What Do the Orthodox Concede?*

The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church edited by John MeyendorffFrom a post in FidoNet RCatholic in response to Jeff Doles, a thoughtful Protestant layman (both Presbyterian and Baptist backgrounds), musician/guitarist, and past participant in FidoNet discussion groups, someone who has seriously considered the Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox churches) and her claims --

JD> The Protestant sees Roman Catholic Tradition, and there appears to be some manipulation that does not correspond to Scripture, nor even to Church tradition in the first millenium. Take papal authority and infallibility, for example. The RCC teaches that this has been the Tradition of the Church all along. But the Orthodox Church, which shared the same Tradition for the first thousand years that the RCC claims, knows nothing of papal authority or infalliblity.

It is wrong to say the Orthodox "know nothing" of papal authority, primacy, or infallibility. It is more proper to say that Protestants in general "know nothing of papal authority" and completely deny the Papacy since their very existence depends on justifying the split from the Catholic Church in the 16th century and exalting Sola Scriptura via private interpretation as the only real authority (which the Orthodox do not accept).

Let's take a look at what modern Orthodox scholars do concede to the Catholic understanding of papal primacy, authority, and infallibility.

 [  *Disclaimer: I received an Email from an Orthodox priest on this article. I will post the Email here as a disclaimer. It claims I am taking the Meyendorff book out of context. I appreciate response and book recommendations from the Orthodox. The only book I have read on the subject from the Orthodox is the Meyendorff book, but other recommendations I receive will be placed in the small bibliography at the end. I strongly encourage all sides (Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) to read and discuss this subject from all perspectives.  ]

Subject: What Orthodox concede 
From: [Email removed]
Date: Tue, Feb 15, 2011 7:44 am

To: P

Glory to Jesus Christ,

I came across your website and I feel the strong necessity to comment on your statements concerning the Orthodox Church. I am an Orthodox priest and I am very familiar with Schmemann's and Afanasiev's works. Fr. Schmemann was one of my professors in seminary. I have shown your information to a number of priests, some of whom have also studied under Fr. Schmemann, and have also studied both of these authors and their works. We have all come to the same conclusions, that the statements you are making are incorrect, misleading and somewhat disrespectful of both of the author's works. Neither are conceding to any Catholic understanding of papal primacy, authority, and infallibility. For anyone to make these unfounded conclusions, such as yourself, have either not read these works in their entirety or are simply taking things out of context, without a clear knowledge of Orthodox teachings and theology. Their works are strictly dealing with Orthodox ecclesiology.

We would like to inform you, that the quotes you represent from some of the early Church Fathers, are also very misleading and taken out of context. All were dealing and addressing matters that arose during that time in the entire church. St. Cyprian dealt with the unity of the Church, as "catholic", whole and universal. St. Ignatius was a witness to Rome's primacy of love, that faith in Christ. St. Irenaeus focused on Rome's primacy of witness to the Apostolic Faith, that all churches preserve the Apostolic Traditions. We could go on.

We hope that you realize that your statements are far from being truthful, factual and are doing a disservice to anyone who visits your site.

With Love and Faith in our
Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,

Fr. Cosmos M.
Fr. John M.
Fr. John N.
Fr. Vasily S.
Fr. David L.
Fr. Gregory K.
Fr. George V.
Fr. Nicholas D.
Fr. Alexander M.

Taken from THE PRIMACY OF PETER : Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church edited by John Meyendorff (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992)

chapter 4 : "The Church Which Presides in Love" (pages 91-143) by Nicholas Afanassieff who (d. 1966) was a professor of canon law and church history at the Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris

chapter 5 : "The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology" (pages 145-71) by Alexander Schmemann who (d. 1983) was dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary (1962-83) and taught church history and liturgical theology

I make three main points concerning the Orthodox and the Papacy, and provide excerpts from these two chapters (emphasis added) as documentation. For the full context of the words and what I may have left out or misunderstood, consult the book which is available a number of places, one being the AMAZON.COM LISTING FOR THE PRIMACY OF PETER


(1) There is no systematic doctrine of Church government in the Orthodox Church and therefore it is not enough to refute Universal Primacy

