Is Orthodoxy the Same Everywhere?: Understanding Theological Controversy Within the Church


What do we mean when we say that Orthodoxy is the same everywhere?

One of the “features” of Orthodoxy that is commonly put forward especially by converts as proof of the truth of the Orthodox Christian faith is that Orthodoxy is the same everywhere. They may point to the unanimity of liturgical practice, that all Orthodox look to the same councils and patristic sources for exegesis of the Scriptures and theological thought, or that you can hear very similar sermons or at least similar homiletic themes on any given Sunday throughout the Orthodox world.

But are all those things really the same? One might get the impression from some Orthodox Christians that they really are. And one might also get the impression from some critics of Orthodoxy that those who say such things are fooling themselves, that there are major divisions in Orthodoxy that belie her supposed unanimity.

Since this coming Sunday is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which has not only the theme one will hear preached about in most Orthodox churches—the restoration of the icons, which happened historically in AD 843—but also has the theme of the unity of the Orthodox faith (witnessed to by the anathemas against heresy that are sung in some Orthodox churches), I thought it might be useful to reflect here on what the unity of the Orthodox faith really means, at least from my own perspective and experience.

When I first encountered Orthodoxy, I very much believed that Orthodoxy truly was the same everywhere—same liturgy, same theology, same doctrine, same dogma. And in my limited experience, it pretty much was indeed the same. Everyone seemed to be celebrating the same liturgical services (allowing for differences in language and musical style). Everyone talked about salvation as theosis. Everyone said that the Ecumenical Patriarch was “first among equals,” that no bishop was truly higher than any other. Everyone fasted the same way and was serious about fasting to the same degree.

But after I spent a few years in the Orthodox Church, I learned that things like fasting customs actually have some variety to them, and that not everyone was serious even about the tradition that was their own. I even encountered a very large parish where very few people fasted at all, such that those who did were actually referred to by an odd adjectival phrase—they were said to be “on Lent.” I guess most folks were “off” it.

When I went to seminary, my exposure to the variety of Orthodox practice increased significantly. It was there that I learned I was something called “Antiochian,” a term which had been in parentheses on the sign outside my home parish but didn’t really mean much to us overall. I also learned there that Antiochians (and Greeks, who were off somewhere in the wings, apparently, despite being more numerous than all other Orthodox in America put together) did certain things “wrong,” that we were “liberal,” etc. (These things were not taught by professors in class, mind you.)

I also eventually learned that there was something called the “Western Rite,” an entirely different liturgical tradition which differs from just about everything else in Orthodoxy. I’ve subsequently learned that there are folks who hold it up as a major force in Orthodoxy (although it is a very, very tiny number of parishes, really), and there are also folks who think it is a major problem. (I think it’s neither. I have great respect for my Western Rite Orthodox brothers and sisters, few though they be.)

Further, I learned that the current near-unanimity of liturgical practice in Orthodoxy was not the rule for more than a millennium of Church history. We all largely now live in an age in which the liturgical traditions of Constantinople have mostly replaced the native liturgical traditions of most of Orthodoxy. The much-lauded “I can go to liturgy anywhere in the world and figure out what part of the service I’m in” is not the experience of most Orthodox Christians in the history of our Church.

Another thing I learned is that there are ecclesiastical controversies in Orthodoxy. One patriarchate puts a bishop on territory claimed by another. One Orthodox delegation walks out of theological dialogue while others do not. Some churches are willing to participate in the World Council of Churches while others are not. Some folks break communion over the calendar and other issues. There are squabbles, fights and outright retaliation. And there’s even overt racism and an almost mafia-like atmosphere in certain quarters.

Most converts eventually do learn about all that—they learn there is a certain variety in Orthodox practice. And while certain folks think it’s the end of the world when the priest does not hold the Gospel book vertically in front of his face when from reading it (yes, I had someone tell me that that was Holy Tradition and heretical if not practiced), most Orthodox really don’t have an issue with that. And when we encounter fights and squabbles and even outright evil, we can chalk it up to there being sinners in the Church, something that doesn’t have any direct bearing on the truth of the Orthodox faith. After all, we have the same faith, the same theology, etc.


Eventually, Orthodox Christians who read more than just saints’ lives and their parish bulletin (and perhaps some ecclesiastical tabloids on the Internet) may come to discover that there is also theological variety in Orthodoxy, too.

The first place they may encounter it is in debates about hierarchical primacy or relations with other Christian bodies. Is the Ecumenical Patriarch an “Eastern Pope”? (Is he actually claiming to be?) Are all autocephalous Orthodox churches absolutely independent? What does this mean for ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church? Is it permissible to join in prayer with the non-Orthodox? If so, in what ways? Will there ever be a Great and Holy Council (now in the planning since the early 20th century)? If so, how will decisions be made there?

There are some who point to the different answers to these questions given by the Orthodox and see there an ecclesiological crisis with fundamentally distinct and contradictory faiths being preached by different Orthodox Christians. Most Orthodox don’t even bother with such questions, of course. But some do. And this variety is a favorite point of attack for critics of Orthodoxy. This variety has even been the occasion for the departure of some ex-Orthodox.

Another place that readers may encounter variety in Orthodox theology, perhaps a much more disturbing place, is in questions of soteriology (theology of salvation) or cosmology (theology of creation). Some can probably write off issues of ecclesiastical primacy and ecumenism as just the squabblings of bishops, that there is nothing really deep at stake in their debates and that it will all eventually work itself out. But when you have different answers to questions like “What happened on the Cross?” or “Is biological evolution compatible with Orthodox Christianity?” the path through the variety can be harder to find.

And the weeds and brambles get even harder to navigate when one begins reading up on questions like the Sophiology of Bulgakov, the personalism of Zizioulas or the Neo-Palamism of Lossky. And what exactly does “Neo-Patristic Synthesis” mean? There is no single, unanimous consensus to be found here, not even for the astute reader who has the needed philosophical, historical and theological background to make sense of these writers.

So what are we to do?

