Reasons not to be Eastern Orthodox #237: "Aerial Toll Houses"

Discussion in 'Non-Anglican Discussion' started by Stalwart, May 18, 2021.

  1. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

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    So "aerial toll houses" is a nearly forgotten EO doctrine, that's become recently re-popularized in Eastern Orthodox circles over the last 50-60 years. I have a deep background in Eastern Orthodoxy, and if I ever needed more reasons for why to avoid them, this would be a big one (but far from the only one).

    According to the doctrine of "aerial toll-houses", after a person's death, his soul flies up, and as it's flying around in the sky, it starts to get get interrogated by demons; eg. at "the toll-house of dishonesty", the demons show the soul all his instances of dishonesty; but his angels defend him with the good works that he'd done. Then the soul continues flying around in the sky, on its way up to heaven, until it arrives at another toll house, eg. "the toll-house of uncharitableness", where again the demons accuse him of that sin, and the angels provide counter-arguments. And thus, as the soul continues to fly up to heaven, it flies around all over in the atmospheric sky, above us, visiting these various toll-houses, until it finally clears them, and goes "up", "into heaven".

    Now just to be clear, this is not some pious legend, but a hardline doctrine, and an absolute marker of orthodoxy for them. And yet it's literally so un-biblical and ludicrous, that I could hardly believe it when I first heard it. David Bentley Hart put it this way:

    "it is often taken as depressing evidence of how radically the public intellectual culture of Orthodoxy in America has degenerated in recent years—how, that is, it has declined from the urbane, scholarly, perhaps slightly Mandarin sophistication of the generation of Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff to the fundamentalist, doctrinaire, and yet deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold—than the increasing respectability of the myth of the aerial toll houses"

    He explains that behind this doctrine is a primitive medieval cosmology of the heavens, rather than anything from Scripture or Revelation:

    "At one time, the notion that every soul, once it has departed this world, is conducted by angels through a gauntlet of twenty stations situated in the atmosphere above, in each of which it is arraigned by demonic prosecutors for sins committed in life, and from which it may proceed onward toward heaven only if it can produce a compensatory “toll” of evidence of good deeds (for want of which, it will be dragged down to hell), was at most a fragment of quaint folklore, found in this country only among marginal eccentrics, like Seraphim Rose. After all, it seems like such an embarrassingly puerile picture of things; if nothing else, it obviously hearkens back to ages in which the physical universe and the spiritual order of reality were more or less indistinguishable from one another"
    "... It may well be patently absurd to confuse the soul’s journey to God with an actual cosmic itinerary—and that through a Ptolemaic universe"

    But more importantly, Hart shows that the very idea of aerial toll-houses itself got embedded in Eastern Orthodoxy from an original gnostic heresy:

    "Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses, for example, abounds in curious descriptions of “gnostic” variants of the tale. Especially bizarre to us now, perhaps, are its reports of sects that thought it necessary for the elect to memorize certain secret words or phrases that would win them passage through the spheres of the archons, or for the faithful to impart such words to the spirits of the dead as they began their ascent (see, for instance, AH 121.5). But, bizarre or not, the reports are accurate. We find them confirmed in a great number of “gnostic” literary remains, such as the Second Book of Jeu (52) in the Berlin Codex, or The Apocryphon of James in the Nag Hammadi Corpus (NHC V.3.32.29-35.25). We know from Origen also that a number of sects (the Ophites, for example) believed that quasi-magical formulae of this sort permitted the enlightened pnevmatikos to slip past the “gate-keepers” of the planetary realms and the “everlastingly chained gates of the archons” (Contra Celsum VI. 30ff; VII.40). But, setting aside the perhaps vaguely comic notion of liberated spirits traversing the heavens like Prohibition-era tipplers whispering passwords through a series of speakeasy doors, the essential picture—this world as a prison and of salvation as escape through its encircling walls—was very nearly universal."


    But yet this idea continues to be spread, because of Eastern Orthodoxy's "deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold". And here is John Whiteford himself, going on a podcast to serve up the gnostic idea under the guise of "Christian doctrine". He pounds the podium that this must be accepted by everyone, because "The Church is infallible", and to deny aerial toll-houses would mean denying eastern orthodoxy as a whole. I am not kidding, check this out:

     
    Last edited: May 18, 2021
  2. bwallac2335

    bwallac2335 Well-Known Member

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    From, my reading on it I did not think it was dogma at all but something that could or could not be believed. What is your back ground with the EO's
     
  3. bwallac2335

    bwallac2335 Well-Known Member

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  4. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

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    I suppose Whiteford can pound the podium all he likes (or pound sand, for that matter) as he spouts wild ideas, provided the bulk of EO adherents don't buy it. But if they do believe such nonsense, God help them.

    If it's growing in popularity, that growth is an ill indicator of the theological 'temperature' of those folks in general. Sounds like they have their issues! It would be interesting to know what percentage of EO buy into it at the present time.
     
  5. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

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    To my knowledge, this idea never finds expression in the Church’s vast liturgy, which is the ultimate standard of belief and practice. I was advised to steer clear of the concept and I don’t personally know any EO who take it seriously.
     
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  6. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

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    I wished they could just steer clear of it, but both EO priests affirmed this concept as true. And as this pertains to Eastern Orthodox liturgies, Fr. Whiteford was asked, and was able to name a specific EO liturgy where this concept was indeed invoked. Then his logic became ironclad: "if this idea is wrong, then we have to rewrite our liturgies, but that would be impossible because the church is infallible." Ergo.
     
