Turning Our Hearts to the Fathers

The Orthodox Church & Christian Unity

by Metropolitan Maximos

The Eastern Orthodox Church is known for its liturgical tradition, in which God’s Holy Word is preserved, preached, and meditated upon. It is also known as the Church of the apostles and the Fathers. Moreover, it is known as the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, each one of them preserving and defending the mystery of human salvation in Christ.

“Following the Fathers” is a favored expression, not only of the Fourth Council of Chalcedon (451) and that of Nicaea II (787), which formally used the expression, but also of the rest of the councils and Eastern patristic thought and spirituality.

The Fathers of the Church, Eastern and Western, are defined as those men of God who excelled in Christian life and devotion, as well as in theology. They are the authoritative interpreters of the Great Tradition of the Church, which includes the Holy Word of God treasured in the Holy Scripture, as kept, taught, lived, and experienced in the liturgical, devotional, and existential life of Christ’s Church.

The Fathers & Continuity

The Great Tradition of the Church is the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Holy Scripture inspires the authors of patristic literature, the Fathers of the Church. The Spirit inspires them to keep the teaching they received and to keep the truth of God’s Holy Word and Christ’s preaching in the gospel in an authentic, unadulterated, and even primitive way. Thus, the Fathers are holy witnesses of the revealed truth. They are not just “testes antiquitatis,” but “testes veritatis.1 According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, through their “certain charism of truth,” the Fathers were the faithful keepers and transmitters of the “depositum iuvenensens” of Christ’s teaching in the context of the concrete, devotional, eucharistic, and sacramental life of the Church.

Is there a limit to the “patristic age”? For many Protestant scholars, it ended with the Council of Chalcedon (451). For others of a more “catholic” persuasion, it lasted to the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II, in 787), or to the death of St. John of Damascus in the East (749) and St. Isidore of Seville in the West (636). For some Orthodox theologians, like Fr. Georges Florovsky, the patristic age includes such great theologians as St. Maximos the Confessor (the theologian of the Sixth Council) and, during Byzantine times, St. Symeon the New Theologian (eleventh century) and St. Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century).

I agree with Father Florovsky. The Church continues to be alive, which means that the Church continues to produce such Fathers. From this point of view, the patristic era has never ended. Yet Father Florovsky deplores what he calls a “Western captivity” of Eastern theology. He deplores a pseudomorphosis (false education), which theological students from the East acquired in Western schools, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. He advocates a “return to the Fathers” in terms of “scholastic” theology (“theology of the schools”).

However, the piety of the Church and its spirituality continue to be fed by the spirituality of the Fathers, through publications like Philokalia (the love of beauty), through which the patristic age continues to feed the devotional life of the worshiping community of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Great Tradition of the undivided Church is characterized by more than antiquity. It is also characterized by the continuity of truth and faith, which faith is ultimately the very faith of Christ himself. Three Fathers spoke eloquently to this point.2 St. Vincent in his Commonitorium established that catholic (Orthodox) truth is “what has been believed at all times, everywhere, and by all.” St. Cyprian remarked that antiquity without truth is just “the old age of error.” And St. Irenaeus contended that “the charism of truth” was the characteristic of authentic teachers of the gospel in Rome and the other apostolic centers of Christendom. It is this charisma which the bishops of the Church received in the context of their ordination during the Eucharist of the Church, in continuity with the apostolic community, and which context was later termed apostolic succession.

Following the Fathers according to the councils means following the mind of the Fathers, which means following the “word of the Holy Writ” from which the Fathers were never separated. Patristic theology and the theology of the Church which aspires to this will be existential in character, experiential (relating to salvation in Christ), and kerygmatic—relating to Christian life and witness connected with the faith and prayer life of the Church.

The first International Congress of Orthodox Theological Schools, held in Athens in 1936, discussed the influences of Western theology in contemporary Orthodox theology. The congress advocated a return to the Fathers, and Fr. Georges Florovsky has since been the proponent of a “neo-patristic synthesis” following the Fathers.

The Patristic Vision of Christ

Fr. Florovsky says that the patristic synthesis begins with the central vision of the Christian faith, which is Christ, the God and Redeemer, the humiliated and glorified, the victor on the Cross.

In Christ we discover the Holy Trinity, “behind the veil of his flesh,” to use the expression of Bishop Theophanes.3 Christ reveals the Father, whose perfect Image he is, and God’s Holy Spirit, who inhabits him and is the Ointment of his flesh from the very moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin.