The point of this post is not to provide a sort of “answer key” to all these questions, if only because I don’t even know what I think about some of them yet. But I believe some guidance here from Fr. Georges Florovsky is apt. Here’s a brief passage from a translation by Fr. Matthew Baker which we published here in November:

Unity in faith, of course, does not require uniformity in theology. A certain freedom in theological interpretation remains, but under the condition of the living and organic conjugation of those things which are interpreted. Of course, we must strictly distinguish between levels: dogma, doctrine, theology. The distinction is not so easy to hold, in fact, for all levels are related to each other in the unity of ecclesial consciousness. In any case, in the dogmatic realm, there can be no room for pluralism.

It’s hard to break down exactly what Florovsky means here (this is part of a larger passage on whether the “Unia” is an appropriate means to Orthodox unity with Rome). But here at least is how I understand the distinctions he’s making and how I think they can apply to the issue of what a faithful son of the Orthodox Church is to do when he encounters what at least look like major fractures in the unity of the Orthodox faith.

Note first that Florovsky does not simply appeal to a kind of empirical ecclesial unity. The solution to this problem is not simply to say, “Well, we all belong to the same one Orthodox Church, and that’s what really matters.” There is a certain incomplete truth to that, of course, but that’s not enough and should not be enough for any Orthodox Christian, because theology really does matter, and it matters enough that merely having membership in the same organization is not the solution. And, if I may say so, such a solution is really a kind of crypto-papal solution, in which catholicity and therefore ecclesial identity is ultimately defined by submission to the Pope of Rome, which is why even major departures from Catholic teaching such as Liberation Theology or from liturgical decorum such as the “clown mass” can be tolerated. Except here we Orthodox would just put our identity in the body as a whole and not in reference to one man. “I don’t believe in organized religion; I’m Orthodox” becomes more than a joke about the messiness of ecclesiastical polity. It devolves into a claim that I belong to a church that doesn’t know what it believes.

Instead of an appeal to mere institutional membership, Florovsky makes the point that there is no room for pluralism in dogma. And that really is where the unity of the Orthodox faith lies. There is no room for pluralism in the content of the Creed. We have Ecumenical Councils that have ruled decisively on dogmatic issues, and they are really where we find that unchanging unity. The content of that dogmatic unity is not difficult to point to and not the subject of debate in Orthodoxy.

Historically, Orthodoxy actually does not merely point to a “consensus of the Fathers” (which is actually a Reformed idea, by the way), if only because that leaves a lot of room for ambiguity as to who has properly identified that consensus. Yes, there is a remarkable similarity between the Fathers on many questions, but not on everything. Does the human person have two parts or three? What about the soul? Is theosis the primary model for soteriology or an atonement theology? Is apokatastasis (universalism) true or not? What exactly is the content of Holy Tradition? (One can even get more abstruse here: What do “economy” and “strictness” mean in interpreting and applying the canons? Does the wine in the chalice change to the Blood of Christ when the Presanctified gifts are placed in it? Those are theological issues, too.)

Florovsky does not here define exactly what the differences are between dogma, doctrine and theology, and he notes of course that such a distinction is “not so easy to hold, in fact, for all levels are related to each other in the unity of ecclesial consciousness.” That said, I’d like to attempt a brief set of definitions here as I might understand them and as I have attempted to explain them in educational settings:

  • Dogma: The unchanging, non-negotiable core elements of the Orthodox Christian faith. Dogma is defined mainly by Ecumenical Councils.
  • Doctrine: The ways in which dogma is explained to those who are learning it, especially catechumens and in the process of exegeting Scripture. This changes over the centuries, especially as new dogmatic definitions (though not new dogmas) are promulgated through the conciliar process, and also as influenced by the reflections of theology. This is more variable than dogma but less variable than theology, since it tends to get codified for teaching purposes.
  • Theology: Expansive, creative reflections and applications of dogma and doctrine. Here there is more room for speculation and elaboration. There may be multiple models in theology for interpreting and understanding dogmatic definitions and what is in Scripture. Such models may all be true in their way and yet not be compatible or reconcilable with each other.

That, at least, is how I understand what Florovsky is saying. Here is one brief example of how this might work out with one dogma of the Orthodox faith:

  • Dogma: Jesus Christ is fully both God and man. (This is non-negotiable and pretty simple.)
  • Doctrine: We refer to this as the “Incarnation,” which literally means “enfleshment,” an emphasis on how divinity has become truly united with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. (Note here the emphasis is actually on how God became human, not on a precise insistence on the fullness of both natures. The emphasis on calling this the “Incarnation” and describing what that means is for teaching the dogma, not because the humanity is more important than the divinity.)
  • Theology: Because of the Incarnation, we engage God sacramentally and physically. We adorn our churches with icons, ordain clergy, venerate relics, etc. We believe that salvation consists in theosis, which joins the human person to God through the Incarnation. (None of this is controversial in Orthodoxy, but the model of using the Incarnation to link all these things together and especially as the basis for theosis is not itself dogma. One might alternatively give a theology of the goodness of creation and approach the question cosmologically rather than soteriologically.)

With this set of distinctions in mind, it seems fairly clear to me that almost every controversy in Orthodoxy today is really on the theological level, not the dogmatic. Theological reflections sometimes really do contradict each other, but not usually because they contradict dogma. Or if they do contradict dogma, the problem is that the theology has not been sufficiently criticized and refined in order to make it consistent with dogma.

Of course, theology and doctrine are, as Florovsky notes, related to dogma and sometimes are part of the process of introducing new dogmatic definitions. But those definitions are themselves in some sense (though not every sense) on the level of doctrine, as they are attempts to put into human language what has always been believed by the Church but perhaps not yet articulated in such a way as to address whatever questions the controversy at hand raises. So while there are new dogmatic definitions, there really are no new dogmas. Dogma is what the Church has always believed, while dogmatic definitions happen in history for specific historical reasons.

At least intellectually speaking, one of the most difficult things that I have learned in the process of trying to become more fully Orthodox in every way is that there is not a single way of describing nor reflecting on the central truths of the Orthodox faith. This means that what is dogma, what is really non-negotiable, is actually only a subset of everything that I think of as “Orthodoxy.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that the doctrinal and theological realms are free-for-alls. They’re not. There’s a reason why theologians criticize each other and don’t just say, “Oh, well, that’s just theology, so everyone’s opinion is fine.” But the boundaries there are not quite so clear as they are for dogma. And there really is a lot of freedom.

