Our Spiritual and Ecclesiastical Crisis (2/3): An Interview with Professor Demetrios Tselengides
Today on The Orthodox Ethos Podcast:
Part Two of our three part Interview with the Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Demetrios Tselengides, in which he addresses:
- The veneration of the Holy Icons and Holy Things in the Temple
- The fear of the Faithful and the faithlessness of fear
- When we must be disobedient to men in order to remain faithful to Christ
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Professor Tselingidis’ depth of knowledge, his education and studies, and his diligent research and labor have made him an internationally renowned academic theologian of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. His most important offering and characteristic, however, is his work’s fidelity to the Holy Tradition and the Deposit of the Holy Fathers, a faithfulness he acquired by following experiential theologians of our day, such as Saints Paisios of Mt. Athos and Ephraim of Katounakia. He considers himself a humble minister, always emphasizing the absolute interrelation of right doctrine with the right way of life, distancing himself from the creation of a sterile and cold academic discourse.
He is the author countless articles and seven books on Dogmatic Theology, covering a wide range of topics, including the theology of the icon, grace and freedom, critical studies of the doctrine of salvation in Luther and the satisfaction of divine justice in Anslem of Canterbury, the Soteriology of Western Christianity, and the presuppositions and criteria of Orthodox Theology. Through his many lectures, articles, and appeals to the hierarchy on pressing ecclesiastical matters such as the Orthodox-Roman Catholic, and Orthodox-Anti-Chalcedonian Dialogues, the documents of the Cretan council, and the Ukrainian schism Professor Tselingides has given much courage and consolation to the faithful.
We come to him once again, during this time of troubles that the Church of Christ is facing, troubles not on account of a virus or pandemic, but on account of the undermining of, and departure from, the Orthodox Identity, Dogma and Ethos.
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The Orthodox Ethos Podcast
Interview with Professor Demetrios Tselengides (part 2)
Archpriest Peter Heers: You spoke earlier about the Holy Icons. What you said made an impression on me. You has said that the matter of the veneration of the Icons is a dogmatic matter. Now that the faithful are not venerating and we hear some saying that it will be forbidden to venerate in the Church because supposedly we may become sick. Can you tell us more about this, as it is an important dogmatic matter?
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Yes. As I had the opportunity in my life to dedicate quite a lot of time to the examination of the Holy Icons, as it was my doctoral thesis, I am especially sensitive to its details, which are completely unknown to those for which it ought not be, that is, to bishops and priests. Not only was it heard, but it is a clear directive, at least in the framework of Greece, for the faithful to avoid venerating icons in order to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Likewise, it was recommended that the faithful not kiss the hand of the priest and to not take antidoron from his hand, but for the faithful to take it on their own.
From the purely spiritual and theological standpoint, this is not simply an error. It is not simply mistaken. There are certain things in our life which are characterized as erroneous, and there are other things which are characterized as criminal. Understood spiritually it belongs in this category. It is, in other words, an act which, when done, for whatever reason, signifies that the person has fallen away from his identity, as a believer. This is very clearly stated in the decisions of the [Seventh] Oecumenical Council: veneration is not a matter of a recommendation or counsel for reasons of piety. Rather, it is entirely necessary, for through the veneration, on the one hand, the relationship of the prototype with the icon is confirmed (that the veneration ascends directly to the prototype), and, on the other hand, that the icon, regardless of the material used, becomes a bearer of the Grace of the Holy Spirit which the one depicted had, whether that is Christ, in which case His divinity is intact, or the Theotokos and each particular saint. Thus, veneration renders us partakes of sanctification. Consequently, it is not a simple religious custom but something absolutely necessary. The veneration of holy relics as well! It is inconceivable for it to be banned, because the relics are the principal bearers of the grace of the saint that bore these holy relics.
Archpriest Peter Heers: All these things are not an attack on some custom or tradition but against the person of Christ, right?
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: In the final analysis, yes, with the pretext of love for man, of wishing to keep him from falling ill. We can understand this in the case of other precautions. It is understandable, it is right; it is the responsibility of the state and of the scientists to tell us these things. But there is a place that should be off limits for them. Even the thoughts alone, even if they be thoughts of the faithful, are blasphemous. They are blasphemous. Namely, that God could defile him! God can neither be defiled nor can He defile.
