A Review of The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy
Author: Charles Shingledecker. Publisher: Regina Orthodox Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Patrick Barnes
“A superficial knowledge of the canons is dangerous and can lead either to their rejection or to a legalistic interpretation of spiritual life.”—Dr. Lewis Patsavos, Professor Emeritus of Canon Law at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy stands in sharp contrast to other Orthodox books on the Holy Canons. In fact, I am confident that if anyone were to read these other books—especially Dr. Lewis Patsavos’s Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons or Nicholas Afanasiev’s famous article “The Canons of the Church: Changeable or Unchangeable?
, a review of Mr. Shingledecker’s diatribe would be largely unnecessary; for it would be readily apparent just how crass and even heretical his entire approach is to these “tried and trusted signposts, [which point] the way toward salvation in Christ, our Immortal King and God.”
Nevertheless, the author makes a number of astounding comments which are not directly addressed by these books, and they should not go unchallenged.
Mr. Shingledecker is on a mission to expose dirty little secrets that the Orthodox Church allegedly holds within Her canonical tradition. The author sets himself up as a prophetic whistleblower who hopes to lead others in an effort to reclaim a more “enlightened” view of the Church’s “laws”:
- “What I am going to do is unveil a crazy selection of Canon ‘laws’ which I’m pretty sure even most Orthodox, let alone other Christians have never heard of, like how having a Jewish doctor could get you excommunicated!” (p. 1)
- He hopes his book will “throw a bit of cold water on the argument that somehow the magical Canons are revealed truth” and thus help “thinking people... reclaim the enlightened thread of Orthodox teaching that is also there for all to embrace... if they—if we—want to.” (p. 11)
- “[M]any Orthodox Christians at least profess to believe that the Orthodox Church is perfect, and that Canon law is the perfect guide for this perfect Church. Hopefully this book is a tiny first step in rattling that cage of that perceived reality....” (pp. 13-14)
- Concerning the Canon prohibiting the use of Jewish doctors: “Of course, almost no one in the Orthodox Church actually knows this, and there is good reason for that: the Orthodox Church doesn’t want them to know.” (p. 13)
- “I want people to be allowed to see what has been hidden from them; not to tear down the Church but to help it to grow beyond what it was ‘back then’ and what it could become now.” (p. 13-14)
- “The Christian Church, and especially the Orthodox Church, has tried to keep these sorts of laws under lock and key. Some people claim that this is done to protect the little ole’ Church ladies from being scandalized. But isn’t hiding the truth an even worse scandal?” (p. 175)
- “...the doors of the past (and the present) must be flung open if we are to have any sort of credible and reliable future.” (p. 176)
- “A lone voice in a crowd has to be a bit loud.” (p. 179)
In short, he is outraged that certain Canons ever existed, let alone are still “on the books,” and he wants to effect changes in the Church that reflect his moral sensibilities.
Contrary to Holy Tradition Mr. Shingledecker believes that the Canons are not divinely inspired, and that the Church which wrote and has preserved them is not infallible. In order to “prove” this the author proceeds to ridicule certain Canons (and their interpretations by various Saints) that on the surface—and without any knowledge of Church history, their historical context, Orthodox theology or the nuances of the Church’s canonical tradition—could strike a modern secular mind as “crazy,” “stupid”, “idiotic,” etc., especially when pastoral scenarios involving their application are grossly parodied. He then asks rhetorical questions like “[D]o you still believe this is a divine law?” (p. 51) or “How’s that for a holy Canon?” (p. 74).
His argument centers around a false dilemma that a group of “Traditionalist” straw men supposedly embraces, viz., “God wrote these laws, therefore they cannot be changed and must be obeyed (enforced) to the letter. ” Although he occasionally acknowledges nuances in the Church’s canonical tradition that might mitigate such a black-and-white approach; and although he gives a few nods to the importance of historical context when interpreting the Canons; such statements are soon undermined or contradicted, making them appear disingenuous.
The Traditionalist “Straw Man”
The book’s subtitle is “How Traditionalist Ideology and ‘Changeless’ Canons Hurt the Orthodox Church.” Right up front we are told
...there is a growing movement in the Orthodox Church of what’s called the Traditionalist Movement. This is made up of Orthodox Fundamentalists who attack other Orthodox Christians if they don’t believe the Canons are perfect, inspired by God and should be kept as they are. (p. 1)
There is, however, no “movement,” as Mr. Shingledecker admits on page 19. Rather, it’s merely a convenient misnomer for a group of Orthodox Christians who individually could be labeled “Traditionalist.” According to the author, “What differentiates the vast majority of Orthodox Christians from Traditionalists is what we the vast majority believe about various issues like Canon law.” (p. 19) “Traditionalists” are scorned throughout the book; and despite the disclaimer that there really is no movement, this term is continually employed. Here is a sampling of his claims about “Traditionalists”:
- They “attack other Christians that question the official ‘interpretation’ of the Canons in a book called The Rudder.” (p. 1)
- They “love to exclude people they don’t fully approve of.” (p. 3)
- They are “rigorists” who are contrasted with “progressives” or “moderates” in the Church, the latter being the only ones who exhibit “compassion and open mindedness.” (p. 3, 9)
- Their views “fill[s] some need in people that’s always been there to lord it over others in the name of God.” (p. 3)
- They have “fear-filled or even hate-filled baggage”, and “everyone who disagrees with [them] is not just wrong but damned and [they] miraculously happen to be right... about everything.” (p. 10)
- They have a “habit of loudly judging those they disagree with as not really Christian and delight in denouncing them.” (p. 11)
- They use “archaic, outdated, and pointlessly irrelevant” Canons as “weapon[s] to beat other Christians in general and Orthodox in particular over the head with.” (p. 12)
- They “take the Canons as speaking for God.” (p. 17)
- “Orthodox Traditionalists claim that 20th century innovations, like allowing priests to shave, are the real reasons that the Orthodox Church is riddled with so many problems in the modern world. For them, the only way to correct these problems is to return to a more ‘pure’ form of the religion where all of Holy Tradition—as personified in Canon law—is strictly enforced.” (p. 20)
- They “always argue for a stricter adherence to the Canons.” (p. 66)
- The “Orthodox Traditionalist movement...claims that these Canons cannot be changed, and that they must be adhered to and applied because God didn’t just inspire them, He dictated them!” (p. 151)
- In short, being a Traditionalist “means covering up the insanity of the church, vowing to never change a thing and badmouthing all who dare question this addiction to false ‘certainties’. In other words, Fundamentalism is now unleashed and rampant within the Orthodox community. And it will hurt, and is hurting, the Church.” (pp. 171-2).
