Freedom of Thought in the Orthodox Church

I do not wish to consider the actual question of my own particular case. I will only try to explain to you the general principles of freedom in the Orthodox Church. Can freedom of thought exist in a Church which has obligatory formulae? Is there not a contradiction between free seeking for truth and the revealed dogma dispensed by the Church? I am convinced that no such contradiction exists.
| 22 December 2008



I do not wish to consider the actual question of my own particular case. I will only try to explain to you the general principles of freedom in the Orthodox Church. Can freedom of thought exist in a Church which has obligatory formulae? Is there not a contradiction between free seeking for truth and the revealed dogma dispensed by the Church? I am convinced that no such contradiction exists. The dogmatic teaching of the Church must become real in in the personal thought and experience of everybody, for dogma does not only represent an abstract doctrinal statement; it is primarily a fact of our inner mystical life; apart from that it is dead. But this personal experience is impossible without freedom of thought, and freedom of the spirit. We have to comprehend dogma within the general context of our thinking, of our spiritual life, of our scientific development.

Of course the doctrines of the Church have an eternal divine content, but this eternal content is given to us in the Divine-human process of development. The human process gives us different possibilities of dogmatic resolution, while it confronts us with different tasks. For instance, we have been talking a great deal of the secularisation of culture and so on. These are questions which are put before us, and we have to answer them theologically. They can find an answer in no other way. If we observe the history of the development of the Church we see that while in a sense the recognition of dogmatic truth is general, this does not in any way mean that this unity involves the same level of understanding, or that everywhere the same content is put into dogmatic formulae. There were in fact no Christian formulae up to the epoch of the Ecumenical Councils. Now we have them.

Of course the real content of these formulae is supplied by the true depth of the mystical life of the Church, and this dogmatic life of the Church goes on constantly. It would be one of the worst of errors to think that the dogmatic life of the Church ended with the Seventh Ecumenical Council, that an Eight Ecumenical Council is now an impossibility, or that even the hope that such a Council will take place is a heresy – as is actually thought by many Orthodox people. I should say that it is in fact a heresy of opinion to regard every new idea in the dogmatic realm as a heresy. On the contrary, one cannot avoid putting new questions and giving new answers as life goes on. This freedom is of course limited, determined by the dogmas which exist already, though these dogmas in themselves are not dogmatic laws, but really an expression of our own mystical life within the Church. It is of course impossible to be a Christian if you do not believe in the Godhead of our Saviour, in the Trinity, in the Holy Eucharist. But from this comes an inner life which grows up and develops in our own thought and consciousness. We therefore conclude that dogmatic development itself requires freedom of thought.

But the Church is not a philosophical or scientific society the members of which are free in the conclusions to which they come. The Church is an hierarchically organized society and the hierarchy has a definite place in the life of the Church, possessing certain duties, privileges and rights. How can we define the competence of the hierarchy in the dogmatic realm? There are two opposite opinions as regards this:

1. The Roman Catholic view – the Church has an external organ of infallibility, which is the infallible Roman Pope, so that every question which arises in the Roman Church must be submitted to the Roman See and is finally settled there. In practice it is true that since the Vatican Council there has not been a single case when the Pope has spoken ex cathedra. On the contrary, he quite obviously avoids speaking in this way. In the case of Modernism the Pope made a definite dogmatic pronouncement, but it was not ex cathedra. Of course within the Roman Catholic Church there is a very developed dogmatic life going on, and there are different schools of thought, which are sometimes even opposed to one another in certain things. Even in the Roman Church the necessity of a measure of freedom for dogmatic research is recognized.

2. The purely individualistic view. According to this everybody has a right to his own opinion. This individualistic conception of freedom of thought leaves out of account the whole corporate life, the practice of sobornost’, and the organic unity of the Church.

In this sense we ask what kind of exterior authority in the question of dogma have we, in Orthodoxy? What are the duties and privileges of the hierarchy in the Orthodox Church?

We must not deny that it has a very important responsibility and duty as guardian of the Church’s thought. The hierarchy is responsible for the dogmas formulated and accepted by the Church, for the deposit of faith which is to be maintained intact. Further the hierarchy has the privilege of being the mouth-piece of the Church wherever truth has to be proclaimed. But does this truth include any kind of infallible authority? Have we in the Orthodox Church any external organ for proclaiming ecclesiastical truth? Many among us, and particularly many representatives of the hierarchy in our Church, have been sadly influenced by Romanizing tendencies, so that they actually regard themselves as so many Popes, or as a sort of collective Pope. This is a sin in Orthodoxy, and constitutes a real temptation to many. The Orthodox Church has no external dogmatic authorities.

