The Holy Fathers
from Order of Creation/Order of Redemption
Michael Azkoul, publ. Orthodox Research Institute, 2007, pp. 19-22.
Republished on our website with permission of the author.
"Following the holy Fathers.. ." is a pledge the Orthodox Church has never failed to keep. She has never failed, whether by treatise or encyclical or Canon, in theology or spirituality, to proclaim her allegiance to them. They are an authority, not a resource. She accepts them as "new prophets," not as philosophers. Their writings and sermons, art and music, canons and spirituality are not valued as personal speculations, but as inspired witness to the Faith inherited from the Apostles. The Church speaks of each generation of Fathers as having received their beliefs from their predecessors, and they go back to the time when the she received them from the Savior. The Fathers preserved and defended the Christian heritage, testifying to the history of sacred teachings as revealed by God and passed to every generation of Orthodox under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.(13
On this account, the Church believes them. We might otherwise love and admire the Fathers merely for their piety. And if they had left us their personal Scriptural interpretations to study, we might fairly insist that our own exegesis of the Old and New Testament was as good, even more so because we have scientific methods of inquiry not available to them. If our biblical insights agreed with theirs, it would be a happy coincidence, and perhaps increase our confidence in them. Thankful as we might be to them, we might, nevertheless, follow our own light. Of course, we might concede that since they lived closer to the time of the Apostles, their opinions are owed a certain deference; but beyond that advantage, their theological achievements were really no better than our own.(14)
But the Church does not characterize her attitude to the Fathers in this way. Their knowledge of the Faith comes from a higher Source than philosophy, archeology, criticism and comparative literature. She does not think of them as speaking to one generation alone, but to all times, to all societies, to all men, until the Return of Christ. Thus, what they taught is "delivered" to the next generation of Orthodox not as personal speculation, the case, if what they taught did not originate with the Apostles, there would be no "faith of our Fathers." In other words, their witness must have the same the authority among twenty-first century Orthodox as it had in the beginning, and shall have to the end. If not, then, the writings of the Fathers would have no religious obligation on us; and we would be free to think that it is not on them who bequeathed to us; neither would we have the solemn duty to safeguard the gospel for our posterity, etc. In that case, Tradition would be a patchwork of doctrines mandatory upon no one. Then, the Councils, which endorsed their teachings, would likewise provide us with no assurance of their credibility. In as much as the Scriptures are the literary transcription of Holy Tradition, they too would lose their authority, aside from the fact that its books would offer the same sort of exegetical dilemma for Orthodoxy as they always have for Protestantism. Under these circumstances, there would indeed be no "essential grounds" against the ordination of women to the Church's priesthood or episcopate.
It is clear from patristic teachings that they offer a common reply on the place of women in the Church. There is not a single Father who entertains the idea of women priests. They follow the teachings of the Apostles and the Lord Himself: they saw the absence of women from the priesthood as the Will of God, not societal discrimination nor male perfidy, nor "a fossilized traditionalism."
Speaking for the Fathers, St. Epiphanius of Salamis declared, "Never, anywhere, has any woman acted as priest for God, not even Eve... Even after her fall she was never so audacious as to lay her hand to an undertaking so impious as this; nor did any of her daughters ... Many men in the Old Testament offered sacrifices, but nowhere had a woman exercised the priesthood (hierissas prosetaxe)." There is nothing in the worship of Old Israel to permit it.(15) Also, in the New Testament Church, he continues, "no woman was ever permitted to canonically (kanonikon) perform liturgical acts." "Never has a woman been appointed priest or bishop." (16) He describes priestesses as "a new myth."(17) To be sure, St. Epiphanius and the other Fathers and ecclesiastical writers did not always describe women in flattering terms, but this practice was a pastoral stratagem rhetorical exaggerations to teach women humility. Jews and pagans received the same treatment. To my knowledge, the holy Desert Mothers never raised the question of the female gender in the priesthood.
13. For example, Madam Behr-Sigel maintains that the Cappadocian Fathers and St. Maximus the Confessor are "the true founders of the doctrine of humankind in Orthodox theology. They strenuously affirm the ontological unity of mankind beyond the distinction between men and women, according to the order of creation (The Ordination of Women..., p. 2). The Fathers arewitnesses to the Apostolic Tradition, not the makers of it.
14. If it is correct that the title of "Father of the Church" is applied to Christian writers with the four qualifications orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical sanction, and antiquity there are many writers (Tatian, Origen, Clement, Tertullian, etc.) to whom the appellation "Father" does not apply, if only because their inclusion must abrogate any notion of a patristic consensus (see J. Tixeront, Handbook ofPatrology. Trans. by S. A.Raemers. St. Louis, 1951, p. 2). Too many theologians lack "orthodoxy of doctrine" (Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, etc.). The qualification of "antiquity" would exclude St. Gregory Palamas, St. Mark of Ephesus, St. Gennadius Scholarius, etc. There are very few Fathers who have received "ecclesiastical sanction." In any case, it is the Church that decides who speaks for her.
15. Pan..LXXIX, 2 PG 42 741B.
16. 3, 744D.
17. 4, 745B.
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