July 19, 2016

The Ecclesiology of the Holy and Great Synod

By Bishop Christopher of Karpasia

Before and after the convergence of the Holy and Great Synod there were expressed many different complaints and objections regarding whether the text "Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World" corresponds with the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church.

On this question I would like to offer some initial theological thoughts, reserving to later, God willing, present something more comprehensive and integrated.

First, most detractors of this text, usually have no arguments with the text, but they express general opinions on whether the heterodox confessions are Churches or not. They conclude that they are not Churches and ignore (whether theologically intentional?) the provisions and references of the text itself, which leads to the rejection of the text, and thinking that those who received and signed it demerited the Orthodox Faith and especially its ecclesiology.

Second, no text can be perfect, nor are the best theological terms and words adequate to render with accuracy the content of our revealed faith. This is why at the Ecumenical Synods, where the most accurate terms were used, as much as humanly possible, the Fathers needed to interpret them in their writings so they would be understood and accepted by the body of the Church. By this I want to say that it is a matter of the interpretation of the terms referred to in the text, and not simply its key points. If we want to build up our congregations and not divide them, it is our obligation to interpret this text in an Orthodox manner, so that if there is any ambiguity or anything missing, by the Orthodox interpretation of the key points misinterpretation and misuse will be avoided, at the expense of the salvation of humanity, as well as our missionary work to heterodox Christians.

Third, the purpose for writing and adopting the text was not to present the position of the Orthodox Church as to whether or not other Christians consist of a Church or not, but to determine the conditions under which theological dialogue with the heterodox will take place. Thus, in the beginning it is highlighted that the Orthodox Church is the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church" (article 1). The other Christian confessions are "estranged from her" (article 4). The unity of the Orthodox Church is "expressed through the apostolic succession and the patristic tradition and is lived out in the Church up to the present day" (article 2). This is why "in accordance with the ontological nature of the (the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic) Church, her unity can never be perturbed" (article 6).

However, the Orthodox Church, having a "profound ecclesiastical self-consciousness" (article 1), "accepts the historical name of the heterodox (they are not homodox, having the same faith) Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her" (article 6). This means that what we accept is that historically they existed, until the schism of 1054, as homodox with us local Churches, but after they broke off over "paramount issues of faith and order, because the non-Orthodox Churches and Confessions have diverged from the true faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" (article 21). This is why the Orthodox Church is in dialogue with them (because in the first millennium they had a certain ecclesiological foundation), in order to clarify the whole issue of ecclesiology, "especially of their more general teachings on sacraments, grace, priesthood, and apostolic succession" (article 6).

With this dialogue the Orthodox Church "gives a dynamic witness to the fullness of truth in Christ and to her spiritual treasures to those who are outside her, with the objective aim of smoothing the path leading to unity" (article 6). This dialogue takes place "on the basis of the truth of the faith and tradition of the ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Synods" (articles 3, 5, 8, 18), as a "continued witness of the Orthodox Church to the divided Christian world on the basis of the apostolic tradition and faith" (article 24). Even still this dialogue is conducted "on the basis of the canonical principles of Orthodox ecclesiology and the canonical criteria of the already established Church Tradition" (article 20). This unity which she seeks to achieve, is a unity of faith and sacraments ("The responsibility of the Orthodox Church for unity as well as her ecumenical mission were articulated by the Ecumenical Synods. These stressed most especially the indissoluble bond between true faith and sacramental communion." see articles 3, 12, 18, 21, 24).

I believe that under the above considerations of the key points of the text it will help to map out our course as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church to the Christians separated from us, to emphasize the doctrinal diversions (heresies) "with love in truth", to convey to them the Orthodox faith and experience, which, if accepted, they will constitute with us Orthodox "as one flock with one Shepherd" (Jn. 10:16), according to the will of our Lord.

To dispel any suspicion that the Holy and Great Synod met with the purpose of theologically establishing the Roman Catholic Church as an equal Church with the Orthodox and establishing an unbridled and uncritical Ecumenism, I will quote the following excerpt from the "Encyclical of the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church", where it recognizes the "universal authority" of "the Great Synod (879-880) convened at the time of St. Photios the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople, and also the Great Synods convened at the time of St. Gregory Palamas (1341, 1351, 1368), through which the same truth of faith was confirmed, most especially as concerns the procession of the Holy Spirit and as concerns the participation of human beings in the uncreated divine energies, and furthermore through the Holy and Great Synods convened in Constantinople, in 1484 to refute the unionist Synod of Florence (1438-1439), in 1638, 1642, 1672 and 1691 to refute Protestant beliefs, and in 1872 to condemn ethno-phyletism as an ecclesiological heresy" (Paragraph 3).

In conclusion, I believe Orthodoxy is not in danger ("the gates of hades will not prevail against her" Matt. 16:18). We are in danger to lose, in a secularized world, the Orthodox phronema and life, which leads us to purification and communion with the uncreated energy/grace of our Triune God, by which we achieve salvation in Christ, namely our spiritual perfection.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.