If one didn’t know better it would be easy to conclude that an insidious vocal minority threatens the Orthodox Church. Despite their few numbers, their ranks are growing steadily; and they are aggressively pushing for an enforcement of all of the Canons to the letter. “You may think such things are unlikely, but they are far more likely than most people imagine given the intense zeal (not to mention fear of the modern world) found within Fundamentalist circles, of every stripe.” (p. 176)
This is completely unfounded. It is significant that the author fails to cite any writings of the so-called Traditionalists (or, for that matter, any Holy Fathers in support of his position). His book is filled with criticisms of these people, yet never once does he quote them. Why? Because such citations do not exist, other than (perhaps) as the misguided opinion of some hothead layman on an Internet forum—statements that carry no weight and which should hardly be taken seriously. No, the “Traditionalist” as he characterizes him is the classic “straw man.”
I should know. I spent over five years in the ranks of the “Old Calendarists”—the very sort of people that Mr. Shingledecker would be quick to label as “extremist” or “Fundamentalist.” I am very familiar with their writings. Yet I have never read or heard anyone defending the Canons or their use in ways he portrays above. I also sent book excerpts to a learned and experienced clergyman in the Church of Greece. He replied, “I too have never met a traditionalist of his caricatured variety, even in Greece where they are sometimes more severe than their North American cousins.”
On page 28 we learn that his labeling (libeling?) extends even to those who would not consider themselves members of the “Traditionalist Movement”—i.e., they don’t realize they are a “Traditionalist”—such as Fr. Alexander Rentel, Assistant Professor of Canon Law at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Mr. Shingledecker quotes from an interview that Fr. Alexander gave on “The Illumined Heart” podcast
for Ancient Faith Radio. Father Alexander was rightly stating that the Canons were inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the Holy Fathers have written. Mr. Shingledecker described his statements as “a haughty description of how Canon law came into being,” (p. 29) among other things! The mere fact that Fr. Alexander believes the Canons were divinely inspired is, to the author’s mind, sufficient to warrant his designation as a “Traditionalist.” I can only conclude that most Orthodox Christians today, and all the Holy Fathers of the past, are “Traditionalists”—for the divine inspiration of the Sacred Canons is a core belief of our Church (more on that, below)— although, as I have stated, only an extreme minority (if any) vaguely resemble his unsubstantiated portrayal of them.
Even if we accept his opinion that people like this are now “unleashed and rampant” in the Church, the author acknowledges that “the vast majority of them are completely unaware that the corpus of Canon law contains outrageous laws” (pp. 14, 176) like the ones he “exposes” in his book. Thus the pool of offenders—as differentiated from the “vast majority” of Orthodox Christians—is drained almost completely. Who is left except for a few imbalanced, albeit vocal, people? Are they really a threat justifying an entire book? Has there ever been a period in history when the Church didn’t have sheep who distorted Her teachings, or applied them in a heavy-handed way, whether wittingly or unwittingly? How can the author tell us that his book focuses on “the more outlandish Canons they insist we embrace” (p. 4) when the “the vast majority of them are completely unaware” such Canons exist? (p. 59) Contradictions like this run throughout his book.
The Canons are Merely “Human Laws” Maintained by a “Fallible Organization”
The Orthodox Church clearly teaches that the Canons are divinely inspired. This is nowhere more eloquently and authoritatively expressed than in Canon I of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod:
For those who have been allotted a clerical dignity, the representations of canonical ordinances amount to testimonies and directions. Gladly accepting these, we sing to the Lord God with David, the spokesman of God, the following words: “I have delighted in the way of your testimonies as much as in all wealth,” and “Your testimonies which You have commanded witness justice... Your testimonies are justice forever: give me understanding, and I shall live.” (Psalms 119:14, 138 and 144) And if forever the prophetic voice commands us to keep the testimonies of God, and to live in them, it is plain that they remain unwavering and rigid. For Moses, too, the beholder of God says so in the following words: “To them there is nothing to add, and from them there is nothing to remove” (Deuteronomy 12:32). And the divine Apostle Peter, exulting in them, cries: “which things the angels would like to peep into” (I Peter 1:12). And Paul says: “Though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8). Seeing that these things are so and are attested to us, and rejoicing at them “as one that finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162), we welcome and embrace the divine Canons, and we corroborate the entire and rigid fiat of them that have been set forth by the renowned Apostles, who were and are trumpets of the Spirit, and those both of the six Holy Ecumenical Synods and of the ones assembled regionally for the purpose of setting forth such edicts, and of those of our Holy Fathers. For all those men, having been guided by the light dawning out of the same Spirit, prescribed rules that are to our best interest. (Canon I)
Mr. Shingledecker also quotes this Canon in Chapter 3, “Is Canon Law Divine?” but to him it constitutes a “hidden message” that, when deciphered, results in “circular logic” that is just plain “nuts”:
1. God’s laws (which according to Christian doctrine, comes [sic] from the guidance and inspiration of [sic] Holy Spirit) can never be changed.