But what about the Ecumenical Councils, are they not the ultimate authority? To which we must reply both “Yes” and “No.” The history of the Ecumenical Councils is well known. Their authority is quite other than that of an infallible Pope. As a rule each new Ecumenical Council is the origin of new dogmatic disputes. The actual definitions of the Ecumenical Councils are recognized as true, we know now that this is so, in that the Holy Spirit acted through them. But we must remember that the problem of false Ecumenical Councils was by no means as easy as it appears to us now. The Council of Florence, for example, was never recognized as an Ecumenical Council. Even an Ecumenical Council is not an external organ for proclaiming the truth of the Church. It is the best place for finding a common opinion, but it is not a “collective Pope.” No such exterior organ exists in the Church.

How then are new dogmas revealed in the Church? It is a long process. Take for example the question of the hesychasts. Two Councils took one line and two another. The whole discussion lasted for ten years. St Gregory Palamas was excommunicated, anathematized and imprisoned for two years, and then the next Council recognized his teaching as true. Ten years after his death he was canonized as a saint of the Greek Church. If Gregory of Palama had been obedient to the second Council he would have ended his days as a heretic. There are many instances like this in the history of the Church. This means that in questions of dogma the canonical authorities preserve their right to impose measures of a disciplinary character, but these measures must not prevent us from proclaiming what we regard as the truth.

In itself the idea of not having any exterior authority to decide is a very difficult one. But when we say that we believe in the Church we imply that we believe in the visible and the invisible Church and in the Holy Spirit Who saves His Church from error, but how, and where, and in what way, the decision will become obvious no one can tell, and only the inner conviction of one’s own conscience can witness. Of course tragic conflicts are inevitable.

St. Athanasius was persecuted because he was Orthodox. The same happened with St. Gregory of Palama. We are bound to conclude therefore, that we in the Orthodox Church need most of all a wise freedom of thought, so long as this freedom does not distort the dogmatic truth of the Church.

I would here like to say a few words about the corresponding principle in the Anglican Church. You, in your Church, practice what is called “comprehension.” This is a very ambiguous, a very dangerous and difficult thing. Of course I should not like to appropriate this principle in its Anglican form, and should not care to see within the Orthodox Church theologians who deny the Holy Trinity, or the Holy Eucharist and so on. But the principle in itself is good so far as it represents a measure of toleration of different tendencies of dogmatic thought. Such comprehensiveness always exists in the Church in varying degrees, and in this was especially true in the life of the Church at the time of the Ecumenical Councils. We see, for instance, two schools of theology – that of Alexandria and that of Antioch side by side. When the representatives of these schools met in the third century they anathematized one another, yet the principle of comprehension remained victorious, and both schools were united in the formula of the Fourth (Chalcedonian) Council.

I think that generally speaking the Anglican and the Orthodox Church share one idea of dogmatic development and of dogmatic freedom. But there is an historical difference. Our Orthodox Church – and this is especially true of the Russian Orthodox Church – has never been sufficiently educated for freedom, which remains the greatest privilege of the English nation. The principle of freedom of thought is applied in East and West, in very different ways.

I read recently Professor N. P. Williams book, The Doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin. Original Sin raises some of the most difficult problems of dogmatics. We have a very definite dogma of Original Sin, but no theology of Original Sin. Our customary way to explain Original Sin is as an inherited infirmity. Every theologian tries to elaborate his own dogmatic explication. I can imagine that you might be surprised if members of the Anglican Church were to accuse Professor Williams of heresy!

We have therefore to help one another mutually. We must help one another to evaluate and to appreciate the principle of the freedom of thought, but in doing so we must remain faithful to the dogmatic teaching of the Church. This is not easy, but it is the necessary way of dogmatic development. Otherwise we either become freethinkers or legalists who prefer that dogmatic thought should completely perish.

My own conviction is that there is no more spiritually important realm than that of dogmatic theology. In a sense it is axiomatic and revealed, but in another sense reason remains free in this dogmatic life, and it is one’s greatest joy to feel how in one’s heart the life and sense of dogma grows and develops. I feel that we have to struggle for freedom of thought it is not a struggle for “liberalism” or one of personal pride, it is a struggle for ecclesiastical truth (for truth within the Church). It is ultimately a struggle for Christ and His Church. Let me end with the words of the Apostle Paul: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ made us free, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.”


Sobornost NO 6, June 1936

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