Una Sancta: Fundamentalism, Ecumenism and the One True Church

Una and the Lion, from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Briton Rivière)

I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.

– Fr. Georges Florovsky, “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”

A number of times in my life, especially since I have been ordained, and even moreso since I began writing and speaking publicly, it has been suggested to me (usually second- or third-hand) that I am some kind of fundamentalist—meaning not merely someone who holds to fundamentals, i.e., orthodoxy, but rather someone who is an intolerant militant.

Likewise, it has also been suggested to me (again, usually indirectly) that I am some kind of ecumenist—and here is meant not merely someone who will bother talking with other confessions and religions, but who will compromise with them on the truth.

I sometimes wish I could get these two groups of people together to let them have it out, and perhaps then I might know which sort of extremism best suits me by virtue of deciding who among these partisans I find most sympathetic. I suspect I will never get my wish, however.

Nevertheless, I believe it is the responsibility of any gentleman who aspires to integrity to take the words of his critics to heart, if only to remember why he does not agree with them. Also, I believe the issue of where exactly an Orthodox Christian ought to draw the line in these questions is very much something worth reflecting on. (I have written on this before, mind you, but that has never stopped me from doing so again.)

Suffice it to say, I do not believe that either fundamentalism or ecumenism (each as defined above) is befitting an Orthodox Christian, the first because it is a sin against love and the second because, well, it is a sin against love.

That fundamentalism is a sin against love is evident to all but the fundamentalist himself. This attitude, that it is I who possess the truth in and of myself, that it is I who am right, is fundamentally an error. Orthodoxy is not a measure by which people are judged to be correct or in error. Orthodoxy, because it is the truth, is actually Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He is the truth, and so we Orthodox rightly affirm that the truth is not a set of concepts which one can get right or wrong, but that the truth is a Person. Therefore, the one who is truly in union with that Person cannot be a fundamentalist, because he will have transcended worldly categories of rational correctness. He also cannot be militant, because the One with Whom he is in union is pure gentleness and respects the free will of mankind, having granted it Himself in the first place.

Ecumenism is likewise a sin against love, and, again, that is news to the ecumenist. He probably thinks he is acting in the interests of love, setting aside all that pesky dogma that divides and does not unite. But love does not lie, not even to spare the feelings of the beloved. And ecumenism is fundamentally based on the lie that there is no truth, that there are only “truths,” whose meaning never touches mankind such that he becomes responsible to something beyond himself. Rather, these “truths” are put in service to mankind.

Both fundamentalism and ecumenism (again, I stress: as defined above) are in their essence not remotely Christian. Why? It is because their purpose is always born of and directed toward this world. The fundamentalist serves worldly logic, always demanding correctness, while the ecumenist also serves another worldly logic, demanding instead social aims such as “justice” (defined typically in purely material terms) or “unity” (again, in material terms, not in terms of uniting with the one Christ). Neither fundamentalism nor ecumenism are actually about the truth, because they are about mere concepts (often about the truth), not about the Person Jesus Christ (Who is the truth).

Orthodoxy’s telos has always been directed away from this world, toward the Person Who is Truth Himself. That is why, as per Florovsky’s quote above, an Orthodox Christian must believe in only one Church, the Una Sancta (“One Holy,” from the Nicene Creed). Why? Because we believe in the whole Christ, according to the phrase of St. Augustine that Florovsky himself loved, totus Christus, caput et corpus (“the whole Christ, head and body”). Christ cannot be divided, and so there cannot be many churches. There can be only one Church.

Believing this and defending this to those who would deny it does not make one a fundamentalist. Why? It is because the uniqueness of Christ, which is the uniqueness of the Church, is not any human achievement. It is nothing for which I can take any credit. It is only something to which I can attempt to adhere. By my sins, I frequently separate myself from the Church, and it is only at the eschaton, the end of all things, when it will be known whether I will be fully and permanently joined with Christ.

