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The Verbal Icon of Christ

adapted from a 18 May 2021 posting 

on the Glory to God for All Things blog by Father Stephen Freeman


Any number of times, the late Father Thomas Hopko recounted how his predecessor as Professor of Dogmatics at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, Serge Verhovskoy, extracted an oath from him prior to signing off on his assuming that positon.  The oath was straightforward: never to present his own opinion as the dogma of the Church.   

If you’ve ever listened to any of Father Tom’s lectures – something I highly recommend – you’ll note how careful he always was to distinguish between what he himself thought and what was, in fact, the dogmatic faith of the Orthodox Church.       With the former, you could disagree.  With the latter, we could only listen and seek to understand. His was one of the earliest voices that I turned to in my formation.   It was a healthy distinction to have drilled into my consciousness. As time goes on, and I have taken my place among Orthodox writers who publicly write and speak about the faith, it is something that stays with me.   Indeed, I have often made the criterion of my work even tighter:   I try to confine myself to those few things that I actually know.

For it is certainly the case that dogma itself is a reality, not a mere fact.   It can easily be mishandled even when it is accurately quoted.  To know something requires an embodiment and a facility that requires time and patience.   To teach “dogma” (which is a good word for me) requires that it form and shape our life.   For dogma, according to Father Georges Florovsky, is a “verbal icon of Christ.”  It’s little wonder that my range of topics is so limited.

Within Professor Verhovskoy’s admonition is the heart of the Eastern Christian mind.   For one, it is a recognition that our private opinions only have relative merit.  The dogma of the Church, however, is a reality to be embodied and guarded in the manner of the Church’s sacraments.  Because it is a verbal icon of Christ, it is greater than we are.   We do not manage it or alter it.   At the same time, because it is a verbal icon of Christ, it frequently transcends our understanding.  Thus, when we speak of it, there should be a reverence and a wonder that signals its nature to others.

Secondly, Verhovskoy’s admonition directs our attention to ourselves in a healthy manner.  What do I actually know? Of what value are my opinions? There should always be a “lightness” that surrounds our private opinions and a willingness to be self-critical.  The tradition speaks of “sobriety” (nepsis) that would include such a critical approach to our private thoughts.

This second aspect of the admonition applies as well to how we handle that which is given to us (dogma).   That is true (factually) does not make it timely, or appropriate.  In the Divine Liturgy, the Nicene Creed is introduced with these words:

“Wisdom!  Let us attend!  Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided!”

I believe it to be the case that the Creed is not rightly confessed (or believed) except it is done with love for one another. Indeed, how can we confess the mystery of God (who is love) if we do not have love?

We live in a so-called information society.   It is a model that has grown alongside the computer revolution.  The ability to access information of a very wide range within a short amount of time gives the illusion of knowledge.   My children and I joke about our ability to “do anything” so long as you’ve got a YouTube video to guide you.   Such information certainly augments our abilities, but it cannot teach the mastery that comes with repeated, hands-on experience.  Watching someone do something and doing it yourself are two very different things.   The first is mere information.   The second often requires the acquisition of a kind of knowledge that transcends information.

When I have taught classes for inquirers in the Faith, I often use the image of learning to ride a bicycle.   It is something that could be discussed and analyzed, even described in terms of physics.  Nevertheless, to actually ride a bicycle requires get on (and falling off) any number of times.   Then, when it has been mastered it is impossible to actually tell someone else how to do it.  It is not a form of knowledge that easily translates into “information.”

I often think that the famous Orthodox answer to certain questions, “It is a mystery,” comes from this kind of knowledge.   It is not a statement that means. “I don’t know,” but rather, “I know, but there are no words for it.”

The fragmentation of Christianity over the past half-millennium has seen the migration of authority from institution (Church, priesthood) to the individual (private opinion).   At the same time, human beings have experienced an inner fragmentation in which we are ourselves living with any number of inner contradictions.  The increase in information has not resulted in greater knowledge, as such.  If anything, it has largely served to clutter the inner landscape of our lives with shifting opinions, uncertainty, and the unbridled energies of the passions.

Knowledge is a state of being.  It is transformative.   When we acquire true knowledge (not just information) it is a form of participation in that which we know.  Christ said:   “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [John 8.32].

This is not a promise that he will provide “actionable information.”  Rather, as we continue in his word [keep his commandments], the truth that abides in his commandments works within us to form and shape true knowledge.   That knowledge is transformative, imparting to us a divine liberty which is the very life of God.

All of this forms the content of the teaching of “dogma” (the verbal icon of Christ).  It is the formation of disciples and the transformation of the heart.   The “smartest” student in the class might well dominate the acquisition of information, while failing to grasp even the simplest aspect of dogma itself.  Dogma is acquired by the heart rather than reason.

Verhovskoy’s admonition to Father Tom was not a concern for the mere correctness of information.   It was rather a question of Father Tom’s willingness to serve the ministry of a professor of dogmatics.   That is a position that, formally, few will ever hold.   It is, however, at the very heart of the teaching ministry of the priesthood itself.  Christianity is not constituted by a body of information. It is constituted by our participatory communion in the life of God.   Holy Dogma is a verbal icon of that life.  Its truth, acquired as a way of life, will make you free.