A Larger Orthodoxy

By Dr. Peter C Bouteneff

We are all used to the questions we get when we tell people we are “Orthodox Christian.” They say, “Do you mean Greek Orthodox? Russian Orthodox?” We continue to get that question of which ethnicity to apply when we are talking about ourselves as “Orthodox.” Apart from trying to explain that Orthodoxy inhabits but also transcends these boundaries, I’m here to tell you that we are faced with an additional challenge, one that is rife with possibility: to see “Orthodoxy” as something wider than we thought, wider than the local churches we now number as “Orthodox” or “Eastern Orthodox.”

Oriental/Eastern Dialogue in Action

I am speaking of a family of ancient churches that also self-identify as “Orthodox:” Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Indian churches. There are other names by which they are known, such as “Non-Chalcedonian,” because they all have in history rejected the Council of Chalcedon. That council, taking place in AD 451, is known in the Orthodox Church as the Fourth Ecumenical Council, a great and landmark event that established the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ ”” the one unique person who is at the same time completely divine and completely human.

Now fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century, which saw a momentous opportunity for the Church: the Orthodox churches and the “non-Chalcedonian” churches found themselves under the same roof, meeting under the auspices of the newly-formed World Council of Churches. Fifteen hundred years after the event that divided these two church families, they saw each other face-to-face, and immediately inaugurated a process of dialogue. First through four “unofficial” meetings (from 1964-1971), and then through several meetings officially instituted by the churches themselves, some of the greatest theologians, canonists, and historians from both families met to discuss what it was that was keeping them apart, and what could be done to bring them back together.

Here I must pause to ask you some questions: Are you aware of this process? If you know about it, have you been hearing of it as something positive? Or have you been hearing about it as something dangerous, that would compromise the purity of Orthodoxy?

As is often the case on the internet and the “culture of complaint” which dominates it, what one is probably most likely to hear, if anything, is the negative reactions to these impulses towards unity. And this is a sad thing. Naturally we revere our faith and the saints who proclaimed it over the ages, and we have an appropriate caution towards compromises and false unions. But if Orthodoxy really is the true faith as we say it is, then shouldn’t our first reaction towards dialogue and possible reconciliation be one of welcome, of a healthy joy-filled curiosity? Those of us who are theologically inclined do well to study the dialogues carefully, to be challenged by them and also to challenge them back. That study ought, among other things, be trustful of the first-class theologians who have been delegated by their churches to bring the dialogue forward.

Those theologians have made some groundbreaking discoveries. Through an exploration of the terms used by the different churches, in different time periods and in different languages, they have come to the conclusion that the vast and complex disagreements over the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon were substantially a question of language and terminology. The official dialogue statements came to the following conclusion, which is no less than stunning:

…we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways.

This is a remarkable statement of unity, yet an enormous set of obstacles remains. Because over the centuries, the apparent theological disagreements, as well as many political, ethnic, and other non-theological factors, served to perpetuate and deepen division to the point where that division became completely enshrined in the histories and identities of our churches. We have some different liturgies, we venerate some different saints, we understand and identify ourselves in distinction from each other. It is almost as if the theological agreements, which seemed so insurmountable and unbelievably complex, have come far more easily than the political, emotional, and ethnic ones.

That’s where this process now lies: having made this breakthrough theological agreement, having put forward several pastoral agreements about how to handle marriages and baptisms across the two church families, both church families are currently digesting the conclusions and assessing what they may mean for a future reconciliation. In many cases the churches are finding it hard to fathom the possibilities. Habits of division formed over fifteen hundred years die hard.

Participants of the Recent Eastern/Oriental Consultation

Part of the shock of the theological agreement is that it leaves us looking back at history with questions such as: “Does this mean that the Church Fathers were wrong when they saw the non-Chalcedonians as heretics? Does this mean that we know better than the Church Fathers?” Good questions, but they have answers. No, we don’t know better than the Fathers. But the intervening centuries have given us a lot of information that they simply didn’t have. And it would be irresponsible of us to ignore that information. Tradition is alive. The Fathers themselves don’t want us simply to parrot their formulas, they want us to take it all further, to account for what we have come to know, what we have been shown in by the Holy Spirit through history over the passage of the centuries. In this way we remain faithful to them. Could it even be, then, that the Fathers rejoice at the possibilities that are before us?