"As we study the problem of primacy in general, and especially the primacy of Rome, we must not be ruled by polemical motives: the problem is to be solved to satisfy ourselves and Orthodox theology. The solution of the problem is urgent, since Orthodox theology has not yet built up any systematic doctrine on Church government. And although we have a doctrine concerning Ecumenical Councils as organs of government in the Church, we shall see presently that our doctrine is not enough to refute the Catholic doctrine of primacy." (Afanassieff, page 92)


(2) The earliest Fathers recognized the primacy of Rome (or what might be called "priority") and Orthodox scholars generally concede this


"Let us turn to the facts. We know that the Church of Rome took over the position of 'church-with-priority' at the end of the first century. That was about the time at which her star ascended into the firmament of history in its brightest splendor...Even as early as the Epistle to the Romans, Rome seems to have stood out among all the churches as very important. Paul bears witness that the faith of the Romans was proclaimed throughout the whole world (Rom 1:8)....we have a document which gives us our earliest reliable evidence that the Church of Rome stood in an exceptional position of authority in this period. This is the epistle of Clement of Rome...We know that Clement was 'president' of the Roman Church...." (page 124)

"The epistle is couched in very measured terms, in the form of an exhortation; but at the same time it clearly shows that the Church of Rome was aware of the decisive weight, in the Church of Corinth's eyes, that must attach to its witness about the events in Corinth. So the Church of Rome, at the end of the first century, exhibits a marked sense of its own priority, in point of witness about events in other churches. Note also that the Roman Church did not feel obliged to make a case, however argued, to justify its authoritative pronouncements on what we should now call the internal concerns of other churches. There is nothing said about the grounds of this priority....Apparently Rome had no doubt that its priority would be accepted without argument." (page 125-126)


"We find the first direct evidence about the priority of the Roman Church in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Speaking of the Church of Rome, Ignatius uses the phrase 'which presides' in two passages.... The Roman Church 'presides' in love, that is, in the concord based on love between all the local churches. The term 'which presides' [Greek given] needs no discussion; used in the masculine it means the bishop, for he, as head of the local church, sits in the 'first place' at the eucharistic assembly, that is, in the central seat. He is truly the president of his church...[Ignatius] pictured the local churches grouped, as it were, in a eucharistic assembly, with every church in its special place, and the church of Rome in the chair, sitting in the 'first place.' So, says Ignatius, the Church of Rome indeed has the priority in the whole company of churches united by concord....In his period no other church laid claim to the role, which belonged to the Church of Rome." (page 126-127)

on ST. IRENAEUS (c. 180 AD)

"We shall find other evidence about the Roman position in Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. His -Adversus Heareses- contains a famous passage, which has provoked a great many arguments. This is unquestionably the most important document of all with regard to the position of the Roman Chuch....Irenaeus calls on Apostolic Tradition to correct the mistaken heretics. This Tradition, he says, is guarded in every local church by the succession of bishops. It was not in his power to find proof of this in each local church, so he confines himself to one set of bishops only, and enumerates the bishops of Rome, a church in which Apostolic Tradition and the Faith proclaimed to mankind have been guarded up to his own times....Irenaeus believed he could confine himself to enumerating the succession in a single church, viz. the Roman Church, although he might have enumerated the successive bishops in every local church, as he says himself. He gives his own explanation for choosing the Church of Rome: he saw it as

'the very great and the very ancient church, known to all, which the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul founded and constituted.'

"...Irenaeus insists that anyone looking for the truth can find it in the Tradition of the Apostles, which every local church has preserved. So we must suppose he thought that the Apostolic Tradition and the Faith proclaimed to mankind were preserved in the Roman Church more fully than in others, or, at least, in a more manifest way. Later, Irenaeus points to this Church -- Rome -- as the one to which all other churches must -convenire-....I think a likelier sense of -convenire- here is 'address oneself to,' 'turn to,' 'have recourse to.' The sense of the remark would then be: every local church should have recourse to the Church of Rome....This passage in Irenaeus [from Against Heresies 3:4:1] illuminates the meaning of his remarks about the Church of Rome: if there are disputes in a local church, that church should have recourse to the Roman Church, for there is contained the Tradition which is preserved by all the churches."

