Heresy vs. Hope: Dr. Peter Bouteneff on “Two Texts on Ecumenicism”


Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, associate professor of dogmatic theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary offers some reflection on the recent statement from the Church of Greece about ecumenism (Greek clergy circulate document on ‘pan-heresy of ecumenism’).

Dr. Bouteneff writes: Some of you have corresponded with me about the recent “Confession Against Ecumenism” emanating from the Orthodox Church of Greece. The news report about that document came one day before a second report about Archbishop Anastasios of Albania’s address to the assembly of the Conference of European Churches. It was impossible not to notice (and comment upon) the differences between the two texts.

Listen here:

Dr. Bouteneff is author of: Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, and Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma And Truth (Foundations Series, Bk. 3).


  1. A line from the”Confession of Faith against Ecumenism”:

    “The only way our communion with heretics can be restored is if they renounce their fallacy and repent.”

    Is this something that Dr. Bouteneff said as Executive Secretary of the WCC Faith and Order Commission? Does he say this as a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the NCC?

    If not, why should Orthodox Churches care about or support anything else he has to say?

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    “Why should Orthodox Churches care about or support anything that he (Dr. Bouteneff) has to say?” … or is it why should anyone care about and support what Joe says that the Orthodox Churches should care about and support? See my point?

    You are going to have to do better than issue blanket condemnations Joe. Dr. Bouteneff supported his points. Now support yours.

  3. Richard Barrett :

    What’s interesting about this is that I think I saw Dr. Bouteneff here in Athens at Agia Irini either last Sunday or the Sunday before… At the very least, it was somebody who looked a lot like him.

  4. Peter Bouteneff :

    That was me, Richard! I was in Athens with my family, and attended Liturgy for two weeks running at Agia Irini. It would have been good to talk. Also, had I known then about the Confession Against Ecumenism, I would have liked to have a conversation with some of the signatories while in Greece.

  5. Dear Dr. Bouteneff,

    I appreciated the conclusion of Your presentation above, which validated the differences in the worldview of Orthodox living in different circumstances. These circumstances, however, are external and, inasmuch as they define us, we are shown to be fleshly men, not spiritual – because, while matter is everchanging and diverse, there is but One unchanging Holy Spirit. If we were spiritual, we would be of one mind, of one heart – I wish this comes to be!

    Here are the only words of archbishop Anastasios’ of Albania which You have quoted in the above presentation, and which, if I may presume this from Your summation, form the gist of his speech in question:

    “There is hope when we resist all forms of violence and racism, when we defend the dignity of every human person… There is hope when we insist on the obligation for unselfish solidarity between people and peoples. When we fight also for the unfeigned respect for the creation… Christians will be unable to make this pronouncement of hope persuasively, if we remain divided.”

    Could these words be uttered by a contemporary religious leader of most of the world’s faiths – save, that is, for designating “us” as “Christians” in the last sentence? Could the listeners possibly remain oblivious of Christ and His One Church amid the sea of “gods” and the ocean of “churches” competing for their attention?

    Perhaps there is a direct relation between the dearth of verbal confession of Orthodox Christianity here and its superabundance in the “Confession” – they might even depend on each other. We live amid contextualized extremes, badly in need of the decontextualized middle path, the Royal Highway.

  6. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Dr. Bouteneff made the point in his podcast that the Orthodox cultures derive great benefit that there are relatively unchallenged from other Christian communions and can thus focus their creativity and efforts in ways that immigrant nations like the US cannot. He also pointed out however, that the interchange between American Orthodoxy and orther Christian communions has benefits of its own that we should not discount. I agree with this completely.

    When I lived in Greece for a year I worked at a parish, and like most parish work, the work just grew and grew. It was in Illioupoli, the poorer part of Thessaloniki, where the parents could not afford to send their children to the frontesterion — the after school where Greek children learned foreign languages. (In Greece, school kids learn languages in place of playing sports every day.) So we (my wife and myself) started an informal school in the parish.

    That developed into a lecture series for teens — summer camp type of stuff like rock and roll music, etc. It took really no preparation whatsoever. It was so well received that the series grew. Soon it encompassed adults, and the highlight was one on American cults. The Greeks just could not reconcile why America exported this nonsense (and sometimes garbage) yet so many Americans seemed, well, normal. I already had a background in this anyway and after some research and preparation, gave the lecture. 300 people attended, including the Bishop and all the clergy in the Diocese (the Bishop made attendance for the priests mandatory).

    The response was overwhelming. It still puzzled me though why there was such good response. Asking a priest about it later he told me why. He said that in Greece, the Church does not really have to engage culture (this was almost 15 years ago). It just goes along relatively unchallenged. You American priests, he said, know so much more than we do about how to handle the problems people face like drugs, how to teach kids about secular and popular music, and things like that.

