Is Orthodoxy a Stagnant Faith?

Is Orthodoxy a Stagnant Faith?

At the conclusion of a recent synaxis of Orthodox hierarchs in Istanbul (March 6–9, 2014), an announcement was made that the local Orthodox churches would gather for a pan-Orthodox synod in the Spring of 2016.

At this synod, a number of issues facing the global Orthodox Church will be addressed, and many of them long-coming.

It should be kept in mind, of course, that diaspora Orthodoxy and the Church as a whole has been subject to a long line of unique, historical experiences over the past few centuries—circumstances that have made more of these gatherings difficult, if not impossible. From the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of Soviet communism, many of the ancient Sees have not been in positions where global communication was even possible until recently. But as times change, so can (and does) the Church.

As the news of this council—which has been ‘in the making’ for several decades now—spread, many misunderstandings and half-truths were also spread.

As most Christians know, media outlets do not typically do the best job at covering religious news. There’s an entire website devoted to this. From Reuters to the Huffington Post, news of a ‘first Ecumenical Council in 1,200 years’ has spread—but is this really true? Is the pending pan-Orthodox synod an ‘Ecumenical Council?’ Is it really the first such gathering in 1,200 years?

The Orthodox Church is often accused of being ‘stagnant,’ in the sense of doctrinal development, engagement with the world around us, and even our forms of worship and sacred arts. But when the history of the eastern churches is examined with care, it is apparent that the Church has responded to the ebb and flow of both culture and world religion in an appropriate, yet sober manner.

In other words, the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) was not the ‘last word’ of Orthodox theology and doctrine, as some (like the aforementioned) will claim. Even the question of ‘how many?’ Ecumenical Councils is still being considered by Orthodox Christians around the world—a ‘recent’ reply to Pope Pius IX (1848) suggests that there are at least eight; some would claim nine.

In The Orthodox Church (p. 203), Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Timothy) Ware compiles a list of significant, ecumenical-level events within the Orthodox Church since the eighth century:

  1. The Encyclical Letter of Saint Photius (AD 867)
  2. The First Letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch (AD 1054)
  3. The decisions of the Councils of Constantinople on the Hesychast Controversy (AD 1341-1351)
  4. The Encyclical Letter of Saint Mark of Ephesus (AD 1440-1441)
  5. The Confession of Faith by Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (AD 1455-1456)
  6. The Replies of Jeremias II of Constantinople to the Lutherans (AD 1573-1581)
  7. The Confession of Faith by Metrophanes Kritopoulos (AD 1625)
  8. The Orthodox Confession by Peter of Moghila (in its revised form) at the Council of Jassy, Romania (AD 1642)
  9. The Confession of Dositheus at the Council of Jerusalem (AD 1672)
  10. The Answers of the Orthodox Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (AD 1718-1723)
  11. The Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (AD 1848)
  12. The Reply of the Synod of Constantinople to Pope Leo XIII (AD 1895)
  13. The Encyclical Letters by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (AD 1920, 1952)

The Metropolitan notes documents 5–9 are sometimes termed the ‘Symbolical Books’ of the Orthodox Church, but this is not a universal signification.

Also, not everything in these documents or councils should be considered ‘infallible’ or without need of nuance, but they do demonstrate a lack of ‘stagnation’ on the part of the Church. During Ottoman occupation, for example, the Church made a point to respond to the new challenges of both Lutheranism and Calvinism. There are also other events not listed, such as a synod in Constantinople near the end of the ninth century, that was both ecumenical in scope (Rome included) and had more clergy in attendance—and it isn’t even close—than any other, previous Ecumenical Council.

While acknowledging all of the above, it’s important to keep in mind that—for Orthodox Christians—our dogmatic boundaries are set, with a great deal of freedom allowed within. The necessity of continual, dogmatic development is not granted on the part of Orthodox Christians, especially given our predilection for apophaticism. There’s a substantial (and all-important) distinction between dogmatic development and an abiding doctrinal application for each new culture, language, or context.

To reiterate, the Orthodox Church has for centuries been operating in a state of persecuted ‘survival mode,’ praying only that she would survive for another generation. She is often termed ‘the persecuted Church.’ This continued all the way until the fall of the Iron Curtain, persisting even today. Thankfully, in many places where Orthodoxy is represented, this is no longer the case. But one cannot ignore the present sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and now Ukraine—where the prospect of ‘dogmatic development’ is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

I would contend that the presence of dogmatic development is a symptom of stagnancy, and not the solution against it.


  1. Ed Williamson says

    Thank you for this interesting article. So, will this be an ecumenical council? Do you think that there is a possibility for the Roman church to participate given the new Pope? If so, who would preside at this upcoming event? I assume the Ecumenical Patriarch would, but would love to hear your opinion. I am not Orthodox, but I am on a journey that will probably lead me to the Orthodox Church. I appreciate your website since it helps me understand more about the faith. One last question, do you suppose that all of the Patriarchates in the East (maybe even those churches that are not Chalcedonian) would be represented at this?

    • says

      So, will this be an ecumenical council?

      Not likely. Just a pan-Orthodox (global) gathering of all local churches, in order to address primarily disciplinary and administrative concerns. In other words, not to combat heresy, as is the case with Ecumenical Councils.

      Do you think that there is a possibility for the Roman church to participate given the new Pope?

      Not a chance.

      If so, who would preside at this upcoming event? I assume the Ecumenical Patriarch would, but would love to hear your opinion.

