Orthodox Leadership in a Brave New World

By: Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

Almost thirty years ago Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered an address at Harvard University that still ranks as one of the most trenchant and inspired critiques of Western culture ever given. Although some of the political references are dated, two observations remain as true today as when they were first spoken. The first is that the philosophical materialism that shaped communism and led to the Gulags now operates in the Western world. The second is that mankind stands at an anthropological threshold.

What is philosophical materialism? To use Solzhenitsyn’s definition, it is the belief that man has no touchstone other than himself:

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth . . . we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.

Philosophical materialism has concrete cultural ramifications. To social utopians, it means that persons have no enduring value—so society can be forcibly arranged around notions of the common good. To hedonists, it means that the body is primarily a pleasure machine. To nihilists, it means that because the death of the body is also the end of existence, we should exalt death and violence.

These themes shaped much of the course of the last century. Solzhenitsyn had firsthand experience of Marxist social utopianism, but he was not the first to sound the alarm. Almost a century earlier, Dostoevsky heard the rumblings that would make Russia susceptible to communist tyranny and warned, “Without God, everything is permitted.”

Prophets of the West

The Democratic West had its own literary prophets, who, while not steeped in Christianity as deeply as Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, nevertheless understood the Christian moral tradition and thus were able to discern the cultural trends that Solzhenitsyn would express so clearly at Harvard years later.

One such visionary was George Orwell, who foresaw the tyranny of the social utopianism that follows when traditional notions of truth and virtue are supplanted, and confronted it in 1984. Another was Aldous Huxley, who, in his classic Brave New World, focused more on the elevation of pleasure and the senseless preoccupation with stimulation that would afflict culture once moral norms shifted. Neil Postman, in his brilliant Amusing Ourselves to Death, pointed out the differences between the two authors:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

As trenchant as Orwell’s and Huxley’s prophecies were, however, Solzhenitsyn’s emerges as more compelling because of his explicit religious appeal. In locating the cultural calamities in the loss of an awareness of God, he shows the stance Christians—particularly those who understand that current cultural conflicts require more than a political solution—should take today.

The Anthropological Threshold

Mankind, said Solzhenitsyn (and here he means Christendom—the culture that drew from the well of Judeo-Christian morality), stands on an anthropological threshold as significant as the shift from the medieval to the modern period:

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

“Anthropology” comes from the Greek word anthropos, which means “man.” In theological terms, anthropology means what we understand the human person to be. It encompasses who he is, what he was created for, how he should comport himself—all the constituents of man’s existence that raise him above the animal, that define his purpose, that make meaning out of his relationships.

Consider Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation in the questions facing us today, especially the looming issues concerning the advancements in medical technology. We have unlocked some secrets about human life that were unthinkable just a generation or two ago. Who would have thought we could map the human genome or grow organs from a single cell, as it appears may soon be the case? Who foresaw such advancements as locating and even correcting fetal abnormalities? Who guessed that we could extend life expectancy by decades in some cases?

These advancements are front and center for several reasons. First, they require us to answer foundational questions about the nature and value of the human person. These questions have not been answered, at least in terms that have achieved any kind of cultural consensus. Secondly, how they are answered will drive research and development in the future. Frankly, how we decide these questions will determine what kind of society we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

These advancements are fraught with ethical difficulty. Is it wrong to test for Down’s Syndrome in an unborn child? Is it wrong to extract stem cells from embryos? How far do our obligations to keep people alive really go? These types of questions are highly contentious, as any student of the culture knows. One thing we know for certain is that as our knowledge increases, the ethical questions concerning the nature and value of human life will become more numerous and complex—and the contention is likely to increase.

The contention has been largely defined in political terms. Every reader is familiar with the hot-button conflicts—teen sexuality, homosexual marriage, abortion, the Terri Schiavo dilemma—that have been fought in the public arena. The political arena will always remain a venue for moral conflicts, but we sell ourselves short if we conclude that the political dimension is the arena where these questions will find their final resolution.

For Solzhenitsyn, spiritual development and self-awareness work hand-in-hand—clearly a Christian value self-evident to any Orthodox Christian. But he also warns that because Western culture has been sidetracked into a philosophical materialism that has dimmed man’s spiritual awareness, its future is threatened. The only way out of the present morass is spiritual renewal.

Solzhenitsyn experienced the ravages of the spiritual darkening firsthand, particularly during his eight years in a Soviet prison. There he received the fundamental insight that would propel his groundbreaking work: "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart."

The timing of his Harvard speech couldn’t have been better. His words fell on the ears of a nation that was already experiencing the wrenching dislocations of a cataclysmic shift in moral values and social order—from the sexual revolution to riots in its cities—in ways unprecedented in its history. At the same time, the wondrous—and fearful—unlocking of the deep mysteries of human nature was moving into full swing. America had entered a culture war.

The Anthropological Dimension of the Culture War

The culture war is fundamentally a conflict about anthropology—how we value the human being, how we ought to define him, the purpose for his existence, what social arrangements society deems suitable for men and women, and so forth. And politics emerged as the prominent battlefield for the conflict.

Complex conflicts tend to drift toward simplification, and the culture war was no exception. Cultural liberalism and cultural conservatism roughly followed political lines: Democrats were liberal and Republicans were conservative. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but even a big suit on a small man still covers his body.

No one has really been comfortable with the arrangement, except perhaps the activists. Adding to the discomfort is our characteristically American way of adjudicating moral conflict. American culture has no institution of moral judgment. We have no national Church, no council of legislative elders, and no final court of arbitration that can definitively resolve the perplexing moral questions that face us. As a result, the debates and political maneuverings that follow are often raucous and chaotic affairs.

There is wisdom in this system of apparent chaos, however. The Founding Fathers, in refusing to establish a central authority of moral judgment, ensured that these questions must be addressed by the culture itself, thereby affirming the precept, politics follows culture, in ways that inhibit any imposition of a final adjudication from the state.

This precept is also drawn from the Christian tradition. It is grounded in the notion that the power of the state draws not only from the consent of the people, but from a people grounded in the Christian moral tradition. Solzhenitsyn, again stressing the anthropological dimension, himself acknowledged this point in the Harvard address:

Yet in the early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.

The model built by the Founding Fathers is not a perfect formula, but it does resist the tyranny that Solzhenitsyn experienced in Soviet Russia. One way is by providing a fluidity through which reform movements can arise. Take Democrats for Life, for example. Five short years ago an internal challenge to the hard-line pro-abortion position held by Democratic Party leadership was virtually unthinkable. But there it is.

Politics will always play a role in the great moral debates. It’s the American way. In taking questions to the culture, then, we need to look past (but not overlook) the political factors and define more clearly the anthropological dimension of the debate. It’s a complex topic, so let’s restrict our discussion to one important theme: the use and misuse of the Christian moral vocabulary.

Moral Deconstruction

Moral deconstruction can be defined as the systematic takedown and restructuring of the moral assumptions that used to guide our decisions, especially those that touched on the foundational constituents defining our self-understanding and value. These would include decisions about life, death, sexuality, purpose, meaning, sacrifice, and more.

Coming back to our literary prophets, we can see that cultural deconstruction was what they feared. Orwell warned against the imposition of tyranny, Huxley against a mechanization of the body, and Solzhenitsyn against a moral redefinition of man through which his God-given direction towards freedom (ultimately found in Christ) would be obscured.

Ideas have consequences. How we think determines how we act. This describes not only the individual but also the society he inhabits. A society cannot continue to function without shared notions of right and wrong—a dynamic we call the moral consensus. These ideas and values function as universals, as ways that a society organizes itself.

Further, these ideas depend on language, because it’s through language that the ideas are passed from one generation to the next. They shape a story, a cultural narrative, which references ideas and actions to a larger body of meaning. Solzhenitsyn, in arguing that the moral touchstone has shifted from God to man in Western culture, thereby implies the narrative has shifted as well. Solzhenitsyn says as much by writing the Gulag series, which attempted (successfully as it turns out) to destroy the Marxist cultural narrative by telling the truth about it, employing the values and ideas of the traditional narrative Marxist ideas sought to supplant.

In terms of how these concepts enter the culture, however, Orwell is probably the clearest. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell warned of how the meanings of words are subverted to stand for ideas and concepts that are not true to their meaning. The promises of the socialist utopia sweeping Europe (and the American intelligentsia) at the time were Orwell’s target, but the dynamic remains true today.

In all corners of the culture, words drawn from the moral tradition are employed to justify actions and behaviors that the tradition otherwise discourages and often prohibits. We saw it in the great debates about abortion and euthanasia in the last few decades. The conflict was not only about competing moral values, but also about the language by which those values were communicated. Words like freedom, choice, human value, and others whose meanings were relatively clear when the cultural consensus was shaped by traditional Christian morality now served a different function as that consensus shattered.

This co-opting of the Christian moral lexicon is one reason for the deep moral confusion in the culture. It creates a kind of moral schizophrenia in which people are unsure if right and wrong even exist. Repeat certain words over and over again, and people will tend to believe them. If these words have moral power, which is to say if they derive their authority from the moral tradition, people will tend to believe their new applications are the tradition.

That’s what Huxley warned against. If man is a biological machine, and if that machine responds to pleasure, why not frame the pleasure-inducing activity in the terminology of a private good? Orwell warned of the same corruption. If man is machine, why not frame the attempts at social reorganization in terms of the common good? All it takes is wrestling common terms from their traditional moral contexts and employing them in ones that justify the dehumanization as progress. Good becomes evil, and evil becomes good. Society has reconstructed itself in a new moral order.

What makes Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation so compelling (and ultimately more valuable) is his conviction that the crisis is fundamentally one of anthropology. As such, it might also be one of historical inevitability. Perhaps our progress has forced this dilemma upon us, just as the Nestorian controversy forced the elucidation of the two natures of Christ, and the Arian controversy the elucidation of Christ’s divinity. The question we as a society need to answer is: What is Man?

The Re-Christianization of Culture

As awe-inspiring as our technological advancements are, and despite the promise they hold for the alleviation of human suffering, the application of new technologies towards the betterment of the human condition in terms traditionally understood is not assured. The moral crisis facing American culture, particularly the deconstruction of cultural forms that managed to safeguard the common and private good (and sometimes correct its failures), can easily subvert the knowledge into something grotesque and ugly while claiming to serve the good.

Solzhenitsyn warned as much when he said the crisis can only be resolved if man reawakens to the spiritual dimension of his existence: “This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.”

If Orthodox Christians should understand anything, it is this: Salvation is a concrete, existential encounter with the living God. Moreover, this Lord gives gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, insight, and courage—all the elements needed to confront the maelstrom of confusion in which our culture finds itself, and all meant to be applied in the work of daily life, whether as mother, researcher, mechanic, priest—whatever our vocation may be.

Salvation is not understanding the correct theological concepts; it is not nostalgia for civilizations past; it is not formal membership in a long-standing parish; it is not social activism; it is not morally appropriate behavior; it is not mastery of the moral vocabulary. Further, it is not enough to recall the certainty of the past. Nostalgic impulses, as comforting as they may be (including the Orthodox variants, such as the longings for Hellenistic Greece or Holy Russia), simply won’t meet the challenge.

Orthodox leadership today requires moral clarity and courage. When Solzhenitsyn delivered his address three decades ago, he spoke not as a philosopher, but as a voice crying in the wilderness. He cried out against the dehumanization of men he experienced in the East and saw advancing in the West. Only people with moral clarity and courage could successfully challenge it, he exhorted. What the world needs is not more philosophers, but moralists.

The exhortation drew from a supreme confidence in the power of truth. Solzhenitsyn believed that truth is self-verifying. When the truth is spoken, its veracity is self-evident to the hearer. This is a profoundly Christian notion rooted in the teaching of the apostle Paul: When the Gospel is preached, Christ (who is Truth) is revealed.

Any Orthodox response to the cultural challenge must first presume a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The wisdom of the Fathers, the artistry of the poets, the healings of the miracle workers, the courage of the martyrs, the knowledge of the scholars, the patience of the teachers, the foresight of the bishops, the faithfulness of the priests—all the elements that shaped and forged the moral tradition that founded Western civilization and must renew it today—start with the recovery of the Gospel. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse is the president of the American Orthodox Institute.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 29 No. 3, Fall 2007. Visit AGAIN online at Conciliar Press.

Read Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address.

Read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

The Patriarch of Russia's Restoration

By: James George Jatras

Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia
By John Garrard and Carol Garrard
Princeton University Press
326 pp., $29.95

James George Jatras Esq.

James George Jatras Esq.

The recognized godfather of modern Orthodox-inspired Russian patriotism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once characterized Bolshevism as a promethean effort to rub off the age-old face of Russia and to replace it with a new, ersatz Soviet face. Historians will argue for years if that monstrous experiment was doomed to failure, when and how that failure might have occurred at critical historical junctures, and especially who the indispensable figures in communism’s eventual demise were. But there is little question that in the chronicles of Russia’s restoration as a recognizably Orthodox Christian country the late Patriarch ALEKSY II of Moscow and All Russia will figure high on that list.

While few could realistically expect the end of communism to entail the reinstatement of dispossessed noble families’ lands and estates or formal reestablishment of the Church and monarchy (not yet, anyway), "restoration" is indeed the right term. After the long, sub-rosa civil war that constituted the communists’ decades-long efforts to overcome Russians’ obstinate unwillingness or inability to conform their lives and consciences to the insane scribblings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Americans and other westerners familiar with Russia today can only be astounded at the miraculous – there is no other word for it – degree to which the Orthodox Church has become the national moral conscience, including in state, and especially, military affairs.

While Americans, with our history of government neutrality among churches, might be a bit taken aback at public officials’ and commanders’ participation in Orthodox services to bless the launch of a new nuclear submarine or to celebrate the patron Saint’s Day of a military unit, given the degree to which Christianity is being ruthlessly purged from our own public life we might feel just a twinge of envy.

That this state of affairs came into being relatively peacefully during the dangerous days of the Soviet regime’s final death agony is largely Aleksy’s doing. Indeed, though the late Patriarch’s name does not appear in the title or subtitle, John Garrard and Carol Garrard have written a book about him far more than about Russia or Orthodoxy per se.

The book is especially enlightening in detailing Aleksy’s actions during the failed August 1991 putsch, when Soviet diehards sought to overthrow the government of the Russian Republic (the largest of the USSR’s 15 Union Republics) headed by President Boris Yeltsin. The Garrards credit (correctly in this reviewer’s opinion) Aleksy’s stern anathema against the shedding of civil blood for the fact that the military refused to take action in support of the coup and that the death toll was kept to just three persons:

Every person who raises arms against his neighbor, against unarmed civilians, will be taking upon his soul a very profound sin which will separate him from the Church and from God. It is appropriate to shed more tears and say more prayers for such people than for their victims. May God protect you from the terrible sin of fratricide. I solemnly warn all my fellow-citizens: The Church does not condone and cannot condone unlawful and violent acts and the shedding of blood. I ask all of you, my dear ones, to do everything possible to prevent the flame of civil war from bursting forth. Cease at once!

The success of Aleksy’s warning, issued in response to an appeal by Yeltsin, is all the more remarkable in that it would be heeded by officers and men of a Red Army originally created to crush Russian resistance to an earlier Bolshevik coup d’etat, in October 1917. The army’s response did not materialize out of thin air. The Garrards record Aleksy’s amazingly deft cultivation of the armed forces, and even elements of the KGB, well before his rise to the patriarchate.

During the 1980s, first as Metropolitan of his native Tallinn (Estonia) and of Leningrad (now once again Saint Petersburg), Aleksy was remarkably successful in securing the Soviet authorities’ acquiescence to the restoration to the Church of the celebrated Danilov Monastery – now once again official headquarters of the patriarchate – and the KGB’s return of the relics of the famous military saint and champion of Orthodoxy against the Roman Catholic Swedes and Teutonic Knights, Prince Aleksandr Nevsky.

His masterful orchestration of the 1988 celebration of the millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ under Saint Prince Vladimir of Kiev was a major milestone in the Church’s assumption of its current commanding role. At the same time, the authors, despite their clearly positive attitude toward Aleksy and his accomplishments, do not hide the fact that little of this would have been possible if Aleksy had not himself been a longtime and obedient operative of the KGB.

Taken as a whole, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent is a valuable book and the Garrards should be commended for their ably bringing to light facets of one of recent history’s little known but most significant chapters. At the same time, the work includes two minor oddities and one major, indeed deplorable, defect.

The Garrards explore the bases of the thousand-year-old discord between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as an intended insight on Aleksy’s distrust of the Vatican, his refusal to allow Pope John-Paul II visit Russia as he dearly had wanted, and his insistence that Orthodoxy, not Catholicism or Protestantism, be acknowledged as the Christian confession in Russia in relation to other historic faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In doing so, however, they embark on an extended, and essentially irrelevant, explanation that the claims to primacy of Rome and Moscow depend on how one reads the Gospel accounts of Christ’s first calling to His Apostolate, respectively, Saint Peter or his brother Saint Andrew.

Aside from the fact that the see of Constantinople also takes its founding honorific from Andrew, and Antioch and (via Saint Mark) Alexandria both can claim Peter, no such who-was-summoned-before-whom question has ever had much bearing on the real points of division: Rome’s own formulation of its unique Petrine claim of authority (and infallibility) based largely on Matthew 16, the filioque, the unions of Lyon, Ferrara-Florence, and Brest, and repeated armed incursions by western armies into Orthodox countries to subdue people regarded by Rome as schismatics if not heretics.

Writing as no stranger to Orthodox-Latin polemics, this reviewer is puzzled as to why the authors would include such a strange and, frankly, inaccurate explanation.

Even more peculiar is the Garrards’ repeated insistence that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) are two different bodies when in fact they are the same thing. I have consulted numerous sources, including many in ROCOR/ROCA – both of which names are found on their own website – and they are as baffled as I am as to what the source of misunderstanding might be. (In common parlance, even more common than "ROCOR" and "ROCA" are "the Synod" or "the Synodal Church," which is not used in the book.)

While the confusion can be regarded as a minor quirk the topic to which it is relevant – the 2007 reunion of the branches of the Russian Church abroad and at home, of which then-President Vladimir Putin was hardly less a champion than Aleksy – is not. In any case, the reunion was a bilateral, not trilateral, event.

These blemishes are insignificant compared to the Garrards’ absolutely inexcusable vilification of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people. It is understandable that the authors wish to juxtapose Aleksy’s successful navigation of the Russian Church through the treacherous shoals of Russian politics, both civil and ecclesiastical, and it was no doubt tempting to hold up a negative point of comparison. Given the magnitude of the disinformation about and demonization of Serbia and the Serbian Church, and the close national and spiritual ties between Russians and Serbs, the Serbian example might seem a suitable illustration of the "road not taken" (as the Garrards indeed refer to it).

They compare what they see as Aleksy’s positive handling of sensitive issues like the glorification of the Royal Martyrs Nicholas II and his family, the return to Sarov of the relics of Saint Seraphim, and the veneration of warrior saints such as Nevsky and Prince Dmitry Donskoy to the "Serbian bloodlust" and supposedly Church-blessed massacres of Croats and Muslims stirred up by Serbian bishops. The Garrards suggest the Church, in concert with the late Slobodan Milosevic, manipulated the 1989 translation of the relics of Saint Prince (not "king") Lazar on the 600th anniversary of the epic battle of Kosovo, in which he championed the Christian forces fighting Ottoman invaders, to encourage Serbs to regard themselves as victims of their neighbors.

The authors seemingly are unaware of the fact that the Serbs are indeed victims of their neighbors, having been subjected not only to the physical depredations of mass murder and eradication from their homes during World War II under Croatian Ustaše and their Muslim allies but in the 1990s by Croats and Bosnian and Kosovo Albanian Muslims – the last continuing today in slow-motion under Washington’s sponsorship.

Likewise missing is any awareness that Aleksy, as well as Putin, and everyone else featured positively in the book, and in truth almost everyone in Russia, has remained fully in support of the Serbian cause and would see no difference at all between the Russian and Serbian national, religious, and martial traditions – not least in Lazar’s choosing a spiritual kingdom over the earthly, hardly a negative comparison with Nevsky and Donskoy. It certainly does not help that the Garrards took as their authorities on Balkan events two unreliable authors noted for their vicious Serbophobia and Pravoslavophobia.

In short, the Garrards should have observed Rule One for the writing of nonfiction: stick to what you know, stay away from subjects about which you are ignorant. While at their worst on Serbia, with regard to Russia they write perceptively and effectively about a subject they clearly know very well. As an explanation of pivotal events of recent history, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent is, despite its flaws, a valuable public service, for Orthodox Christians especially. John Garrard and Carol Garrard have written book well worth reading and a fitting memorial to a hierarch whose reputation will only grow with the passage of time.

James George Jatras is Director of the American Council for Kosovo (www.savekosovo.org), and advisor to the American Orthodox Institute, and former senior foreign policy analyst for the U.S. Senate Republican leadership He is a member of St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

Catechesis and Evangelism are not Enough

By: Fr. Gregory Jensen

We must all be disciples of Christ

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

In recent years, Orthodox Christians in the United States have become very mission minded. We see as a community the importance of bringing the Orthodox faith to what the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Charitable Trust calls "the American religious marketplace." Ours is a religious age characterized by "constant movement."

Given the ease with which Americans change religious affiliations making new members is not the primary challenge. The real challenge, the Survey suggests, is retention, of actually keeping the members that we have. Our witness to the Gospel is undermined by the general lack of commitment to the life of the Church by a plurality of Orthodox Christians. And this is true whether we are talking about those baptized as infants or those who join the Church as adults. If anything, the empirical data highlights the pastoral importance of stressing not simply catechesis (religious education) evangelism (making new Orthodox Christians).

The survey data gives us an overview of religious life in American and the place of the Orthodox Church in this broader context. Filled with charts, graphs, and statistics the report is not something that most of us are likely just to pick and read. In what follows, rather than a rigorous statistical analysis of the Church’s life, I offer some points for reflection based on the survey. My goal is to help laity and clergy understand that catechesis and evangelism must be combined with a pastoral commitment to the personal discipleship of all members of the Church.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

To begin, let’s look at an Orthodox parish with an average Sunday attendance of say, 200 adults. (I’ve rounded numbers to make it a bit easier for us.)

Looking around, the congregation is evenly divided between men (94) and women (106). Most of the community members (154) were baptized as infants. Interestingly, about as many of here this morning were born overseas as became Orthodox Christians as adults (48 of were born outside the US and 46 are converts).

There are about 85 children under the age of 18 here this morning. And maybe this is where we might want to being thinking about the importance of personal discipleship.

Of the 85 or so children here this morning, only 64 or so will still be in church as adults. And, unless something changes, only about a third of these children will attend the Divine Liturgy on a weekly basis when they are adults. So in a few years time, this morning’s 85 children will shrink to a weekly congregation of 23 adults.

Surprisingly, at least relative to the American scene in general and the broader Christian community in particular, we’re doing good job in keeping children in the Church through adulthood. Almost three quarters of those who were raised as Orthodox Christians are still in the Church as adults compared to 68% of Catholics and 52% of Protestants adults are still members of their childhood tradition. Clearly we could be doing better, but we could be doing worse, much worse in fact.

"Well what about converts?" you might ask, "Certainly, their dedicated, right?" Well, not really, or at least not as much as we might imagine.