In my experience, that freedom is something that gets mentioned a good bit in talk about Orthodoxy, but is often left to the side much of the time when someone says “Orthodoxy teaches…” or “The Fathers say…” as though there really is only one answer on absolutely everything. (And, it must also be admitted, as though the speaker really has read the Fathers.)

My parish recently has been studying the whole of the Gospel of Luke in our adult education class, and our primary guide to this study has been the commentary of St. Theophylact of Ohrid. His work is largely a summary of the exegesis of St. John Chrysostom, but he often includes ideas other than Chrysostom’s, usually introduced by “Some also say…”

Sometimes, those ideas don’t always perfectly align with what he has presented from Chrysostom. But I don’t find that to be a problem. There is a delightful variety there that explains the text in numerous ways, and one model brings out one truth that another model by its character cannot.

I rejoice in the variety of Orthodox theology. It is one of the reasons why I see no problem with remaining Orthodox for my whole life. Even if I ever exhaust reading the Fathers (which is unlikely), there will nevertheless always be some new insight, new “a-ha” moment, new reflection on the timeless, unchanging truth of the Orthodox faith.

Firmly anchored in the truth of Orthodoxy, I’m looking forward to what comes next.


  1. Excellent post, Father Andrew. I think that an article of this sort has been a long time coming, but nobody quite knew who’s job it was to take it on. You’ve done so clearly. Thank you very much and a blessed Great Fast.

  2. Great article. I am slowly converting to Orthodoxy (beginning a catechism class tonight for further education) from Evangelical Protestantism and this article gives me more to think about. I guess it does shake up what I thought I knew about the “unity” of Orthodoxy that so attracted me to the church in the first place. But your dissections of dogma, doctrine, and theology are quite good, but I am left a tad uncertain along this path of mine after having read it. I am not saying I was naïve concerning church history and the stickiness that happened with political involvement and, of course, human sin. Passing down what the early church “always believed” is not always so black and white but I always felt it was there: Apostles creed and ecumenical councils. I guess that’s it? Icons and the liturgy are just our “theological” application of what we understand? Ultimately, like the doctrines in Protestantism that must always succumb to sola scriptura, things can change down the road given enough convincing of arguments as to why we should get rid of what we always believed?

    1. 1. Icons are actually the subject of dogma themselves (see the 7th Ecumenical Council), and neither they nor liturgy are “just” “‘theological’ application” but rather part of the whole “ecclesial consciousness” that Florovsky mentions. I mentioned these things in my example of “theology” not because they are up for grabs themselves but rather as an example of how linking all these things together can be done. They’re still very much givens in what it means to be Orthodox, though the precise details for them do indeed change. In any event, this post is about what we believe, but Orthodoxy is not reducible to what we believe.

      2. No, things aren’t (and can’t be) changed from what we’ve always believed. That’s dogma. But in much of Protestantism, dogma can indeed be changed. That’s a major difference. The key point of this post is that theology and dogma are not the same thing.

      1. Fr. Damick, thanks for the reply. I apologize for not understanding your article in its entirety. I am still trying to understand Orthodoxy as much as possible along this journey of conversion. So I am sorry if I construed the conclusions of your post incorrectly.

  3. Excellent article. I had a question over this line, though: “consensus of the Fathers” (which is actually a Reformed idea, by the way),”

    I’m thinking back to when I read through Calvin’s Institutes and, without looking it up at the moment, it was Calvin who rejected the Fathers on the basis that they were in such disagreement on so many points. This was the pseudo-justification he gives for clinging to Augustine and rejecting the rest. So, I’m trying to marry the idea that the “consensus of the Fathers” is “actually a Reformed idea.” Could you speak more to this?

    1. It largely arises in the broader Reformed tradition, particularly among those who style themselves Reformed Catholic. The idea is to use the consensus as a hermeneutic when reading the Scriptures. The appeal to consensus on this point is largely the result of lacking an ecclesiology by which the Church can, in council, resolve conflicting ideas. Hence, since the Reformed can’t really resolve competing claims except by appeals to rational thought, when the Fathers disagree there is no ecclesiastical method by which to resolve the disagreement.

      I’d be very interested in a source for the claim that Augustine is to be preferred. This is especially because Calvin departs from Augustine on numerous points, most especially justification.

      1. Hi Nathaniel,

        Second book, chapter two, section 4: “Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillatiing, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.”

        1. This may be something of a pedestrian remark, but it’s rather amazing to me that Calvin notices that “the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will,” yet he concludes that he is right and all of them are wrong. Perhaps his hermeneutic in reading them produces the impression that they are “so confused, vacillatiing, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings,” which is why he just trashes the lot.

        2. Martin Luther also reasoned like Calvin according to P. Schaff:

          Augustine did more than all the bishops and popes who cannot hold a candle to him (XXXI. 358 sq.), and more than all the Councils (XXV. 341). If he lived now, he would side with us, but Jerome would condemn us (Bindseil, III. 149). Yet with all his sympathy, Luther could not find his “sola fide.” Augustine, he says, has sometimes erred, and is not to be trusted. “Although good and holy, he was yet lacking in the true faith, as well as the other fathers.” “When the door was opened to me for the understanding of Paul, I was done, with Augustine” (da war es aus mit ihm. Erl. ed., LXII. 119). (History of the Christian Church Vol. VII. Chap. V, NOTES. LUTHER’S VIEW ON THE CHURCH FATHERS)

          In his view St. Augustine’s authority is even greater than the “all the councils”! Ironically, St. Augustine was made into a “theological pope”.

        3. That reference to St. Augustine is telling. Calvin was a devotee to St. Augustine; he was, to Calvin, pretty much THE Father. He does show some love for St. Athanasius as well, but generally embraces St. Augustine on theological matters. He generally looks at all through the lens of St. Augustine, the most prominent of the Western Fathers, and discounts all else. I think an argument could be made for geographic bias here as the East was in bad shape during Calvin’s day. A guess here is that he looked at the conquest by the Turks as being a judgment upon the East in some way. The Byzantines did not have a great reputation in the West and the West did not largely embrace the Eastern Fathers. There was a language barrier that began to spring up during the latter part of the first millennium and it persisted to Calvin’s day.

