On Personalist Theology and the Primus

image from newromepress.com

image from newromepress.com

Protopresbyter Michael Azkoul

I have no doubt that Patriarch Bartholomew acts with the greatest hope and sincerity for Christian unity, as every Christian should… He thinks of himself as a “bridge-builder,” aiming at union or harmony between Orthodoxy and the other Christian confessions. The Orthodox Church, again, seeks Christian unity, and it prays for it; however, it seeks unity in the Orthodox Faith, to which Faith it calls all confessions.

The Œcumenical Patriarch, it seems to me, comes to his view of the Church, in part, by way of believing himself competent to play this unitive role. No doubt reinforced by his education in the West—largely in Rome, in fact—he learned to place inordinate value on the human personality, embracing the principles of the philosophy of Personalism. Personalists have called for the reconstruction of the social order, so that the sanctity of human life and the dignity of each person might be foremost in our personal lives and in our social and, more specically, religious outlook. Strongly attracted to the precepts of Personalism, the Patriarch made it part of his new ecclesiological vision. Its ideas enable him, in the religious domain, to compare the human person to “the Supreme Person (Being)” and, thereby, to transcend the differences between men and between religions. Personalism promotes universal brotherhood, with all that this implies, and not individualism, which it equates with self-centeredness and solipsism. He links this brotherhood with the Church, since the Church aims at the restoration of the divine image in humanity, which Adam shattered by his disobedience, as St. Athanasius said.

It may be that, given his penchant for the Personalist worldview, the Patriarch follows Nicholas Berdyaev. “Personality,” the latter said, “is the moral principle, and our relation to all other values is determined by reference to it. Hence the idea of Personality lies at the basis of ethics…. Personality is a higher state than the value of the state, the nation, mankind or nature [1], and indeed is not part of that series.” While studying in Geneva, His All-Holiness met the famous Greek ecumenist, Nikos Nissiotis, who also instructed him in Personalism and its “new horizons”. It becomes clearer why the Patriarch no longer feels compelled to consider as final and unchangeable the Orthodox form of the Christian Faith. Personalism, since it rejects individualism, tears down Orthodox exclusivism, downplaying differences of every kind and honoring human agency in what are actually matters of divine prerogative. I have no way of knowing the depth to which this philosophy has penetrated the Patriarch’s soul, but it is not a jump in logic to think that Personalism directly influenced his diminution of Orthodox exclusivism and his loyalty to ecumenism and his own personal ecclesiological views—a loyalty which, not so incidentally, is inevitably and tragically leading to a schism in the Orthodox Church. (“The Ecclesiology of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople”. Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XXXII Number 3, 2105, p. 7-8)

Note: the lengthy excerpt below is an example of personalism and its theological consequences.

Fr. John Panteleimon Manoussakis

The phenomenon of anti-papism, understood as the denial of a primus for the universal church and the elevation of such denial to a trait that allegedly identifies the whole Orthodox Church, is, properly speaking, heretical.

In saying this, I am returning the favor, so to speak, to all those who have taken upon themselves the onerous task of defending Orthodoxy against all kinds of heresy. And heresy is all they see. Any difference, not necessarily in matters of dogma but also in liturgy, in language, in vestments, in appearance, is immediately and solemnly denounced as heresy.

Anticipating the reaction of some who may find such a statement dangerous and inflammatory, I wonder if it is possible that anti-papism could be confused with Orthodoxy. And if there is such a possibility, is it not all the more necessary and urgent that we speak against such a false identification, distinguishing the Church to which we belong and which we serve— I speak here as an Orthodox clergyman— from that party that has constructed for itself a new identity exclusively based on the hatred for the office of Peter?

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of anti-papism has become increasingly more observable within the Orthodox Church. Those who want to elevate their dislike for the Pope into a definition for the Orthodox Church as a whole do not realize that, if they were right, their version of the Church would be reduced to little more than a religious club that can trace its origins to no earlier than the schism of 1054— a club that would owe its raison d’être entirely to the very opponent that it opposes.

