Inquiry into Eastern Orthodoxy: A Catholic Guideline

A friend of mine sent me a series of questions on the subject of the Papacy with Eastern Orthodoxy in mind. Since these questions are pretty standard, I thought I would make a blog post with the best standard answers I could give. Enjoy.


If had to tell someone succinctly why Eastern Orthodoxy rejects papal infallibility? And is it right to say that Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t reject papal authority on the whole, that they can recognize the primacy of the bishop of Rome, would they also recognize universal jurisdiction?

Well, no one can pretend to answer this question for the Orthodox. More than any other time, the last 100 years, and particularly the events in 2018, reveal a difference in the understanding of the primacy of Constantinople viz a viz the other autokephalous churches. Why do they reject Papal infallibility? Different Orthodox will give different answers. For the more philosophically minded, they will reject the very epistemic methodology of an external infallible machine as a legalistic crutch for rationalists. For those who are more historically minded, they might not have an issue with the idea of external infallible agents (i.e. Councils), but they don’t see the Consensus Patrum (consensus of the Fathers) holding to the view that the Pope is infallible, even if under only certain conditions. Since the Law of Belief is the Law of Prayer, and since the test of Belief is the consensus of the Church, it stands to reason that if consensus does not support Papal Infallibility, that the latter is a post-Apostolic creation of men. As for Papal authority in the Orthodox Church. Again, different people will say different things. Theologians reared in Russian schools will retain the idea that all bishops are absolutely equal, and that administrative hierarchies (metropolitan, patriarch) are canonical privileges that exist outside of the divine order of the Church, and can thus be there or not be there. Those theologians who are from the school of Constantinople/Greece might be willing to say that a Universal Pope is not only good, but necessary, but that this authority is relegated to a far lesser form than what exists in the Vatican today. No prerogative of singular infallibility, nor immediate/direct jurisdiction over all Christians. His Papal authority would be limited by an appellate form, which means he could judge cases when an appeal is made to him, with the caveat that causa majores (major cases) would have to be resolved by the highest form of authority, an Ecumenical Council.

There goes theories. But the Orthodox must enter into a pan-Orthodox Council with all her Hierarchs to put a final analysis on this question. Attempts were made for decades for a Council which eventually met in Crete 2016, but for several reasons, this has not achieved Ecumenical status, and perhaps won’t ever.

Would you accept the way papal infallibility is spelled out in the catechism? The current one…”in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter”. And how the heck do we derive that from scriptures????

Good questions. I’m afraid the issue only is more complicated. For starters, the precise definition of “Papal Infallibility” with its narrow conditions is really nowhere in the Church Fathers, Councils, or even ecclesial doctors until the 11th century. And when I say “nowhere”, I only mean in the survived documentation that exists to this day of the most reliable source. That is a sliver of all that was written, and so we have to be careful not to assert, absolutely, that the definition was not known. The evidence that something akin to papal infallibility was believed and held by the Church Fathers is pretty significant. Although, they show no awareness of a narrow set of conditions. When the indefectibility of Rome is spoke of it, it is pretty all encompassing. For example, they will see, “the See of Peter will remain unstained forever, according to the promise of Christ our God”. Well, they sounds pretty unconditional. But here’s the problem. Honorius was condemned by a Council with the approval of the Pope, precisely for heresy. Vigilius was at least accused of heresy, and made a mistake of reference to a letter being orthodox (letter of Ibas of Edessa in the Three Chapters controversy), even though he himself was not heterodox by intention. So, it is quite plain that, at least, not everyone believed that the See of Rome could be absolutely free from every stain possible. On the other hand, what do we do with the positive evidence? Later Latin theologians would say that we preserve the promise of indefectibility to the teaching ministry of Rome, but only when it counts for a binding teaching upon the whole church.

Where does it come from in Scripture? Good question. It will always involve an systematic construction based off indirect exegetical study. So , for example. We know Christ promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church due to the strength of the rock underneath. Well, what is that Rock? If it is Peter and/or his successors, then he is divinely strengthened to retain the strength to keep the Church from falling into heresy. Secondly, when Christ said that he would pray for the conversion of Peter , that his faith would not fail, and that, afterwards , he should “strengthen the brethren” . Even though this was a moral failure on the part of Peter in denying Christ three times, it still shows that Christ singularly prayed for the faith of Peter to return to a converted state of grace and to instill the strength for the other apostles to continue picking up their cross and following Christ. The Church fathers would see in this a typological prophecy of the ministry of Peter’s successors.

All of the above are systematic constructions, and are not derived from the limited space of bare exegesis

So the idea is, those earlier errors were not when the Pope was giving binding teaching

Yes, you can say what has developed are the conditions. But then again, you also have plenty of strands of theologians who flat out denied Rome was even capable of being infallible, ever. Photius, is one example (even though at the Council of Constantinople 879, he made no objections to the Papal supremacy text in the Acta), but you always had strands who did believe.

That it was not universally taught, a la Vincent of Lerins

Yeah. So, we have to make some distinctions. What counts as universal. If we take the years from 150-379, the teaching that Christ is 100% human and 100% divine has license to be called “universal”. So St. Vincent of Lerins was aiming too high, if he meant “absolute” universality. But I think he was speaking more loosely.

Ah i see. It can admit of exceptions. The Bible uses “all” in that way too. So that’s not surprising.