    So the American challenge has its benefits as well. Yes, we limp along sometimes, and we especially don’t have the resources that the Orthodox countries have. But, like the nun at Ormelia Monastery told me once when I was lamenting the weaknesses all too apparent in America: “Yes, but you do have Christ.” Some things we get right. Sometimes we even do them better.

  7. Fr. Johannes,

    My points? Here are some of them:

    The Church’s strict stance opposite heretics springs from true love and sincere concern for their salvation, and out of Her pastoral care that the faithful are not carried away by heresies.

    Whosoever loves, reveals the truth and does not leave the other in a falsehood; otherwise, any love and agreement with him would only be counterfeit and false.

    There is such a thing as a good war and a bad peace. “…for a praiseworthy war is superior to a peace that separates one from God,” says Saint Gregory the Theologian.

    And Saint John the Chrysostom recommends: “If you should see devoutness vitiated, do not prefer the harmony of a truth, but stand fast to the death… betraying the truth nowhere.”
    And elsewhere, he recommends with emphasis: “Do not acknowledge any illegitimate dogma that has the pretext of love.”

    This stance of the Fathers was also adopted by the major defender and confessor of the Orthodox faith against the Latins, Saint Mark of Ephesus, who concluded his own Confession of Faith in Florence with the following words:

    “All the teachers of the Church, all the synods and all the divine Scriptures exhort us to keep away from those with other beliefs, and to refrain from communion with them. Therefore, am I to disregard them all, and follow those who under the pretense of a manufactured peace strive for union? Those, who have counterfeited the sacred and divine Symbol (Creed) and who introduced the Son as the second cause of the Holy Spirit? … May this never happen to us, O benevolent Paraclete (Comforter), and may I never fall away from my own duteous thoughts, but, by following Your teaching and the blessed men who were inspired by You, may I be added to my fathers, by bringing in, if nothing else, this: piety.”

    Yes, I know that this is straight out of the Confession of Faith against Ecumenism. I’m a lay signatory to it and so the Confession confesses for me.

  8. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Well, sure, but I don’t think you would find anyone who disagrees with these teachings. The question is how to apply them. That’s where the rubber hits the road.

  9. Peter Bouteneff :

    Re: #5

    “Could these words be uttered by a contemporary religious leader of most of the world’s faiths – save, that is, for designating “us” as “Christians” in the last sentence? Could the listeners possibly remain oblivious of Christ and His One Church amid the sea of “gods” and the ocean of “churches” competing for their attention?

    “Perhaps there is a direct relation between the dearth of verbal confession of Orthodox Christianity here and its superabundance in the “Confession” – they might even depend on each other.”

    A good point. The bits of Abp. Anastasios’s address that I did quote weren’t all that representative of his contribution either on that day, nor certainly of the totality of his work in the ecumenical arena. Otherwise, it would be not just disappointing but irresponsibly weak. The point I was trying to make about him in this podcast was very broad, and there’s definitely more to be said about the explicitly Orthodox character of his, and others’, contributions.

    I’m getting a lot of other good comments and questions by e-mail (directly through Ancient Faith Radio), and I will probably do a follow-up podcast. Many thanks.

  10. Re: “That’s where the rubber hits the road.”

    Or where the car skids off the track.

  11. Michael Bauman :

    Joe, here’s the rub. I know many Protestants who love Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Savior, who recognize Him as fully God and fully man–one of the Holy Trinity. Some even give veneration to Mary as the Mother of God. How are they heretics?

    I have much more trouble with the RCC than with many Protestants who are sincere in their faith, have an active communion with Jesus and have never been taught the full truth by anyone. We need to address specific heretical ideas and practices rather than condemning everyone out of hand.

    I fail to see the love in such broad brush condemnation. I see hypocritical triumphalism–just another excuse to refuse to actually engage and preach the Gospel, especially to we barbarian Americans.

    By the same token I have no patience with mealy-mouthed twisting of the truth to accomodate folks who are busy diving off the deep end theologically.

    Christianity is personal in a way nothing else is because Jesus is Person. Christianity is communal as nothing else is because of the loving communion of the Holy Trinity extended to us by our Lord’s Incarnation, sacrifice on the Cross and subsequent Resurrection.

  12. George Michalopulos :

    Michael, you speak for me. I am tired of Orthotriumphalism. I agree, such hateful talk is just an excuse to retire to the comfort of our quaint little ethnic ghettos. And I say this as someone who is unalterably opposed to ecumenical dialogue a la NCC/WCC.

  13. Michael Bauman :

    George, we need to speak plainly and specifically from the depth of Holy Tradition. Those who have ears to hear….

    By and large, our bishops refuse to do that. That means that we must.

