An Orthodox Magisterium?

Recently I listened to a podcast in which Larry Chapp (a universalist Roman Catholic) interviewed Dr. David Bentley Hart.  In the course of the interview Dr. Hart asserted that, unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy does not have an official and authoritative Magisterium.  By this he meant that Orthodoxy possesses no institutional organ (such as the papacy and the episcopate dependent upon it) that can routinely and authoritatively declare what is or is not the official teaching of the Church when consulted.

The word “magisterium” comes from the Latin word “magister”, meaning “teacher”.  The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is therefore the organ which can and does articulate the official teaching of the Roman Church.  After Vatican I the Magisterium in the Roman Catholic Church effectively collapsed into the papacy, despite the later conciliar refinements of Vatican II.  Bluntly put, whatever the Pope authoritatively declares ex cathedra is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Magisterium is clear and easy to consult.  The pronouncements of popes are easy to find and quite numerous.  Some Roman Catholics may dispute whether this or that encyclical was given ex cathedra, and therefore is or is not a part of the Church’s magisterial teaching, but the basic body of what constitutes Roman Catholic teaching is not in doubt.  The old saying Roma locuta; causa finita est (i.e. “Rome has spoken; the matter is settled”) may not be honoured as fully as in previous times, but there is no doubt of what Roma has locuted.  Like it or not, Roman Catholic teaching is fairly clear.  That is one of the advantages of a church organized around such a central authority.  It is very efficient.

Dr. Hart is correct in asserting that Orthodoxy possesses no comparable organ of authoritative teaching which can declare in the same way what is de fide for the Orthodox as quickly as does the Roman Catholic Magisterium for Roman Catholics.  (Nor, come to that, did the early Church—hence all those messy and sometimes contradictory councils.)

Given Dr. Hart’s determined embrace of universalism and his (muted) appreciation of Gnosticism, it is hard not to conclude that Dr. Hart emphasizes that Orthodoxy has no Magisterium because he would find the existence of authoritative declarations of truth from the past unwelcome.  The Church in the past centuries has declared against universalism and taken a much more jaundiced view of Gnosticism than that of Dr. Hart, and I submit that Dr. Hart finds this uncongenial.  The answer for him therefore lies in declaring that the Church’s settled view about universalism and Gnosticism do not therefore constitute an impediment to his alternate views.  Again, to state it bluntly, Dr. Hart believes that since there is no authoritative Magisterium in the Orthodox Church, he is free as a good and loyal Orthodox to dissent dramatically from the Church’s historical positions.

This leads to the question:  Is there an Orthodox equivalent of the Roman Catholic Magisterium?  Or (put differently) does the Orthodox Church offer authoritative teaching as does the Roman Catholic Church?

In Orthodoxy there is no single source of authoritative teaching (such as the papacy) to which it can resort to find the final and reliable truth in matters such as the full divinity of Christ or the legitimacy of icons.  But that does not mean that the Church does not teach authoritatively or offer a body of truth regarding doctrine and morals.

What then constitutes authority in the Orthodox Church?  The ultimate and only external authority in the Church is Christ Himself.  And Christ reveals Himself through His Body, the Church.  This means that revelation comes in many and varied forms.  The teaching and life that Christ revealed to the apostles (the so-called “good deposit”; see 2 Timothy 1:14) was spread throughout the world.  It can be found in the Scriptures, and in the oral traditions of the Church (such as the tradition of facing east for prayer and of making the Sign of the Cross). It can be found in the consensus of the Fathers, since despite their diversity they share a common core of teaching which ultimately came from the apostles.  This core faith is expressed in the liturgical tradition (including the hymns of the Church), and in the Church’s art.  It is set forth in the decisions and work of the councils which were accepted throughout the centuries as expressions of the Church’s mind and faith (the so-called “Ecumenical Councils”, gatherings which were finally accepted as reliable by the Church throughout the ecumene or world).

In short, the authoritative teaching of the Church can be discerned in the life the Church lives throughout the centuries.  The many aspects of this life—Scripture, oral tradition, liturgy, hymns, art, councils—all converge to teach the same things, and in this convergence we can discern the authoritative truth.

This is, of course, messier than the Roman Catholic model, because it involves the work of discernment.  But it is also less dependent upon a single source, such as insights and decisions of a single bishop.  A single bishop can be wrong (remember Pope Honorius?), but it is unlikely that all the various sources of the Church will be wrong.  If they all point to the same thing, they can be depended upon.  One thinks of the words of G. K. Chesterton, who said that a man is not really convinced of something when he finds that something proves it.  He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it (from his “Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy).  And the Church’s Tradition is not one thing, but many things, all of which unite to provide proof of Christ’s truth.

This means that certain things in the Church’s history do not form a part of her Tradition because they are not in conformity with everything else.  The teaching of what has been called “the Real Presence” of Christ’s Body and Blood is part of the Tradition because it is witnessed to by Scripture, patristic consensus, liturgy, and much else.  Universalism is not a part of the Tradition because it was the minority report of a few whose views were set aside in favour of the majority of the Fathers, the witness of Scripture, Christian hymnography, iconography, and conciliar decrees.  Paraphrasing Chesterton, the Church believes that the terrible reality of an eternal hell is part of the Tradition because everything in its long historical life proves it.

This, then, is the totality of the Orthodox Magisterium.  The usual short form for it is “the Fathers”, a phrase to which councils and later Fathers themselves returned again and again.  The idea is that where a consensus exists among the Fathers (such as regarding the Real Presence) this consensus witnesses to the prior diffusion of apostolic teaching.  How else could the same teaching be found early and everywhere throughout the world among Fathers who are so different from one another?  This consensus finds expression in liturgy, artwork (i.e. icons), hymnography, and sometimes, the work of councils.

