Vladimir Lossky on Ecumenical Dialogue

I recently came across Paul Ladouceur’s translation of an article by Vladimir Lossky on “The Doctrine of Grace in the Orthodox Church,” published in the St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2014).

The whole article contains matters of interest to readers here, but I’d just like to highlight its inclusion of a rare statement by Lossky on his understanding of ecumenical interaction (the text that follows is all Lossky’s):

Union of the Churches & the witness of the Orthodox Church

Before we explore the doctrine of grace in the Orthodox Church, I would like to make some preliminary remarks in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings.

The absence of unity in the Christian world is a cruel reality, constantly present in the conscience of every Christian concerned with the common destiny of humanity. Who could say, especially in the times in which we live, that the destiny of disunited Christianity leaves us indifferent without incurring the terrible condemnation of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16)?

The wound caused by these separations remains virulent and bleeding for all those who on the one hand do not allow themselves to become paralyzed in a stupor of self-sufficiency and self-contemplation, but who on the other hand can no longer bear witness to the truth that they confess in the context of activities aimed at the “union of the Churches.” I would like to quote here some words of Karl Barth which clearly express my thinking:

Super- or inter-ecclesial movements are either worthless, since they do not take seriously problems of the doctrine, the constitution and the life of the Church, or else they have some value. And if they view these problems seriously, they are forced to abandon neutrality and create a new Church or community in their own image. Hence if we wish that ecclesiastical work proceed, it must do so in its Christian center: in the Churches. If we truly wish to listen to Christ as He who is the Unity of the Church and in whom Unity is already accomplished, we must therefore recognize in a concrete fashion our particular ecclesiastical experience.

And he writes again:

Only a powerful ecclesiastical reality can motivate a Church to forsake separation. It will not do so if this means abandoning a single dot on an “i” which it holds as truth in obedience to Jesus Christ. We do not make the union of the Churches, rather we discover it.

And I would add to Barth: we discover this union of the Churches on condition that we go to the very end in the clear and sincere confession of the faith of our specific and historical Churches or communities, to which alone we are committed. Hence in seeking to present aspects of the Orthodox doctrine of grace, we will certainly not seek to conceal or to downplay fundamental differences which exist on this subject with other Christian confessions. We do not wish to be polemical, since our aim is mutual understanding. If in this paper we are obliged on a number of points to contrast the teaching of the Orthodox Church with that of other Christian confessions, we should not be accused of harboring thoughts of confessional hostility, even less of the slightest intention of hurting our separated brethren.

As I contrast the teaching of the Orthodox Church with that of other Christian confessions, I will carefully avoid going into the details of the controversies on grace which have created many currents of different opinions in the West. Indeed Khomiakov said almost a century ago that for us Orthodox, the divided West cannot be other than as one family, a relatively homogeneous group. All the splits between Rome and the Reformation are for us but internal ruptures within Western Christianity. Our separation from Rome consummated in the eleventh century is of the same kind as that of the Protestants and all the communities which subsequently detached themselves from the Patriarchate of Rome. This is especially the case with respect to the doctrine of grace, because the separation of 1054, despite everything which was said and written on this subject by later polemicists, was based dogmatically on teachings concerning the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Grace.

We are now ready to address our subject.

The whole article is worth reading. You can find it here.



  1. It is worth remembering that the bloody wound is precisely in the schismatics and heresies, not in the Church herself.

    The Church herself does not ever stand in need of healing, for she cannot be torn. She is a perfect unity. Her numbers merely expand or contract with time. She is the source of healing for those who have been unfortunate enough to sever themselves from her.

    For example, in the time of St Mark of Ephesus, when the majority of the hierarchy capitulated to heresy and schism, Mark and those in communion with him constituted the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Church of Greece. The others were not because of their infidelity.

    This idea of discovering unity of Churches is of course erroneous. Unity is visible and by definition singular. The entire point of apostolic succession is to show the continual continuity of that unity. If you “discover” unity, then you acquire what you did not have and recover that which is lost.

    But the Church is whole in herself and has no strict need of anything else to add to her completeness. We will not be completed by Latins and Protestants. We should desire their conversion to the truth, that is, we should desire their complete and total metamorphosis into what we are. And what are we? What else but the life of the Trinity lived in the world?

    The author needs to re-read St Cyprian of Carthages epic work: On the Unity of the Church.

    to quote St Cyprian:

    “He snatches men from the Church itself; and while they seem to themselves to have already approached to the light, and to have escaped the night of the world, he pours over them again, in their unconsciousness, new darkness; so that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master.”

    We don’t discover unity. They discover the Church and either change, or suffer for lack of change.

    1. Dan, the problem with the Old Calendarist style ecclesial maximalism you espouse is that it ignores the reality of the history of the Orthodox Church, which is a continual process of schism and reconciliation.

      Let me give you some examples of schisms in the Orthodox communions (Eastern, and pre-1054 Roman) that were successfully resolved:

      1. A schism erupted in the Roman Church around the uear 200 over succession to that see, at the time, a bastion of Orthodoxy. St. Hippolytus, who we venerate as a saint, was technically an anti-Pope, and I believe at least one of the other claimants is also venerated; the incident was simply a political and canonical feud that erupted in the midst of the confusion arising frommthe dramatic increase in the persecution of Christians following the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (his successors, from Commodus to Diocletian, blamed the rapid deterioration of the Roman Empire and a string of terrible natural disasters, which our Lord had predicted, on the wrath of the Hellenic gods provoked by the failure of the population of the Roman Empire to unanimously serve them; this in turn was blamed on the growth of Christianity).

      2. The Meletian Schism was a rupture in the Church of Antioch in the fourth century which revolved around a dispute over who the canonical Patriarch of that city was. Ultimately the schism ended as both sides recognized the Orthodoxy in each other, compared to the raging Arian schism, and we venerate Meletius of Antioch, whose followers started the schism, as a saint.

      3. The Three Chapters Controversy erupted in the Western Church, chiefly in Spain, France and North Africa, into a full blown schism, over St. Justinian anathematizing certain popular historical figures (who the Nestorians venerate as saints), who were thought to have been the originators of the Nestorian heresy: Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. These anathemas remain controversial to this day among a minority of theologians owing to their posthumous nature; both men, as well as Origen, who was also anathematized at the same time, died in communion with the Church, and Theodore of Mopsuestia in particular was reknowned for his piety, and was the best friend of St. John Chrysostom. This schism however was relatively short lived; it was mainly instigated by crypto-Nestorians, and the people of the schismatic churches eventually recognized the Orthodoxy of the sxith century Roman church and reunited with it. This is an encouraging historical example, because an entire schismatic union abandoned a heresy (semi-Nestorianism) in order to re-enter communion with the Church. Our reunion with Rome and with the Assyrian Church of the East (the Nestorians) deoends on the Roman Catholics and the Nestorians discovering the

      4. More recently, in the late 19th century, a schism erupted between Constantinople and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over the latter’s reassertion of autocephaly as Bulgaria became freed from the Ottoman yoke. The building in Constantinople of a separate Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral (from prefabricated metal sections designed, if memory serves, by Gustave Eiffel, and manufactured in Vinnea), and the refusal lf the Bulgarians to worship with the Constantinopolotan (Phanariot) Greeks led to the declaration of ethnophyletism as a heresy, something eventually recognized by the Bulgarian church, which by the early 20th century had restored communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch as ana autocephalous jurisdiction.

      5. With the rise of the Soviet Union and the martyrdom of St. Tikhon, different groups of Russian Orthodox interpreted his instructions freeing the Russian bishops abroad from the control of the Holy Synod in Russia. The emigre community of Paris entered into communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and after the Soviets abandoned their support of the heretical Living Church movement, and Metropolitan Sergius pledged the loyalty of the Russian church in Russia to the Soviet government, some churches in the US decided to remain under the Moscow Patriarchate, some formed into a somehat liberal groupimg known as the Metropolia, which later became the OCA and received a Tomos of Autocephaly from Moscow, while a conservative grouping, ROCOR, maintained only intermittent communion with various Orthodox jurisdictions that continued to use the Julian Calendar, and insisted that much of the canonical church had fallen into the heresies of “Sergianism,” Ecumenism and Modernism. Indeed, ROCOR was for a time mainly in communion with various schismatic Old Calendarist churches.

      By 2007 however, ROCOR was anle to recognize Orthodoxy in the Moscow Patriarchate, freed as it was from the yoke of communism and the crippling oath of loyalty made by Metropolitan Sergius. Thus, ROCOR restored communion with the MP, becoming an autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate, and as a result, re-entering communion with the entire canonical Eastern Prthodox Church, including the OCA amd the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while breaking ties with the the various schismatic Old Calemdarist sects.

      Wr have tompray that the Old Calendarists, the Nestorians, the Roman Catholics, and mamy Protestants come to recognize our Orthodoxy and reunite with us.

      On the other hand, I believe we can discern the Orthodoxy of the Oriental churches quite clearly, owing to their historical consistency in the use of icons (no Oriental Orthodox Patriarch ever embraced iconoclasm), their rejection of the filioque, and the similiarity of their worship wih oirs

    2. I’d hardly consider St Cyprian’s “On the Unity of the Catholic Church” to be “epic” (whatever that means in this case). Certainly it is historically significant and looms large in our tradition, but St. Augustine is far more thoughtful in consideration of the historical complexities and the interiority of schism as a spiritual state, a “sin against love,” and not merely a juridical reality as for Cyprian. Indeed, Augustine is the great patristic theologian of sobornost.

    3. It’s a bit ironic that St. Cyprian is cited by ostensible traditionalists as a witness to the consensus patrum along the lines of the Vincentian canon- everywhere, always, and by all. St. Vincent himself actually chose the specific example of reception of the heterodox to illustrate how his canon applied to controversies within the Church: the only problem? He described how the consensus of the churches stood against the North African position and together with Pope St. Stephen and the Church of Rome. Actually, St. Cyprian himself knew that his practice was a relative innovation which began in 220 AD. St. Cyprian told Pope St. Stephen that his ancient apostolic tradition was an “old error.”

      If the sacraments are truly operative in other Christian confessions (the economic explanation doesn’t work since the canonical tradition forbids rebaptism of baptized Christians and economy is by definition a loosening of the canons), then the Church must be present there, since sacraments only exist in virtue of the Church and serve to realize the Church in the world. The Church is there imperfectly, but it is nonetheless there. Fr. Florovsky’s “Limits of the Church” is far from the novel position.

  2. Vladimir Lossky hits the nail on the mark in this one in the problem of dialogues occurring in the WCC. This reminds me of Fr. Peter Farrington’s article he wrote a long time ago before he was a priest available here:


    Without intending to bring up any of the EO/OO discussions, it is in general agreement in principle with Lossky, exposing a lot of the Protestant “failures” at unity at all costs with the false assumption of “core doctrines” as more important than other doctrines of the Church.

  3. The category of “Western Christianity” as it is used here is characteristically simplistic and careless on Lossky’s part. Khomiakov marks the awakening of ecclesiology as a particular field of dogmatic discussion in Orthodoxy, but his over reliance of slavophile historical idealism dates itself in comparison to modern critical history as it is applied to ecumenical dialogue.

  4. Thank you for the link to Lossky’s paper. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days.

    If we do not wrestle directly with the divine essence, then we must wrestle with Grace. The way Lossky describes the nature of Grace seems to imply that man cannot in principle reach up to slap the face of God, but man does rebel against him by rejecting his gifts or striving against divine energies. I wonder if an understanding of the nature of grace might serve to reunite the separated brethren.

    It would do away with the need for Calvanism and Arminianism. Calvanism was always hung up on the fact that God cannot be resisted directly; whereas Arminianism, in realizing the need for love, imagined that God was powerless against the human will, and even kept some kind of distance away from humankind so they could freely love him. How can we commune with a God who keeps some sort of distance if even for our own benefit? Or how can a forced communion be any kind of a true communion? Or how can a God impotent against the stubborn human heart effect the salvation of all whom he desires?

    Both traditions wrestle and fail to give answers for some of these questions.

  5. A very interesting article.

    Firstly, Karl Barth and Vladimir Lossky seem to condemn the modern ecumenical movement by the words

    ‘Super- or inter-ecclesial movements are either worthless, since they do not take seriously problems of the doctrine, the constitution and the life of the Church, or else they have some value.’

    I can’t think of a more non-doctrinal group than the World Council of Churches.

    Secondly, for Dan. You mention St Mark of Ephesus and the Council of Florence and how the hierarchy capitulated to heresy. In reality, only 30 Orthodox bishops were at the council and signed. People forget the hundreds of bishops who stayed away.

    The list of schisms by William G is most interesting.

    I could add the Acacian Schism of the 6th century, the Arsenite Schism of the 13 century, the Epiriot schism after the sack of Constantinople and the Church of Greece schism in 1833 to 1850 when it was forced to set up a Holy Synod by its Bavarian king.

    Unfortunately modern heresy is a lot of than politics and church discipline which is what the groups on the list were.

    If I’m not mistaken all the Arianizing councils like Tyre and Rimini were basically attempts at unity founded on compromise formulas that were open to the widest possible interpretation. The Fathers of the Church didn’t stand for it then so why should be accept compromise formulas now like the WCCs statement on ‘Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry’.

    Of course, a heretical body might not lack Grace – especially in individual members – but it lacks the fullness of truth.

Comments are closed.