"Rome's vocation [in the "pre-Nicene period"] consisted in playing the part of arbiter, settling contentious issues by witnessing to the truth or falsity of whatever doctrine was put before them. Rome was truly the center where all converged if they wanted their doctrine to be accepted by the conscience of the Church. They could not count upon success except on one condition -- that the Church of Rome had received their doctrine -- and refusal from Rome predetermined the attitude the other churches would adopt. There are numerous cases of this recourse to Rome...." (page 128f, 133)


"...according to his doctrine there should have really been one single bishop at the head of the Universal Church....According to Cyprian, every bishop occupies Peter's throne (the Bishop of Rome among others) but the See of Peter is Peter's throne -par excellence-. The Bishop of Rome is the direct heir of Peter, whereas the others are heirs only indirectly, and sometimes only by the mediation of Rome. Hence Cyprian's insistence that the Church of Rome is the root and matrix of the Catholic Church [Ecclesiae catholicae matricem et radicem]. The subject is treated in so many of Cyprian's passages that there is no doubt: to him, the See of Rome was -ecclesia principalis unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est- [the Principal Church from which the unity of the priesthood/episcopacy has its rise]." (page 98-99)


(3) There is no doubt that an objective study of the evidence yields the conclusion that the Catholic Church believed in Universal Primacy, had an Ecumenical center of unity and agreement in Rome, and the unanimous testimony of the Fathers and Councils demonstrates this -- and to deny this is based purely on "anti-Roman prejudice"

"Finally we come to the highest and ultimate form of primacy: universal primacy. An age-long anti-Roman prejudice has led some Orthodox canonists simply to deny the existence of such primacy in the past or the need for it in the present. But an objective study of the canonical tradition cannot fail to establish beyond any doubt that, along with local 'centers of agreement' or primacies, the Church has also known a universal primacy....

"It is impossible to deny that, even before the appearance of local primacies, the Church from the first days of her existence possessed an ecumenical center of unity and agreement. In the apostolic and the Judaeo-Christian period, it was the Church of Jerusalem, and later the Church of Rome -- 'presiding in agape,' according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. This formula and the definition of the universal primacy contained in it have been aptly analyzed by Fr. Afanassieff and we need not repeat his argument here. Neither can we quote here all the testimonies of the Fathers and the Councils unanimously acknowledging Rome as the senior church and the center of ecumenical agreement.

"It is only for the sake of biased polemics that one can ignore these testimonies, their consensus and significance. It has happened, however, that if Roman historians and theologians have always interpreted this evidence in juridical terms, thus falsifying its real meaning, their Orthodox opponents have systematically belittled the evidence itself. Orthodox theology is still awaiting a truly Orthodox evaluation of universal primacy in the first millennium of church history -- an evaluation free from polemical or apologetic exaggerations." (Schmemann, page 163-164)


RECOMMENDED READING (Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican sources)

John Meyendorff, ed. The Primacy of Peter : Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992 [1963]) for the full context of the above quotations, and some Orthodox objections and explanations

John Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy (Kennikat, 1971 [1928]) covers in depth St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and the early Popes, detailed argumentation and answers to Anglican objections, also see Chapman Bishop Gore and the Catholic Claims (1905)

Luke Rivington, The Primitive Church and the See of Peter (1894) an older book that covers all the earliest evidence for Papal Primacy/Authority and answers to Anglican objections

B.C. Butler, The Church and Infallibility : A Reply to the Abridged "Salmon" (Sheed and Ward, 1954) answers an anti-Catholic Anglican divine George Salmon

Edward Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority AD 96-454 (London: SPCK, 1952) Anglican author lays out all the evidence from the first to fifth centuries of the Church

James Likoudis, Ending the Byzantine-Greek Schism (1992) by a former Orthodox, response to Orthodox objections, much material from Eastern writers, appendix includes St. Thomas Aquinas on Errors of the Greeks

Scott Butler, et al. Jesus, Peter, and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Queenship, 1996) excellent modern Biblical treatment with much patristic evidence

Stephen Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (Ignatius, 1999) written in response to anti-Catholic Evangelicals like William Webster and James White, a thorough Biblical study on the primacy of St. Peter, answers to Protestant objections, much documentation for the primacy of Rome from the first five centuries of the Church

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