Orthodox spirituality is Christocentric and Christological at all levels: sacramental, corporate, and private. On the sacramental level, Christ himself is the true minister and celebrant of all the sacraments. In the anaphora of the Eucharist, St. John Chrysostom refers to Christ as the one “who offers and is offered.” The Liturgy is his Mystical Supper.

All the sacraments take place in the context of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, thus exhibiting a corporate dimension, with a personal emphasis. At the level of personal devotions, we may cite as examples the Jesus Prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful unto me, a sinner”) and the Akathist to the Lord Jesus.4

The aim of Orthodox spiritual life is the vision of God in adoration of the Triune God. This can only happen through the mystery of Christ, “perfect God and perfect man,” according to the Chalcedonian formula of faith.

The theme of patristic theology is the mystery of Christ. This is the common ethos of the Christian Church, especially in the Eastern Church. The German scholar Ferdinand Kattenbush is right when he says that the Christological vision is central to the total structure of the Greek (patristic) theological system.

In the teaching of the Fathers, the mystery of Christ is always seen from the perspective of salvation. Salvation is an existential problem. This soteriological perspective of Christ’s mystery culminates in the “new creation in Christ,” through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

Salvation is bestowed by Christ in the Holy Spirit to individual Christians in the mystery of the Church. Ecclesiology, as with Mariology, is part of Christology, for the Church is, in the words of St. Augustine, “totus Christus, caput et membra,” or even “Christ perpetuated into the ages.” The Church is the Body of Christ; and Christ, a corporate entity in his Flesh, includes the members of his Body, of which he is the Head: his Blessed Mother and all the saints of the Church, from all eternity to all eternity, past, present, and future.

Eastern theology stresses the Incarnation of Christ, through which salvation begins, and his glorious Resurrection, which culminates the salvation process. Western theology stresses the Cross of Christ. However, the Cross is also very important in the theology, Liturgy, and spirituality of the East, although the Eastern approach to the mystery of the Cross is different.

In the West, the Cross of Christ seems to be an end in itself. I remember the vacuum that I felt in my soul when I saw the play Godspell a few years ago. The play ended with the Cross and Burial of Christ. It seems that the play Jesus Christ Superstar was conceived in a similar way. This treatment is inconceivable in the spirituality of the East, for which the end of Christ’s salvation act is his glorious Resurrection from the dead and the abundant, transfigured life that gushed forth from the open tomb of the Resurrected Lord of the Christian faith.

The Cross is seen in the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection as the Cross of glory. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, Christ, the King of Glory, dies upon the Cross to benefit his own subjects, all of humanity. Christ is victorious not only by his Resurrection, but also by his Cross. As the Byzantine Divine Liturgy puts it: “Behold, joy has come to the world through the Cross.” In the words of the Troparion of Holy Thursday evening, the Church prays to the Crucified Lord of Glory: “By thy being nailed upon the Cross, and by being pierced with a spear, thou hast gushed forth immortality for humanity, O Christ our God; glory to thee.” We Christians can rejoice in the Cross of Christ, for the act of God’s creation is completed upon the Cross, as a new creation in Christ has been achieved upon it.

The mystery of the Cross can only be properly understood in the light of the Council of Chalcedon, according to which the Christ of God, who died on the Cross (a divine person), is truly God and truly man. The death of Christ upon the Cross was the real death of a divine person, the Word-of-God-who-became-flesh, in the flesh, which he assumed at his Incarnation.

Resources for Ecumenism

Eastern and Western Christianity share in the task of “returning to the Fathers,” renewing their commitment to patristic thought and teaching. In spite of their common patrimony, the Eastern and Western Churches went their own ways in following the Fathers of the undivided Church. “Estrangement,” disruption of the former common “universe of discourse,” had already happened even during the time of the so-called undivided Christendom.5 As church historian Roger Van Roey of the Louvain noted, even during this period, “The years of separation between the Eastern and the Western Churches were more numerous than the years of unity.” Unity was a constant challenge and a goal, but it was never fully realized.

A “disintegration of mind” between East and West took place, which has to be overcome by a “reintegration” of a distorted tradition.6 According to Arnold Toynbee, the two “Christian societies,” Eastern and Western, are “self-explanatory.” On the contrary, they can only be truly explained and understood in the light of the “tragedy of Christian disruption” of East and West.7 This disruption remains to be healed. Thus, the so-called ecumenical problem is ultimately an ecclesiological problem, that is, the restoration of full and visible unity in the life of the One Church of Christ.

