From the Desert Fathers:
Malicious sceptics visited Abba Agathon to see if they could annoy him. They had heard that Agathon possessed great discretion and self-control. They spoke directly to him, “Agathon, we heard that you are an adulterer and full of pride.”
He answered, “Yes, that’s true.”
“Are you the same Agathom who gossips and slanders?”
“Are you Agathon the heretic?”
“No, I am not a heretic.”
“Why did you patiently endure it when we slandered you, but refuse to be called a heretic?”
Agathon answered, “Your first accusations were good for my soul, but to be a heretic is to be separated from God. I do not want to be apart from God.”
Christianity inhabits a confused and confusing world of religious belief. There are those among us (including the Orthodox) who use the label “heretic” too easily. There are others for whom the word has no meaning – they are indifferent to doctrinal belief.
One reason for this particular confusion is that, for many, doctrine inhabits a space called “opinion” and they are right not to give much weight to opinion. My opinion in doctrine does not matter. Others recognize that doctrine matters (the history of the Christian faith bears witness to this) but still do not make a proper distinction between opinion and doctrine.
Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.
It has been noted on this blog (and in many other places) that argumentation rarely brings someone into the faith. Argument may have an important role to play in the lives of some – but generally the Orthodox faith (even for those who came to believe it through argumentation) must be embraced not as the result of right argument – but as a gift from God given to us to correct our heart and rightly dispose us to the work of God within us.
For instance, it is not possible to give God proper honor nor to rightly dispose our heart to Him unless and until we acknowledge Him as our Creator (to use one of the most simple but profound doctrines of the faith). “For He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). But such a belief must be held as more than an opinion – it is a profound revelation of Who God is and how we must relate to Him. It is not a mere statement of Christian cosmogenesis. If God is Creator, then I am creature and there is a profound love and veneration due to Him.
I could take this same method and look at everything the Church holds as doctrine. The role of doctrine and dogma (officially stated teaching of the Church) is not a morbid concern with correct phraseology or ancient metaphysics: all doctrine is taught for the sake of our salvation. This does not mean that, in the end, God will reward those who get an ‘A’ on their doctrine report card. Rather, doctrine is for our salvation because it teaches us the true path to union with God, Who alone is our salvation.
Many times the statement of Doctrine is an answer to the question: “Which God?”
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father: God from God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, etc.
Orthodoxy exists as a place for the embracing of teaching and the living out of its reality: it is not a place for the sifting of opinion.
Abba Agathon understood the role of doctrine. It was not His opinion he held in high regard (for He held his opinion with no regard). Rather He recognized the verbal icon of Christ and would never choose to be separated from Him.
It is a thought worth considering – and perhaps a place for the heart to be changed.