Eastern Orthodox Theology


Our study of the Oriental Orthodox Churches suggests that our differences with them are more a matter of theology than a matter of faith. The agreed statements signed by the Holy Father and various patriarchs makes that clear. I think it might be useful to see the differences between Rome and Constantinople in much the same way. This is not to say that Eastern Orthodox theologians would all agree with me, but I believe it might help us to avoid magnifying our differences as we try to maximize our commonality in faith.

The Filioque Question

A classical example is the question of the filioque in the Creed Catholics and Protestants recite each Sunday. The Orthodox do not add the “filioque/and the Son” to the Creed fashioned by the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD). The original expression, speaking of the Holy Spirit, says simply: “who proceeds from the Father.” The article in the New Catholic Encyclopedia under “filioque” reflects the complexity of the question. The expression is found in both Eastern and Western Fathers of the Church as well as in regional councils. These councils were writing against various heresies that claimed the Holy Spirit was not God, did not proceed from the Father or did not proceed from the Father and the Son. Both East and West were in accord about the faith. But as the cultural differences between both cultures became more and more pronounced, a difference of faith was asserted, even to the point of making it a matter of orthodox or heretical doctrine.

It is difficult to know who introduced the filioque into the Creed. Pope Leo III, (795-8816) while approving the expression advised that it not be added to the Creed. The reign of Benedict VIII (1014-15) is generally assigned as the time when the filioque was added to the Creed at Rome. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and later the Council of Florence (1439) decided that the Greeks (orthodox) should be allowed to recite the Creed without the filioque, and the West be allowed to do so with the addition. If the heat of debate had been lowered, the wisdom of these Ecumenical Councils would still prevail.

The Marian Dogmas

The Marian dogmas have a different history. The Eastern Orthodox recognize a special “sinlessness” for the Blessed Virgin Mary and they describe her death as a “dormition”. There was a time, and it lasted for over a thousand years, when the Church “breathed with both lungs”. East and West shared the same faith while permitting cultural and theological differences.

The main problem with the Marian dogmas for the Orthodox is that they have been defined by the Pope rather than by an ecumenical council. The Immaculate Conception (1854) was defined even before the declaration of Vatican I on Papal Infallibility (1870). The Assumption (1950) was declared to be a matter of faith (de fide) necessary for salvation. East and West share similar liturgical feasts for these Marian privileges, though each in its own way.

As Catholics, we rejoice that the Church has given new titles of recognition to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the declaration of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Those who work and pray for the unity of the Church know that there are real and difficult hurdles to overcome. Prayer, faith, hope and tolerance must find a way. Respect for ancient and venerable traditions will help.

The search for truth is not denying what others affirm, or rejecting what we profess to believe. It is rather seeing beyond our expressions of faith, the Lord of truth who calls us to love one another and to focus on what unites us rather than on our historic, cultural and theological differences.

Other Issues

There are many other theological issues that divide Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. They have to do with the minister of sacraments, the understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) when sacraments are celebrated, the nature of the Church, the relationship of the particular church/diocese and the universal church, to name a few. Eastern Orthodox have a moral theology and spiritual theology and mysticism of its own, as we do in the West. And so it is easy to find differences. The way forward is to find what unites us in faith, hope and love.

The Way Forward

The Catholic Church is not merely the church of the West. It also has Churches that have always had the culture and theology of the East. Rome must not impose its western ways on them. In the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its commitment to allow the Eastern Churches in communion with the Pope of Rome to continue their long and venerable tradition. In the declaration of Belamand (1993) the Vatican and the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches agreed that uniatism is not the way to move forward toward the unity for which Christ prayed on the night before he died, and which the Church seeks.

The task of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue is, in love and mutual respect, to find the will of God for the Church in our time. If the Church allows different theologies and philosophies to exist, following Socrates, Plato and Aristotle—Thomas, Bonaventure, Scotus—Rahner, Von Balthasar and Lonergan, it can find a way to “make room” for theologies yet to be created for a better understanding of the great mysteries of our faith. The world has become a global village. There is room for everyone. But we must have the heart and the will to welcome all whom God calls to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, one flock and one shepherd.
(This article appeared in Bread Broken and Shared, March/April 2012.)