St. Paul (I Cor. 12)
develops the thought that the Church is the body of Christ, composed of different members. All these members, while of equal value, like the members of the same body, differ as to their place and function;
hence gifts differ, and ministries, but the Spirit is one. In these words St. Paul announces the general principles of the hierarchic and ecclesiastical construction of society. The hierarchical basis, not denying but rather realizing general equality of all, in the presence of natural and spiritual differentiation, is natural to every society with spiritual purposes. All the more, then, is it natural to the society which is the Church. The Orthodox Church was hierarchical in different aspects;
the Lord Himself laid the foundations of the hierarchy of the New Alliance, when He called the Twelve Apostles, when He initiated them into the mysteries of His teaching and made them witnesses of His life. Each Apostle was called personally by Our Lord to the apostolic ministry. By this fact each received the apostolic dignity, but, at the same time, the Twelve together formed a certain unity — the assembly of the Apostles-which, after the fall of Judas, was re-established by a new election (Acts 1:15-26). Within the limits of the Twelve Our Lord sometimes made distinctions, choosing three or four Apostles (Peter, James, John and sometimes Andrew)
to be present on the Mount of the Transfiguration or at the place of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Their prominence brings a principle of organization into the mutual relationships of the apostolic group, gives a hieratic constitution to the apostolic hierarchy itself, which, in turn, serves as prototype for the hieratic relations between equal bishops. This may be observed again in the distinction of James, Cephas and John, considered as pillars by St. Paul. The constitution of the assembly of the Apostles, in spite of the equality of its members, may be compared to the universal Episcopate: in this, side by side with bishops, there are patriarchs, and among these certain priorities exist, or even a unique priority — priority of honor and not of rank, certainly. Our Lord not only singled out the Apostles by their calling, He especially consecrated them by His priestly prayer (John 17), by sending them the Holy Spirit, by His breath. He gave them power to remit sins (John 20:22). But their real consecration was accomplished by the descent of the Holy Spirit in the shape of tongues of fire, which “rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3).
In the Apostles Our Lord laid the foundation of the hierarchy;
to deny this would be to oppose the will of the Lord. Of course the Apostles, by their consecration, did not become equal to or like Our Lord, “vicars of Christ,” or substitutes for Christ, neither in the person of St. Peter, nor in the persons of the Twelve taken collectively. Our Lord Himself lives invisibly in the Church, as its head;
since His Ascension, He lives in the Church “always, now and forever and to eternity”;
the hierarchy of the Apostles did not receive the power to become vicars of Christ, but that of communicating the gifts necessary to the life of the Church. In other words, the apostolic hierarchy was instituted by the power and the will of Christ, but neither in the person of a prime hierarch (the Pope), nor in that of the entire apostolic assembly, does it take the place of Christ on earth. To the hierarchy belongs the authority to be mediators, servants of Christ, from whom they received full power for their ministry.
This ministry consists above all in preaching “as eyewitnesses of the Word,” “as witnesses” (Acts 1:8)
of the Incarnation;
in conferring the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the newly baptized and in ordaining others to perform priestly functions, whatever they may be. In a word, the Apostles were given power to organize the life of the Church, and at the same time they were charismatics who united in themselves the gift of the administration of the sacraments with those of prophecy and of teaching. Associated with the Twelve were other Apostles, not of the same dignity — as it were, inferior. These were the 70 Apostles or disciples spoken of in the Gospel, and the Apostles (other than the Twelve)
mentioned in the apostolic epistles. First place here belongs certainly to St. Paul, whose superior dignity, equal to that of the original group, is testified to by himself and recognized by the others. To this same group belong, further, all those who saw the risen Lord (I Cor. 15:5-8), for example, James (de “brother” of Jesus), Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Andronicus, and Junius. But this apostolate (see the “Didache” document of the end of the first century)
differed essentially from the proto-apostolate, the apostolate of the Twelve, who possessed the plenitude of gifts, who were invested with full power by Christ, and sent by Him to “bear witness.”
These twelve Apostles, called by Our Lord, died before the end of the first century. In the East, there remained only the “old man” John, who outlived all the others. Did the power of the apostolic ministry in the Church end after the death of the Apostles?
In a certain sense, it did. It ended after its mission was accomplished, after having laid the foundation for the Church of the New Covenant and having preached the Gospel to all the world. The apostolate in the plenitude of its spiritual gifts has not and cannot have personal continuity, and the Roman idea that the Apostle Peter continues to exist, in the person of the Pope, is a heretical invention. The apostolic gifts and powers were personal;
Our Lord gave them to the Apostles in calling them by name. Besides, the apostolate is a synthesis of different charismatic gifts, a synthesis which we do not find in any of the hieratic powers of their followers in the apostolic succession. Nevertheless, the Apostles did not leave the world without bequeathing a heritage, a continuation of their ministry. The Apostles transmitted what had to be received by their successors. Outside the personal apostolic dignity, which could not be transmitted, they gave those gifts which belong either to Christians individually or to the Church as a society. They gave to all believers the gifts of grace of the Holy Spirit, which, conferred by the laying-on of hands, make those believers an elect body, a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation” (I Peter 2:9), but they agreed that these gifts should be communicated by means of a hierarchy, instituted by them, whose authority exists by virtue of direct and uninterrupted succession from the Apostles.
After the Apostles the communication of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church became the prerogative of the hierarchy, that is of the episcopate, with its presbyters and deacons. Beginning from the end of the first and the outset of the second centuries, in the works of St. Ignatius, of St. Irenæus of Lyon, of Tertullian, and later, in the third century, in the works of St. Cyprian, the idea is developed that the Church is centered about the bishop, and that the bishop exists by virtue of the apostolic succession, which is a divine institution. In certain cases, examples are indicated of that succession interrupted (as in the sees of Rome, of Ephesus, of Jerusalem). It is impossible to state, historically, the place, the time and the manner of the institution by the Apostles of the hierarchy in its present form, that is in the three orders: bishops, presbyters, deacons. The documents of the beginning of the first century are silent on this point. Or indeed, if we find suggestions about the hieratic dignities it is evident that the orders there have another meaning than that of our day, or that the distinction and the correlation between the three degrees, very clear today, at that time lacked precision (Acts 20:17-28;
I Tim. 3:2, 5, 7;
I Peter 5:1). In any case, if we find in the writings of the Apostles indications about bishops and presbyters, these indications cannot be considered direct proofs of the existence of the three degrees of priesthood in the sense we give them now.
To prove that in the first century there existed a hierarchy with three orders, in the sense accepted today, is hardly possible, and scarcely necessary. The picture given in I Cor. 12:14 corresponds rather with a life not yet well organized, but rich in inspiration and characterized by a diffusion of spiritual gifts. The charismatics naturally found leadership and direction in the Apostles. Doubtless also the Apostles instituted, by the imposition of hands, leaders among the groups, who were named bishops or presbyters, or angels of the Church (Apocalypse), not to mention ministers and deacons. What is indisputable is the presence of the hierarchy about the Apostles, by the side of the Apostles, and it cannot be admitted that the formation of that hierarchy is the result only of a natural development of communal organization and that it was not also the realization of the direct will of Our Lord. In this connection we note that in Asia Minor (Epistle of St. Ignatius)
and in Rome (Epistles of Pope Clement, work of St. Irenæus)
towards the beginning of the second century, there existed a “monarchical” episcopate;
that is, local churches having as heads bishops, as sole true charismatics, about whom presbyters and deacons are gathered. At that period the dogmatic expression of this system is still unstable and intermittent (as in the epistle of St. Ignatius the “Théophore”), but the custom, as well as the consciousness of it, is already present.
This transition from an unordered general “charismatism” to a closed clergy with an episcopate at its head remains a puzzle for the historian. It is sometimes understood by Protestants to have been a sort of spiritual catastrophe or general falling into sin, as a result of which amorphous communities everywhere became infected with institutionalism, adopted the forms of the organization of the State, and thus gave rise to “ecclesiastical law.” This is an instance of the lack of feeling, so characteristic of Protestantism, for the oneness of the Church and its tradition, because of which much apparent difficulty and uncertainty arise. This leads to the idea that inwardly there is a break between the first and second centuries, an idea which leads to an absurdity — namely, that the Church could continue its existence in the true sense, free from hierarchical organization, only a few decades, after which the Church suddenly became afflicted with the hierarchic leprosy, and for 1,500 years ceased to be itself, until, suddenly, the Church was “healed” of this ailment and again became sound in anti-hierarchical Protestantism.