Orthodoxy, with Roman Catholicism, is called to bridge this estrangement, even more greatly enlarged because of the Reformation in the West. In the words of Florovsky: “The tragedy of division is the major and crucial problem of Christian history.”8 He continues:

In the accomplishment of this task [of healing,] the Orthodox Church has a special function. She is a living embodiment of an uninterrupted tradition, in thought and devotion. She stands not for a certain “particular” tradition, but for the Tradition of ages, for the tradition of the Undivided Church.9

Conscious of this awesome responsibility, Orthodoxy fully participates in the so-called ecumenical movement. A summary follows of specific Orthodox resources and possible contributions to ecumenical work, based on the uninterrupted patristic tradition of Orthodoxy.

Scripture & Tradition

In following the teaching of the Fathers, there is only one source of divine revelation, the Holy Tradition of the Church, of which the Holy Writ is part. The gospel of Christ, and the Word of God, once handed down to the saints, is treasured in that privileged part of Holy Tradition that we call the Holy Scriptures. However, this same Word of God is authoritatively preached, meditated upon, and interpreted in the context of the life and practice of the Church, centered on the Eucharist.

Contemporary Orthodox theologians rightly call this Great Tradition of the Church “the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit” or, even more strongly, “the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.”10 It is this same Holy Spirit who “spoke through the prophets,” who inspired the authors of the New Testament and the Fathers of all ages.

The “divine inspiration” of the Holy Scripture is the “synergy” between God’s Holy Spirit (the divine author of the Scriptures) and the human authors of the Scripture, who transmit the divine message in human form and contours. This same Holy Spirit guides the Fathers of the councils, so that in an authoritative way they may translate the kerygma of the gospel to the dogma of the Church. It is this kerygma and dogma that, preached and proclaimed by the Fathers either in or out of council, is received and acknowledged as such by the holy people of God. This is the famous teaching of the “reception” of the councils by the so-called consciousness of the Church, which is enlightened by the same Holy Spirit to receive the authentic councils and to reject the false ones, the so-called Robber Councils (latrocinia).


A summary of the most important of the teachings that make the Eastern theological tradition special follows. It is the profound conviction of the Eastern Church that true healing, reconciliation, and restoration of the visible unity of the Church can only happen on the basis of the tradition of the Fathers.

Holy Trinity. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is three hypostases, which share the one reality (essence and energies) of God. Eastern patristic theology contemplates the hypostases first, which lead to the one reality of God that is behind them. That reality is communicable in its energies, but beyond reach as far as the inner-reality (essence) of God is concerned. What makes the unity of God is not the essence, but the hypostasis (person) of the Father, who shares the divine reality with the other two hypostases in all eternity in two different “modes of existence,” that of “generation” (the Son of God), and that of “procession” (God’s Holy Spirit). The approach to the mystery of God is “existential” and “relational.” The Holy Trinity is a “relational Entity.” It is a society of three hypostases who live in one another, and relate to each other in love, being a communion and community of love. The Church of God is the reflection of this communion of love that is the Holy Trinity.

Creation. Creation is a free act based on the free will of God. Creation is called to existence out of nothingness in time. Time and space are created by God; they do not have an independent existence. The dynamism of God’s creation can only be understood in the light of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the world since the beginning of the world, and certainly before the Incarnation of Christ. Since the inception of the world, the Spirit of God leads it to perfection and the life of theosis, participation in the very life of God. Thus, the original goodness of God’s creation is an “eschatological goodness,” that is, dependent on the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, and which is to be consummated at the end-time (eschata). Scientific explanations regarding nature and the origin of man (such as the big bang theory, “strings” theory, and the theory of evolution)11 are not of concern to Orthodoxy as long as the patristic teaching, according to which God is in charge of his creation, is respected and kept.

Christology & Pneumatology. The mystery of Christ is central. This centrality does not lead Eastern theology to “Christomonism,” and it avoids the opposite extreme, “Spiritumonism.” On the contrary, Christ and the Spirit work hand-in-hand. There is only one plan of salvation or “economy,” ordered by the Father and executed by Christ in the Holy Spirit. It was rightly stated by Metropolitan John of Pergamos (Zizioulas) that the Christology of the Greek Fathers and of the Eastern Church is “pneumatologically constituted.”12 This means that the work of these two divine hypostases is intertwined and interconnected. In their work “ad extra,” the two hypostases act together, in creation, in the restoration of creation, and in the final consummation of the world in the end-times. Even “new creation in Christ” is pneumatological, being the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Ecclesiology. The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, both saving and deifying, can only be accomplished within the context of God’s Holy Church. The Church, as a reflection of the Holy Trinity, gathers around the Eucharist, where the eschata break through into history (time). Thus, the Real Presence here and now is realized, not only of Christ, but also of the Holy Spirit and the eschatological kingdom of God.