One thing is sure: no reunion of our church families will happen until there is a genuine thirst for it. Naturally we shouldn’t rush ahead, or stifle all the caution. But let us not kill the possibility of union simply out of habit, out of irrational fear. Let us cultivate the knowledge of one another’s traditions, welcoming what we recognize in each other as Orthodox, as apostolic, as true, as mutually “ours,” and let us welcome with joy the possibility of a larger Orthodox witness in the world.


The full texts of the dialogue statements are available on the website orthodoxunity.org

4 thoughts on “A Larger Orthodoxy

  1. Daniel Maher

    I converted to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism over 7 years ago. There are many things about my Catholic heritage which are dear to me,but I just couldn’t accept the papal claim of infallibility ( or the overly legalistic view of salvation).

    However, there have been times when I have been so frustrated with Orthodoxy’s lack of a centralized authority, an “organ of unity”, as the Roman church might say. I mean, after 1500 years of separation between the Chalcedonian’s and the Non-Chalcedonians, it was revealed in the intra-church dialogue that there are no longer substantive disagreement on the Christological issue,that is a matter of terminology, culture,etc. So…WHY ARE OUR TWO CHURCHES STILL DIVIDED? Why can’t a council be called to heal the schism? If a council was called, who would convoke it? Who would preside? Hasn’t the problem been solved now?

    Sometimes the Orthodox style of government-a loose confederation of self-governing churches-makes no sense to me.I hope I have not caused any offense by my statements.

  2. Nicholas

    The Thing is that these commisions that have come to these conclusions do not speak for the Whole of the Orthodox Church. Even if there where to be a council of all the Churches of all the Bishops, if the Faithfull where to reject the rulings of the council uniting these two bodies the Council would not be valid, a Great Example of this is the Council of Florence. It had representatives from all of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church as well as Representatives from the Catholic Church. The Council ruled that they had resovled the Differences between Orthodoxy and Cathalocism. Only one Bishop did not sign the Decree, St. Mark of Ephesus. This council is still viewed as an Ecumenical Council by the Catholic Church, but is viewed by the Orthodox Church as a false council. We in the Orthodox Church take seriously the Belif that what unifies and preserves the Church is not any governmental Structure but Christ, thru the work of the Holy Spirit. This process takes time. In most instances in the History of the Church, issuse are resovled over multiple Generations. Sometimes it require multiple councils. During the Iconoclastic Controverse there where multiple councils Officialy apporved at the Time, that came to oppisite conclutions. It was time that ultimatly determined what showed what Christ was communicating thru His Holy Spirit. We as the Faithfull have to have patience, and Trust that Truth will be revealed in Christs time not ours. Our focus should be to live out our lives working out our salvation with fear and Trembling and trust in Christ to resovle what ever disputes can be resolved.

  3. melxiopp

    Until bishops begin speaking openly and officially and in council in support of the findings of these Commissions their findings remain mere opinion.

    Nicholas relates the fact that even were all the bishops to convene and reestablish communion between the Orthodox and the Non-Chalcedonians, it would still have to be ‘received’ by the lower clergy, monastics and laity. We should recognize this works the other way round, too. Just because a number of experts (often or usually not bishops) say we believe the same things and always have, it must still be received by the bishops and confirmed. This has not happened, yet many quietly act as if it has. Many priests quietly act as if we are already in full communion, even with the explicit yet secret approval of their bishops. This is not Orthodox, even if we do, in fact, believe the same things and are in communion with each other in all but communion. If we believe this to be true, then our bishops should proclaim it to be so – and then let the chips fall where they may. (Were the OCA to do this, not only our administrative autocephaly would be questioned, but our very Orthodoxy would likely be denied by many centers of Orthodoxy around the world.)

    If the Orthodox and the Non-Chalcedonians have always believed the same things, then we’ve been in communion with each other the whole time via the common Eucharist. We should seek to make that reality visible, but only if it’s true and only in the light.

  4. Terry Morgan

    Assume for a moment that the Orthodox and Oriental churches do in fact believe and hold the apostolic faith. Then when one side condemns the other for “heresy,” are we not putting ourselves in terrible spiritual danger? Jesus warns us not to condemn, lest we ourselves be condemned. This ought to impel us to be serious about reconciling with one another, unless there is clear evidence of real heresy in one group’s teachings.


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