The hierarchy, in Episcopal form, with presbyters and deacons dependent on it, responds to a natural necessity in the Church. Nothing is more natural than the need for such an hierarchy. The grace of the Holy Spirit given to the Church is not a personal, subjective inspiration of one or another person, which may exist or not;
it is rather an objective fact in the life of the Church, it is the power of an universal Pentecost continuously active. The tongues of fire of Pentecost, sent down on the Apostles, live in the world and are communicated by the Apostles to their successors. The assembly of the Apostles was the hieratic receptacle and the tongues of fire the method of transmission of the gifts of grace of the Church. In view of this, the charismatic succession of the Apostles became necessary and inevitable. But this had to happen in a well defined manner, valid for all, and not accidental;
that is, by the regular succession of the hierarchy, which — to put it in terms of sacramental theology — must operate not “opere operantis” but “opere operato.” A form for this succession, prepared and instituted by God, was in existence: that of the priest of Old Testament, which, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, was the prototype of the priesthood of the New Testament. Nevertheless, this latter was not simply a continuation of the old. It was a new creation proceeding from the great High Priest, not after the order of Aaron, but after that of Melchisedec. This High Priest is Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who sacrifices to the Father not the blood of lambs, but His own blood, at once the priest and the sacrifice. The presence of Christ on earth naturally rendered superfluous and impossible the existence of a hierarchy outside Himself, but the formation of a hierarchy is also impossible without Our Lord, without His command. And the Apostles, as proto-hierarchs, transmitted to their successors their hieratic powers, but certainly not their personal gifts, in full plenitude.
We cannot affirm that the Apostles instituted this succession immediately, but the fact of such institution cannot be denied. After some fluctuations in terminology, the hierarchy was sell defined in the second century, after the type of the priesthood of the Old Testament;
yet always with a difference. For the Church which lives in the unity of tradition, the institution of the apostolic succession of the hierarchy is axiomatic. Tradition remains the same, always possessed of the same power, whether a certain form or institution appears in the first or the second or the twentieth century, if only the new form contains, not a denial, but a completion of what has previously been contained in the substance of tradition. The destruction or the denial of the content of tradition of the Church is a break and a spiritual catastrophe which impoverishes and deforms the life of a Christian group by taking from it the fullness of its inheritance.
Such is the effect of the abolition of the apostolic succession in Protestantism. It has deprived the Protestant world of the gifts of Pentecost, transmitted in the Sacraments and the cult of the Church by the hierarchy, which received its power from the Apostles and their successors. The Protestant world thus became like Christians who, although baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” have not received the Holy Spirit transmitted by the hands of the Apostles (Acts 19:5-6).
The fact of Apostolic succession, and the continuity of the laying on of hands, which cannot be disputed, especially from the beginning of the second century, is in itself sufficient evidence of its divine institution. This applies equally to the Eastern and the Western Churches. Of course, this laying-on of hands is not to be conceived as some form of magic, and the priesthood is valid only in union with the Church. The fact that all Orthodox Christians possess grace and that in a certain sense a universal priesthood exists, in no way contradicts the existence of a special priesthood, the hierarchy. The universal priesthood is not only compatible with the hierarchy, but is even a condition of the existence of the latter. For certainly the hierarchy cannot come into being and continue in a society deprived of grace;
on the contrary, in such societies the hierarchy loses its power, as is the case in groups become entirely heretical or schismatic. But both gifts and ministries vary. While there may be different degrees of priesthood in the limits of the same hierarchy, there ought to be a difference between the hierarchy and the laity, even granted a universal priesthood. The election by communal choice, while a preliminary condition, is entirely compatible with the decisive value of the laying-on of hands by Bishops. Human will and choice cannot alone take the place of the divine act of imposition. And the officer elected by the group does not by that election become either a hierarch or a charismatic. The hierarchy is the only charismatic ministry of the Church having permanent value;
it takes the place of a vanished special “charismatism.” Generally speaking, this is the explanation of the historic fact that the unregulated charismatism of the primitive Church was replaced in the time of the Apostles by the apostolic succession.
The hierarchy must be understood as a regular, legal charismatism for a special purpose. Partly for the mystical transmission of the gifts of grace, the succession of life in grace. As a result of this regulation, bound up with the external fact of the hierarchical succession, the hierarchy, not losing its charismatism, becomes an institution, and thus into the life of the Church is introduced institutionalism, canonical law. But this institutionalism is of a very special nature, of which we must here take account.
Above all, and this is the most essential thing, the hierarchy is the power for administering the sacraments;
consequently the hierarchy carries in itself that mysterious power, superhuman and supernatural. According to the testimony of ancient writings (Apostolic Fathers such as St. Ignatius the Théophore)
the bishop is he who celebrates the Eucharist, and only the Eucharist celebrated by a bishop is valid. The sacrament of the breaking of bread occupied at once the most important place in the Christian life;
it became the organizing force in the Church and especially for the hierarchy. After Pentecost, the believers “persevered in the doctrine of the Apostles, in the breaking of bread and in prayer” (Acts 2:42). The central significance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church is attested by many documents of the first and second centuries. It was natural that, at first, the Eucharist should be celebrated by the Apostles, also by the charismatics (prophets of the Didache)
instituted by the Apostles. But in post-apostolic times the administration of the sacrament of the Body and Blood fell to bishops alone. Little by little, in the usage of the Church, other sacraments were joined to the first. Then the hierarchy, that is the bishops and the clergy dependent on them, immediately joined together for the administering of the sacraments as a consequence of the sacramental “charismatism.” This latter, being the foundation of the mystic life, of the life of grace in the Church, had to have permanent representatives. The bishop, possessed of the fullness of charismatic power, naturally and inevitably became the centre around whom revolved all the ecclesiastical community, which depended essentially upon him.
It is thus easy to understand the logic of Christian thought of the first centuries, from St. Ignatius to St. Cyprian. According to them, “episcopum in ecclesia esse et ecclesiam in episcopo.” From this general charismatic foundation there came, later in the history of the Church, the development of canonical law which defined the rights of the bishops, and still later the relations among the bishops. In the course of the centuries, local and ecumenical councils regulated these mutual relations, which give evidence of the complexity of the situation at that time. The essential point is that the bishops, notwithstanding administrative differences due to circumstances, are entirely equal from the charismatic viewpoint: among them there never was a super-bishop, “episcopus episcoporum,” never a pope.
To appreciate properly the nature of the Episcopal authority we must bear in mind its special features, arising from the nature of communion in the Church. It must be noted that in spite of its being often labeled “monarchical,” the authority of the Church is of quite a different nature from that of the state. It is a spiritual authority, which is above all a form of service (Luke 22:26). In the use of his power the bishop works with the Church, but never above the Church, which is a spiritual organism, one of love. Agreement with the Church, and union with it, is the very condition of the existence of the bishop. This union cannot be expressed in terms of constitutional right, such as those of democracy or of limited monarchical power, because these categories of right are not applicable here. If the Church law has authority at all, it is always an authority sui generis. The Episcopal power may be even more absolute than that of an absolute monarch and still remain entirely latent and diffused in the union of the bishop with his people.
The example of the Church in Jerusalem, its relations with the Apostles, as the first bishops, serves as a guiding rule in this connection. Notwithstanding all the plenitude of their power, really “super-episcopal” (for over and above the plenitude of Episcopal power they had also full apostolic authority personally), the Apostles decided all essential questions in union with the people (see Acts 1:15-26;
15:6, 25). And if history tells us that the ecumenical as well as many local councils were usually composed of bishops alone, this fact should not be interpreted as a new canon law abrogating the council of the Apostles and giving to the rank of bishop, as such, power over the Christians, valid without their participation. This fact must be understood not as an expression of the power of the bishops over the Church, but rather as a representation by the bishops of the churches of which they are the heads and with which they remain united. That the “elders and the brothers” of the council of Jerusalem were not actually present at all subsequent councils was the result of practical considerations or technical convenience. As a matter of fact, the all-Russian Council in Moscow, 1917-18, consisted of diocesan bishops, together with their flocks, priests and laymen. Thus organized, the council of Moscow followed more exactly than the ecumenical councils the canon law of Jerusalem. The difficulties of travel, due to contemporary means of communication, sufficiently explain the solely hierarchic composition of the councils. It may also be held that the people of the Church were represented by the Emperor and his functionaries.