          Luther was less enthusiastic about St. Augustine, but Luther was a less enthusiastic reformer in many ways. I think that Luther was more greatly influenced by St. Jerome and a myriad of teachings in the Roman Catholic Church.

          The odd thing to me about Calvin is his embrace of St. Augustine’s theology, but his failure to embrace the Greek OT that St. Augustine argued with St. Jerome over. I don’t know if this was because the LXX was less available in western Europe or that Greek was less known. I haven’t delved deeply into the subject.

  4. “Firmly anchored in the truth of Orthodoxy, I’m looking forward to what comes next.”

    Indeed Fr. Andrew. I also look forward to how we will deal with the unique problems we face as the Church in our age.

    Fr. Florovsky:

    We often forget that the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis [agreement of five centuries], that is, actually, up to Chalcedon, was a Protestant formula, and reflected a peculiar Protestant “theology of history.” It was a restrictive formula, as much as it seemed to be too inclusive to those who wanted to be secluded in the Apostolic Age. The point is, however, that the current Eastern formula of “the Seven Ecumenical Councils” is hardly much better, if it tends, as it usually does, to restrict or to limit the Church’s spiritual authority to the first eight centuries, as if “the Golden Age” of Christianity has already passed and we are now, probably, already in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigour and authority. Our theological thinking has been dangerously affected by the pattern of decay, adopted for the interpretation of Christian history in the West since the Reformation. The fullness of the Church was then interpreted in a static manner, and the attitude to Antiquity has been accordingly distorted and misconstrued. After all, it does not make much difference, whether we restrict the normative authority of the Church to one century, or to five, or to eight. There should he no restriction at all. Consequently, there is no room for any “theology of repetition.” The Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times. (St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers)

  5. Would you say the Essence/Energies distinction falls into the realm of dogma or doctrine?

  6. I learned early on that there was at least a little bit of room for different understandings regarding some dogma, and I personally found that attractive when checking out Orthodoxy (ambiguity and mystery appeal to me). However, it didn’t take too long to find internet forums where Orthodox were fighting with each other and name calling. I then realized that there are many people who are fond of rebuking others by stating “Orthodoxy teaches…” or “the fathers teach…” (I quickly fell into that as well)

    I appreciate this post, Fr Andrew. It has come at a good time for me. I’ve grown weary of all of the “experts” online who can copy and paste canons and excerpts from the fathers in order to beat others into their line of thinking. I’m taking a break from certain websites for that reason.

    From the few church history books I have read, it seems our situation isn’t particularly unique. Thank you for helping me to make a little bit more sense of this journey.

  7. Father Andrew,

    If, then, the dogmas are fixed whereas doctrine and theology are flexible, in what way does this differ from a kind of functional Protestantism? What difference does it make whether we insist on Scripture or the councils alone as the fixed and infallible focal point of doctrinal and theological reflection, so long as these latter two may vary? The distinctions you make are, I think, necessary yet the relationship between them seems difficult to establish without recourse to private judgment, and this is just as Reformed as insisting on a vague or mythical “consensus patrum,” is it not?

    Please forgive and correct me if I have misunderstood.

    1. That is a great question…I am looking forward to Father Andrew’s answer to you. (Great blog article by the way!)

      On a similar note, one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy was the idea that there was more than just dogma shared, but some kind of “heavenly culture” on earth that we could participate in and perhaps some taste of the true heavenly culture to come. Families have culture and tradition so I really liked the idea of having similar tradition with all Orthodox Christians since we are all technically family, being brothers and sisters in Christ. To think that only the dogma is really important as regards to unity, would make me think that God was looking out for our needs a bit less. (I’m not sure of a better way to say that…I know its not coming across very eloquently.) Of course, I am probably not totally understanding the use of the word dogma in the appropriate way. In the modern era, many have family troubles and a living tradition in the Church, with a church family, is very appealing and fills a true need I believe. Knowing that this tradition is valid and not trivial is important to me. I have gone through the post-convert blues for the most part already as described in the article and do see now that largely everything is still unified. I hope what I am trying to say comes though. Thank you again for your blog article!

      1. To think that only the dogma is really important as regards to unity, would make me think that God was looking out for our needs a bit less.

        That’s not what I’m saying at all, actually. I was only addressing the question of theological variety in Orthodoxy and addressing where the unity of what Orthodoxy teaches is to be found. But as I said elsewhere in the comments, Orthodoxy is not reducible to what it teaches. I also wasn’t addressing the more general question of unity in Orthodoxy, but specifically theological unity.

        The scope of this post was deliberately narrow.

    2. I do think you’ve misunderstood, but it’s a good question, nonetheless.

      First, Orthodoxy does not fall back on private judgment. That we have conciliar texts at all is an indication of that. The councils are gatherings of successors to the apostles, competent authorities who take up the task of discerning truth from falsity. And even the task of interpreting those councils, when a true ruling is needed, does not fall to private judgment, either. It’s not you and your set of conciliar decrees and Google who have to figure out what Orthodox teaching is. It’s the Church, whose voice is “Following the Holy Fathers, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” in an actual mechanism for making rulings on these things. So the basic functioning is not like Protestantism at all.

      Second, Protestantism does not have dogmatic fixity. Even assuming a fixed canon of Scripture, Sola Scriptura does not guarantee fixed dogma. Indeed, one could read the same canon of Scripture as a Lutheran and come out an Arian or Sabellian (and people do). Now, dogma may well be fixed for individual Protestants, but it definitely is not fixed for Protestantism as a whole nor even (and here, increasingly so) for Protestant bodies.

      Finally, I deliberately did not “insist on… councils alone as the fixed and infallible focal point.” Rather, I wrote “Dogma is defined mainly by Ecumenical Councils.” I chose mainly and not only quite on purpose. I also used defined on purpose and went on at some length about the difference between dogma and dogmatic definitions. So I’m definitely not proposing a model wherein one canonizes the dogmatic decrees of the Ecumenical Councils as a kind of Orthodox version of the Qur’an.

      I hope that helps.