2. Canon law came from the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
3. Ergo, Canon law is God’s law (since the Holy Spirit is God) and therefore can never be changed.
It’s that simple. Canon law is divine because the people who wrote it patted themselves on the back and said that their inventions... came from a divine being, namely the Holy Spirit! This “reasoning” makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? (p. 28)
[Referring to the 22nd Canon of St. John the Faster] That’s the catch-22 in which the Church finds itself. By claiming (within the Canons themselves) that Canon law is divine, the Church has written itself into a corner which is pretty hard to get out of without admitting that both the Canon in question was wrong, and that the Canon saying all Canons are divine is also self-evidently nuts too! (p. 40)
What is truly “nuts” is this interpretation of Canon I of the Seventh! Although Mr. Shingledecker writes earlier, “I happen to believe that the Holy Spirit actually leads the Orthodox Church” (p. 16), it’s clear that such “leading” pertains to anything but the Holy Canons, which are merely flawed human inventions:
- “We can look back and see that Canons like this, which were once thought to be divine, were not written by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cannot be this ignorant of human biology. The Canons are but human tools...” (p. 43)
- “Canon law wasn’t written by God, but is a product of its time and is often not applicable today. Not just because it is simply impractical but because sometimes it is outright immoral.” (p. 59)
- “... Canon law is a product of its time and culture, and not the Holy Spirit.” (p. 133)
- “... if the Holy sprit [sic] was really writing this stuff He’d know what was right and wrong[;] or was the Spirit and Creator also subject to His ‘moment in time?’...Was the Holy Spirit confused when He inspired at least one of these Canons? Does the Holy Spirit have a split personality like a cosmic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or is Canon law simply a product of its time, culture, and society, and not a collection of divine commands from on high?” (pp. 140, 141)
- “... I do not think [Canon law] is divinely inspired... nor do I think it contains some kernel of theological truth which is ‘never changing’. It is of human origin.” (p. 174)
Having concluded the Canons are mere jus humanum—although he admits that some are “wise”—it’s easy to adopt a highly critical attitude towards the Canons and the Fathers who wrote them (who are sometimes “just plain dumb” [p. 56], “wrongheaded” [p. 60—referring to St. John Chrysostom], and “idiotic” [p. 174]). Here is a small sample of his scathing remarks:
- “Yet believe it or not, a good chunk of Canon law consists of idiotic rules, laws, and regulations like these. It’s these sorts of ridiculous laws which I intend to expose.” (p. 12)
- “...archaic, outdated, and pointlessly irrelevant...” (p. 12)
- Referring to one Canon he writes: “... it’s insane, and isn’t Christian.” (p. 39)
- Another Canon he calls “one gigantic mistake. In fact, it is evil and God-hating” (!) (p. 56)
- A “superstitious view of the world is the reason behind such a ridiculous Canon...” (p. 57)
- “...some Canons are absurd, silly, weird, offensive, bizarre, or downright crazy...” (p. 65)
- “Our next Canon is, to say the least, disturbing.... How’s that for a holy Canon?” (pp. 71, 74)
- “...no one has bothered to expel this sinful and disgusting Canon from the Orthodox Church... Why let something like this sick, twisted law remain on the books?... If the Church won’t write this cancer off the books then I’m not sure there is much hope for the future of Orthodox Christianity.” (p. 79, 83)
- “...this genital-hating Canon.... [Enforcing it equates to] emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual abuse.” (p. 109)
- “Out of all the Canons we’ve looked at, this one might just be the silliest of them all.” (p. 128)
Sadly but predictably, his criticisms extend to the Church that has preserved these Canons:
- “Am I being critical of the Christian Church? You bet. In fact, I believe it is a Christian’s moral imperative to criticize and question the Church. To refuse to do so is the real sin. The catch is that we must be willing to do what some do not want us to do: ask questions, doubt authority, and accept that no Council, Saint, Church or Canon is or has ever been completely infallible.” (p. 44)
- “The Christian Church is clearly not perfect. No Church which allowed something like this Canon to be put on the books in the first place could possibly be perfect (let alone a Church which still has such laws on the books), and no such law could possibly be divine. I don’t care if the greatest saints on earth wrote this Canon. It just proves that saints are fallen and mistaken like everyone else.” (p. 54)
- “Isn’t it just better for us to admit that the Church isn’t perfect and that these types of Canons are the result of the Church’s (or saints’) fears, ignorance, and prejudices instead of trying to sift some eternal meaning out of something so ridiculous?” (p. 57)
- “Just what is it with the Church’s obsession with blaming the victim anyway?” (p. 100)
- “But why is the Orthodox Church so cowardly when it comes to changing these Canons?” (p. 124)
- “If this Canon were enforced today there wouldn’t even be an Orthodox Church.... It would vanish from the face of the earth.... [I]t wouldn’t exist because God would smack His proverbial forehead, cry out ‘OyVey!’ and blink such a stupid organization right out of existence!” (p. 125)
- Trying to discuss a Canon’s historical context amounts to a Traditionalist’s “refusal to admit that the Christian Church is just as fallible of an organization as any other. The Christian Church’s fallibility includes... ‘spiritual’ decisions like instructions and penances within Canon law.” (p. 158-159)
For Mr. Shingledecker the Church is akin to other earthly organizations like a Rotary Club—perhaps worse because of Her “embarrassing” and “crazy” laws, but perhaps better because “[w]e have... the neatest bells and whistles; our clergy even have the coolest clothes” (p. 170)
. Sadly for him, a Rotary Club is probably more trustworthy. Instead of viewing the Church with childlike trust and humility, he promotes a “Think for yourself and question authority” approach fueled by suspicion that the Canons, if not other aspects of Holy Tradition, are products of ignorance and prejudice.
The ninth article of the Nicene Creed—which all Orthodox Christians treasure as their Symbol of Faith—states “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Orthodox Christians believe in this Church, like they believe in one God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Concerning the authority of the Church as a repository of Divine Truth, Fr. George Florovsky wrote:
The teaching authority of the Ecumenical Councils is grounded in the infallibility of the Church. The ultimate “authority” is vested in the Church which is forever the Pillar and Foundation of Truth.... It is a charismatic authority, grounded in the assistance of the Spirit: for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.
