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AN ORTHODOX LOOK AT THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT
© John S. Romanides
LECTURE IN HONOR OF LEVERET SALTONSTALL, UNITED STATES SENATOR, MASSACHUSETTS,
EDWARD B. HANIFY,ESQ OF ROPES AND GRAY,
BENJAMEN A. TRUSTMAN, ESQ. OF NUTTER, McLENNEN AND FISH.
THE MAIN ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE THIRTY-SIXTH ANNIVERSITY DINNER OF THE NORTHEASTERN REGION OF THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS
APRIL 9, 1964.[ 1 ]
One can distinguish four types of Ecumenical movements today. The one is represented by Communism which seeks political and religious dominion of all peoples. The second is represented by the Christian Ecumenical Movement which seeks religious union alone. The third form is represented by the United Nations which seeks political cooperation at the international level. And the fourth type of Ecumenical movement is represented by such groups as the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Pro Deo Movement which seek the cooperation of Christian, Jewish and other religions for the common good.
The Ecumenical Movement among modern Christians ahs two aspects: the one inherited from her primitive history, the other inherited in the form of her most serious problem from the fifth, eleventh, and sixteenth centuries. From primitive Christian times the Church believed herself to be the New Israel, the New Zion and the New Jerusalem. Old Israel according to the flesh and New Israel by spiritual adoption were believed by Christians to be one single universal nation created by God with the mission of uniting humanity in the true worship and service of Himself. The Church was by her very nature an Ecumenical Movement with an Ecumenical mission.
During the course of her history, however, the Church experienced serious divisions which tended to weaken her effectiveness within and without the Roman Empire. During the fifth century a split took place between the Egyptian, Armenian, Ethiopian and Indian Christians on the one hand and the rest of Christendom. By far the most serious schism in Christianity took place during the eleventh century between the Latin and Greek Churches, a division which paved the way for the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Since the seventh century, relations between the Orthodox of the East Roman Empire and the Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian and Indian Orthodox were on the whole good. They were improved even more when segments of both groups found themselves united under Turkish oppression. It is commonly recognized that differences between the two groups are not of a substantive nature. It is very possible that formal union between the 40 or 50 million Oriental and African Orthodox and the 200 million Greek Orthodox will be consummated in the not too distant future.
In contrast to these prospects, Greek Ortodox relations with Roman Catholics and Protestants are very much complicated by the intricate history of the development of theological and doctrinal Latin provincialisms unknown to the traditions of the ancient Church. The many autocephalous and autonomous apostolic Churches of the East Roman Empire, Central and North Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa remained in doctrine and the practice of piety identical with each other and with the ancient Church. In contrast, Latin theology and practice experienced a special development. Both Roman Catholics and many Protestant historians of dogma claim that this represented vitality and the Roman theologians would add a deeper understanding of the truths of Christianity. The Orthodox saw in the whole Latin development not vitality but deviation and rejected the very idea that the saints in one age could have a deeper understanding of the faith than saints in another. The Greek Fathers would insist on the duty of Christians to use the language of each age to express the teachings of the Church, but this could not be considered a doctrinal development or deeper understanding.
The most important single factor which seriously deteriorated relations between Latin and Greek Christianity during the middle ages was the claim of Latin theologians that they understood the doctrines of the early Greek Ecumenical Councils better than the Greeks themselves. The controversy revolved around the Latin addition of the Filioque clause to the creed - a seemingly harmless statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but also from the Son. The Greeks rejected the addition because it completely contradicted the Trinitarian categories common in the East and incorporated into the discussions and decisions of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, the Council of Alexandria in 362, and the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381. The Latins accepted the decisions of these Greek councils, but without fully understanding the categories dominationg the lengthy debates which provided background. One calls to mind St. Augustine's complaint that he could not understand what the Greeks meant by distinguishing between essence and hypostasis in the Trinity (De Trinitate, v, 8, 10), and this happens to be one pf the foundation stones of Greek Trinitarian theology. When difficulties first arose about the Filioque, the seventh century Greek theologian, St. Maximus the Confessor, calmed Greek suspicions by translating it into Greek categories. At this early stage each side realized that the other was professing the same faith but by the use of different terms. However, the enthusiasm of later Frankish theologians led the West to the claim that the Filioque is not only an admissible way of speaking about the Trinity, but an article of faith necessary for the salvation of the soul. In a council of 809 Charlemagne had his bishops declare an excommunication against anyone who did not accept the Filioque. In reaction to this, the Greeks laid aside St. Maximus translation of the Filioque and joined the Germans in incorporating this theological point into the political power struggle between themselves and the Germans over control of Italy and the Slavic world. The Germans won the struggle in Italy and the Greeks won most of it among the Slavs. The result has been that the Church and Europe have been badly divided ever since.