  8. Glory to God for giving us a Rock on which the Church is built… and then granting us the great mercy and hospitality to not have to check our brains at the door. This exquisite balance between obedience and creativity seems to me to be the only bearable form of religion to have ever existed.
    Great article, Father Andrew!

  9. On the matter of atonement, I recognize the point being made, but I would be careful about playing off atonement theories against theosis. Curiously enough, my main source for insight on the matter of atonement and theosis is the book of Leviticus. Jacob Milgrom’s massive (over two-thousand pages) commentary on Leviticus is hugely enlightening. Milgrom is a Jewish scholar, but he demonstrated that ritual purity was about life and death. A flow of blood and a flow of semen are flows of life out of the body, hence they are impure. Scale disease (Biblical leprosy) makes the body look corpse-like, hence it is impure. Atonement is about cleansing the altar with life (blood, which is why it is dashed around the altar) so that the Divine Presence can continue to dwell in the Tabernacle. Derek Leman (a Messianic Rabbi) has written a wonderful book called “Yeshua our Atonement” which looks at the connections between Leviticus and the New Testament in fair detail, and he actually argues from this that salvation is primarily about divinization. Pretty good stuff.

  10. Thank you. This has helped me greatly. I had noticed the differences long ago, but you (and Florovsky) have provided a classification scheme that helps me to explain it better.

  11. “…we receive the divine Canons with delight, and we maintain wholly and unshakably the enactment of these Canons set forth by the all-praised Apostles, the holy trumpets of the Spirit, and by the six holy Ecumenical Synods, and those assembled locally to issue such commandments, and by our holy Fathers. For they all, being enlightened by one and the same Spirit, ordained what is beneficial.” Canon 1 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

    One statement of yours is to me quite telling for a reason you may not realize: “Eventually, Orthodox Christians who read more than just saints’ lives and their parish bulletin (and perhaps some ecclesiastical tabloids on the Internet) may come to discover that there is also theological variety in Orthodoxy, too.”

    What it implies (though perhaps you did not mean it this way) is that those who read the lives of the saints do not seem to encounter the notion that there is “theological variety” within Orthodoxy. Let that sink in.

    Perhaps the saints through the ages don’t really have all that much theological variety– there, I said it. St. Ignatii (Brianchaniov) puts it this way: “What is it that above all struck me in the works of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church? It was their harmony, their wondrous magnificent harmony. Eighteen centuries, through their lips, testified to a single unanimous teaching, a Divine teaching!”

    Do the Ecumenical Teachers disagree? Do the holy fathers really have different theology? To me this is quite a superficial reading of them. Different emphases do not really amount to contradictions, if we allow that the truth can be expressed and applied in different ways. Not all who claim to speak for the Church are actually speaking for Her– since,

    The sad thing to me in this article is that it didn’t really address the triumph of Orthodoxy– that of Christ’s truth over the devil’s error. Your post doesn’t seem to allow for the fact that there is also error within the visible Church community on earth, even serious error. St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zhica and South Canaan puts it this way: “Truth be told, there are some theologians in the Orthodox Church who are following in the footsteps of heretical theologians, thinking that the Gospel in itself is not strong enough to defend and support itself in the storms of the world. They find heretical thoughts and methods alluring. With their whole soul they have joined the heretics but they outwardly hold on to the Orthodox Church just nominally—for the sake of support…. The Orthodox Church as a whole renounces such theologians and does not recognize them as her own but suffers them for two reasons. One, she is awaiting their repentance and change. Two, she does not want to make an even greater evil out of this which is to say, push them downhill into the army of heretics while destroying their souls. Those theologians are not bearers of Orthodox conscience or consciousness but are sick organs of the body of the Church. The bearers of the Orthodox conscience or consciousness are the people, monastics and clergy.” (Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich). To me this means that there can be a multitude of opinions, but not all of them are valid expressions of the Orthodox Church.

    Can we find the glorious harmony of the fathers in the same way that they (and we) find the glorious harmony of the Divine Gospels. The Holy Patriarchs of the East with one voice warned us in 1848: “For our faith, brethren, is not of men nor by man, but by revelation of Jesus Christ, which the divine Apostles preached, the holy Ecumenical Councils confirmed, the greatest and wisest teachers of the world handed down in succession, and the shed blood of the holy martyrs ratified. Let us hold fast to the confession which we have received unadulterated from such men, turning away from every novelty as a suggestion of the devil. He that accepts a novelty reproaches with deficiency the preached Orthodox Faith. But that Faith has long ago been sealed in completeness, not to admit of diminution or increase, or any change whatever; and he who dares to do, or advise, or think of such a thing has already denied the faith of Christ, has already of his own accord been struck with an eternal anathema, for blaspheming the Holy Ghost as not having spoken fully in the Scriptures and through the Ecumenical Councils.”

    As Fr. Georges wrote, this discernment is intuitive to those struggling to live out real Orthodoxy:
    “One must possess the theology of the Fathers from within. Intuition is perhaps more important for this than erudition, for intuition alone revives their writings and makes them a witness. It is only from within that we can perceive and distinguish what (actually) is a catholic testimony from what would be merely theological opinion, hypothesis, interpretation, or theory… Only in the integral communion of the Church is this ‘catholic transfiguration’ of consciousness truly possible. Those who, by reason of their humility in the presence of the Truth, have received the gift to express this catholic consciousness of the Church, we call them Fathers and Doctors, since what they make us hear is not only their thought or their personal conviction, but moreover the very witness of the Church, for they speak from the depth of its catholic fullness. Their theology evolves on the plane of catholicity, of universal communion.”

    Forgive me. The distinctions you want to make are helpful up to a point but we do still have to discern what is true based upon the sound witness of the Scripture, the Councils and the holy Fathers. The Faith is a firm Rock, I guess is all that I’m saying. I am struck by the incredible unanimity amongst times and places in those whom the Church calls the holy fathers– from Chrysostom to Elder Paisios, from Gregory the Dialogist to Theophan the Recluse. They seem to be testifying to the same universal experience of salvation in Christ, of the true way of life in the Gospel commandments which purifies, illuminates, and deifies us.

    May Christ save us both, Father. Please pray for me, and please forgive me.

