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Appendix: The Idea of Doctrinal Development in Eastern Orthodox Theology

By Fr Aidan Nichols

In Eastern Orthodox theology, the idea of dogma possesses specific characteristics of its own - owing to its special relationship with the doctrine of the Spirit, with the Orthodox teaching on Tradition, with the theology of the Councils, and with the notion of the infallibility of the Church as a whole. In this, Orthodox theology has, most notably, preserved one vital feature of the primitive Christian concept of dogma, namely, its inseparable relationship with the liturgical life of the Church.

Negatively, this leads Orthodox spokesmen to draw attention to the apophatic character of dogma. Dogma's negative form (in ruling out certain avenues of thought as cul-de-sac) expresses a self-conscious inadequacy of the human mind before the Christian mystery. Dogma does not exhaust the fullness of revelation, nor that of Christian experience. Put positively: dogma is, in the words of Paul Evdokimov, the 'verbal icon of truth', a symbol of the indescribable mystery, [1] Dogma upholds the mystery; it leads into it; and it expresses it, but apophatically - as in the celebrated case of the dogmatic horos of Chalcedon, with its four negative qualifications of the Union. The making of dogma contributes to the keeping of the Church's unity, yet new definition has never been considered as an aim in itself. Rather is it an extraordinary measure directed against disruption of that unity by false teaching.

Dogma is seen in contemporary Orthodox thought as, first, doxology, and then, secondly, homology - the profession of the faith. Because of their doxological character, the dogmas are quite naturally affirmed in the course of the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies, as also in iconography. The Orthodox Church celebrates special feasts to commemorate the chief ecumenical councils, which she considers as a continuation of the event of Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the apostles gathered together in prayer. As the Greek lay theologian Christos Yannaras has written:

The latent, non-expressed, aim which animates the dogmas and theology of the ancient Church is spiritual. It is theological doxology. There are no dogmatic statements by the Church which could not become doxological hymns in praise of God; there are no Christian hymns which could not be accepted in some measure as a dogmatic comment on the Church's faith. These two aspects - cultus and dogma - are inseparably joined in the Orthodox tradition. . . [2]

For his French counterpart Olivier Clement, a convert to Orthodoxy, dogma is the 'adoration of the human mind', an act of precise thinking, yet not about the mystery, but rather in it. [3]

The formulation of dogmatic statements is seen by Orthodox writers as a theandric process, in which both God and man are involved. The Holy Spirit co-operates with human actors, as in the words of the 'apostolic council' in Acts 15, 'It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us'. From an historical standpoint, the dogmas of the ecumenical councils were shaped in a human attempt to overcome aporiai and dialectical contradictions. [4] But at the same time, the patristic Church affirmed that she was guided by the Holy Spirit, and, thanks to this guidance, would preserve her identity, and the continuity of her nature and belief, intact. The consensus of bishops, united during a council as bearers of the supreme authority of the Church, is a sign of the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit, while the consensus of the entire People of God, expressed in the reception of the dogmatic defmitions by believing Christians as a whole certifies the theandric character of these dogmata.

Orthodox writers sometimes distinguish between the 'biblical character' of dogma, which it owes to its condition as a truth revealed by God, and its 'ecclesiastical character', which follows on from its definition by an ecumenical council and acceptance by the Church as a whole. So far as the vital biblical source is concerned, the need for such a scriptural reference explains the Orthodox hostility not only to the content of the Catholic dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception (deemed extraneous to, or even contradictory of, the Scriptures) but also to the dogmatic form of belief in the glorious Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in the Catholic Church. Since - according to these theologians - the Bible does not mention Mary's Assumption, and only the liturgical tradition, together with mediaeval Byzantine theology, treats of it, there is no call to dogmatise that event, or to regard it as occupying an integral place in the economy of human salvation. No dogmatic statement can add to the contents of Scripture. [5] Relevant to this is the conviction of an apparent majority of Orthodox theologians that Tradition is not a second source of revelation, parallel to the Bible. Rather is it that reality thanks to which, and owing to the presence of the life-giving Spirit, the Church transmits the sense, and the unity, of Scripture. The Holy Spirit, who, by the inspiration of the biblical authors, embodied revelation in the Bible now assists the Church to remain rooted in the biblical message and to accommodate herself to the exigencies of each epoch by preaching, by the issuing of dogmatic statements, by the teaching of Church fathers, by iconography, and by liturgical worship. [6] Dogma lives in the stream of Tradition, and acts as its witness. It enables believers to accept the truth, as transmitted by living Tradition, and, in case of necessity, separates it from error. Formulated dogma becomes for believers the rule of faith, separating orthodoxy from heresy. The Orthodox Church does not exclude the possibility that she may proclaim fresh dogmatic definitions at some future ecumenical council, should the need to preserve the integrity and purity of faith require it. If, however, the Church extends the rule of faith by new definitions, this does not entail any augmentation or development of Tradition, but rather a deeper knowledge of the truth, within Tradition's stream. [7] The task of dogma, indeed, is not only to protect the truths of faith against error, or to define them in a conceptual manner (as an organic part of the Church's life). That task is also to furnish direction for spiritual and moral living.

