“A Brotherly Response to the Second Letter from the Secretary of the North American Conference on Church Unity” was published in Russian in Vera I Razum 17 (September, 1915): 678-689. Translation into English by Priestmonk Alexis (Lisenko) has been made possible by a generous grant from the American Russian Aid Association – Otrada, Inc. This is the second of three letters written by the future first hierarch of the ROCOR to the secretary of the Commission on Faith and Order, which in 1948 became a major component of the Worl Council of Churches.
I had the honor of receiving your letter, filled with sincere faith in Christ and humble tolerance for opposing views, about a month ago, but I had to deny myself the pleasure to thank you in a timely manner until I managed to isolate myself at a certain remote monastery, where people do not disturb me for a whole day.
Your kind letter contains two elements, one dealing with matters of faith and the other with the significance of the conference regarding these matters which has been planned in America. I am in total sympathy with the latter and, of course, I have no doubt that the organizers of this conference were inspired not by any kind of missionary goals for their church’s benefit, but exclusively by those noble and lofty tasks indicated in the appeal of the constituent committee. I have no doubt that certain misunderstandings in various dogmatic definitions of churches can be dispelled with such a tolerant and enlightened attitude to this matter. Therefore, even if I am myself denied the opportunity to put aside for a long period this matter entrusted to me and to set out overseas, I at least bless with total sympathy such a journey of those of my numerous friends, bishops, priests, monks, and laymen who might turn to me for advice in this matter.
Nevertheless, I cannot sin against my conviction and keep from expressing to you also that basic difficulty which the conference must inevitably stumble across if it doesn’t place the solution it is seeking to our inter-confessional or inter-church question on a totally different footing than it was in previous meetings, beginning with the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century.
In my last letter, without touching upon the matter, in essence, I pointed out merely that the Early, or as westerners call it, the undivided Church (although I repeat, the Church was never divided and cannot become divided), uniting within itself both East and West, regarded itself and those who had broken off relations with it in a totally different manner from Protestants and Latins, and in part from the Russian theologians whom you cite. I wrote also that this view of the Early Church about the presence of the redemptive gifts of grace in only one community and the exclusion from them of other communities calling themselves Christian was shared not only by the Church’s flock but also by all heretical communities. Only the question regarding in which community the true Church was found remained debatable, and all other communities were thought of as bearing the Savior’s pronouncement “May it be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” This idea is absolutely definite and was firmly expressed in the dogmatic definitions affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Canon 68 of Carthage, 1 of St. Basil, and 95 of the Sixth), which completely reject the efficacy of grace in the sacraments of both heretics and schismatics.
I tried to refrain completely from indicating any advantages of the Orthodox Church, but rather to simply convince my readers that the worthy work of contemporary Protestant theologians needs either to remove the principle behind the statement “we are returning to the belief of the Church if the Seven Ecumenical Councils,” which, if I am not mistaken, has been adopted by Old Catholics and Episcopalians, or to reject the view that Christ’s Church can, in the fullness of grace, exist simultaneously in different religious communities that haven’t had fellowship among themselves in prayer and sacraments for many centuries.
You, on your part, in expressing recognition of the authority of the Ecumenical Councils seem to be doubting that the idea of the Church’s holiness and the gracelessness of all heretics and schismatics is a doctrine of the entire Church, and you apparently agree to subject only those communities separated from the Church which rejected the divinity and incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ to such a rigorous definition. In such a case only Arians and, if we stretch the point, the followers of Nestorius and Eutychus could be called heretics. But the canons that I pointed out very definitely list not only heretics but also schismatics, such as Cathars and Donatists, who did not distort the teachings of faith at all, but had departed from the Church’s obedience, solely in questions of discipline. Neither were basic dogmas of the faith violated by the Iconoclasts, who were excommunicated at the Seventh Ecumenical Council and placed in the Church into the same position as Arians and Monophysites.