    1. One statement of yours is to me quite telling for a reason you may not realize: “Eventually, Orthodox Christians who read more than just saints’ lives and their parish bulletin (and perhaps some ecclesiastical tabloids on the Internet) may come to discover that there is also theological variety in Orthodoxy, too.”

      What it implies (though perhaps you did not mean it this way) is that those who read the lives of the saints do not seem to encounter the notion that there is “theological variety” within Orthodoxy. Let that sink in.

      Perhaps the saints through the ages don’t really have all that much theological variety– there, I said it.

      You are quite right that I did not mean it that way, and I think you’ve read something there that I was not saying at all. Overall, your response seems to be based on the idea that what I am really saying is, “The Church Fathers do not agree with each other.” But that’s not what I said at all. But let me unpack why it seems to me that your response is based on a misunderstanding of what I’m saying.

      First, by “saints’ lives,” I meant the genre that goes by that name, i.e., the stories of the lives of the saints, which are included in the synaxaria and other such sources. But you seem to be including their theological writings, sermons and all their teachings in that category. I wasn’t. I was really talking about saints’ lives, which do not usually include much in the way of what I’m talking about. There are snippets of teachings, but one does not find extended theological reflections, dogmatic discourses, sermons, etc.

      Second, when I referred to the theological variety within Orthodoxy, I was not only referring to the teachings of the Fathers. Their theology certainly is the most authoritative and trustworthy in the Church, but they are not the only people we listen to for theology, if only because most clergy are actually preaching their own sermons and not just reading ones from the Fathers. People are still “doing” theology (if I may) even now, and there are of course also many historical theological writers who have influenced the Church’s theology but are not canonized or considered to be Fathers.

      Third, I did not deny or even suggest that the Fathers all contradict each other. That said, there are certainly cases where they do, and those cases are not always minor. The apokatastasis of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac of Syria comes to mind, which is definitely not the teaching of the Church; likewise, the chiliasm of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. And St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Augustine definitely do not have the same teaching on ecclesiology, especially regarding what it means for the reception of converts (on this, St. Augustine’s theology is essentially the one reflected in the Church’s historical praxis). And there are methodological contradictions, too. For every saint who decries the learning of the world as all demonic and unworthy of the Christian life you have a St. Basil the Great, who wrote an entire treatise on how to sift through pagan literature for the benefit of Christian young men.

      Fourth, I most certainly agree with you that there is a remarkable unanimity among the Fathers. But it is not total, and I also wasn’t just talking about the Fathers. And it should be remembered that not everything they’ve said has been declared by the Church to be truly de fide. And that’s okay. The historical record here is too varied to allow for any kind of fundamentalism in this regard. There is nothing wrong with every saint having his own perspective on how to express the one experience of salvation, even if it doesn’t match up with the perspectives of other saints.

      One beautiful saying I recently learned from someone I was discussing this with is this: “There are as many theologies as there are saints.”

      1. Fr. Andrew,

        Sts. Cyprian and Augustine did not definitely have differing ecclesiologies (and therefore different theology). You draw much larger conclusions from disagreements than perhaps there should be.

        For instance, let’s take a look at two recent great men of the Church: St. Hilarion Troitsky and Fr. Florovsky, and how they exegete the Fathers. These two man had disagreements on sacraments performed outside of the Church along the lines of Sts. Cyprian and Augustine. But they never assumed that the issue at hand was a different ecclesiology from that of St Cyprian.

        St. Hilarion Troitsky:

        [I]n history the rigorism of St. Cyprian in regard to church practice was only somewhat softened, but that his dogmatic teaching on the unity of the Church was not at all changed. (On the Unity of the Church and the World Conference of Christian Communities) St. Hilarion also goes on to say that Pope St. Stephen, with whom St. Cyprian had the baptism controversy, “is not very far from Cyprian”.

        Fr. Florovsky similarly concurs: Even Augustine was not very far from Cyprian. He argued with the Donatists, not with Cyprian himself, and did not try to refute Cyprian; indeed, HIS ARGUMENT WAS MORE ABOUT PRACTICAL MEASURES AND CONCLUSIONS. In his reasoning about the unity of the Church, about the unity of love as a necessary and decisive condition for the saving power of the sacraments, Augustine really only repeats Cyprian in new words. (Limits of the Church)

        Therefore, teaching that you observe as a definite theological difference, these men see as nothing but difference in how a single theology works itself out in practice. You also stated that Augustinian theology in regards to the reception of converts was essentially accepted by the Church but St. Hilarion and Fr. Florovsky also disagree:

        St. Hilarion Troitsky: We can only thank God that the doctrine of the Eastern Church was formulated outside the sphere of Augustinianism, and we must regard consider this sphere alien to ourselves. (Unity)

        Fr. Florovsky: The sacramental theology of St Augustine was not received by the Eastern Church in antiquity nor by Byzantine theology, but not because they saw in it something alien or superfluous. (Limits) Archimandrite Placide Deseille, Athonite monk, scholar and convert from the RCC states the same: “In the East, however, thanks especially to the influence of Saint Basil, the ecclesiology and sacramental theology of Saint Cyprian never ceased to be considered as more in conformity with the tradition and spirit of the Church than the doctrine of Saint Augustine…At a later time, in the seventeenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church came under a very strong Latin influence, and was partially won over to the position of Saint Augustine.” (Stages of a Pilgrimage) Fr. Florovsky does suggest that the Orthodox Church should accept St. Augustine’s theology in reference to the heterodox, but to say that the Church has already is not the case. My point is that Saints and theologians can disagree and still maintain one theology, albeit with distinctions, varying emphases and praxis.

        1. I think perhaps you are using ecclesiology in a much narrower way than I intended it in my comment, i.e., you are speaking dogmatically while I had in mind something much broader than dogma alone.

          As for whether Florovsky thought that Augustine’s thought bore out in the practice of the Church, well, you’re definitely reading The Limits of the Church differently than I am. Augustine’s ex opere operato, while not explicitly affirmed in most Orthodox theology, is essentially the way the Church actually does operate in how it receives the heterodox (i.e., ex opere orantis et operantis ecclesiae, “performed by the prayer and activity of the Church”). Indeed, Florovsky’s piece is largely about how that actually happens and why we should be paying attention to Augustine on this.

