At the conclusion of a recent synaxis of Orthodox hierarchs in Istanbul (March 6–9, 2014), an announcement was made that the local Orthodox churches would gather for a pan-Orthodox synod in the Spring of 2016.
At this synod, a number of issues facing the global Orthodox Church will be addressed, and many of them long-coming.
It should be kept in mind, of course, that diaspora Orthodoxy and the Church as a whole has been subject to a long line of unique, historical experiences over the past few centuries—circumstances that have made more of these gatherings difficult, if not impossible. From the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of Soviet communism, many of the ancient Sees have not been in positions where global communication was even possible until recently. But as times change, so can (and does) the Church.
As the news of this council—which has been ‘in the making’ for several decades now—spread, many misunderstandings and half-truths were also spread.
As most Christians know, media outlets do not typically do the best job at covering religious news. There’s an entire website devoted to this. From Reuters to the Huffington Post, news of a ‘first Ecumenical Council in 1,200 years’ has spread—but is this really true? Is the pending pan-Orthodox synod an ‘Ecumenical Council?’ Is it really the first such gathering in 1,200 years?
The Orthodox Church is often accused of being ‘stagnant,’ in the sense of doctrinal development, engagement with the world around us, and even our forms of worship and sacred arts. But when the history of the eastern churches is examined with care, it is apparent that the Church has responded to the ebb and flow of both culture and world religion in an appropriate, yet sober manner.
In other words, the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) was not the ‘last word’ of Orthodox theology and doctrine, as some (like the aforementioned) will claim. Even the question of ‘how many?’ Ecumenical Councils is still being considered by Orthodox Christians around the world—a ‘recent’ reply to Pope Pius IX (1848) suggests that there are at least eight; some would claim nine.
In The Orthodox Church (p. 203), Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Timothy) Ware compiles a list of significant, ecumenical-level events within the Orthodox Church since the eighth century:
- The Encyclical Letter of Saint Photius (AD 867)
- The First Letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch (AD 1054)
- The decisions of the Councils of Constantinople on the Hesychast Controversy (AD 1341-1351)
- The Encyclical Letter of Saint Mark of Ephesus (AD 1440-1441)
- The Confession of Faith by Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (AD 1455-1456)
- The Replies of Jeremias II of Constantinople to the Lutherans (AD 1573-1581)
- The Confession of Faith by Metrophanes Kritopoulos (AD 1625)
- The Orthodox Confession by Peter of Moghila (in its revised form) at the Council of Jassy, Romania (AD 1642)
- The Confession of Dositheus at the Council of Jerusalem (AD 1672)
- The Answers of the Orthodox Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (AD 1718-1723)
- The Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (AD 1848)
- The Reply of the Synod of Constantinople to Pope Leo XIII (AD 1895)
- The Encyclical Letters by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (AD 1920, 1952)
The Metropolitan notes documents 5–9 are sometimes termed the ‘Symbolical Books’ of the Orthodox Church, but this is not a universal signification.
Also, not everything in these documents or councils should be considered ‘infallible’ or without need of nuance, but they do demonstrate a lack of ‘stagnation’ on the part of the Church. During Ottoman occupation, for example, the Church made a point to respond to the new challenges of both Lutheranism and Calvinism. There are also other events not listed, such as a synod in Constantinople near the end of the ninth century, that was both ecumenical in scope (Rome included) and had more clergy in attendance—and it isn’t even close—than any other, previous Ecumenical Council.
While acknowledging all of the above, it’s important to keep in mind that—for Orthodox Christians—our dogmatic boundaries are set, with a great deal of freedom allowed within. The necessity of continual, dogmatic development is not granted on the part of Orthodox Christians, especially given our predilection for apophaticism. There’s a substantial (and all-important) distinction between dogmatic development and an abiding doctrinal application for each new culture, language, or context.
To reiterate, the Orthodox Church has for centuries been operating in a state of persecuted ‘survival mode,’ praying only that she would survive for another generation. She is often termed ‘the persecuted Church.’ This continued all the way until the fall of the Iron Curtain, persisting even today. Thankfully, in many places where Orthodoxy is represented, this is no longer the case. But one cannot ignore the present sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and now Ukraine—where the prospect of ‘dogmatic development’ is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
I would contend that the presence of dogmatic development is a symptom of stagnancy, and not the solution against it.