Both as a reflection of the Holy Trinity and as the Eucharist (which is the Church), the Church justifies its name as communion. Communion ecclesiology is the consequence of Trinitarian and eucharistic ecclesiology. The Church is truly the Church when gathered around the Eucharist, with all the “orders” of the Church present, and with the catholicity (and universality) present at the local (diocesan) level. The Church, being the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the People of God, is at the same time a corporate being, a communion, and a relational entity. The concrete expression of this entity is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist by the eucharistic community eschatologically oriented. This means that not only Christ, who is the Head of the Body, is present, but also the members: the Mother of God and all the saints of all ages, past, present, and future.

The Eastern Orthodox Church in its liturgical celebration commemorates the future. At the Eucharist the Church transcends all divisions, both those of time, being eschatologically oriented and transcending history, and those of space, for the celebration of the Eucharist transcends the limitations of locality. Indeed, the Eucharist is communion with all the local churches throughout the world.13 In the Eucharist, locality, catholicity, and universality exist together and are co-related.

Episcopacy. Episcopacy in the life of the Eastern Church is “of the essence,” without being “essentialistic.” Ministry in the Church, a reflection of the ministry of Christ, is relational. So is the head minister, the bishop. He always relates to the community of which he is the head. The community has something to do with his election and reception, as the liturgical acclamation at his consecration indicates: “Axios! He is worthy!”

The bishop also is the sign and symbol of unity. Through him the eucharistic community over which he presides is kept together, united. He is the person through whom the local church, the diocese, exits its isolation and is in communion with the other local churches. The structures of communion provided to the local church in order to exit its isolation include the synods of bishops at the eparchy (province), autocephalous church, and universal levels. In all these instances, including that of the ecumenical council, the bishop represents his eucharistic community and votes on its behalf.

Primacy & Conciliarity. Conciliarity is a basic communion structure at the disposal of the local churches. This conciliarity cannot exist without a “primacy,” the leadership of one of the bishops among those who gather in council. This communion structure goes back to the origins of ecclesial tradition, and is well delineated in Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles, a fourth-century document. To paraphrase, the text says: Let the local bishops of a given province do nothing without the knowledge of their first; but let also the first do nothing without the consent of the other bishops, so that peace and harmony may reign in the Church, and so that God’s Holy Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may be glorified. Primacy and conciliarity presuppose one another and exist for one another. They are co-related notions and interdependent realities in the life of the Church as communion.

Sacraments. Sacraments are the sign of the presence of the kingdom in the Church. They are eschatologically oriented, since they are dependent on and are the result of the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Baptism, the work of the Spirit, is the “ordination” of the “order” of the lay people (ordo laicorum) in the Church as the eucharistic community.

Confirmation is the very Gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Eastern tradition, it is never to be separated from baptism, with which it constitutes a continuum of liturgical action in Christian initiation. The same Holy Spirit that anoints Christ also becomes the Ointment of the flesh of the baptized in Christ, so that this last one may become an extension and a real presence of Christ, the Anointed of God.

Ministry is constitutive of the Church as the eucharistic community. There are a variety of ministries, all originating in Christ, all of them the work of the Holy Spirit, and all of them related, either directly or indirectly, to the eucharistic community. All these ministries reflect the action of God’s Holy Spirit “dividing (imparting) the gifts (charismata).”

All the ministries and all the orders (ordained ministry, including bishop, priest, and deacon), including the “order” of lay people, are necessary for the eucharistic celebration. For the Orthodox, there is no true Eucharist without the order of the bishop, or priest on behalf of the bishop, presiding at the celebration and calling upon God’s Holy Spirit to consecrate the congregation and the eucharistic gifts, so that “Holy Things (gifts)” may be given “unto the Holy” (the Divine Liturgy). As the eschaton breaks through at the eucharistic celebration, the inaugurated kingdom of God, which is to come fully at the end-time, is already, albeit not yet fully, present as we celebrate the central sacrament of the Church.

