A Letter to an Eastern Orthodox Convert from Evangelicalism

More Reflections on the Difference Between Eastern Orthodox and Anglocatholic Interpretations of Canon Law

Dear Orthodox Convert,

You have asked me why I no longer believe that the boundaries of the Church are defined by the Eastern Orthodox Communion. It is a good question and deserves an honest answer. My simple answer is that I believe Orthodoxy's contemporary claims to exclusivity are of a different nature than the Ancient Church's claims to exclusivity - a convolution of the Early Church's understanding of their identity in Christ, which is a Christological and Pneumatological condition that defines our salvation within the faith, with later, extremely nuanced and cultural/linguistic theories about which there is no possible consensus, only authoritative proclamations made from a centralized church administration, which, because they were local, could never be accepted or binding upon all Christians. In other words, in continuing to define sacred mysteries from one particular monastic locus or another, the definitions of Christian theological understanding narrowed beyond that which could be universally experienced and agreed upon, leading to fragmentation and mutual alienation.

When I was studying Orthodox Canon Law with Fr. Dr. Patrick Viscuso, I learned that the Orthodox believe there is a "canonical form" that may be kept and administered in good faith, by those with a thoroughly orthodox faith, but which is still considered empty because it is not submitted to the Eastern Orthodox canonical system. These forms must be filled with grace, grace that is only kept by Orthodox patriarchs in canonical communion. In this way, Roman Catholics are "valid" but still completely cut off from God's grace. While this is the line of reasoning taken by Theodore Balsamon in "Letters to the Church Under Islam", and is now deemed the authoritative canonical interpretation of the Nomocanon, his interpretation and his canonical principles are in direct contradiction to earlier authorities and to the very statutes of Roman Law to which he appeals. In several places, Theodore directly changes the wording of earlier laws.

In comparison with Scripture and the Early Church, however, I came to see Balsamon's understanding of God's grace being constricted to and defined by the canonical boundaries of the Byzantine Church as being at odds with ancient tradition, the canons of the early Councils, logic and the experience of Christian communities worldwide. This is evidenced by the Orthodox themselves in the practice of "economia," in conveniently and anachronistically applied canons for the purpose of asserting Orthodox ecclesial supremacy and political power. The moment I realized this, I became doctrinally Anglocatholic, and could never go back to the false premise of Byzantine Imperial control of God through the mechanism of late, non-ecumenical councils and their canons.

St. Cyprian is the only authority that the Orthodox now, anachronistically, chose to follow. There are at least five sources of canonical definition in the Ancient church that disagree with Balsamon's interpretation of Cyprianic ecclesiology. Anglocatholics would agree with St. Cyprian that there is "No salvation outside of the Church", but we would not, like the Eastern Orthodox, associate the canonical boundaries of Orthodoxy with the totality of the Church. Those canonical boundaries did not exist at the time of St. Cyprian's writing, a time when local bishops were, in every way, equal to the Patriarchs and Archbishops of later years.

St. Augustine's ecclesiology completely contradicts St. Cyprian's understanding of episcopal communion defining the limits of God's grace towards schismatics, in that it asserts that schism occurs, not by the cutting off of grace, but in the denial of love. Schismatic orders and sacraments partake in the same reality of the Church, up to the point that they can be accepted in mutual love and submission, and break where love ceases. 

The Apostolic Canons (the earliest canonical Tradition from the Ancient Church of Antioch) assert that every area has the right to recognize a senior bishop, a Primus, and that this is the basic unity of the local church, based on conciliatory and mutual recognition. No other "outside" recognition is necessary for the Church to exist in its Catholic, Complete and Universal, state. 

The Canons of the First Ecumenical Council also assert that all local traditions hold precedence over imperial declaration, unless they contradict the doctrinal teachings of an Ecumenical Council. This was the point that Balsamon falsely represented and thus changed canonical interpretation - he states, "All things must be as in the God-loved City of Constantinople, unless dictated by an Ecumenical Council." This minor point of misrepresentation was the single most devastating thing that occurred to Orthodoxy, eliminating the Liturgy of St. James, St. Mark, of St. Thaddeus and all of the hymnological and liturgical traditions of all other areas and liturgikons in the Late Medieval Period. If the Church's theological self-understanding is found in its prayers, "Lex Orandi Lex Credendi", then Orthodoxy cut itself off at this point from a major source of doctrinal and cultural inspiration and directly contributed to the narrowing and self-appreciation of the later Orthodox tradition. 

The last source of insight was the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 419, where the preface to its Canons explains that, based on the Apostolic Canons, all local churches have the authority to declare their political independence from the Roman Emperor and Imperial authority, and that the only requirement for mutual recognition between churches is reception of the Apostolic Episcopacy, the Teaching of the Gospel and the Epistles of Paul, the Doctrine of the Incarnation, the Belief in the Trinity and the Practice of the Sacraments (basically, the assertions of the Nicene Creed). This view was later ratified when the Byzantine Patriarchs, St. John of Antioch and Sergius the Great, communed with the Syriac Patriarch, Yeshuayab II, under the reign of Heraclius, while maintaining the Syriac definition of Catholicity. This early definition explains the practical and philosophical problems of the Council of Trullo, where Emperor Justinian appended the Canons with the "Codex Justinianus", the secular law of the Eastern Roman Empire, singlehandedly usurping the ecumenical authority of the Fifth and Sixth Councils, instating episcopal celibacy and arranging for the monastic take-over of the Church (and thus expediting fragmentation). 