Of the 46 people at Liturgy this morning who joined the Church as adults, there are 46 or so more who have joined and subsequently left the Church. Roughly the same number of adult "cradle" and "convert" Orthodox Christians have left the Church (311,000 cradle Orthodox Christians have left vs. 364,000 converts). But when we look at the percentage, we see that the term "convert" is a bit of a misnomer since those who join as adults are almost twice as likely to leave the Church as those baptized as infants- 54% of all adult "converts" members vs. 35% of all adult "cradle" members. For every 10 converts who leave, 6 cradle adults also leave, or if you prefer, for every one Greek or Russian Orthodox baptized as an infant who will leave the Church, 1.6 adult converts will also leave. Converts leave at a 60% greater number than cradle Orthodox adults.

Pastorally solid catechesis and effective spiritual formation for all, laity and clergy alike is essential. Catechesis, in sermons and religious education classes for children and adults, tells me what we believe. Spiritual formation tells me, or better yet, helps me, answer questions such as "Who am I in Christ?" and "What is Christ asking of me?" Spiritual formation is concerned with answer questions of personal identity and vocation. In other words, formation is about discipleship, about a personal, life-long commitment to Christ. While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is almost unbelievably rich, it seems to me that we seriously neglect the formation of our laity (and as a result, our clergy).

"But, Father," you might ask, "what about evangelism? Shouldn’t we simply work to fill the Church with new, committed, Orthodox Christians?"

Given the ease with which Americans change religious affiliations making new members is not a challenge. The real challenge is retention; of actually keeping the members that we have by helping them become disciples of Christ. The Church’s witness to the Gospel is undermined by a lack of commitment to Christ by a plurality of Orthodox Christians. Whether we are looking at the experience of "cradle" or "convert," this commitment is absent for many Orthodox Christians. A credible witness is possible; we have the promise of Christ of this. But it requires from all of us a personal commitment to Christ, regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church (especially Holy Communion and Confession) and a willing eagerness of each of us to conform the whole of our life to Christ and the Gospel.

Fr Gregory Jensen, a native Texan, received his doctorate at Duquesne University’s Institute of Formative Spirituality in 1995, and was ordained to priesthood in 1996. Together with his wife Mary he served for 7 years as missionary in rural northern California where he also taught psychology and served as a consultant and trainer for area social service agencies. From 2003-2007, he was the Orthodox chaplain for the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and is current the priest-in-charge at Holy Assumption Orthodox Church (OCA) in Canton, OH.

A psychologist of religion by profession, he has presented and published on theoretical and applied issues in clinical psychology, human developmental, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality. An avid blogger and popular speaker, he maintains the blog Koinonia (www.palamas.info), is active in the Society St John Chrysostom, an ecumenical group devoted to Catholic/Orthodox reconciliation, and a frequent speaker at retreats and professional conferences.

Conflicted Hearts: Orthodox Christian ‘Social Justice’ in an Age of Globalization

By: John Couretas

John Couretas

John Couretas

In the opening sermon delivered to an ecumenical gathering last year in Brazil, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania called on the assembly to promote "daring initiatives and just social struggles." The archbishop, a leading expert on Orthodox Christian missionary work, exhorted the 3,800 attendees at the World Council of Churches gathering in Porto Alegre "not to be spectators of divine interventions and actions," but to offer themselves as co-workers with the Lord.

He addressed the rise of economic globalization, describing it as "solely concerned with broadening the market" as it levels cultural diversity. "Woe to us if, in the twenty-first century, we again relinquish the initiative for social justice to others, as we have done in past centuries, while we confine ourselves to our opulent rituals, to our usual alliance with the powerful," the archbishop preached.

The archbishop, in his critique of an ever-more-interdependent global economic system, picked up on themes in his 2003 collection of essays, Facing the WorldOrthodoxbooksonline.com. In that work, he called on Christians to promote a "society of love" in opposition to "a globalization that transforms nations and people into an indistinguishable, homogenized mass, convenient for the economic objectives of an anonymous oligarchy."

The archbishop’s critique of economic globalization fell on receptive ears at the WCC, a Geneva-based organization that, going back to the Cold War years, has long been critical of American military and economic might. At the same time, the archbishop and the WCC delegates who made their way to Porto Alegre on wide-body jets and air-conditioned tourist coaches availed themselves of the fruits of economic globalization — international credit card processing, ATM machines, Internet access, safe immunizations, and high-tech airport security. As they must have done in attending earlier assemblies in Zimbabwe, Sweden, India, Kenya, and Australia.

Of Two Minds About Globalization

This double-minded approach — recoiling from the reality of a powerful global economy while enjoying its many benefits — was evident in the "Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Third Christian Millennium" (.pdf file) issued by SCOBA bishops in 2000. In a passage on economics, the statement carefully noted that many Orthodox cultures "suffered terribly" under communism. But then the bishops made a startling assertion:

We acknowledge that our capitalist system is no less predicated on purely materialist principles, which also do not engender faith in God. There is no place in the calculus of our economics to account for the "intangibles" of human existence. Reflect on how the simple accounting phrase "the bottom line" has shaped our whole culture. We use it to force the summarization of an analysis devoid of any externals or irrelevancies to the "heart of the matter." This usually means the monetary outcome.

Maybe the well-meaning SCOBA hierarchs did not intend to level capitalism, or what we might call a free market system, to the same moral ground as communism. Undoubtedly, those who fled or escaped from communist countries during the Cold War — whether they were Cuban or Vietnamese boat people or East Germans risking their necks to scale the Berlin Wall — were in search of exactly those political and economic "intangibles" that were denied them at home. As a system of materialist philosophy, communism reduced the human person to a mere unit of labor — no more or less valuable than a milling machine or a draft animal. Even more, communism sought to purge from society any notion of a higher authority than the state. Under the savagely atheistic systems of communism, more Orthodox Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined.

In short, on the matter of economic globalization, Orthodox Christian leaders have been deeply conflicted. And today, as the world knits itself closer together through international trade and Internet-enabled communications, economics are almost always at the root of any discussion of "social justice" — whether the particular issue be health care, labor, the environment or immigration.

In a 2005 book that looks at the Eastern Orthodox response to globalization, authors Alex Agadjanian and Victor Roudometof show that while religion can be "bluntly repulsive and self-protecting" against globalization, it may also become involved in a "complex and painstaking negotiation" with globalization. "Globality is the ‘spirit’ of the age, and nothing can escape its vortex," the authors contend.

Understanding Social Justice Means Understanding Economics

This "painstaking negotiation" with globalization surely ought to include an honest attempt to understand the "spirit of the age" without prejudice. Denunciations of social, political, and economic realities by church leaders are of little use when no effort is made to fairly understand these realities and how they affect the lives of Orthodox Christians in everyday life.

"Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism," the post-war German economist Wilhelm Ropke wrote. "Ethics and economics are two equally difficult subjects, and while the former needs discerning and expert reason, the latter cannot do without humane values." Ropke was writing at a time when many in the West were looking to make a moral case for capitalism against the threat of totalitarian, collectivist communism. Making the case, he said, demanded a conception of economic life rooted in mankind’s spiritual and moral existence.

Just as there is no real understanding of many bioethical issues without a general grasp of underlying medical technology, there is no real understanding of "social justice" without an understanding of basic economic principles. These principles explain how Orthodox Christians work, earn, invest, and give to philanthropic causes in a market-oriented economy. Economic questions are at the root of many of the problems that on their face seem to be more about something else — poverty, immigration, the environment, technology, politics, humanitarian assistance. In the environmental area, for example, the current debate on global warming is just as much focused on how to finance the means of slowing the rising temperatures of the earth as it is on root causes. And the question always is: Who will pay?

What, exactly, is social justice? It is an ambiguous concept, loaded with ideological freight. No politically correct person would dare oppose it. To be against "social justice" would be tantamount to opposing "fairness." Today, the term is most often employed by liberal-progressive activists and a "social justice movement" that advances an economic agenda which includes such causes as a "living wage," universal health care and expanded welfare benefits, increased labor union powers, forgiveness of national debts in the developing world, and vastly increased transfers of foreign aid from rich countries to the poor. Because religious conservatives tend toward support for free market economic systems, they have largely shunned the "social justice" agenda and its government-based solutions.

The Orthodox Tradition of Social Witness

Whatever "social justice" could mean in an Orthodox Christian sense, it would have to include the witness of the biblical and patristic moral tradition. Orthodox Christian thinking and preaching about the uses of wealth and the scandal of poverty have a long history in this Tradition, going back to the Apostles and the Church Fathers.

St. John Chrysostom, the great conscience of the Church on these matters, closed his second sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, delivered in Antioch in the late fourth century, by imploring his flock to keep one main thing in mind: "I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life," he preached. "We do not possess our own wealth but theirs." It should be pointed out that in patristic thinking, the non-negotiable concern for the poor, the sick, and those in prison was frequently balanced with demands for personal responsibility, honest work, and "orderly" social life.

St. John Chrysostom preached in Antioch and Constantinople more than 1,600 years ago. Where is the prophetic voice of the Church today on moral issues in public life? That question has been asked for some time. As one Orthodox writer in the 1960s noted, Roman Catholics and Protestants often viewed the Eastern Church as a place for "wealth of ritual — a mystical, static ‘communion of worship,’ without dynamism, without prophetic breath, without any wish to take part in the reshaping of the social environment in which her faithful live."

This view is of course a caricature of Orthodoxy’s encounter with society, but there is some truth in it. As American society, both secular and religious, continues its own negotiation with globalization, and the entire field of presidential candidates for the 2008 election include "God talk" in their slogans and speeches, the Orthodox are largely absent from the field. To the extent that Orthodox social engagement exists today in the political sphere, it has largely been defaulted to Protestant-dominated, politically progressive ecumenical structures such as the WCC and, in the United States, the National Council of Churches.

The Orthodox tradition of social witness is ripe for renewal and revival. And today there are signs that the Church is beginning to engage important issues such as economic globalization and matters of "social justice" with new thinking and on its own terms.

At its Jubilee Bishop’s Council in Moscow in 2000, the Russian Church published a document on the "social concept" of the faith (Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church), including sections on politics, labor, and property. It showed the Russian bishops beginning to come to terms with a secular, post-communist era and the disastrous effects of the ill-conceived free market economic reforms of the early 1990s. On private property, for example, the bishops affirmed a legitimate right of ownership. "Russian history has shown that the violations of these principles have always resulted in social upheavals and people’s suffering," the bishops said.

Last year, Holy Cross Press published a new collection of essays titled, Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on VocationOrthodoxBooksOnline.com. The essays looked at the concept of a vocation or spiritual calling in one’s everyday life. Looking at one’s work as a way to bring glory to God should not be viewed as an attempt to sanctify success. Rather, this deeper understanding of work shows a healthy respect for the type of worldly employment the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are engaged in. Honest work, after all, gives Orthodox Christians the means to raise and educate their families as they choose, build churches and monasteries, and fund missionary and humanitarian efforts.

"Any profession without a deep sense of commitment and service to others can easily become mere employment," writes Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos in one of the essays. "On the other hand, any job or employment, conducted from the perspective of leading a life worthy of God, would itself be transformed into a calling, indeed an ongoing sacrament, conducted for the love of God and service of others."

New Thinking on Faith and Economics from the Ecumenical Patriarch

Some of the best new thinking on economic globalization is yet to come. A new book by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, due out in March 2008, tackles the problem head-on with balance and compassion. "The issues of free trade, global commerce, and market growth should be of concern to everybody, not just a few people," Patriarch Bartholomew writes. "Unless that is clearly recognized, there will be a deeper and deepening chasm between the individual and the community, as well as between the rich and the poor."

The patriarch’s new book, entitled Encountering the Mystery — Understanding Orthodox Christianity TodayAmerican Orthodox Institute - www.aoiusa.org, addresses a number of current problems. The patriarch sees how viewpoints on social questions informed by faith are "proving to be the subjects of renewed interest and attention" in politics and policy circles. Yet he provides a caution: It is not social dogma or political ideology that should be at the center of the Christian’s concerns, but the "sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God." The Church, he says, "is not opposed to an economic progress that serves humanity as a whole."

The patriarch points to the remarkable alleviation of poverty in places like India and China through the opening of markets and international trade. Yet, he is quick to add that "economic and social development must always be tempered and underpinned by moral and social values. Whatever happens in the world, we ought to strive to preserve fundamental cultural values that pertain to humanity without, of course, establishing unnecessary barriers to useful economic progress."

A few points could have been handled more carefully in the book, including the discussion of the "growing gap" between rich and poor. True, yes. But such discussions have become greatly politicized, particularly by populist politicians using class warfare rhetoric. While the earnings gap is real, it is not an indicator of poverty, nor does it take into account real social mobility in market-based economies. The poor are not always poor forever. If any politician or economist is interested in studying the phenomenon of poor or immigrant people rapidly advancing up the economic ladder, he or she would do well to start with the Orthodox Christian experience in places like Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Overall, Encountering the Mystery deserves to be widely read and actively discussed by Orthodox Christians and people of other faith traditions. Economic globalization, after all, is not an unmixed good. It has its drawbacks and its debatable developments, which the patriarch addresses. Not least of these adverse effects is the serious environmental damage that is taking place in newly industrialized countries — particularly India and China.

Yet Patriarch Bartholomew does not see our situation as a bleak one, nor determined by overpowering forces. It is an urgent situation, yes. But he rightly points to the human person at the center of the issue. "We must begin to address serious questions about personal responsibility and accept some blame or ethical liability for the choices we make," he warns.

Finding Our Own Voice

How does Orthodox Christianity begin to find a stronger public voice on social questions? How is the revival of the Church’s authentic "social justice" work to begin? Declaring the Church’s independence from worn-out, politically compromised ecumenical structures such as the WCC would be a positive first step. This separation would not preclude new openings and deeper engagements with other churches and other cultures. Indeed, some of the most important ecumenical outreach in recent years has been bilateral, such as the warming relations between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in Europe.

In recent decades, Orthodox leaders have allowed ecumenical bodies to do most of their talking and thinking for them on social questions. Protestant-dominated groups like the WCC and the NCC have evolved into left-leaning political activist organizations for partisan political causes. The spirit of these groups draws heavily on the "Social Gospel" movement of the mainline Protestant churches and the liberal element in Roman Catholicism, which puts worldly programs for perfecting society ahead of personal conversion.

It is strange to consider: Could anyone imagine Orthodox Christian theologians formulating a "social justice" ethic by borrowing heavily from Roman Catholic theology, papal encyclicals, and allusions to the scholastic works of St. Thomas Aquinas? Why, then, would we piggyback an Orthodox social consciousness on a liberal-progressive institution such as the NCC, which is supported by mainline Protestant churches themselves experiencing a long historic decline in membership?

The politicization of Christian dogma in the service of leftist, liberation-theology Christianity and its "social justice" agenda was highlighted in a 2006 report from a conservative watchdog group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy. IRD’s "Strange Yokefellows: The National Council of Churches and its Growing Non-Church Constituency" looked at the "sharp leftward tilt" in NCC advocacy and its growing support from "progressive" secular groups such as the Sierra Club, MoveOn.org, and Ben Cohen’s TrueMajority. The NCC is more financially beholden to the Sierra Club than it is to all of its Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions combined, IRD concluded.

In July 2005, alarmed by the growing "secular progressive agenda," the self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America pulled out of the NCC. Orthodox churches that remain in the NCC and WCC would do well to follow the Antiochians’ lead. By allowing these ecumenical groups to trumpet Orthodox membership in every policy statement and press release, the Orthodox Church not only causes itself to be identified with the partisan, progressive politics and economic programs behind these organizations, it is also tainted by nutty theological improvisations.

Another important reason Orthodox Christians should invite — even demand — a revival of the Church’s social witness today is the spread, along with globalization, of secularism. This is nothing more than a society viewing itself as economically and politically self-sufficient and without need for reference to a moral life in God. To the extent that secularism gathers power, that it becomes the dominant ethic of government and business, it will expand its claims into areas of life that have traditionally been reserved to the individual: religious expression, marriage and family relations, sexuality, and the education of children. The direct threat that secularism poses to faith communities has been clearly discerned by prominent Orthodox Christian bishops in Europe. These bishops have spoken out against, for example, the 2004 campaign to enact a European Union constitution that did not acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots.

What does the Church have in answer to the gathering powers of secularism and a globalization that would inhumanely sweep away religious and cultural diversity? It has a powerful moral tradition, rooted in biblical and patristic sources. Bringing about a revival of this tradition should not only involve the clergy and the theologians, but experts drawn from diverse fields in politics, economics, and the social sciences. And, without question, it needs to seriously engage the laity, whose participation in any revival of Orthodox social witness would begin with a closer relationship to the Gospel. It begins with the person who, transformed by the Gospel, takes that message and that living example of Christian charity to the wider world. "The transformation of the heart can and must lead to the transformation of society," Patriarch Bartholomew tells us. "This, after all, is ultimately the way of encounter."

That’s as good a definition of "social justice" as we are going to find. For Orthodox Christians concerned about an economic globalization that is both humane and leaves room for the "intangibles" of life, that is where it begins — with the transformation of the heart.

John Couretas is executive director of the American Orthodox Institute.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 29 #4, Winter 2008, and is copyrighted by Conciliar Press. Learn more about AGAIN online at www.conciliarpress.com.

Family & Christian Virtue in a Post-Christian World

By: Vigen Guroian

Reflections on the Ecclesial Vision of John Chrysostom

Dr. Vigen Guroian

Dr. Vigen Guroian

Of the many quotable passages from the writings of St. John Chrysostom the one most often cited is located in his twentieth homily on Ephesians. It reads: “If we regulate our households [properly] . . . , we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the household is a little Church. Therefore, it is possible for us to surpass all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives.”1 Most often this passage has been invoked as proof text supporting high sacramental interpretations of marriage. Rarely has it become the occasion for a sustained discussion of what might best be described as Chrysostom’s ecclesial vision of the Christian family and household. That is the task of this essay. I also want to show how this vision helps to enable Christians to better understand what is truly at stake for the Church in the current debates over the family and moral values.

Chrysostom lived at a moment of genuine cultural crisis. The pagan culture of antiquity was in decline. Christianity had become a force with which to be reckoned. Yet views differed about what shape a future Christian culture might take. Chrysostom was among a minority of Christian voices, St. Basil having been another, who expressed serious misgivings about he emerging Christian order. Like Basil, he brought the spirit of monastic reform into his critique of society. He inveighed against the moral laxity and excessive preoccupation with material possession, power, and social status even among so-called Christians. Chrysostom’s ecclesiology powerfully expressed this reform spirit, as he struggled to steer a course which would lead neither to an imperial church nor a cake-frosting version of Christianity for the masses. His example is especially instructive for churches today as they themselves enter a definitively post-Christendom era marked by cultural deterioration. Christians are faced with difficult choices over how to relate to the emerging hegemonic secularity.

Chrysostom might easily have succumbed to the temptation to argue for the moral rehabilitation of the family as a means of securing societal stability. In our own time we hear repeatedly even from religious sources—Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox alike—that the family is of social value as a bulwark of societal stability. The presidential campaign of 1992 was replete with talk about family values and the importance of healthy and functional families to secure the promises of the American way of life. Less clear in the political rhetoric were the actual standards of this ideal American family and the sources of this family morality.

Chrysostom did not ignore the sociological dimension and function of the family. As he said on one occasion: “[W]hen harmony prevails [in the household], the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced.”2 He, however, subordinated this societal function to secondary or tertiary importance. The Christian family is primarily an ecclesial entity. Its calling is to the kingdom of God. In order to fulfill this vocation, the Christian family must practice a discipline of spiritual and moral askesis [practice]. Chrysostom was clear about the sources of a family’s morality. The source was Christ in his life and commandments.

Chrysostom’s vision of the ecclesial family was radical when he preached it in the fourth century, and it is equally radical in a post-Christian society. After Christendom, the church and spouses and parents can no longer depend upon a substantial residue of biblical and Christian values to subsist within the culture and be transmitted to the young apart from nurture within the community of faith. It ought to be obvious to Christian spouses and parents how truly radical their vocation as family is within contemporary society. Nevertheless what actually is entailed in being married “in the Lord” has frequently been forgotten. The printed and electronic media bombard Christians and non-Christians alike with powerful and seductive alternatives to the demanding, disciplined life to which the Christian family is called biblically and through the marital rites of the church. It is easy to think of the Christian family as merely a church-going version of those comfortable and idealized Cleaver and Huxtable families.

A lesson for our time taught by Chrysostom is that strenuous and sustained efforts must be made from within the churches to cultivate and restore the vision of the family as an ecclesial entity and mission of the kingdom of God. Sociologists tell us that increasingly, for vast numbers of Americans, family has lost its public meaning and outlook. Family is being redefined as a haven of private living, consumption, and recreation. A flight to privacy replaces civic-mindedness. Self-centeredness and hedonism replace personal sacrifice for children and community. Chrysostom’s ecclesial vision of family answers this deprivation of community, but in a fashion which can only look strange even to people who otherwise worry about the privatization and moral privation of family. For if from the sociologist’s or politician’s point of view the family has gone “out-of-joint” because it is not contributing as it should to the formation of viable community and civic virtue, Chrysostom reminds Christians that the Christian family is first a calling to community in service to God and his kingdom.

By looking at Chrysostom’s teachings on marriage and family through this prism, however, one is bound to bump into a much larger debate, quite at the center of contemporary Christian ethics. It is the debate over the general prospects for the Christian faith and ethics within a post-Christian world. There are those who cling to the hope that some version of a Christendom is still possible and that, therefore, Christian ethics can continue to be done in old and familiar ways of correlating Christian truth with norms and institutions found within the culture. There are others with the more modest hope of designing a new public theology for a pluralistic order. This search goes on in diverse and even opposing ideological camps, among neo-conservatives, mainline Protestants, and liberal as well as neo-Thomist Catholics. Others who are persuaded that Christendom has ended and never was a good idea in any case have turned to alternative models of a confessing church whose “main political task” lies “not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society,” but rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon have recently put it, “in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things . . . and to build up an alternative polis”—that being the church.3 Between the contending parties accusations are flung back and forth over whether this or that proposed ecclesiology is overly accommodating towards the culture or irresponsibly sectarian.

Chrysostom helps us to see that this perennial question about the appropriate relationship of the church to the culture is reflected in microcosm within the empirical Christian family. With respect to the contemporary debate, I intend to demonstrate how Chrysostom’s way of stating the relation of family to church and church to culture eludes some of the easily uttered categories with which we have learned to pigeonhole others’ points of view. Chrysostom was neither sectarian, accommodationist, or triumphalist. He resisted the Eusebian Christian imperialism of the day. He was not taken with the Constantinian-Theodosian theocratic synthesis of church and state, which when later codified by Justinian, provided the ideological framework for Byzantine theocracy. Nor did Chrysostom propose that the church retreat into the catacombs. And he did not believe that the only pure and true Christianity was restricted to the monastery. Rather, Chrysostom’s idea of an evangelical and socially responsible Christian faith was bound up with his pastoral and moral theology as he addressed Christian parishioners and Christian rulers alike. In all that he said about the nature of the church/world relationship, Chrysostom returned again and again to the belief of the Fathers that salvation is accomplished from within the ecclesia through its process of making the kingdom of God present to an unbelieving world. For Chrysostom the family as an ecclesial entity figured centrally in this salvific process.