    The Church’s definition of a heretic, as I understand it, is someone who persists in teaching untruth after they have been confronted with the error of their teaching and refused to repent. That is why I have more trouble with the RCC. Protestants don’t know any better. Orthotriumphalism is just as great, possibly a greater heresy than anything the Protestants believe precisely because it is contrary to Holy Tradition and the Apostolic faith coming from folks who are supposed to be ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’.

    We are the Church only when we open the doors and invite everyone to share the Apostolic faith with which we have been intrusted without apology or arrogance.

  14. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Someone needs to do a study of how the term “heretic” is used in the tradition. I don’t mean how some Orthodox Bishop, monk, or lay person uses the term; I mean how it is used specifically in conciliar decisions. I don’t think we have the liberty to label those who hold teachings contrary to Orthodox teaching as heretics unless they are first in the Church, and even then the term is only used for Bishops and other high leaders.

    Further, I think we have to preserve the distinction between false teachings and those who hold them. If conciliar decrees hold that some teachings are false (heretical), they do not brand or castigate those who hold them as heretics. To our mind one might flow logically into the other, but this is a conclusion they never made, at least in their official decrees, which indicates that perhaps important pastoral concerns guided them and thus should guide us as well.

    Using this term promiscuously is irresponsible I think. Not all who hold ideas contrary to Orthodox teaching are heretics unless they specifically seek to undermine Church doctrine, that is, unless they hold positions of authority in the Church and claim to speak in the name of the tradition. Roman Catholics don’t do that. Neither do Protestants.They cannot simply because they are not Orthodox.

    One more thing. Michael, I value what you write but “Orthotriumphalism” is not a teaching. It’s merely an arrogant posture and thus cannot really be considered a heresy. Granted, we have our share of triumphalism in Orthodoxy, but who really tolerates it? Usually the triumphalists misapply the canons against paganism to non-Orthodox Christians in our time thereby speaking for the tradition while not really understanding it. But arrogance is a tough nut to crack so most people tire of talking with the triumphalists after a while and just ignore them.

  15. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Hans, I understand what you say and I probably got too polemical in the other direction–but (there’s always a but…): there is a false idea of the Church embodied in much of what I have heard and seen written from the triumphalist stand point. I’m not sure that false eccelsiology really qualifies as heretical or not. However, it can, it seems to me, impact a person’s salvation. In any case, the understanding of the terms heresy, heretic and heretical is important–they should not be over used.

    The distinction you bring, that they can only be applied when founded upon specific decisions of the Church to those in the Church is quite right IMO. Phylitism and chiliasm are two which have been specifically identified. There is a great deal of the current posture of many Orthodox hierarchs that seem to me to verge on such known heresies. Again, we have to do better ourselves before we can have any real authority.

    The clear difference between a Christian/Pagan choice and a variety of Chrisitan understandings needs to be considered as well. To me it is yet another reason why we need to work for Orthodox unity in North America so we can address the theological issues together and not piece-meal.

  16. George Michalopulos :

    Michael, you hit the nail on the head: the ethnic jurisdictional bishops who persist in phyletism are FAR more dangerous to the Church than even those who persist in ecumenism, because they are leading us down the road to schism. I believe it was Chrysostom who said that “not even martyrdom can erase the stain of schism.”

    Ultimately this is all tied in with heresy in that Orthotriumphaslism + phyletism causes administrative disunity which inevitably lead to schism.

    Why do I say this? Because there is no conciliar sanction against a particular jurisdiction that takes it upon itself to do goofy things. I can readily see a day in which in some jurisdictions 1) priests can remarry, 2) Freemasons are communed, 3) girls are allowed to serve in the Altar, 4) homosexuality is not condemned (thereby leading to liturgical sanction for civil unions), 5) cremation is allowed, 6) abortion is not condemned, etc.

    All of the above (except for gay unions) have occurred (albeit in extreme cases) in certain jurisdictions. Precedents have been created.

    Now I’m not saying these precedents are going to be reinforced by their continuance, but given the general drift of society, the pressures will certainly be brought to bear.

    A more nefarious scenario exists: because of our disunity, certain groups will take it upon themselves to infiltrate that jurisdiction which they believe is more sympathetic and eventually force the issue (whatever that issue is for them). At that point, their aberration from ecclesial norms will become normative and it will be up to the rest of Orthodoxy to condemn it and the jurisdiction which allows and/or promotes it. Hence, the breaking of communion.

    I know this is extreme but it’s certainly a viable scenario.

  17. Re: “How are they heretics?”

    Let’s look at another Orthodox versus heresy happening in the news.

    Metropolitan Jonah recently told a group of Anglicans,”Calvinism is a condemned heresy,” knowing full well that many within that jurisidiction hold to this heresy. Holding to this “heresy” prevents them from being in communion with the Orthodox Church.