Timothy Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos) makes similar comments:
The Church is infallible. This again follows from the indissoluble unity between God and His Church. Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot err, and since the Church is Christ’s body, since it is a continued Pentecost, it is therefore infallible. It is ‘the pillar and the ground of truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth’ (John 16:13). So Christ promised at the Last Supper; and Orthodoxy believes that Christ’s promise cannot fail. In the words of Dositheus: ‘We believe the Catholic Church to be taught by the Holy Spirit ... and therefore we both believe and profess as true and undoubtedly certain, that it is impossible for the Catholic Church to err, or to be at all deceived, or ever to choose falsehood instead of truth’ (Confession, Decree 12).
The Church’s infallibility is expressed chiefly through Ecumenical Councils.
These are fundamental teachings of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, a chief expression of the truth and authority held by the Church is the Sacred Canons. As Archbishop Gregory (Afonsky) explains:
The highest ecclesiastical authority in expressing the true faith of the Orthodox Church is the ecumenical council. Such councils are composed of all bishops of all Orthodox Churches, guided by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the affirmation of the first apostolic council in Jerusalem: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). The decisions of an ecumenical council, however, must be followed by reception by the people, who ratify the truth of those decisions (Acts 15:31).
Thus the Church—as the divine-human society of believers in Christ, the Son of the living God, being invisibly governed by Him and guided by the Holy Spirit, while being visibly governed by the hierarchy—is truly the source, the guardian, and the teacher of all God’s truth unto ages of ages.
Having firm assurance from her founder and head, together with the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ will be present with the Church until the “end of the world”—and because “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her”—the Church accomplishes her task in the world by revealing the truth of God in manifold, multifaceted ways. As teacher of truth, the Church proclaims:...
...The Church, having inherited divine authority from her founder to govern and judge (Mt 18:15-18; 2 Cor 10:5-6; Jn 20:21, Acts 20:29), has developed its own distinctive body of Canon Law. This is purely ecclesiastical law, independent of any civil authority. These laws or canons regulate and direct not only the inner spiritual and moral life of the faithful, but, more importantly, these canons protect the existence of the Church in the political, economic and social environment of the contemporary world. They do so by safeguarding and protecting the essential qualities of the Church: oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.
The Universal Code of Canons was established by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Canon 2). We need to remember that the Ecumenical Councils are the supreme dogmatic, canonical and legislative authority for the entire Orthodox Church. All dogmatic and canonical decisions made by Ecumenical Councils are adopted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). They are God-inspired, and all of them must be confirmed by being formally received by the members of the Church.
Mr. Shingledecker’s views are not Orthodox, but rather reflect the ecclesiastical Nestorianism embraced by Protestantism. The Canons are thus mainly, if not exclusively, an expression of the human nature of the Body of Christ, as if the two Natures of Christ were divided. The decisions of Chalcedon have many ramifications that should not be overlooked. Fr. George Florovsky once wrote, “It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age.”
Mr. Shingledecker’s book is an example of such a repeat mistake. Nicholas Afanasiev elaborates on the Protestant mindset and the Canons as “human laws”:
Jus humanum does not exist in the Church; all decisions are divinely inspired (“they are all enlightened by one and the same Spirit”), and they must remain indestructible and unshakeable....
[W]e cannot... declare that all the canons accepted by the Church are lacking in grace and are nonecclesiastical. Jus humanum only regulates empirical organisms. If human law existed alone in the Church, the Church would belong exclusively to the realm of empirical reality. The Protestant teaching that canonical definitions are based solely on human law is an inevitable conclusion derived from the Protestant teaching about the Church: the visible Church is an empirical value, and as a consequence human law naturally operates in the Church. Ecclesiastical Nestorianism is thus reflected in the canonical realm by the recognition of jus humanum as its exclusive guiding principle.
If Protestantism recognizes the presence of only human law in the Church, then it is inwardly consistent and adheres to its dogmatic teaching. For the Orthodox Church, however, such a recognition contradicts the doctrine of the Church. The Church as an organism is human and divine and full of grace. Everything in the Church is filled with grace: “Ubi ecclesia, ibi et spiritus Dei, et ubi spiritus Dei, illic ecciesia et omnis gratia,” “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where is the Spirit of God, there is the Church and all of grace” (Iraen. III, 24, 5). Hence even the genuine Church decrees possess grace. They, just as dogmas, are revealed truths. The formula “It pleases the Holy Spirit and us,” can be applied equally to both dogmatic and canonical decrees. According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council the latter are “divine” rules (Canon 1). The dual nature of the Church defined in Chalcedon is opposed to both ecclesiastical Nestorianism and ecclesiastical Monophysitism. In accordance with this the divine-human source of canonical decrees is affirmed by Tradition. If it is necessary to speak about law in the Church, then we should not speak of divine and human laws as separate entities divorced from one another, but we should speak of a single divine-human law. The will of the Church (her divine-human will) manifests itself through the canonical decrees in order that her historical forms of existence embody her essence....
The divinely inspired character of the canonical decrees is defined by their being an expression of the Church’s will, which is directed in such a way that the life of the Church under given conditions would correspond to its dogmatic teachings.
In the same vein Dr. Lewis Patsavos writes:
[The Holy Canons] express in time her eternal truth, as well as her divine-human will. As such, they cannot be distinguished into canons of divine law and those of human ecclesiastical law, since everything that takes place in the Church is due to the synergy of both divine and human factors....
The canons, then, are not the expression of a legalistic spirit, which tends to envelop everything in regulations and to reduce the life of the spirit to juridical norms. They are the expression of the Church’s pastoral concern for the salvation of her members. This understanding of the canons on the part of the Church’s conscience is supported by the following:...
...The trust with which the body of the Church has always looked upon the holy canons, never considering them an unbearable burden, but a staff for the Church on her way to the kingdom. The grievances levied against the canons are, it appears, a contemporary phenomenon due either to their misinterpretation or to the adoption by some theologians of criteria totally at variance with the criteria which the Church has always maintained....