The “Ecclesial” Household

As Gerhardt B. Ladner has observed, by the end of the fourth century, especially in the East, “the ascetic and mystic and the ruler shared between them as it were true kingship. Reformed in the royal image of God, they represented two different but equally high orders of mankind.”4 The Constantinian-Theodosian initiatives to establish a Christian commonwealth formalized by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century tipped the balance toward the latter. The emperors increasingly asserted a “quasi-sacerdotal position [for themselves] in the church, and generally made it understood that the value of all acts of reform in the Church and empire flowed directly from the fact that they were put into effect by, or on the command of, the emperor.”5

Early in his career Chrysostom resisted these trends toward imperial domination of the church and society. He did so by championing monastic claims of true “kingship” over the Eusebian conception of the king-philosopher. This is a clear aim of his short treatise, “A Comparison Between a King and a Monk” (c. 380). As Ladner states: “There was one great exception to the eastern development of [the] Basileia ideology: the thought and life of St. John Chrysostom.”6 The truly significant turn in Chrysostom’s thought came, however, as he struggled with his pastoral and homiletic duties at Antioch and later in Constantinople. In these settings, Chrysostom became convinced “that, apart from the privilege of marriage, the Christian who lived in the world had the same obligations as the monk.”7 In the midst of expounding an ecclesially centered interpretation of the Christian household as a mission of the kingdom of God in the world, he also anticipated and answered the later Byzantine alternatives of either conceiving of the church as the sacramental organism which whispers in the emperor’s ear and sacralizes an imperial order or the view that the monks are the only true representatives of holiness in a compromised and sinful world.

At the close of his Antiochene ministry, Chrysostom wrote the “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” (c. 386-387). There he spoke “of a child’s soul as of a city in which the King of the universe intends to dwell and God’s earthly representative in this city is not the emperor, but the child’s father” [my emphasis]. “Nothing,” concludes Ladner, “could be less ’Eusebian’ than this conception of the Kingdom of God on earth, and it is not surprising that John Chrysostom perished as a martyr for Christian ethical principles in resistance”8 to the emerging and solidifying ideology of a Christian Empire.

From this point on, Chrysostom sought to “reform the ‘Polis’ within the ‘Basileia’,”9 observes Ladner. He increasingly identified the proleptic presence of the kingdom of God not primarily with empire or the cloistered monastery but with the near and familiar Christian household. The cardinal “marks” of the kingdom, Chrysostom insisted, are compassion, love of neighbor, and hospitality toward friends and strangers alike. The Christian household, he maintained, is an exact image of the ecclesia when it puts into practice the gospel teaching about our behavior toward one another and God.10

Chrysostom thought of the Abrahamic household as the ancient biblical type of the Christian “ecclesial” household. The Abrahamic household kept and practiced in an exemplary fashion those virtues of the kingdom of God which need to belong to the people of God in order that they may receive the Messiah when he comes. In homily 45 on The Acts of the Apostles, Chrysostom exhorted:

    Make yourself a guest-chamber in your own house; set up a bed there, set up a table there and a candlestick. For it is not absurd, that whereas, if soldiers should come, you have rooms set apart for them, and show much care for them, and furnish them with everything, because they keep off from you the visible war of this world, yet strangers have no place where they may abide? Gain a victory over [prevail over] the Church . . . [S]urpass us in liberality: have a room to which Christ may come; say, “This is Christ’s cell; this building is set apart for Him. . . . Abraham received the strangers in the place where he abode himself; his wife stood in the place of a servant, the guests in the place of masters. He knew not that he was receiving Christ; knew not that he was receiving Angels; so that had he known it, he would have lavished his whole substance. But we, who know that we receive Christ, show not even so much zeal as he did who thought that he was receiving men. . . . Let our house [therefore] be Christ’s general receptacle. . . ”11

From this passage we are able to see that Chrysostom had in mind something even more concrete than the actual network of human family or household relations. The physical dwelling itself is realized as “Christ’s general receptacle.” Abraham’s tent is the Old testament type of Christian dwelling which has become the house of God. When the members of the household provide for guests and greet them in their home, the dwelling itself is the body of the Lord.

Elsewhere in his homilies on the Book of Acts, Chrysostom filled this metaphor of the house of God with its members and their relations. “Let the house be a Church, consisting of men and women. . . . ‘For where two,’ He saith, ‘are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them’” (Matt. 18:20).12 This household, which welcomes Christ and feeds and clothes him, is the inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. Hospitality should be sought in the selection of a spouse. Abraham sent his servant to his own country to find a wife for his son Isaac. And the servant determined through prayer that the girl he should choose would be one who not only offered him drink but also offered his camels drink (Gen. 24:11–14). The servant was sent looking for such a bride for Isaac, writes Chrysostom, because “everything good which ha[d] happened to . . . [the household] came because of hospitality. Let us not see only the fact that he asked for water, but let us consider that it shows a truly generous soul not only to give what is asked but to provide more than is requested.”13 This cultivation of a righteous household, he concludes, is a manner of seeking and receiving the kingdom of heaven. “‘Thou who receivedst Me,’ He saith, ‘into thy lodging, I will receive thee into the Kingdom of My Father; thou tookest away My hunger, I take away thy sins; thou sawest Me a stranger, I make thee a citizen of heaven; thou gavest Me bread, I give thee an entire Kingdom, that thou mayest inherit and possess.’”14

A quintessential New Testament example of an “ecclesial” household, said Chrysostom, was the home of Aquila and Priscilla. These two workers in the Lord unselfishly opened their home to St. Paul and Christ’s disciples. “[I]t was no small excellency [virtue], that they had made their very house a Church. . . . [And] Paul,” exhorts the Corinthian Christians to greet one another “with the holy kiss . . . as a means of union: for this unites, and produces one body.”15 As Gus Christo has summarized, for Chrysostom, “a Christian home’s transformation into the Church . . . , or a church, happens when its occupants salute each other with the holy kiss . . . , are hospitable to people and remain free of deceit and hypocrisy.”16 Such a home or church becomes a location from which Christ draws the rest of the public world into his kingdom. This in turn is described as a liturgical and sacramental action. “Charity,” Chrysostom once exclaimed, is “a sacrament. . . . For our sacraments are above all God’s charity and love.”17

The Christian Family as Mission of the Kingdom of God

In order to emphasize the larger ordained purposes and calling of the Christian family, Chrysostom repeatedly returned to the stories of the Abrahamic household, even Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command and offer his only son in sacrifice.Yet the Old Testament story most often invoked by Chrysostom to illumine the unselfish and heroic qualities required by God of those who assume the office of parenthood is the story of Hannah and her son Samuel. Chrysostom’s use of the story shifted over the years from an early defense of monasticism to a later focus on the responsibility of Christian parents to attend consciously to raising their children as true Christians, and not just nominal ones.

In his early work, Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life, Chrysostom called upon parents to unselfishly raise their children as fit inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. This meant especially, though not exclusively, preparing them for the monastic life. Chrysostom described Hannah as an exemplar of such responsible and unselfish parenthood.

    There was a Jewish woman named [H]Annah. [H]Annah gave birth to one child and did not expect to have another. Indeed, she had scarcely given birth to him, and this after many tears, for she was sterile. . . . When he no longer needed to be nursed, she immediately took him and offered him up to God, and she ordered him to return to his father’s house no longer, but to live continually in the temple of God.18

Hannah thus fulfilled the community’s office of a parent because she dedicated her son to God and to the well-being of his people. For “when God had turned away from the race of the Hebrews because of their profuse wickedness . . . , [Samuel] won back God’s favor through his virtue and persuaded him to supply what had been given previously. . . Such,” concluded Chrysostom “is always the reward for giving our possessions to God . . . , not only possessions and things, but our children.”19

More than a decade after these words were written, during his ministry in Antioch, or perhaps even later during his espicopacy at Constantinople, Chrysostom returned to the very same story in his twenty-first homily on Ephesians. In the midst of instructing parents on how to raise their children, he argued that it was not “necessary for . . . [the child] to be a monk.” It was enough to “[m]ake him into a Christian.”20 Of “the holy men and women of old” Hannah was the example “to imitate.” “[L]ook at what she did. She brought Samuel, her only son, to the temple, when he was only an infant!”21 Chrysostom now employed the story in order to emphasize the importance of raising children on Scripture. “Don’t say, ‘Bible reading is for monks; am I turning my child into a monk? . . . It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural teachings, and this is especially true for children.”22

This shift in emphasis to instruction in how to raise children not to become monks but just to be good Christians is not at all inconsistent with Chrysostom’s earlier use of the Hannah and Samuel story in Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life. The cardinal obligation and task of Christian parenthood remains the same: to prepare the child for service to God and his people. “She [Hannah] gave Samuel to God, and with God she left him, and thus her marriage was blessed more than ever, because her first concern was for spiritual things.”23

In an ancient prayer of the Armenian rite of matrimony the priest beseeches God: “Plant them [the couple] as a fruitful olive tree, in the House of God, so that living in righteousness, in purity, and in godliness, according to the pleasure of Thy beneficent will, they may see the children of their children and they may be a people unto Thee” [my emphasis].24 This liturgical prayer emphasizes the ecclesial nature of Christian marriage and family. This is to seek the kingdom of God. To raise children in virtue and righteousness renders them “a people unto” God. In homily 44 on 1 Corinthians, Chrysostom quotes 1 Timothy 2:5: “‘[T]hey will be saved through bearing children, if they remain in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.’”25 Hannah’s “wisdom” was that she comprehended through faith that by dedicating to God “the first-fruits of her womb” she might “obtain many more children in return.”26 Her attention to spiritual things was not a retreat into the private self or family. It was an affirmation of the existence of a community of faith to which she belonged and in which she carried the divinely commissioned office of a parent. God in turn bestowed upon her the growing company of that community.

Ephesians 5 and the Ecclesial Marriage

The strongest statements by Chrysostom on the ecclesial and christic calling of Christian husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, comes not surprisingly in his homily on Ephesians 5. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:22-23 NRSV). Feminist theologians have regarded the passage as a central piece of what they claim is the theologization of antiquity’s structures of domination.27 Others like John H. Yoder have maintained that there is more Christianizing of the marital relationship that the critics admit in this and other Haustafeln passages. Yoder argues that submission here assumes the character of a revolutionary subordination through the Pauline theology of agape and freedom in Christ.28

Virtually all who write on this passage, however, agree that it reflects the Pauline author’s strong interest in ecclesiology. As Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza conjectures at one point in her analysis of Ephesians 5, “The reason for . . . [its] theological shortcomings might be the author’s interest in clarifying the relationship between Christ and the church, whose unity is his [the author’s] primary concern in the rest of the letter.”29 Chrysostom’s interpretation of this passage is strongly ecclesiological. He interprets it to establish a sacramental and even ontological relationship between the institution of marriage and the church. God’s economy is channeled in the first order through the body of Christ, the church. The peace of the world is guaranteed by the peace of that body. And the peace of the church is a discipline and task of the Christian family. The church itself is strengthened by the harmony and good order of a godly household. Thus, reasons Chrysostom, the wife does not obey the husband ultimately for “her husband’s sake,” but “primarily for the Lord’s sake . . . as part of . . . [her] service to the Lord.”30 And the husband will love his wife “not so much for her own sake, but for Christ’s sake.”31

After discussing the proper attitude of the wife toward her husband, Chrysostom considers the proper attitude of the husband toward his wife. Keeping in mind St. Paul’s analogy of the husband as the head of the wife, Chrysostom works together christic and ecclesial metaphors.

    [Husbands] be responsible for the same providential care of . . . [your wife], as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him.32

Husband and wife both must imitate the Lord. But the greater burden is on the husband, precisely because he is in the position of greater power. He who would view himself as master is called upon to be servant in the likeness of Christ who is the head of the church. “What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not a woman of her own free will,” says Chrysostom. “Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.”33 In his condescending and sacrificial relationship to the church Christ becomes the example husbands must follow in their relationship to their wives “[I]mitate the Bridegroom of the Church.”34 Christ condescended to take the church as his bride. “So the Church was not pure. She had blemishes, she was ugly and cheap. Whatever kind of wife you marry, you will never take a bride like Christ did. . . . ; you will never marry anyone estranged from you as the Church was from Christ. Despite all this, he did not abhor or hate her for her extraordinary corruption.”35 Rather, Christ loved the church, in order that she might be sanctified (Eph. 5:25-27). The ecclesial metaphor reigns, even as Chrysostom gives strong advice about spousal attitudes and conduct within the marital relationship. Each, church and marriage, illumines the nature of the other.

In this theology, the Christian family figures as the primal and sacramental human community in which “kenotic” and “agapeic” love are learned and rehearsed. Within the conjugal relationship this love is shared between husband and wife, and they in turn by their parental care communicate this love to the children. Furthermore, the Christian family itself, rehearsed in and equipped with the right virtues, is an arena of ascetical combat with the demons of personal and public life. This askesis not only perfects persons but also deepens community.

The Virtues of the Christian Family

Chrysostom admired the historic virtue of classical culture. Yet he was not to be counted in the company of those Christian writers who thought that the classical and Christian virtues were identical, always complementary, or easily correlated with each other. Rather, when Chrysostom looked out at the culture, he saw that Christians were captives to its man-centered standards of success and happiness. he pleaded with Christian parents to nurture another kind of character in their children. In homily 21 on Ephesians Chrysostom exhorted:

If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surrounds himself with wealth, but who requires nothing. . . Don’t worry about giving him an influential reputation for worldly wisdom, but ponder deeply how you can teach him to think lightly of this life’s passing glories, thus he will become truly renowned and glorious. . . . Don’t strive to make him a clever orator, but teach him to love true wisdom. He will not suffer if he lacks clever words, but if he lacks wisdom, all the rhetoric in the world can’t help him. A pattern of life is what is needed, not empty speeches; character, not cleverness; deeds, not words. These things secure the Kingdom and bestow God’s blessings.36

Stoic influences alone cannot account for this passage. The beatitudes, which Chrysostom described as the very constitution of the kingdom of God, lie very near to its surface, together with a biblically founded eschatological hope.

The Bible, said Chrysostom, is the basic primer and lesson book for the virtues of the kingdom which God charges parents to teach their children. Scripture provides the narrative of the lives of patriarchs and matriarchs, parents and siblings, who struggled in God’s presence to maintain a way of life distinct though not necessarily separate from the world. In Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, Chrysostom pioneered what might be regarded as one of the first Christian curriculums for children’s bible study. The responsibility for such education, however, resides first with the parents. Chrysostom commended, especially, the stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Hannah and Samuel and the like. His method, as well as the subject matter, is worth looking at.

Much of Chrysostom’s discussion is concerned with identifying biblical models for relations between parents and children and of siblings with each other. For example, he encourages parents to juxtapose the stories of Cain and Abel and of Jacob and Esau in the manner of a diptych, drawing out the distinct lessons of each story as well as the common themes within both narratives of sibling rivalry, envy and fratricide. The parents must tell the stories of Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau, not once but repeatedly. Then they should ask the child:

Tell me the story of those two brothers.” And if he begins to relate the story of Cain and Abel, stop him and say: “It is not that one that I want, but the one of the other two brothers, in which the father gave his blessing.” Give him hints but do not as yet tell him their names. When he has told you all, spin the sequel of the yarn, and say: “Hear what occurred afterwards. Once again the elder brother, like in the former story, was minded to slay his brother. . .”37

In his twenty-first homily on Ephesians, Chrysostom gave his rationale for such instruction and pleaded its importance to Christian living:

    Don’t think that only monks need to learn the Bible; children about to go into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge. A man who never travels by sea doesn’t need to know how to equip a ship, or where to find a pilot or a crew, but a sailor has to know all these things. The same applies to the monk and the man of this world. The monk lives an untroubled life in a calm harbor, removed from every storm, while the worldly man is always sailing the ocean, battling innumerable tempests.38

From the perspective of Chrysostom’s vision of Christian family and virtue, strategies for the revitalization of the family and preservation of society based on the Constantinian model are theologically misdirected. Once one defines Christian existence and tradition in such sociological terms a certain kind of ecclesiology and definition of Christian family emerge. The family is defined as a training ground for virtues which first have to do with the well-functioning of the secular polity—a worthy goal, but not what lies at the heart of the vocation of Christian parenthood and family. Nor in these post-Christendom times is it helpful, as liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics are inclined to answer the privatism in the American family with immediate calls for family social ministry.39 The Christian family—which itself has been weakened and secularized by powerful cultural forces of privatism, narcissism, and consumerism—is not a likely agent of social change in any case.

There is a necessary interim step which is missing in such calls for a Christian family committed to social transformation. What gave the Christian family the capacity to have a public vocation was first a sense of being engaged in the struggle for the kingdom of God. The jargon of the Christian activists: intimacy, shared decision making, peacemaking cooperative projects, and the like, is hardly distinctive; nor is it in advance of the other kinds of progressivism in the culture which fail to provide a transcendent imperative for ethical behavior. Chrysostom would have it another way:

    “When we teach our children to be gentle, to be forgiving, to instill virtue in their souls, we reveal the image of God within them. This then is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment seat? . . . [H]ow [else] can we be worthy of the kingdom of heaven?”40

Reclaiming the Vision

There exists a great need in the Christian churches today for ecclesial formation. For they stand to become increasingly dissipated if they continue to depend for strength upon cultural supports of Christian faith which are no longer present. This ecclesial formation must not be for its own sake but should prepare believers to greet the Groom when he returns. If Chrysostom was right about the Christian family as a vocation of the kingdom, then it behooves us in this time and place to reclaim that vision. Christian family once again must become a training ground in which—by becoming good husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and children of the same—we become “fit to oversee the Church” and good “housekeepers” of God’s now and future kingdom.

If, with Chrysostom, we need to regard the church as in controversy and cooperation with the broader society and not merely as a cult preoccupied with itself and so-called spiritual matters, then we will begin to appreciate anew the special value of Chrysostom’s vision of the “ecclesial” family for the re-formation of the church and the introduction of a new discipline into its life for the salvation of the world.


  1. John Chrysostom, St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life, trans, Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary press, 1986), p. 57.
  2. Ibid., p. 44.
  3. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens; Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press: 1990), pp. 45–46.
  4. Gerhardt B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967), p. 125.
  5. Ibid., p. 126.
  6. Ibid., p. 125–126.
  7. Ibid., p. 127.
  8. Ibid., p. 129.
  9. Ibid.
  10. I have learned much about this from Gus George Christo’s dissertation, “The Church’s Identity Established Through Images According to St. John Chrysostom” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Durham, 1990). Christo’s work has alerted me to a number of passages which I cite from Chrysostom below.
  11. John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Acts of the Apostles, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 277 [homily 45].
  12. Ibid., p. 127 [homily 26].
  13. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, pp. 103–104.
  14. Chrysostom, “Homilies on Acts,” p. 276 [homily 45].
  15. John Chrysostom, “First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” in The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Part II (Oxford and London: John Henry Parker: J. G. F. and J. Rivington, 1839), p. 620.
  16. Christo, “Church’s Identity,” p. 386.
  17. I have used Emilianos Timiadis’s translation of this passage as it appears in his “Restoration and Liberation in and by the Community,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 19, no. 2 (Autumn 1974): 54. See also John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), pp. 434–435 (homily 71).
  18. John Chrysostom, A Comparison Between a King and a Monk/Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life, trans. David G. Hunter (Lewiston, NY / Queenston, Ontario: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1988), p. 171 (book 3).
  19. Ibid., p. 171–172.
  20. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 67.
  21. Ibid., p. 68.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. The Blessing of Marriage or The Canon of the Rite of Holy Matrimony According to the Usage of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church (New York: Armenian Church Publications, 1953), p. 56.
  25. Chrysostom, Opponents of Monastic Life, p. 172.
  26. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 67.
  27. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1988), esp. pp. 266–270.
  28. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1972), esp. pp. 174–175, 180–181, 190–192.
  29. Fiorenza, Memory, p. 270.
  30. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 45.
  31. Ibid., p. 58.
  32. Ibid., p. 46.
  33. Ibid., p. 47.
  34. Ibid., p. 48.
  35. Ibid., p. 47.
  36. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 69.
  37. Chrysostom, An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, appended to L. W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1951), pp. 106–107.
  38. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 69.
  39. See, for example, James and Kathleen McGinnis, “The Social Mission of the Family,” in Faith and Families, ed. Lindell Sawyers (Philadelphia: The Geneva Press, 1986), pp. 89–113.
  40. Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Marriage, p. 71.

This article is adapted from a chapter in "Ethics After Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic."

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of "Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics" (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and "Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life " (ISI Books, 2005). Dr. Guroian is an advisor to the American Orthodox Institute.

Canon 28 and Eastern Papalism: Cause or Effect?

By: George C. Michalopulos

ABSTRACT: Orthodoxy today is at a crossroads in America and throughout the world. One of the great challenges facing us has to do with inter-Orthodox cooperation. Specifically, how are new mission fields identified? Which of the established churches evangelizes them? And how are they granted autocephaly? What is the purpose of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and by what authority does it claim primatial honors? More importantly, is there a difference between primacy and supremacy? The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the primatial claims of the Church of Constantinople and specifically, Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which has become the proof-text as it were of recent Constantinopolitan claims which have startled many in the Orthodox world.

I. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Its Claims

Recent events have forced the issue of Constantinopolitan supremacy to the fore. Previously, this topic was dealt with (if at all) in essays found in theological journals and speeches delivered at symposia, but because of the feebleness of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (and Orthodoxy in general) the controversy surrounding it quickly dissipated.

Unfortunately, matters came to a head in America due to long-simmering disputes that have existed in American Orthodoxy in part because of the existence of multiple jurisdictions. The spark that lit the fuse was an address given at Holy Cross School of Theology on March 16, 2009 by the Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod of Constantinople, the Very Rev Dr Elpidophorus Lambriniades.1 This speech may have been partly in response to an article written by Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the primate of the Antiochian archdiocese in North America. Saliba’s essay questioned the validity of Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon.2 Although Saliba was singled out for criticism by Lambriniades, his speech immediately galvanized opposition to him (and the Phanar) from almost all quarters. The firestorm was based in part on its many criticisms of American Orthodoxy, including its unsettling briefs regarding the speaker’s perceptions of parish life, monastic communities, and the primates of other jurisdictions. Likewise, his vituperative comments against the OCA, and even the faculty and graduates of Holy Cross itself were risible to the extreme.

Of course, not all of his arguments were invalid. Salient points were made (as pointed out in this writer’s own response)3 accompanied with incendiary assertions. Many American readers saw the speech as not only a broadside at American Orthodox ecclesiology, but also a bill of particulars that the ecumenical patriarchate will use to make its claims for global supremacy in the Orthodox world. If true, it is to be viewed as a trial balloon floated in anticipation of the upcoming pan-Orthodox synod that is tentatively scheduled for June on the island of Cyprus.

How did we get here? The Church of Constantinople, and its patriarch have long enjoyed primacy of honor within the Orthodox Church. This primacy is known by the Latin formula primus inter pares, literally "first among equals." This honorific was first attached to the Bishop of Rome by custom and later ratified by canon.4 With the rupture between East and West in 1054, it devolved by default to the Archbishop of Constantinople who thanks to various canons arising from the Second Ecumenical Council, was placed second in line in the primatial sequence (to the detriment of the Patriarch of Alexandria). Before the twentieth century, this insistence on primacy was viewed in its correct light, that is primacy, not supremacy. To be sure, some patriarchs had a rather exalted view of their office but the popes in Rome or the Christian emperors of Byzantium usually put them in their place.

