HOLY FATHER (AN EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN LOOKS WEST) PART 3
by Timothy Flanders, Pater Noster
November 26, 2012
So I began learning again. I spoke to Catholics themselves this time, and listened to how they understood their own faith. I met a learned Catholic online who stated that “I have never met an Orthodox Christian online or in person who actually understands the Catholic faith.” In the name of Christian unity I took him up on that, and we began to correspond. I began to uncover the massive army of Catholic straw men which Orthodox polemics were fond of conquering. It quickly became clear how deeply we had misunderstood (often intentionally!) Catholic doctrine, and not allowed it to speak for itself. Purgatory. Indulgences. “Satisfaction.” “Merits.” Immaculate Conception. How many of these things had I dismissed without any wisdom? The Righteous Man was opening me. In no wise speak against the truth; but be abashed of the error of thine ignorance. ((Sir. 4:25))
I began reading again. I read The Early Papacy and Adrian Fortescue and Russia and the Universal Church by Vladimir Soloviev. Both of these authors deeply understood the Orthodox critique of Catholicism. Both of these authors radically altered my perception of the Church. Fr. Fortescue, while affirming the authority of Holy Tradition, also convinced me of the necessity of a living authority. It was a new concept I had never before considered:
To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority. It is a far worse criterion for religion than the old Protestant idea of the Bible only. We say that it is impossible for a plain man to make up his own religion out of the sixty-six (or seventy-three) books…written at different times, and not specifically for his difficulties now. It is even more obviously impossible if to these you add about a hundred volumes of Migne [i.e. the Church fathers]. All these methods of taking some early documents, whether the Bible or the Fathers, and making them your standard, mean simply a riot of private judgment…Good and learned men…disagree as to what the early Fathers believed…as much as they disagree about the teachings of the Bible. The only possibly real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents. ((Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy, 22ff. and n2))
I was deeply moved in my spirit by this appeal to a “living authority.” This idea was revolutionary in my mind. I was open to it because I had tasted the joy of obedience to the priests in the Orthodox Church. But it also made sense to me historically, for the Church as a whole. During the period of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Orthodox Catholic Church responded to heresy by calling a universal council and defining dogma explicitly and exactly. Orthodox doctrine is the answer to heresy, and it claimed obedience: the decrees were sent to all the churches for them to obey. ((Acts 16:4)) Could this living authority—the Papacy with the Ecumenical Council—be that which humbles and unites all? Was this not the work of the Righteous Man calling all to obedience to wisdom?
The Orthodox Christians around me were condemning Rome as heresy because of the Papacy, filioque, and other such things (the list is longer or shorter depending on who you talk to). But I realized something: it didn’t add up. If the filioque is a heresy, then what is the Orthodox doctrine of the Holy Spirit? They respond and say “The Orthodox Church teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.” Yes, this is the doctrine of St. Photios. But do you not know, oh my brother, that St. Gregory of Cyprus has a different doctrine? Does the Council of Blechernae (1285) represent the Orthodox doctrine of the Holy Spirit? Is it ecumenical? Why or why not? They respond, “We’re not sure which one is Orthodox, but we know the filioque is heresy.” But tell me, oh my Christian brother: if I cannot find which is the Orthodox dogma, how can I be an Orthodox Christian?
