated, whether it be his Transfiguration or his Ascension. The Prefaces, too, assumes that we are presently experiencing the mysteries being commemorated as though we were historically present.

[ be continued]


  1. This is an excellent post. I am seriously considering coming into full communion with the Catholic Church after quite a bit of study and prayer and have been pondering the relationship between the authority of the Church and her member's belief. As you stated earlier, the lex credendi must be subordinated to the lex supplicandi. Ultimately, we believe in the truth of the Gospel not because of personal experience or conviction but because we have encountered the Triune God in the Sacred Liturgy.

  2. Dear Friend--

    I am certain you are on the right track, especially since you've been praying about this.

    You are right when you say that "we believe in the truth of the Gospel not because of personal experience or conviction but because we have encountered the Triune God in the Sacred Liturgy." St Thomas Aquinas, following Augustine, understands the liturgy, and the sacraments in particular, as "visible words" by which the Gospel is proclaimed by elements, action, and words.

    I would also add that one of the criteria of the New Testament canon was its use in the Sacred Liturgy--which reminds us that the Bible is most at home not on the scholar's desk but on the ambo and proclaimed in the liturgy.

    If there is anything I can do to facilitate your "coming home" to the Church founded by Christ, please do not hesitate to let me know.

    Be assured of my prayers and full support. As we sing in the Byzantine liturgy, "Let us commend ourselves and each other and our whole lives to Christ our God!"



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