Consequently, to complete this section, the veneration of the Gospel, of the holy relics, of the precious cross, and of the hand of the celebrant, whether priest or hierarch, has absolutely nothing to do with these measures. Let me dwell a bit on the celebrant. According to the theology of the Church, the celebrant is Christ Himself. The celebrating man, whether priest or hierarch, lends his hands for this procedure. Besides, these very hands are the ones that carried the Lamb (that is when the Lamb was sanctified, when they put it in the holy chalice). That is why we venerate the hand of the celebrant, having the spiritual awareness that we are venerating the hand of Christ, since the celebrant is in the place and type of Christ (εἰς τόπον καὶ τύπον Χριστοῦ). It is spiritually inconceivable for the hand of this specific man to become a carrier of a sickness that he will then transmit.
Of course, this is not imposed. It is a matter of the faith of the one approaching. In no case, however, does any state agency have the right to ban it. Of course, every state can use force, force to the the point of death. That is a given, throughout history. We need to, however …we are saying this here, from the point of view that there must be total clarity within us that, we will do it [listen to the State] not on account of a falsely-posited obedience to an authority overhead, supposing, according to the Biblical word, expressed both by Apostle Peter and Apostle Paul, that we should be obedient to the worldly power. It is said, yes, that we should be obedient, so that there is order in the world, for they are appointed by God, but not for the matters of Faith and the life of the Church. For this the Apostles are appointed.
Archpriest Peter Heers: It is not for Caesar.
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Caesar doesn’t have any place or responsibility. He is exceeding the limits of his power. Therefore, we need to know that the only obstacle to our approaching [the Temple], and Holy Communion, is our sin. Nothing else. And our only excommunication is our lack of repentance. If, in spite of this, we commune and we venerate, not only do we not receive sanctification and blessings, but , on the contrary, we receive the opposite, as the Apostle Paul confirms. Then it is that we can get sick - not by an infectious disease, of course, but He can allow an illness to befall us, or even death!
Archpriest Peter Heers: Ok, here, some say, see, the Apostle Paul says that it is possible for someone to get sick from Holy Communion. So, we cannot say that in the Temple one cannot get sick.
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: There are two different things. First of all, someone who communes of the Divine Eucharist and becomes ill, this is on account of his blasphemy. In other words, it is spiritual. It has nothing to do with the current illness. It is a totally independent form of sickness or even death itself. What was the second question?
Archpriest Peter Heers: That we can get sick in the Temple.
Professor Demetrios Tselengides. Yes, that we can get sick. Yes, we can get sick. We need to clarify matters here, though. I said earlier what things do not, in any case whatsoever, make us sick, that is, do not impart an infectious disease. However, with respect to the existence of another person next to us, with whom we come into contact, the fact that this happens in the church, or happens out on the road, or in a store somewhere, or in a house, it is nearly the same thing. Why? Why is it almost the same thing? Because it does not have to do with our communion with God, but our intercommunion with another person. Of course, a faithful person, who asks God for a spiritual “umbrella,” is made immune to many things.
Archpriest Peter Heers: It is a matter of faith?
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: It is a matter of faith and the freedom of God to allow something. This does not mean that we should take as a given and put God to the test. In the Temple we need to keep in mind that, the devil can be in the Temple. This is important to say. He can be in the Temple. He even goes into the altar. I have testimonies of holy people who told me; that he brings to the thoughts blasphemies, and other things.
Archpriest Peter Heers: In the case where we have given him “rights” to do this?
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Exactly. When we open up the door to him, he can visit us even in the Temple.
Archpriest Peter Heers: So, this does not mean, of course, that the Temple becomes a place of the devil?! God forbid!
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: No! It is the house of prayer, and the house of God. Except that, these do not operate magically, mechanically, automatically. They work only on the basis of the spiritual presuppositions, the spiritual presuppositions. A man not only does not fear, or should not fear, not only sicknesses, but even death itself, and the devil. And this not only when in the Temple, but wherever he might be, if God wishes to protect him. Bring to mind the three youths in the furnace, which was heated sevenfold! (Dan. 3:19)!