      According to our canons, the Ecumenical Patriarch presides in honor, but every bishop/local church has an equal vote in synods. It is the duty of the Ecumenical Patriarch to call such synods, and take a lead in organizing them, but not to have a function beyond that. We believe in conciliarity and the Headship of Christ over his Church above all.

      I am not Orthodox, but I am on a journey that will probably lead me to the Orthodox Church. I appreciate your website since it helps me understand more about the faith.

      I am happy to hear that, and I hope it is helpful to you. Make sure you spend time with local clergy and much time in prayer and worship, in order to fully integrate your life with Orthodox piety, worship, and belief.

      One last question, do you suppose that all of the Patriarchates in the East (maybe even those churches that are not Chalcedonian) would be represented at this?

      They might be invited as observers, but they would not get a vote or participate in any debate, discussion, etc.

  2. Daniel says

    Thanks for this post. I am Orthodox (a catechumen, anyways) but was converted “out of Protestantism,” if you will, by reading Cardinal Newman’s Essay of Doctrinal Development. This concept of development is uncritically touted by many Roman Catholics as an epistemic justification for the papacy and other more recent developments, especially since Trent. It’s almost like a nervous tic – as when an “atheist” says we ought not believe in God because of “science,” so some Roman Catholics say we Orthodox should accept the papacy because of “doctrinal development.” However, I’m not aware of any Roman Catholic apologists (including Newman himself) who rigorously apply Newman’s criteria for legitimate developments to the more recent accretions of Roman dogma and innovative practices. Perhaps this has been done, but as a religious epistemology Newman’s theory remains, for the most part it seems, precisely that: a theory, or an “hypothesis to account for a difficulty” as he himself puts it. A difficulty indeed. And when we Orthodox are pressed by Roman Catholics as to precisely define how many ecumenical councils we have actually had, it is often left unmentioned that they cannot even agree on how many ex cathedra infallible statements have been issued by a pope.

    I did not really mean for this comment to come across as a polemical tirade. What I mean is to suggest that the very notion of development – at least in its classical 19th century form – is unverifiable except by a circular process of deferral to some extrinsic authority and functions more as a kind of theory of the infallibility and inerrancy of the magisterium which requires an authoritative hermeneutic via the papacy, thus reducing tradition to a mere source of doctrine, as it were, an indefinite canon of authoritative propositions, rather than the very substance and existential medium of Christian life. It is in this way that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism rely on the same fundamental logical scheme. “The Bible (or the Pope or the magisterium) says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this point, as I may well be misinterpreting the RC position. This is, however, ultimately why I moved on from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy after dipping one foot in the Tiber. Orthodoxy is more epistemologically sound precisely because it is not obsessed with epistemology.

    That said, I wish you’d have elaborated on your provocative last sentence, stating that the presence of dogmatic development is evidence of a stagnant tradition. How does doctrinal application differ in function from dogmatic development, i.e. how might we discern the difference?

    • says

      I think in my last statement my hope was to convey a few different things:

      1. The Orthodox Church has a narrowly defined set of dogmatic beliefs, and these are fixed and unalterable. This will never change. However, this does not mean we are ‘stagnant.’

      2. In Rome and elsewhere, the epistemological grounding is, as you noted, far easier to utilize. In other words, it’s easy to push the big red button and make sweeping changes, when no one is able to question it or go against it. It just is.

      3. Churches where doctrinal development is ‘the way of life’ seem to have more time on their hands. Orthodox Christians are too busy dying and being persecuted to bother coming up with new or refined dogmas.

      4. The reason Orthodoxy has maintained a firm grounding in unchangeable dogma (not necessarily other doctrines or ideas) is because she hasn’t had the stagnancy to sit around and think about new ones.

      5. Dogmatic development, as seen in Rome or Protestantism, is a symptom, therefore, of stagnancy—of the luxury of having that ‘time on their hands.’

  3. Paula says

    I’m given pause by your comment about the Orthodox not having time to innovate due to persecution. I hope that doesn’t imply that once peace descends upon Orthodox lands, innovations will blossom.

    I have thought of it in this way, when in discussion with protestants who argue that orthodoxy is static and “out of date” – that there is no need for innovation, because if we are truly doing what we are supposed to be doing as Orthodox Christians, we will be occupied at that task all our lives, never fully reaching it. Progress and innovation as defined in the protestant mindset is only possible because of the low spiritual bar that is set in their worlds. The goal is attained by simply “accepting Jesus in your heart” or whatever the wording currently is, so then too much time is available for constant, ceaseless argument and innovation.
    Forgive me for my somewhat dismissive tone; it’s not meant personally.

    • says

      Certainly not. It’s just one reason (among many) why Orthodoxy is what it is. And as you pointed out, the underlying difference in our spirituality and entire ethos of what it means to ‘be a Christian’ is part and parcel to why these differences exist.

      • Paula says

        The more I learn about the beliefs of the heterodox, the more I’m moved to correct them when they apply the word “Christian” to themselves, or when others label these people who believe so wrongly as “Christians”, and consider this to be what Christianity is. Is it wrong of me to feel that way? I know we say that we know where the church is, but we don’t know where the church is not, but now do I reconcile this in my mind?

        • says

          The difficulty with answering this is what do people mean when they say ‘Christian?’ I’m not sure anymore, and so I find it hard to answer. In a general sense, there are many Christians or self-professed followers of Jesus as the true Christ outside of Orthodoxy.

          However, what concerns me more than the status of any individual is my own salvation.

          Beyond that, what should concern us further is knowing where is the Church? If we look to the Church and to Christ himself, we are looking in the right direction, asking the right questions.