I am not trying to prove at this point that the Church was correct in its attitude toward this matter. I am not rejecting, for now, the Protestant teaching about the invisible church, but I am pointing out the indisputable historical fact of the self-consciousness held by the entire Church in the early days, which was expressed both at the councils and in Church practice with such clarity that it is totally impossible to relax it, as you are doing, with the abstract and generally respectable principle that “we should follow not the dead letter but the spirit.” It can be said, I repeat, that you disagree with the Early Church in this matter and do not recognize its infallibility, but we cannot shut our eyes before its totally definitive doctrines and canons. It did not recognize the sacraments of heretics and schismatics, and, if it sometimes allowed their reception without the formal rites of baptism and ordination, this was done, as the indicated rules express it, with a missionary goal. In one sacrament of penance or in the two sacraments of chrismation and penance new converts were granted the other gifts of grace – baptism, marriage, and ordination. The attempt by western and certain Russian theologians to regard the separation which took place after Photius, not as a heresy or a schism but rather to regard it as heterodoxy, a term unknown to the Church, is, as I have already written, first of all, insincere. You indicate one authoritative name, that of Metropolitan Philaret, but he as well was not always sincere, thanks to his relations with the upper spheres, where marriages were conducted with Protestants and Catholics, something absolutely forbidden by the Ecumenical Councils (canon 72 of the Sixth and others). On the contrary, when he expressed himself without constraint, he affirmed another viewpoint. Thus, in our catechism, which he compiled, the following question appears: “If the Church is one how can the separate Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Russia exist?” As you can see, the author of the catechism recognizes only Orthodox churches as being part of Christ’s Church.
Thus, up to this point in my letter, I have simply been clarifying what I had written in my first letter, i.e. I was proving the impossibility of combining the beliefs of the Church of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils with the conviction that various religious communities not in canonical unity with each other may belong to the Church. Whoever still holds to this conviction must admit that when saying the words of the Creed, “In One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” he implies something different than what was implied by the Early Christians and by those calling themselves Christians up to the sixteenth century.
Now let us continue our discussion. Of course, when I recollect Christ’s words, “May it be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” I am far from implying that heretics and schismatics were no different from heathens. Faith in the Holy Gospels, reverential love for and hope in the Savior, a desire to regard as dust everything except the salvation of one’s soul, the feat of virginity and even of martyrdom – all of this was the lot not only of the Church’s sons but of many heretics as well.
“And in spite of all that, you do not recognize in us the presence of Christ and of grace,” an Armenian, Catholic, or Protestant will ask me, “Am I, who tearfully calls Christ into my heart, like a stranger to Him, as a Jew who regards Him as a deceiver?”
Giving a positive response to such a question would not be in the spirit of the Gospel. For back in the Old Testament Our Lord sometimes revealed Himself to those who weren’t under the Law of Moses, such as Nebuchadnezzar. Balaam, and others. It is difficult to express with full certainty the difference between the grace-filled sanctification of the Church’s progeny through the sacraments and other means on one hand, and the moral perfecting of heretics and schismatics who love Christ, but are alienated from His Church on the other. In the same way, it is difficult to determine the differentiation between the grace-filled gifts provided by the sacraments of baptism, chrismation, and communion, since their catechetical definitions are almost tautological. Scholastic theology attempts to express definitively the difference between the supernatural gift of grace and the natural effect of God’s Word outside the Church’s prayer. But this doesn’t work well. What is, without doubt, is that the difference here is deep and essential. It is clarified in a much better way by teachers of asceticism, but we will not touch upon this matter here, hoping instead to completely convince the reader of the existence of such a profound differentiation through the following example. Imagine a pagan who came to believe in Christ through reading the Bible and the Holy Fathers, but who had not met a single Christian. He glorifies Christ enthusiastically in prayer, devotedly asks his help in fulfilling the Gospel commandments, serves his neighbors with love, and successfully instills in them both his convictions and his virtuous way of life. He establishes a certain discipline among his fellow sympathizers and baptism and communion based on the Gospel. He does not go against the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils in his convictions regarding the attributes of the Holy Trinity. Can you regard him and his community as part of Christ’s Church? Can you regard his sacramental acts to equal those that are performed in the Church? Or, if you meet him, will you say that he must join that Church that you consider to be the true one, for otherwise all of his sacramental acts will be lacking grace? And if such a community declares that, believing correctly, it does not need any new infusion of grace through sanctification and will be content with its inner life as before, you will regard this as a direct renunciation of the Christian Church.