It is true that in Roman Catholicism the presence of bishops alone has become a general rule, for the hierarchy has been understood rather as authority over the Church, a power of which the Pope-monarch is the head. But we do not know, in the history of apostolic times, one single instance of the Apostles having acted as a personal authority over the Church, independent of it. As to the personal gifts of the Apostles -for example, that of performing miracles — these were not allied to their prerogatives as representatives of ecclesiastical power, but belonged to them as one of the “gifts” of their apostolic ministry. This is why, up to the present time, the people of the Church have the right to a voice in the choice of bishops;
the people join even in ordination, when performed by bishops, for, at a certain moment, the people must announce if the elect is worthy — “αξιος” — or unworthy. “Let no one be ordained,” wrote Pope Leo the Great, “contrary to the consent and will of the people, for fear lest the people, having been forced, begin to hate and to despise the undesirable bishop” (Epist. ad Anast. 84).
To understand thoroughly the hieratic principle of the Church, we must think not only of the unquestionable prerogatives of the hierarchy, but also of those, no less unquestionable, of the laity. The laity are not merely passive subjects with their only obligation that of obeying the hierarchy;
they are not in any way vessels empty of “charism” to be filled by the hierarchy. The lay state should be considered as a sacred dignity;
the name Christian has made “a people of God, a royal priesthood.” The significance of this idea, although it is sometimes exaggerated in Protestantism, even to the complete denial of the hierarchy, must never be minimized. As a Christian having received baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing, which may be conceived as a sort of ordination to the calling of Christian, the, laity is also charismatic, though in a limited sense, especially in connection with the celebration of the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments. They can, in case of need, administer baptism. Finally, in the sacraments whose administration is reserved to priests alone, particularly the Eucharist, even here the laity have a certain share;
the priest, strictly speaking, cannot complete the sacrament alone, without the people. In other words, he administers the sacraments with the people, and the laity are co-administrators with him. In the spiritual organism which is the Church everything takes place in the unity of love, and not one organ can exist without the others. Nonne et laici sacerdotes sumus?
Up to a certain point the words of Tertullian are applicable here.
Although the New Testament has no direct instances of the hierarchy in its now accepted three degrees, deacons, priests and bishops, yet on the other hand there is no evidence of a completely unorganized administration of the sacraments: this function seems always to belong either to the Apostles or to other individuals specially appointed. The hierarchy, in direct succession from the Apostles, and the One Who appointed them, is Christ Himself, acting in the Church. There can be no greater misfortune in the Church than that great movement beginning in the sixteenth century, by which whole congregations, whole nations, deprived themselves of the hierarchy. This is a deep sorrow of the Church today, and we must all pray for a time when our Protestant brothers should again seek and again receive a hierarchy. Protestants find an opposition between prophecy and institutionalism. They think that the hieratic principle is antagonistic to the gift of prophecy which abounds in the Church when the hierarchy is eliminated. This opposition, which is justified in a certain degree by the excesses of Romanism, rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. In the beginning, at the time of the Apostles and in the primitive Church, different gifts existed, among them that of prophecy. St. Paul encouraged this: “I wish . . . that you might prophesy” . . . “aspire to the gift of prophecy” (I Cor. 14:5, 39). On the one hand the Apostle wished to safeguard prophecy for fear it would be extinguished (“Quench not the spirit, despise not prophecy”), but at the same time, he develops the idea of a body with divers members. And although prophecy was widespread in the Church in Apostolic times, it was not opposed to the “institutionalism” of the Episcopate, the presbyteriate and the diaconate, which we find existing in the Apostolic epistles and in the Acts.
The hieratic principle has as much value for the Church as that of prophecy. The acquisition of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the end of the Christian life, according to the definition of St. Seraphim, the greatest Russian saint of the nineteenth century. The first Christian preaching of St. Peter contained the prophetic words of Joel, applied to the Christian Church: “I will fill with my spirit every creature, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17), and that Pentecostal word is always to be heard in the Church. The Orthodox Church repeats here the words of Moses: “Would that all Jehovah's people were prophets” (Num. 11:29). But this idea of general prophecy, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, which the Church encourages, may become an illusory pretension when it denies the hierarchy in the name of a universal priesthood;
prophecy then transforms itself into a pseudo-prophetic excitement. This latter was overcome in the Church in “montanism,” and the Church continues to prevail over all such successive heresies. Such an error leads, besides, to a ritual officialdom, devoid of grace, as in the case of ministers elected but not consecrated, who claim to replace the divinely instituted hierarchy. They pretend to concentrate in themselves the general gift of prophecy, thus depriving their flock of it. Is this not “institutionalism,” bureaucratic instead of hierarchic, when the latter is eliminated by the former?
The priestly service, as a charismatic mediation, cannot be merely mechanical or magical: it presupposes the spiritual participation of the person who serves as a living mediator. In acting as mediator between God and man in the sacrament, in causing the descent of the Holy Spirit, the priest makes himself the instrument of that descent;
he renounces his own individuality, he dies with the victim, he is at the same time sacrificed and sacrificer, he who offers and that which is offered” in the image of Christ, the High Priest. This death is renunciation of self;
the minister of the hierarchy is the minister of love. The connection between the clergy and the laity does not consist in the authority of the former over the latter, but in their mutual love. The pastors receive the special gift of compassionate love. The sufferings and the faults of others become theirs. They care for souls in applying to them acts of love and of pardon, as well as the corrections of discipline. The clergy are charged with an especial responsibility toward their flocks, a responsibility non-existent for the laity;
the latter repay their pastors by loving and honoring them. The flock groups itself naturally around the shepherds, and the Church is thus composed of hieratically organized communities.
The hierarchy is a sort of skeleton of the body of the Church. Certainly if at any time there appears in the Church a manifestation of the Spirit and its power — through any man whatsoever — all ecclesiastical society relates itself to this “prophetic” minister, pastors and flocks, regardless of hieratic difference, follow the prophet. The personal authority of St. Seraphim of Sarov, or of Father John of Kronstadt, or of the “startsi” (elders)
of the monastery of Optina (Fr. Ambrose and others), was greater than that of any hierarch. But this authority never encroached upon the prerogatives of the hierarchy. It kept within its limitations and by no means abolished them. This fact confirms once more the compatibility between prophecy and hierarchy.
The duties of the shepherd include the duty of instruction in the Church. This duty is joined so naturally to the priesthood that it would seem strange to have it otherwise. Not only the reading but also the preaching of the word of God, direct instruction, form part of the pastoral ministry. The words of the pastor, independent of their greater or less value, have an importance deriving from the place and time where they are spoken, for they form a part of the divine service. In this role of doctor of the Church the pastor can neither be replaced nor supplanted.
But the duties of the doctor are not limited to preaching in the temple. Hence the right and the duty of the hierarchy to preserve intact the teaching transmitted by the Church, protecting it from deformation and announcing to believers the basis of true doctrine. The maintenance of this basis is assured by various appropriate measures, belonging to the ecclesiastical calling;
even to excommunication. Within the limits of his diocese, the bishop guards the purity of the doctrines taught and pronounced;
the council of bishops of a regional Church, or even, in cases of more general importance, the council of bishops of the ecumenical Church, define ecclesiastical truth which has been obscured or has never been made clear in the mind of the Church.
If it is remembered that priests must not only preach in the temple but teach elsewhere, then the general question arises concerning the nature of that teaching, in so far as it belongs to the hierarchy alone. Here enters the question of infallibility. In the Church there are shepherds and the flock;
there are then two parts, those who teach and those who are taught. The teaching authority of the Church cannot be diminished with impunity. But this does not at all mean that all teaching belongs to the pastors and that the laity are entirely without this function, having only the duty of passive acceptance of doctrines taught. Such a point of view, which sharply divides ecclesiastical society into two parts, the active and the passive, does not agree with the true inwardness of Christianity, and we must contrast this idea with that of the universal priesthood, of the anointing of the people of God. It is to the people, to all believers.