Fr. Peter: And how many more saints!
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Yes, so many more saints! St. George in the pit of slaked lime, etc. Therefore, there are some subtle aspects, to which we should give their due importance. They look subtle, but at their base there is the life in the Holy Spirit, which life is not simply piety or simply morality: it is an uncreated power, it is the uncreated Divinity. That is why Christ advised us not to fear anyone. Of course, He will allow them to do some things to our body. He can allow them to so some things; He says as much. They might even lead us to the cancellation of life as a biological entity (always with the permission of Him, of God, that is), but without harming our soul in the least. For this soul we must be always caring and not compromise with any threat, with any fear, not simply of a sickness but even of the cancellation of our life itself.
Fr. Peter: Here I would like to ask one quick question, and after that let’s go to the matter of Holy Communion. But before we go there, please tell us something. Now, if the churches are open and we tell people to come to the churches, there are some that are afraid, who don’t want to come. Attendance is not obligatory, of course. The problem is that we close the doors and exclude even those that want to come to church and who have faith. Right? Some say, “We have to close down for the good of our fellow-man in any case.” They do not make this distinction.
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Look: in the first place, the closing of the churches originates from the health-service’s advice, which the state adopts and forwards on through the Church’s administration, which are the hierarchs. This, however, goes against our ecclesiology. There is no reason, there never has been any reason, that is mentioned in Holy Scripture and our Sacred Tradition, for which the churches should to be closed, with the exception of persecution, of open persecution against us. This is the answer to the one question.
The other question is “What if the faithful are afraid?” If the faithful are afraid, this means that the faithful suffer from faithlessness. Well, this cannot be healed by pills, nor by closing, nor by opening [the churches]. These people must be properly catechized. They must learn that “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” (1 John 4:4). He who is in the world is the devil himself, not simply the sicknesses. Christ told us not to fear even death itself. Let me put it conversely as well. We should even be glad if we are given the possibility of giving a testimony of this faith. I bring to you the apostles as an example. They were imprisoned because, despite being advised by the Jews to stop speaking of the Resurrection of Christ, they continued to do so. So they were imprisoned. By analogy, we would say that they closed the churches. There, they severely threatened them that they would move on to further [punishments], by which they meant death, if the apostles continued [to preach Christ’s Resurrection]. But the apostles did not compromise at all. They said that which we should have well established in our hearts: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In other words, in terms of value, the discipline which the apostles recommended for the sake of accommodating our lives and society in general, this discipline cannot be of higher value than the commandments of God. That’s why the apostles told them, “We can’t do differently. We are obeying God.” What did the Jews then do? They did not kill them, but they beat them and let them go with the threat of more evils if they continued. And what does Scripture also say about them? “they departed … rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name.” (Acts 5:41). What was the shame that they suffered? They were beaten. Note, however, how spiritual men face [difficulties]. Instead of grieving for having been beaten or for whatever other torture, they rejoiced because they gave a practical expression of love and faithfulness to the Lord. This should be our own mindset [phronema] also. But today the evil one uses the confusion that exists among the faithful because things are especially dangerous, since even the ecclesiastical spokesmen, the administration of the Church, have become secularized. [This administration] says things that are in accordance with the worldly mindset. At the same time, in the Church we have the teaching of obeying our ecclesiastical leaders. So, many faithful are terribly confused. In other words, they think that they should be obedient to whatever the ecclesiastical authority says, to the bishop or priest respectively. This, however, is refuted of itself by the example of the apostles that I mentioned. That is, although yes, the Jews were no longer in the Church, in a position to tell them what to do (and so things are harder for us because its our ecclesiastical leaders), but obedience in the context of the Church is not without judgement. That is, it is not done blindly to whatever they tell us. That would have been suicidal, if we accepted that. The evil one would have deceived and overcome us.
Fr. Peter: How many heretics we would have obeyed!