          Anyway, I said “on this, St. Augustine’s theology is essentially the one reflected in the Church’s historical praxis,” not “that Augustinian theology in regards to the reception of converts was essentially accepted by the Church.” It’s important to read closely, even when the person one is responding to is not so important. I didn’t say that the Church has canonized Augustine’s theology, but that its praxis essentially reflects it. Cyprian’s view that baptism outside the Church’s canonical boundaries is utterly non-existent is most definitely not reflected in the Church’s historical praxis.

          1. Fr.,

            I really did attempt to read you carefully. But if the praxis of the Church essentially reflects St. Augustine’s sacramental theology, then wouldn’t you say it’s a rule (canon)?

            The Orthodox Church essentially utilizes “ex opere operato” in regards to converts? The canonical and historical record of the how the Church has received and still receives converts is much more complex and nuanced than that unless one interprets that every time converts have been received by baptism throughout history as exceptional or fanantical.

            I can see the Church utilizing St. Cyprian at times and St. Augustine at times depending on various factors throughout history as it received converts. Fr. George Dragas sates that “…if the Orthodox doctrine of Baptism is indeed the same with the Roman Catholic one…and if it is true that sacramentology goes hand in hand with ecclesiology…could it be claimed pari passu that Orthodox ecclesiology is the same with the Roman Catholic one? Has then the ecclesiological issue that divides Orthodox and Roman Catholics been resolved? Is it not fair to maintain that as long as there is division between these two (and indeed any other) Churches, the Cyprianic-Augustinian dilemma, which is somewhat parallel to the Orthodox akribeia-oikonomia dilemma, is bound to exist?”


            I’m not arguing that the Church essentially uses St. Cyprian whenever someone heterodox Christian baptized but neither can we say that we essentially use St. Augustine every time some convert is chrismated. The Patriarchal Council of 1875 demonstrates that there has always been a variety of practice and freedom, and also that this is still an ongoing issue:

            “Thus, the baptism of the Westerners, was sometimes regarded as valid, because it was done in the name of the Holy Trinity and was referred to the proper baptism, and sometimes as invalid, because of the many irregularities of form with which it was clothed with the passage of time by the constantly increasing vain study of the Western Church. Hence, the Most Holy Russian Church, taking its lead from obvious reasons makes use of the Decisions of the newer Synod of Moscow under Patriarch Ioasaph of Moscow, discerning that they are contributive tο the benefιt of the Church in that place, whereas the Churches in the East consider it necessary for the benefit of Orthodoxy to follow the Horos which had been issued under Cyril V. Since these things happen to be such, it is left to the spiritual discernment of Your Excellency αnd of the rest of the Synodical members to accept or reject the use of economy which another Church has upheld for more than two centuries without waνering, if, as she writes, this economy implies many benefits to the Church there and secures her from encroaching dangers. Whenever, then, the local orthodox Churches might be able tο gather together, then, with God’s help, the desired agreement οn this subject will take place, as with others as well.”

            This a ‘problem’ which remains to be solved by a Holy Synod as the Patriachal Council of 1875 stated and claiming that we’ve solved it by essentially accepting ex opere operto is not true.

          2. This a ‘problem’ which remains to be solved by a Holy Synod as the Patriachal Council of 1875 stated and claiming that we’ve solved it by essentially accepting ex opere operto is not true.

            Well, I didn’t make that claim. I was generalizing, and I chose my language carefully to reflect that. I wasn’t making an absolute claim about every single incident in Church history.

            As to whether the Church’s praxis has been circumscribed canonically, it certainly has. Even though there is some variety in what they prescribe, the canons definitely do not prescribe baptism of all converts. Is it the case that there have been times and places when such a prescription was made by someone somewhere? Yes, of course, but that is not the overall picture, and it’s also not what the canonical tradition reflects.

      2. Thank you, Father, for this explanation and clarification. Just a few follow up questions if you don’t mind:

        1) You mention the not minor cases of disagreement between the fathers as being St Gregory of Nyssa’s following of Origen’s error (and also possibly St. Isaac of Syria),and St. Irenaeus who believed in the literal 1,000 year reign of Christ, for starters. Are these acceptable understandings for Orthodox Christians today, who are guided by the consensus and harmony of the fathers, and the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils?

        2) Florovsky has famously said that St. Augustine simply repeated St. Cyprian in new terms when he
        admitted to a certain validity in the mysteries without their ability, among heretics and schismatics, to save or sanctify. Wouldn’t it be a fair explanation (among other possibilities) to say that with regard to the reception practices of heterodox Christians, the Church has really adopted both the Pope St. Stephen/St. Augustine and the St. Cyprian/St. Basil approaches in a synthesis where canonical strictness and leniency are bound and loosed for the purpose of the salvation of souls?

        3) When people “do” theology today, oughtn’t they to reject novelty (or at least be suspicious of it), as the
        Eastern Patriarchs mention, and seek quotations from those whom you call “the most trustworthy and authoritative” source of theology in the Church—the holy Fathers?

        This is not a question, but I’ll just add—my priest is the translator of the Theophylact commentaries in English. He very often reads others’ sermons and writings from the holy fathers during the homily. It’s really a beautiful practice. Very edifying.

        1. 1. Certainly not, but they were controversial in their time, and these things were held by real saints. My point in mentioning those things was not to suggest that they represent acceptable theological diversity, but rather to point out that the Fathers are not absolutely unanimous.

          2. In a sense, I suppose that’s true, but it definitely has not adopted Cyprian’s view that sacramental grace stops at the canonical boundaries of the Church.

          3. Yes, certainly, but the point here isn’t about “novelty.” But just quoting the Fathers can never be enough, either. There isn’t a quotation for every possible circumstance. And even if there were, someone had to come up with those things at some point, and there wasn’t something before then. Why do the Fathers not simply just quote Scripture and be done with it? Certainly the Church still has the living task of interpreting and applying the Scriptures and the dogmas of the faith.