Further, in the local councils (at Jassy and Jerusalem) which responded to Protestantism, according to Kallistos Ware, “one does not find the Orthodox tradition in its fullness.” ((Ware, 99)) These canons were later modified because of their western influence. Which dogma, then, is the Orthodox dogma? If the council was modified, on what grounds? If it was accepted, on what grounds? If I claim that, for example, Aquinas’ transubstantiatio doctrine is the Orthodox one (since it was affirmed by Jerusalem, 1672), what will an Orthodox Christian tell me? “No, it’s a mystery. We don’t believe in that western scholasticism.” Why not? Because the current view rejects it? The ‘current view’ once accepted the Immaculate Conception, but now does not. ((Sergei Bulgakov flatly states, “The Orthodox Church does not accept the Catholic dogma of 1854” (Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, 117). On what grounds does he make the claim that the Orthodox Church “does not accept” this or that? Which authoritative council or which consensus said so? On the contrary, Kallistos Ware admits that “in the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine…at any rate approach close to it; but since 1854 the great majority of Orthodox have rejected [it]” (259). Moreover, the preeminent Orthodox scholar (and Catholic convert) Lev Gillet believed it, and published a solid study documenting its teaching by such greats a St. Photios and St. Gregory Palamas (which can be accessed here: http://eirenikon.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/the-immaculate-conception-and-the-orthodox-church-1/). Orthodox scholar Laurent Cleenewerck writes with characteristic erudition and irenicism: “There are many Orthodox Christians who make the sweeping statement that this Roman Catholic belief is a heresy ‘flatly rejected’ by the Orthodox Church. When asked to point to a local or Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church to justify this assertion, they reluctantly have to admit that there is no such authority—only one’s very private opinion” (His Broken Body, 45). Unfortunately Cleenewerck’s words can be applied to many Orthodox assertions of Latin ‘heresies’)) The “consensus” once condemned the murder of life-creation, but now does not. ((Commonly known under the euphemism “contraception.” See this erudite study by Taras Baystar: http://www.orthodox-christianity.com/2011/11/orthodoxy-and-contraceptiona-change. As far as I know, no Church father ever taught that deliberately killing life-creation is acceptable. The most allowed is natural birth prevention, by abstinence.)) What of the biblical canon? What is the Orthodox canon? The Council of Jerusalem affirmed the Apocrypha but St. Philaret’s catechism denies these books canonical status. “It is mystery,” I am told, “the Church works by consensus. You can’t hope for some papal responsa. Nothing is defined so exactly like the Papists, that’s what makes Orthodoxy beautiful.” ((Sergei Bulgakov writes in The Orthodox Church “The finished character of a religious system does not always proceed from an interior maturity, but sometimes from the fact that everything in it has been hastily forced into the shape of serviceable formulae. This makes things easy for the weaker brethren but it fetters the Christian spirit, for this spirit is ever striving onwards and upwards” (130). What does “onwards and upwards” mean exactly? How is this ambiguous statement to be understood in light of the Ecumenical Councils’ precise definitions? Do these “fetter the Christian spirit”?))
But tell me, oh my Christian brother, have you never read how “the 318 fathers of Nicaea…the 150 fathers of Constantinople…the 600 fathers of Chalcedon” defined indefatigably that “this [and not that] is the faith of the Fathers! The Faith of the Orthodox! The faith that has established the universe!” ((From the proclamations of the Sunday of Orthodoxy)) If the Orthodox Church fails to articulate exactly (just as the Ecumenical Church did) what Orthodox doctrine is and what it is not, then what can we say concerning the claim that the Orthodox Church alone constitutes the true Church?