The holy canons, just as God’s testimonies, are riches and no one is permitted to add to them or delete from them. This absolute stand of the fathers, often incomprehensible to the contemporary Christian influenced by the currents of secularism, is explained only by the faith of the fathers in the perpetual activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
To sum up thus far, Mr. Shingledecker—apparently unaware of the relevance of Chalcedon to the Church’s canonical tradition, and deludedly thinking that his views represent the majority of Orthodox Christians—brazenly foments disdain for the Holy Canons, the Fathers who wrote them, and the Church. He cannot rightly confess to “believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and write such things, nor can he label as “circular logic” the firm beliefs of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod as stated in their first Canon—upheld by the Church ever since—and be a right-believing Orthodox Christian.
The False Dilemma of Divine and “Changeless” Canons
A main impetus for Mr. Shingledecker’s screed is his simplistic assumption that because “Canon law is God’s law... [it] therefore can never be changed” (p. 28); hence the other part of the book’s subtitle: “How... ‘Changeless’ Canons Hurt the Orthodox Church”. He only sees Canons as either “divine and binding forever” or “products of their time”:
As I’ve said I’m not trying to deride all the Canons, the Church, or any sacred interpretation. Well okay, I kind of am, but only to make the point that one cannot take these Canons as divine statutes which remain forever binding upon the Church, but only as products of their time. (p. 108)
At the end of the book he repeats the dilemma, finishing with a plea that others will follow suit:
I too once believed that Canon law is an immutable collection of pronouncements written by God Himself. That is until I began to research Canon law for myself, and discovered that such a belief is completely insane. This presented me with the choice between Canon “truth” and God. So I changed my mind and gave God—not the Canons—my loyal vote of confidence. I hope you do too. (p. 177)
It’s a shame that Mr. Shingledecker has either failed to understand or refused to acknowledge that the Church does not teach that all Canons are both forever binding and immutable. This is easy to verify in most books that discuss the Canons, and Nicholas Afanasiev’s aforementioned article on this very issue
has been available in English since at least 1967 (and frequently cited). Here is a pertinent excerpt:
Canonical decrees, just as dogmas, are divinely inspired, but from this it should not be concluded that they coincide with one another. The distinction between dogmas and canons does not lie in the source of their being, but in the fact that dogmas are absolute truths and canons are applications of these truths for the historical existence of the Church. Dogmas do not concern temporal existence, while canons are temporal. This temporal aspect does not, however, diminish their divinely-inspired nature, since the temporal does not refer to that nature. They are temporal in the sense that they are applied to that which is temporal, the historical forms of the Church’s existence. The truth that canons express is in itself absolute, but the content of canons is not this truth itself, but the mode through which this truth must be expressed in a given historical form of the Church’s life. Canons express the eternal in the temporal. The temporal is the “how,” the mode of application, while the eternal is that which is applied.
The problem of changes or immutability in the canons is solved by their eternal-temporal character. The historical forms of the Church are pliable and alterable since the essence of the Church is embodied in definite historical conditions. Canonical decrees follow historical forms since they direct these forms towards a more complete expression of the Church’s essence. They are changed inasmuch as the Church’s life undergoes changes under various historical conditions. If the historical conditions in which the Church lives always remained constant, then the canons would not experience any changes. As truths of divine revelation they are indisputable—”We uphold the all-encompassing and unshakeable enactment of these rules” (Canon 2 in Trullo) —but in a relative, not absolute, sense; they are relevant only for their own age. The underlying dogmatic truth of the canons cannot be changed; only their application and embodiment in a canon can be altered by the historical existence of the Church.
Just as in physics a force can act only if it has a point of application, so too canons are active only if they have a point of application in the conditions of the Church’s life for which they were decreed. If this point of application no longer exists, then the canons become inactive; either they altogether cease to be active or they undergo changes, or to be more exact, they are replaced by others. If we restrict the scope of our investigation to only the most narrow understanding of canons, i.e. decrees of the councils and the Holy Fathers, then we will find a series of canons completely inapplicable to our present Church life, as, for example, all the decisions concerning the receiving of the lapsed into the Church or those relating to the penitential discipline and institutions that have disappeared or that have been replaced by others, such as the chorepiscopoi, the oikonomoi, the ekdikoi, etc. We even find decisions that Church authorities do not presently require to be fulfilled any more....
In the age of creative conciliar activity the Church enlarged, replaced and changed old canonical decrees. Along with this the “unshakeable content of the canons”—even those that were changed—was not violated. If the new decision genuinely reflected the Church, then the dogmatic teaching that served as the basis for both the new and the old canons remains unchanged. The old canon continued to reflect a truth, but only for a past epoch.
Archbishop Gregory (Afonsky) writes similarly:
Therefore, all dogmatic definitions of the Councils, and all canons based on Holy Scriptures, which reveal the dogmatic principles of faith and morality, or the succession of hierarchy by which the divine grace of the Holy Spirit is preserved in the Church, are immutable and unchangeable for all times.
However, some canons of historic or disciplinary nature, which were adopted for a certain time and place, are variable and mutable. They can be changed by the same authority of the Church which adopted them in the first place. This idea that some disciplinary canons can be changed, and have been, does not in any way weaken the witness of the Church Fathers, who affirm that their activity at the Ecumenical Councils was God-inspired. We need to keep in mind the fact that the Old Testament, in all its fullness, was granted to us by God. Nevertheless, when the time came, the customs and the ritual law of the Old Covenant were canceled. Yet no Orthodox Christian doubts the divinely inspired character of the Old Testament in general.
