ORTHODOX CATECHISM TOPICS
By: Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos
PhD. of Theology, PhD. of Philosophy
Man can have the feeling of the presence of Divine Grace in his life, i.e. he can have spiritual experiences. Holy Scripture, however, recommends to the faithful: "Beloved, do not believe in every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God". It further underlines that many false prophets have come into the world and it further shows ways in which one can judge and discern the spirt of truth from the spirit of error, i.e. the genuine from the counterfeit experiences (I Jn 4, 1-6).
It must be emphasized at the outset, that Holy Scripture does not place experience at the centre of our interests, nor does it elevate it to something absolute. Faith in Jesus Christ, and not personal experience, is placed at the centre of the Christian confession. This confession differentiates the Christian Church from the Hebrew Synagogue; whosoever confessed Christ was thought to have denied the Jewish Synagogue; and was declared an outcast from it (Jn 2, 22. 12,42). The Christian's experience is modified by this confession [of Jesus Christ] and is not independent of it (Rom. 10,9). The confession of faith is not the result of experience, but exactly the opposite: experience is acquired in unity with the confession and the life of the Church; these two factors also modify and determine the genuiness of the spiritual experience. In this way the Orthodox Christian is not in danger of falling into subjectivity and error, through personal experience.
The Apostle Paul does not base the gospel which he preaches on his own individual experience, but on the experiences of others: Peter's, that of the twelve, that of the five hundred, James' and the rest of the Apostles. He refers to himself as the last of all; he says, "last of all, as one untimely born, he appeared also to me", in order to add further along that he is what he is through the Grace of God. " Whether, then it was I, or they," he concludes, "so we proclaim and so you come to believe" (I Cor. 15 1-11). He does not severe himself from the Church, nor does he base himself on his own personal experience, which he does not even emphasize.
The content of the faith, then, is neither conditioned nor shaped by each one's personal experience, but is handed down and is received in the Church (I Tim. 6,20. II Tim. 1,14. 2,2. Jude 3). " As the prophets saw, as the apostles taught, as the Church received, as the teachers dogmatized...as the truth was proven.. .so do we believe, so do we speak, so do we declare" (the Seventh Ecumenical Council).
That the content of the faith constitutes the norm and standard by which the genuiness of the experience is measured, can be seen in the example of St. Thomas for whom, like the Jews, "the sign", the experience of the miracle, had paramount significance. This, however, is overcome by the words of Christ: "Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe", i.e. blessed are those who do not base themselves on their own personal experience (Jn 20, 28-29).
Another "measure and standard" for determining the authenticity of experience is the obedience to Christ's teachings; the Apostle underlines that he who violates and does not abide in the teachings of Christ "does not have God" (II Jn.,9). The entire spiritual life of the believer is understood of course as life in the Holy Spirit, as a gift of the Holy Spirit which is the fruit of God's love. As we have already mentioned, gifts of God which are an offering of love, presuppose the complete acceptance of this love on man's part. Man proves his deep desire to accept God's love by offering to Him his complete love; he must humble his mind, his flesh, together with his passions and desires and offer his entire self to God (Matth. 22,37. Rom. 5, 1-2. Gal. 5,24). God accepts this offering and with His Grace He sanctifies and transforms the labours of humble man into gifts of the Holy Spirit which are joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and above all, love (Gal. 5, 22-23), the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit. Without this total humility on man's part, spiritual experiences are not granted; and if they do exist, the do not come from the spirit of God (James 4, 6. I Peter 5,5).
The experiences of the saints in Jesus Christ have all the characteristics which we have mentioned. They were experiences of the Church and not of individuals. Consequently, all those who put forth spiritual experiences and "signs" without the characteristics that we have mentioned accompanying them have been deceived by the spirit of error. Such false experiences are already known from the Old Testament, and indeed appear outwardly as being similar to the genuine experiences (Ex. 7, 10-11; 20-22. 8, 18). Christ Himself informed us that false messiahs, false teachers and false prophets would work "signs" in order to bring about confusion and to deceive even the elect, if possible (Matth. 24, 24-25. cf. Rev. 13, 12-18).
The Apostle Paul informs the Christians of Corinth that the reference here is to false apostles and "deceitful workers" who disguise themselves as Apostles of Christ, just as Satan "transforms himself into an Angel of Light". It is not surprising then, the Apostle concludes, if the Devil's servants also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds! (II Cor. 11, 13-15).
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH Its Faith, Worship and Life
Rev. Antonios Alevisopoulos, Th.D., Ph.D
Translated by Rev. Stephen Avramides
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