By Burnell F Eckardt Jr.
This article first appeared online in 2005 for Reformation Today, a web site that is no longer available. A recent request for it has prompted this republication.
It has been stylish in recent years to be optimistic about the prospects for reunification of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom. The talk has intensified this year, because Pope Benedict XVI has wasted no time making clear to delegates from the East his earnest desire for unity. But Frederica Mathewes-Green, writing in The Wall Street Journal (“All for One?,” July 15, 2005) provides an insightful reason for keeping those hopes from getting too high, however desirous the new pope, or we, might be for an end to the millennium-long schism. She explains, “From a Roman Catholic perspective, unity is created by the institution of the church,” but for the Orthodox, “unity is created by believing the same things.” Interestingly, these competing concepts of unity have also been seen among American Lutherans over the past hundred years. A desire for institutional unity among the more left-leaning churches has led to merger after merger, the most recent being that which brought the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America into being. On the conservative side, one can contrarily see no great impetus for any bureaucratic unification, but confessional unity is understood as something arrived at when altar-and-pulpit fellowship is declared between church bodies.
Confessional Lutherans ought therefore to have a certain appreciation for the Orthodox perspective over against the West. Mathewes-Green, writing from the Orthodox point-of-view, describes the Eastern notion of unity in terms with which we ought to have no trouble agreeing:
"You don't need a big bureaucracy to keep them faithful. Across wildly diverse cultures, Orthodox Christians show remarkable unity in their faith. . . . What's the source of this common faith? The consensus of the early church, which the Orthodox stubbornly keep following. That consensus was forged with many a bang and dent, but for the past millennium major questions of faith and morals have been pretty much at rest in the Eastern hemisphere."
A large part of the reason for the occasional temptations of confessional Lutheran pastors to consider jumping to Orthodoxy has to do, I think, with this refreshing kind of unity. To be sure, cultural differences easily manifest themselves among the varying strains of Orthodox Christians around the world, and yet when it comes to theological controversy and debate, in stark contrast to what the West has known for hundreds of years, the Eastern silence is deafening. And the more that those who defend traditional stances of faith tend to lose the battles for the minds and hearts of the people in the West, the more appealing the peace of the East gets.
That appeal gets magnified when mixed with a common contention of the East that the West has had its troubles precisely because it abandoned the consensus of the Ecumenical Councils in favor of Papal supremacy. Confessional Lutherans would be quick to find points of agreement with their assessment, of course, since the very existence of Lutheranism arose from Luther’s rejection of Papal supremacy. Our agreement with the East tends to be tempered with a different understanding of the relation of Ecumenical Councils to the Scriptures, but we have to admit that on the question of the supremacy of the Chair of Peter, the East was right all along.
What has too easily been granted entry into the discussion of East versus West, however, is this notion that the seemingly incessant squabbles in the West prove somehow that the West is the wrong place to be. An excerpt from the Greek Orthodox “Oberlin Statement” dating back a half century (from the North American Faith and Order Study Conference, Oberlin, Ohio, September 3-10, 1957, for which see www.orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/oberlin.aspx) is quick to point out that the Orthodox Church “has been unassociated with the events related to the breakdown of religious unity in the West,” and declares their “firm conviction that this Unity can be found only in the fellowship of the Historical Church, preserving faithfully the catholic tradition, both in doctrine and in order.” They might as well have said, See you have had all these struggles, and that demonstrates that you should never have separated from us in the first place. The gist of the contention is that our controversies are the children of our folly, and ought to convince us that we should at once go and seek chrismation in an Eastern church. And some of us do just that.
But it seems to me that the whole argument is rooted in the old post hoc flaw. The fact that the West is the place of all the controversies cannot be held forth as the result of flawed Western thought, any more than the coming of night can be offered as proof that we shouldn’t have allowed the sun to set. Indeed, according to a well-known Luther line, whenever a cathedral is built, the devil builds a chapel next door, a logion which makes perfect sense: Would not the devil seek to make more trouble where his purposes could be the more severely assailed? C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape would certainly agree. That is not to say that this line of thought is necessarily the right one, for it can just as easily fall victim to the post hoc mentality. The point is that neither can be used by itself to prove validity.