Grace. The work of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments brings, as a result, the relationship with God that the theologians call grace. There is a great difference in the understanding of this mystery of grace between the Eastern and the Western Churches. In the Eastern Church, theologians understand “grace” as “relation,”14 a relation to which the human person is called through the sacraments. Actually, this grace is the very life of God, in which the recipient is called to share. St. Gregory Palamas calls this grace the “energy” of God.

In contrast, the West speaks of grace in “essentialistic” terms, that is, a “created reality,”15 when it speaks of “created grace” (gratia creata), a reality allegedly created by God to connect human and divine reality. The Christian East finds it impossible to understand grace in any way other than as relational; it is a “relational entity” that enables human beings to participate in the life of God. The image used by the Greek Fathers (such as St. Basil) is that of iron in the fire: In the same way in which iron gains the properties of the fire while in it, man, in the life of grace, acquires the spiritual qualities of God’s Holy Spirit, in whom he lives. He becomes “spiritual” and a “bearer of the Spirit.”

Eschatology. We have repeatedly noted that the end-time (eschaton) breaks into history in the context of the Church, in which the eschatological kingdom is present as inaugurated. There is a healthy tension between history and eschatology, historical and eschatological dimensions in the life of the Church, as the Church advances into God’s eschatological kingdom, already present, but not yet fully. The original goodness of God’s creation is an eschatological goodness, just as the holiness of the Church is an eschatological holiness. Both of them are the work of, and depend upon, God’s Holy Spirit, whose presence in the Church brings the eschaton into history. Because of the Spirit’s presence, the Church constantly “moves toward the kingdom,” according to St. Maximos the Confessor. Thus, the kingdom is the church’s eschatological fulfillment.

Contributions to Unity

In following its calling, the Orthodox Church has made many valuable contributions to the work of reconciliation of contemporary Christianity and the healing of the estrangement between Christian East and West. It is necessary to know what the Orthodox Church understands it represents in the ecumenical movement, and what are the terms of its participation in it.

In some theological circles, the contemporary Orthodox Church is viewed as just one of many Christian “denominations” (Partikularkirche). This is a misrepresentation of Holy Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not a denomination. It is the Church of the apostles and of the Fathers. Its faith and ethos are those of the early Church. The doctrine of the Orthodox Church is the doctrine of the undivided Church, the doctrine of the apostles, the Fathers, and the seven (or eight) ecumenical councils.16

Thus, the Orthodox Church, along with the Roman Catholic Church, believes it is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (the Una Sancta), which is the Church that the ecumenical movement wishes to reestablish. The Orthodox Church enters into dialogue with other Christians, self-conscious of its ecclesiological status as the Una Sancta, and in the hope of being a witness to what it represents for the benefit of other Christians.

The First Millennium

During the Patristic age, disputes erupted among local churches on how to receive back into the fold of the Church people who betrayed the Christian faith and left the Christian community. In addressing the problem of the return to the Church of a variety of problematic groups, St. Basil the Great distinguished among three groups: (1) parasynagogues, (2) schismatics, and (3) heretics. The first and second groups are still part of the Church. They are received back to the Church without rebaptism. However, the third group, heretics, is more problematic. They betrayed the Christian faith and Church. Thus, they were abandoned by God’s Holy Spirit, and consequently had to be received back into the Church by baptism.

These “heretics” were not the Arians, towards whom St. Basil applied the discipline reserved for schismatics. The real heretics for him were those who had falsified the Christian teaching pertaining to God, thus choosing their own gnostic teaching against the teaching of the Church. These people could not have the Spirit, and had to be received by baptism.

St. Basil’s teaching became the perennial teaching of the Church, reflected in official documents and decrees of Orthodox councils. The Council of Pentekti (Quinisext, 692) later promulgated instructions regarding the same problem, very much in the direction of St. Basil.17

According to this teaching, if three conditions are met, there is no need for rebaptism: (1) faith in the Holy Trinity; (2) baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity; and (3) baptizing with triple immersion. Such a baptism is a baptism of the Church. This is still the practice of the official Church. Those who practice rebaptism are violating a perennial and official practice of their Church.

In 879–990, a council at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople dealt with the two major differences between the Church of Rome and the Church of the East, and it managed to resolve them: the primacy of the Church of Rome, and the procession of the Holy Spirit (filioque). The council decided that the interpolation of the filioque clause into the Creed was spurious and to be rejected. Regarding Roman primacy, the council reiterated and confirmed the teaching of two ecumenical councils, Constantinople I (381) and Chalcedon (451): There are two primacies in the life of the Imperial Church, that of Rome for the West, and that of Constantinople for the East. The two churches, Rome and Constantinople, are to exercise their primacies in the areas that the “ancient custom” and Great Tradition of the undivided Church assigned to them, without interference in the affairs of one another.

