Church Unity and Legitimate Variance, Part II: Two Other Voices

Some thought provoking reflections on Church unity from Wei-Hsein Wan at his blog Torn Notebook. This is the second in what I hope will be a series of essays. The first can be found here: “Church Unity and Legitimate Variance: A Lesson from St. Basil the Great.” I am most impressed that in the essay below is based on the work of Bishop Hilarion of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Well do read and let me know what you think.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Church Unity and Legitimate Variance, Part II: Two Other Voices

First, St. Gregory the Theologian. In one of his orations, he remembers the endeavors of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to hold together the Greek East and the Latin West despite their different approaches to Trinitarian theology:

For as, in the case of one and the same quantity of water, there is separated from it, not only the residue which is left behind by the hand when drawing it, but also those drops, once contained in the hand, which trickle out through the fingers; so also there is a separation between us and, not only those who hold aloof in their impiety, but also those who are most pious, and that both in regard to dogmas of small importance (peri dogmaton mikron), which can be disregarded (parorasthai axion), and also in regard to expressions intended to bear the same meaning.

We use in an orthodox sense the terms “one Essence and three Hypostases”, the one to denote the nature of the Godhead, the other the properties of the Three; the Italians [i.e. Latins] mean the same, but, owing to the scantiness of their vocabulary, and its poverty of terms, they are unable to distinguish between Essence and Hypostases, and therefore introduce the term “Persons”, to avoid being understood to assert three Essences.

The result would be laughable, were it not lamentable. This slight difference of sound was taken to indicate a difference of faith. Then, Sabellianism was suspected in the doctrine of Three Persons, Arianism in that of Three Hypostases, both being the offspring of a contentious spirit. And then, from the gradual but constant growth of irritation—the unfailing result of contentiousness—there was a danger of the whole world being torn asunder in the strife about syllables.

Seeing and hearing this, our blessed one [i.e. St. Athanasius], true man of God and great steward of souls as he was, felt it inconsistent with his duty to overlook so absurd and unreasonable a rending of the word, and applied his medicine to the disease. In what manner? He conferred in his gentle and sympathetic way with both parties, and after he had carefully weighed the meaning of their expressions, and found that they had the same sense, and were in no way different in doctrine, by permitting each party to use its own terms, he bound them together in unity of action. (Oration 21, 35-36; emphasis added)

Of course I haven’t studied the Fathers enough to discover a text like this on my own. Rather, I came across it (together with yesterday’s letter by St. Basil) in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s wonderful book, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Here is Bishop Hilarion’s commentary on the words of St. Gregory:

In the text quoted above, St. Gregory advances several important ideas. First, differences in dogmatic terminology do not necessarily presuppose disagreement in understanding the dogmas themselves. Not all arguments about dogmatic questions reflect differences in faith: many are simply “strife about syllables”. The history of the Church sees many cases where the confession of faith of a certain local Church, translated into a different language or understood in the context of a different theological tradition, was misconstrued, considered heretical, and was rejected by another Church. In this way, many schisms and divisions arose: some of them were later remedied, but some have remained unhealed to the present.

St. Gregory’s second thesis is no less significant: there are “dogmas (teachings) of small importance” about which disagreements are to be tolerated. These are the dogmas that can simply be “disregarded” for the sake of the unity of the Church.

The third point is that not only the “impious” but also the “most pious” separate themselves from the Church for various reasons; for example, in their different understanding of a dogma “of small significance”. These people, one may consider, somehow remain within the Church while being formally separated from it. Thus, not all Christians who are separated from the Church are to be treated as heretics: a schism can often be a result of a mere misunderstanding. Any contemporary theologian who compares the dogmatic traditions of two Churches which are separated from each other must be able to distinguish between what is a heresy, incompatible with the Church’s teaching, what is a disagreement on a “dogma of small significance” that can be “disregarded”, and what is simply “strife about syllables” resulting from misinterpretation or misconception.

If we apply to our present situation what St. Gregory and St. Basil [see Letter 113 in yesterday’s post] have said about their own age, we will see that they were in fact much more “liberal” than the most advanced “ecumenists” of today. Neither Gregory nor Basil regarded the disagreement on the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit as an obstacle for reconciliation among the Churches; nor did they claim that those who did not confess the Spirit as God were outside the Church. Moreover, it was a common practice in the fourth century—indeed, approved by St. Basil—to accept Arians into the Church through repentance, not requiring baptism or chrismation. In our own times some Orthodox say that Roman Catholics, being “heretics”, are outside the Church, and should be rebaptised when received into Orthodoxy. Yet neither Catholics nor Protestants would deny the divinity of the Son of God, as did the Arians, not would they deny the divinity of the Holy Spirit, as did most fourth-century theologians and bishops. And surely the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit is less significant than the question of his divinity. To regard today’s Catholics and Protestants as “pseudo-churches” is totally alien to the spirit of the ancient Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. Their understanding of the divisions among the Churches was much more dynamic and multi-dimensional, and much less rigid. Many divisions between the Churches could be healed if contemporary theologians used the methodology advanced by St. Gregory.

When dealing with the difficult question of Christian divisions, we must also bear in mind that God alone knows where the limits of the Church are. As St. Augustine said, “Many of those who on earth considered themselves to be alien to the Church will find on the Day of Judgement that they are her citizens; and many of those who thought themselves to be members of the Church will, alas, be found to be alien to her”. To declare that outside the Orthodox Church there is not and cannot be the grace of God would be to limit God’s omnipotence and to confine him to a framework outside which he has no right to act. Hence faithfulness to the Orthodox Church and her dogmatic teaching should never become naked triumphalism by which other Christian Churches are regarded as created by the “cunning devices” of people, while the whole world and ninety-nine percent of humankind is doomed to destruction. (The Mystery of Faith, pp. 125-127; emphasis added)

How we need more bishops like these!


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