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Exactly. Where would the Church have been led?! Here, with all exactitude, we must define whom we obey. Since in the Holy Scriptures many things are said, which if you look at them independently, autonomously, that is, if you take them by themselves, out of context, you can arrive at very mistaken conclusions, in fact, even that there is no God. If you do not previously say that “The fool said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 13:1) and instead simply say, “‘There is no God’: the Holy Scripture says so!’ then as you can see we would be reading in a manipulative, piecemeal manner. The same is true in the case of obedience. When St. Paul is interpreting this — Forgive me! When St. John Chrysostom is interpreting what St. Paul said (“Obey them that have the rule over you, for they watch for your souls” [Heb. 13:17]), he adds a basic presupposition, which is usually ignored by priests as much as by bishops. He says, “whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,” their way of life (Heb. 13:7). In other words, your obedience cannot be without judgement. You must see to make sure if what they tell you is in accordance with what they do (“considering the end of their conversation,” as he says, imitate their faith — and we are speaking of matters not of everyday life, but of the faith, such as the ones we are discussing). He says that you are not obliged to follow what they are saying if they are not in accordance with what Christ says and what the Church says. A question arises: “Is it possible for the bishops or (in a parish) the priests to be saying things opposite to what Christ and the Church are saying?” I, as a professor of theology, assure you that, yes, it is possible. It doesn’t mean that everyone is doing this, but we must examine whether some are doing it.
Fr. Peter: It’s presupposed that we know our faith.
Professor Demetrios Tselengides: Two things are presupposed. First and foremost, we must be in a state of continual repentance, because repentance realizes our purification. We must live in the mysteries, the sacramental life. That is, our repentance should end up at the priest’s epitrachelion, at a sincere repentance — eh, in a sincere confession, and thereafter at Holy Communion, so that our spiritual sensors, which we received at our baptism, may be healthy, that we preserve them. So, in the case where our spiritual sensors are functioning, it is possible for us to see that a specific leader, even bishops expressing themselves in council, are in error. In other words, we shall this — of course, not arbitrarily. We will then consult men in the Church that have the discernment of spirit, who are theologians. We will ask them if we are seeing clearly. This is a key that keeps us in humility, and then God enlightens both them and us. So! When we see that the aforementioned organs of leadership are in opposition to an express commandment of Christ, we do not obey them. This is not disobedience! It is obedience — to Christ. After all, the objective is always that through them we obey Christ.
The second argument is related to the Church throughout time. That is, there are some sayings of Christ or the apostles which are not very clear. The question of interpretation arose, heretics appeared, and so the Church assembled in Ecumenical Councils, laid down the exact boundaries of truth and condemned falsehood and heresy. When we say “throughout time”, we mean that ever since the Church appeared until today we see an absolute consensus of the Ecumenical Councils, but even when an Ecumenical Council has not concerned itself with a certain topic, there is the consensus patrum. In other words, the Fathers of all the ages, up to our day, that is, the Saints (let not every clergyman consider himself a Father of the Church) — so all these agree with each other.
Now, let’s take the case of the laymen. What shall we do? We need to learn what you said earlier, [namely] “which is this teaching that has this continuity?” And provided that we find, we shall go behind it, “following the Holy Fathers”. We shall be neither beside nor ahead of it, but rather follow it, so as to preserve the condition of humility so that we may have the grace of God in our action, that our manner may not be impudent nor insolent. And we shall say both to the priests and to the bishops, “We are being obedient to what Christ said, as they have been interpreted on this question by the consensus of all the Holy Fathers. That is, we are ‘following the Holy Fathers’. Therefore we are neither rebels nor outside of the Church, even if we be condemned in synod. As long as we keep this continuity, history will prove that this decision was mistaken, even if it be by a council, for it was a council that condemned St. John Chrysostom, (just to name one example, but not only him but so many others). The Church Herself restored him in another conciliar act, etc.
So, in our mind, or rather in our nous, we need to be clear on what we obey and what we do not obey. We obey Christ, also through the hierarchs when (as we ought) we know what was the Church’s phronema, mindset, But if we do not know, we should not consider this ignorance of ours to be deserving of leniency, that is, to be forgivable, but rather it is unforgivable, since we do not know it because we were not interested in knowing it, and because we do not know it by virtue of the darkening that we have, that is, the spiritual darkness, which is a result of our sins. We sin doubly, that is, first, in being darkened, and secondly, in being led to something mistaken.