Against this backcloth of the general understanding of what dogma is, how do the Orthodox view the idea of doctrinal development as such? The question of doctrinal development does not play in Orthodox thought the major role it took on in Catholic reflection since the nineteenth century. Orthodox theologians have tackled the issue chiefly as a reaction to the Catholic dogmatisation of the Immaculate Conception, the primacy and infallibility of the pope, and Mary's Assumption. A majority, it may be, of Orthodox writers register serious reservations about what they take to be the Catholic theory of doctrinal development. Some consider it to involve a '
vitalistic' theory of pre-conscious knowledge which is little different from an admission of blank unawareness, by the ancient Church, of some later points of confessional believing. Again, some regard the movement of Catholic thought on the issue as an attempt to transcend the notion of a closure of revelation with death of the last apostle. Many avoid the term 'evolution of dogmas', but find the phrase 'doctrinal development' acceptable at any rate when taken in the sense of a refinement of the language of theological statements, and a deeper understanding of the revealed contents. [8]

For the existence of such a doctrinal development in the Church's history, the formation of dogma at the seven ecumenical Councils constitutes formidable evidence. More widely, Clement has put forward a tripartite scheme, in which Orthodoxy moves through three great periods of doctrinal development: the christological period, consisting of the first eight centuries of the Church's existence; the pneumatological period, running from Photius' council of 879-880 on the Filioque to the Constantinopolitan synods of 1341 and 1351 on Palamism; and lastly, the early modern and modern periods which are increasingly dominated by ecclesiological concerns. If in the first period the Christendom of both West and East was absorbed in the truth of the Incarnation and its saving effects, in the second the standpoint of Eastern theologians shifted in a way that went largely unrecognised in Latin Christendom. The new focus of attention on the truth of the Holy Spirit showed doctrinal development proceeding in terms of a different logic from what was happening in the West. Henceforth, Orthodox ecclesiology, the subject matter of the third phase, would be formed under the predominant influence of pneumatology. [9]

In terms of its revealed content, however, dogma remains, despite this, immutable: such is the teaching of the Fathers and the common consensus of the Church as a whole. [10] From Chalcedon onwards, the later ecumenical Councils insist that their decrees were no different from the rulings of previous councils, being re-statements by way of protecting truth against mis-statements. [11] Many Orthodox theologians are opposed to the idea that earlier dogmatic affirmations can include in tacit or implicit fashion hidden truths of faith that may be teased out by the later Church. They stress that dogma is simply the analysis of what has already (in the apostolic period) been uttered. The fullness of revealed truth is always present, they stress, in the Church, though in dogma that fullness is recapitulated as an expression of the Church's consciousness in a way particularly well-suited to dealing with the problems, and the errors, of some given time. Clement terms this the 'involution' of dogma, not its 'evolution'. [12] The concept of a vital, pre-conceptual state of knowledge is, such writers maintain, effectively indistinguishable from that of a sheer unconsciousness, and this ruptures the common consciousness of the truth of the Church. Consequently, an opinion considered false in one epoch is regarded as true in another - as actually transpired, they allege, in the case of the Immaculate Conception.

Despite Clement's attempt at a periodisation of the history of Orthodox doctrine which will give due weight to each of three successive epochs, far more characteristic of Orthodox theology at large is the immediate confronting of early tradition with modern thought. The Trinitarian and christological determinations of the first seven ecumenical councils are treated as a fundamental system of reference, to be used in developing responses to the questions left undiscussed at those councils - and above all, in the areas of anthropology and ecciesiology. The dogmatisation of the notion of a divine Person provides the warrant for Christian teaching on human personhood, while the doctrine of the Holy Trinity gives us a model to follow in speaking of the unity between local churches. [13] Orthodox theologians reach out immediately to the teaching of the Fathers, without the mediation of mediaeval and early modern theology, whereas, despite a succession of patristic revivals, Catholic divines must necessarily pay attention also to the high mediaeval doctors and to the fresh direction provided by the Council of Trent.

The pre-Revolutionary Russian academician W. W. Bolotov introduced the distinction, now widespread among the Orthodox, between dogma and dogmatic formulation.
[14] Although Orthodoxy is deeply devoted to the dogmas proclaimed by the seven councils, it distinguishes dogma as a living truth in the Church from the historical expression of that truth. The councils never identified their definitions with the fullness of revelation. There is always some kind of antinomy between mystery, as found in revelation, and its rational comprehension in the words of men.