For whatever reason Mr. Shingledecker does not understand that the Holy Canons often express unchangeable truths of the Church in ways applicable to a specific period in history. He finds this concept bewildering:
“I am fully aware that I am taking one tiny snippet of this Canon outside of its historical context. But why on earth would eternally binding laws need to be read within an historical context? Doesn’t that kind of refute the whole concept of eternally binding laws? Are they are [sic] eternal, but only if the word eternal doesn’t really mean eternal?” (p. 129)
Ironically, in an article surveying the various approaches to the study of the Canons, which Mr. Shingledecker cites in his bibliography, William J. Chriss concludes:
While disagreeing about many other things, all contemporary authorities agree that a candid examination of the historical context of the canons is useful.
Clearly Mr. Shingledecker just “doesn’t get it,” and should not be trying to help “thinking people... reclaim the enlightened thread of Orthodox teaching that is also there for all to embrace.” Proper study of the Canons requires a breadth of knowledge and multidisciplinary expertise. More importantly, it requires humility, a great respect for Church Tradition, a Patristic mindset and discernment. If there’s a thread he should be helping people reclaim it is the “golden thread” of the Holy Fathers:
[W]ithin Orthodox theological thought there operates a certain principle of commonality of belief. What has stood the test of time persists in the corpus of Orthodox literature because it belongs to that which is accepted into the consciousness of the Church, the phronema ton pateron, the “mind” of the Fathers, that “golden thread,” as Father Florovsky calls it, that unites the Orthodox Fathers of today with their predecessors in the past in a oneness of thought and faith.
Lamentably Mr. Shingledecker not only fails to cite a single Patristic source to support his views, he also mocks those who stress the importance of the Patristic mindset:
- “... unless you’re as initiated into all-seeing Truth as they are” (p. 8)
- “... no one needs to spend fifty years in a monastery acquiring some secret esoteric wisdom from the ‘mind of the Fathers’ which is a popular expression used to discredit critics and those who question the status quo. In other words, if you had the ‘mind of the Fathers’ you’d know the ‘real’ meaning of this Canon—but since you don’t have this secret wisdom you’re just out of luck.” (p. 36-37)
Seeking to acquire the “mind of the Church” or to “follow the Holy Fathers
” are not gnostic endeavors but rather goals of all pious Orthodox Christians, who realize that departing from the teaching of the Church Fathers leads to secularism and modernism, which obstruct the Church’s therapeutic methods that guide one on the path to salvation.
The ability to understand correctly various spiritual realities, including doctrine, the Canons of the Church, etc., requires active participation in the Eucharistic life of the Church as well as ascetic struggle—the ongoing effort to purify one’s heart. Saint Athanasius the Great beautifully concludes his famous treatise On the Incarnation with the following words:
But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the Saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the Saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the Saints in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Mr. Shingledecker rejects this crucial nexus of orthopraxis and spiritual understanding
, labeling as “secret” and “esoteric” the wisdom of God that is available to all
who truly fear the Lord
. This attitude invites the highly critical, irreverent and antinomian spirit behind this book—the same secular spirit that inspires other worldly views in the Orthodox Church today, such as opposition to monasticism, promotion of “gay rights” and same-sex marriage
, the ordination of women to the Priesthood, etc.
“Technically Enforceable” Canons and Legalistic “Loopholes”
Mr. Shingledecker’s gross ignorance of Orthodox canonical tradition is further demonstrated by his legalistic understanding of the nature and application of the Canons:
- “In fact, all of ancient Canon law... is technically enforceable within the Orthodox Church of the 21st century. That’s right, when I said that a Christian could be excommunicated for having a Jewish doctor, I meant that a Christian today could be excommunicated for having a Jewish doctor. Of course, almost no one in the Orthodox Church actually knows this, and there is good reason for that: the Orthodox Church doesn’t want them to know.... After all, admitting that Christianity once excommunicated people for having a Jewish doctor is embarrassing enough, but admitting that such laws still exist is more than embarrassing, it’s downright shameful.” (p. 12-13)
- “What makes this Canon so unacceptable is... that it is still a technically enforceable law within the Orthodox Church of the 21st century.” (p. 36)
- In a parody of a compassionless Priest addressing a woman who has had a miscarriage: “Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but the Holy Canons say that you must be excommunicated for the next year. Sorry about that lady! But after all, the Canons are divine....” (p. 38)
- In another absurd parody we read, “Sadly I must now tell you that according to the holy Canons, you must be excommunicated.... The bishop did tell me, to tell you, that he is deeply sorry, but even his hands are tied because Canon law is divine and is never changing!” (p. 79)
For Mr. Shingledecker it appears that the Holy Canons are like civil laws that at any moment could be “enforced” by a clergyman once he discovers the Canon—perhaps after reading a “Traditionalist” blog that cited it—and realizes his “hands are tied”. In other words, once a person realizes that a particular “law” is “on the books” there is supposedly a great danger that it could suddenly be imposed on the faithful; for “technically speaking” the Bishop or Priest not only has the “right” to do this, he is bound to “enforce” it to the letter.
I have never heard of anyone viewing the Canons in this way, and I challenge him to cite a single Orthodox source that would approvingly portray the Canons and their use as he has done. If at one time or another a clergyman has understood and misapplied the Canons in a harsh, legalistic manner, these are exceptions to the norm. The Church’s canonical tradition should not be assailed because of its rare misapplication due to human weakness and error.
Instead of rigid, “technically enforceable laws”
[t]he canons ought... to be understood as pastoral guidelines. As such, they should serve as models upon which subsequent ecclesiastical legislation is based whenever possible. The canons of the Fathers, in particular, reflect the pastoral nature of their contents. The Fathers who wrote them did not think that they were writing legislative texts. In most cases, they were either responding to the questions put to them by individuals seeking their counsel, or else expressing their views on matters of grave concern to the Church....
