A Greek Orthodox View of Ecumenism (Part One)
By Rev. John S. Romanides
(Orthodox Observer, November 1964)
An Orthodox Christian may approach the Ecumenical Movement by seeing its roots in the formation of Israel in history. God has created for Himself a people with the mission of uniting humanity in the true worship and service of God. The Orthodox believe that Christians are the New Israel, the New Zion and the New Jerusalem. There is Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to the spirit, and in the eyes of God they are but one nation. The patriarchs, prophets and saints of the Old Testament, and the apostles and saints of the New Testament are ever present living witnesses in the worship and piety of Orthodox Christians, who believe themselves to be by virtue of baptism members of this universal Israelitic nation of God.
At the time of the appearance of Christianity there was in existence the universalism of the Roman Empire which was already well on its way to assimilating the cultural forces of Greek civilization. Out of the fusion of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures the roots of western civilization were planted. During the first three centuries of Church history Christians considered themselves as members of a separate spiritual nation, a society apart, yet a society within the Roman Empire. The separateness of the Christians was religiously similar to the separateness of the Jews, except that the Christians were, ethnically, completely one with the pagans. Both Christianity and the Hellenized Roman Empire had claims to universality. At first they clashed in mortal combat, but finally they made peace with each other and in the persons of the Roman Emperors the Christian nation and the citizens of Rome became one identical reality, if not completely in practice, at least in theory. The Ecumenical Christian Church and the Ecumenical Roman Empire became theoretically coterminous.
The German invasions in the West and the Islamic onslaught in the East almost put an end to this period of what we may call Christian Greco-Roman religio-political Ecumenism, the attempt to unite a multiplicity of peoples religiously, socially and politically into one Christian nation. However, the religio-political ideology of a Universal Roman Orthodox Christian civilization did not disappear so easily. Orthodox Christians under the rule of the Germans in the West continued to consider themselves Romans; and with the establishment of political unity under the Franks it was normal to think that the conversion of the Franks and the Arian Germans to Orthodoxy was also a conversion of Roman Imperial Universalism, and so emerged the peculiar medieval phenomenon of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nations. It must be remembered that in its infancy this new Roman Empire of the West and the old Roman Empire of the East were theoretically one Empire.
The force of this Roman Ecumenism can be seen not only in the fact that the last remnants of the Empire in the West disappeared only in 1806, but also in the fact that Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East, whose forefathers were before the seventh, eleventh, and fifteenth centuries citizens of Rome, today still call themselves Romans and are called Rum (Romans) by the Moslems. It was only thirty years before the birth of Luther that the last member of the direct line of the Roman Emperors fell defending the walls of New Rome, popularly known as Constantinople, or the city of Constantine. One of the official titles of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the presiding bishop of one hundred fifty or two hundred million Orthodox Christians throughout the world, is Patriarch and Archbishop of New Rome. Somewhat like the Franks in the West, the Russians early developed the theory that Moscow is the Third Rome, Old Rome being the First, and New Rome or Constantinople being the Second.
In the course of history this ideological combination of Christian and Roman Universalism proved unrealistic and unworkable. The Empire not only remained geographically limited to its Augustan confines and to the advances made toward the East by the German Roman Empire, while Christianity became territorially more universal, but it finally broke up and gradually disappeared. In the process, however, Christianity itself experienced divisions which are still with us. The Egyptians and Armenians combined their political aspirations to independence with theological separatism, and a separation took place between them and the Churches of the Empire in the fifth century, and the Christians of Ethiopia and India became indirectly involved. After the Germanic invasions the Churches of Spain and Gaul developed their own approach to the Arian Christianity of the Germans, based on the theology of St. Augustine, and evolved a theological provincialism which did not take the theology of the rest of Christendom seriously and which still marks the theologies of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In seeking aid against the Lombards the Papacy ended up becoming a vassal kingdom of the Frankish Empire. The same Pope who took the side of Charlemagne took the side of the Greek monks of Jerusalem in protesting the Hispano-Frankish addition of the Filioque to the Creed, but Charlemagne and his bishops simply condemned as heretics all those who would not accept it. During this same period the Papacy also sided with the Greeks in upholding the use and theological interpretation of icons, but on this question, too, Charlemagne and his bishops opposed both the Papacy and the Seventh Ecumenical Council. A half century later the Greeks again protested against the use of the Filioque in the Creed by the German missionaries in Bulgaria, and again the Papacy in the person of Pope John VIII sided with the Greeks. It was only at the beginning of the eleventh century that the Filioque was introduced by the force of German pressure into the Creed of Rome, and the Popes who first allowed the addition were omitted from the diptychs of the Church of Constantinople and no Pope since has ever been included. Nevertheless, although the eleventh-century division between Old Rome and New Rome was real, it did not become permanent until the Crusades imposed a Latin clergy upon the Orthodox peoples of the Middle East, and especially since the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the imposition of a Latin Patriarch in that city. The East Roman Empire was so weakened by this occupation that it later became an easy prey to Ottoman advances, and thus Europe lost its centuries-old buffer state against Islam, which was thus free to advance deep into Europe.
A second important consequence of the dominance of Roman provincialism in the theology and practice of Latin Christendom, from the Orthodox viewpoint, is that it also forced the Papacy to fight for the freedom of the Churches from imperial domination within circumstances quite different from its former relation with the East Roman Empire. In this struggle the Latin Churches developed a doctrine of the Church and Church-State relations which confused the pre-Constantinian union of Christians based on dogma and sacraments with administrative and organizational union similar to the political and secular institutions of the medieval West. Gradually the Papacy's relation to the Latin hierarchy became theoretically similar to that of the emperor or king to his vassal lords. Actually the Papacy claimed for itself the same control over the bishoprics which the feudal heads of State had in reality. The local Churches of Latin Christendom saw in the Papacy their strongest principle and symbol of ecclesiastical freedom from State control. There is no doubt that the Papacy and centralization of Church administration was ideologically a necessity and one cannot but admire the principle of ecclesiastical freedom involved in the struggle. However, the dogmatic principle of the papal control of episcopal appointments was in many cases circumvented by a system of concordats whereby in return for certain privileges the various governments were given the right to appoint bishops.