  7. bwallac2335

    bwallac2335 Well-Known Member

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  8. Shane R

    Shane R Well-Known Member

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    Pr. Sullivan discussed the Aerial Toll Houses last month.

     
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  9. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

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    I wouldn't like aerial toll houses. I prefer my toll house cookies on a plate in front of me, not thrown aerially, thank you very much! :D
     
  10. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

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    Arguing with Whiteford is pointless. He’s a fundamentalist with a beard and a robe. Even if the concept occurs in some obscure hymnody or in the Lives of the Saints, that isn’t the same thing as occurring in the liturgy, i.e., the ordinary, set forms said by the priest or the people and addressed to God. I can’t recall a single instance where I heard such a reference.

    That being said, the teaching itself is way beyond bizarre. And apparently based on...nothing. The fact that it’s even a controversy at all is just another indicator of what can go wrong when one has no systematic teaching to rely on. It’s like the reverse of an ad hominem argument: any nonsense can pass for theology as long as it can be attributed to some saint.
     
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  11. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

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    Fr Whiteford would probably call him a heretic for saying that. Which goes to show that the EO don’t actually have a written down body of doctrines (other than what’s in the 7 councils). As long as you follow their liturgy, you could believe almost anything you want.
     
  12. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

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    Another good example of this is the variety of attitudes toward the BVM that one encounters in Eastern Orthodoxy. She is referred to as “Immaculate” and “All-Holy” multiple times in the Liturgy and in the daily prayers. One naturally takes such to be ascriptions of sinlessness. One time when I brought this up, I received a look as though I had just stepped off a rocket ship from Mars, and this person came from a family of clergy. RC converts to Eastern Orthodoxy have no problem continuing to assume the BVM’s sinlessness. Protestant converts often take the same ascriptions as metaphors.
     
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  13. Botolph

    Botolph Well-Known Member

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    The Orthodox are as difficult to pin down as Anglicans. Ask an Orthodox Christian what they believe and you are likely to get the Creed from the 1st Council of Constantinople. As Anglicans we clearly distinguish between that which may be believed, that which must be believed and that which must not be believed, however we are not always clear about what goes where, save that I would hope that we would all recite the Creed of the 1st Council of Constantinople without ambivalence.

    That some Orthodox believe in say 'aerial toll houses' does not mean that all Orthodox do, and does not mean that they believe that this is something that must be believed unto salvation.

    I believe our biggest struggles with Orthodoxy are culture rather than theology. They subscribe to notions of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and they do so in ways that reflect a different cultural context. Anglicanism has been more influenced by the Latin Fathers than the East has been. I think we are theologically East of Rome and Liturgically West of Constantinople.

    The other problem of course is that I don't have enough adjectives to be Orthodox.
     
  14. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

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    The pastor very charitably avoided a feature of this doctrine, that the journey "to heaven" through these toll-houses goes through the literal air, "up through the atmosphere", hence the name, aerial toll-houses. If at least these were spiritual or otherworldly stations, then that would be at least something; but they literally equate going above ground with going into heaven. They would find it hard to deny that a Boeing Jet must be a truly holy place, or that Elon Musk were something close to a messiah.
     
  15. Fr. John Whiteford

    Fr. John Whiteford Member

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    The idea that the Toll Houses are an image of is not just found in an obscure liturgical text here or there. They are found throughout the Fathers of the Church, and throughout the Services.

    Rather than just dismissing the arguments, why don't you actually try engaging them along with the evidence?

    See:

    https://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2019/05/david-bentley-hart-and-toll-houses.html

    And

    https://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2019/05/more-on-question-of-toll-houses.html

    Just for starters.
     
  16. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

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    As amusing as this situation is, I simply don’t have enough interest in the subject to consider whatever “evidence” you’ve assembled on your website. I thought the idea was patently silly when I was Orthodox, and have seen nothing since then to dissuade me from that assessment.
     
  17. Fr. John Whiteford

    Fr. John Whiteford Member

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    It is found taught by the same Fathers who teach the doctrine of the Trinity and correct Christology, like St. Athanasius the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria. But if that is silliness to you, then don't bother.
     
  18. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

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    That might matter if the Church Fathers possessed individual infallibility. As it stands, it doesn’t follow that “if Church Father A was right about x, he was also right about y.”
     
  19. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

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    Father I apologize if I was a bit uncharitable in my prior descriptions, but on this point you mention, the Fathers don't have the charism of infallibility. They are witnesses to Scripture, but it alone is the Word of God. The fathers were no more inspired than you or I. The reason we privilege them above more recent authorities is because they were closer to the time of the apostles, not from any inherent infallibility they brought in addition to the holy Word of God. Even an archeological artifact might have a similar value to the Fathers, in helping us understand God's revealed word. But we wouldn't assign the archeological artifact with any intrinsic merit or Revelation of its own. St. Justin Martyr taught what can be seen as an Arian heresy, but because it was before Nicea, we call him a Saint and cut him slack. He had no infallibility, and nor did St. Athanasius.
     
  20. Fr. John Whiteford

    Fr. John Whiteford Member

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    It's not just the odd Church Father who taught this, however. You find this teaching throughout the Fathers, and in fact it is completely in line with Scripture.