I would recommend reading Fr. Dr. Cyril Hovorun's new book, "Scaffolds of the Church", to understand the evolution of the Orthodox position over the last one thousand years from an Orthodox perspective, and then follow that with Fr. Dr. Patrick Viscuso's critical translation of Balsamon's "The Orthodox Church Under Islam". Fr. Dr. John Meyendorff's life work is also valuable, focusing on the effects of the Empire on canonical interpretation, particularly in "Imperial Unity and Christian Division" and also seen in his cooperation with Papadakis, "The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy". These are all Orthodox resources that discuss the original understanding of catholicity in contrast to what it became in the Late Byzantine Period and under the Turkish rule and Russian Imperial expansions.

Anglocatholicism, by in large, agrees with all of the doctrinal assertions of the Orthodox Church, from synergism to iconography, but also counterbalances it with the local councils that occurred in the West at the time, often claiming the same name (6th Council). As Orthodoxy has pulled into itself and redefined the Councils according to a later definition of history, anachronistically labeling Councils by number, the West has a harder time, because it was still an undivided Church and held Councils in the Lateran that Constantinople sent representatives to, but now forgets. This council commended the use of icons, but explicitly rejected their veneration as a necessity, saying that "spirits do not live in images or use them to communicate with us, as pagans believe." Thus, the West took a different course, embracing images and statuary but not venerating them, agreeing in principle but not in practice.

Anglocatholicism, while rejecting their claims to ecumenicity, is also deeply effected by the later Roman Catholic councils held after the Great Schism, held in the Lateran and Lyon. While disavowing their ecumenicity,  they still defined how the West understood theology and prepared the way for the Council of Vienna, in which the Eastern Orthodox officially (but not permanently) recognized the oneness of the church and their submission to the Pope. These councils are also completely forgotten and disavowed by Orthodoxy, but contribute to the difference in history and perspective that the East and West now have on some vital issues in understanding.

So, we can see that there was a gradual realignment going on, as East and West turned from one another, often with Councils playing the role of milestones. The detaching process really started at Trullo and continued through all of the "False Councils" in Constantinople through the 7-8th centuries. This was a time of real heresy and political high-jinx for the East, and ended up alienating the West, which labeled Constantinople "Mother of Heretics" during this time. Then, after St. Theodore Studios and his monastic movement helped to regain a modicum of normalcy, Orthodoxy continued as if nothing happened. But the damage to reputation and general exasperation in the West continued. It was all down hill from there.

This is also an important turning point for Orthodoxy. It was really after the two churches agreed to come back together that the monastic resistance started, particularly amongst the Slavs in Russia, which then funded monks on Mount Athos and dissenting bishops across the Orthodox world, who then created a strong resistance to conciliation. Once the Turks allowed the Patriarchate to function as the head of the Millet system, all incentive for reconciliation was gone, and various fringe figures, like St. Mark of Ephesus, were glorified and their writings officially promulgated. This made the schism permanent.

St. Mark's motivation may have been good, but the political connotations are clear and his standing against the combined mind of the Synod, the only mechanism for revelation that Orthodox epistemology has, is clearly different than the Orthodoxy of earlier eras and signals the mental closing down and turning away from dialogue and of the importance of mystery being something that is unknowable. This is the root of the suspicion and deep bitterness whereby the Orthodox dishonored their own commitments and agreements and ensconced the culture of chiliastic prophecy against the West that is still a characteristic of Orthodox monasticism and Eastern European politics. This is deeply unfortunate and a result of human brokenness. While we cannot expect anything more from any Church, all of us being deeply flawed and alienated through our inherited, sinful nature, we must all realize our pride, repent, and submit to one another in mutual humility, love and find unity through submission to the Spirit of Christ.

Thank you for asking me these questions and being open to my answers. I do not believe that Orthodox are outside of the One, True Church, but that they are one of the many local expressions of Christ's catholic body, incarnate in a specific time and place. Christian division is a tragedy and inexcusable, and we are called by Christ Himself to reconcile and come together under His Lordship. I welcome all Orthodox brothers and sisters to participate in Holy Communion in our church, because we share the same faith and declare the same Creed. We recognize you, even if, after many years of conflict and strife, some Eastern Orthodox do not recognize us. I don't recommend converting to our church unless God clearly shows you that this is what you are supposed to do. We recognize the practices and sacraments of the Eastern Churches as fully valid and salvific, and believe that you should "bloom where you are planted." Stay where God has placed you and listen to your shepherds who watch over and care for your soul, submit to them, obey them, and love Christ in His Church. On the Last Day, many will come from the East and from the West and sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Christ Our Lord,

Bp. Joseph