Orthodox ecumenists and anti-ecumenists both start from the same fundamental ecclesiological principle, succinctly expressed in an anti-ecumenical statement of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos in April 1980: “We believe that our holy Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, which possesses the fullness of grace and truth.”
But pro-ecumenical and anti-ecumenical Orthodox draw radically different conclusions from this one principle. Ecumenists, focusing on the notion that the Orthodox Church possesses “the fullness of grace and truth,” conclude that other Christian churches also possess grace and truth, if not in their fullness. This realization opens the door to considering non-Orthodox Christians as true brothers and sisters in Christ and hence to the possibility of dialogue in love, growth in mutual understanding of each other’s faith and traditions, and discovery of common elements which unite Christians of different denominations. This does not mean that all Christian communities are equal in matters of faith and doctrine, since Orthodox ecumenists agree with anti-ecumenists that the Orthodox Church alone possesses the fullness of the Christian faith and is the true visible Church of Christ.
For Orthodox anti-ecumenists, the presence of the fullness of grace and truth found only in the Orthodox Church means that grace and truth are absent in non-Orthodox Christian communities, that their members are heretics and hence deprived of the means of salvation. A recent declaration of Bulgarian clergy and monastics states for example that “the apostolic and millennium-old patristic tradition unequivocally considers that heretics are outside the ship of the Church and as a consequence, beyond salvation.”
The theology behind these affirmations reposes on a rigorist interpretation of St. Cyprian of Carthage’s famous dictum “No salvation outside the Church.” Cyprian held that salvation is possible only in the visible Catholic (Universal) Church and that those outside, even in other nominally Christian bodies, could not be saved. Modern retention of this doctrine, which is not at all sustained in Orthodox Tradition, constitutes a misreading of the main body of patristic theology and of the history of the early Church. As Fr. Georges Florovsky points out, the strength of Cyprian’s dictum is that it is a tautology: “salvation” and “Church” are seen as one and the same. The question is then, What is the Church? Florovsky concludes from the practice of the early Church in not systematically re-baptizing Christians (or even at times re-chrismating them or re-ordaining clergy) returning to the Catholic Church from schismatic and heretical groups, that the Church considered that sacramental grace exists in Christian communities other than the Catholic Church herself – in other words, the sacramental, charismatic or mystical boundaries of the Church do not correspond with the visible canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church, but go well beyond. Florovsky demonstrates that Orthodoxy follows Augustine’s sacramental theology and the practice of the early Church of seeing in the recognition of the validity of sacraments outside the Catholic Church the continuation of links of heretics and schismatics with the Church of Christ.
The theological consequences of asserting that non-Orthodox Christians are deprived of the means of salvation are monumental. Even assuming, generously, that all baptised Orthodox (realistically, perhaps 150 million people) will be saved, this means that the remaining two billion Christians will be condemned to eternal damnation, basically for not being Orthodox. And presumably, extending this reasoning to its logical conclusion, salvation is impossible for all non-Christians as well. Thus of the current world population of some 7.4 billion, only some 150 million (about 2%) are even eligible for salvation.
A doctrine which denies the possibility of salvation to the bulk of humanity violates several fundamental principles of Orthodox theology. In the first place, it denies that God is a good and loving God who seeks the salvation of all humans, but rather turns God into a cruel divine caricature who creates humans whose only final destiny can be eternal torment. This is not at all the Orthodox notion of God as the Lover of Humankind (philanthropos), the Merciful One (eleémón), Benefactor (energetēs), the Most Compassionate (panoiktírmōn).
The denial of all possibility of salvation outside the Orthodox Church also violates several other basic tenets of patristic anthropology. The a priori condemnation of most of humanity to damnation is a form of predestination, a doctrine which the Orthodox Church has consistently rejected over the centuries. It is also contrary to the fundamental teachings of patristic anthropology that all humans are ontologically equal, created in the divine image, and that all possess free will and are each and every one responsible for his or her own destiny, in cooperation with or in resistance to divine providence and mercy. As in the parable of the talents, each person is responsible for the measure of divine light and truth freely offered to him or her (Mt 25:14-30).
Finally, in affirming that divine grace is not and cannot be present beyond the visible Orthodox Church, this theology seeks to impose human-devised limits on divine action. On the contrary, Orthodox Tradition steadfastly maintains that God is indeed a God of love and mercy, who freely provides the means of salvation for Orthodox, non-Orthodox and non-Christians in the context of the existence of each person, in ways that may be unknown or incomprehensible to human understanding. The Incarnation of Christ means that all men and women, throughout all time, can be saved.
The recognition that God acts beyond the boundaries of the visible Orthodox Church constitutes the basis, the prime justification and the imperative for Orthodox participation in ecumenical endeavors. Goodness, divine presence and salvation are found not only where we think that they should be, but where the Holy Spirit, in absolute divine freedom, blows throughout all time for every person, who thus has the possibility of being born of the Spirit (Jn 3:8; 1:3).
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
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