Since the time of Patriarch Meletius IV Metaxakis (d. 1935) however, the ecumenical patriarchate has formulated a more robust view of its place in Orthodoxy. These new ideas, together with the high-handed antics and startling reforms of Meletius set alarm bells off throughout Orthodoxy. So stunning and novel were Meletius’ claims to universal jurisdiction, that St John Maximovitch, the then-Archbishop of Shanghai, felt compelled to immediately criticize them in no uncertain terms. 5 Nor was he alone horrified by these scandalous claims. Indeed, criticism of Metaxakis has not dissipated over time; they continue to this day. 6

Although Metaxakis’ tumultuous career and controversial reforms have been studiously ignored by his successors, his novel theories of Constantinopolitan supremacy have become enshrined as the official doctrine of the ecumenical patriarchate (as shall be examined more fully in section 5). The basis of Metaxakis’ claims rests with one long-forgotten canon (28) that was formulated at the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon, in AD 451. We must therefore look at this canon in its entirety, that is to say its origins, context, and validity. For purposes of brevity, it will henceforth be known as "Canon 28," and the Fourth Ecumenical Council will be known as "the fourth council," or simply, "Chalcedon."

II. The Fourth Ecumenical Council

Before we can actually examine the historicity and context of Canon 28, a brief word must be said about the council from which it arose. This council was called by the Emperor Marcian to resolve a long-festering christological dispute regarding the nature of Christ which had been precipitated by the claims of an archimandrite named Eutychus who taught that Jesus the man had only one nature (physis). So powerful was Jesus’ divine nature that it had totally overwhelmed His human nature, hence this doctrine was labeled as monophysite. Its popularity became a destabilizing factor in Byzantium within the city of Constantinople itself as well as in the non-Greek areas of the empire.

The monophysite teaching was a response to an earlier one labeled Nestorianism (named after Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople, d. 431), which held that Jesus had two distinct natures. Nestorius taught that these natures were so different that the Virgin Mary could only rightly be called Christotokos — the bearer of Christ, rather than Theotokos, that is to say, the Mother of God. The Nestorian heresy had been dealt with at the Third Ecumenical Council which was held at Ephesus in 431. It was revived shortly thereafter in the infamous "Robber Council" of 449. This latter council was called by Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria and was held in Ephesus. Dioscorus made it a point to not invite bishops from the West; Pope Leo I however was able to formulate a treatise detailing the orthodox views involving all christological matters. Unfortunately the bishops who attended suppressed his "Tome".

This second Ephesian council did not resolve anything however. Eutychus promoted his counter-heresy and in short order was degraded and condemned as a heretic by Anatolius, the Archbishop of Constantinople. Assured of the rightness of his cause, he appealed to Pope Leo I the Great, the emperor, and his wife Pulcheria. Another council was called, this time in the city of Chalcedon. Leo took no chances this time and sent three papal legates to preside. The council began with the reading of Leo’s tome that had been suppressed at Ephesus. The overwhelming majority of the bishops agreed with Leo and upheld Eutychus’ condemnation. For good measure, Nestorianism was likewise repudiated and a new statement of faith was drawn up, one which confirmed that the man known as Jesus had but one person with two natures: he was both perfect God and perfect man, with the latter not being subsumed into the former.

Unfortunately, this did not end the controversy. Bishops in Egypt and Syria remained defiant and the first schism in Christianity occurred, resulting in the installation of two rival popes in Alexandria, one clinging to the monophysite doctrine, the other upholding the Chalcedonian view. (The schism, along with the dual papacy of Alexandria survives to this day). In addition, one of the council’s canons (28), likewise had a lingering effect, some of which we are dealing with at present. According to the official acta of the council, twenty-seven canons were officially recognized. Sometime later, three additional canons were furtively inserted but one of these, Canon 28, was hastily removed on order from Pope Leo upon the recommendations of his legates, who coincidentally were not present when this particular canon was drafted. For several centuries thereafter, no more mention was made of Canon 28 and the following ones, 29 and 30 respectively, were viewed as commentary upon other canons and not as canons in and of themselves.

As for the offending canon, its verbiage was certainly troubling in that it elevated Archbishop Anatolius of Constantinople to patriarchal status and confusingly, made him overlord of three autocephalous metropolitan sees (Asia, Thrace, and Pontus). Both actions were unsettling to say the least. Previous to this time, the Christian world had only three commonly recognized patriarchates — Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. These had been identified as such because of their firm apostolic foundation as well as their antiquity. Now it seemed as if by mere statute that patriarchal dignity could be bestowed. The legality of such an action was troubling to say the least; if nothing else, custom alone dictated against such a precedent as far as the other patriarchs were concerned. 7 A careful reading of this canon in its entirety indicates that its authors were quite aware of the implications of what they were doing and went out of their way to insert verbiage which would provide a rationalization for their actions:

Following in all things the decisions of the holy fathers, and acknowledging the canon which has been just read, the one hundred and fifty bishops beloved of God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is the New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory [AD 180]), we also do enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome. For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the one hundred and fifty most religious bishops, actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that city which is honored with the sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her; so that in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople; every metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the bishops of his province, ordaining his own provincial bishops, as has been declared by the divine canons; but that as has been above said, the metropolitans of the aforesaid dioceses should be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after the proper elections have been held according to custom and have been reported to him (emphasis added).

To effect the exaltation of the Byzantine archbishop, the authors of this canon waited for a day in which the papal legates were not in attendance (as mentioned). Even so, they had to make their case by special pleading and excessive redundancy. Once the legates who had actually presided over the council got wind of it, they rejected it out-of-hand, as did Leo. It was not hard to see why; after all, dioceses with ruling bishops were independent churches in and of themselves. They had not heretofore looked upon the other three patriarchs as their suzerains. In fact, Canon 2 of the Second Ecumenical Council — the same council which elevated Constantinople to secondary status after Rome-specifically stated that the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, Asia, Thrace and Pontus "alone [could] administer their affairs." Canon 28 therefore single-handedly (and rather suspiciously) abrogated this earlier canon to its own benefit. This of course is curious, why for example did it not demote Alexandria or Antioch? (Is it possible that Constantinople dared not degrade Antioch or Alexandria because of their apostolicity?)

This warrants further investigation. In the first millennium autocephaly was rarely given because most regional churches headed by metropolitans were considered to already be autocephalous. Theodore Balsamon (d. 1195), Patriarch of Antioch and one of Byzantium’s greatest canonists, wrote that "…formerly all the heads of the provinces were autocephalous and were elected by their respective synods." 8 The Archbishop of Constantinople himself was a suffragan bishop of the Church of Heraklea, and he received his own honors from the metropolitan of that city. Thus the elevation of the Constantinopolitan archbishop to actual supremacy over and above the three metropolitans in question was highly irregular in its own context as can be gathered from the firestorm that erupted. The Archbishop of Constantinople was by a furtive statute now a "Metropolitan of Metropolitans," an ecclesiological oxymoron.

In addition, Leo objected to the fact that this canon ran counter of both the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (AD 381), as well as the already established prerogatives of the various churches. Leo grudgingly conceded that because of Canon 10 of the second council, Constantinople had the right to claim second place in the primatial sequence. On the other hand this new canon, with its expanded powers over other dioceses, was an obvious violation to Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council:

None of the bishops who are most beloved by God should extend their authority to another diocese, which had not previously and from the beginning been under them or their predecessors.

Leo’s championship of the canonical precedents of the first three councils stood him on solid ground. He certainly could not be accused of inconsistency nor was he being self-serving: he himself respected the prerogatives independent sees, as can be evidenced by the letter that he wrote (the "Tome of Leo") and submitted for the approval of the council.

The invalidity of Canon 28 was therefore obvious. In a letter to Marcian, Leo stated in no uncertain terms that Constantinople was not an apostolic see. 9 Writing in a separate letter to the Empress Pulcheria, he used even more forceful language: "As for the resolution of the bishops which is contrary to the Nicene decree, in union with your faithful piety, I declare it to be invalid and annul it by the authority of the holy Apostle Peter." 10 Faced with this opposition Anatolius quietly withdrew it, never openly bringing it up again.

Time however, was on Anatolius’ side. Leo had more serious problems to contend with, particularly trying to dissuade Attila from attacking Rome. As far as Leo and his successors were concerned, the illegality of the canon remained in force (at least in theory) but given the dire straits of the see of Rome, there was little that they could do as Constantinople quietly enhanced its grip over the three archdioceses in question.

Further investigation of the geopolitical landscape of fifth century Christendom would undoubtedly shed more light on this subject. For our purposes however, it is vital to note the irregularity of Canon 28 and how unsettling it was in its own time. Although its territorial ambitions were strictly limited, it was obvious that an unfortunate precedent had been set. In addition, the acquisition of the patriarchal dignity by the Byzantines only roiled the waters further. Not only was such an honor now bestowed by statute, thus diminishing the luster of the three apostolic sees, but the bearers of this new title viewed it as a first step to explore even greater avenues of glory.

III. The Evolution of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Ecumenical Status

An additional black mark against Byzantium (besides its lack of apostolic foundation) was that it could not claim that it had always upheld )rthodox doctrine. After the first council condemned Arianism, the Flavian successors of Constantine remained resolutely Arian, as did the bishops of that city. Indeed Arianism remained in place in that city and its church for several decades thereafter. Thus the bypassing of Alexandria by Constantinople did not set well with the Orthodox parties for doctrinal reasons as well. This was no small matter. None of the other patriarchs had heretofore promoted heresy, whereas Byzantium provided a never-ending stream of novel teachings — Nestorianism had been taught from the patriarchal throne of Constantinople itself, for example. It was left to another patriarch, John IV Neustetes ("the Faster," d. 595), to further upset the equilibrium with his assumption of the title "ecumenical patriarch," a term which was abrasive to its non-Greek hearers and was handily swatted down by Pope Pelagius II and his more illustrious successor, Gregory I (the Great).

To be sure, prerogatives and protocols have always been deemed necessary for the good order of the Church. The canons of the first three councils clearly reflected a profound respect for diocesan boundaries. As well, they reinforced Christian humility in that they did not allow bishops to usurp authority that did not belong to them. By simple logic alone, this precluded any concept of universal supremacy.

That being said, the patriarchal status of Constantinople remained in place. However, the appropriation of the title "ecumenical" by John IV ("the Faster") another matter entirely. In Gregory’s eyes, any such talk of a patriarcha universalis was more reminiscent of the antichrist than of a Christian pastor. In addition, it implied universal supremacy, a role which even he, as the successor of Peter, did not possess. John for his part apologetically replied that ecumenical meant something different than its plain meaning; in other words, the idiomatic understanding of the word had changed from that of "universal" to "imperial," at least in the living Greek language of the East. The Greek adjective (oikoumenekos) had nuances that were untranslatable in Latin (which even certain Catholic critics today admit. 11)

All this special pleading fell on Gregory’s deaf ears. Gregory told John in no uncertain terms to not call himself "universal," saying that reference to such a title was "ill-advised." Simple logic dictated to Gregory that if one patriarch was universal, it would deny the very "office of bishop to all their brethren." 12 For good measure, he wrote both the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch regarding his concerns as well, informing them "Not one of my predecessors ever consented to the use of this profane title, for to be sure, if one patriarch is called ‘universal,’ the name of patriarch is denied to the others." 13 Nor did he stop there: in a letter to the emperor, Leo flatly stated that such a title amounted to "blasphemy." 14 In any event, John, like Anatolius before him, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and refrained from using that title again, at least in correspondence with the West. This was true of most of his successors as well.15

The controversy surrounding the very title itself merits some mention at this point. There is sufficient contemporaneous evidence that it was hardly ever used even in Constantinople. As shocking as this sounds, evidence for this assertion is not lacking. As noted above, John IV himself never used it again in public, nor did the majority of his successors. Even Photius the Great (d. 867), whose irregular elevation to the patriarchal throne of Constantinople precipitated a schism with Rome and who enjoyed the full support of the emperor in his rivalry with the pope dared not use it in his correspondence with the pope.

Surprisingly, this appears to have been the case even after the Great Schism. After the Fourth Crusade (1204) for example, the Byzantine Empire split into three successor-states: Nicaea, Epirus, and the Trebizond, each with their own imperial court and hierarchy. The Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople relocated to Nicaea and one of its incumbents, Patriarch Germanus II, sent a letter to the John Apocaucus, the Metropolitan of Epirus, which he signed as "ecumenical patriarch." This provoked the recipient to remark that he had never heard of such a thing, even though he had served for years in the offices of the patriarchate of Constantinople itself.16 To be sure, real tension existed between the rival empires of Epirus and Nicaea, a fact that certainly exacerbated tensions between these two churches. Yet Apocaucus’ rebuke is unequivocal and his knowledge of the inner workings of the patriarchate must be accepted as valid. Certainly the fact that he was not rebuked for this retort to the patriarch in Nicaea is probative as well.

At any rate, by the late thirteenth century, no such reticence existed. Patriarchs used this term in profligate fashion and with the crumbling of the Byzantine Empire, no one called them to task for it. What accounted for this change in attitude? The answer lies in the changing dynamic between Byzantine church and state. It is a paradox, but the See of Constantinople maintained its dioceses while the empire was losing land to the Seljuk Turks. In addition, the newly established churches of Serbia and Russia looked to the Ecumenical Patriarch for support. Their history and interaction with the ecumenical patriarchate has implications for us today, specifically in the matter of evangelism and autocephaly.

IV. Evangelism and Autocephaly

One of the glories of the Roman Empire was its ability to promote the Christian faith among its many peoples. Even the barbarian tribes that struck fear in the hearts of Romans were eagerly converting to Christianity, usually to Arianism. With the quashing of Arianism, many of these nations just as eagerly accepted Orthodoxy. Once such nation was the Khanate of Bulgaria, and in the ninth century, its church received autocephaly and a concomitant patriarchal status. The shoe was now on the other foot and the Patriarch of Constantinople found himself to be objecting to the granting of patriarchal honors to a see that was neither ancient nor apostolic. Although there would be jostling between these two patriarchates for the remainder of the time of the First Bulgarian Empire and the suppression of its patriarchal dignity for a time, the autocephaly of that church was never revoked.

Byzantium’s most successful evangelistic mission began somewhat later, during the reign of St Photius the Great. It was because of this brilliant man (who began his career as a bureaucrat in the civil service) that the two Thessalonican brothers Cyril and Methodius were able to establish the first mission in Moravia. Though modest in scope, it planted the seeds of Christianity among the Slavs and within two centuries it would bear much fruit.

Unlike the experience with Bulgaria, relations with Serbia were not as contentious. St Sava, the founder of that church was on excellent terms with Byzantium and the other patriarchates as well, having traveled extensively to Jerusalem and Mt Athos for many years. He received his consecration as archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian church in 1219 from the aforementioned Patriarch Germanus II at Nicaea (where the patriarchs of Constantinople were still in exile). When the Latin Empire of Byzantium was overthrown and Orthodoxy restored in that city, the title of Ecumenical Patriarch came to be openly used and its bearers started looking at their role in a more robust fashion. One such patriarch, Philotheus Coccinus (d. 1376) wrote a letter to the princes and dukes of Russia, describing his office thusly:

Since God has appointed Our Humility as leader of all Christians found anywhere in the oikoumene, as protector and guardian of their souls, all of them depend on me, the father and teacher of them all. If that were possible, therefore, it would have been my duty to walk throughout the cities and countries everywhere on earth and teach in the Word of God, doing so unfailing, since such is our duty. But since it is beyond the capacity of one weak and helpless man to walk around the entire oikoumene, Our Humility chooses the best among men, the most eminent in virtue, and sends them to the ends of the universe. One of them goes to your country, to the multitudes which inhabit it, another reaches other areas of the earth, and still another goes elsewhere, so that each, in the country and place appointed to him, enjoys territorial rights and episcopal see, and all the rights of Our Humility.17

In contrast to the startled reaction of the Metropolitan of Epirus in the prior century, such a high-handed view did not appear arrogant to the various daughter churches. Indeed, it was welcomed: in his biography of St Sava written a century later, the Serbian writer Domentijan uses the title "ecumenical patriarch" liberally and calls this ecclesiarch "the father of the fathers of the whole oikoumene."18 The Russian princes likewise accepted the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the Byzantine patriarch-albeit through the mediation of the Metropolitan of Kiev-with scarcely a thought. There were practical reasons for this, in the case of the Serbs, the Byzantine hierarchy respected the ethnicity of the Serbian nation and after a few altercations involving the forcible removal of Greek bishops from Serbia, accepted as a fait accompli the creation of sovereign Serbian dioceses. As for the Russians, the Metropolitan of Kiev was viewed as the focal point of Russian unity and an honest broker, beholden to none of the princes in particular. Even if a metropolitan were Russian, just the fact that he had been chosen by Constantinople made him appear unbiased.

More to the point, the above self-description of the Byzantine patriarch was not viewed in its own time as supremacist. As Aristeides Papadakis points out in his monumental study of the Eastern church in the post-schism period, "…[a]lthough these forceful affirmations are reminiscent of western papism [sic], the resemblance is unintentional. The patriarchs were by no means attempting to redefine or change their ecclesiological position…For the Orthodox Church the nature of episcopal power was vastly different, as its repeated condemnation of the papacy’s extreme claims to universal dominion indicate."19 Moreover, there were practical considerations that mitigated against the rise of an Eastern papalism besides the plain and universally accepted theological ones. If nothing else, the catastrophic events of the Fourth Crusade must have opened their eyes to the dangers of assigning supreme ecclesial authority to one man.

Evangelism is one thing, however the maintenance and growth of a native church is necessary if it is to prosper. Autocephaly therefore is to be desired, not suppressed. Though Photius and his successors reacted tactlessly to Bulgaria’s independence, in the grand sweep of the history of Orthodoxy this was anomalous, at least previous to the twentieth century. Byzantium could not have been known for its greatest legacy had it not been willing to grant independence to its missionary endeavors that it carefully nurtured time and time again. One of the hallmarks of Orthodox Christianity is the tenacity with which it is maintained by the various native cultures that have embraced it. Often this can erupt in a xenophobia and tribalism, but that is the dark side of an otherwise glittering coin.

Given Orthodox resilience, it is impossible to believe that autocephaly is not only desired, but enduring. It is not in fact a new phenomenon but as already mentioned above, the normal state of affairs in almost every local church of the first Christian millennium. Certainly this was true of the regional metropolitan archdioceses, whose prerogatives were respected by the patriarchal sees. Given that during this same time period Christendom was defined by the borders of the Roman Empire, this was to be expected. The special place of the pope was accommodated within this scheme as well: that of first among equals, primatial within the Church but not supreme over it. With the creation of the Bulgarian and Serbian churches however, a new element arose in the definition of autocephaly, that of the church as the defining characteristic of the nation-state itself. With the creation of the Bulgarian, Serbian, and later Russian patriarchates, ecclesiastical independence came to mean political independence, but more importantly, it defined the political identity of the inhabitants of these lands as well.20 Nation and state, throne and altar, came to be viewed as two sides of the same coin. An entirely new paradigm that was unknown in early Byzantium but which prevails today.

The Slavic experience of a national church was not lost on the Greek successor state of Epirus, whose emperor likewise demanded that his autocephalous metropolitan be given patriarchal dignity as well. If the Bulgars and Serbs could (because of this new theory) enjoy the privileges of a church that defined their nation, so should the Greeks of the West to his mind.21 Their request was rejected out-of-hand by the patriarch-in-exile in Nicaea who reasoned otherwise: just as these other nations should have a patriarchate that defined their polity (thereby ratifying their nationality), it made no sense for Greeks to be represented by two different patriarchates since they were one nation (albeit one that was unfortunately divided into two different states). Notice for our purposes that the idea of autocephaly based on culture was upheld here by the very ecumenical patriarchate that seems at present to deny the legitimacy of churches based on culture. Irony abounds: both the Bulgarian and Serbian churches continued in their autocephaly until 1767, when they were suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, much to the sorrow of those two nations.

V. Present Claims for Canon 28

The crux of the problem today however, is that claims of primacy that are virtually indistinguishable from supremacy; hence the very real fear of papalism. Clearly, the archbishops of Constantinople had always had a rather exalted view of their archdiocese that was perfectly understandable given the glory of that city in late antiquity. Beginning with Anatolius, the patriarchal claim was first promoted and in the following century, the unfortunate adjective "universal" was appended to it. On the other hand, it was just as clear that neither of these claims were wholeheartedly accepted. Even after the Schism of 1054, it was only the slow decline of the office of emperor that made the title "ecumenical patriarch" normative in the Orthodox East. And even then, the exact meaning of the term "ecumenical" was very much open to debate, as even the Byzantines themselves admitted in their hasty explanations to Gregory I.

To its credit, the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate begins an exposition of the role of bishop in a non-controversial fashion, rightly stating that bishops are supreme within their dioceses. It also rightly quotes the relevant passages in Canon 28 (although never once mentioning its less-than-glittering conception). Nor for that matter does it explain how one archbishop can now possess sovereignty over independent archdioceses (the aforementioned Asia, Pontus, and Thrace). More to the point, it does not explain how the plain text of Canon 28 which mentions these same provinces and their respective bishops who are "situated in barbarian lands" means all barbarians, that is to say throughout the whole world. The text is specific in this regard: it plainly states that only those bishops who reside within these provinces — albeit among "barbarians"-likewise owe their ultimate sovereignty to Constantinople.

Interestingly enough this is not lost on the partisans of the Phanar. They hastily add that the "…adjective ‘barbarian’ modifies the noun ‘nations,’ which is omitted from the text of the canon, but which is inferred." But is this interpretation correct? The writer of this essay attempts to prove this point by mentioning the fact that in another time, the respected Byzantine canonist Zonaras equated "barbarians" with "nations."22 We are not told however what specifically Zonaras was referring to, was this his understanding of the term barbarian or was it the accepted understanding of this term among the Greek-speaking population? This raises other questions since languages change over time: did barbarian mean at the time of Chalcedon or the time of Zonaras? The website does not answer this question.

Such sleight-of-hand gives away the game: by means of a clever but false syllogism, the case of Phanariote supremacy is propagated. First the canon is accepted as non-controversial (it wasn’t). Then by a careful bit of legerdemain, when it mentions the "bishops of these aforesaid provinces" who are "situated in barbarian lands," we are to take it to mean that these bishops are somehow adjacent to barbarian lands. And finally, by an equally clever stroke, barbarians in general are made to be synonymous with nations since a much later canonist stated that this was so (even though we are not sure if he was referring to this canon). Since there were no doubt barbarians adjacent to the aforesaid Thracian, Pontic, and Asiatic barbarians we must therefore believe that all barbarians equal all nations, hence, those areas that have not been evangelized by already established churches belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.

What is surprising is that even with the grandiose claims of Philotheus Coccinus who saw himself as a universal pastor, the idea that the Ecumenical Patriarchate could evangelize in areas where there were already established churches strains credulity. A careful reading of Philotheus’ self-understanding of his office shows that his role as universal teacher was to send bishops to the "ends of the earth" and that they were to be accorded the same honors and dignity that he himself enjoyed. This bears repeating: they were not to be his auxiliaries but rulings bishops in their own right, enjoying "territorial rights and episcopal see, and all [the] rights of Our Humility." If this insistence upon full episcopal prerogatives is plain (and it is), then can autocephaly be far behind? Coccinus’ comments lead inexorably to this conclusion. After all, had he wanted to do so, he could have revoked the autocephaly of Serbia and Bulgaria if he were truly a patriarcha universalis rather than merely a primatial one.

