WHERE IS THE INFALLIBILITY OF THE CHURCH
IN EASTERN ORTHODOXY?




St. Andrew's Orthodox Press, Sydney, Australia, has published "The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology" by Stylianos Harkianakis, one of the leading contemporary Greek Orthodox theologians active in various ecumenical discussions. He was Co-Chair of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (1980-2003). Translated from the original Greek, it was published in 2008. The author is now Archbishop and Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia and acknowledges his "gratitude for the vigilant guidance and support" of the well-known Athenian dogmatician Professor John Karmiris (1904-1993) under whom he studied.

Interestingly, Archbishop Stylianos in his Foreword also makes reference to:

"the current Pope [Benedict XVI] who was my teacher and friend and colleague for many years [and] who quite surprisingly does not seem to respect as much as it once might have our common Tradition, namely that the Church - not a single person - is the repository of truth."

The purpose of his book is well stated: "To refute Papal Infallibility, on the one hand, and the equally problematic theory of Sobornost promulgated by Aleksey Stephanovich Khomiakov" - (1804-1860). Archbishop Stylianos attempts to present the position of the Orthodox Church and theology concerning the Infallibility of the Church, admitting there are diverse views on the Infallibility of the Church by other Orthodox theologians who:

  1. dismiss the doctrine of infallibility as "legalistic" and "scholastic" and "exceeding the boundaries of Orthodox theology";
  2. reject the hierarchy of bishops as the ultimate instrument and voice of Infallibility;
  3. and, elevate the "Church conscience" of all the faithful as "being in itself the highest power and authority in the Church, and even above Ecumenical Councils".

In a series of earlier articles in a theological journal on "Dogma and Authority in the Church", the Archbishop confessed:

"The ever-memorable and benevolent D.Moraitis, Dean of the School of Theology at the University of Athens, when examining [my] doctoral dissertation on 'The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology', did not hesitate to state in all sincerity that he was totally unaware that 'infallibility was an article of faith in our Church'! Other close friends and colleagues, namely Archimandrite Athan. Jevcic (now Metropolitan of Bosnia) and Prof. Christos Yannaras, immediately criticized this study, but of course without convincing arguments".
(Phronema, 12/1997 pp. 8-23)

The Infallibility of the Church is declared by our author to be:

"articulus standis et cadentis ecclesiae" [on this article the Church stands or falls] remaining always the unshakeable basis of the theanthropic body of the Church with all its structures and functions, until the end of time."

The true Church must be infallible, he insists, if the truths of Divine Revelation confided to it are to be maintained in all their integrity. Catholics agree with Archbishop Stylianos' statements that there is sufficient evidence from Scripture and Holy Tradition for the doctrine of Infallibility.

Awareness of the Infallibility of the Church was rooted, in fact, in the faith of the Church from the days of the Apostles:

"Infallibility constitutes an attribute of the Church, which is identified with its essence."
(p. 11)

The Church is visible and infallible and its infallibility in teaching is manifested in the consensus of bishops acting in an Ecumenical Council. His case to defend the Infallibility of the Church on Catholic premises, however, collapses. He fails to address a key issue: What makes a Council ecumenical? He is forced to admit the answer is "particularly problematic and difficult".

Archbishop Stylianos rejects the "heresy" of the Catholic dogmas of Papal supremacy and Papal Infallibility, and it is interesting to see how the Greek theologian stigmatizes as erroneous and unacceptable as essentially Protestant the ecclesiology of Sobornost accepted by many Russian and other Slav Orthodox. The theory of Sobornost developed by the Russian lay-theologian Aleksey Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-1860) held that the Infallibility of the Church is diffused among all its members, clergy and lay. Infallibility is thus placed democratically in the body of all believers rather than in the body of bishops commissioned by Christ to teach the faithful in faith and morals. As Archbishop Stylianos explains the basic defect in Sobornost ecclesiology:

"The Church has no external and concrete authoritative instrument of teaching, not even the Ecumenical Council... In the Church of Christ, there is no distinction between those who teach and those who are taught."

He also shows how Khomiakov distorted the word "catholic" in the Creed to avoid the connotation of the "Universal Church" emphasized by Catholics:

"No Greek would have ever dreamt of considering the term "catholic" to mean 'collective' or 'synodic'... Such an unfortunate misunderstanding of the term 'catholic' led Khomiakov to level everybody within the body of the Church... and forced [him] to take refuge in the realm of the invisible Church."