If the administration of the sacraments, if, especially, the imposition of hands was the prerogative of the Apostles (and later of the hierarchy instituted by them)
the preaching of the Gospel was to a certain degree considered the duty of all believers, for every believer is called by Our Lord Himself to confess (and thus to preach)
before men (Math. 10:32-3;
Luke 18:9). And truly we see that the preaching of Christ was the work, from the beginning, not only of the Apostles, but of believers in general (Acts 6:5;
and not only by men, but also by women of whom some were glorified by the Church as equal to the Apostles because of their preaching of the Gospel (St. Mary Magdalene, St. Nina, apostle of Georgia, St. Thecla the Martyr, and others). The Christian mission is not limited to the hierarchy, but is the duty of each Christian, who says “I believe and I confess,” and who, in so doing, becomes a preacher. The great deeds of the martyrs, who confessed their faith, are the best sermons.
If, further, we consider preaching, not only among unbelievers, but among Christians, we find in Scripture numerous witnesses to the active role of the laity. Note also that the Scriptures do not know the word “laity,” but that the New Testament calls Christians simply “believers,” “disciples,” “brothers,” etc. The laity then share in the gift of teaching, thus proving the existence of a special gift of teaching (James 5:19-20;
I Thess. 5:11;
I Cor. 14:26;
I Tim. 1:7, 3:2, 17;
I Peter 4:10-11). But if the laity have not the right to preach during services (as they have not the power to celebrate the mysteries during which the word is preached)
they are not deprived of the right to preach apart from the service, and, still more, to preach outside the temple. A certain limitation of the right of the laity to preach was introduced for practical and disciplinary reasons, but not at all because of charismatic inferiority, or of the incompatibility of the right of preaching with the status of the laity. In the Church there is no place for speechlessness and for blind obedience, as the Apostle says in Gal. 5:1.
But, if this is true of the work of edification in the Church, still less can the laity be denied the right to scientific study of doctrinal problems, or even to be theologians. At all events in our day, by the very force of circumstance, such occupation is equivalent to teaching. The exercise of this right may be regulated by the hierarchy, but not abolished. Theological thought is the conscience of the Church;
it is its very breath of life which cannot be controlled externally. Besides the general grace given to Christians by the Holy Spirit, there can be a special election, formerly termed the prophetic ministry, which must not be overlooked. Because of a certain timidity and the difficulty of recognizing this election, it is seldom designated as prophecy;
but certainly the springs of this gift in the Church have not dried up.
In our time the terms “prophet” and “prophecy” have become rather literary epithets. But these words ought to express our religious conviction that prophecy has not ceased and cannot cease in the Church. The Apostle expressly forbade the scorning of prophecies and the extinction of the spirit (I Thess. 5:19-20). But the spirit bloweth where it listeth;
the gift of prophecy by the Holy Spirit is not connected with the hieratic ministry, though it may be united with it. It is true that discrimination between spirits and the recognition of authentic prophecy is a difficult task for the Church, for there is always the danger of error. Hence the Apostle Paul says: “Prove all things and hold to that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21). Nevertheless he himself warns us not to quench the spirit. Such an extinction would occur if the laity were forbidden to be theologians. To be sincere one must be free;
freedom does not mean “free thought” but freedom of thought;
it is neither simple ignorance of traditional ecclesiastical doctrine nor license. Freedom is a true and personal inspiration, penetration into the depth of what is crystallized in the Church, a desire to make real the experience of the Church in the realm of personal feeling and thought. This latter corresponds with fundamental reality, for the tradition of the Church is also personal experience realized in individuals. This domain of free inspiration in the Church, and also that of scientific study, is preferably the domain of “prophecy.” But this domain is not the exclusive privilege of the hierarchy. It belongs to the Church.
The Infallibility of the Church
Does any member of the Church possess of himself personal infallibility in his judgment of dogma?
No, he does not — even when he speaks “ex cathedra.” Every member, every hierarch of the Church is liable to error and to the introduction of his own limitations. The history of the Church bears witness in this regard that no hieratic position, however exalted, secures one against the danger of error. There were heretic popes (Liberius and Honorius), not to mention the frequent divergencies of ideas between certain popes, implying certainly that one or the other was wrong. There have been patriarchs (of Constantinople and Alexandria), bishops, priests and laity, who were condemned as heretics. No one can pretend to personal infallibility in theological matters, and such infallibility attaches to no single office. This holds for all hierarchs taken separately, and even as a whole — when they are subject to external pressures.
The ecclesiastical authors, St. Ignatius the Théophore, St. Irenæus, St. Cyprian, admonish believers to gather around their bishops, and the teaching of the bishop is considered the norm of the truth of the Church, the criterion of tradition. This special authority of judgment, allied to his office, belongs to a bishop as such, and even more rightly to the head of a particular Church, joined with him in unity of life and grace, of love and thought. The bishop who confesses the faith, in the name of his Church and as its mouthpiece, is joined with it in union of love and in conformity of thought, in the spirit of the words preceding the recitation of the creed in the Orthodox liturgy: “Let us love one another that we may in the same spirit confess . . .” In other words, the right to voice the doctrine of the Church belongs to the bishop, as someone not above but in the community of which he is the head. In the same way the assembly of bishops, the Episcopate of a church ecumenical or local, united in special council, or living in union and in connection, either by correspondence or by means of intermediaries, does not possess the necessary supreme authority to expound doctrine except in union with the Church and in harmony with it. The Episcopate neither legislates for, nor commands the Church independently of that organization, but is its specially endowed representative. The authority of the bishop is fundamentally the authority of the Church;
as the latter is constituted hierarchically it expresses itself by the mouth of the episcopate.
Since the episcopate are the final authority for the administration of the sacraments, it is clear that their doctrinal decisions have sacramental authority. These decisions are canons or ecclesiastical laws which must be obeyed, since the Church must be obeyed. Thus it follows that the hierarchy, represented by the episcopate, becomes a sort of external doctrinal authority which regulates and defines the dogmatic teaching of the Church. Certainly such doctrinal definitions by a hierarch or by the whole episcopate invested with ecclesiastical authority must be distinguished from personal theological opinions of some bishops, considered as private theologians or authors. These private opinions are by no means obligatory for their flocks. These opinions vary with the personal capacities of their authors. Only those acts done in accordance with the pastoral ministry have the force of law for the flock.
Inasmuch as the Church is a unity of faith and belief, bound together by the hierarchic succession, it must have its doctrinal definitions supported by the whole power of the Church. In the process of determining these truths the episcopate gets together with the laity, and appears as representative of the latter. Hence the authority of the bishops to announce doctrinal truths and demand adherence to them.
According to the Ruman-catholic teaching, truth is held to be a sort of external knowledge belonging only to one person, the Pope, and communicated by him to others. Here we have a clear division of the Church into the teachers and the taught, which is directly opposed to the words of the Savior to His disciples, among whom was Peter. “But be ye not called teachers for one is your teacher . . . the Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10).
Whatever the organ of ecclesiastical infallibility which announces dogmatic truth to the Church, whether it be individual or collective, it equally deprives the Church of the general gift of teaching and of integral infallibility. Our Lord spoke only of Himself as pastor of the sheep. This means that the Church, the body of Christ, has Christ as its head. He is the Truth, and the Church is the support of the Truth. In relation to Him, the Church can have only a passive being, the “flock of Christ.” It is vain for the bishops of Rome to attribute to themselves the power of Christ over the Church. As “successor” of Peter, the Pope wishes to be the vicar of Christ on earth, but Christ left no vicar after Him. He lives, Himself, in the Church, “now, always and forever.” The Church is infallible as such, in its being as a Church. Each member of the Church, inasmuch as he shares in the life of the Church, lives in the truth;
this is why infallibility belongs to the whole Church. “With us the guardian of piety is the very body of the Church, that is, the people themselves, who will always preserve their faith unchanged” (Epistle of the Eastern patriarchs, 1849).
It is unthinkable that the mind of the Church, its very conscience, should belong to one only among its members, to a hierarch placed above the body of the Church and announcing to it the truth. A hierarchy placed above the people, that is, outside them, separated from them, is no more capable of proclaiming the truth of the Church, than the people separated from the hierarchy or than a single individual. In this separation from the Church and this opposition to it (ex sese)
the hierarchy would be outside the Church and deprived of its spirit, for this spirit is union in love, and truth in the Church is given only in the measure of that unity. The pretension of the Pope to be the voice of the truth destroys the unity of the Church;
it puts the Pope in the place of the Church;
“l'église c'est moi.”