Be that as it may, none of the patriarchs before the twentieth century ventured into the areas of other churches. Coccinus himself was writing to the Russian princes who belonged to an ecclesiastic province of the See of Constantinople. On the other hand, circumstances under the Turkish occupation precluded any evangelistic activity at all. Yet even within the primatial mindset of Constantinople during this time, the prerogatives of the other churches were upheld. Although the autocephalous patriarchates of Serbia and Bulgaria were unfortunately quashed, those of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were resolutely — and with great difficulty-maintained (albeit as dependencies of Constantinople).

Even outside of the boundaries of the four ancient patriarchates scrupulous attention was paid to ecclesiastic protocols. For example, as far as Constantinople was concerned, the vast Siberian expanse was the evangelistic responsibility of Moscow, even though it had yet to be annexed politically to the Russian state. According to the modern interpretation of Canon 28, the Ecumenical Patriarchate should have been able to evangelize that area since it was essentially a no-man’s land. Likewise it could have established missions in Japan and the Far East, where Russia had influence but no political control whatsoever. It did not. Later, Russian prerogatives in North America were accepted as well even when Greek Christians came under its fold, as the letter of Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople to the Holy Synod of Moscow attests.23

What then accounts for the lack of seriousness of the present claims? The answer lies with the remarkable career of Patriarch Meletius IV Metaxakis, a brilliant reformer whose own allegiance to the canonical order and conciliar norms of the Orthodox Church was shaky at best. It was during his reign that the term ecumenical was given its present hyperbolic meaning. Part of the answer lies in the tumultuous times in which Meletius lived. Because of his familial relationship with Eleutherios Venizelos, the equally brilliant reformist prime minister of Greece, Metaxakis was elected as Archbishop of Athens by usurping the throne. Like his relative, he was enamored of the West and tried to push through audacious reforms.24 Like Venizelos he was a member of a Masonic lodge, a startling and embarrassing revelation to say the least.25 (Venizelos had been excommunicated because of his membership in this fraternity.) Upon the restoration of the previous archbishop whom he had earlier displaced, Metaxakis went into exile in America, where he had an enthusiastic following among that portion of the Greek-American community that despised the monarchy and viewed Venizelos as their champion. While in America, he established a separate jurisdiction called the "Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America" to the extreme displeasure of the Metropolia, the successor of the Russian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Archdiocese of North America. The new archdiocese was to be an eparchy of the Church of Greece, to which he anticipated returning to someday. However by some twist of fate, Metaxakis was instead proclaimed Patriarch of Constantinople (even though he was in the United States). In a move that can only be seen as extremely expedient, he rescinded the Church of Greece’s claim on the new archdiocese and made it an eparchy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, whose head he now was.

Meletius, who actively sought allies in Western religious circles, saw himself as the focal point of unity in the non-Catholic Christian world by dint of his new title. Whereas "ecumenical" in previous ages had meant "imperial," and then later universal pastor of he Orthodox oikoumene, in Metaxakis’ eyes it now truly did mean "universal." He could not be universal however while Moscow’s patriarchate was being reestablished in 1918 by Tikhon Bellavin (who had earlier been archbishop in America). Metaxakis therefore began negotiations in with the so-called Renovationist Church, a Soviet puppet that was established as a counter-church to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Like Metaxakis, the Renovationists believed in many of the same reforms. Their activities of course were to the detriment of Patriarch Tikhon who was bravely trying to maintain the Russian church in the face of overwhelming odds and unspeakable terror. If the Russian patriarchate could be quashed, then Metaxakis’ overlordship of the Orthodox world would have been complete. (The Renovationists for their part were also at odds with the Metropolia, bringing lawsuits against them in the American court system for the express purpose of seizing their property.)

In the end, the aftermath of the First World War ended Metaxakis’ career on the patriarchal throne. The "Catastrophe" (as it is called by the Greeks) was the result of the rout of the Greek armies by Mustapha Kemal. It led to the massive exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The Turks forced Metaxakis, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Venizelos, into exile. Following his tumultuous tenure, the Turks degraded the patriarchate considerably. To this day, it does not accept the ecumenical title for the Patriarch of Constantinople. Unfortunately, even in spite of his disastrous tenure, his successors accepted his grandiose claims and acted upon them, thus further alienating the other Orthodox Churches, primarily those of Serbia and Russia.

VI. More on Autocephaly

The problem of autocephaly was dealt with in the previous "Response" by this author, however impending events gives this issue new urgency. In the opinion of the Phanar, absent an ecumenical council, only the ecumenical patriarchate has the right to bestow ecclesiastical independence. In the opinion of Moscow and its daughter church in America, this is true as far as it goes. Moscow maintains however, that in addition to these methods, a mother church can bestow autocephaly as well.

Contrary to the claims of some Phanariote apologists, this is not a self-serving claim by Moscow. In the first millennium the Church of Georgia according was granted autocephaly by Antioch, its mother church. Although the actual history of the inception of this church is vague, that it was a province of Antioch is undisputed. Balsamon of Antioch clearly stated that one of his predecessors had earlier granted autocephaly to Georgia merely through a "local" council.26 As far as he was concerned there was nothing controversial about this. In his opinion, autocephaly was statutory, that is to say it could be granted by councils, imperial decree, or grants by mother churches.27 (Coincidentally, the position of the Moscow patriarchate its partisans.28) His commentary in this regard shows that the bestowal of autocephaly was itself an unremarkable event. Thus it is incumbent upon Constantinople to prove its allegations in this regard; that is to say that only two methods exist for granting ecclesiastical independence (rather than three). If this is true, then the Church of Georgia is by definition uncanonical.

Interestingly enough, even the views of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have not been as rigid as they seem to indicate at present. That is to say, that only it or an ecumenical council can bestow autocephaly on a local church. In 1879 the Serbian royal house and the Metropolitan of Belgrade approached Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople, asking for the reinstatement of Belgrade’s autocephalous status. Belgrade did so because Constantinople was its mother church. Joachim for his part assented, using the various canons at his disposal, including Canon 28. Be that as it may, Joachim’s statements regarding the recognition of Serbian autocephaly indicated that there were many models that governed the birth and maturity of a local church, not just ecumenical councils. In particular, the life and well being of the nation — that is socio-political considerations-could be taken into account. For his part, Joachim:

…recognized that Local Churches may be established "not only in conformity with the historical importance of the cities and countries in Christianity, but also according to political conditions of the life of the people and nations." Referring then to Canon 28 of Chalcedon and other canons, as well as the opinion of Patriarch Photius…he reaffirmed: "The ecclesiastical rights, especially those of parishes, usually conform to the structure of the state authority and its provinces."29

These words clearly recognized that the history of late antiquity was one of dynamic church formation. The canons of the first councils (local as well as ecumenical) clearly took into account the hustle and bustle that was apparent in these times. As was well known, many of these canons antedated the See of Constantinople’s elevation to patriarchal status. Perhaps the most important canon for recognition of a local church’s independence was Apostolic Canon 1 which mandates that at least two bishops be present for the consecration of a new bishop, and canon 4 of the First Ecumenical Council which states that the appointment of a new bishop can only be made by election of at least three bishops sitting in a local council.

These canons reflected the fact that the independent status of the many local ecclesiastical regions found in antiquity. The existence of these canons therefore begs an important question: by what sanction were bishops granted the right to administer their own affairs (as stated for instance in canon 8 of Ephesus) and to consecrate other bishops (Apostolic canon 1)? As stated earlier, these churches were "already autocephalous." That is all well and good, but how did they receive their independence? No doubt some were of apostolic origin — Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch, Rome, Corinth-spring instantly to mind. But not all were. The proliferation of new ecclesiastical regions (such as Hippo, Ancyra, Lyons,) throughout the first half-millennium precludes this possibility. It stands to reason therefore that autocephalous churches themselves founded many of these regional synods.30 Some may have started out as missions; others were formed because of political exigencies (i.e. the redrawing of imperial diocesan boundaries, the loss of a region to war, etc.). Yet all of them possessed the canonical prerogatives that inured to all churches, despite their relative youth.

Therefore Joachim’s general statements about "political considerations" must be viewed in this light. Yes, Constantinople may be a grantor of independence, but many of the canons that governed the life of the Church were anterior to Constantinople’s own foundation. To put not too fine a point on it, historical and political considerations very often do play a significant role in the establishment of an independent church. As such, churches can bestow autocephaly on regions adjacent to them. The only consideration was that the new ecclesiastical regions have at least three contiguous dioceses.

More to the point, Constantinople had been Serbia’s mother church. It was Patriarch Germans II who consecrated St Sava as Archbishop of Pec, the then-capital city of Serbia. It stood to reason therefore that Serbia’s elite should beseech Joachim for reestablishing this honor. Indeed, the Serbs took a real risk in going to the Phanar since it was a subject of the Ottoman Empire (as had been Serbia). There was no guarantee that Turkey would allow the Phanar to bestow a tome of autocephaly on Serbia. It was not in Turkey’s interests to see its breakaway provinces become independent nation-states with vigorous churches. One of the methods the Turks had used in subjugating their Christian subjects was the threat of excommunication that the Patriarch of Constantinople could level on any incipient rebellion. This threat would be removed if the Serbian patriarchate was reestablished. It would have been far more expedient for the Serbs to approach the Holy Synod of Moscow which was free of foreign domination and with whom the Serbs had excellent relations.

VII. Conclusion

This validity — indeed, legality-of Canon 28 is therefore troubling to say the least. The fact that it was excised from the official drafts of the Council of Chalcedon should tell us something. It was conceived during a time of great turmoil in the West, and its unsettling nature was apparent to many in its own day and context. It was never accepted by Rome and only surreptitiously in the East. Thus it is impossible to take it seriously given its origins; one can only do so by means of tortuous logic (as was demonstrated by the language used by Phanar’s own apologist — see section 5 above).

Likewise, the evolution of the Archbishop of Constantinople to patriarch, and then to ecumenical patriarch, was done in fits and starts and only when popes or emperors were unable to contain the ambitions of these bishops. This should tell us something about its provenance and those who stake ecclesiastic claims on it would do well to reconsider their position. If this title had little legitimacy when it was first proposed, then it strains logic to believe the passage of time has made it more so.

In the final analysis, such posturing stands in stark contrast to the Gospel. The legitimacy of any bishop is his fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus and not to grandiose titles that were arrogated during a time that no longer exists and by legalisms that are only tenuously related to the spirit of the Gospel. As Pope Gregory the Great said in reaction to John IV, the only title he wanted for himself was servus servorum Dei ("servant of the servants of God.")



  1. www.ocl.org
  2. Metropolitan Philip Saliba, Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council—Relevant or Irrelevant Today? (The Word, Feb 2009).
  3. The address was given by the Rev Elpidophorus Lambriniades on March 16, 2009. The reply was written by this author and published on March 25. Both can be accessed on www.aoiusa.org and www.ocl.org.
  4. Canon 6 of the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, AD 325).
  5. St. John Maximovitch, The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople delivered at the Second All-Diaspora Sobor of the Russian Church, Srmski Karlovtsy, Yugoslavia, 1938.
  6. See for example Archbishop Gregory Afonsky, The Canonical Status of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox Church (Mar 24, 2009); Patiarch Alexii II of Moscow and All Russia, A Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning the Situation of the Diaspora (Feb 2, 1005). For a contemporaneous Greek response to the idea of Constantinopolitan overlordship, see footnote no. 16 below.
  7. John J. Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1997 ed.), p 48.
  8. John H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, (Crestwood, SVS Press, 1991), p 92.
  9. Leo the Great, Epistolarum 104
  10. Ibid., Leo the Great, Epistolarum 104.
  11. John the Faster, www.newadvent.org.
  12. Gregory I, Epistle 18.
  13. Ibid., Epistle 43.
  14. Ibid. Epistle 20.
  15. John the Faster, www.newadvent.org.
  16. Erickson, Op cit., p 108.
  17. Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1994), p 309.
  18. Erickson, Op cit., p 108.
  19. Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1994), p 309.
  20. Erickson, Op cit, p 107. (See also W Bruce Lincoln’s The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians [New York: Dial Press, 1981], p 7.)
  21. Ibid.
  22. www.ec-patri.org/discdisplay.php?lang=en&id-2878&;a=en.
  23. Mark Stokoe, Orthodox Christians in North America 1794-1994 (in collaboration with Leonid Kishkvosky, OCPC: 1995), p 32.
  24. He believed priests should be clean-shaven and wear Western garb, that bishops should be allowed to marry, and that fasting rules should be relaxed. As patriarch, he instituted the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.
  25. Although there are no canons which expressly condemn membership in the Lodge, this is because Freemasonry is a relatively recent development. In 1933 however, Archbishop Damascene of Athens commissioned a study of this fraternity and subsequently the Church of Greece issued a strong statement which reiterated the long-held views of the Orthodox Church regarding this organization. (Cf www.orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/masonry.aspx.)
  26. Balsamon
  27. Erickson, Op cit., p 102.
  28. Alexander Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Church (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1963, [2001 ed.]), pp xvi-xix, 10-11.
  29. Ibid., pp 14-15.
  30. Ibis., pp 9-10.



George Michalopulos is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He is married to the former Margaret Verges of Houston, Texas, and the father of two boys, Constantine and Michael. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he is the author of The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2003), as well as several articles and essays published on the Orthodox Christian Laity website. He has served as parish council president of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and twice was a lay delegate to the Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 and 2002. He helped found Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Mission, a parish of the OCA in 2003 and continues to be active in pan-Orthodox events in the greater Tulsa area.

A Letter To The Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning The Situation Of The Diaspora

By: Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia

2005.02.01 Sourozh

In our first issue of August 1980, Sourozh published a lengthy article by Archbishop Paul of Finland entitled ‘Suggestions for Solutions to the Problem of the Orthodox Diaspora’ (reprinted in Sourozh, No. 91, February 2003, pp. 3-19). In it the primate of the Orthodox Church of Finland reviewed the various submissions made by four regional autocephalous Churches to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church which has been in the planning stage for some forty years. In his conclusions Archbishop Paul strongly urged the Patriarchate of Constantinople to relinquish the theory of the supremacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the whole diaspora and to reject any talk of ‘barbarian areas’ as an anachronism.

The fact that in the intervening twenty-five years nothing has changed emerges clearly from the text we print below. On 18 March 2002 Patriarch Alexis wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outlining the position of the Russian Church regarding the claims to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to jurisdiction over the worldwide Orthodox “diaspora,” coming to the same conclusions as did Archbishop Paul. More recently there has been a further exchange of letters, but none has gone over the ground as thoroughly as does the present text. The English version given below is translated from a French version of the Russian original.

Patriarch Alexios of Russia

Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia


To His Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome

Your Holiness, Beloved Brother and fellow celebrant in God,

We greet you fraternally and wish you grace and mercy from God our Saviour.

We have received the message of Your Holiness, No. 129 of 11 April 2002, concerning the situation of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Parishes in Western Europe. Reading this letter, we were very troubled by the great number of bitter reproaches and unjust accusations that you formulate therein. In any case, however, we wish to follow the precept of wise Solomon (Proverbs 17:9): “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” Not wishing to put to the test for no good reason the feeling of brotherly love between our two Churches, we shall not consider in detail these awkward expressions, for we think that it is more a case of unfortunate misunderstandings deriving, in our opinion, from an erroneous understanding of the problems that you have raised. This is why we think that it is better to move on immediately to the interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council advanced by Your Holiness, an interpretation with which we disagree completely.(1)

This canon in fact defines the area of responsibility of the Patriarchal See of the Church of Constantinople by limiting it to the ancient provinces [called “dioceses” by the Roman government of the time, Ed.] of [Proconsular] Asia, Thrace and of Pontus, that is, to the provinces that correspond to modern-day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. It does not at all follow from this canon that ‘every province not belonging to another patriarchal see’ should be subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Constantinople’s Misapplication of the Term "Among the Barbarians"

It seems obvious that this inaccurate interpretation derives from an erroneous understanding of the term “among the barbarians” (en tois barbarikois) and of the context of this expression. It is erroneous in that it assumes that the issue here does not concern “barbarian” peoples living either in the Roman Empire or beyond its limits, but administrative entities (defined by the State) and inhabited primarily by “barbarians.” Yet there is no doubt but that this expression refers not to provinces but to peoples; it is not used in an administrative, but in an ethnic sense. This follows clearly from the considerations that we shall develop below.

…there is no doubt but that this expression [“among the barbarians”]refers not to provinces but to peoples; it is not used in an administrative, but in an ethnic sense.

As you know, during the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods the term barbaros referred to individuals belonging to peoples whose language, culture and customs were not Greek. Thus St Gregory of Nyssa, in the third of his works Against Eunomius, can speak of a “barbarian philosophy” (barbariki philosophia), while Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of “barbarisms in the Greek language” (idiomata barbarika), St Epiphanius of Cyprus of “barbarian names” (barbarika onomata) and Libanius, the teacher of St John Chrysostom, of “barbarian customs” (barbarika ithi). Similarly the Apostle Paul thinks of anyone who speaks neither Greek nor Latin, the official languages of the Empire, as a “barbarian” (barbaros): “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian (barbaros), and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian (barbaros) unto me” (1 Cor 14:11). Such “barbarians” could equally well live outside as within the Empire. The Apostle preached to the “barbarians” without ever leaving the Roman Empire (cf. Rom 1:14) and the Acts of the Apostles call the inhabitants of Malta “barbarians,” even though the island was part of the Empire, simply because the local language was Punic.

As regards the expression to barbarikon, it is certainly the case that this expression can be used to refer to territories outside the limits of the Empire, and it is in this sense that the term is used, for example, in the Canon 63 (52) of the Council of Carthage. There it is said that in Mauritania there were no councils because that country was located at the very edge of the Empire and borders on barbarian land (to barbariko parakeitai). Nevertheless, it can also refer to anything that is barbarian, and therefore to territories which, while inhabited by barbarians, form part of the Empire.

How the Term "Among the Barbarians" is Used in Canon 28

It is precisely in this sense that the term is used in Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon. Reference is not being made to the barbarian peoples in general, but to certain well-defined peoples ‘belonging to the above-mentioned provinces’ (ton proeirimenon dioikeseon), i.e. the barbarians living in the provinces of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, which were an integral part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus the canon subordinates to the see of Constantinople the bishops of the barbarians living within the ecclesiastical boundaries of these three dioceses.

All the Byzantine commentators on the canons — Alexios Aristenus, John Zonaras and Theodore Balsamon, as well as Matthew Blastaris, author of the Syntagma — understand by the expression en tois barbarikois precisely and only those barbarian peoples within those three provinces, thereby underlining that the barbarian peoples in neighbouring provinces were not subjected to Constantinople by this canon, but remained under the jurisdiction of other Orthodox Churches. Thus Aristenus writes that only the metropolitans of Pontus, Asia and Thrace are under the bishop of Constantinople and are consecrated by him; the same applies to the bishops of the barbarians in these provinces, since the provinces of Macedonia, Illyria, Thessaly, the Peloponese and Epirus were at that time subject to the authority of Rome (Syntagma 2.286; Kormchaia kniga [1816], P. 73). According to Zonaras, it is the bishop of Constantinople who is responsible for the consecration of bishops for the barbarians living in the provinces mentioned, while the remaining provinces, viz. Macedonia, Thessaly, Hellas, the Peloponese, Epirus and Illyria were subject to Rome (Syntagma 2.283, 284).

In the Syntagma of Blastaris we read that the bishop of Constantinople also has the right to consecrate the bishops of barbarian peoples living on the edges of these provinces, such as the Alans and the Rousoi, since the former live next to the diocese of Pontus and the latter next to the diocese of Thrace (6.257). In the latter case it is a question of a late ecclesiastical practice (Blastaris’ comments concern the fourteenth century) according to which the barbarian lands next to the three provinces mentioned were included in the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople. Moreover, it is stressed that the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople was extended to these territories precisely because of their nearness to the areas assigned to him by Canon 28 of Chalcedon, though in the canons themselves the possibility of such an enlargement is not foreseen.

Thus these ancient and authoritative commentators confirm that the Council of Chalcedon did not give to the bishop of Constantinople rights over “barbarian” territories except within the limits of the three provinces mentioned, of which only the province of Thrace is situated in Europe.

Thus these ancient and authoritative commentators confirm that the Council of Chalcedon did not give to the bishop of Constantinople rights over “barbarian” territories except within the limits of the three provinces mentioned, of which only the province of Thrace is situated in Europe. Aristenus and Zonaras, for example, indicate clearly that in Europe the right of the bishop of Constantinople to send bishops for the barbarians extends only to Thrace, since the other provinces are subject to the bishop of Rome. As regards the frontiers of the Church of Constantinople in Asia, Balsamon makes this comment in his interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:

Note that the metropolitans along the Black Sea up to Trebizond are called “Pontic,” while the metropolitans near Ephesus, and in Lycia and Pamphylia are called “Asiatic,” though not, as some say, those in Anatolia, since in Anatolia it is [the bishop of] Antioch who has the right to consecrate (Syntagma, 2.284).

Constantinople’s Claims about “Diaspora” are not Historically Tenable

It is also appropriate to note that in this canon it is not a question of a “diaspora,” but of autochthonous “barbarians” living in their own lands. They became Christian largely as the result of missionary activity and Christianity did not reach them through a foreign homeland, as is the case with a “diaspora.” This is why one is distancing oneself from historical reality and mixing up differing concepts if one extends the field of application of a canon that concerned autochthonous peoples who became Christian as the result of missionary activity with the phenomenon of a diaspora made up of people who have departed for a foreign land, but who were brought up in the Orthodox tradition in their homeland.

…the statement by Your Holiness [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew] that as a result of Canon 28 of Chalcedon “Western Europe and all the lands recently discovered in America and Australia belong to the area of responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch” seems completely fictitious and is without canonical foundation.

Thus the statement by Your Holiness that as a result of Canon 28 of Chalcedon “Western Europe and all the lands recently discovered in America and Australia belong to the area of responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch” seems completely fictitious and is without canonical foundation. These distant lands actually have no connection with the three provinces mentioned in Canon 28 and are nowhere near them. Moreover, the majority of the Orthodox faithful of the Churches in these territories are not native-born; they represent peoples that are traditionally Orthodox and have religious traditions that they wish to preserve. As regards Orthodox jurisdiction in the canonical territories that belonged to the Church of Rome before the schism of 1054, no authoritative pan-Orthodox decision has ever been taken.

All of this is supported by historical facts that indicate that until the 20s of the twentieth century the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority. For example, in Australia the Orthodox diaspora was initially served by Jerusalem, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent priests there. In Western Europe, from the beginning, the parishes and Orthodox communities were dependent canonically on their Mother Churches and not on Constantinople. Similarly, in other parts of the world, in order to follow the commandment of Christ (Mt 28:19f.), zealous missionaries from local Orthodox Churches, including Constantinople, preached the Gospel and baptised the native peoples, who then became the children of the Church that had illumined them by Baptism.