Theologians like the late Fr. John Meyendorff urged the two churches with primacy to respect this agreement and return to it. I agree that this “return” would immediately resolve a major ecumenical problem between Eastern and Western Christianity, at least as far as the Orthodox Church is concerned.

Modern Times

The ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople issued encyclicals in 1902, 1912, 1920, and 1978, appealing to all Christian churches to join in the effort to restore the visible unity of the Church of Christ.

With the creation of the Life and Work, and Faith and Order movements in the Protestant world, the ecumenical patriarchate found the opportunity to be involved with the work of Christian rapprochement among various Christian groups, especially those from the Reformation. The patriarchate urged the autocephalous churches in the East also to be involved. Thus, the Eastern Orthodox world was ready to be involved with the creation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948 in Amsterdam, Holland. The Orthodox Church, a charter member, continues to be active in this council, in spite of its disappointment that recently the council basically abandoned its original purpose, which was to seek the restoration of visible unity.

The Orthodox Churches responded to the invitation of the Church of Rome to send observer delegates to its Second Vatican Council. I was honored to be one of them. The results of the council have favorably impacted not only the Roman Church, but also the rest of the Christian world, including Orthodoxy. The Orthodox rejoice at the liturgical renewal of the Church of Rome; at the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the attempted balancing of the Roman primacy with conciliarity; and at the famous Decree on Ecumenism, which, from a Roman point of view, established the ecclesiological status of the Orthodox Churches as closely related to the Roman Church. As a follow-up to the council, theological dialogue was established between Rome and the Orthodox Churches. The two Churches started calling one another “sister churches.” It is hoped that this dialogue will produce further rapprochement, reconciliation, and, eventually, restoration of the visible unity of the Church of Christ, without betrayal of the Great Tradition of the Fathers represented by the Orthodox Church.

On the international level, the Orthodox Church is involved in bilateral dialogues with almost all the other Christian churches and communities, including the Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed Churches.

The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the U.S.A. and Canada (S.C.O.B.A.) has established dialogues with the major Christian churches and communities in North America. The most significant among these dialogues are those with the Roman Catholic Church (one with theologians, and one with bishops). An impressive collection of agreed-upon statements has been produced. The history of the dialogue and most of its major statements have been published in The Quest for Unity.18 Salvation in Christ19 contains the work of the dialogue between Orthodox and Lutherans.

Orthodoxy & Culture Wars

Orthodox Christians in the West are much disheartened by the culture wars that rage around us. I would like to give a brief Orthodox response to some of the issues.


The September 2001 issue of Touchstone included two articles on homosexuality. David Morrison, in “Finding the Straight Path,” relates his conversion to a Christian lifestyle away from active homosexuality. He distinguishes between active homosexuality, a sin, and same-sex attraction, a psychological problem. This last one is not sinful, and in a good number of cases it can be healed with the help of a qualified psychiatrist. The problem is not the attraction but the response to it. Heterosexual people face the same attraction toward the other sex. Heterosexual attraction is normal; the other is not. Sin is involved when the response to heterosexual attraction happens outside of marriage, whereas in the case of “same-sex attraction” a positive response is forthrightly sinful.

Curtis Chang, in his article “An Idolatrous Silence,” deals in a more involved manner with the problem of homosexuality. A committed Evangelical, the author qualifies homosexuality not only as “abnormal,” not only as “sin,” but also as “idolatry.” Homosexuality is condemned by Leviticus in the Old Testament, as it is also condemned by St. Paul’s teaching in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:26–32 and 1 Cor. 6:9–11).

As Orthodox Christians, we cannot but applaud these conservative Christian authors. Active homosexuality cannot be just another “alternative lifestyle.” From the standpoint of the Great Tradition of the Church, homosexuality is not only abnormal and sinful, but also an idolatrous abomination. Those who believe differently violate both the letter and the spirit of the Holy Scripture. I question their claim to still be Christians.

Several years ago, during a WCC/USA general assembly meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, the candidacy of the Metropolitan Community Churches, a homosexual group, was discussed. The Orthodox unanimously rejected their candidacy, stating that if such a group entered the NCC, the Orthodox would leave as one body. The homosexual group did not enter at that time, but it is still knocking on the door of the NCC for recognition and acceptance. I hope the NCC will continue to respect the request of its Orthodox members, and reject the candidacy of the homosexual group.