Admitting that I am a sinner and do not understand the truth fully also does not make one an ecumenist. Why? Because God actually did reveal the truth, and He revealed that He is the truth. We cannot compromise on the nature of the truth—Who is a Person—any more than we can compromise on any other person’s nature. We can argue and issue agreed statements and overlook various points of doctrine all we want, but none of that will change the nature of Christ. He is Who He is. Working out a “confession” to which one must be loyal or to which disparate parties can agree is ultimately irrelevant to the reality, as though some “version” of Christianity could be found to be sufficient. The task of the Christian is not to discover the truth (or worse, “my” truth) so that it can be publicized to mankind but to be responsible to what was actually revealed to mankind. There is discovery to be made, but the discovery is how I may further conform myself to the revelation, not the revelation to me.

Yes, I believe that the Orthodox Church truly is the only Church. Seeing what I have seen, how can I believe otherwise? And I also wonder, how can anyone else who holds to some faith believe otherwise concerning his own faith? If what you believe is not truly the truth, why do you believe it? How is it worth your dignity and your loyalty if it is not the truth? Nothing is worthy of the name truth that does not call humanity to its knees in repentance to be transformed into what is higher and nobler.

What makes belief in the Una Sancta something that cannot be used as a weapon against others, something that cannot be turned into a fundamentalism, is that none of us truly knows whether he will finally be found in the Church at the end of time. The Church is not mine. The question is really whether I am the Church’s.

Likewise, the Una Sancta cannot be turned into a project of ecumenism, because the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the corpus of the totus Christus, and there is no amount of word-wrangling that will change the God-man Jesus Christ. In the end we must stand (in the words of the great Akathist of Romanos) “as mute as fish” before this mystery of incarnation.

Let us pray that in the end we will be found not to have neglected so great a salvation.

Update: For the sake of clarity, I thought I should make explicit that the definitions of fundamentalism and ecumenism used above are not my own, nor do I prefer them. To me, both words are almost entirely evacuated of any real meaning these days. I will, however, proffer my (observed) definition for fundamentalist as found in the wider culture:

fundamentalist, n. Anyone who is more serious about religion than I am, especially if he owns a gun.

14 comments:

  1. “And even if I do not agree with the doctrines and practices of another religion, I do respect the faith of those who follow it, especially those who follow it with seriousness. Indeed, I almost always make it a point not to stir up such serious people to try to coax them into Orthodoxy. Someone who loves God and is earnestly seeking the Truth is not someone I need to seek out for prodding.”

    I’ve been struggling with how to understand and walk with integrity in light of this tension of the Orthodox Church being, in truth, *the* Church and how to defend my Orthodox faith when challenged (or how to remain silent when not asked as the case may be) and also to respect what you have stated in the quote above (from what you wrote earlier).I’m the only Orthodox in my Evangelical family and all are serious followers of Christ. Any thoughts?

    1. My thoughts on this in general are what I wrote. My thoughts on this in specific would require me to have more specific knowledge. In short, Ask Your Own Priest (AYOP)! 🙂

      But to elaborate on the general a bit: The key really is in knowing the relationship well. If the person in front of you really is happy as a clam and seems to love Christ, there really probably is no point in trying to give him a shove somewhere else. My experience is that there usually needs to be some kind of extraordinary circumstance that displaces such people from their clam-happiness before they can ever hear the basic fact that there is another path they could be walking. That is, you have to figure out who actually has ears to hear.

      1. Thank you! I will certainly also talk more with my own Priest. He understands the issues with my family members and is very supportive and welcoming–just being his Orthodox self without making my husband *a project* in the evangelical sense. He has actually expressed the conviction that aggressive pursuit of heterodox Christians is not evangelism, but proselytism, since they are already converted to Christ (though our parish is probably at least half converts from other Christian confessions). My husband and kids attend church with me and I with them on alternate Sundays (not ideal, but a compromise for the sake of love), which is the best approach at this point for my particular situation, I think.

  2. My Protestant friends would say that they believe just as you do, that there is only One True Church. It’s just that it is invisible. All the denominations are the visible Church, and within this visible body, the invisible true Church exists. What are the implications of this
    invisible / visible distinction? Have you written anything on this topic?