The Roots of Jurisdictional Division in North America

As regards America, from 1794 Orthodoxy on that continent was represented exclusively by the Church of Russia, which by 1918 had brought together some 300,000 Orthodox of different nationalities (Russian, Ukrainians, Serbs, Albanians, Arabs, Aleuts, Indians, Africans, English). The Greek Orthodox were among them, receiving antimensia for their parishes from the Russian bishops. This situation was recognised by all the local Churches, who released clergy for the American parishes into the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate of Constantinople followed the same practice. For example, when in 1912 the Greek Orthodox in America asked His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople Joachim III to send a Greek bishop, the Patriarch did not send a bishop himself, nor did he refer the request to the Church of Greece, but recommended that it be referred to Archbishop Platon of the Aleutian Islands and North America so that the question could be settled by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Jurisdictional pluralism in North America began in 1921, when an “Archdiocese of North and South America” was created without the agreement of the Russian Church, which was not informed of the matter.

Jurisdictional pluralism in North America began in 1921, when an “Archdiocese of North and South America” was created without the agreement of the Russian Church, which was not informed of the matter. It is at this point that the situation you describe arose, i.e. “In spite of the Holy Canons, the Orthodox, in particular those who live in Western countries, are divided into ethnic groups. Their Churches have at their head bishops chosen on ethnic grounds. Often they are not the only bishops of their cities, and sometimes they are not on good terms with one another and fight among themselves,” something that is “a source of shame for all Orthodoxy and the cause of unfavourable reactions that have negative results for the Orthodox Church.” As we have seen, the blame for this sad situation cannot be attached to the Russian Church. On the contrary, seeking to bring American Orthodoxy into line with the rest of the Orthodox world, as Mother Church she granted autocephaly to her daughter Church. In doing this the Russian Church acted only within the limits of its own canonical jurisdiction and with a view to a future pan-Orthodox decision concerning the establishment of a single local Orthodox Church in America. We might note that, already in 1905, a proposal for the creation of such a Church had been presented to the Holy Synod by Saint Tikhon of Moscow, who was then Archbishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America.

It is sad to observe that the Most Holy Church of Constantinople did not support the action taken in 1970 and has not contributed to the union that was so desired. Until now this remains a source of discord and discontent on the part of many Orthodox in America.

Canon 28 Does Not Dimish the Rights of Autocephalous Churches

In spite of Your Holiness’ affirmation that “no other Patriarchal see has received the privilege or canonical right” to extend its jurisdiction beyond the provinces that belong to the canonical territories of the autocephalous Churches, history demonstrates that Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council that subjected the three provinces mentioned to Constantinople did not in any way diminish the rights of the other autocephalous Churches, in particular as concerns ecclesiastical jurisdiction over foreign lands. Thus the Church of Rome appointed bishops throughout most of Europe (excepting Thrace), while the Church of Alexandria assigned bishops to the countries south of Egypt (and subsequently throughout most of Africa), and the Church of Antioch did so in the East, in Georgia, Persia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. The jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople, however, for its part, for a long time remained confined within what had been the boundaries of the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace before that Council.

We should also note that historically both the primacy of honour established by Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council and its jurisdiction over the three provinces mentioned above were given to the Church of Constantinople solely for political reasons, i.e. because the city in which the see of Constantinople was located had acquired the status of a political capital and had become “the city of the Emperor and the Senate.” Thus Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council stipulates that:

In taking this decision as to the precedence of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople, the New Rome, we note that the Fathers [of the Second Ecumenical Council] have in fact rightly granted precedence to the see of Old Rome because that city was the Imperial City. Moved by the same considerations the 150 bishops beloved of God [of this Council] have granted the same precedence to the Very Holy See of New Rome, justifiably thinking that the city honoured by the presence of the Emperor and the Senate and enjoying the same civil privileges as Rome, the ancient Imperial City, should also have the same high rank as she has, in the affairs of the Church, while still remaining second after her.

We do not intend to enter into discussion on this question now, but one should nonetheless not forget an obvious fact: the present situation of Constantinople after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire does not justify constant recourse to this canon, and still less to an excessively broad interpretation of its meaning.

Constantinople’s Unilateral Policy of Expansionism

The inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople of new provinces other than those bordering on the original three dioceses, which has taken place in the course of history, is not, in our opinion, linked with Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The reasons were entirely other. Thus the provinces mentioned by Your Holiness — Illyria, Southern Italy and Sicily — did not belong ‘always’ to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but were taken by force from the Roman Church and given to the Church of Constantinople by the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Isaurian, without reference to Canon 28. One of the most important reasons for this action on the part of Leo the Isaurian was that the Church of Rome was opposed to the iconoclastic policies of the Byzantine Emperor, whose political power extended to those territories at that time.

The inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople of new provinces other than those bordering on the original three dioceses, which has taken place in the course of history, is not, in our opinion, linked with Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The reasons were entirely other.

As regards the Russian Church, she was initially subject to the Church of Constantinople not because of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, but because of the general principle according to which converted peoples are subject to the Mother Church that had Christianised them, until they have acquired the conditions necessary for autocephaly. By becoming an autocephalous Church, the Russian Church received the same rights of mission beyond its canonical boundaries as the other local Orthodox Churches, since, as has been shown, the Holy Canons do not give precedence to any particular Church in the realisation of this right.

Such is the authentic pan-Orthodox tradition in this matter, and the Very Holy Church of Constantinople always respected it until the moment when Patriarch Meletios IV developed the theory of the subordination of the whole Orthodox diaspora to Constantinople. It is precisely this theory, which is clearly non-canonical, that is quite obviously “hostile to the spirit of the Orthodox Church, to Orthodoxy unity, and to canonical order.” It is itself, in fact, the expression of “an expansionist tendency that is without canonical foundation and is unacceptable on an ecciesiological level.” By claiming a universal spiritual power, it does not correspond to the Orthodox canonical tradition or to the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and represents a direct challenge to Orthodox unity. In fact, there is no reason to agree with Your contention that the whole of the Orthodox diaspora does not finds itself under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople solely because Constantinople “tolerates this situation temporarily and for reasons of ‘economy’.”

…Patriarch Meletios IV developed the theory of the subordination of the whole Orthodox diaspora to Constantinople…which is clearly non-canonical, that is quite obviously “hostile to the spirit of the Orthodox Church, to Orthodoxy unity, and to canonical order.”

This last expression has particularly roused our incomprehension and disquiet, since it seems to point to an intention on the part of the Church of Constantinople to continue in the future to pursue a unilateral policy of expansion that is foreign to a spirit of brotherly love and conciliarity. In this respect, it is worthwhile recalling a judicious remark of Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem of blessed memory that is contained in his letter to Your Holiness (No. 480, dated 25 July 1993) to the effect that only a pan-Orthodox Council has the right to resolve the complex question of the diaspora. Neither the Orthodox Church of Romania nor the Orthodox Church of Poland shares the view put forward by Your Holiness of the problem of the diaspora. This is clear from the reports submitted by these Churches in 1990 to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council.

Moscow Resists Constantinople’s Interference in the Russian Church

Bearing in mind what has been said, we are completely justified in contesting the statement of Your Holiness to the effect that the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe is “one of the forms of pastoral care that is incumbent” upon the Church of Constantinople. The theory that this Exarchate is obliged to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is refuted by the very history of this ecclesiastical entity. We must remember that in the official documents of the Church of Constantinople concerning the status of the Russian parishes in Western Europe it is accepted that their Mother Church is the Russian Orthodox Church, and that the system of administration established for these parishes has a provisional character. There is no ambiguity concerning this in the Tomos of Patriarch Photios of 17 February 1931. Commenting on this document, Patriarch Photios himself wrote in a letter (No. 1428, 25 June 1931) to Metropolitan Sergii, Deputy Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne, that “the situation should remain in this provisional state until, with God’s help, unity can be re-established with our Sister Church of Russia.”

Similarly, His Holiness Patriarch Athenagoras, in a letter (No. 671, 22 November 1965) to Archbishop Georges of Eudokiada, mentioning the fact that “the Church of Russia has freed itself of divisions, acquired an internal organisation and freedom of action in its affairs outside Russia,” announces the suppression of the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe, “which had a provisional character,” and recommends that it join itself to the Patriarchate of Moscow, “which can and should always demonstrate and manifest its fatherly love for these parishes.” The fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople received back into its jurisdiction this diocese of Russian parishes in 1971 does not change in any way the provisional character of the current situation of the Russian Archdiocese, since in its first paragraph the relevant Tomos refers back to the Tomos of Patriarch Photios. Thus the Church of Constantinople, in these official documents, has recognised unambiguously the right of the Archdiocese of Russian Parishes in Western Europe to reunite itself with the Mother Church — the Russian Orthodox Church — without this being the manifestation of “an extremely secularised and erroneous spiritual state” or of “an erroneous ethnic understanding.”

As regards the proposals of His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad made during his stay in Paris from 10-12 February 2001, this subject has already been touched upon in negotiations between delegations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow in Zurich on 19 April 2001 and in a letter of Metropolitan Kirill to Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia (No. 2062, 17 July 2001). While travelling through Paris, His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill was invited by Archbishop Sergii of Eukarpia to a meeting of the Council of the Archdiocese. At this meeting, the hierarch of our Church made no specific proposals, and when he was asked how he saw the future of the Archdiocese, he presented the position of our Church, which has never been concealed and to which we are irrevocably attached.

This position is the following: the existence of an isolated group of Russian parishes in Europe is the result of the tragedy of the Russian people provoked by the Revolution. At the present, when the consequences of the Revolution have been overcome, the return of the parishes of the emigration to the bosom of the Patriarchate of Moscow would be completely normal. This desire for the restoration of the spiritual unity of our people is reflected in the declaration you have mentioned, which was made by the Holy Synod on 8 November 2000, where it is question of those children “who live beyond the limits of the Russian State” (not “outside the limits of the Russian Church,” as is incorrectly stated in Your letter). We continue to be saddened to see that the legitimate and natural desire to bring together again our own people, who live dispersed for historical and political reasons, is the object of such harsh and unjust attacks on the part of the primate of a Church that has experienced a similar tragedy.

Question of “Diaspora” Must be Resolved

The question of the Orthodox diaspora is one of most important problems in inter-Orthodox relations. Given its complexity and the fact that it has not been sufficiently regularised, it has introduced serious complications in the relations between Churches and has without a doubt diminished the strength of Orthodox witness throughout the contemporary world. Nevertheless, we hope very much that the sustained efforts of the local Orthodox Churches will enable us in the end to find a pan-Orthodox solution to the problem at the Holy and Great Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The historical responsibility is all the greater for any actions directed against the achievement of an agreement pleasing to God on this key question.

[W]e call upon Your Holiness to follow the precepts of the Holy Fathers, expressed in Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical council, to wit, “that the canons of the Fathers not be infringed upon, and that worldly pride and power not slip in under the pretext of holy actions…

This is why, for the true good both of Orthodoxy and the Church of Constantinople, which is dear to us for reasons stretching back over centuries, we call upon Your Holiness to follow the precepts of the Holy Fathers, expressed in Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical council, to wit, “that the canons of the Fathers not be infringed upon, and that worldly pride and power not slip in under the pretext of holy actions, and that we do not lose, bit by bit and without noticing it, the freedom that Jesus Christ our Lord, the Liberator of all men, has given us by his Blood.” Faithful to the tradition of the Holy Fathers, we ask earnestly and sincerely that Your Holiness renounce an attitude of mind that is an obstacle to the accord so ardently desired, and work hard for the speedy convocation of the Holy and Great Council.

We ask of God peace, health and length of life for Your Holiness, we salute You once again in brotherly fashion, and we continue to respect You and to love Your Holiness in Christ.

+ Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

(1) Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) is discussed at length by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier in his book, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), pp. 267-296, where he reaches the same conclusions as the Patriarch (Ed.).

Sourozh, No. 99, February 2005, pp. 1-11

Canon 28: Yesterday and Today

By: Fr. John H Erickson


The Decree of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:

A vote [psiphos] of the same holy council
taken in favor of the prerogatives presbeia of the throne
of the most holy Church of Constantinople.

Following in every detail the decrees of the holy fathers, and taking cognizance of the canon just read of the 150 bishops dearly beloved of God who gathered under Theodosius the Great, emperor of pious memory, in the imperial city of Constantinople, New Rome, we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things concerning the prerogatives of the most holy Church of the same Constantinople, New Rome. For the fathers rightly acknowledged apodedo-kasi the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome because it was the Imperial City, and moved by the same consideration the 150 bishops beloved of God awarded apeneiman the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of the New Rome, rightly judging that the city which is honored by the imperial authority and the senate and enjoys the same civil prerogatives as the imperial city of the Elder Rome, should also be magnified in ecclesiastical matters as she is, being second after deuteran met’ekeine-n her.

Consequently kai ho-ste, the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforementioned most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople. Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons; but the metropolitans of the aforementioned dioceses, as has been stated, shall be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after proper elections have been made according to custom and have been reported to him.

This text presents some delicate hermeneutical problems. Historians are obliged to wrestle with what it meant in its original historical context, but canonists and churchmen must also consider how it has been interpreted and applied over the centuries. For Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians, this text is an integral part of the ancient canonical corpus that still serves as a common point of reference for the life of their churches. For them – but possibly for others as well, Catholics and perhaps even non-Chalcedonian Orthodox – this is a living text. Reflection on it continues to shape church life in various ways. How have reactions to this text contributed to Christian divisions in the past? What can renewed consideration of this text mean for the future?

As its rubric in the most ancient manuscripts indicates, what we commonly call canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon is more precisely a vote concerning the presbeia – the prerogatives or primacies – of the see of Constantinople.1 What is meant here by presbeia? The vote in question, taken during the council’s final session, approved – over the strenuous objection of the Roman legates – a motion prepared the previous evening by a relatively small number of council fathers. Why did the legates, and thereafter successive popes, object to it? These questions point to one of the most fundamental but also most divisive issues in ecclesiology: What is the nature and basis of primacy?

The announced title of this paper was “Chalcedon Canon 28: Yesterday and Today.” If time permitted, no doubt it would make sense to proceed in chronological fashion, from “yesterday” to “today,” examining in turn the circumstances leading to canon 28, the actual formulation of canon 28, and then interpretations and assessments of canon 28 from late antiquity through the middle ages on down to modern times. If only because of limitations of time, however, it may be useful to reverse this sequence and to begin by reviewing some of the more conspicuous aspects of modern discussion of this text. Two tendencies can be noted: a tendency to dichotomize and a tendency to project later realities and preoccupations onto the church life of the fifth century.

Orthodox and the Roman Church: Claims and Counterclaims

It has become commonplace, first of all, to distinguish Eastern and Western approaches to church order rather sharply. In examining the Church’s historical relationship to civil society scholars frequently have contrasted a “principle of accommodation” or “political principle” in the East to a “principle of apostolicity” or “Petrine principle” in the West.2 In these assessments, the solemn preamble of Chalcedon canon 28, with its emphasis on the significance of imperial status for ecclesiastical primacy, is seen as offering a classic example of Eastern accommodation of church structures to socio-political realities, while the reaction of the Roman legates, subsequently pursued by Pope Leo and his successors, is seen as offering an example of the “Petrine” approach, according to which Rome’s primacy is a consequence of its apostolic foundation and of its bishops’ succession from Peter. Are these differences of approach so absolute as to be irreconcilable? While the Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches remained in communion for many centuries after Chalcedon and its canon 28, these centuries were punctuated by a number of schisms and disputes, often related to the question of Roman primacy. Does this mean that fundamental differences in ecclesiology, present already at the time of Chalcedon, were simply papered over at the time, leaving us today with no real hope of reconciliation save through submission of one side to the ecclesiological presuppositions elaborated more fully and explicitly by the other side in the later course of its historical development? We shall have to return to such questions.

Many more differences between Eastern and Western approaches to ecclesiology have been detected. These reflect the very different historical trajectories of our churches; and very often these differences do appear to be irreconcilable, or at least they have been presented as though they are irreconcilable. Consider, for example, the self-presentations of the Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Churches in the 19th century. In the course of the century, two popes – Pius IX and Leo XIII – made overtures to the “dissident Orientals,” as the Eastern Orthodox usually were labeled. In his 1848 Letter to the Easterners, Pius IX acknowledged that these did indeed “serve Christ,” but he lamented that these “scattered sheep” were “aliens from this holy throne of the Apostle Peter” and exhorted them to “return within the enclosure of the fold of the Lord.” The pope addresses himself especially to those “who, accomplishing the holy ministry…, excel others in ecclesiastical honors,” but he studiously avoids referring to these personages as bishops, much less as brother bishops heading sister churches.3 Clearly for him as for most Catholics of the period in question, Christian reunion was above all a matter of due submission to the Roman pontiff rather than of reconciliation of separated churches.

In the course of his letter, the pope referred to various ancient examples of what he considered appropriate Eastern recognition of papal primacy, including the famous cry of the assembled fathers of Chalcedon, “Peter has spoken through Leo!” In their own detailed response to this papal letter, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem together with their synods put forward their own very different understanding of the significance of Chalcedon. “His Holiness ought not overlook how, and after what examination, our fathers cried out as they did in praise of Leo.” Before accepting Leo’s Tome, its every detail was carefully scrutinized by the council fathers, thus offering “manifest proof that an ecumenical council is not only above the Pope but above any council of his….” As for the various prerogatives that the ancient canons ascribe to Rome, these were based on custom sanctioned by conciliar decisions, made – as Chalcedon canon 28 insists – “because it was the imperial city.” In these conciliar decisions, “nothing is said of the pope’s special monopoly of the apostolicity of St. Peter, still less of a vicarship in Rome’s bishops and a universal Pastorate…. The reason assigned for the primacy was not ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘On this rock I will build my Church,’ but simply old custom and the fact that the city was the imperial city.” The pope enjoins the Easterners to “cast away everything that has crept in among them since the separation,” but in fact he is the innovator. It is actually the Orthodox who have “preserved the Catholic Church as an incorruptible bride for her Bridegroom,” for it is they who uphold in all its integrity the faith of “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” and maintain without alteration the practice of the early church, when “each local self-governing church, both in the East and West, was totally independent and self-administered” by “local synods.” The Romans, by contrast, have abandoned conciliarity in favor of “monarchy” and “monopoly of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” 4

This response of the Eastern patriarchs and bishops to the letter of Pius IX met with wide-spread favor in the Orthodox world. The Orthodox Church, apologists insisted, was conciliar as opposed to papal. It valued spiritual unity, in contrast to the Catholic Church, which insisted above all on institutional unity under the jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff. It recognized Christ as the true head of the Church, rather than the pope. It maintained, in its system of autocephalous churches – utterly independent yet united in faith – , the spirit of the early Church’s pentarchy of patriarchates. In this way it was able to preserve ancient tradition intact, unlike the Roman Church with its myriad innovations. In this way also, it was able to consecrate the unique gifts of the various Orthodox nations unto the working out of God’s design for the world.

The weakness of these arguments, however, became increasingly clear, even to the Orthodox, in the course of the 20th century. Like the pre-World War I system of sovereign nation states, on which in so many respects it was modeled, the system of autocephalous churches failed to meet the many challenges of the modern world – a world radically different from that of the ancient ecumenical councils, a world different even from that of Byzantium and the Turkocratia.

Constaninopolitan Assertions in the Last Century

One of the most conspicuous signs of this failure has been periodic confrontation, this time within the Orthodox world, concerning the significance of Chalcedon canon 28. During the 18th and 19th centuries, effective leadership of the Orthodox Churches had passed to the Russian Church, even though it ranked only fifth in the order of precedence enshrined in the diptychs. The Church of Constantinople was still recognized as “first among equals,” but its hegemony, shrinking along with the Ottoman Empire as new nation-states and national churches emerged in the Balkans, found effective expression only among the ancient patriarchates. In the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, all this changed dramatically. The Russian Church faced liquidation at the hands of Russia’s new Soviet masters. Meanwhile the Church of Constantinople discovered new opportunities to express its leadership in Orthodox affairs, even as it lost its old power-base within the Ottoman Empire.

Particularly significant in this regard were initiatives taken by Meletios (Metaxakis), former archbishop of Cyprus and then archbishop of Athens, who served as patriarch of Constantinople from December 1921 to July 1923 and later went on to become patriarch of Alexandria. During his brief but busy tenure in Constantinople, he assembled a pan-Orthodox congress; took various ecumenical initiatives; and – particularly significant for our present purposes – introduced the canons of Chalcedon, and especially canon 28, as justification for a series of interventions on Europe and America. These included:

  • establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, on the grounds “the enactments of the canons and the traditional practice of the Church give to the most holy and apostolic patriarchal and ecumenical see the spiritual government of Orthodox communities outside of the regular boundaries of each of the Churches of God”;
  • appointment of a patriarchal exarch for the Greek Orthodox of Western Europe; and
  • granting the status of autonomy to the Orthodox Churches of Finland and Estonia, which before World War I had been part of the Russian Orthodox church.

During the interwar years Meletios’ successors in Constantinople continued his policies years in various ways, most notably in Poland and in Western Europe, but following World War II, after the Soviet government at long last allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to reorganize, that church was quick to respond to what it regarded as Constantinople’s unwarranted claims and actions. It is not necessary here to review the Moscow’s arguments or Constantinople’s counter-arguments or to comment at length on the successive crises – over Moscow’s 1970 grant of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America or Constantinople’s reactivation of Estonian autonomy following the breakup of the Soviet Union – that have marred relations between these two churches ever since. It is enough to observe that, for the Orthodox, the question of how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted has enormous practical implications.5

The Legitimacy of Constantinople’s Interpretation of Canon 28

Does Constantinople’s interpretation of canon 28 accurately reflect its original intention or at least represent a legitimate extension of its meaning? Or does it serve simply as a pretext for unwarranted “neo-papalism,” as the Russian Church has charged? A purely historical exploration of what this canon meant in its original context will not answer such questions any more than it will resolve modern differences between Catholic and Orthodox understandings of primacy, products as they are of very different historical circumstances. But such an exploration may be instructive nonetheless. A full study of this subject cannot be undertaken here, but it may be possible to identify some points of agreement and not just points of disagreement. At the very least, it may be possible to identify what the various parties took for granted at the time of the council.

The first and most obvious point is that all parties took for granted the happy coincidence of church and empire. As Christian apologists had recognized long before, the church’s universal vocation (“go into all nations”) and the Roman Empire’s aspirations to universality neatly complemented each other. As Vittorio Peri has put it, “The ecumenism of the Church and that of the State were so intertwined culturally and so ‘harmonized’ between themselves that they became interdependent in the common consciousness and behavior of Christians.” 6 In this situation, relationships of filiation and dependence in the ecclesiastical sphere quite naturally corresponded closely to the prevailing patterns of government and public life. The gospel spread from major cities to outlying areas, from capitals to dependencies. To a high degree, therefore, the geopolitical importance of a city and the antiquity of its church’s foundation coincided, reducing the potential for conflict between “accommodation” and “apostolicity,” at least until the rise of Constantinople opened the question in a fresh way.

The empire provided the template, as it were, for the church’s evolving structures for communion and communication, and this was a template that took for granted the preeminent role of cities in the structuring of society. It was, in other words, a template that differed significantly from our own modern society or, for that matter, from many other societies that could be mentioned (warrior empires, seigneurial agrarian societies, nomadic or semi-nomadic cultures…). It did not begin by defining the outer limits or borders within which social controls would be uniformly exercised. Rather, it started with a number of urban centers, each with a keen sense of its own identity, whose effective force would be variously felt over a more or less extended hinterland. We therefore should avoid projecting our later notions of patriarchates, i.e. neatly defined and uniform autocephalous entities, each possessing something analogous to the modern state’s internal and external sovereignty, onto the church of the Roman Empire, just as we should avoid projecting later notions of papal monarchy onto it. The church was an ordered communion of local churches, just as the empire itself was an ordered commonwealth of cities.