The Fathers whose canons appear in our canonical collections exerted no less an influence upon the development and formation of the canons of other synods. Consequently, the pastoral nature evident in the canons of the Fathers is also easily discernible in the canons of the synods. It is because of this characteristic that the canons have been referred to as “fruits of the Spirit,” whose purpose is to assist mankind in its quest for salvation. Certainly such a lofty purpose can only be appreciated when the canons are understood as pastoral guidelines and not as legislative texts. Viewed simply as legislative texts, the canons differ little from laws to be upheld rigidly and absolutely. Recognized, however, as the pastoral guidelines which in fact they are, the canons serve the purpose for which they were intended with compassion and flexibility. It is this latter understanding of the canons which makes comprehensible the exercise of “economy” as practiced in the Orthodox Church today.
Regarding the important concept of “economy” (oikonomia) Mr. Shingledecker elects to offer his own opinion as to why few if any of the Canons he finds so deplorable are “enforced” today. In Chapter 16 he asks:
Assuming that Canon law is divine (which it’s not, but let’s pretend), how can Church leaders so readily ignore such explicit and detailed instructions?... [O]ther than the fact that Church leaders aren’t complete idiots, and know full well that enforcing our own Canons would empty their coffers, what’s the catch? (p. 161)
His crude answer is that Canon 102 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod
—the preeminent Canon describing the principle of oikonomia—provides a “loophole” (yet more legalistic terminology), a “get out of jail free card” that
you won’t find being quoted by most Traditionalists. Enter the “liberal” anti-Traditionalist canon, the nice, make-nice, dare I say Christ like [sic] Canon which gives us a bit of wisdom to balance out all of the previous absurdities.... In other words, the Church can disobey some Canons because other Canons tell them to! (p. 162, 164)
A number of points are in order. First and foremost it is wrong to pit this Canon against the others, as if it gives permission to “disobey” any Canon a person finds disagreeable. Nowhere does this Canon state that a clergyman is allowed to ignore or violate other Canons. Rather, it gives him authority to use pastoral judgment in the meting out of penances. This is an aspect of oikonomia, which literally means “management of a household or family” (i.e., the Bishop ruling as Archpastor over his diocese and flock). As a good physician of souls he may adjust a “remedy” to suit the needs of his spiritual “patients”. He is not, however, supposed to ignore or violate other Canons in the name of “economy”.
[Economy] is governed by defined guidelines which must be strictly adhered to by the competent ecclesiastical authority granting it. First and foremost, exception from a law which has been endowed with universal recognition and validity is not possible. It is only from a law that has not been endowed with such authority that a person can be released, if this is deemed spiritually beneficial.
While it is true that certain Canons are not “enforced” today, this is not due to Canon 102 but rather to the Church’s understanding that some Canons are not applicable to Her present historical context, as I’ve already mentioned.
Second, Mr. Shingledecker overlooks the fact that oikonomia works both ways. Canon 102 states that penances may also be increased. It is thus incorrect to cite this Canon as proof of some “loophole.”
Third, the principle of economy is used heavily by “Traditionalist” authors when defending the inner consistency of the Canons and the various ways in which they have been applied throughout Church history. Ironically, the very people with whom Mr. Shingledecker might find himself occupying a small piece of common ground are those who are highly critical of this principle. Canon 102 is certainly one that you will find being quoted by “Traditionalists.”
I find it odd that Mr. Shingledecker would spend the majority of his book “exposing” and ridiculing Canons he dislikes, and only towards the end mention Canon 102 of the Sixth. If it really means what he says it means, why all the ranting about Canons that are “on the books?” Apparently he is upset because he does not see “any good reason to keep these ‘Orthodox’ / Voodoo treatments around, even for posterity’s sake” (p. 169). He writes that the Church keeps “an office out back filled with specific bloodletting tools called scareficators, used primarily in 19th century medicine... a real link with our divinely inspired ‘medical’ traditions!” (p. 170) And of course, he’s worried about the “Traditionalist” straw man “movement” using these Canons as cannons.
If these “tools” are not, however, in use today, and if there’s really no “Traditionalist movement” after all, what’s the point of writing so scathingly against them? He is grossly mistaken if he expects an Ecumenical Synod to expunge various Canons from the Church’s Tradition. When new Canons are adopted in the future which express the therapeutic theology of each in a way that is more suitable for the times, the older, related Canons will still remain “out back.” Moreover, the Church would never, as he has done, excoriate them as products of “superstitious nonsense” (p. 43) and “medieval ignorance,” (p. 81) but would instead “corroborate the entire and rigid fiat of them,” writing new ones in the “light dawning out of the same Spirit” that inspired the Holy Fathers of old.
There’s no need to go further and refute Mr. Shingledecker’s understanding of each of the Canons cited in his book. The foundation of his arguments and his methodology have been shown to be wholly un-Orthodox. It would take yet another book to explain the historical context and theological meaning behind the various Canons that he finds so appalling. It is better to leave such a task to those adequately trained in our canonical tradition.
If anyone represents “the crazy side of Orthodoxy” it is people like Mr. Shingledecker. With this blasphemous book he is way out of step with the Holy Fathers. His views do not represent the Orthodox Church. He claims to speak in a way that helps enlighten “thinking people,” but there is nothing but darkness here. Dr. Patsavos reminds us that
despite the steadfastness of the Orthodox Church in her canonical tradition, there are still those in her fold whose degenerate will scorns the theanthropic will of the Church as expressed by the holy canons. Furthermore, their own selfish will seeks to settle ecclesiastical matters without the canons or to distort them for their own calculated motives.
I genuinely feel sorrow for him and other secularized Orthodox Christians who have adopted so tragic a stance towards the Holy Fathers and the Church. If a person truly believes in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” that person should, with faith and humility, also embrace the Holy Tradition preserved by the Church, the “pillar and ground of the truth.”
The believing Christian approaches tradition as a learner and not as a teacher. He allows himself to be molded within it rather than to mold it to his own dimensions. He then discovers that tradition is a source of life having an unfathomable depth. Drawing from such an unfathomable depth, he can then render the word of the Church relevant and salutary in every age.
May God enlighten Charles Shingledecker and other Orthodox Christians who have rejected the Holy Fathers, and who seek to mold the Church’s Tradition in their own image.
Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons
(Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), p. 34.
