Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Defending the Theotokos

     The other day I was challenged to provide a historical foundation for the feast of the Dormition. The person making this challenge believed that my church was in error since there are no historical records concerning the feast until about the 5th century. I tried to explain that my church doesn’t get its tradition from the availability of historical documents. In my explanation, I demonstrated that there has always been an oral tradition that has preceded anything that was written. Unfortunately, he found my explanation unsatisfactory. According to him it makes no sense to believe in something that cannot be historically proven. In response, I explained that depending on how you understand history, Christianity is not a religion founded in historical satisfaction. In fact, everything that we believe in as Christians is built on oral tradition. I even pointed out to him that the few centuries of oral traditions concerning the Dormition are nothing compared to the oral traditions that came before the bible. For instance, the book of Genesis could be the result of up to 1000yrs worth of oral tradition according to some scholars. Consequently, if I operated by what could be “historically proven” I would have to come to the conclusion that everything in Christianity “makes no sense”. Looking back on this conversation, I guess the point I was trying to make with him was that there is a different form of history at work concerning the Dormition.
     When it comes to our feasts of the Theotokos the Church presents something of its inner life. Of course, these feasts are something that don’t fulfill the standards of some historical methods in terms of their actuality. There is no doubt that in the Roman church the elevation of the Dormition/Assumption to a dogma was in some sense a response to certain historical philosophies at work amongst Catholics. Many of the Eastern churches have to do this day remained critical of Rome’s decision to do this. On the other hand, some of those who remain critical have themselves fallen under the spell of the “historical standard”. In fact, I have heard noted Eastern scholars reduce liturgical feasts concerning the Theotokos to mere ideologies. For instance, the feast of the Theotokos entering the Temple has been reduced by some to a teaching about her holiness instead of an actual real event. To me, such a reduction runs counter to liturgical theology. Our liturgical feasts are not ideas but are in fact real events that we participate in through grace. They might not make the standard that certain scholars use for history but they are from a history that transcends the boundaries of human limitations. I don’t think it’s necessary to make every feast of the Theotokos a dogma. What I do think is necessary is a renewal in the understanding of what salvation history is.
     In our modern world there is no census on how history is done. Today we might believe that Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient world but 50yrs from now new research might prove something else. Historical events are constantly being subject to the historians and their research. This doesn’t mean that modern history is not reliable but it does demonstrate its limits. One thing for certain that modern history cannot do is to tell us what God has done in the world. For this we need a different form of history and history that has no limits, which is salvation history. In salvation history the mysteries that pertain to our faith are not communicated in the same way we might receive history in a secular classroom. It is not subject to methods, critiques, or chronological presentation. It comes to us through an experience of God and this experience is communicated from person to person. As a result, it would not matter if there was a million years of oral tradition that predated what was written about the Dormition. The history is guided and communicated by God and it is by grace that we can participate in the history of this communication.
     As far as secular history is concerned there are no doubt patterns of data that can be seen as sources for the feast of the Dormition. However, even if the patterns gave detailed accounts going back to the actual events of the Theotokos falling asleep we would not be able to escape the risk of having to put faith in something we can’t prove. Intellectual certitude about any aspect of faith always comes at a price and we must be willing to trust God that He is leading us into truth. As the scripture teaches faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1), it is not intellectual certitude achieved by scientific means. This doesn’t mean that what we believe in is irrational but it does mean that we have to maintain an active hope in the faithfulness of God. In my own life I have heard many arguments that tried to prove my faith wrong. To those that challenged me I think the only real thing I had to offer them was how my life has changed by following what I believe. Most of the time that’s all what people really want to see when they don’t understand our traditions.


  1. I agree.

    The way I look at it is that the Church is the incarnation of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, and His holy Apostles. If the Lord Himself submitted to receive the power of baptism at the Jordan, and if the Apostles awaited the power of baptism in the upper room, so the Church continues to recognize that the Spirit is behind, above, and under the life of the Church. The same Spirit who led Jesus in his earthly ministry is the same Spirit who led the Apostles in their ministry, and is the same Spirit who leads the Church. Some of revelation is written, and some is oral. This is a consequence of not so much what the Church is, but who the Church is, it is the divine flesh and blood of Christ upheld by the power of the Spirit.

  2. Ric,

    As a trained historian (BA and MA in history) you argument is correct. Ultimately, what the person who objected to you is adhering to is empiricism,a belief system which ultimately, has no empirical foundation.