What is glaringly revealed in Archbishop Stylianos work is that the notion of infallibility remains contentious among the Eastern Orthodox. There is more: an unresolvable doctrinal contradiction between Greek and Slav prelates and theologians resulting from acute disagreement concerning the very nature of the Church's apostolic teaching office. This contradiction lies at the heart of contemporary Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology and refutes any real claim by Archbishop Stylianos to Infallibility on the part of the Orthodox Churches.

As with Khomiakov's theory of Sobornost which he and other more traditional Greek theologians rightly reject, his own view lacks clarity and logical coherence, and similarly lapses into an "unrestrained subjectivism". In acknowledging that the faithful were given no indefectible external criterion by which to determine when a Council is ecumenical and infallible, he dissolves the presence of any definitive or ultimate Authority in the earthly Church. The fatal consequence of his denial of the Petrine Primacy's visible headship of the Church is thrown into sharp relief. Lacking an ultimate ecclesiastical organ to teach dogmatically and doctrinally, the Church indeed "disappears into the invisible Church". Perceived as excessively spiritual and mystical, the Church, then, becomes a Platonic abstraction beyond empirical definition and boundaries.

It is, therefore, not enough for the Archbishop to insist on the hierarchy of bishops in the apostolic succession as guaranteeing orthodoxy of belief, if at the same time that hierarchy is deprived of a supreme authority that can determine the orthodoxy of bishops themselves and whether their gatherings in Council or synods are legitimate.

Archbishop Stylianos is at odds, moreover, with the actual teaching of the Church of the first Millennium. Such held the Bishop of Rome to be the Successor of that Peter made by Christ the visible head of the episcopate and all the faithful. Vatican II summed up concisely the witness of that Apostolic Tradition which Archbishop Stylianos termed "the ancient undivided Christian Church".

The Roman Pontiff is the head of the Apostolic College of bishops and it is he:

"in whom the Church's charism of infallibility is present in a singular way. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme teaching office [of teaching doctrine]."

In Vatican II's teaching on Infallibility and on the synthesis of Primacy and Collegiality in the hierarchical life of the Church will be found the key solution for the jurisdictional, canonical, and doctrinal conflicts which trouble the 16 or so autocephalous Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Archbishop Stylianos is seriously mistaken in his view that Catholic teaching has placed the authority of the Roman Pontiff:

"on a sacramental level so that a radical differentiation of the bishop of Rome from all other bishops could be finalised".
(p. 150)

Nor was he correct in alleging that the:

"elevation of the pope [from a mere primacy of honour) to the position of supreme authority in the Church... brought about the destruction of the [ancient] synodical system."
(p. 152)

His view of the historical growth of Papal power in the early centuries is faulty, but what proves absolutely devastating for his critique of the "heretical" Papacy is his admission that in his "undivided Christian Church" holding fast to an unchanging Holy Tradition:

"primacy appeared in Julius I (341); Damasus (366-384); Innocent I, under whom originated the concept of infallibility (402-416); then Celestius I and Leo (461)."
(p. 149)

Now, it is historically undeniable that such Popes both claimed and exercised a primacy of universal jurisdiction over the Churches of East and West, and, as Peter's successor, a visible headship over the entire Church. Their See, the See of Peter, was considered the indefectible Rock-like center of faith and communion for all the particular Churches of God. Unable to fail in confessing the faith of Peter to the Universal Church, the Bishop of Rome as successor of the Chief of the Apostles was rightly believed to be "unerring" (i.e., infallible !) in dogmatic decisions issued to "strengthen the brethren." (Luke 22: 31-32).

In conclusion, it is impossible that the universal Primacy as a feature of the hierarchical structure of the Church taught and exercised by such orthodox Popes was not a manifestation of the "undivided Church's Holy Tradition" so cherished by our Eastern Orthodox brethren. Archbishop Stylianos did acknowledge to his credit that:

"the idea of papal infallibility was naturally a latent seed within the long-standing idea of primacy."
(p.8)

He was correct in noting that orthodoxy in the true Church is preserved by the Apostolic succession of bishops. He failed to grasp that the infallibility of the Church simply cannot be sustained without the Papacy. The infallible teaching office of the Episcopate is rendered possible and identifiable only by bishops steadfast in communion with the successor of Peter, the visible head of the Church who wields in history the Keys of Peter to bind and loose.



About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage