Various media reports and editorials have described the controversies before, during, and after the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, recently held during Pentecost on the island of Crete.
Some have concluded that the Council’s difficulties were the result of geopolitics, and can therefore be explained away as little more than an ecclesial version of the larger political and cultural battle taking place between Russia and the West. Others have concluded that the disagreements revealed disparate visions between those wishing to engage the broader world and those more interested in internal disputes over church administration.
In some sense, these factors played a role in the weeks leading up to the Council, but something far more significant was brewing beneath the surface. A real theological disagreement came to a head during the debate at the Council itself, to the degree that the Council almost failed to pass one of its pre-approved documents, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.”
What’s the Big Deal?
The controversy engendered by the document’s topic is nothing new, but rather a modern-day manifestation of a theological and pastoral debate that is as old as Christianity itself. Just open your Bible and read the Johannine epistles, which emphasize that our close connection to Jesus Christ, and through Him our eternal salvation, is only possible in the fellowship of truth and love found within the right-believing Church. See, for example, 2 John 1:7-11:
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.
Agreement “with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness” is of paramount significance to any Christian (1 Timothy 6:3).
The Questions at Stake Today
What, then, should we do when theological disagreements end up leading to estrangement, schism, or heresy? Obviously, we have to be willing, as 2 John indicates, to kick someone out of the house over fundamental matters of apostolic faith. But where and in what ways do we draw the line? How do we, as Orthodox believers today, relate to the long-standing confessional divisions that have persisted for centuries in the Christian world? Finally, considering the answers to these questions, how and why do we receive into the Church, for example, a Roman Catholic who wishes to become Orthodox?
The answers to these questions influence the way in which we go about ecumenical dialogue on a formal or personal level – and our conclusions are not of narrow significance, affecting many people’s family relations, friendships, and daily life.
In an ideal world, the Holy and Great Council would have resolved these questions once and for all. That it didn’t do so in the real world should come as no surprise. To understand why, and to understand the controversy that took place during the Council itself, a little context is required.
Two Schools Across History
In situations not so dissimilar from our own, Church Fathers in all eras of history have developed theological and pastoral frameworks for interacting with the long-ingrained schisms and heresies of their own context. Different times and places produced differences in nuance, and new challenges have called for new explanations; but, in general, there have been two rather distinct “schools of thought” across the ages, neither of which has found complete acceptance in the Orthodox Church.
On the one hand, there have been “purists.” In antiquity, the most famous and influential was St. Cyprian of Carthage; and, in more recent times, Patriarch Cyril V of Constantinople during the mid 18th century.
According to this line of thinking, if one recognizes that there is no salvation outside of the Church, one can’t help but conclude that there is no grace and there are no sacraments outside of the strict canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Once cut off from Orthodoxy, schismatic and heretical groups wither and die spiritually, to the point that their adherents are no longer really “Christians,” but, in reality, like unto heathens.
Thus, our relations with such groups should be limited quite severely, consisting mainly in (1) re-affirming the anathemas and arguments that our Fathers have voiced against these or similar groups in times past and present, (2) calling them to repentance and abjurement of their heresies, and (3) should they respond to our clear presentation of the truth, receiving them into the Church through baptism, just as any heathen who undergoes Christian initiation.
Further explanation or a series of illustrative quotes seems unnecessary, simply because this view has been represented very well on the Internet and in popular books, and its logical clarity gives it the advantage of quick comprehension.
On the other hand, there have been “realists”: St. Basil the Great is an especially salient example in antiquity; and the fathers at the Pan-Orthodox Council of Moscow in 1667 represent a common synodical position voiced in multiple instances over the last 500 years.
According to this line of thought, there are degrees of separation from the Church. Some heretical doctrines depart so drastically from apostolic truth that those who confess them actually belong to another faith altogether (e.g. the docetists referred to in 2 John); while other heterodox teachings remain closer to the truth of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Thus, it is possible for Christians who hold certain errant or heretical views and who are outside of the canonical boundaries of the Church to experience, as God so wills, vestiges of the grace and truth which exist only in the Orthodox Church.
Elder Sophrony Sakharov, a Russian monk most famous for popularizing the life and teachings of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, put it this way in the 1930s: “The fullness of grace may be held only by the one and only Church, but the other churches have grace because of the faith in Christ, yet not in fullness.” Archimandrite Sophrony’s words might seem shocking to those only exposed to “purist” thinking, but the Elder’s observation merely reflects the perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries before him. More recently, in 2000, the Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church promulgated a very helpful text, “Basic Principles of Attitude to the Non-Orthodox,” which explains:
The Orthodox Church, through the mouths of the holy fathers, affirms that salvation can be attained only in the Church of Christ. At the same time, however, communities which have fallen away from orthodoxy have never been viewed as fully deprived of the grace of God. Any break from communion with the Church inevitably leads to an erosion of her grace-filled life, but not always to its complete loss in these separated communities. This is why the Orthodox Church does not receive those coming to her from non-orthodox communities only through the sacrament of baptism. In spite of the rupture of unity, there remains a certain incomplete fellowship which serves as the pledge of a return to unity in the Church, to catholic fullness and oneness.
Even in the midst of schisms and heresies, we are able to engage other Christians as separated brethren because of the theological and spiritual realities we still share. In the words of the “Basic Principles” text:
The ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition. In a divided Christendom, there are still certain characteristics which make it one: the word of God, faith in Christ as God and saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion.
With these shared characteristics in mind, we have far less reason for isolation and far more reason to interact, dialogue, and seek reconciliation in the fullness of the truth. Finally, as the “Basic Principles” text make clear, it is precisely because there is not a complete loss of grace in separated communities that we can receive certain heterodox Christians into the Church by means of chrismation or simple renunciation of former heresies. Their previous Christian initiation reflected enough of apostolic truth and order that it bears the mark of reality.
Realists beyond the Russians
Just to be clear: the point of view described above is not peculiar to Russia. Similar positions have been held in a variety of contexts across Church history. A couple of examples are representative.
In the Confession of Faith of Patriarch Dositheus of Jerusalem, promulgated by the Pan-Orthodox Council of Jerusalem in 1672, we read:
Moreover, we reject as something abominable and pernicious the notion that when faith is weak the integrity of the Mystery is impaired. For heretics who abjure their heresy and join the Catholic Church are received by the Church: even though they held a deficient faith, they received a perfect Baptism; wherefore, when they afterwards become possessed of the perfect faith, they are not again baptized (καίτοι ἐλλιπῆ ἐσχηκότες τὴν πίστιν τέλειον ἔλαβον τὸ βάπτισμα· ὅθεν τελείαν ὕστερον τὴν πίστιν κεκτημένοι οὐκ ἀναβαπτίζονται).
And the most respected Romanian dogmatic theologian of recent generations, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, writes in Volume 2 of his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:
But here the question is posed: what are the other Christian confessions that do not confess such an intimate and effective union of the integral Christ in them? We hold that they are incomplete churches, some closer to fullness, others farther away… We hold that the non-Orthodox confessions are separate groups that have been formed in a certain relationship with the full Church and exist in certain relationship with it, but do not share in the full light and power of Christ the sun. Thus in a way the Church includes all the confessions divided from it, because they could not fully depart from the Tradition present [in the Church]. But the Church in the full sense of the word is only the Orthodox Church.
Within these “incomplete churches,” according to Fr. Staniloae, believers “have a diminished faith in the true Christ and practice a reduced sharing in Him through weakened sacraments,” but are still connected to the one true Church, which is Christ’s very Body, “thanks to their link with Christ the incarnate Word by faith.”
What’s in a Name?
To my knowledge, no one has ever classified these two tendencies in Orthodox thought as schools or given them the name “purist” and “realist.” I do so merely as an exercise in helping to identify a long-standing difference in how various Orthodox authorities approach the issues implicit in the debate over the Council of Crete’s “Relations” document.
The “purist” school’s strength is its concern for clear proclamation of the truth. Yet in developing its argument along strictly logical lines, it ends up privileging pure theory over the lived reality of the Church. Such has been the case since its inception: St. Cyprian freely admitted that his approach was a departure from the earlier traditions and practices of the Church. Instead of seeking to find a theological explanation for the Church’s actual experience in history, he developed a logically coherent theological system that flowed from its initial (true) axiom. Something analogous happened in the famous 18th century “purist” authorities, such as St. Nikodemos the Athonite — but that’s a very long topic for another day!
The strength of the “realist” school, on the other hand, is that it attempts to make theological sense of what the Church really does, not just in theory but in practice, throughout Her entire historical experience. Its concern is to explain the paradox of reality: that the Orthodox Church is the one and only Church of Christ, and yet if one looks at the world as it really is, one finds, in the words of Moscow’s “Basic Principles” document, points of unity in a divided Christendom.
A deeper analysis of other strengths and weaknesses in these two schools will have to wait, as my aim in this blog post is simply to provide some sense that two ways of thinking about these issues have existed within the Church for centuries, and that the unresolved nature of these questions underlie the debate we witnessed during the conciliar proceedings on Crete.
The Road Ahead
The existence of two “schools” in Orthodox thinking on these issues is less a sign of division and more a sign of a set of open questions.
After the Council of Crete, we are no closer to a comprehensive theological resolution. The council document itself stays mainly on the procedural level, and does not penetrate the deeper issues. To do otherwise would have been a grave and monumental task, and the unfortunate reality is that very few churches took the conciliar process or the questions raised during its preparatory phase seriously enough. Over the last 50 years of preparation, deep engagement with the theological issues was sorely lacking. As Fr. Cyril Hovorun has remarked, the synods throughout the world “were supposed to scrutinize the documents and accept or reject the drafts. In reality, however, few read the texts. After formal approval, they were sent to collect dust in the archives.”
In the end, then, it was impossible for a comprehensive discussion to take place. Even so, the Council has raised the issue and engendered the beginnings of a public debate. Future councils may therefore be able to address the topic again in a more satisfactory fashion.
A few years ago, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote that the major issue of 20th century Orthodox theology had been ecclesiology, particularly the limits of the Church and Her relationship to heterodox confessions. In the 21st century, however, His Eminence predicted that new issues, such as anthropology and bioethics, would become far more pressing, as debates over ecclesiology recede from the forefront of controversy.
At least so far, the Council of Crete indicates otherwise.