Of these local churches, some – depending on a variety of factors – might possess certain prerogatives, privileges, honors, rights and powers. But these presbeia – these primacies – were not uniform or held in equal measure. If one examines texts of this period, one cannot but be struck by the fluidity of terminology. Word like presbeia, primatus, privilegia, time-, honores, potestas, proteia, and auctoritas are used in various combinations and almost interchangeably. Often, though not always, context can indicate more precisely what is meant in a given case. In some cases presbeia may mean simply seniority or precedence, but in other cases it may mean the rights and prerogatives that go with seniority, i.e. an institutionalized position of responsibility. In some cases time- may mean “honor” as we so often understand that word today: a mark of public recognition without practical consequences (cf. the honorary degree or honorary citizenship). But more often, as Brian Daley has reminded us, “honor” in the ancient world suggests “the grateful recognition not only of political goodness but of political service,” recognition normally expressed “through bestowal of office: an institutionalized position of public responsibility.” 7 Honor was inseparable from responsibility and from recognized capacity for making authoritative decisions. Thus when canon 3 of I Constantinople accorded the bishop of Constantinople the “primacy of honor,” the presbeia te-s time-s, “after the bishop of Rome,” it was not simply recognizing his moral leadership and prestige. It anticipated the major role that his see would play in the eastern part of the empire, above all in restraining the ambitions of Alexandria.

If I Constantinople canon 3 was rather vague about the content of presbeia, that was not the case with Chalcedon. At most critical points, it distinguished between the merely honorific on the one hand, and specific rights relating to jurisdiction and practical influence on the other. At the end of session 6, for example, when emperor and empress formally received the council’s definition of faith, Marcian decided to honor the little city of Chalcedon and the church in which the council was meeting: “In honor of the holy martyr Euphemia and of your holinesses, we have decreed that the city of Chalcedon, in which the holy faith has been confirmed by this synod, shall have the rank (presbeia) of a metropolis; but we only wish to honor it with the name (onomati mono-…time-santes), and the proper role of the metropolitan city of Nicomedia is to be preserved.” 8 On the other hand, there was nothing merely honorific about the presbeia conferred on the throne of Constantinople by canon 28. The canon itself is very clear on this point: “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.”

As suggested earlier, the presbeia of the churches were not identical or uniform. Canon 28 gave Constantinople certain clearly specified – and clearly delimited – rights with regard to ordinations within the three civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace. Two other canons (9 and 17) gave him certain less clearly defined rights in matters of judicial appeal. According to canon 9, “if a bishop or cleric has something against the metropolitan of the province in question, let him appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of the imperial city of Constantinople…” Similarly, according to canon 17, “if someone has been wrongly treated by his metropolitan, let him make an appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of Constantinople, as has been said earlier.” It is the subject of much debate whether these provisions are meant to apply, like the jurisdictional details of canon 28, only to the three minor civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, or whether they are intended to recognize Constantinople as an alternative court of appeal for the entire eastern part of the empire.9 The latter seems to me more likely. Certainly even for the period between 381 and 451, cases of appeal are on record not only from the three minor civil dioceses but also from the diocese of Orient, whose “exarch” would ultimately bear the title of patriarch of Antioch.10 It is important, however, to recognize why such appeals might be directed to Constantinople rather than to the “exarch of the diocese.” Exarchal structures, particularly in the three minor dioceses, were ill-defined and undependable, whereas in Constantinople, thanks to the continual flow of visiting bishops from all parts of the empire, a convenient court of appeal, in the form of the synodos ende-mousa, could easily be convoked by the capital’s archbishop.11

The point here is that Constantinople’s rather wide-ranging rights in matters of appeal were clearly distinguished from its rights in matters relating to ordination, which were much more limited both in geographic extent and in their nature. As Chalcedon canon 28 clearly specified, “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace…shall be ordained by the most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.” Similar distinctions were made with regard to the presbeia of other major sees. The Council of Sardica, for example, gave Rome specific but very wide rights in matters of appeal, but this did not mean that Rome enjoyed comparably wide rights in matters of ordination, and neither the canons of Sardica nor other canons directly addressed the question of Rome’s wider role within the communion of the churches. Quite simply, at the time of Chalcedon the prerogatives or presbeia of major sees still were not uniform or evenly distributed, and neither were the bases for these various prerogatives clearly defined. The patriarchal system of the age of Justinian had not yet fully emerged – and, a fortiori, the modern system of autocephalous churches.

The Main Reason Why Canon 28 is Ambiguous

Here we come to the main reason why Chalcedon canon 28, in some respects so clear, was also quite ambiguous and potentially misleading. As Archbishop Peter (L’Huillier) has observed, the canon “did not have the purpose of defining the primatial prerogatives of the see of old Rome but only those of the see of Constantinople.” 12 In this context, Rome’s presbeia were mentioned only as a point of reference and to provide a certain, by-no-means perfect analogy. Much the same holds true for canon 6 of Nicea, to which Chalcedon canon 28 will allude. Here the exceptional situation obtaining in Egypt, where custom in effect made the archbishop of Alexandria the metropolitan over several provinces, was justified by reference to the similar situation of Rome in relation to the suburbicarian provinces of Italy. No reference to Rome’s apostolicity, or to any wider prerogatives it might have, was necessary. So also in Chalcedon canon 28, the analogy drawn between the prerogatives of Rome and Constantinople was not intended to minimize the importance of Rome’s apostolicity. (On other occasions, e.g. in their letter to Pope Leo, the council fathers could speak in much more deferential terms to the holder of the most venerable and preeminent apostolic see of Rome.) Even in the initial section of canon 28, the drafters of the text made a subtle difference between Rome and Constantinople even as they drew an analogy between them. The fathers of Nicea “rightly acknowledged apodedo-kasi the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome” whereas the fathers of I Constantinople “awarded apeneiman the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of New Rome…” 13

But why was it necessary for the redactors of this text to develop its long and laborious initial section in the first place? The answer is quite simple. Consider the style of the opening formulation: “Following in every detail,” which so strikingly echos the introduction to Chalcedon’s dogmatic horos. Here, just as with the dogmatic horos, the goal is to demonstrate the continuity of tradition, above all the council’s fidelity to Nicea, while at the same time explaining this tradition and giving it contemporary application. The same concern can be seen in the curious restrictive clause in the dispositive second section of the canon: “the metropolitans – and they alone…” And then, “Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons.” The allusion here is to Nicea canon 4, which along with canon 5 and the concluding sentences of aforementioned canon 6 deals entirely with the structure of the provincial church. Here, just as in the initial section of the text, it was necessary to demonstrate Chalcedon’s fidelity to Nicea, in this case meaning that it was necessary to demonstrate that the supervision of provincial episcopal elections would remain in the hands of the provincial metropolitans, as provided for by Nicea, rather than pass to Constantinople.

The Nature and Basis of Primacy

Earlier I posed a question that frequently is asked when basic issues in ecclesiology are discussed: What is the nature and basis of primacy? From the foregoing, it is clear that when we are referring to the church of the Christian Roman Empire the question should be phrased slightly differently: What is nature and basis of primacies? Within the one church, bishops of the various local churches exercised a variety of responsibilities. Collectively they were responsible for maintaining the ecumenical well-being of the universal church, but they did not exercise this responsibility in identical ways. They were bishops of particular sees – sees with various characteristics, some large, some small, some distinguished by apostolic foundation, some by geopolitical circumstances, some by both, some by neither. But precisely because of the particular characteristics of their sees, some of these bishops had responsibilities that were more far-reaching than others – in matters of ordination or appeals, for example, or in matters that were less specific but no less vital, particularly when these related to definition of the faith. There were, in short, various levels and various kinds of primacy. But these various primacies, whether at local or regional or universal levels, were all intended to be of service in and for the Church understood as a communion in faith and love.

These various primacies were not simply honorific, a matter of high titles, chairmanship at meetings and the first seat at banquets. They could involve effective decision-making and juridical power. But the power of a primate was not absolute or something that could be wielded in arbitrary fashion, as though the primate were outside and above the collective episcopal college. The primary responsibility of those exercising a primatial role within the church was oversight, care, sollicitudo, phrontis, and through oversight the strengthening of their brother bishops. Their responsibility was to see to it that the canons were observed, that due process was maintained, that the faith was rightly taught, that no scandal bring the church into disrepute, etc. “Do not transgress the ancient landmarks which your fathers have established.” (Prov. 22:28) This biblical injunction was on the lips of many churchmen at the time of Chalcedon. They understood themselves to be guardians of the tradition, and this included not only the symbol of faith but also the canons, not just the church’s apostolic faith but also its received order. This concern is evident both with those responsible for the drafting of canon 28 and with the Roman legates and eventually Pope Leo, who complained precisely that it violated ancient canonical order and the accepted prerogatives of the churches. But as the example of Chalcedon itself indicates, both in its dogmatic decree and in its canon 28, sometimes it was necessary not just to safeguard the tradition but also, in view of changing circumstances, to explain it and give it contemporary application. When is such re-articulation of tradition appropriate? What distinguishes legitimate renewal from illegitimate innovation?

On such questions, there obviously was disagreement at Chalcedon, and there has been disagreement since. Can the conception and practice of papal primacy that developed in the West from the 11th century onward be regarded as a legitimate development, a natural evolution from common principles held by all in the early Church? Or is it, as the Orthodox so frequently have charged, a dangerous innovation, whereby the pope has effectively severed himself from the common fellowship with those who faithfully maintain the legitimate tradition? Or, on a different front, do Constantinople’s 20th-century initiatives in the so-called “diaspora” represent a legitimate contemporary application of Chalcedon canon 28’s provisions for “bishops…who are among the barbarians”? Or are they unwarranted intrusions into the internal life of other Orthodox Churches, the result of overweening ambition and self-interest which can only be destructive of Orthodox unity?

At the time of the last major anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon, in 1951, there was little agreement on such questions. In the fifty years since then, Orthodox and Catholics, both independently and together, have made efforts to address these questions in new ways, in hopes of internal renewal and of ecumenical reconciliation. There is both good news and bad news to report.

Contemporary Implications

The good news and the bad news from among the Orthodox can be reported very quickly and easily. The good news is that the issues of the “diaspora,” the diptychs (i.e., the order of precedence of the churches), and autocephaly and autonomy were placed on the agenda of the long-awaited Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. The bad news is (a) that preparatory papers and schemata reveal sharp disagreements on many basic issues, such as how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted; and (b) that preparations for the council itself, never speedy, now seem to be indefinitely on hold, due to new tensions between Constantinople and Moscow.

The good news from among Catholics is that developments in ecclesiology from Vatican II onward have helped to place the question of papal primacy in a new light. Particularly significant was the council’s rediscovery of episcopacy as a true and proper order, “that by episcopal consecration is conferred the fullness of the sacrament of orders.” 14 In principle, therefore, it is now recognized that the jurisdiction of the bishops, and not just their “power of orders,” is derived directly from Christ through sacramental ordination rather than by delegation from the Pope. Equally important was discovery of the collegial nature of the episcopate and the beginnings of a more satisfactory way of accounting for the pope’s place within the episcopal college. Theologians like Rahner, Congar, McBrien, Semmelroth and others can argue that “there is only one subject of supreme authority in the Church: the episcopal college under papal leadership which can operate in two ways: through a strictly collegial act e.g., a general council or through a personal act of the pope as head of the college.” 15 Seen in this perspective, every primatial action in principle is collegial in nature. Primatial ministry in principle is situated within the episcopal college, not outside it or over it, and the exercise of this ministry must be evaluated accordingly.

This understanding of primacy certainly comes closer to that of the early Church than did the papalism of Vatican I, and for this we should be thankful. But the actual exercise of primacy in the Catholic Church often goes in directions quite at odds with the perspective offered by its leading theologians. Lengthy demonstration of this point is not necessary here. It is enough to quote from the concluding words of Fr. Tillard’s book The Bishop of Rome: “The bishop of Rome is the sentinel who ‘watches’ over the people of God, which is his true function; but he often prefers to act as if he were the only one in charge, instead of alerting the bishops as authentic pastors in the Church of God.” 16

Finally, from Orthodox – Catholic dialogue also comes good news and bad news. The North American Orthodox – Catholic Theological Consultation has issued some encouraging statements on Apostolicity (1986) and on Conciliarity and Primacy (1989).17 Challenging past tendencies to dichotomize, for example, the consultation found no intrinsic opposition between a “principle of accommodation” in the East and a “principle of apostolicity” in the West, for “at a time when East and West were united in one Christian Roman Empire, neither approach necessarily excluded the other, for both pointed and aspired to universality.” 18 The Orthodox – Catholic Joint International Commission was to have taken up the subject of Conciliarity and Authority in the Church in 1990, and quite possibly it would have produced an agreed statement at least advancing discussion of the subject of primacy. Unfortunately, following the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, new challenges to Orthodox – Catholic relations have arisen, and it is unlikely that the Joint International Commission will return to its previous agenda in the near future.

Two Outstanding Problems Left to Address

If and when Orthodox and Catholics resume discussion of issues relating to primacy, at least two outstanding problems will have to be addressed:

(1) One problem arises from the way in which the ultimate basis for papal authority has been discussed hitherto. Catholic theologians long argued that the papal office and the episcopacy exist iure divino, whereas intermediary entities like patriarchates and metropolitanates are simply administrative institutions established by ecclesiastical law. One problem with this approach is that it seems to posit a qualitative distinction between two kinds of ecclesiality, one primary and necessary, the other derivative and dispensable. In contrast to the local or particular church headed by its bishop on the one hand, and the universal church headed by the pope on the other, intermediary entities like patriarchates (but conceivably also other groupings reflective of diverse cultural patrimonies) are only nominally churches, possibly acceptable for pastoral reasons but lacking a properly theological basis. For their part, Orthodox theologians have been inclined simply to deny that the papal office is a matter of ius divinum and to argue that church order above the level of the local church, whether intermediary or universal, is determined by the competent authority (the ecumenical council but conceivably also the emperor) in response to particular sociological and political circumstances — in short, it is determined by ecclesiastical law. The main difference, then, between Catholic and Orthodox conceptions would appear to lie simply in their evaluation of the basis for universal church order (i.e., papal primacy), Catholics saying iure divino and Orthodox saying iure ecclesiastico, and not in their evaluation of the basis for intermediary ecclesial entities. The issue of primacy on any level but the universal therefore has not been addressed from a theological perspective.

This schematization represents, grosso modo, the way that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of ecclesiology have been pitted against each other in past polemics and possibly also in more recent discussions. Is any other approach possible? As a number of modern studies have argued, the concept of ius divinum is not very helpful here. Its implication is always that certain institutions are necessary, and the others, historically contingent, are a matter of relative indifference. But as Fr. Tillard has observed, “No clear boundary exists which permits us to say: ‘What is on this side has been positively willed by God, what is on that side is entirely dependent on human freedom’.” 19 If the Church were merely a societas instituted long ago by Christ, such a schema might be possible. But the Church is also the living body of Christ, which is always being constituted in history by the Holy Spirit, as the locus for restored communion of men and women with God and with each other. The necessity of a given structure for the Church, at whatever level, therefore does not depend simply on whether it was explicitly mandated or established in Scripture but rather on whether it responds to what the nature of the Church itself demands. In this perspective, perhaps, it may be possible to reach a deeper understanding of the ecclesiological significance of primacy as such, and not just of universal primacy.20

2. A second problem has to do with our “reading” of church history. Often we speak of our unity during the first millennium. But such appeals to history can be misleading or even dangerous. We all know the old adage, that you can prove anything by Scripture. Much the same could be said of church history. Both the 19th-century papal initiatives vis-à-vis the East and the Eastern responses to these initiatives appealed to the undivided Church of the first millennium, or the Church of the seven ecumenical councils, but they drew from the historical record very different conclusions. We still face the same problem today. Should more weight be given to Leo the Great’s legates at the Council of Chalcedon, who referred to him as universalis papa, or to Gregory the Great, who pointedly objected when Eulogius of Alexandria referred to him as universalis papa? Should we regard as particularly significant the fact that St. John Chrysostom appealed to Pope Innocent of Rome after his deposition from the see of Constantinople, or should we also take into account the fact that he appealed as well to Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquilea? In an interview given soon after the publication of Ut Unum Sint, Cardinal Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity gave a non-technical exposition of his understanding of the exercise of the Roman primacy in the early Church: “When one studies the first centuries to see what primacy was and how it was exercised, fundamentally it was to maintain communion.” Bishops nominated by their local churches would request communion with the bishop of Rome, “and when the bishop of Rome accepted that bishop into communion, all of the churches automatically accepted that bishop in communion.” Also, “when in a church or between churches there were problems or disputes, they went to Rome to ask the bishop for mediation and eventually, if it was necessary, to make a decision in order to maintain the unity of communion.” 21 An Orthodox theologian or historian would present the historical record somewhat differently, even in a non-technical exposition. He would point out, for example, that while other bishops sent letters of communion to the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Rome also sent letters of communion to the other bishops.

Orthodox and Roman Reconciliation

But should we be bothered by such differences in our presentations of the historical record? Some might argue that, if we could remain in communion during the first millennium despite such differences, such differences should not divide us now. A statement made by Joseph Ratzinger in 1982 perhaps could be construed in this way:

Rome must not require more of a doctrine of the primacy from the East than was formulated and experienced in the first millennium. On July 25, 1976, when the Patriarch Athenagoras addressed the visiting Pope as the successor of Peter, the first in honor among us, and the presider over charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the declarations on the primacy of the first millennium. And Rome cannot ask for more. Reunion could occur if the East abandons its attacks on the Western development of the second millennium as being heretical and accepts the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form which it experienced in its own development. Conversely, reunion could occur if the West recognized the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself.22

But would either Catholics or Orthodox consider this a satisfactory basis for reunion? Would either side be willing at this point to regard issues relating to papal primacy, for example, simply as theologoumena? One of the anathemas of Vatican I reads:

If, then, any one shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that Blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the Universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy — let him be anathema.23

Does this apply to my Catholic neighbor, presumably because of his Western mentality, but not to me, because of my Eastern mentality? It seems likely to me that many Catholics would be confused by reunion on such terms and that most Orthodox would reject it.

Doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Orthodox on the subject of papal primacy may one day be possible, but it will not be achieved simply by a retrospective ecumenism that looks only to the mythic “undivided Church of the first millennium.” Deeper exploration of the meaning of primacy for the ongoing life of the Church is needed. It is easy to explain why second-millennium Roman Catholic developments in ecclesiology and other areas took place as they did. It might even be possible for the Orthodox to accept these developments as legitimate in their own very particular historical context – to acknowledge, for example, that Vatican I represented a legitimate, if partial, response to certain perceived needs within the Roman Catholic Church. Conversely, if Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks offer any indication, Roman Catholics are willing to recognize “the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself.” But both Orthodox and Catholics must consider whether their understanding and practice of primacy corresponds to what the nature of the Church requires at this point in history, on the eve of the third millennium. Given what Fr. John Meyendorff has called the “pragmatic realism” of the Orthodox Church on this point – her “dynamic and living ability… to preserve her own norms, her own principles of polity, her own divinely established eucharistic structures in the midst of contemporary realitities” 24 – , it should be relatively easy for the Orthodox to consider this question – in principle, at least. For Roman Catholics, given the burden of their previous ecclesiological formulations and their present administrative structures, this task in principle should be more difficult. In reality in may be easier. In an address at the Seminary of Rome in 1984, Pope John Paul II offered a refreshing survey of papal titles:

It is said – and this is true – that the Pope is Vicar of Christ…. The attribution, the phrase in question, is undoubtedly a strong one that arouses trepidation. I must tell you that I prefer not to abuse this phrase, and to use it only rarely. I prefer indeed to say “Successor of Peter”; but I prefer even more to say “Bishop of Rome.” 25

If this can be not only said but also lived out, Orthodox and Catholics may hope one day for agreement even on this very difficult issue of primacy in the Church.



  1. For a thorough discussion of the text itself and of the circumstances of its drafting, see especially Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996) 267-96. Other recent treatments of Chalcedon canon 28 include André de Halleux’s irenic “Le décret chalcédonien sur les prerogatives de la Nouvelle Rome,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 64 (1988) 287-323. Especially useful among older presentations are Emil Herman, “Chalkedon und die Ausgestaltung des konstantinopolitanischen Primats,” in A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon 2 (Würzburg, 1954) 459-90, and A. Wuyts, “Le 28me canon de Chalcédoine et le fondement du Primat Romain,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 17 (1951).265-82.
  2. For example, the classic presentation of Francis Dvornik, Byzance et la primauté romain (Paris, 1958) and also Anton Michel, “Der Kampf um das politische oder petrinische Prinzip der Kirchenführung,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon, 491-562.
  3. Quoted in introduction to Encyclical Epistle of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the Faithful Everywhere, Being a Reply to the Epistle of Pius IX to the Easterners (reprint South Canaan, PA: Orthodox Book Center, 1958) 3-4.
  4. Encyclical Epistle 11.
  5. Joseph E. Olšr and Joseph Gill, “The Twenty-eighth Canon of Chalcedon in Dispute Between Constantinople and Moscow,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon 3, 765-83. Contemporary inter-Orthodox debate is also presented, from the Constantinopolitan perspective, by Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes, The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church (Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1976) 132-233.
  6. “First Millennium of Roman Tradition,” The Jurist 52 (1992) 84.
  7. ”Position and Patronage in the Early Church: The Original Meaning of ‘Primacy of Honor’,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 44 (1993) 529-53 at 531.
  8. Cited by Daley, 544.
  9. For discussion of these canons see, among others, L’Huillier, Church of the Ancient Councils, 229-36 and 251-54.
  10. See Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Activity of the Bishop of Constantinople Outside his Paroikia between 381 and 451,” in Kathegetria: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey… (Camberley, Surrey: Porphyrogenitus, 1988) 179-210, who calls attention among other things to the importance of imperial rescript of 421, which authorized appeals to Constantinople from the entire eastern part of the empire, including Eastern Illyricum and Orient.
  11. On the synodos ende-mousa see J. Hajjar, Le Synode Permanent dans l’Eglise byzantine des origins au XIe siècle (= Orientalia Analecta 164, Rome, 1962).
  12. Church of the Ancient Councils, 282.
  13. The similarities but also the differences between Rome and Constantinople were brought out as well by the imperial commissioners in their “official” exegesis of the canon: “We declare that in conformity with the canons, the primatial rights ta proteia and exceptional honor te-n exaireton time-n of the dearly beloved-of-God Archbishop of Elder Rome have been preserved, but that it is necessary that the very venerable archbishop of the imperial city of Constantinople New Rome enjoy the same prerogatives of honor presbeia time-s, and therefore that he should have authority to ordain the metropolitans in the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace.” And the text goes on to describe procedures for this in detail, calling attention to its restricted nature.
  14. Lumen Gentium 21.
  15. Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy (New York: Crossroads, 1990) 85.
  16. (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983) 193.
  17. Available most conveniently in The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue, ed. J. Borelli and J. Erickson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1996) 125-30 and 152-55 respectively.
  18. “An Agreed Statement on Apostolicity as God’s Gift in the Life of the Church” para. 13, in Quest for Unity, 129.
  19. Church of Churches: The Ecclesiology of Communion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992) 304.
  20. On this subject note the conclusions of Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) 180-181: “The real problem and task today… is not the strengthening of the episcopal office as exercised by the individual bishops. Instead it is the theological revaluation and practical strengthening of the functions of supra-diocesan structures whether those be national bishops’ conferences or similar bodies on a continental scale. Theologically these supra-diocesan structures must be seen as ecclesiastical authorities with their own rights and not as bodies that exercise papal power by delegation. They represent an independent expression of episcopal collegiality.”
  21. Quoted in Origins 25.4 (June 8, 1995) 50.
  22. Theologische Prinzipienlehre: Bausteine zur Fundamentaltheologie (Munich: E. Wewel, 1982) 209, quoted by Granfield 190-91
  23. Denzinger 3058.
  24. “The Ecumenical Patriarchate, Yesterday and Today,” in The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982) 241.
  25. Osservatore Romano, March 5-6, 1984, p. 6, quoted by Granfield, Limits, 184.