Also available in Greek, with the kind permission of its author, the Very Reverend Archimandrite George Kapsanis, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Grigoriou, Mount Athos: He poimantike diakonia kata tous hierous kanonas
(Pastoral Ministry according to the Holy Canons). As Dr. Patsavos explains in his “Notes,” Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons is largely an adaption of this classic text.
Op. cit., p. xiii. From the foreword by Archbishop Demetrios.
This interview also contains a few remarks about Apostolic Canon XI, the “Jewish doctor” Canon.
“Yet if you could look behind that wonderful ritual you’d find a dust covered, cobweb filled storage room, littered with dead moths.” (p. 179)
Bible, Church, Tradition (Vaduz, Europa: Bücher-Vertriebs Anstalt, 1987), p. 103.
The Orthodox Church (London, England: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 252.
From his chapter “The Divine Authority of the Church” in Christ and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp. 89-90, 93. The Archbishop served for many years as Professor of Dogmatic Theology and Canon Law at St. Herman’s Theological Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska.
Op. cit., p. 14.
“The Canons of the Church: Changeable or Unchangeable?
”, St.Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 11, no. 2 (1967).
Op. cit., pp. 21, 22, 23, 24.
Op. cit., pp. 93-94. See also “Some Thoughts on the Holy Canons
” by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff.
“Canonology: Redefining Canon Law from an Eastern Perspective
”, p. 23. Another noteworthy observation: “Even those canonists whom we have denominated ‘legalistic’ acknowledge that ‘canon law’ is not to be understood as law in the same sense as civil law or other governmental enactment. As such, the very use of the term ‘law’ in connection with the canons is at best confusing, and at worst leads to the idolatry condemned by Patriarch Bartholomew and the pharisaism bemoaned by Metropolitan Vlachos. ‘Canon law’ is an oxymoron resulting from non-Orthodox methods of thinking. There is some support for this statement among all of the contemporary canonists we have cited. Hence, the use of this term should cease.” (p. 24)
Bishop Auxentios and Father James Thornton, “Three Byzantine Commentaries on the Divine Liturgy,” Four Essays on Orthodox Liturgical Issues (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies), p. 53.
On this see the following two books by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos: The Mind of the Orthodox Church
, Chapter 8 “Secularism in Church, theology and pastoral care”, and Hesychia and Theology, Chapter 14 “Orthodox and Secularised Theology”. In the former he writes:
“Secularism is the loss of the real life of the Church, the alienation of Church members from the genuine mind of the Church. Secularism is the rejection of the ecclesiastical ethos and the pervasion of our life by the so-called worldly mind.
“It must be said emphatically that the greatest danger is the secularisation of the members of the Church. The church has many ‘enemies’. But the worst and most dangerous is secularism, which is consuming the marrow of the Church. To be sure, the Church is not in any real danger, since it is the blessed Body of Christ, but the danger is for the members of the Church.” (The Mind of the Orthodox Church, p. 187).
On the Incarnation
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), §57, p. 96. In this vein Christos Yannaras has noted, “[T]he truth represented by the canons of the Church cannot be understood in isolation from the spiritual and cultural climate which gave birth to them. The period which gave birth to the canons represents a level of spiritual achievement which remains not only unattainable, but even incomprehensible without the standard of the asceticism they express.” The Freedom of Morality (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY: 1984), p. 183.
As a convert to Orthodoxy in 2003 and an ordained reader in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, it is impossible that he is merely unaware of this basic Orthodox principle.
“Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets.” (Prov. 1:20)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7)
As another example of this secular mindset consider the following from the publisher’s blog on HuffingtonPost.com. In his review of
The Right to Love: An American Family
, Frank Schaeffer writes: “I support the right of gays to marry and have supported it loudly earning myself hate mail from religious extremists who regard me as a traitor to my Evangelical roots. What I needed to change wasn’t my official beliefs but the non-rational cancer of prejudice inculcated into me by the Bronze Age biblical mythology I was raised on.”
“The Canonical Tradition of the Orthodox Church
”. This article is also listed in Mr. Shingledecker’s bibliography, but he apparently disagrees with the professor’s views.
Canon 102 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod reads: “Those who have received from God authority to bind and to loose must take into consideration the quality of the sins, and the willingness and readiness of the sinner to return, and thus offer a treatment suited to the sin in question, lest by employing an immoderate adjustment in one direction or the other, they fail in compassing the salvation of the one ailing. For, the diseases called sin are not simple affairs, but, on the contrary, various and complex, and they produce many offshoots of the injury, as a result hereof, the evil becomes widely diffused, and it progresses until it is checked by the power of the one treating it. So that a person who is professing the science of treating ailments as a spiritual physician ought first to examine the disposition of the sinner, and ascertain whether he tends to health or on the contrary provokes the malady to attack him by his own actions; at the same time bearing in mind that he must provide against any reversion, and considering whether the patient is struggling against the physician, and whether the ulcer of the soul is being aggravated by the application of the remedy; and accordingly to mete out mercy in due proportion to the merits of the case.
“For all that matters to God and to the person undertaking pastoral leadership consists in the recovery of the straying sheep, and in healing the one wounded by the serpent. Accordingly, he ought not to drive the patient to the verge of despair, nor give him rein to dissoluteness and contempt of life, but, on the contrary, in at least one way at any rate, either by resorting to more extreme and stringent remedies, or to gentler and milder ones, to curb the disease, and to put up a fight to heal the ulcer for the one tasting the fruits of repentance, and wisely helping him on the way to the splendid rehabilitation to which the man is being invited. We must therefore be versed in both, i.e., both the requirements of accuracy and the requirements of custom. In the case of those who are obstinately opposed to extremities we must follow the formula handed down to us, just as holy Basil teaches us outright.” (emphases mine)
Dr. Lewis Patsavos, “The Canonical Tradition of the Orthodox Church
Op. cit., p. 28-29.
Patsavos, op. cit., pp. 20-21.