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Friday, November 16, 2012

"Why Even Call Yourself Orthodox?" Thoughts on Conservative Moral Epistemology


It seems to me that the clash between “liberals” and “conservatives” (yes, I’ll be using this simple dichotomy) stems from their conflicting “moral epistemologies” (MEs) - that is, how we as Orthodox Christians come to know what is or is not moral.  Unless we address the very basis of our respective MEs, we have no hope of making progress in our exchanges.  In this post, I want to devote attention to the conservative ME.  At the risk of over-simplifying it, I will dissect the argument as follows:

Proposition 1: Jesus Christ is the Truth (John 14:6).

Proposition 2: The Church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Proposition 3: Therefore, what the Church teaches is true (1Timothy 3:15).
  • P3a: Church teaching is expressed through Holy Tradition.
  • P3b: Holy Tradition “means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons – in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages” (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).

Proposition 4: The Church teaches X (e.g., homosexual behavior is - or is not – a sin).

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct.


It seems that many conservatives interpret the liberal view as a rejection of Proposition 3, and if I were to deny this proposition, one of two things must be true, according to the model above:

A) I reject Proposition 2 yet affirm Proposition 1 (in which case I cannot be considered Orthodox); or

B) I believe Proposition 2 is nonsense because I reject Proposition 1 (in which case I am not a Christian at all).

From this perspective, I can understand why some conservatives are perplexed by those who subscribe to different moral views, and wonder why they even call themselves Orthodox.  So, it appears that the task for the liberal is to locate where, in the model above, he diverges from conservatives. And by narrowing our focus to these points of departure, I think we’ll have a much better chance of improving the quality of our discussions.