Ah, But What About the Eastern Orthodox?

On one of my older posts, Chris Donato, who is senior associate editor for Tabletalk magazine (put out by R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries), asked:

Briefly, even if one does accept the infallibility of the ecumenical creeds, the “fact” that no ecumencial creed has been formulated since the Great Schism leaves us in kind of a quagmire, no?

I mean, I can affirm apostolic succession as well as the infallibility and thus authority of the 7 ecumenical councils, but what about those later councils? You know, the ones that articulate rather convenient doctrines like papal infallibility or universal jurisdiction (from the Roman see)? Why should they be given the same treatment given their obvious lack of ecumenicity?

Oh, it’s schism “from” the true church, and so the true church left behind can and has formulated ecumenical councils. I see. But I am not convinced.

Good post here, though. Thanks for highlighting what is indeed the core issue.

I have a few responses. First off, Chris, thanks for posting. Second, here are the stakes: either the Catholics or Orthodox are right. Either the earthly head of the Church is Pope Benedict XVI or the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. But either way, there’s some sort of earthly head. Someone who even the other Patriarchs, Archbishops, bishops, and so forth look to for guidance (and perhaps a lot more). I mention the obvious because frequently, Protestants chime in and say (essentially), “Ah, Church history is so confusing on whether Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is right!”

But if that’s true of where you’re coming from, at least hurry into the nearest Orthodox parish! Catholics acknowledge the Orthodox as having true Churches, having Apostolic succession, and the like. Although there are a handful of important issues on which we disagree (issues in which Protestants generally side with Catholics, by the way, like original sin), the Eastern Orthodox Church has historically believed something incredibly close to Catholicism (to the point that we extend Communion to them, since they share our view of the Eucharist, even if they explain it differently). What I’m saying is that regardless of who is right, both the Orthodox and Catholic Church can give you something which no Protestant church can: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The other stuff, the stuff which still wounds the two lungs of the Church, is secondary.

It’s like with any other issue in Patristics: if there are exactly two possible beliefs on an issue from the writings on the Church Fathers, the answer is one of those two. The fact that they disagree with each other doesn’t suddenly make a third (never before heard of) theory plausible. The existence of ancient churches within Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Coptic Orthodoxy, Malankara Mar Thoma Orthodoxy, and the like, hurts our shared desired for ecumenical unity in the Lord. But it also disproves Protestantism’s basic historiographical claims: here are a number of churches which can trace their lineage back to the Apostolic period, or shortly thereafter. And it’s true, as you note, that they disagree on sometimes important things. But none of them is remotely Protestant. And on the vast majority of issues liturgical, sacramental, Eucharistic, etc., they’re in near-perfect agreement, while disagreeing with the overwhelming majority of Protestant thinking on these issues.

Third, as between Eastern Orthodox and Catholics, there’s no particular need to wait for Trent, Vatican I and II or any other post-Schism Council. The 343 A.D. Council of Sardica acknowledged the Bishop of Rome’s primacy, and while not one of the seven Ecumenical Councils, still reflected a common understanding at this time (it was attended by both Eastern and Western Christians).

Going back much further, St. Ignatius of Antioch said that the Church of Rome “presides in love” over the global Church, as early as 110 A.D., a fact which the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church’s 2007 “Ravenna Document” acknowledged (para. 41). By 180 A.D., as I mentioned here (a post which involved Ligonier Ministries’ Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, by the way), St. Irenaeus spoke at length in Book III of Against Heresies of “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul,” of which “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

So there’s no particular quagmire. Both of these affirmations of Roman primacy are prior to even the first of the seven ecumenical councils. And you’ll note that Ignatius’ language is rather Petrine: Peter is the chosen shepherd of the Lord because he loves Him “more than these,” meaning the other Disciples (John 21:15). And it is for that reason that he is singularly given the commission to “strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). Christ puts Peter in a position to love and minister to the other Disciples, not dissimilar from the position which those Disciples are to the rest of the flock. Ignatius immediately acknowledges both this presidency, and its roots in love for Christ, in the Roman See.