Sexism / Feminism

God created gender (male and female) to be harmoniously complementary. In the order of creation, there is a hierarchy of gender, which does not disrupt the basic equality of the two sexes. The woman is created after man and, according to Genesis 2, from man; the man is the head of the woman. The “order of grace” or redemption confirms the order of creation. The difference is that, in the order of grace, man’s leadership is a sacrificial one, in imitation of Christ’s leadership in his relation to the Church. This teaching is that of the Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments. It is also the teaching of the Fathers and the Great Tradition of the Church. It is the teaching of the Holy Orthodox Church.

From this point of view, it is obvious that any abuse of gender, either through “male chauvinism” or through “feminism” is a violation of nature as created by God. Man and woman are different, and they are not interchangeable. They are created for one another, in order to respect and love, and not abuse, one another. The leadership role given to the man in the New Testament is one of sacrificial leadership. Christian marriage and life in the Church are based on this relationship between the sexes, as created by God, and as certified and confirmed by the completion of God’s creation upon the Cross of Christ. Also, hierarchy among genders is based on hierarchy in the Holy Trinity, of which humanity is a reflection.20 The same hierarchy is confirmed by Christ and in Christ, who is the head of the Church. In his image, man is the head of the woman.

From this point of view, and according to scriptural testimony,21 ordination of women to the eucharistic ministry (episcopacy and priesthood) of the Church is excluded. The Great Tradition of the Church as experienced in Holy Orthodoxy has always, in practice and in principle, excluded such ordination.

One can understand the frustration of our women when men abuse their role of sacrificial leadership. But this is not a reason for women to go overboard. St. Paul says: “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20). Defense of human rights for every human person, male and female, is fine. But to propose either an egalitarian system or give the leadership role to the woman instead of the man is to reverse the order of creation and of grace. To introduce such a reversal into the life of the Christian family and the Church is to allow secularism to infiltrate the Christian family and the Christian community.

The Orthodox Church stands for respect of the equality of the sexes, but also for hierarchy and sacrificial leadership of the husband in the family, and for the sacrificial leadership of the ordained, male ministry in the life of the Church.


What do the Orthodox think about abortion? Following the Fathers, who reflect the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, we know that human life begins at conception. Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms) and St. Paul speak of God knowing them and calling them while they still were in their mother’s womb.22 The Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council stipulate that Christ’s humanity develops in his Mother’s womb “from the very conception.” The child conceived in the womb of the mother is not a tissue but a human being. The mother does not have a “choice” to kill or to keep her child. The correct “choice” was commanded in the Old Testament, which says: “ I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore chose life!” (Deut. 30:19). On this basis, any attempt against the life of the unborn in the womb of the mother is tantamount to murder.

The Orthodox would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. We are appalled at the destruction of fully formed babies through partial-birth abortion. We will be gratified to see scientists obtain stem cells only from adults, bone marrow, or the umbilical cord tissue, and not from embryos.

More than one of the Orthodox jurisdictions under S.C.O.B.A. participates in the March for Life every January in Washington, D.C. Various pro-life organizations have been established in the Orthodox world in the United States. One of them is in Cleveland, Ohio, in my diocese. It cares for unwed mothers and, of course, for their babies, either unborn or born. I have appointed a director for the pro-life ministry. She has visited many of my parishes. She had an abortion herself; thus, she is a “wounded healer.” She relates her own experience of the abortion aftermath. She appeals to all the young women in the diocese. Her slogan is that abortion is not just illegal and unethical; it is “unthinkable.”

Biogenetics, Bioethics & Biochemistry

Biogenetics, bioethics, and biochemistry are another area of concern. The most recent problems in this area are cloning and the abuse of drugs. Along with other conservative Evangelical Christians, the Orthodox Church has taken a stand regarding these issues. The topics were discussed during last year’s conference of theologians and scientists in Istanbul, Turkey. They were also the topic of discussion during the meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society in America in May 2001.

Cloning is correctly characterized as “the biggest leap” for humankind. However, it may be a “leap backwards.” Bodies can be cloned, but not souls. Eternal life, survival of the soul after death and resurrection from the dead, cannot be provided by science, but only by Christ. Cloning will be interference with God’s creative work. The uniqueness of the human person as a psychophysical unity is in jeopardy, at least in terms of the human body, for the human soul, even in the case of identical twins, is still a unique creation of God. Accordingly, following the Fathers in spirit, the Orthodox Church cannot condone human cloning.