…When I was a seminarian in Athens, I was taught that, unlike the Roman Church, the highest authority in the Orthodox Church— the one authority with absolute power to decide dogmatic and canonical matters— is an interpersonal (and thus impersonal) body: the Ecumenical Council.  By asserting such a claim, the Orthodox present a not-so-implicit critique against papal primacy, which is often caricatured as a centralized, imperialistic, and therefore totalitarian and oppressive ecclesiology. In opposition to such a structure, the Orthodox take pride in what they consider a more democratic structure. They give, however, little or no thought to the fact that the synod as a manifold body presupposes the office of the One— that is, the one primus who, although inter pares as far as his sacramental faculty is concerned, remains nevertheless unequal in his primacy. Similarly, the patriarch or the metropolitan is also inter pares with the bishops who are administratively under him; yet, as the 34th Apostolic Canon makes clear, the synod cannot do anything without his consent. As the bishop is also inter pares with all baptized Christians, he is one of them every time he officiates— an ecclesiological truth signified by the white sticharion (the equivalent of the alb) that the bishop, like all clerics, wears as the first piece of his liturgical vestments. And yet, despite the fact that he is inter pares with the faithful (cum fidelibus), the local church cannot do anything without him, nor would they even exist as a community…

There is no either/ or distinction between conciliarity and primacy. No council is conceivable without a primus. Philosophically speaking, the emphasis on primacy conforms with the idea that the “one” (in this case, the primus) is both logically, ontologically, and “chronologically” prior to the “many” (the synod). There is another reason why the Ecumenical Council cannot be considered an institution of authority for the Church— without, of course, meaning to say that Ecumenical Councils have no authority. The weight of the argument here falls not so much on authority but on the concept of the institution. An institution (θεσμός) implies both permanence and regularity, two basic characteristics lacking from the convocation of an Ecumenical Council that has more of the character of an event (extraordinary in nature) than that of a standing institution.

…In Christian theology the principle of unity is always a person. This simple truth can be attested on the Trinitarian, the christological, and the ecclesiological level, demonstrating, incidentally, the interrelated nature of these three branches of theology. The mystery of the Holy Trinity places in front of us, in an eminent way, the problematic of the dialectic between the one and the many, unity and difference, communion and otherness. It is well known that what safeguards the oneness of God and prevents faith in the Holy Trinity from lapsing into tritheism is the person of the Father…

Therefore, the monarchy of the Father not make us fear that the person of the Father is overemphasized at the expense, perhaps, of the Trinitarian communion. Rather, it is that person, or more accurately, the personal character, that safeguards the homoousian community of the Holy Trinity. In a similar vein, the christological debates, which began in the fifth century, sought, again, to come to terms with the distinction between the one and the many. Here, of course, the many are the two natures of Christ, which became a cause of puzzlement, for the difficulty was the simultaneous affirmation of the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Christ, on the one hand, and of the fact that Christ was one, on the other. Again, the principle of unity, a unity “without division” and “without confusion,” as the definition of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon puts it, is safeguarded and upheld by a person— namely, the Person of the Incarnate Logos. My argument is that there must be a consistency between these dogmatic claims and our ecclesiological model, if we do not wish to divorce ecclesiology from theology. Ecclesiologically too, then, the principle of unity for all and each of the three levels of ecclesial structure must be a person, a primus. Here, I invoke the unambiguous witness of the Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of Bursa, who, as the Chief-Secretary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, delivered an important speech at the Chapel of the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, saying the following:

“Let me add that the refusal to recognize primacy within the Orthodox Church, a primacy that necessarily cannot but be embodied by a primus (that is by a bishop who has the prerogative of being the first among his fellow bishops) constitutes nothing less than heresy. It cannot be accepted, as often it is said, that unity among the Orthodox Churches is safeguarded either by a common norm of faith and worship or by the Ecumenical Council as an institution. Both of these factors are impersonal while in our Orthodox theology the principle of unity is always a person. Indeed, in the level of the Holy Trinity the principle of unity is not the divine essence but the Person of the Father (“ Monarchy” of the Father), at the ecclesiological level of the local Church the principle of unity is not the presbyterium or the common worship of the Christians but the person of the Bishop, so too in the Pan-Orthodox level the principle of unity cannot be an idea or an institution but it needs to be, if we are to be consistent with our theology, a person.” [2]

