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February 22, 2021

The Orthodox: Arrival and Dialogue (Fr. John Romanides) - Part 5 of 5

From an Orthodox point of view many aspects of Roman Catholic-Protestant differences are really divergent consequences of similar, sometimes identical, presuppositions. This means that on several key issues the Orthodox consider dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants really soliloquy which can become true dialogue only when the Orthodox are included.

Such three-way dialogue might help break down the thousand-year-old impasse between the Latin and Greek churches. Thus far two-way dialogue between those two groups has proved impossible because each has interpreted the other's theological language according to his own categories. For instance, the Greeks rejected the dogmatic formula of Filioque (that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father) because, according to their categories - which are those of the First (325) and the Second (381) Ecumenical Councils - it is sheer heresy. On the other hand, the Latins in a legalistic way accepted the decisions of those Greek councils as authority, but with little understanding of the categories dominating the lengthy debates which provided background. One calls to mind St. Augustine's complaint that he could not understand what the Greeks meant by distinguishing between essence and hypostasis in the Trinity (De Trinitate, v, 8, 10), and this happens to be one of the foundation stones of Greek Trinitarian theology. When difficulties arose about the Filioque the Latins, consistent with their trinitarian categories, insisted that it is a dogma of faith necessary for salvation. The seventh century Greek theologian St. Maximus the Confessor calmed Greek suspicions by translating the Filioque into Greek categories. The enthusiasm of later Frankish and Latin theologians led the West to claim that the Filioque is consistent with and implicit in the decisions of the early Greek Ecumenical Councils, even that it was taught by the early Greek Fathers. For a while the Latins accused the Greeks of having removed the Filioque from the Creed and thus having betrayed their own tradition. Eventually they repeated that accusation in regard to other aspects of doctrine on which differences exist - such as grace, merits, sacraments, purgatory, authority, ecclesiology, even piety. The practical effect of many centuries of such anti-Greek propaganda has been to create a Latin image of the Greek as a stubborn and tricky churchman who because of pride refuses to be faithful to his own tradition.

There is, however, another Latin approach to the Orthodox which for many years has existed parallel to the one described above, with one or the other emphasized as situations vary. According to this view, the Orthodox have remained faithful to their own Greek tradition and in essentials do not differ from Roman Catholics. Judging from reports of recent statements by Pope Paul VI, this approach will be emphasized during his pontificate.

All in all, however, until Roman Catholics are prepared (and there are signs some may be) to entertain seriously the possibility that the Orthodox have remained faithful to their own tradition and that this tradition is not identical with that of the medieval West, there can be no real dialogue. Orthodox theologians are prepared to accept the legitimacy of the expression of the Christian faith in categories other than those of the Ecumenical Councils - provided that those categories confess the same faith and point the way to the same soteriological experience. Further, if Rome truly desires dialogue, she must once and for all realize that the propaganda approach to the Uniates is not a bridge between East and West but a wall of separation.

In sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic-Orthodox stalemate (interrupted only by a trickle of private discussion in isolated groups) Protestant-Orthodox dialogue seems that have entered a new phase at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order held in Montreal last summer. At their first separate "nocurnal meeting" the Orthodox decided unanimously to do everything possible to avoid issuing a separate statement. As it turned out, not only were they pleased with results of their discussions with Protestants in section and subsection discussions, but they discovered they could offer explanations and even write theological definitions which Protestants accepted as valid expression of their own convictions. The same thing happened with certain Protestant explanations and statements which the Orthodox could accept. The possibility of a converging of minds was demonstrated in discussions on the nature of the church, tradition and worship.

On the whole, however, the Orthodox found in the fact that categories of discussion were predominantly Protestant a continuous source of irritation. The only really sour note was struck by one subcommittee's description of the "ecclesial character" of the World Council of Churches as "somehow" sharing in the oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church or of churches. This view the Orthodox opposed - and they were gratified to note that their "nocturnal meeting" on the question was supported by a Protestant rooting section.

At an informal gathering in Montreal of the Greek delegates the lack of episcopacy in certain Protestant churches was discussed; it was agreed that if occasion arose the Greeks would suggest to the other Orthodox delegates that support might be given to any scheme of union which accepted the actual existence of a bishop in each local congregation, in keeping with the practice of the ancient church - so long as the threefold ministry was maintained, together with the right of each church to continue or to determine its tradition or practice on this question. It was felt that such an approach might facilitate union among churches of British background by helping overcome the problems raised by the historic Anglican position on the episcopacy.

It became evident in the discussions at Montreal that the Calvinist understanding of apostolic succession in terms of doctrinal purity, rather than the Roman Catholic and Anglican emphasis on the mechanics of continuous ordinations, is similar at least to the most important aspect of Orthodox understanding: that since apostolic succession belongs to the church and since only within the church can one share in it, upon leaving the church one does not take it with him.

Though agreements and understandings have been reached and an atmosphere of dialogue established between Orthodox and Protestants, real gaps remain; they stem from essential differences in presuppositions. To implement the findings of the Orthodox-Protestant consultation which immediately preceded the Montreal conference, a common study of biblical and ancient Christian presuppositions is to be undertaken in the hope that a more realistic picture of the history of divergences between the Latin and Greek traditions may be arrived at. One of the most beneficial results of the consultation and of the conference itself was the realization of how much caricature is passed off as Orthodox by some Protestants, and vice versa. A common desire was expressed for an exchange of theological professors so each group can become better acquainted with the other's tradition.

From my recent experience at a colloquium between Roman Catholics and Orthodox at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, I would suggest that Roman Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is possible within a similar framework. Perhaps the day is not far off when a three-way dialogue will have become reality, especially since the meeting between the bishops of Old Rome and New Rome in Jerusalem.