Yet what can definitively be said is that the existence of controversy in the West offers us the opportunity—forced upon us by necessity—of dealing with matters that have never surfaced in the East. The Reformation provided us with the Augsburg Confession, whose descriptions of faith and justification contain an unsurpassed depth of succinctness and clarity. That volatile period of our history has forced us to arrive, through much struggling, at a point of confessional clarification we had not attained prior to it.
This is, ironically, the very same kind of process as was seen in the periods leading to the great ecumenical councils to whose decrees the East refuses to add or detract. They call the Nicene Creed settled dogma, and so it is; but its declarations too came in just the same way as those of the sixteenth century, out of much tribulation. The need arose to state with great clarity what the church believed against the heretic Arius, and so the Nicene Creed was crafted by the 318 bishops assembled at Nicea in a.d. 325. After a half-century of further strife, during which the catholic faith was greatly suppressed, the Second Ecumenical Council met at Constantinople, and the Creed was expanded and refined. Our Creed is the result of exasperating confrontations of error. By this token, the second millennium struggles and controversies of the West would place it in a more favorable vantage point over against the East, rather than the other way around. In a manner of speaking, we have wrestled with God and with men, and have prevailed.
The most salient theological issue between East and West has always been the filioque, which the East oppose because of their contention that it is an innovative doctrine and therefore to be avoided according to clear apostolic admonition, repeated by the seven ecumenical councils. What they tend to avoid, in their argument, is the difference between contending that the filioque is an innovative formula, something we readily admit (unlike Charlemagne who once ignorantly blamed the East for omitting it from the original Creed), and saying that the doctrine which the filioque expresses is the truth. They reject the latter primarily because they do not see it in the former.
Interestingly, the filioque, like the Creed itself, is also the result of struggles against the Arians’ repeated attacks on the catholic faith, specifically their rejections of the divinity of Christ. The date normally associated with its inclusion in the Creed is 589, when at the third local synod of Toledo the formerly Arian Visigoths were required to accept the Creed so amended. But it was at Toledo’s first synod in 447 that they first added filioque to the Creed, lifting it from a letter Pope Leo I had sent them in response to the heresies they were confronting. The clause itself actually dates to the fourth century, however, and was explicitly used by St. Ambrose (De Spiritu Sancto, 1, 11, 120, PL 16, 733) and St. Augustine (De Trinitate XV , 25, 47, PL 42, 1095). In addition to this use by these Western fathers, incidentally, is the notable first-ever introduction of the phrase into the Creed by a regional council in Persia in 410, which makes the filioque an authentically Eastern expression of thought on the Trinity. In addition these data reveal, remarkably, that the expression is virtually as old as the Creed, which serves to debunk the idea that it is a novelty. Most important, though, is the fact that the filioque is evidence of the Church’s further struggle against heresy. Like the Creed itself before it, and like our Lutheran Confessions after it, it arose in the heat of battle. It is a token to the Church’s continual need for vigilance against error. As long as she is on earth, she is ecclesia militans.
What became a point of contention for the East was the fact that the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in a.d. 431, while acknowledging the Second Ecumenical Council’s amendments to the Creed, now forbad anyone “to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicaea” (Canon VII, NPNF, Vol. 14: 231). The meaning of this phrase has been subject to varying interpretations, but it has been interpreted by the East as a prohibition of any further textual changes to the Creed.
Thus although the filioque was employed theologically against heresy, as Leo had done, neither the Council of Chalcedon nor any succeeding Ecumenical Council could, according to the East, see fit to provide any further alteration to the text of the Creed, even if an alteration such as the filioque were deemed theologically acceptable, since the undoing of any of the decrees of a prior Ecumenical Council would have called into question the authenticity of all the Ecumenical Councils.
The East, moreover, is rather insistent about maintaining the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, seeing them as having been guided necessarily by the Holy Spirit. The addition of the filioque in the West is an implicit assertion that we do not believe even an Ecumenical Council has the right to declare that there will never be a need for a further creedal declaration of truth, whether or not that was the intention of Canon VII.