…The history of the first millennium leaves no room for doubting that the pope’s primacy in terms of such Petrine ministry was universally acknowledged and accepted even by the Greek-speaking Church. Theologically, there is no reason why the Orthodox Church should not do the same presently. The history of Orthodoxy’s Balkanization and the present state of its diaspora make it difficult to deny that the consequences of the heresy of anti-papism— that is, the denial of a personal primacy in the universal church— have historically been linked to racism, which was condemned as a heresy in 1872 under the name of ethnophyletism. Here, racism is treated as a heresy because it ascribes the role of primacy to the nation, the “ethnos.” Thus, it commits a grave abuse of the theological principle we have described above, by substituting the person of the primus with the impersonal collectivity of the nation, sacrificing the particular for the universal. Racism invests a penultimate category— that of race or language— with the authority of the ultimate, ignoring that such categories will be eschatologically overcome, as the experience of Pentecost both promises and anticipates. By doing so, national churches preclude the eschatological vision of the gospel by realizing it in the present through a form of confessional or ethnic triumphalism. But, at the same time, we also have the phenomenon of the self-proclaimed “guardians of Orthodoxy,” who, implicitly and illicitly, assert themselves and their criteria for Orthodoxy over the entire church, as a type of primatial vision that supplants the legitimate structures of the Church (i.e., the bishop). By entrusting the ministry of primacy to a person, the Church defends herself against the insidious danger of idolatry. Idolatry is endemic to ideology. It elevates theories, concepts, or structures (no matter how benign or well-intended) to a normative status in the Church, which, in effect, establishes ideologies. I say that with respect to those who might prefer to see in the structure of the Church a democracy that would emphasize equality among the faithful, understanding the Church primarily as a community of equal members that “co-celebrate” the Eucharist. Such views are open and susceptible to idolization. On the other hand, the person of the bishop, in his concreteness and not in spite of his shortcomings and failures but precisely on account of them, offers himself as an antidote to idolatry insofar as his humanity cannot but subject him to a process of demystification that would be difficult, if not impossible, to be exercised with respect to a fleshless, impersonal construction.

…In the foregoing part of this chapter we had the opportunity to discuss the need for primacy in the Church in general. Our discussion demonstrated, to the best of our abilities, that such a primacy is required by the very structure of the Church’s ecclesiology and that, furthermore, it is a prerequisite necessitated by the Church’s theology. It was that same theology that gave us the insight to primacy’s personal character insofar as it can be exercised only by a person. That person is, in principle, the bishop of Rome. Yet the separation of the two churches has meant, first and foremost, that the Orthodox churches have been deprived of the benefits embodied in such a personal primacy. One might have expected that, in the absence of the Roman primacy, the see that follows after the elder Rome in the taxis of the pentarchy ought to have been given the ministry of primacy within the Orthodox Church. That is, primacy ought to be exercised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the New Rome, and more specifically in the person of the patriarch of Constantinople. In fact, the ancient appellation of Constantinople as New Rome would have assumed on this occasion a quasi-prophetic meaning, as it would have anticipated that this church was destined to become the Rome for the Eastern churches in the event that the communion with the elder Rome were to be severed [3].

…In the debate over primacy the Orthodox can feel the need to unite with Rome in its most palpable and tragic urgency— yet, without the recognition of some primacy within the Orthodox Church, the Orthdox cannot reach out to Rome, nor could Rome reach out to the Orthodox Church. In one of those ironic turns of history, it is only Rome that can help the Orthodox communion overcome its own internal divisions. The possibility of a schism among the various Orthodox churches looms as real today as ever over any reconciliatory effort with the Catholic Church; furthermore, it taints and undermines Orthodoxy’s witness to the world and remains a danger to the Orthodox Church’s well-being, like a ticking time bomb placed at its foundations. (For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West, Foreword by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. [Kindle Locations 744-1011]. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition)

Note: footnotes below not included in original works.