          My sense is that you suspect I’m advocating some kind of theological liberalism/revisionism here. I’m not. (How anyone could conclude that based on my writing is kind of a mystery to me.) I’m just stating the pretty obvious fact that there has always been theological diversity within the Church, and that that diversity is not just represented by heretics who will get rooted out at some point. There really are multiple ways to speak the same truth. The truth is one, but expressions of it are many. And those expressions are not always compatible in their terms. And that’s okay, so long as they are each faithful to what truly is de fide, what is faithful to the revealed Apostolic deposit.

          Anyway, it’s wonderful that your priest reads patristic homilies out loud. I sometimes do that, too. But that can’t be all that the Church ever does. Certainly, it’s not what the Fathers themselves did.

          1. “This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith which has established the universe.”

            Not at all, Father. I worried, however, that you were answering the question posed in the title of your post– Is Orthodoxy the Same Everywhere?– in the negative. But the paltriness of the examples of flat out contradiction among those holy persons glorified in the Church as the beacons of the truth is, I think, to answer your question in the positive. On actual Orthodoxy– right doctrine, right glorification of the Trinity– it is (or at least should be) the same everywhere. That’s not to say that it won’t look, sound, or smell different in different places. That’s not to say that there are differences of terminology or emphasis in the God-bearing fathers. That’s not to say the task of application and re-application of the saving truths isn’t given to us today (to you, moreso than to me, although each of us is called to guard the truth).

            But it’s our conviction, isn’t it, that these men quite often “spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” as the Apostles themselves had so done? Their writings are not Scripture, but they are most often the truest lens through which to properly view the overwhelming light of the Scriptures. They are the greatest authority for the true understanding of the Scriptures, animated and enlightened as they were by the same One who authored them (that is, the Scriptures). Their trustworthiness as reliable witnesses to the once-and-for-all-delivered Faith is not simply based upon their relative proximity in time to the Incarnation or “early Church” but more importantly is based upon their having confirmed all the truth of the Scripture in their lives by following in exemplary ways the saving Path of the Gospel, starting with “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Having become, by this, the inheritors of all of Christ’s promises, they are exceedingly abundantly above where we are in their understanding of the Mind of Christ, the Mind of the Church. This is their authority– and arguably it’s the same everywhere.

            Is Orthodoxy the same everywhere, Father?

          2. Is Orthodoxy the same everywhere, Father?

            That very much depends on what one means by Orthodoxy, and that’s pretty much the point of the article.

            If it’s the dogmas of the faith, then, yes, of course, Orthodoxy is the same everywhere. If it’s how those dogmas are taught and/or reflected on (not to mention, liturgized and otherwise practiced), then the answer is definitely no. The best we can do with the latter is “mostly similar in most respects.”

  12. “Even though there is some variety in what they prescribe, the canons definitely do not prescribe baptism of all converts.”

    Amen, Fr. I’m very well aware that the canons do not prescribe baptism for every convert, nor am I making the case that the Church should baptize every convert. I was accepted via chrismation, some are accepted by confession; I have no problem with either as long as it saves souls and benefits the Church. If it’s for pleasing men then I have a serious problem with it since a “good thing has to be done in a good way or it’s not good” according to the patristic dictum.

    “Is it the case that there have been times and places when such a prescription was made by someone somewhere? Yes, of course, but that is not the overall picture, and it’s also not what the canonical tradition reflects.”

    Baptism for converts has been prescribed by more than “someone somewhere” and it’s a definitely a part of the overall picture, I never claimed it was the whole picture. It’s still the practice “on the books” of the Greek Church since 1755 (modified at the discretion of bishops, of course), it’s practiced on Mt. Athos and by ROCOR since the 1970s. I accept it all as normative.

  13. Bearing in mind that Orthodoxy is always the same everywhere, are there ever cases where converts received not through baptism but via oikonomia, into a jurisdiction such as the OCA or the Antiochians, via Chrismation, are not considered validly Orthodox by other, stricter jurisdictions such as ROCOR? Or does the consensus of faith implied by the existence of full communion require that each jurisdiction accept the specific pastoral decisions made by its sister churches, even if it doesn’t always agree with them?

    1. Receiving converts through means other than baptism is not oikonomia, if what is meant by oikonomia a bending of the canons. The canons actually stipulate receiving certain heretics via chrismation or profession of faith. Following them isn’t bending them.

      Interestingly, pertinent to your comment about the ROCOR, I was recently informed that the founding First Hierarch of the ROCOR, Metr. Anthony Khrapovitsky (who was a candidate for Patriarch of Moscow) argued in a 1927 article that Anglican clergy should be received in their orders (i.e., not receive Orthodox ordination) through the use of profession of faith only.

      1. Fr. Andrew,

        I was received by chrismation into the GOA, subsequently joining ROCOR. I had no issues whatsoever. Also, the practice on the books of the Russian Church since the Council of 1666-1667 is to receive western converts by chrismation (of course at the discretion of bishops). Hieromonk Seraphim Rose was chrismated into ROCOR btw. He even spoke against certain zealous converts in ROCOR who wanted converts to be received only by baptism, or they wanted them baptized after being accepted into the Church by chrismation.

  14. So in general then is it safe to assume, under normal conditions, that all of the Orthodox churches will honor the routine pastoral decisions made by their sister churches? So if one church receives a convert, their conversion will be accepted; if one church marries someone, that marriage will be accepted (on the basis of the shared communion between the churches, which implies sacramental validity)?

    In other words, the minor theological differences, which perhaps amount at most to a difference in attitude, and are perhaps, in some cases, such as that of the alleged stringency of the ROCOR, overstated (as the recent posts indicate), that these differences should not actually impact your average layman, if he for example moves from a town where the only Orthodox parish is OCA, to one where the only parish is GOA, and is thus forced to switch jurisdiction? (This does seem by the way to be a good argument for the eventual unification of the American Orthodox jurisdictions)

    By the way, I’m sorry if my writing is a bit verbose this morning, I’m just recovering from a sinus infection and my brain is mildly warped. However, I just persuaded a dear friend to be baptized into the Church, so I’m rather in a glow right now. 🙂

  15. Where can a Western Christian like myself learn about Orthodoxy’s dogma and doctrines on atonement and salvation? If one surveys “internet Orthodoxy” only theosis is generally mentioned.

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