The same is true of the hierarchy considered as the collective episcopate. A guiding dogmatic principle is offered here by the Jerusalem council of the Apostles from whom the hierarchy, in the measure of their service, continue the succession. Strictly speaking, the succession of gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church at the time of Pentecost and descending by the Apostles and their followers, extends to the whole Church. We see this exemplified in the Council of Jerusalem where there were assembled “the Apostles and with them the elders,” that is, the older members of the community, people devoid of hieratic character. “Apostles and elders and brothers” (Acts 15:23), that is proto-hierarchs, the holy Apostles, in union with elders and brothers, decided and gave their pronouncements together. The fact is significant, for here is exemplified all the positive force of the unity of the Church, and, in accordance with that union, the assembly proclaimed: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28), in other words, to the Holy Spirit which lives in us.
Hence the question of an single organ of infallibility in the Church is erroneous: the idea of the Church — a spiritual organism whose life is unity in love — is replaced by the principle of a concentrated spiritual power. This is heresy!
Here we touch the very essence of the Orthodox doctrine of the Church. All the power of Orthodox ecclesiology is concentrated on this point. Without understanding this question it is impossible to understand Orthodoxy;
it becomes an eclectic compromise, a middle way between the Roman and Protestant viewpoints. The soul of Orthodoxy is sobórnost according to the perfect definition of Khomiakov;
in this one word of his there is contained a whole confession of faith. Russian ecclesiastical language and theology use this term in a large sense which no other language possesses;
by it is expressed the power and the spirit of the Orthodox Church.
What then is sobórnost?
The word is derived from the verb “sobirat,” to reunite, to assemble. From this comes the word “sobor,” which, by a remarkable coincidence, means both “council” and “cathedral.” Sobornost is the state of being together. The Slavonic text of the Nicene creed translates the epithet καθολική, when applied to the Church, as “sobórnaia,” an adjective which may be understood in two ways, each equally exact. To believe in a “sobórnaia” church is to believe in a Catholic Church, in the original sense of the word, in a Church that assembles and unites: it is also to believe in a conciliar Church in the sense Orthodoxy gives to the term, that is in a Church of the ecumenical councils, as opposed to a purely monarchical ecclesiology. To translate “sobórnost,” I have ventured to use the French word “conciliarité, which must be used both in a restricted sense (the Church of the Councils)
and in a larger sense (the Church Catholic, ecumenical). Sobórnost may also be translated as “harmony,” “unanimity.” Orthodoxy, says Khomiakov, is opposed both to authoritarianism and to individualism, it is a unanimity, a synthesis of authority. It is the liberty in love which unites believers. The word “sobórnost” expresses all that.
This term evokes the ideas of catholicity and of ecumenicity, ideas connected but distinct. Ecumenicity means that the Church includes all peoples and all parts of the earth. This is the meaning that Roman Catholics generally give to the word “catholicity.” A rather quantitative conception of catholicity (universal diffusion)
has predominated in the West since Optat de Miletus (De schism. donat II, 2)
and especially since Augustine (De unit. eccles. 2). In the East, on the contrary, catholicity is understood in a sense rather qualitative (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Strom., vii. 17, and above all St. Ignatius: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Smyrn. 8). Catholicity or sobórnost may be defined qualitatively. That corresponds to the true meaning of this concept in the history of philosophy, notably according to Aristotle, where τò kαθ’oλον means “that which is common,” while τò kαθ’ekαστον, means, “that which exists as a particular phenomenon.” Here is a “Platonic” idea, according to Aristotle, an idea which exists, not at all above things, or, in a certain sense, before things (as in Plato), but in things, as their foundation and their truth. In this sense the Catholic Church means that which is in the truth, which shares the truth, which lives the true life. Then the definition τò kαθ’oλον, that is, “agreeing with all,” “in entirety,” shows in what this truth consists. It consists in the union of all (oλον)
in one faith and in one tradition.
In “sobórnost” understood as “catholicity” each member of the Church, equally with the assembly of the members, lives in union with the entire Church, with the Church invisible, which is itself an uninterrupted union with the Church visible and forms its foundation. Then the idea of catholicity, in this sense, is turned inward and not outward. And each member of the Church is “Catholic” inasmuch as he is in union with the Church invisible, in the truth. Both the anchorite and those who live in the midst of the world, the elect who remain faithful to the truth in the midst of irreligion and general heresy, may be “Catholic.” In this sense catholicity is the mystic and metaphysical depth of the Church and not at all its outward diffusion. Catholicity has neither external, geographical attributes, nor empirical manifestations. It is perceived by the spirit which lives in the Church and which searches our hearts. But it must be connected with the empirical world, with the Church visible. Catholicity is also conciliarity, in the sense of active accord, a participation in the integral life of the Church, in holding the original truth.
But why is catholicity, in the sense of external Ecumenicity, most often indicated as among the attributes of the true Church by the some Fathers like St. Cyprian and St. Augustine?
They affirm that the Church is not limited to one place or one nation, but that it is everywhere and for all peoples;
it is not the Church of a narrow circle, a sect, but it is the Church for all humanity. There is a direct and positive relation between catholicity in the external sense and ecumenicity, the same relation as between the idea and the manifestation — noumenon and phenomenon. The things which are most profound and most interior are just those which belong to all men, for they reunite humanity, which is divided. These things have a tendency to spread as fully and largely as possible, although this is hindered by opposing forces: sin, common to humanity, and temptation. Certainly, as both the words of Our Lord Himself and other eschatological indications in the Bible tell us, only the elect will remain faithful in the latter days in the midst of temptations (“and if these days are not shortened, no creature will be saved”).
There are, then, many positive reasons why the universal truth should become the truth for all, but because of negative factors opposing that universality, the truth is realized only in limited fashion. Thus a quantitative criterion, only, of truth is insufficient, and the rule of Vincent of Lérins: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est is more an ideal than a reality;
it is difficult to find a single epoch in the history of the Church when this principle was completely realized.
Ecumenicity, like the truth, like catholicity, is not dependent upon the quantitative, for “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Integral conciliarity is not quantity but quality;
it is participation in the Body of Christ, in which the Holy Spirit works. Life in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, is life in the truth, a life of unity, a life possessing wisdom and integrality;
the spirit of integral wisdom. Divine Wisdom (Sophia)
which is the Church existing in the spirit before time, constitutes the foundation and the source of catholicity. The truth of the Church is, above all, life in the truth, and not just theoretical knowledge. This life in the truth is accessible to man, not by opposition to the object of knowledge, but in union with it. It is never given to him in isolation or separated from other men, but in a union, living and immediate, in the unity of many in one whole (the image of the Holy Trinity, consubstantial and indivisible). The truth is given to the Church. He who lives in union with others, who frees himself of his “I,” who renounces and leaves himself — he become capable to understand the truth.
Only the Church is infallible, not only because it expresses the truth correctly from the point of view of practical expediency, but because it contains the truth.
Life in the Church, then, is life in the truth, and the truth is the spirit of the Church. In the place of truth we may say “conciliarité,” for it is the same thing: to live in union with the Church is to live in the truth, and to live in the truth is to live in union with the Church. From the rational point of view this may appear a vicious circle. But the “vicious circle” in logical reason is a natural and necessary attribute of ontological assertion. Really to seek a criterion of the truth of the judgments of the Church, not in itself but outside it, would be to postulate the existence of a knowledge or a definition “supra-ecclesiastical,” by the light of which the Church would understand its own spirit. Such an exterior definition of the Church does not and cannot exist. The Church knows itself directly.
This self-knowledge is the Church's infallibility. The catholic attempt to find an external, ultra-ecclesiastical authority for infallibility in the Pope has been unsuccessful, because it has proved to be impossible to proclaim every personal decision of the Pope infallible, thus making the Pope and the Church absolutely equivalent. The Pope is considered to be infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra. But there is no definition of “ex cathedra” and there can be none.
The conciliarity of the Church is much richer in content than everything which is manifest, “explicit,” in ecclesiastical doctrine. The actual dogma, the obligatory doctrine expounded in the symbolic books, always expresses a part of the Church's knowledge only. In the life of the Church there are certitudes which have never been defined dogmatically. There is, above all, the “catholic” consciousness of the Church, concerning which there has never been any dogma, although it would seem that such a dogma ought to be the foundation for all others. All doctrines concerning the Virgin Mary and her cult, the veneration of saints, the after life, the Last Judgment, the Church's ideas on the subject of life, of civilization, of creative activity and of many other things which the conciliarity of the Church contains and manifests, have never been dogmatically defined by Orthodoxy. The Church is its own self-evidence, the foundation of all definitions. It is the light which contains all the fullness of the spectrum.