Here the East claims authority where the West is not so quick to do so. But here the Lutheran Church parts company with both. For we reject impious papal decrees with the same criterion by which we accept the Councils: we only allow the authority of the Councils because they are found to be in agreement with the Scriptures. And while we certainly accept the decrees of the seven Ecumenical Councils, we do so in the same way as we accept the Lutheran Confessions, namely as a matter of theological agreement. We accept the Creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions, because they agree with the Sacred Scriptures, but never in addition to them. There is a bit of a conundrum here, admittedly, since one can here charge (as Eck did against Luther in the 1519 Leipzig debate) that by saying this we appear to be placing our own private views of the Scriptures above those of everyone else, the ultimate error of the sectarians. On the other hand, to take one’s final cue from the decrees of the Councils is to place them above the Scriptures. Our reply is to point to the perspicuity of the Scriptures: they interpret themselves, and they are clear; we confess as doctrine only what the Scriptures teach, and it is only by their authority that we confess it. In this regard we have a differing view both on the nature of Biblical authority, and on the life of the Church and her struggles against error.
So we accept the Creeds and the Confessions theologically, and not necessarily with respect to non-theological matters, such as whether we ought feel bound to a particular point of exegesis in the Confessions, or whether one may add a theologically acceptable term like filioque to the Creed.
I cannot help but admit, on the other hand, that I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone get the idea from this that it’s therefore acceptable to make any other wholesale changes. Heaven knows the levees have already burst in that regard; but let no one cite the filioque as imprimatur for some of the wild innovations recent years have seen. It bears remembering that the Creed in both its forms comes from the Ecumenical age when churchmen were more apt to think and speak in terms befitting a venerable theological tradition, and that we will certainly court disaster if we seek to undo what they have done.
What is perhaps most damaging about the Orthodox perspective is their insistence that they are the visible Church of Jesus Christ on earth: “We do not admit that the Unity of the Church, and precisely of the "visible" and historical Church, has ever been broken or lost” (Ibid.). This insistence has been consistently evident in all their deliberations, including specifically those of Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople to the Lutherans between 1576 and 1581. In reply to the Lutheran overtures to the East, the final word was, in effect, Drop your heretical adherence to the filioque and other matters with which you disagree with us, and we will gladly receive you as sons. Otherwise, go your way and leave us alone (see George Mastrontonis, Augsburg and Constantinople, Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press, 1982).
By throwing the full weight of their venerable tradition at the Lutherans, the Orthodox have caused the knees of the historians among us to quiver a bit. Their tradition is harder to gainsay than that of Rome. We can more easily withstand such threats to our own integrity when they come from the latter, seeing that Rome had clearly veered from her own apostolic moorings beginning somewhere from Gelasius’ fifth-century conception of two swords under God (pope and king) to Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne (a.d. 800) and reaching its ugliest mutation in the early 13th century genocidal pomposity of Innocent III. But the fact of the East’s clear sailing through history without any Middle Ages to speak of provides them with an added weight of authority behind their claims of tradition. No wonder there are capitulations among us.
Nevertheless it ought to be remembered that saying one is in the right is not what makes it so, no matter how forcefully or impressively one is able to say it. For us, the unity of the Christian Church has never been manifest except in her marks, in the same way that the divinity of Christ, during His humiliation, was not manifest except in His marks. The cross marked Jesus, as could nothing else, as the Christ, the King of the Jews. Not even His healings and miracles, as important as they were, pointed as clearly as the cross itself did to who He really was, in fulfillment of the Scriptures, as the centurion at the cross in St. Matthew 27 also confessed. So also, it is not necessary to say that the schisms which have externally beset the Church in any way encroach on her unity, any more than it would be to say that the passion and death of Christ is a renunciation of His glory. We live by faith, not by sight. By faith, then, we agree that the unity of the Church has never been broken or lost, but we do not believe that this unity must be visibly evident. Its concealment might even be said to betoken its likeness to Christ’s divinity. And as the bitterness and travail of Christ’s soul resulted in ultimate good for the human race, so the struggles we have endured through the centuries of the Church’s tribulations, both inwardly and outwardly, have produced the good fruits of confessional stamina and refinement.
All in all, the temptations to go East are easy to understand. The East has peace. The East can say it has the more pristine Creed. And the East has visible unity. But we must go on fighting the good fight. We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness. By the same token, I believe, it is admissible to say that we preach a cruciform Christianity, which likewise is a stumblingblock and foolishness to some. Tho’ with a scornful wonder, men see her sore opprest; By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed; Yet saints their watch are keeping, Their cry goes up, How long? And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.