As for “obvious lack of ecumenicity,” I think you should go back and look at the actual numbers and percentages of bishops who attended the first seven ecumenical Councils. The later ecumenical Councils can easily compete. And as for doctrines being convenient, papal infallibility and the like aren’t believed because a council said so. It wasn’t as if Luther was unaware of the Catholic understanding of the papacy (I mean, Babylonian Captivity certainly suggests an awareness), yet Luther lived centuries before it was formally defined at Vatican I.

Finally, as for universal jurisdiction, it’s worth noting in paragraph 43, #2 of the Ravena Document that:

While the fact of primacy at the universal level is accepted by both East and West, there are differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which it is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations.

So it’s not even a distinctively Catholic doctrine (although we differ from the Eastern Orthodox in how we understand it).

Many of the distinctive problems plaguing Catholic-Orthodox relations are historical and ethnic. Unfortunately, partially because the Orthodox allied themselves with the Roman Empire when it transplanted its capital from Rome to Constantinople, it became a much more ethno-national Church than did Catholicism, and it fostered close ties to the state and to the people of the nation. These ties have come back to haunt the Orthodox in more recent years. They serve as a source of disunity, with the Russian Patriarch and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople sparring pretty openly (the Russians are the larger and more powerful Church, while Constantinople holds the ancient Patriarchy). This ethnic identity often serves as a barrier to would-be newcomers to the Faith. And at times, it blinds some members of the Orthodox Church to the Christian mission. The failure of the Serbian Patriarch Pavle to condemn the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims was a disgrace — actually, it went further than a failure to condemn, to the level of denying the existence of rape camps, encouraging the Serbian fighters, and the like. There’s a reason that Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.

My point is that this may not be a wound which is healed by theological arguments. One example will suffice. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) was a Council in which both Orthodox and Catholic bishops participated: both the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria and the Pope were personally present, although the Orthodox don’t recognize its Authority. Canon 4 says that, “the Church of the Greeks with some of her accomplices and supporters had severed herself from the obedience of the Apostolic See, to such an extent did the Greeks begin hating the Latins that among other things which they impiously committed derogatory to the Latins was this, that when Latin priests had celebrated upon their altars, they would not offer the sacrifice upon those altars till the altars had first been washed, as if by this they had been defiled.” Think about that. The two sides agree on the Eucharist, yet they’re still just being racist jerks to one another. This certainly wasn’t a one-way street. Catholic Crusaders razed Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, weakening the Orthodox’s last line of defense against the very Muslim invaders who the Patriarch of Constantinople had requested the Crusaders fight off. Some of these are just things where the most we can do is just say, “Sorry,” and “we love you as brothers in Christ and wouldn’t wish this on you.” During the Medieval period, Latin Catholics were powerful while Greek-speaking Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox) were weak, and they got pushed around. It’s a tragedy we still suffer from.

In short, I think that the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is one which is necessary and productive; one in which the Catholics have the stronger hand historically and Biblically; and one which points to a common shared Faith which our separated Protestant brethren would be keen to learn more about.


  1. This post makes some extremely important points. One is particularly struck in reading the list Joseph formulated of apostolic-lineage churches (“Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Coptic Orthodoxy, Malankara Mar Thoma Orthoxy, and the like”) by how (comparatively, to the various Protestant sects) minor their doctrinal differences are and how much closer together recent ecumenical dialog has moved them. Can the same be said for the Protestant confession over the last 50 years?

  2. Joe,

    Thanks for taking this issue up. I have just a few more thoughts:

    (1) I agree in part that either the Catholic or Orthodox are right. But the so-called Branch Theory could also be right (from my perspective). In other words, if something like the Branch Theory were found to be incorrect, then I’d have to admit that only either the Catholic or the Orthodox are right.

    It’s either that or devolve into some kind of cultic sectarianism (complete with its own magisterium).

    (2) Your post also highlights why Prots convert to Orthodoxy with relish—the things they tend to reject about Catholicism, jive with many of the critiques Prots offer.

    (3) It’s not about the Roman see’s primacy. The problem isn’t with a visible head, a primus inter pares. The problem is with the claim of infallibilty ex cathedra and universal jurisdiction. And of course, these weren’t new “doctrines” declared suddenly at a later council; not only did the Reformers take issue with them, the Eastern church did also centuries before.

    All this said, I agree that Protestants ought to be keen to learn more about the history of the church’s schisms.

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