In the second quarter of the fourteenth century the Turks were preparing for what proved to be their final assault on the walls of Constantinople. As was normal at that time the East Roman Greek Christians appealed to the West Roman Latin Christians to help stem the tide of Islam. The answer was affirmative, but on condition that the Greeks make their submission to the Papacy. In 1437 the Council of Ferrara-Florence was called to bring about the union of the Churches. The Filioque was debated. The Greeks remembered St. Maximus the Confessor and offered his interpretation of the Filioque as basis of union. However, it was too late. Latin theologians had been engaged for eight hundred years in an effort to prove that the Greeks of the period of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils taught the Filioque and they rejected the interpretation of St. Maximus. Now Roman Catholics are bound to the Filioque as infallible doctrine by the decisions of two of their own Ecumenical Councils (of Lyons 1274 and Florence 1437-1439). On the other hand, the Orthodox in the person of St. Maximus the Confessor are able to speak about the Trinity in two sets of categories without any compromise to their fundamental beliefs. Thus, one of the basic questions will be whether each side will be willing to recognize the right of the other to remain faithful to its own terminological tradition and at the same time to acknowledge in the other's language one's own faith.
Since the Council of Florence, when the Pope of Old Rome, Eugene IV, played host to the Ecumenical Patriarch of New Rome, Joseph II, no meeting between the bishops of the two Romes had taken place till the encounter last January between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. Since the eleventh century, relations between Roman Catholics and Orthodox throughout central Europe have been comparably as bad as relations between Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation. Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras are in the process of setting up a dialogue between the Churches. The Filioque is only one of several essentials matters of faith which separate Roman Catholics and Orthodox. The ways of compromise and submission are as impossible today as they always have been. However, there is a way of St. Maximus, of first understanding accurately the other side's faith and then translating it into one's own categories in order to see whether the faith is the same. Orthodox theologians have been watching with keen interest the developments at Vatican II. Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI have thrown open the doors to many possibilities. No one expects immediate results, but a spirit of openness toward the future is an established fact.
It was quite normal that Orthodox-Protestant relations were on the whole good from the beginning, with the exception that Protestants had a natural aversion to any aspects of Orthodox faith and practice which resembled that of Roman Catholicism. In their anti-Roman Catholic polemics, Protestant theologians became accustomed to searching for all those elements in Christian history which led to the corruption of the original and pure form of the Christian Faith. Since the Orthodox have an obvious common ancient and early medieval history with the Roman Catholics they were extended the great honor of being included in Protestant histories which claimed to demonstrate how the Greeks with their philosophy corrupted the simple faith of the Bible.
Perhaps the most popular Protestant approach has been the insistence that St. Paul is the ultimate in the Christian understanding of the message of Christ, and the only Father in the ancient Church who had a real understanding of St. Paul was St. Augustine, and the only ones who understood both St. Paul and St. Augustine were the Reformers. Since the Roman Catholics also had a claim on St. Augustine, the quarrel between Catholics and Protestants resolved a great deal around him. As a spectator to this debate the Orthodox is both amused and confused. The Greek Fathers never paid any attention to St. Augustine but they did pay an enormous amount of attention to the theology of St. Paul. After listening patiently to this debate over St. Augustine and St. Paul, the Orthodox is amazed when he reads St. Augustine himself who claims that he abandoned his attempt to write an interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans because of its difficulty.
In spite of all this, Protestant and Orthodox relations took a significant turn toward better understanding in different stages. Contacts with Lutherans and Anglicans were generally made with respect for each other and a desire to get acquainted. Relations with the Calvinists were in the beginning good, but then they engaged for a while in a contest with Roman Catholics to get the Orthodox to take sides in their struggles with each other. The Orthodox entrenched themselves as best as they could against both and the situation deteriorated when both groups sent missionaries into the East, not to convert the Moslems but to capture the Orthodox.
Toward the beginning of the present century contacts between Orthodox and Anglicans increased and, with the conditional recognition of Anglican orders, there were hopes that union would be consummated. However, these hopes proved premature and just a few years ago official talks were again resumed. With the formation of the World Council of Churches, Orthodox-Protestant relations were put on an officially committed basis. As usual the Patriarchate of Constantinople supported the movement with great insight as to its future possibilities in bringing about peace among religious groups. Actually, in 1920 the Patriarchate of Constantinople sent an encyclical to the leaders of all Christian Churches inviting them to set up a pan-Christian organization similar to the United Nations. Since the New Delhi meeting of the World Council of Churches, the Orthodox Churches behind the Iron Curtain have also joined, so that Orthodox participation makes up mote than half of the Christians represented in the organization.