You will say that my analogy is incomplete, that the community in question had its beginnings on its own, without succession. But are those communities whose isolated life had its beginnings with individuals who were solemnly excluded from Church fellowship? This is the case with all communities except for the one that has the right to call itself Christ’s Church. Once again, I am not at this point lodging a claim to consider either our Church or the Latin or Armenian one to be such a Church. But I am asking you once again to read the excerpt from the First Canon of St. Basil the Great and either to admit that only one of the separate religious communities calling itself a church can be such a church, or to reject the principle of desired solidarity with the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
As a sufficient basis for regarding yourselves as members of Christ’s Church, you point to principles different from those that guided the Early Church, i.e. not fellowship in prayer and sacraments but rather the crucial doctrines of incarnation and baptism. I don’t dispute that these are very holy and mandatory for Christians, but what basis will you point to for defining the concept of a son of the Church using these theoretical truths? We won’t repeat that the Creed is said correctly by Monophysites, Monothelites, and Iconoclasts. We will simply point out that the unifying principle you present is just as arbitrary as the main Protestant doctrine (“Believe that you are redeemed by Jesus Christ”), and has even less force since the latter has existed four centuries, while the one you came up with has existed perhaps only four years. How will you respond to the Catholics’ proposal to replace this principle with belief in the infallibility of the Pope or Richlianites, with the acceptance of the moral teaching of the Gospel, or, finally, with some new theologians who will propose to limit themselves to faith in the future life and the resurrection of the dead as a sufficient sign of being sons of the true Church? Why something similar is being proposed by certain Adventist preachers to their readers.
On the contrary, ignorance by a Christian of theological doctrines does not hinder his belonging to the true Church, as long as he would accept the Church’s teachings and sacraments, treasure it as an anchor of salvation, and try to suppress his passions, and open his heart to the action of Christ’s grace. “Nothing would be more unjust in our faith,” says St. Gregory the Theologian, “than if we would consider worthy of salvation and being present in the Church only those who know the dogmas perfectly.”
Christianity or the life of the Church is not a matter of just believing but is a continuous presence in the living union of the Church and Christ. It is impossible to regard oneself as a member of the Church or of Christ’s body without entering into this fellowship union of prayers and sacraments. The Apostle Paul points to unity in sacraments as the most important definitive sign of belonging to Christ’s body: “For us, though many, are one bread and one body, for we all partake of that one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) Alas, we do not partake of one bread with you, and therefore out of the various contemporary confessional communities only one makes up Christ’s body, which must be admitted not only by the followers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils but also by those who believe in the Holy Scriptures. If acknowledgment of the most important doctrines was considered a sufficient condition for being a Church member, would you attempt to prove that the Corinthian perpetrator of incest, whom the Apostle Paul relegated to Satan, believed incorrectly? On the contrary, it is absolutely clear from the Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, as well as from the Second Epistle of Peter and that of Judah, that a person’s belonging to Christ’s body, or else his casting into Satan’s realm is determined not so much by his theoretical convictions, as by his fellowship with the Church, or else by the loss of this fellowship. And this fellowship is meant to be factual, as it is in prayer and sacraments. It’s not just simple like-mindedness.
It saddens me greatly that I have to defend such a viewpoint, which is upsetting to Protestants, but it saddens me even more to see the total fruitlessness of their praiseworthy striving for church unity outside of this cardinal issue. I am not disputing that unbiased discussion of the differences in which trouble you might bring out their inconsequential import or even lead individual communities to renounce one or another false doctrine. But if we would achieve even more success in reconciling our theoretical confessional differences there would not be anything to be especially happy about even then. Let us allow even something impossible – that these differences will be eliminated, that, for example, all confessions will recognize papal infallibility, or, on the contrary, that Catholics will reject this doctrine, or the entire western world will reject the filioque, or on the contrary, the Orthodox will recognize the validity of this insertion. In fact, those acknowledging their previous error and the correctness of the religious community to which they did not belong will have to ask to be received into the true Church as having believed erroneously, in other words, as heretics, or at least as schismatics not belonging in fact to the Church, even if it is determined at the conference that their separation from the Church was not connected to erroneous doctrines. Here is what you write: “The Orthodox Church itself acknowledges that there is a unity among Christians which is based on the sacrament of baptism, and this unity cannot be wiped out and destroyed. The Orthodox Church thinks this way when it declares that other Christian churches exist and that there are Christians who belong to Christ’s mystical body and who have no need for the second initiation.”
Allow me to comment that the matter stands otherwise. I don’t wish to prove anything, but I cannot conceal the fact that the Orthodox Church receives into its fellowship Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans through absolutely the same order as was established by the Sixth Ecumenical Council to receive Arians and Monophysites, that the Greek churches receive those from the Western Churches through threefold immersion and chrismation, and those religious communities having no fellowship with the Church are not called Christian in Church language, which is stated with sufficient clarity in our canons – Canon 6 of Laodicea and 95 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, to be exact. All of this did not hinder either Patriarch Photios or Theodore Balsamon from expressing the most sincere regret over Church divisions, but earlier writers and councils used the same exact expressions regarding those whom you, too, call heretics or schismatics. Take, for example, the Canonical Epistle of the Council of Carthage to the Donatists, Chrysostom’s Exhortation to the Arians, or the letters of St. Cyril, that strong denouncer of Nestorianism, to Nestorius himself. You will not find any terminological difference he from addresses by later writers to Catholics, Protestants, or Russian schismatics. It is natural that in such addresses the term “falling away” is replaced by “division,” and that there is an avoidance of calling the interlocutor a heretic or schismatic or likening him to Arius or Nestorius, but you will still find no essential difference between the Orthodox Church’s attitude toward heretics and its attitude toward western confessions.
I feel that I might bring about a totally mistaken suspicion of having hostile feelings toward Catholics or Protestants and of a concealed lack of sympathy for any attempt toward our unity in faith and prayer. I earnestly ask you to remove such suspicion from your heart. It is not lack love but a most fervent wish for a correct diagnosis, followed by therapy over that spirit of division which afflicts humanity believing in Christ that forces me to call things by their names. If the contemplated conference were to pass unanimously even such a resolution that the true Church is to be found among the Papists or among the Anglicans, while all other confessions must join this church with repentance, although I would not agree with such a ruling I would be much more satisfied by this than by the current situation of this issue, and I would regard the possibility of a final union of all calling themselves Christians to be more likely than currently. If all who believe in Christ would return to the general belief of the early Christians that only one out of the so-called churches can be the true one, then even if the majority of such a church makes an erroneous decision it would be easier for it to correct its error and find the authentic Church than with the current ambiguity and the recognition of some kinds of half-churches, half-graces, half-fellowship, etc.
In conclusion, I must say that although I do not find any connection between Christ’s Final Discourse and His promise regarding the One Shepherd with the hope of uniting European confessions, it is nowhere stated that their division must last till the Second Coming. It is clear from the predictions of the Savior and of the Apostles Paul, Peter, and Jude that many heresies will spread out at that time and will trample upon the true faith. But there is nothing impossible in having these lamentable circumstances arise after many years, or even after many centuries, after the conversion of all contemporary confessions into one True Church. Therefore I welcome with joy any attempt to exchange thoughts on the question of our divisions, but I would consider it essential to bring into the conference program the question of whether any difference is being perceived between contemporary divisions between believers in Christ and the separations from the Church of early heresies and schisms occurring before Photios. This question need not be at the head, so as not to sharpen the debate before those gathered establish possible solidarity regarding those questions which aren’t resolved completely by scholastic theology, and whose examination would reveal before contemporary theologians totally new perspectives of religious thought on the basis of which conference members would agree on the extremely conditional and ambiguous character of those concepts which from the time of Anselm and Aquinas were regarded as doctrines taken from the Book of Revelation.
I have in mind the Satisfaction Theory and the question it does not resolve of why do Christ’s sufferings make be better and nearer to God, as well as the question of faith and good works which is resolved by something in the middle between them (Gal. 5:22-25 – what matters is not works but the soul’s disposition). Then there is the doctrine of primeval sin, which in its scholastic interpretation attributes generational revenge to God, which is repugnant even for an impartial earthly judge. I have in mind the rejection of the Christian teaching on sin, on redemption and on liberation from the principles of Roman and feudal law, which had practically a greater influence upon Middle Age theology than Holy Scripture and the works of the Holy Fathers. Russian academic theology of the seventeenth century was subjected to this influence as well to a great degree through Poland and Kiev, but, amazingly, the boldest Protestants were not able to free themselves from it, after they so decisively rejected the authority of the Ecumenical Councils and the early Fathers but did not manage to reject the pagan Aristotle and his Catholic admirers of the Middle Ages.
I must note in general that the reconciliation of historically determined viewpoints is possible only on the basis of ideas that are new or extricated out of oblivion. Thus the reconciliation of Jews with Greeks was based upon the idea of a new spiritual Israel, not on a generational one – or even a generational one, but through spiritual birth, not a fleshly one. May God grant the awaited conference to bring new synthetic perspectives to the theological mindset of Europe and America – ones that are not entirely new but have been forgotten by theological scholasticism. Then we can hope for an opening up of those blind alleys into which various confessions have driven themselves. May God accomplish this through the fervent prayer of all who believe in His Divine Word. Your amazing humility and gentleness of spirit, which you have demonstrated in your letters, is one of the favorable symptoms for the realization of this hope. Your faithful servant and intercessor,