I think what he is referring to is what the orthodox episcopate holds in defense of errors, and which successfully becomes the consensus patrum over time the arians died out, the paulianists died out, the apollinarians died out, etc,etc

What do you mean “what the orthodox episcopate holds in defense of errors”

So something becomes eventually the official consensus patrum (consensus of the fathers)

The Latin West, including many significant voices in the East, held that Rome was divinely founded and her teaching ministry would last indefectible until the end of the world. Saints such as St. Leo the Great, Maximos the confessor, Theodore of Studium, St. Agatho, etc,etc. They all held to this. If the Orthodox want to clean the idea of Papal infallibility off the table completely, then they lose their badge for consensus, because this is just how the West understood things

Ahh thats a clever argument

What I mean is that Apostolic succession is retained (you have valid episcopal ordinations) and a certain grouping of the episcopate retains the truth, in contradistinction to splinter break groups from the whole. Over time, the orthodox episcopate emerges as the surviving consensus. And this was always the episcopate in union with the Pope. The Orthodox admit Rome was orthodox for the first 10 centuries. The Coptics would say Rome was good until the 5th century, with Leo “the Heretic”. 


Right they were the first big group to break off and maintain apostolic succession, right? Are they the only group prior to the 1054 split to do so? That is to retain AS (Apostolic Succession). 


Preceded by Nestorius, who miraculously led an episcopal coup which survived for centuries, even to this day in a little known (in the English world) group  “Assyrian Church of the East” (see Dr. William Tighe’s review of The Shadow of Nestorius). 
But yes, the Egyptian/Syriac schism @ Chalecdon (451) was a massive schism, and caused the political/ecclesial turmoils that would come in the 6th and 7th centuries. See Menze’s Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church , Meinardus’s Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, and Allen’s Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century HeresyDonatists were pretty large (they retained episcopal ordinations), but the Mohommadens took them out in the 7th century completely


Oh the Assyrian Church of the East goes back that far?!? I had no idea!

Wow. I mean to a break that far back. Wow, i didn’t realize the Donatists continued either. Dang. Until the Muslims. 


When scholars say “The East hardly recognized Papal claimed”, we have to understand “East” to include the Nestorians, Coptics, Arians, Semi Arians, Macedonians, Monothelites, Iconoclasts, and some others. Let’s put it this way, absolutely speaking, there isn’t a single doctrine which passes the test of universality completely except for Jesus exists, God exists, and things like that. There were people already rejecting sacraments in Tertullian’s time. So we have two options. God equips His church with the resources to bring order to chaos, or we normalize chaos

Regarding Patristic source selections on papal authority and infallibility, do you have suggestions?

Well, I am working on a book, but it will be a little while before it gets done. Scholars have been largely inadequate in capturing what the sources say. This is due to a variety of reasons. You will want to read more than one book. But, I would recommend the Byzantine Orthodox scholar Dr. A. Ed Siecieski’s “The Papacy and the Orthodox“. He is a convert from Roman Catholicism to the Eastern Chalcedonian Church, but his book is very honest and seeks to capture the views of both East and West pretty faithfully. I obviously disagree with him here and there on significant points. But his material will be essential to know going forward in the scholarship. This book , thus far, is unmatched in terms of contemporary scholarship. On the Catholic side, we’ve been selling the farm for 60 years by telling everyone they are alright, and so we don’t publish stuff which seeks to prove our point of view anymore. This is sad and unfortunate. Thus, you will have to read works when Catholics scholars were sane. (1) The Eastern Churches the the Papacy by J. Herbert Scott. (2) Studies in the Early Papacy by J. Chapman. (3) The Primitive Church and the See of Peter by Luke Rivington. For bare source material, one Anglican scholar (E. Giles) compiled a list of all the citations between 96-453 which speak to Papal primacy. It is actually free online. But you could still order it via Amazon . If you want books which absolutely seek to refute the Papacy altogether, there are no matches for Edward Denny’s “Papalism” and Fr Puller’s “the primitive saints and the see of Rome”. I have not finished the whole of these last two, but from what I’ve read, they aren’t compelling enough to change my views.


Awesome, thanks for all those resources!! It can be hard sometimes to find great resources, most of these I have not heard of. I’m always recommended the Russia and the Church one. Or whatever its called.

One particularly difficult subject for us Papists is the matter of the Council of Constance, and particularly its decree Haec Sancta. This decree says that a Council has authority over the Pope by divine right. Pope Martin V seems to have ratified this decree, and Catholic theologians have had to deal with the results of this. Most say that it was not intended on being an “infallible” doctrinal decree, but that is certainly how it was understood by the contemporaries. This is known as Conciliarism. Obviously, it has been put to death. Popes for centuries before Constance asserted their supremacy over Councils, and the same after Constance. In 1460, Pope Pius II condemned it, and Vatican I put the death knell on it forever. And since Conciliarism was condemned by a Council, its own instrument of choice (i.e. Council) was its own grim reaper. Nevertheless, there is this quirky business of Martin V’s ratification of Haec Sancta. One Orthodox scholar, Fr Sergius Bulgokov, wrote a significant work entitled “The Vatican Dogma“, where he seeks to exploit this very thing, showing Papal supremacy and infallibility to be a complete sham. However, if you read his book “The Eastern Orthodox Church”, he pretty much takes a liberal line on Church authority, and one which is untenable. And so he didn’t have any good alternative, leaving room for better arguments on the Catholic side.





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