Then Soloviev’s thundering words rang resoundingly clear to me:
Why has not the East set up a true ecumenical council in opposition to those of Trent or the Vatican? How are we to explain this helpless silence on the part of Truth when faced with the solemn self-assertion of Error?…while the great assemblies of the Church continue to fill a prominent place in the teaching and life of Catholicism, it is the Christian east which has for a thousand years been deprived of this important feature of the Universal Church, and our best theologians, such as Philaret of Moscow, themselves admit that an ecumenical council is impossible for the Eastern Church as long as she remains separated from the West. But it is the easiest thing in the world for our self-styled Orthodox to confront the actual councils of the Catholic Church with a council that can never take place and to maintain their cause with weapons that they have lost and under a flag of which they have been robbed…Either we must admit, with our extreme sectarians [i.e. the Old Believers], that since a certain date the Church has lost her divine character and no longer actually exists upon earth; or else…we must recognize that the Universal Church, having no organs of government or representation in the East, possess them in her Western half. ((Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church, trans. Rees (London: Centenary Press, 1948), 49, 50))
I came to realize that the claim that the Orthodox Church was united was a fiction. While the Orthodox condemn the ecclesiology of Rome, our best theologians cannot replace it with something better. “Orthodox theology has not yet built up a systematic doctrine on Church government.” ((Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff, “The Church Which Presides in Love,” in The Primacy of Peter, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 92)) But if the alleged ‘heresy’ of the Papacy was condemned, what is the Orthodox answer? An honest look at the history of post-1054 Eastern Christianity will prove that there is no oriental answer. Are the Palamite councils of the 14th century ecumenical and thus infallible? Why is that? Is it because at this time the Orthodox Sees were under Muslim domination, and thus the divine authority of the Imperial capital held sway? And after the fall of Constantinople, why did Moscow assume its primacy on political grounds at the Stoglav Sobor of 1551? And why is the council of 1666 not considered ecumenical, since it was convoked by the Emperor and included all the other Patriarchates? But it repudiated Stoglav and excommunicated millions of Russian Old Believers as heretics. My brother will say: “These things work by consensus, why are you getting so legalistic? That’s the western legalism talking.” But tell me, oh my Christian brother: did not the councils enact canons? Is not canon law the norm of the Church praxis? And if you speak of consensus, why then is the council of Chalcedon ecumenical? Or Ephesus? It was rejected by millions of Christians in Egypt, Armenia, Syria, and the whole of Asia into China. Where does consensus start, and where does it end?
Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow
From 1700-1917 Russian bishops were condemning as uncanonical the abolition of the Patriarchate by the Czar while the rest of the Orthodox churches (dominated by Turk-appointed Greeks) affirmed its canonical status. The whole of Bulgaria was in schism and heresy from the (Greek) Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem for three generations, while in communion with Russia, by far the greatest Orthodox church. ((This is the Bulgarian schism, which lasted from 1870-1945)) All the while, since 1453, the See of New Rome has accepted the self-aggrandizement given him by the Turks (in which all other sees were forcibly ruled by Greeks) and then in the 19th century each church, one by one, rebelled against him and created their own ‘canonical’ autocephalism. Again, on what grounds?
Rather, as the Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas writes, the Orthodox communion continues to suffer from “autocephalism” as something like an ecclesiological heresy,
As a result [of which], relations among the ‘sister churches’ tend to resemble more and more the relations between sovereign states, all the more so as a strong dose of nationalism (condemned in 1872 as “phyletism,” which paradoxically all unanimously denounce as a heresy and many, at the same time, profess it in practice) is mixed with this notion of “independence.” ((See his essay “Primacy in the Church: An Orthodox Approach” in Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church (ed. Puglisi), 129))
I discovered, moreover, that the Orthodox chronology usually given (that the schism began in 1054, for example), was actually itself a Greek suppression of Orthodox history. No one tells the story of Patriarch Peter of Antioch opposing the wicked intrigues of Michael Keroularios, who impiously desecrated the Blessed Sacrament because it did not contain yeast. No one mentions that the sack of Constantinople in 1204 was instigated by a Byzantine prince! Or, as the Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has it,
I eagerly await the day when the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a gesture of unqualified Christian contrition, makes public penance for the brutal mass slaughter of the metic Latin Christians of Byzantium – men, women, and children – at the rise of Andronicus I Comnenus in 1182, and the sale of thousands of them into slavery to the Turks. Frankly, when all is said and done, the sack of 1204 was a rather mild recompense for that particular abomination, I would think. ((David Bentley Hart, “The Myth of Schism,” Ecumenism Today (Ashgate, 2006). However, I cannot agree with Hart’s styling the atrocities of 1204 as a “mild recompense.” Nevertheless, his point stands.))