Sobornost is the true, although hidden, source of the dogmatic knowledge of the Church, but its character is superrational, intuitive — the means of “knowing” and “seeing.” What, then, is its connection with dogma as truth expressed in rational terms?
And what is dogma?
The conscience of the Church is super-personal. Truth is revealed not to the individual mind, but to the unity of the Church. It is mysterious and unknown in its ways, like the descent of the Holy Spirit into human hearts. The integral nature of the Church's consciousness was manifest at Pentecost, at the moment of the foundation of the New Covenant. The Acts of the Apostles note very specially that the Spirit descended upon the Apostles, all together and in unanimity. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1 and 4).
It is said of the first community which was formed after Pentecost: “All those who believed in the same things, had all things in common” and every day all together they continued steadfastly in the temple” (Acts 2:44 and 46). This togetherness is in general the norm of the spirit of the Church. It is a special quality of conciliarity, of integrality, which has no immediate quantitative value, but which means that individuality has been left behind for the attainment of a supreme spiritual, super-individual reality. The Church can exist “where two or three are gathered together” in the name of Christ. These ecclesiastical cells or local churches may, in fact, be ignorant one of another, with no direct relationship. But that is of no significance, for their unity in the spirit is in no way diminished. The same life in the Spirit is revealed in divers epochs and places. In a word, catholicity is the supreme reality of the Church, as the body of Christ. In the living experience of the unity of many in one, there appears what is known as conciliarity (sobórnost), so that conciliarity is the only way and the only form of the Church. It is an unceasing miracle, the presence of the transcendent in the immanent, and, in that quality, can be an object of faith. The Church as truth is not given to individuals, but to a unity in love and faith it reveals itself as a supreme reality in which its members share in the measure of their “sobórnost.”
In having a single Source of spiritual life, the Church necessarily tends to unity of thought and of doctrine. This unique doctrine within certain limits assumes a normative value and becomes the subject of preaching. The immediate and concrete experience of the Church contains the germ of dogma: from this experience dogma is born, as a definition of truth by means of words and ideas. This definition depends on historic circumstances. It is, in a certain sense, pragmatic. Dogma expresses a certain side of truth, sometimes for polemic ends — to deny such or such an error, as for instance all the Christological dogmas. It is the answer of the Church to the questions put by a certain epoch. And certainly such a pragmatic answer contains a general ecclesiastical truth, which could be found and given to humanity only by means of history. But, in spite of all their importance, it cannot be said that dogmas express the whole of the faith. They are like guide-posts on the road to salvation. A given experience contains in its depths much more than its oral, rational expression. “Sobornaia” consciousness cannot remain superpersonal: it inevitably becomes personal experience, belonging to individuals. The character of feeling and consciousness varies with the individual, of course, whether he be man or child, layman or theologian. A personal, religious consciousness is given to each one, but once given, it may either remain confused or it may be enlarged and deepened. Hence arise theological thoughts and theological system. Both are normal reflexes of an integral religious experience. A personal religious consciousness, personal theological thought, seeks to enlarge, to deepen, to affirm, to justify its faith and to identify it with the super-individual perception of the Church. This faith tends to be united with its primary source, the integral experience of the Church, attested by ecclesiastical tradition. This is why theological thought, which, in its quality of individual creative work and of individual perception in the Church, has necessarily an individual character, cannot and should not remain egotistically individual (for this is the source of heresy, of division), but should tend to become the theology of tradition and to find in the latter its justification. It is not that these thoughts should simply repeat in other words what already exists in tradition, as it seems to formal and narrow minds, the “scribes and Pharisees” of our day. On the contrary, that thought should be new, living and creative, for the life of the Church never stops and tradition is not a dead letter, but a living spirit. Tradition is living and creative: it is the new in the old and the old in the new. Each new theological thought, or more exactly each new expression, seeks justification, support in the tradition of the whole Church, in the largest sense of that word, including first of all Holy Scripture and after that oral and monumental tradition. If the acts of the councils are studied it will be noted what space is occupied with the justification of each conciliar decision by testimony taken from tradition. This is why obedience to tradition and accord with it are the internal tests of individual consciousness in the Church.
Although different forms of “conciliation” can exist, outside of regular councils, nevertheless ecclesiastical assemblies or councils, in the real sense of the word, are the most natural and the most direct means of conciliation. This is just the place which the councils have always held in the life of the Church, beginning with the Council in Jerusalem. The councils are, above all, the tangible expression of the spirit of conciliarity and its realization. A council must not be considered as a wholly exterior institution, which, with the voice of authority, proclaims a divine or ecclesiastical law, a truth otherwise inaccessible to the isolated members of the Church. By a natural process the significance of the councils is determined in that they receive, later on, the authority of permanent ecclesiastical institutions. But the institution of canonical legislation, of jus ecclesiasticum, has only a practical and not a dogmatic character. The Church, deprived, for one reason or another, of the possibility of convoking councils, does not cease to be the Church;
and among other traits, it remains “sobornaia,” conciliar, in the internal sense, for that is its nature.
Lacking councils, there yet remain other means of “conciliation,” for example, the direct relations between different local churches in apostolic times. It must be noted that, in our day, in the century of the development of the press and other means of circulation, councils have lost a great part of the utility of former times, such as those of the ecumenical councils. In our day ecumenical, universal conciliation is being realized almost imperceptibly, by means of the press and of scientific relations. But today the councils hold their special, unique place in conciliation because they alone offer the opportunity of immediate realization of the conciliarity of the Church. The meetings of representatives of the Church, in the cases where it is given to them to become ecclesiastical councils, actualize the conscience of the Church, in regard to some question which has been previously the object of personal judgment. These assemblies can demonstrate the conciliarity of the Church and become, consequently, true councils. Then, conscious of their true conciliarity and at the same time seeking it, the councils say of themselves: “It has pleased the Holy Spirit (who lives in the Church)
and us.” They consider themselves as identical with the Church where the Holy Spirit lives. Every ecclesiastical assembly expresses in its prayer the desire to become a council. But all ecclesiastical assemblies are not councils, however much they pretend to be or fulfill the exterior conditions requisite to that end, for example, the pseudo-councils of Ephesus, the iconoclastic council of 754, the council of Florence, which the Orthodox Church does not recognize as councils. It must be remembered that even ecumenical councils are not external organs established for the infallible proclamation of the truth and instituted expressly for that. Such a proposition would lead to the conclusion that, without councils, the Church would cease to be “catholic” and infallible. Apart from this consideration, the mere idea of an external organ to proclaim the truth would place that organ above the Church, it would subordinate the action of the Holy Spirit to an external fact, such as an ecclesiastical assembly. Only the Church in its identity with itself can testify to the truth and the knowledge of conciliarity. Is a given assembly of bishops really a council of the Church which testifies in the name of the Church, to the truth of the Church?
Only the Church can know. It is the Church which pronounces its yes. It is the Church which agrees, or not, with the council. There are not, and there cannot be, external forms established beforehand for the testimony of the Church about itself.
The life of the Church is a miracle which cannot be explained by external factors. The Church recognizes or does not recognize a given ecclesiastical assembly representing itself as a council: this is a known historical fact. Another historical fact is that to be accepted by the Church as such, it is not sufficient for an ecclesiastical assembly to proclaim itself as a council. It is not a question of a juridical and formal acceptance. This does not mean that the decisions of the councils should be confirmed by a general plebiscite and that without such a plebiscite they have no force. There is no such plebiscite. But from historical experience it clearly appears that the voice of a given council has truly been the voice of the Church or it has not: that is all. There are not, there cannot be, external organs or methods of testifying to the internal evidence of the Church;
this must be admitted frankly and resolutely. Anyone who is troubled by this lack of external evidence for ecclesiastical truth does not believe in the Church and does not truly know it. The action of the Holy Spirit in the Church is an unfathomable mystery which fulfils itself in human acts and human consciousness. The ecclesiastical fetishism which seeks an oracle speaking in the name of the Holy Spirit and which finds it in the person of a supreme hierarch, or in the Episcopal order and its assemblies — this fetishism is a terrible symptom of half-faith.
