On Various Approaches to Heterodoxy in the Russian Church

Fr. Georges Florovsky 1893-1979

The reality of the Church is indivisible. It was at this point that the first editor of Khomiakov’s letters to Palmer (in Russian), Fr. Alexander M. Ivantzov-Platonov (Professor of Church History at the University of Moscow), found it necessary to add a critical footnote. On the whole, he shared Khomiakov’s interpretation of the Church, but he was not prepared to deny the presence of Sacramental grace in separated communions. Ivantzov did his studying at the Moscow Academy, and was probably influenced by the ideas of Philaret. There was an obvious difference between the two interpretations: Philaret’s conception was wider and more comprehensive; Khomiakov’s was more cautious and reserved. Both interpretations still co-exist in the Orthodox Church, with resulting differences of approach to the main Ecumenical problem.

In the later period of discussion, the whole ecclesiological problem was brought to the fore. The main issue was: what was the Church Universal? and in what sense do “schisms” belong to the Church? Various answers were given, or often simply taken for granted in advance. Unity of belief does not by itself constitute the corporate reality of the Church, since the Church is a Divine institution. The “Branch Theory” of the Church was obviously unacceptable to the Orthodox. In any case, it minimizes the tragedy of disruption. Again, a schism is not just a human separation: it violates the basic structure of Christian existence. The only alternative available for Orthodox theologians seemed to be this: either separated bodies did not belong to the Church at all, and therefore were, not only historically but also spiritually, outside of it; or they were still, in a certain sense and under special conditions, related to the Church existentially. The latter conception is characteristic of Roman Catholicism, and goes back to St. Augustine; for that very reason many Orthodox would hesitate to accept it. It was, however, held by many Russian theologians, if not quite in the same sense (Philaret; Kireev; Svetlov). Accordingly, the Sacraments were not necessarily reiterated for the non-Orthodox, in the case of conversion, but were understood as having some real charismatic significance even outside of the strict canonical boundaries of the Church. This has been the common practice of the Russian Church in the last centuries. On the other hand, this practice could be interpreted in the light of the theory of “economy” which is characteristic of modern Greek theology; in this case, the fact of non-reiteration would not imply any recognition of these non-Orthodox ministrations, and should be interpreted simply as a pastoral dispensation. This point of view had already been represented in Russia by Schyutiako, and in recent times was elaborated with daring radicalism by the late Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). He had an occasion to express this view in an ecumenical context, when he was invited to participate in the ”Conference on Faith and Order” in 1914. The delegation of the Planning Committee in the U.S., appointed in 1914, could not go because of the war but invitations were sent to all Orthodox Churches. In Russia, they were favorably received in high ecclesiastical quarters and some epistolary contacts were established.

Anthony, at that time Archbishop of Kharkov and a permanent Member of the Holy Synod, replied to the invitation with a long letter, in which he frankly stated his point of view. There was no spiritual reality, “no grace,” outside the Orthodox Church. All talks about “validity” are just “talmudist sophistries.” What is outside of the Orthodox Church is just “this world, foreign to Christ’s redemption and possessed by the devil.” It makes no difference, Anthony argued, whether the non-Orthodox have or do not have “right beliefs.” Purity of doctrine would not incorporate them in the Church. What is of importance is only the actual membership in the Orthodox Church, which is not compromised by doctrinal ignorance or moral frailty. “Doctrinal agreement” by itself means little. Membership in the Body is the only thing that counts. But, in spite of this global exclusion of all non-Orthodox from Christendom, Anthony was wholeheartedly in favor of Orthodox participation in the proposed “Conference on Faith and Order.” “Indeed, we are not going to con-celebrate there, but shall have to search together for a true teaching on the controversial points of faith.” An exchange of letters with Robert Gardiner, the secretary of the organizing commission, followed, in which the whole problem was thoroughly discussed. Another Russian theologian, Hilarion (Troitsky), at that time Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy, and later Archbishop of Krutitzy, published an “open letter” to Robert Gardiner, “The Unity of the Church and the Universal Christian Conference,” in which he developed the same radical conception: Separation is infinitely more important than Dissent. This interpretation of unity and schism was by no means commonly accepted, and was exposed to serious objections. In any case, there was no unanimity among Orthodox theologians on this basic problem of “ecumenical theology.” The documents just quoted belong to the later period, and, strictly speaking, are outside the scope of the present survey. Yet they summarize authentically the view which has been held and promoted by not a few in the course of 19th century ecumenical negotiations. (Orthodox Ecumenism in the Nineteenth Century)

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