What has happened is that the political foundations of primacy which New Rome (Constantinople), Third Rome (Moscow) and Other Rome (Serbia) have dreamed up and attempted to build, have been the virulent voices which shout down the rest of less-nationalist Orthodoxy. They are filled with an unforgiving spirit, forgetting the words of the Righteous Man, that for this they will not be forgiven. ((Matt. 6:15; If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses)) There are millions of Orthodox who have accepted papal primacy (or at least are amicable to it) and are dismissed as unorthodox by the more nationalist shouts of Greco-Serbo-Russian nationalism. Our patriarchate of Antioch, moreover, was not definitely out of communion with the pope until the 18th century. ((This is documented in Fr. Aidan Nichols study Rome and the Eastern Churches)) As Orthodox scholar Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck put it,
The Orthodox are extremely distrustful of Roman Catholics and would almost like to forget that their calendar and theology is replete with ‘Popes of Rome’ whose teachings about their own authority is better left unmentioned. They also know that accepting a universal ministry of unity and arbitration—something called for by authentic catholic orthodoxy—would jeopardize their nationalistic and ethno-centric kingdoms. Sadly, everyone is trying to look busy doing nothing about it. ((Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, 34))
What this leads to is innumerable schisms based on things like celebrating Christmas on a different date, or nationalist rebellions like the one in Georgia. These self-styled Orthodox strain out the gnat of festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths, and swallow the camel of hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, and factions. ((Matt. 23:24, Col. 2:16, Gal 5:20)) This is the massive division of Orthodoxy. As one Orthodox priest told me once, “We couldn’t organize…a birthday party.”
If we cannot organize a birthday party, how will we speak the truth to a dying world? How could we follow the commandment of our Lord to preach to all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Trinity, if we did not know who to baptize? ((Matt. 28:19)) This is the most troubling thing of all. How can I be sure about very fount of the remission of sins? I was baptized Lutheran, and the Antiochian Church only gave me chrism. Is my baptism valid or not? The Russian Church only chrismates, but Greeks rebaptize (and Mt. Athos will re-do everything). They respond and tell me that “this is only by oikonomia.” But why is this canonical concept of St. Nikodemos the correct one? Was this not a repudiation—in the face of the Arabs finally throwing off the Greek yoke for union with Rome—of the 1484 Constantinopolitan ruling that implied Catholics were still a part of the Church? ((The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation published a fine study on this concept which puts to rest the claim of rebaptism: http://www.scoba.us/resources/orthodox-catholic/baptism-sacramentaleconomy.html. The Greek Orthodox Archbishop Spiridon of America, however, did not like this document and immediately fired all the official Orthodox theologians of the American Consultation. However, one month later he resigned and his successor, His Eminence Demetrios, reinstated all of them.)) Ware says St. Nikodemos is the “indefatigable saint.” ((Ware, The Orthodox Church, 205)) But even Florovsky taught that oikonomia was highly dubious. ((“The ‘economic’ interpretation is not the teaching of the Church. It is only a private ‘theological opinion’, very late and very controversial, which arose in a period of theological confusion and decadence in a hasty endeavor to dissociate oneself as sharply as possible from Roman theology” (Florovsky, “The Limits of the Church,” Church Quarterly Review, 1933).)) I could see the folly in a Church without a living authority.
These two commands of Christ [Mk. 16:16], which must be fulfilled, the one, namely, to teach, and the other to believe, cannot even be understood, unless the Church proposes a complete and easily understood teaching, and is immune when it thus teaches from all danger of erring. In this matter, those also turn aside from the right path, who think that the deposit of truth such laborious trouble, and with such lengthy study and discussion, that a man’s life would hardly suffice to find and take possession of it; as if the most merciful God had spoken through the prophets and His Only-begotten Son merely in order that a few, and those stricken in years, should learn what He had revealed through them, and not that He might inculcate a doctrine of faith and morals, by which man should be guided through the whole course of his moral life. ((Papa Pius XI, Mortalium Animos (1928), 8))
I had believed in the authority of the Ecumenical Council for the Church. Now I saw the necessity for the Papacy for the first time—at least in theory. But I was not going to trust my own judgment again. I was going to follow the wisdom of the Saints. Did they teach Papal primacy, supremacy, and infallibility? He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm. ((Prov. 13:20)) I prayed to the Righteous Man to grant me humility and wisdom.
Source: Pater Noster (Wordpress)
Used with permission.
Source: Pater Noster (Wordpress)
Used with permission.