[1] Chrysostom Koutloumousianos: “Consider the idea (promulgated in some present day theological circles) that personhood is your very being, and this very being is not a part of your nature but is a gift granted by the Other, a human Other, whose ‘personal’ love offers you your identity. Indeed, there cannot be a more subtle and devious subversion of the sense of connectedness, mutuality, freedom, and even democracy. Perhaps the most challenging part of this understanding is its application in ecclesiology. By giving so much emphasis to the role of a hierarchical ‘first’, the person who supposedly stands in the place of the Father, we create totalitarian models of Church and society in which the institution—here primacy—becomes the intermediary that connects man with God… Metropolitan John [Zizoulas] has been the most passionate proponent of this personalistic position. His Trinitarian personalism has led to what one might call ‘episcopomonism’ and a new appreciation of the idea of primacy.

[2] The two quotes below demonstrate views in opposition to Met. Elpidophoros:

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasio: “In Orthodox patristic theology it is clear that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is one thing, which we will never understand, and the doctrine of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which the Fathers expressed after having experienced Revelation, is another thing. As well, the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity moves on one level, while the relationships of human hypostases/persons are on another level. There are no analogies between God and man, because then we end up in metaphysics, which the Fathers so opposed. Moreover there are patristic texts and synodical decisions, as we see for example in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, where metaphysics is condemned, since it claims that parallels and analogies exist between the uncreated and the created.”

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk: “It was argued that the Holy Trinity is an image of both primacy and conciliarity, since there is in it the monarchy of God the Father, but also the communion of the three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some theologians went so far as to insist that there is ‘hierarchy’ among the three Persons, having found support in passages from St Basil the Great who speaks of a taxis (order) in the Trinity. It was claimed that this ordering, or hierarchy, should be reflected in the administrative structure of the Church at the three levels: local, regional, and universal…

Some argued, on the basis of this Trinitarian glorification, that the administrative structure of the Church on the regional level also reflects (or should reflect) the communion between the divine Persons of the Trinity. The text of the canon [Apostolic Canon 34], however, does not in fact permit such a comparison: rather, it is the ‘consent’, or harmony, that reigns between the three Hypostases of the Trinity which is cited here as an example which the bishops on the regional level should follow. With regard to the Trinitarian glorification itself, it is similar to many such glorifications that conclude canonical, dogmatic and liturgical texts, and was certainly not meant to draw any direct comparison between the Hypostases of the Holy Trinity and the ranks in church order… The synodality or conciliarity that exists in the Church and has its particular expression in the institution of synods or councils may indeed be compared with the harmony and concord reigning among the Persons of the Trinity. One should not, however, go any further than that by attempting to compare human ecclesial structures with the divine Trinitarian communion. Neither is it appropriate to interpret interrelationships between primacy and synodality in the Church by using Trinitarian analogies and, thereby, to refer to the ‘primacy’ of the Father with regard to the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Primacy and Synodality from an Orthodox Perspective)

[3] Met. Hilarious of Volokolamsk: This statement has been contested by some Orthodox theologians who refer to the fact that the 28th [Canon] of Chalcedon, on which the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople has been based, does not speak about him as ‘second after’ the Bishop of Rome: rather, it acknowledges him as ‘equal’ to the latter. Was there, then, some kind of double primacy in the Universal Church of the first millenium, with one pope for the West and one for the East? Byzantine sources speak rather of a pentarchy, a concept officially endorsed by Emperor Justinian and, according to which, the whole oecumene is divided into five patriarchates whose rights and privileges are equivalent. This equality was expressed at the Ecumenical Councils in various ways: how discussions were held, how decisions were taken, how decrees were signed. (ibid.)

Speak Your Mind