Reflection on Paradox of Orthdoxy
by George Parsenios, PhD
Orthodox and Paradox. The two words have much in common. The "dox" that ends both terms has its root in the Greek word doxa, which means "belief" or "opinion." It will besuggested in what follows that these words share much more than just a linguistic root, but glancing at the root word is a good place to begin. In its later Christian usage, doxa comes to mean "glory," but only as an extension of its much older philosophical meaning, which is "belief." And so, if a doxa is an opinion or a belief, an orthe doxa is a "straight belief," a "correct belief." Likewise, something that is "para doxa," a paradox, is beyond belief. A paradox contradicts what we might commonly believe to be true. And Orthodox theology consistently presents us with things that contradict what we might commonly believe to be true. What is Orthodox is often a Paradox.
For instance, we say that we are monotheists, that we believe in one God. But, as soon as we insist that there is only one God, we turn around and call that God a Trinity. Our God is both 1 and 3. This is a paradox. How can God be both 1 and 3? The early Church was riddled with heresies that tried to smooth out the mystery in this claim and remove the paradox. Opponents of Christianity could easily claim that, if Christians worshipped a Father, a Son and a Holy Spirit, then Christians were no different from the pagan Greeks with their many gods: Zeus, Apollo and Athena. Some Christians responded to this charge by easing the paradox inherent in the Trinity. There is only one God, they would affirm, and sometimes he looks like the Father, sometimes like the Son and sometimes like the Holy Spirit - but he's always the same person who plays these different roles. Orthodox tradition, however, insists that the Trinity is not just one person playing different roles, but three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are always three persons…and yet always One God. In Orthodox theology, the rules of math do not apply. 3 = 1, and 1 = 3. What is Orthodox is a Paradox.
So, too, with Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church insists that Jesus, while on earth, was fully the Immortal God and, at the same time, a fully Mortal Man. He was both. Again, just as with the Trinity, some have found it impossible to believe that the Immortal, Unknowable, Inexpressible God, who created all things, would enter into his creation as a frail, visible, mortal person who would die a shameful death on the cross. And so, two types of heresies arose. For some, Jesus was just a man. A good man, a good teacher, a prophet even, but not God. To others, he was indeed God, but he was not really a man. He looked human and seemed human, but this was only an appearance. He put on humanity like a costume. But as we saw in attempts to understand the Trinity, these teachings about Jesus shattered the paradox of who Jesus was. In both cases, people tried to make him either God or Man, but could not see how he could be both. We will return to this notion of Christ as the God-Man later, to reflect on why he must be seen as both fully God and fully Man. But let us to prepare for that by going in a very different direction for a moment.
For, the connection between the words Orthodox and Paradox applies to more than just our conception of God. Orthodox theology is paradoxical when it thinks about humanity as well. Popular debates about human ethics, sin and morality are often reduced to either/or equations. Recall in the debates about the Trinity, people demanded that God is either 1 or 3, but not both. And Jesus was either God or Man, but not both. So, too here, many people today approach questions of ethics with the same either/or posture.
For instance, there are some who view sin and sinners with so much mercy and tolerance and acceptance that the idea of sin disappears altogether. For these people, to judge or condemn any act at all is unchristian. And they are correct - partly.
Others respond to sin with a call to repentance, and they are so judgmental that the idea of mercy disappears altogether. For these people, to tolerate sin at all is unchristian. And they are correct - partly.
But how can they both be correct? To elaborate on this, we can return to the discussion of Christ as the God-Man. For, the Church Fathers summarize why Christ became human in a very powerful phrase: "God became Man, so that men might be like God." The Immortal God became mortal, so that mortals might be immortal. He who is life entered death, so that the dead might rise to new life. Christ took on our weakness. He became one of us, and tolerated our sins. He had compassion on us when we least deserved it, with mercy and acceptance.
But this is only half of the story. For, the Son of God did not become a mortal human being in order to leave us in our sins. He did not descend to humanity and announce, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and you are fine the way you are." He, rather, opens his ministry when he proclaims, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matt 4:17)". Christ became human in order to raise us beyond our fallen humanity. And so, together with his message of tolerance, is the call to live a new life. His mercy simultaneously demands repentance from sin. God's call to repentance is understood as a form of healing. It is not harsh judgment, but gentle medicine for the wounded sinner. And yet, the sickness is never ignored. The sickness is never permitted to be called health. Thus, mercy and the call to repentance stand side by side.
For many today, the combination here of mercy and repentance is hard to accept. Because of the commitments that we all have to philosophical or psychological or political ideologies, or even just because of the friends we have, we fall to one side or the other of this divide. This is not the Orthodox way, though. Just as in the Trinitarian and Christological debates, what is Orthodox confronts us with a Paradox.
But even more than all of the ways just mentioned, in an even more basic sense, what is Orthodox is a Paradox. For in claiming that we have correct belief, that we are Orthodox, we claim to have the correct teaching about God. But that does not mean
that we know all there is to know about God. We cannot explain God in the way that we explain a math problem: 2 +2 = 4, 2 + 3 = 5. Recall, in Orthodox math, 3 = 1. God is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. He has revealed himself to us, but only a little, in order to save us and draw us to himself. And so, the Orthodox way to understand God is to recognize that we cannot understand God. This is where heresies fall into error. They try to make God accessible. Because the Trinity confronts us with confusing realities, heresies try to soften this confusion, and simplify God. But Orthodox faith, true understanding of God, insists on our imperfect knowledge of God. We know only that we know only a little.
To bring matters full circle, we can return again to the meaning of the word doxa. For we mentioned above that the word gradually comes to mean not only "belief," but also "glory" or "honor." This additional sense of the word leads people to claim that the Orthodox Church is the Church that offers "true glory" or "true worship" to God. This meaning of doxa is helpful to keep in mind, because, as we just said, we cannot know God fully. Since our knowledge of God is incomplete, and since we cannot even begin to approach him, our only posture should be one of honor and praise. True belief (doxa) leads only to the awe-filled praise (doxa) of God. To speak about God is not to speak at all, in silent worship. Again, and finally, that which is Orthodox is a Paradox.
George L. Parsenios is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He completed his PhD at Yale University in 2003, after graduating with an MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1996. The coming months will see the release of his first book, Departure and Consolation, which is a study on chapters13-17 of the Gospel of John. He lives in Princeton, NJ with his wife, Maureen, and their children Nicholas and Julia.