A related problem is the abuse of drugs. Human beings are much more than “chemical beings” that can be guided or manipulated by the dispensing of drugs. Human life, as God’s creation, is sacred. Drugs, a human invention, have been invented to help in the preservation and improvement of the quality of life; however, there are cases where God’s will, different from ours, must prevail. Otherwise, we “play God,” as in the case of cloning or genetic engineering. The use of any drug that does not respect life as created by God cannot be moral or ethical, and is thus to be avoided.

Following the Fathers, the Church cannot condone any interference with life after it is conceived; the pill for “emergency contraception” may be just another form of abortion. Euthanasia may be just another name for murder. Suicide is an offense and an affront to God, who is the Creator and Provider of life. Life is God’s sacred gift, and it has to be respected as such. No one has the right to tamper with it. Human beings cannot usurp God’s creative act by interfering with or even destroying God’s creation. Finally, the case of “state-ordered executions” is a problem that needs much discussion. The guiding principle here, too, is the respect for life as God’s sacred gift, which has to be respected even by the state.

A Great Endeavor

Turning our hearts to the Fathers is the great endeavor of all the Christians of our time. The Fathers are the perennial witnesses of the Great Tradition of the Church, which includes the Holy Scriptures. This patristic witness is of paramount importance for the restoration of the visible unity of the Church of Christ, which restoration is the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement. And as unbelievable as it may sound to some, the Fathers of the Church also have given us enough guidance so that we may engage in the culture wars of our times. I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on these culture wars as well as take part in the movement for Christian unity, as my church always does, in following the Great Tradition of the Fathers.  


1. Georges Florovsky, “Patristic Theology and the Ethos of the Orthodox Church,” in Aspects of Church History (Belmont, Massachusetts: Nordland Publishing Co., 1975), p. 16. My presentation of the first section on “following the Fathers” depends heavily on this article by one of our finest contemporary theologians and ecumenists, the late Fr. Georges Florovsky.

2. St. Vincent, Commonitorium, 2, 3; St. Cyprian, Epistola 74; and St. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, IV, 40, 2, quoted by Florovsky, Aspects, p. 15.

3. Quoted by Florovsky, Aspects, p. 23.

4. Florovsky, Aspects, p. 23.

5. Florovsky, “The Orthodox Churches and the Ecumenical Movement Prior to 1910,” in Christianity and Culture (Belmont, Massachusetts: Nordland Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 161–163.

6. Florovsky, Aspects, p. 29.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Florovsky, Aspects, p. 30.

10. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), p. 188.

11. For the theory of evolution, see Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 39–42. Also, see my paper, “The Finite Nature of the World,” presented to the International Scientific Congress on the Occasion of the New Millennium, in Istanbul, Turkey, August 2000.

12. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985), p. 210.

13. From the Byzantine Oikoumene, the inhabited world, the universe.

14. Zizioulas, Being, p. 235.

15. Ibid.

16. See Florovsky, Aspects, p. 12.

17. See Agreed Statement of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation in North America, “Baptism and Sacramental Economy,” published in the diocesan publication of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, The Illuminator, Vol. XX, 119 (Jan.–June, 1999), pp. 4, 42–44, as well as my unpublished presentation on this dialogue to the International Orthodox-Roman Catholic Commission for the Dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, Emmittsburg, Maryland, July 11, 2000.

18. John Borelli and John Erickson, editors, The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).

19. John Meyendorff and Robert Tobias, editors, Salvation in Christ: A Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress, 1992).

20. See Folke T. Olofsson, “God and the Genesis of Gender,” Touchstone (vol. 14, No. 7, Sept. 2001), pp. 36–41. See note 3, where Michael Harper, in his book Equal and Different: Male and Female in Church and Family (1994), following Kallistos Ware, points out that this teaching regarding humanity as a reflection of the Holy Trinity is a contribution of Eastern Orthodox theology. The author is right, except that it should be clearly specified that it is the Church, or husband and wife exemplifying the Church, which is the image of the Holy Trinity, and not every individual person, who is the image of God the Father only.

21. See, for example, Gen. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:34–38; 1 Tim. 2:11–15; Eph. 5:22ff; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1, quoted in Olofsson, Touchstone, p. 41.

22. See Ps. 22:9; Is. 44:2; 49:1; and Jer. 1:5.

Metropolitan Maximos (Aghiorgoussis), Th.D., is bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. This article is adapted from the address he gave at the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in November 2001 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.

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