The idea of “sobórnost” implies a circle;
the conciliarity of the councils is proved by that of the Church, and the conciliar consciousness of the Church is proved by the Councils. But this logical circle is not, practically, a vicious circle;
it expresses only the identity of the Church with itself. It may be asked, where, when and how the ecumenicity of a council is declared. The authority of conciliar decisions, even those of ecumenical councils, from the very first was not self-evident, for these decisions were later confirmed. Almost every ecumenical council confirmed, directly or indirectly, preceding councils. This would be quite incomprehensible if the councils were considered in themselves as organs of infallibility.
We must then ask the following question: to whom in the Church belongs the power to proclaim doctrinal truth?
To the authority of the Church which is centered in the hands of the episcopate. As a rule, the councils are composed of bishops. This, it is true, is not because of some canon law which excludes the presence of clergy and laity;
on the contrary, the latter were present with the bishops at the Council of Moscow in 1917-18. The bishops take part in the councils as representatives of their dioceses — hence the rule that only diocesan bishops are present. They testify not “ex sese” but “ex consensu ecclesiæ,” and, in the persons of the bishops, it is the Church which participates in the councils.
But the doctrinal value of the council of bishops is not confined to rendering judgment;
it is their province not only to offer opinions, but also to use their power to formulate necessary decisions and to proclaim dogmatic definitions, as is proved by the ecumenical and certain local councils. This sometimes gives the impression that the ecumenical council 7 is the external organ of infallible judgment. This theory contains much that is vague as to details;
to what does the infallibility belong-to the Episcopal dignity?
But if each bishop is transformed into a pope there is always the possibility of a bishop becoming heretical. This is well proved by history. On the other hand, it is possible to have disagreements among bishops, and it is an historical fact that a doctrinal decision has never been rendered unanimously. It is true that the dissenting bishops at a given council were then sometimes anathematized and excommunicated, so that the unanimity of all the episcopate was insured. Nevertheless, it is well understood that such questions are not decided unanimously, but by the majority — what majority is unknown. Let us add the fact that only a certain portion of the episcopate was represented at the ecumenical councils and that the number of bishops present varied greatly. Even the smallest number of bishops, however, may be the “soborny” voice of the Church, if the Church recognizes them as such.
The idea of a collective papacy in the episcopate, taken as a whole, by no means expresses the Orthodox doctrine on the infallibility of the Church, for the Episcopal dignity in itself does not confer dogmatic infallibility. A dogmatic judgment and its value depend more on sanctity than on dignity;
the voice of a saint has more value than that of the regular clergy and bishops. The latter are doubly responsible for their judgments because they are invested with hieratic powers. Nevertheless a certain power to proclaim doctrinal definitions does belong to the council of bishops, his council being the supreme organ of ecclesiastical power. It is only in this aspect that ecumenical or local councils can legislate. The Episcopal order possesses the authority to safeguard the purity of doctrine in the Church, and in the case of profound differences in the heart of the Church, can render a decision having the force of laws. Such a decision should put an end to dissensions. Those who do not submit are cut off from the Church. This has been the usual procedure in the history of the Church. The judgment of the council of bishops is proclaimed by its presiding officer. For a national Church this is naturally its patriarch or its chief hierarch;
for the ecumenical Church it is naturally the chief patriarch, primus inter pares.
We must distinguish between the proclamation of the truth, which belongs to the supreme ecclesiastical authority, and the possession of the truth which belongs to the entire body of the Church, in its catholicity and its infallibility. The latter is reality itself;
the former is only a judgment passed on reality. This judgment — or dogma — has an abstract and pragmatic value, for it is the response of the Church to the questions of heretics or of those who are in doubt. It possesses, so to speak, agreement with an absolute and supreme end, while not possessing concrete religious plenitude which lives in the Church;
it is a catalogue of the truth and not the living truth itself. Nevertheless this dogmatic judgment is indispensable as truth conceptually expressed and later as the norm for the life of the Church. Here we must note the difference between the infallibility of the decisions of the council of Chalcedon, for example, and that of the multiplication table. We are dealing with the same sort of distinction as between “the truth” and “the fact.” The infallibility of a given Church judgment consists in its correspondence with the purpose of the Church, its accuracy in expressing truth in the given circumstance.
But, by its proclamation, the organ of ecclesiastical power does not become of itself, “ex sese,” the possessor of infallibility;
that belongs only to the Church in its ecumenicity. The ecclesiastical authority (the council of bishops, or sometimes even a single bishop in the limits of his diocese)
is only the legal organ for the proclamation of the mind of the Church, the expression of the truth of the Church, and becomes thus in a certain sense “pars pro toto” This is why such judgment, though clothed in legal forms, must yet be accepted by the Church as to its content. This may be accomplished at the very moment of proclamation;
then the dogmatic definition of the council of bishops immediately attains an ecumenical character. Nevertheless it may happen that even after the council its decisions are not accepted;
either for some time — as after the first council of Nicea — or for ever, as in the case of the iconoclastic council of Ephesus. These councils were then convicted of pseudo-conciliarity. It develops that they were not true councils.
Thus a conflict may arise between certain members of the Church and the ecclesiastical power. It follows that the dogmatic definitions of the council are not received blindly, by virtue of the duty of passive obedience. Rather it is by the activity of individual conscience and intelligence, or by confidence in the council and obedience to its proclamations, that these definitions are received as expressing the truth of the Church. In such a way “conciliation” takes place, not only before the council but also afterwards, for the reception or rejection of the conciliar decision. Such has always been the practice of the Church, and such is the dogmatic significance of the proclamation of dogmatic truth by the council. There is no place in the “sobórnost” of the Church for a dogmatic oracle, either individual or collective. The Holy Spirit, Who lives in the Church, Himself points out the way to unanimity, and the decision of the council is only a method of achieving it. We thus face the following conclusion: As there exists on earth no external authority whatever — for Our Lord Jesus Christ, risen to heaven and become the invisible head of the Church, has left us none — the decisions of the councils have of themselves only a relative authority;
that authority becomes absolute only by its reception in the universal Church. The Church has already vested with this infallibility the definitions of the seven ecumenical councils and of certain local councils, for example, the council of Carthage, and the councils of Constantinople of the fourteenth century, which established the doctrine of divine energies and of the “Light of Mt. Tabor.”
This idea of an authority relatively infallible, represented by the legal organs of ecclesiastical power, beginning with the ecumenical council and ending with the diocesan bishop in the limits of his diocese — this idea, to Catholics and those who would ecumenize the Church, may appear contradictory. A certain contradiction may seem to be inherent here, for the submission of definitions to the consent of the faithful and the adhesion of the faithful to the definitions are simultaneously recognized as obligatory. On the one hand the orders of the ecclesiastical canon represented by the episcopate should be obeyed (“ecclesiam in episcopo esse,” St. Cypr, ep. 66). Dogmatic definitions must be included among such orders. But the obligation does not derive from the infallible authority of the episcopate united in council “ex sese”;
it derives from the duty of the Episcopal power to preserve the true doctrine, to guard its integrity, and to proclaim the laws obligatory for the faithful.
This obedience should not be blind, it should not be based on fear. It should be an act of conscience, and it is obligatory in so far as it is not directly opposed to the dictates of conscience. When the Apostles Peter and Paul were led to the Sanhedrin, which for them was still the legal and supreme ecclesiastical power, and were arraigned before the elders and the chief priests, and when these latter commanded them to cease preaching the Christ, they answered: “Judge yourselves if it is right, before God, to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). This example should guide us. The dogmatic definition of a council, vested with the fullness of ecclesiastical power, certainly has a supreme authority for believers, and should be obeyed, even in doubtful and obscure cases. But there may be instances where, precisely, disobedience to ecclesiastical power or to a council, which had become heretical, is glorified by the Church. This happened, for example, in the time of the Arian, Nestorian and Iconoclastic discords. Such cases are, of course, exceptions;
but were there only one, it would have great dogmatic value in principle, because it nullifies the case for an external infallibility above the Church such as Catholics ascribe to the Pope.
It may be asked, perhaps, where and when this doctrine of the conciliarity of the Church was developed. It must be answered that this idea has never been officially expressed in words;
just as it is equally impossible to find in Patristic literature any special doctrine concerning the Church. Nevertheless, the contrary doctrine, that of an external organ of infallibility, has no more been expounded unless one takes into account certain isolated expressions, evidently inexact and exaggerated, in Irenæus, Cyprian, Ignatius the Théophore. But the practice of the Church, that is, all the history of the councils, presupposes the idea of conciliarity, of “sobórnost.” The opposition to Roman pretensions, which later arose, made this still more evident.