Occasionally, an Orthodox writer will go further and rejoice in the predominance of theologoumena over dogmas in Orthodoxy, as did the Russian priest-theologian S. B. Bulgakov. For Bulgakov, freedom is the nerve of theology, and diversity and multiplicity in theological expression constitutes Orthodoxy's beauty and power. Yet this point of view cannot be sundered from its context in Bulgakov's own controversial theological career, in which his personal development of the idea of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, as found in Scripture, the Fathers, and the Byzantine-Slav liturgy and its accompanying iconography, brought down on his head the condemnation of the Moscow Patriarchate as unwarranted innovation, and the sharp criticism of a number of his fellow-theologians as opening the door to a second Gnostic invasion of the Church. [15]

What is of value, to Catholic eyes, in the Orthodox discussion of the idea of doctrinal development is the Eastern stress on the doxological and liturgical dimension of the dogmas. Aware of the spiritual fecundity of the dogmatic formulations, the Orthodox testify in an admirable way to the vitality of the living mystery which underlies the truth now expressed in conceptual form. Although this emphasis on the connexion of the dogmas with the Church's worship and devotion is by no means strange to Catholicism, it is given greater relief in Orthodoxy. At the same time, the Orthodox need the complementary stress of Catholic theological tradition on the peculiar values of the mind, in what may be termed a spirituality of the intelligence at work on its God-given materials.


1. W. Evdokimov,
L'Orthodoxie (Neuchâtel 1959).

2. C. Yannaras, 'Dogma und Verkündigung im orthodoxen Verständnis',
Ostkirchliche Studien 21 (1972), pp. 132-140; cf. N. A. Nissiotis, 'Remarques sur le
renouveau de la Théologie systématique', in La Pensée orthodoxe 12 (1966), pp. 125-134.

3. O. Clément, 'Orthodox Ecclesiology as an Ecclesiology of Communion', in
One in Christ 6 (1970), p. 102.

4. S. Bulgakov, 'Na putiach dogmy (posle semi v selenskich soborov)' in
Put' 9 (1933), pp. 3-35.

5. J. Meyendorff 'The Meaning of Tradition', in Scripture and Ecumenism (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1965), pp. 43-58.

6. Cf. V. Lossky, A l'image et à la ressemblance de Dieu (Paris 1967), p. 166.

7. Ibid., p. 162; O. Clément, Transfigurer le temps (Neuchâtel 1959), p. 194.

8. S. Bulgakov, Pravoslaviye (Paris 1965), pp. 84-5; idem., 'Dogmat i dogmatica' in
Zyvoie Priedaniie (Paris 1947), pp. 9-24; V. Lossky, A l'image et à la ressemblance de Dieu, op. cit., pp. 158-163; O. Clément, Trans-figurer la temps, op. cit., pp. 185-200; Metropolite Seraphim (Lade), L'Eglise orthodoxe. Les dogmes, la liturgie, la vie spirituelle (Paris 1952), pp. 18-21; J. Meyendorff 'The Meaning of Tradition', art. cit., pp. 48-50; D. Staniloae, 'The Orthodox Concept of Tradition and the Development of Doctrine', Sobornost 5 (1969), p. 652.

9. O. Clément, Transfigure le temps, op. cit., pp. 195-200.

10. P Evdokimov, Orthodoxie, op. cit., p. 000; J. Meyendorff 'The Meaning of Tradition', art. cit., pp. 50-1.

11. Ibid. See also: idem, 'Historical Relativism and Authority in Christian Dogma', in Sobornost 5 (1969), p. 637; V. Lossky, A l'image et à la ressemblance de Dieu, op. cit., p. 162.

12. O. Clément, Transfigurer le temps, op. cit., pp. 191-4.

13. P. Evdokimov, Orthodoxie, op. cit.

14. W. W. Bolotov, 'Thesen über das Filioque von einem russischen Theologe', Revue internationale de théologie 6 (1898), pp. 671-112.

15. 5S. Bulgakov, Pravoslavije, op. cit., pp. 196, 224.

16. This appendix is based on a report made for me by Father Wojciech Morawski, O.P.)., of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas, Rome. He draws attention to the studies on this subject of a Polish student of Orthodox theology, Waclaw Hryniewicz, O.M.I., whose relevant writings are here given as a contribution to the discovery by Western Catholic theology of the, so far, virtually unknown Polish theology of this century, something which the freedoms now enjoyed by the Polish Church, and Polish society, will make possible. They are:

'Apofatyzna teologia', in:
Encyklopedia Katolicka, I, (Lublin 1973), 745-8.

'Dogmat i jego funkcje w swietle teologii prawoslawnej.
Ateneum Kaplanskie 69.407, pp). 401-419.

'Eklezjologia prawoslawna', in W. Granat (ed), Ku czlowiekowi i Bogu w Chrystusie, II, (Lublin 1974) pp. 376-91.

'Recepcja orzeczen Magisterium przez wspólnote Kosciola w swietle teologii prawoslawnej', Zeszyty Naukowe KUL, 18 (1975) nr 2 (70), pp. 11-27.

Rola Tradycji w interptetacji teologicznej. Analiza wspolczesnych pogladow dogmatyczno-ekumenicznych (Lublin, 1976).

'Interpretacja dogmatu jako problem ecumeniczny', Roczniki teologicznokanoniczne, XXIII, (1976), no:.2, pp. 73-85.

The above chapter is taken from From Newman to Congar
by Aidan Nichols OP - ISBN 0 567 291812

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This Version: 18th July 2009

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