The results of this increased participation were felt for the first time at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order held in Montreal this past summer. Fifty Orthodox theologians, from almost every part of the Orthodox World, met with Protestant delegates and Roman Catholic observers for theological discussions. Of course, there were more disagreements than arguments. However, the agreements were very significant ones on the Nature of the Church, Tradition and Worship. Perhaps the most fruitful event at Montreal was a Protestant-Orthodox consultation before the conference which included fifteen Orthodox. The purpose of the consultation was the exploration of ways and means to get to know each other more fully and a determination of some unexpected similarities which actually do exist in Protestant-Orthodox approaches to certain questions. It was realized that a very basic common study of presuppositions is necessary and important suggestions were made in this direction.
Very significant is the impact the Ecumenical Movement has had on Christian-Jewish relations. The National Conference of Christians and Jews is a vivid testimony of a new spirit of cooperation in our times. The World Council of Churches and Vatican II have shown the desire of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox leaders to help recognize and secure the safety, well-being and equality of the Jewish people throughout the world. Most Christians admit their past mistakes in this regard and look to a future of mutual respect and guarantees of human rights.
However, the Ecumenical Movement which goes by the name of International Communism presents every freedom-loving man with the most serious threat since the beginning of our Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman civilization. It is a grave mistake when people think of this threat and the defense against it as a political, economic and military matter alone. Communism is a negative form of religion and only religion can fight this aspect of it.
The present Sino-Soviet rift is vivid testimony that Russian leadership has recognized the futility of resorting to brute force in the attainment of Communist world dominion. That this may become a permanent habit in Russian political thinking will depend to a great extent on the military might of the United States.
However, military might is not enough for the containment and ultimate defeat of Communism. There are many indications that American military power is not the only factor behind the philosophy of co-existence so dear to Premier Khrushchev. One must take very seriously into account the fanatic and blind confidence which dedicated Communists have that their all-embracing social, economic, political and religious philosophy is the key to the salvation and perfection of human society. By his Hungarian Goulash Manifesto the Premier of the Soviet Union has made very clear his willingness to compete with the capitalist world in the open market of world opinion. It is difficult to believe that the cold war with those nations aligned with the Soviet Union is over. Yet it seems obvious enough that a new kind of war, which is a sequel to the spirit of peaceful co-existence, is upon us.
This new war may be called the 'War of Images'. The Soviet Union seems to feel confident that she is now ready to challenge the West to a beauty contest. We shall probably realize very soon that we are now entering upon the most dangerous phase of our conflict with Communism. This means that many Americans are going to have to wash themselves clean sooner than was anticipated. Civil Rights legislation and the war on poverty are no longer the luxurious ideologies of the few. Beauty contests are not won by those who refuse to take a bath.
However, such a beauty contest will not be the only decisive factor in the conflict. If the Russian Communists are to meet their 1980 deadline for producing the new Soviet man they not only must surmount tremendous agricultural, industrial and political problems, but they must also wipe out the last vestiges of religion. The new man who shall make pure Communism possible cannot be addicted to the psychological weakness of the superstitious religious mind. It is in the light of this goal that the merciless persecution of Jews and Orthodox Christians since 1959 must be studied.
In times of national emergency, when their country is threatened by external foes, it is necessary for the Soviets to relax their efforts against religion since the loyalty of even the religious peoples is needed for the national effort. In the light of this it is clear from the intense persecutions of the last few years that the Soviet Government has been very sincere in its desire for peaceful co-existence with the West. By biting the bait of the politics of co-existence the Western powers have been caught on the hook of helping the Soviets in their effort to wipe out religion, which in actuality is perhaps the strongest single factor which makes the new Soviet man an impossible fiction. As the deadline date of 1980 gets closer and closer, it is quite possible that the war on religion in Russia may take on gigantic dimensions. Religious people in Russia have been undergoing persecutions for forty-five years. They have been tested repeatedly and have proven their mettle.
It is perhaps difficult for some to understand the mind of religious people. Refusal to give up one's faith in times of persecution is the highest form of witness to one's spiritual freedom. For persecutors and for the indifferent, such people are sometimes called religious fanatics. Nevertheless, to these people the beauty contest completely loses its force and significance. This means that if Russian Communism suffers a few more serious setbacks in its war on the religions of Russia, sooner or later the Soviets will have to content themselves with socialism and an inner transformation of Soviet political philosophy may result.