Thus it may be said that the supreme ecclesiastical power, under the form of a council of bishops — ecumenical, national, or diocesan — has, in practice, the right to declare necessary doctrinal definitions and that these definitions ought to be accepted, barring exceptional and specially justified cases. Disobedience to ecclesiastical power is in itself a grave fault, a heavy burden on the conscience, even though it is sometimes inevitable. Thus the higher leadership of the Church is vested with an authority, “infallible” in practice, which is sufficient for the needs of the Church. Church history rightly testifies that such is the character of the supreme leadership of the Church. Otherwise it would be impossible to comprehend the history of the councils and their dogmatic definitions, which did not always or immediately put an end to dissensions, but which led little by little to unanimity. In practice such a “system without system” is altogether sufficient;
it possesses the advantage of harmonizing liberty with obedience to the Church.
The absence of an external infallible authority in matters of doctrine, and the possibility of relatively infallible definitions by ecclesiastical authority, definitions which express the catholic conscience of the Church, this is the palladium of Orthodox liberty. It is at the same time the cause of the greatest astonishment: unto Catholics a stumbling-block and unto Protestants foolishness. The latter place above all the personal search for truth, a principle whose value cannot be overestimated in Christianity;
they cannot understand the necessity of placing their own subjectivity beneath the objectivity of the Church: of testing the former by the latter. For them the doctrine of the Church identifies itself completely with their personal opinions, or at least with the consensus of such opinions. Ecclesiastical tradition, contained by the whole Church in common, simply does not exist for them. But proceeding from these ideas, it is possible to approach the idea of conciliarity, where, at least, there are no obstacles. The agreement of personal subjective opinions may be understood as the objective ecumenical truth, as its manifestation. Hence it is possible for Protestantism, full of the spirit of liberty, to understand Orthodox conciliarity, “sobórnost.”
The idea of sobórnost encounters much more opposition on the part of Catholics. This is quite comprehensible, after the proclamation of the Vatican dogma. For them, it is the synonym of anarchy in the Church. Obedience “for itself,” or blind obedience, is entirely in its place and natural in a monastery, for “the suppression of the will” is the very condition of monasticism, so to speak, its spiritual method. But the essential thing here is that the path of obedience has been freely chosen by the monk. In this sense the most absolute monastic obedience, accepted with the monastic vows, is really an act of supreme Christian liberty — although even here obedience does not free one from a Christian conscience and its responsibilities, should not become blind: if the “starets” (superior)
or spiritual director becomes heretical, the bonds of obedience are broken at once. But in the Roman Church obedience to the Pope is obligatory for all — in all that concerns faith, morals, canonical discipline. An obedience without reserve is demanded, not only exterior, but interior. The necessity for blind obedience by all, to an external authority, is a system of spiritual slavery.
Finally, there is the judgment of ecclesiastical authority. It has the power to enforce measures of canonical discipline, it is called upon to act against those who do not think according to the norm. The history of the Church testifies sufficiently to this. This is why the idea that in Orthodoxy there exists no theological norm valid for the whole Church, but that each one is guided only by his own opinions, is altogether false. It is true, however, that in comparison with the Roman confession, Orthodoxy leaves more liberty to personal theological thought, to individual judgment in the domain of “theological opinions” (“theologoumena”). This is a consequence of the fact that Orthodoxy, while safeguarding essential dogmas, necessary to the faith, knows no theological doctrine, obligatory for all. It applies the principle: “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas.”
In general the tendency of Orthodox doctrine is not to increase the number of dogmas beyond the limits of the purely indispensable. In the realm of dogma, Orthodoxy rather makes her own the rule, not to govern or dogmatize too much.” The plenitude of life contained in the life of the Church is not completely expressed by the obligatory dogmas it professes;
these are rather bounds or indications, beyond which Orthodox doctrine ought not to go, they are negative definitions more than positive. It is false to think that established dogma, “dogma explicita,” exhausts all doctrine, i.e. “dogma implicita.” On the contrary, the domain of doctrine is much more vast than that of existing definition. It can even be said that definitions can never exhaust doctrine, because dogmas have a discursive, rational character, while the truth of the Church forms an indissoluble whole. This does not mean that the truth cannot be expressed by concepts;
on the contrary, the fullness of truth opens to us an inexhaustible theological source. These theological thoughts, which, in the case of mystics and ascetics, have an intuitive character, receive an expression more rational and more philosophical from theologians. It is the legitimate domain of individual creative work, which should not be bound by doctrine.
Sometimes subjective narrowness can lead to error. This is then corrected by the consciousness of the Church, as expressed in “sobórnost”;
but there cannot and there should not be a unique theological doctrine, obligatory for all, as taught by Thomism. For theology and its teachings are not identical with the dogmatic. Forgetting that difference gives rise to much misunderstanding. The measures taken by Rome against “modernism” tend to hold all theology in the narrow confines of official doctrine, and that inevitably produces hypocrisy. Liberty in these spheres is the very life of theological thought. The ancient Church knew various schools of theology, and many very different theological individualities. It may be said that in the spiritual life this variety is most useful when it is greatest. Orthodox theology in Russia, in the nineteenth century and in our day, contains a whole series of original theological individualities, which resemble each other very little and which are all equally orthodox. The Metropolitan Philaret and A.J. Boukarev, Khomiakov, Dostoievsky, Constantin Leontiev, Matropolitan Anthony Hrapovitsky, Fr. George Florovsky, Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Archimandrite Konstantine Zaitzev, Professors Anton Kartachev, Vladimir Lossky, ** Fedotov, and many others, despite od some differences, express, each in his own way, the Orthodox conscience, in a sort of theological symphony. Here lies the beauty and the strength of Orthodoxy, and not its weakness, as Catholic theologians, and even sometimes Orthodox hierarchs, ready to transform their personal opinions into theological norms, are inclined to think. For Orthodoxy such pretensions are only abuse, or a falling into error. Orthodox theology developed marvelously in the East and in the West, before the separation of the Churches. After the separation it continued to develop in Byzantium, up to the end of the Empire, and it has continued that tradition down to the present day in Greek theology. But Orthodox thought has been undergoing an entirely original renaissance in the Russian theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, although suppressed in Russia by the atheistic government, it flourished in the emigration.
It should be said of Orthodox theological thought that it is far from having been exhausted in the classic times of the patristic period or later on in Byzantium: a promising future opens before it. Orthodoxy now expresses itself in contemporary language addressing contemporary problems and needs. All this by no means lessens the unique value of the patristic period. But sincere theology must be modern, that is, it must correspond with its epoch. Our epoch has seen colossal revolutions in all the domains of thought, of knowledge, and of action. These revolutions wait a response on the part of Orthodox theology. Our time cannot be satisfied with an archaic or a medieval scholastic theology. This new development will continue in the lines of Orthodox tradition. But fidelity to tradition is not an artificial stylization. True fidelity is a right perception of the old in the new, a sense of their organic connection. The patristic works should be considered as monuments of the Orthodox vision and insight. These works are the testimony to the Church given by the holy fathers in the language of their time, which perceptibly from ours. It follows that some development of Orthodox dogmatics is possible — not in the creation of new dogmas, but of their interpretation and expression. Will this richness of thought be limited to the conciliar definitions, obligatory for all, and will these definitions be limited to those of the seven ecumenical councils?
It is impossible to say, and the answer to this question is of no decisive importance. What is important is that the catholic conscience of the Church should be in movement and that it should be enriched as we advance in human history. And the new contact of the peoples of the West with the Orthodox conscience, as well as the contact of Eastern theology with the theological thought of the West, promises a fruitful future for Orthodox theology.
All these properties of Orthodoxy, connected with its “sobórnost,” its conciliarity, result in its indefinable character, its unfinished state, if we may use the term. This is the impression received when Orthodox thought is compared with Latin precision. Very often, in questions of a secondary order, where Orthodoxy offers only theological opinions or devotional habitude, the Roman Church presents either dogmas completely formulated, or at least doctrines officially fixed, for instance, in the teaching about the future life, in its various phases. Some may think that this is an advantage and that the absence of such precision is a sign of weakness and immaturity. We do not deny this fact of incompleteness, which finds its partial explanation in the historic destinies of Orthodoxy. But fundamentally these traits are inherent in the Church as a whole, because its life has depths which are quite unfathomed. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17).