    The Dictionary of Orthodox Terminology on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese defines: Heresy. (Gr. “new and personal belief or idea”). The denial or rejection of a revealed dogma or belief accepted and professed by the Church. An individual who begins a heresy is a heretic and is excommunicated.

    Metropolitan Jonah challenged these Protestants to give up their heretical beliefs and to stop being heretics so that there could be a possibility of them becoming Orthodox Christians.

    How are they heretics? They hold to heretical beliefs.

  18. “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”
    – 1 Corinthians 11:18

    “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”
    – 1 John 2:19

    Does anyone see “hypocritical triumphalism” in the above?

    Since the time beginning of the Church heresies (i.e. heretics) have arisen to peel off those who are not “approved” or do not “belong to us.” Why should we expect to be immune to this evil in modern times?

    The reaction to the “Confession Against Ecumenism” in the body of the Orthodox Church is another manifestation of this battle with two sides beginning to form against each other, those who support the Confession and those against it. this battle, in this time has to be fought.

    There is no “triumphalism” in this document. Underlying the strength and solidity of the confession is sadness and grief that such a statement even has to be made during these evil times in which we are living.

    This ancient truth is just as true now as then:

    “Believe me children, heresies and schisms have done nothing for the Holy Church except to make us love the Lord and each other less than before.” – Abba Palladios

  19. Michael Bauman :

    Joe, they are heretics because Met. Jonah says so? Wow, I thought you had trouble with the cannonicity of the OCA and now you are appealing to their hierarch to support your argument? Let’s go back to the specifics as must be done in each and every case

    1. Jesus Christ is Lord, God and Savior
    2. Jesus Christ is one of the Holy Trinity
    3. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.
    4. Mary is the Mother of God

    Would you agree that anyone who holds these doctrines is Christologically sound?

    Are they then heretics on the grounds of their eccelsiology? If they are, I return to my prior statements that the eccelsiolgy being propogated by many Orthodox hierarchs is hardly better. Should we not see to our own house first, the veritable forest of logs sprouting from our own eyes?

    Are they perhaps heretics on the basis of their soteriology? If so, have they ever once been taught by the Church what is true? Have they consciously denied the teaching of the Church? You simply cannot know that about a whole group of people. Was Jesus lying when he spoke in John 3 of salvation as a matter of being baptized and accepting Him? Perhaps there is a secret teaching that only the Orthodox know?

    The fact of the matter is that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not limited in their salvific work to the communion of the Orthodox Church.

    BTW where and when was Calvinism condemned as a heresy? What exactly is the meaning of Calvinism(there are not many full-blooded Calvinists out there you know)?

    There is an heretical even a blasphemous mind in which we all live. We are all under its sway to some degree. Just saying we’re right, your’re wrong does no good. Separating ourselves artifically from each other by criteria that make no difference to salvation is wrong.

    George is quite right in his list of practices that have been approved ‘in the Church’. Worse yet, many ordinary folks who don’t have influence are but under the full strictness of the cannons.

  20. George,

    Re: “A more nefarious scenario exists: because of our disunity, certain groups will take it upon themselves to infiltrate that jurisdiction which they believe is more sympathetic and eventually force the issue (whatever that issue is for them). At that point, their aberration from ecclesial norms will become normative and it will be up to the rest of Orthodoxy to condemn it and the jurisdiction which allows and/or promotes it. Hence, the breaking of communion.”

    Sounds suspiciously like a warning against heretics infiltrating the Church!

    George, check out the section of the Confession that begins with:

    “The path is now open for the adoption, the shaping and the development within the sphere of the Orthodox Church, of the initially Protestant invention – and now with Papal acceptance – heresy of Ecumenism; this pan-heresy, which adopts and legalizes all heresies as ‘churches’ and insults the dogma of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Now developed, taught and imposed by Patriarchs and bishops is the new dogma regarding the Church, a new ecclesiology. According to this, no Church is entitled to demand for itself exclusively the character of a catholic and true Church. Instead, each one of them is a piece, a part, and not the entire Church; they all together comprise the Church….

    “All the boundaries that the Fathers had set have been torn down; there is no longer a dividing line between heresy and Church, between truth and fallacy.”

    It looks like you might have more in common with these “ethnic bishops” than you realize or maybe it’s just another case of, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

    What will it take to get you to sign the Confession today?

  21. Michael,

    I just used the words of your own Metropolitan as example of what “heresy” means today. Perhaps you can direct your answers to him and post his answers here?

    Calvinism was condemned as a heresy in 1638 at the Council of Constantinople.

  22. Michael,

    Forgive me, I just noticed on the “Monks” discussion where you mentioned that you were in the Antiochian Archdiocese so therefore you are under Metropolitan Philip.

    Just ’cause the OCA has grave problems with its ecclesiology doesn’t mean I don’t like it when Metropolitan Jonah speaks in an Orthodox manner to heretics. Go Met. Jonah!


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