When an issue arises needing articulation or clarification, the immediate Protestant response is to ask, “What does the Bible say?”—a response which hides the fact that the Bible is not self-interpreting and so requires a tradition of teaching to interpret it.  The immediate Roman Catholic response is to inquire, “What has Rome said?”  The Orthodox respond by asking, “What do the Fathers say?”  And, as it turns out, the Fathers say rather a lot, and their consensus is usually clear—sometimes and for some people, too clear.  Any attempt at obfuscation in this face of this clarity (usually attempted with as many multi-syllabic words as possible) is futile and unworthy.  Dr. Hart’s suggested alternative might not be a free-for-all like in Protestantism, but it is definitely like playing tennis with the net down.  And, as all the Fathers would remind us, that is not how the game is played.





  1. Thank you Fr. Lawrence. Very helpful for me personally. I did have to use the Google search tool for the word “obfuscation”.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Lawerence.

    An excellent book on this topic is Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind,” by Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou Ph.D.

  3. Father what a wonderful word. Simple and direct. Thank you.
    I do find Mr Hart’s assertions conratdictive though as all one has to do is attend to one Orthodox Divine Liturgy to realise that Universalism, at least, is NOT part of Orthodox doctrine… I guess he does not ATTEND as we are commanded to do. Gnosticism is not far behind.

  4. Hi Father
    I am wondering why you are picking on DBH, who is a wonderful philosopher(although he would not claim to be one) as well as one of the most eloquent of Orthodox thinkers ,who is well respected among many academic circles. At least from the many talks I have heard him give, he does not claim to be a theologian or spokesman for the Orthodox Church.He does enthusiastically explore the universalist thread in historical Orthodoxy.Do we simply ignore the Fathers who were universalists and what if the minority report is right?Orthodoxy has many problems to deal with in this modern age and I don’t believe DBH is one of them.He is another shining light among the many of our faith.Glory to God!

    1. I am not “picking on” Dr. Hart, any more than you are “picking on” me. Public lectures invite public response. Your comments and view that Dr. Hart is a “shining light” confirm that responses like mine are still necessary.

    2. Shall we reconsider Arianism, Donatism, or iconoclasm? What if those minority views are right? And yet, I suspect you’ll never reconsider them in the same light as universalism. Why is that?

      And why would God, who guides the Church, let such a doctrine fade away, being a very minority opinion, if it truly is correct? Is He impotent? And if He is impotent in this regard, why believe the church got anything right at all?

      1. The fact that is being discussed in modern times means it has not gone away,I have seen discussions about universalism amongst many denominations.Yes,with greater numbers agreeing on a position does potentially provide more safety.However I don’t think Saints Issac the Syrian,Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor(who leaves the possibility open) can simply be dismissed as inconsequential.Remember,they are Orthodox Saints and I have seen many Orthodox speakers talk about their views and writings, not just DBH.

        1. In a similar way, Augustinian theology is alive and well… in Rome and the Reformers. He’s a saint! Let’s all reconsider whether or not he’s right! The filioque! Predestination! We can’t just throw aside his teachings, right? He’s a saint! Do you not see the faulty foundation on which your arguments are based? Replace ‘universalism’ with ‘filioque’, replace St. Gregory with St. Augustine. And yet, you won’t do that, I’d bet anything! St. Augustine, much as I love him, was wrong on some matters of the faith (he had the humility to admit as much). So were other saints. None of them are infallible. We have a tradition, the Life of the Holy Spirit, to be faithful to.

          Orthodox tradition, the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which rises above ANY father on ANY subject, cannot simply be dismissed as inconsequential. The very fact that you’re dismissing it in light of what one or two Fathers have said is problematic.

  5. 1. Everything is “discussed in modern times”
    2. If everybody is “saved” what is the point, its almost like predestination. There is no need to repent and we can be as cruel as we like. There is neither mercy nor justice.
    3. Repentance allows for both mercy and justice
    4. Then the prayer second to the Lord’s Prayer makes sense: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”
    5. The increasing joy in my life and those around me because of that active mercy makes sense

    The rest is to make us feel important.
    Forgive me, a sinner

  6. Father bless.
    To all of the dissenting views [in support of DBH] above-
    Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose once asked the question:
    ‘Why should we concern ourselves with what is going on in world Orthodoxy; or what this priest-bishop-or patriarch is doing or saying?… isn’t it safer or easier to just occupy ourselves with saying our prayers, going to church – and not think about these things, or subjects, or actions?
    In answer to these statements, we follow the holy elders and Fathers who tell us that “there is a direct relationship between what you believe and how you behave.” We must open ourselves to the wisdom of the God-bearing men of the past – the Holy Fathers who are our key to understanding – whatever we encounter – for in the Holy Fathers we find the “mind of the Church” – the living understanding of God’s revelation.
    They are our link between the ancient texts which contain God’s revelation and today’s reality. Without such a link it is every man for himself – and the result is a myriad of interpretations and sects.
    Let us then try to enter the world of the Holy Fathers and their understanding of the Divinely inspired texts – let us love and respect their writings, which in our confused times are a beacon of clarity which shines most clearly on the inspired texts itself…
    Let us not be quick to think “we know better” than they, and if we think we have some understanding they did not see, let us be humble and hesitant about offering it, knowing the poverty and fallibility of our own minds. Let them open our minds to understand God’s revelation to mankind.’ – Genesis, Creation, and Early Man
    Doxa to Theo, john D
    Father bless.

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