    1. Yes, I address the question of the “invisible” Church in the fourth chapter of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, though not at any great length.

      In any event, my question for those who believe in the “invisible” Church is how so many communities who all disagree on what truth actually is can somehow all be the one Body of Christ. Either there has been revelation from God or there has not. If there has not, well, then what’s the point of any of this?

      1. I suspect that the answer will be something to the effect that they agree on the “essentials” and the things on which they disagree fall into the category for them of what Orthodox would call “theologoumena.” The problem with this is that what they consider “theologoumena” are actually regarding dogmas of the Church, and central to a right understanding and practice of the faith, such as the nature and mode of water Baptism and the Eucharist!

        I would love to see a good explanation of the problems with this approach to ecclesiology for those (like me) who were raised in that mindset. I can see problems and experienced them as I wandered from group to group over the years looking for a more coherent understanding of Scripture, Church history and my own Christian experience, but I don’t know how to articulate this well. Add to that the complicating factor that I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t see God working in any way in Christians outside the Orthodox Church, because I believe He does (though I understand that as intending to lead all into the fullness of Orthodoxy).

  3. Fr Andrew,

    I think your definition of “ecumenism” is a bit of a straw man. Ecumenism is not the idea that there is no single truth, nor that truth can somehow be found by a process of compromise among various people’s opinions. I suppose that among the proponents of and participants in ecumenical dialogue you might be able to find some people who believe those things, but I suggest that most don’t believe them.

    Ecumenism is the idea that when there is division among Christians, even those who are wrong can, and often do, retain some elements of the truth that was handed down to them. And if it is possible for those who are wrong to be reconciled to the Una Sancta, then it need not be by wholly rejecting their own heritage, but by treasuring the truth that they have received and returning it back to its proper place in the fullness of the Apostolic Tradition.

    Or, to put it more briefly, those who confess Jesus Christ as true God and true Man, crucified in the flesh and risen from the dead for our salvation, and worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are Christians, even if they are not Orthodox. If that is true, then it ought to be OK to talk to them, and even to regard them as brothers.

    ISTM that an Orthodoxy that rejects that as the “heresy of ecumenism” is triumphalist and fundamentalist.

    What do you think?

    1. What do I think? I think you are responding precisely to what I was not actually addressing. I absolutely agree with you that that definition of ecumenism is indeed a straw man (though that does not prevent some people from filling their heads with straw!), and it is one used precisely by those who see lurking “ecumenists” around every corner (i.e., the people I was addressing). I apparently was not emphatic enough (despite having emphasized it twice) that I was only commenting on particular definitions of these words—or, more precisely, to the attitudes behind them. I by no means was endorsing those definitions, and I think that you will search in vain for such an endorsement in my piece here.

      Indeed, I find both words to be virtually useless these days, used as they are almost exclusively by their critics. I only ever use these words in this critical sense or in my more vainglorious moments of irony. I have not hardly met anyone who is a self-described “fundamentalist” or “ecumenist,” especially in Orthodox circles (and it is clear that that is what I am speaking of here). Perhaps there are such people around, but they certainly are not the ones I was addressing in this post, and I think that’s pretty clear.

      As for whether there is “an Orthodoxy” that rejects “the heresy of ecumenism,” well, there is indeed only one Orthodoxy (thus the indefinite article hardly makes sense here), and the Orthodox Church has never actually put forth any kinds of anathemas against a heresy called “ecumenism,” however it may be defined.

      1. I have heard that the “invisible” church distinction as taught by most Protestant groups, is in actuality a denial of the incarnation of God, a modern day sort of Nestorianism (I think).

        Does anyone know if this is accurate?

        As I understand it, it goes something like this….the Protestants, do NOT believe that their “visible” church is in anyway the Incarnate Body of Jesus Christ. Instead their “visible” church is His “body” only in the sense that “body” means a “group” people. Their “invisible” church however, is somehow His Body in the sense of organs and digits and eyes and ears, but because it is not visible, it cannot therefore be incarnate. Thus the incarnation of God is denied.

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