V. Rev. John H Erickson is the Peter N Gramowich Professor of Church History at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.

The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople

By: St. John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco

An excerpt from a report on all the Autocephalous Churches made by Archbishop John of Shanghai to the Second All-Diaspora Sobor of the Russian Church Abroad held in Yugoslavia in 1938. It explains how the Ecumenical Patriarchate has expanded its jurisdiction beyond its canonical boundaries to cover the whole inhabited world.

St. John Maximovitch

St. John Maximovitch

Historical Background

The primacy among Orthodox Churches is possessed by the Church of the New Rome, Constantinople, which is headed by a Patriarch who has the title of Ecumenical, and therefore is itself called the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which territorially reached the culmination of its development at the end of the 18th century. At that time there was included in it the whole of Asia Minor, the whole Balkan Peninsula (except for Montenegro), together with the adjoining islands, since the other independent Churches in the Balkan Peninsula had been abolished and had become part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch had received from the Turkish Sultan, even before the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, the title of Millet Bash, that is, the head of the people, and he was considered the head of the whole Orthodox population of the Turkish Empire. This, however, did not prevent the Turkish government from removing patriarchs for any reason whatever and calling for new elections, at the same time collecting a large tax from the newly elected patriarch. Apparently the latter circumstance had a great significance in the changing of patriarchs by the Turks, and therefore it often happened that they again allowed on the Patriarchal Throne a patriarch whom they had removed, after the death of one or several of his successors. Thus, many patriarchs occupied their see several times, and each accession was accompanied by the collection of a special tax from them by the Turks.

In order to make up the sum which he paid on his accession to the Patriarchal Throne, a patriarch made a collection from the metropolitans subordinate to him, and they, in their turn, collected from the clergy subordinate to them. This manner of making up its finances left an imprint on the whole order of the Patriarchate’s life. In the Patriarchate there was likewise evident the Greek “Great Idea,” that is, the attempt to restore Byzantium, at first in a cultural, but later also in a political sense. For this reason in all important; posts there were assigned people loyal to this idea, and for the most part Greeks from the part of Constantinople called the Phanar, where also the Patriarchate was located. Almost always the episcopal sees were filled by Greeks, even though in the Balkan Peninsula the population was primarily Slavic.

In the Patriarchate there was likewise evident the Greek “Great Idea,” that is, the attempt to restore Byzantium, at first in a cultural, but later also in a political sense.

At the beginning of the 19th century there began a movement of liberation among the Balkan peoples, who were striving to liberate themselves from the authority of the Turks. There arose the states of Serbia, Greece, Rumania, and Bulgaria, at first semi-independent, and then completely independent from Turkey. Parallel with this there proceeded also the formation of new Local Churches which were separate from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Even though it was unwillingly, under the influence of circumstances, the Ecumenical Patriarchs permitted the autonomy of the Churches in the vassal princedoms, and later they recognized the full independence of the Churches in Serbia, Greece, and Rumania. Only the Bulgarian question was complicated in view on the one hand of the impatience of the Bulgarians, who had not yet attained political independence, and, on the other hand, thanks to the unyieldingness of the Greeks. The self-willed declaration of Bulgarian autocephaly on the foundation of a firman of the Sultan was not recognized by the Patriarchate, and in a number of dioceses there was established a parallel hierarchy.

The boundaries of the newly-formed Churches coincided with the boundaries of the new states, which were growing all the time at the expense of Turkey, at the same time acquiring new dioceses from the Patriarchate. Nonetheless, in 1912, when the Balkan War began, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had about 70 metropolias and several bishoprics. The war of 1912-13 tore away from Turkey a significant part of the Balkan Peninsula with such great spiritual centers as Salonica and Athos. The Great War of 1914-18 for a time deprived Turkey of the whole of Thrace and the Asia Minor coast with the city of Smyrna, which were subsequently lost by Greece in 1922 after the unsuccessful march of the Greeks on Constantinople.

Here the Ecumenical Patriarch could not so easily allow out of his authority the dioceses which had been torn away from Turkey, as had been done previously. There was already talk concerning certain places which from of old had been under the spiritual authority of Constantinople. Nonetheless, the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1922 recognized the annexation to the Serbian Church of all areas within the boundaries of Yugoslavia; he agreed to the inclusion within the Church of Greece of a number of dioceses in the Greek State, preserving, however, his jurisdiction over Athos; and in 1937 he recognized even the autocephaly of the small Albanian Church, which originally he had not recognized.

The Patriarch is extremely hindered in the manifestation even of his indisputable rights in church government within the boundaries of Turkey, where he is viewed as an ordinary Turkish subject-official, being furthermore under the supervision of the government.

The boundaries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the number of its dioceses had significantly decreased. At the same time the Ecumenical Patriarchate in fact lost Asia Minor also, although it remained within its jurisdiction. In accordance with the peace treaty between Greece and Turkey in 1923, there occurred an exchange of population between these powers, so that the whole Greek population of Asia Minor had to resettle in Greece. Ancient cities, having at one time a great significance in ecclesiastical matters and glorious in their church history, remained without a single inhabitant of the Orthodox faith. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarch lost his political significance in Turkey, since Kemal Pasha deprived him of his title of head of the people. Factually, at the present time under the Ecumenical Patriarch there are five dioceses within the boundaries of Turkey in addition to Athos with the surrounding places in Greece. The Patriarch is extremely hindered in the manifestation even of his indisputable rights in church government within the boundaries of Turkey, where he is viewed as an ordinary Turkish subject-official, being furthermore under the supervision of the government. The Turkish government, which interferes in all aspects of the life of its citizens, only as a special privilege has permitted him, as also the Armenian Patriarch, to wear long hair and clerical garb, forbidding this to the rest of the clergy. The Patriarch has no right of free exit from Turkey, and lately the government is ever more insistently pursuing his removal to the new capital of Ankara (the ancient Ancyra), where there are now no Orthodox Christians, but where the administration with all the branches of governmental life is concentrated.

The "Self-Aggrandizement of Constantinople"

Such an outward abasement of the hierarch of the city of St. Constantine, which was once the capital of the ecumene, has not caused reverence toward him to be shaken among Orthodox Christians, who revere the See of Sts. Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. From the height of this See the successor of Sts. John and Gregory could spiritually guide the whole Orthodox world, if only he possessed their firmness in the defense of righteousness and truth and the breadth of views of the recent Patriarch Joachim III. However, to the general decline of the Ecumenical Patriarchate there has been joined the direction of its activity after the Great War. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has desired to make up for the loss of dioceses which have left its jurisdiction, and likewise the loss of its political significance within the boundaries of Turkey, by submitting to itself areas where up to now there has been no Orthodox hierarchy, and likewise the Churches of those states where the government is not Orthodox. Thus, on April 5, 1922, Patriarch Meletius designated an Exarch of Western and Central Europe with the title of Metropolitan of Thyateira with residency in London; on March 4, 1923, the same Patriarch consecrated the Czech Archimandrite Sabbatius Archbishop of Prague and All Czechoslovakia; on April 15, 1924, a Metropolia of Hungary and All Central Europe was founded with a See in Budapest, even though there was already a Serbian bishop there. In America an Archbishopric was established under the Ecumenical Throne, then in 1924 a Diocese was established in Australia with a See in Sydney. In 1938 India was made subordinate to the Archbishop of Australia.

At the same time there has proceeded the subjection of separate parts of the Russian Orthodox Church which have been torn away from Russia. Thus, on June 9, 1923, the Ecumenical Patriarch accepted into his jurisdiction the Diocese of Finland as an autonomous Finnish Church; on August 23, 1923, the Estonian Church was made subject in the same way, on November 13, 1924, Patriarch Gregory VII recognized the autocephaly of the Polish Church under the supervision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate—that is, rather autonomy. In March, 1936, the Ecumenical Patriarch accepted Latvia into his jurisdiction. Not limiting himself to the acceptance into his jurisdiction of Churches in regions which had fallen away from the borders of Russia, Patriarch Photius accepted into his jurisdiction Metropolitan Eulogius in Western Europe together with the parishes subordinate to him, and on February 28, 1937, an Archbishop of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in America consecrated Bishop Theodore-Bogdan Shpilko for a Ukrainian Church in North America.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has desired to make up for the loss of dioceses which have left its jurisdiction, and likewise the loss of its political significance within the boundaries of Turkey, by submitting to itself areas where up to now there has been no Orthodox hierarchy, and likewise the Churches of those states where the government is not Orthodox.

Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarch has become actually “ecumenical” [universal] in the breadth of the territory which is theoretically subject to him. Almost the whole earthly globe, apart from the small territories of the three Patriarchates and the territory of Soviet Russia, according to the idea of the Patriarchate’s leaders, enters into the composition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Increasing without limit their desires to submit to themselves parts of Russia, the Patriarchs of Constantinople have even begun to declare the uncanonicity of the annexation of Kiev to the Moscow Patriarchate, and to declare that the previously existing southern Russian Metropolia of Kiev should be subject to the Throne of Constantinople. Such a point of view is not only clearly expressed in the Tomos of November 13, 1924, in connection with the separation of the Polish Church, but is also quite thoroughly promoted by the Patriarchs. Thus, the Vicar of Metropolitan Eulogius in Paris, who was consecrated with the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch, has assumed the title of Chersonese; that is to say, Chersonese, which is now in the territory of Russia, is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarch. The next logical step for the Ecumenical Patriarchate would be to declare the whole of Russia as being under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

However, the actual spiritual might and even the actual boundaries of authority by far do not correspond to such a self-aggrandizement of Constantinople. Not to mention the fact that almost everywhere the authority of the Patriarch is quite illusory and consists for the most part in the confirmation of bishops who have been elected to various places or the sending of such from Constantinople, many lands which Constantinople considers subject to itself do not have any flock at all under its jurisdiction.

The Decline of Moral Authority

The moral authority of the Patriarchs of Constantinople has likewise fallen very low in view of their extreme instability in ecclesiastical matters. Thus, Patriarch Meletius IV arranged a “Pan-Orthodox Congress,” with representatives of various churches, which decreed the introduction of the New Calendar. This decree, recognized only by a part of the Church, introduced a frightful schism among Orthodox Christians. Patriarch Gregory VII recognized the decree of the council of the Living Church concerning the deposing of Patriarch Tikhon, whom not long before this the Synod of Constantinople had declared a “confessor,” and then he entered into communion with the “Renovationists” in Russia, which continues up to now.

In sum, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in theory embracing almost the whole universe and in fact extending its authority only over several dioceses, and in other places having only a higher superficial supervision and receiving certain revenues for this, persecuted by the government at home and not supported by any governmental authority abroad: having lost its significance as a pillar of truth and having itself become a source of division, and at the same time being possessed by an exorbitant love of power—represents a pitiful spectacle which recalls the worst periods in the history of the See of Constantinople.

From "Orthodox Word", vol. 8, no. 4 (45), July-August 1972, pp. 166-168, 174-175.

Human Enhancement and the Quest for Perfection

By: Fr. John Schroedel

I spoke recently with a Greek Orthodox innovator in the field of space travel. He expressed respect for his church, but also spoke of a deep disconnect he feels between church life and the technological realities he deals with every day. He wasn’t sure how the two worlds fit together. His main impression of Orthodoxy was that it was against things such as stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. He felt that if the Church was interested in science at all, it was mostly concerned with obstructing progress.

We are living in a time of incredible possibility. Humans have always used technologies as an aid in achieving goals, but there is a characteristic difference between what was possible in the past and a breed of technologies that is now becoming available. We are no longer talking about standard engineering problems, business systems, or traditional forms of psychiatry and medicine. The power of our emerging technologies is such that they touch our lives is a much deeper, more inward way. They promise and deliver powerful new ways of enhancing and transforming human life.

Technologies for Improving Human Performance

In 2001, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce sponsored a workshop entitled, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance,” in order to focus on the ways in which advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (abbreviated NBIC) could be brought together to create powerful new civilian and military applications. (The report is available online at the Converging Technologies site.)

With a fervor akin to that of an arms race, workshop participants called for “a national research and development priority area on converging technologies focused on enhancing human performance.” The report’s overview gives an idea of some of the outcomes envisioned:

Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, fundamentally new manufacturing processes and improved products, revolutionary changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group efficiency, highly effective communication techniques including brain-to-brain interaction, perfecting human-machine interfaces including neuromorphic engineering for industrial and personal use, enhancing human capabilities for defense purposes, reaching sustainable development using NBIC tools, and ameliorating the physical and cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind.

This may seem like an ambitious agenda, but it’s worth noting that the workshop specifically focused on results that seemed feasible within the next 10–20 years. Many of these technologies have been on the horizon for a long time. For example, more than thirty years ago, in his 1972 book Man into Superman, Robert Ettinger wrote, "It is clear that genetic engineering will produce radical alterations in a very few centuries at most. Change will not be gradual, but explosive; we are on the verge of a sharp discontinuity in history." We are much further along than we may think!

The desire to improve human nature has been around since ancient times, but now—with new and more effective means—we experience it as something almost within our grasp. With these means at our disposal, questions such as, “How do we choose which enhancement technologies to adopt?” or “Should we try to change human nature, and to what end?” become particularly urgent.

It is true that the Church often gives guidance by setting down “fences,” making contrary statements when clear lines have been crossed. But it is important that we not stop there. We need to offer a compelling and robust vision of human flourishing that can capture peoples’ hearts, minds, and imaginations.

My purpose here is not so much to address particular issues, but to begin to articulate a vision within which the evaluation of these technologies becomes possible. My approach is not philosophical so much as a meditation on the central revealed kernel of the Christian faith. A careful reading of the Bible and the Orthodox Tradition reveals that the answers are often there, lurking just beneath the surface.

Death and Transcendence

For many years I’ve been following a movement known as "transhumanism." It has matured from its more sci-fi beginnings, and now, through the World Transhumanist Association, brings together a wide variety of respected scientists, industry leaders, and academics. A central purpose of this movement is to work towards “redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging” (from the Transhumanist Declaration, 1998).

Transhumanists are enthusiastic about the potential for technology to overcome not only the difficulties of human life, but also and most especially the problem of human mortality. They talk about freezing our bodies now (cryogenics) in order to have them thawed out in the future, when medical science is able to cure whatever ails us; or replacing the body with a different “material substrate”—scanning brains and uploading human consciousness onto a chip—in order to extend mental “life” indefinitely.

Anyone who has experienced Pascha can certainly relate to this enthusiasm for the defeat of death, which we understand to be “the last enemy that will be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We all want to live forever, but, if we listen closely to what transhumanists are saying, it soon becomes clear that traditional Christians and transhumanists have two very different perspectives.

Increasing our powers of performance, our mental and physical abilities, may be nice, but it still does not solve the most pressing of all issues: death lurks just around the corner for each one of us. St. Gregory of Nyssa expresses this well in On the Soul and the Resurrection:

We see before us the whole course of human life aiming at one thing—how we may continue in this life; indeed it is for this that houses have been invented by us to live in; in order that our bodies may not be weakened in their environment by cold or heat. . . . In fact all thought about how we are to go on living is occasioned by the fear of dying. Why is medicine so honored amongst men? Because it is thought to carry on the combat with death to a certain extent by its methods.

St. Augustine of Hippo also touches on this in his City of God:

But even the righteous man himself will not live the life he wishes unless he reaches that state where he is wholly exempt of death, deception, and distress, and has the assurance that he will forever be exempt. This is what our nature craves, and it will never be fully and finally happy unless it attains what it craves.

One of the most puzzling arguments for the transhumanists is the defense of mortality, or “finitude,” offered by many Christian and other conservative bioethicists. This defense was made famous by Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Bioethics Council, who once wrote, “To argue that human life would be better without death is to argue that human life would be better without being human. . . . The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not.”

From an Orthodox perspective, the issue is not so much that human nature is something static, needing to be defended or protected from any change—St. Gregory of Nyssa’s dictum, “Perfection for a creature is progress,” can be endorsed by both transhumanists and Christians. But for us, finitude is connected to a whole range of understandings about the human person and the character of God. Only in light of these understandings does a defense of finitude make sense.

From the earliest chapters of the Bible, humanity is faced with two fundamental options: Do we answer the serpent’s call to become god without God, or do we, through obedience, eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in the Garden? Leon Kass, in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, finds a similar distinction in the biblical encounter between Israel and Egypt. He writes:

Egypt, via divination, magic, technology, and sophisticated administration, does not so much defer to nature as it seeks to control her—seeks to master change and time. Whether one looks at the change-denying practice of shaving the face and head, or at the dust-to-dust-denying practice of embalming and mummification of the dead, or at the practices of divination and magic practiced by Pharaoh’s wise men, one finds abundant evidence of the Egyptian efforts to smoke out and outsmart the ways of nature.

The ancient historian Herodotus mentions the Egyptians’ legendary zeal for medicine (“The whole land is full of doctors . . . each doctor is a doctor for one disease and no more”), and many of the biblical authors are aware of this too. Jeremiah 46:11 turns this zeal on its head in a dire prophecy addressed to the “daughter of Egypt”: “In vain you will use many medicines; / You shall not be cured.”

The problem with the Egypt depicted here is not the use of medicine to heal and assist human life, but a culture  being so zealous for transformation by means of technology and medicine that it forgets the deeper, spiritual dimensions of health. Kass writes:

In its highly successful efforts to make the world safe and comfortable for human life, Egypt places its trust in technology and administration; it pays scant attention to ruling the unruly hearts and minds of men. Accordingly, it produces a fake Eden, a lush and prosperous garden with no knowledge of God and with human relations that conduce not to human self-rule under law but, rather, to despotism and slavery, with one man promoted as a god above all the others. In Egypt, man is not just an image of God; man—or at least one man—is capable of crossing the line and becoming altogether a god.

Israelite law, with its principles for communion with God, shows us another way. Moses pronounces, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). For Israel, life and death are defined in spiritual terms. Communion with God, who is Himself the source of life, brings life and good things, while evil and death result from His absence.

For Christians, too, death is more of a spiritual problem than a physical one. It is only after Adam’s transgression that humanity falls into a spiritual death, where sickness and mortality are as inevitable as labor pains and vexing work. The depth of the Fall is manifest most fully in the light of redemption, after Christ has come to bring eternal life, ushering in a new age that will not be fully manifest until the Judgment.

Within this framework of salvation history, death becomes the privileged locus of our transfiguration. According to St. Maximus the Confessor:

Christ converted the meaning of death for us . . . the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin, which in turn mystically leads that person to divine and unending life. . . . For if sin maintains death as a weapon to destroy human nature in those who, with Adam, keep sin active, how much more will human nature boast death as a weapon to destroy sin in those who realize righteousness through faith in Christ!

For those who weep in this world over our personal and communal separation from God, an immortality in this life would be a kind of undead existence. As St. Augustine wrote in City of God: “If a man passes through a more extended period of time on this road to death, his progress is no slower; he merely has a longer journey.” For this reason, God summoned the angel to bar the way to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve had eaten from the other tree—lest they eat of it and become immortal in the state of sin and death (Genesis 3:22–24).

We don’t deny the horror of death, but, for Christians, the sting of the first death is radically qualified by the real possibility of the second. Death is the horizon before which our lives in this world are played out. It is not the end, but a eginning. In light of eternity, physical mortality is a small issue in contrast to a life of separation from God. We ache for eternal life defined and shaped by our relationship to our Creator. John of the Cross expressed this beautifully in his “Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God”:

I no longer live within myself
and I cannot live without God,
for having neither him nor myself
what will life be?
It will be a thousand deaths,
longing for my true life
and dying because I do not die.

The Resurrection of the Body

The icons in our churches depicting transfigured saints give us a glimpse of the perfection we seek—a perfection that includes the body. Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead” (Nicene Creed). Traditional practices such as burial, the veneration of relics, and the involvement of the body in prayer bear witness to this. As creatures made in the image of God, we understand our bodies to be good, even if they have become corrupt after the Fall, disfigured by disordered passions. The physical frailty and deformity we now endure underscore our dependence on Christ, but they also point us forward to the time when everything lacking will be restored, and the original perfection destined for humanity will once again be ours.

Our body is a gift from God, something given and entrusted to us. It is not our own; we are not our own, but belong to God. When our flesh returns to the dust, we can say with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, / And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; / Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

This attitude is at odds with a radical project of human re-engineering, in which the body tends to be viewed as a mere machine, composed of inanimate and unenchanted matter—something to be engineered and improved on in order to increase performance, reliability, and longevity. Some technology enthusiasts, many transhumanists among them, view the body with disdain and talk eagerly about the potential for a new, better “material substrate” to take its place.

Just as with our embrace of death, so also with the resurrection of the body, we risk appearing as crazy as our beloved “fools for Christ” to those who mistake our vision of transcendence for conservatism.

Looking Ahead

Technological progress is not spiritual progress. One answer to the space enthusiast I mentioned earlier is that the Church is happy to see advances in technology as long as the means and goal are moral and do not impair our communion with God. Even as Christians enjoy the fruits of new technologies, we understand that the real journey of transcendence is not outer, material, or technological but inner, spiritual, grounded in obedience and communion.

Whether a particular treatment or application is appropriate will depend a great deal on where it takes us—whether it helps draw us closer to God or drives us away from Him—and what means are used to get there. It is not always or often wrong to pursue the goals of health and wealth, longevity and well-being. The truth is much more subtle than that.

The vision of death and resurrection outlined here doesn’t so easily yield concrete principles for evaluating particular technologies, but it does give us an idea about the kinds of questions to ask:. Does a particular technology, and our use of it, aid us in our endeavor or create new obstacles to our salvation? Does it respect the integrity of the human person, made in the image of God, who has a unique vocation and a horizon of immortality? Does it treat the body as God’s temple or merely as something to be despised and left behind?

As we look ahead to a "brave new world," with all its promises and perils, we can expect the moral issues surrounding these emerging technologies to become more complex as we become increasingly immersed in them. Ready-made answers will almost certainly be insufficient for the majority of decisions we will face. And yet, with a solid theological understanding of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, our questions will have the power to illuminate the path ahead.

Rev. John Schroedel is a Research Fellow at the American Orthodox Institute. He assists at Christ the Savior Church (OCA) in downtown Chicago. He also serves as the Orthodox campus chaplain at the University of Chicago, where he is working on his Ph.D. in Religious Ethics.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 29 No. 3, Fall 2007. Visit AGAIN online at Conciliar Press.