THE LIMITS OF THE CHURCH: A REVIEW OF THE ARGUMENT
Written by Vladimir Moss
THE LIMITS OF THE CHURCH: A REVIEW OF THE ARGUMENT
When looking back at the origins of the pan-heresy of ecumenism, and of the Orthodox participation in it, it becomes clear that one issue in particular was (and is) of special importance in the formation of positions on either side of the debate: the question why the Orthodox Church receives certain heretics and schismatics, not by baptism, but through what the Russians call the “second” or “third” rite – chrismation or confession. This issue was addressed with characteristic forthrightness and clarity by Fr. Georges Florovsky in his article, “The Limits of the Church”, published in Church Quarterly Review in 1933. Because of precisely these qualities of forthrightness and clarity, I propose to run through the article’s main points again – but then bring forward reasons for coming to an opposite conclusion to that reached by Fr. Georges.
Fr. Georges begins by citing the teaching of St. Cyprian of Carthage in the third century that there is no sacramental grace outside the Church, that the canonical limits of the Church coincide exactly with the limits of her sacramental ministrations, and that all those who separate from the Church thereby immediately lose the grace that only membership of the One Church provides. “Strictly speaking,” he concedes, “in its theological premises the teaching of St. Cyprian has never been disproved. Even Augustine was not very far from Cyprian. He argued with the Donatists, not with Cyprian himself, and did not try to refute Cyprian; indeed, his argument was more about practical measures and conclusions. In his reasoning about the unity of the Church, about the unity of love as a necessary and decisive condition for the saving power of the sacraments, Augustine really only repeats Cyprian in new words.
“But the practical conclusions drawn by Cyprian have not been accepted by the consciousness of the Church…”
The primary practical conclusion referred to here is the necessity, according to St. Cyprian, of receiving all converts from the sects by baptism. However, the Church, writes Fr. Georges, “customarily receives adherents from sects – and even from heresies – not by the way of baptism, thereby obviously meaning or supposing that they have already been actually baptized in their sects and heresies.” But only the Church can perform true sacraments. Therefore, concludes Fr. Georges, St. Cyprian defined the limits of the Church too narrowly: the Church extends beyond her strictly canonical bounds. “A canonical cleavage does not immediately signify mystical impoverishment and desolation. All that Cyprian said about the unity of the Church and the sacraments can and must be accepted. But it is not necessary to draw with him the final boundary around the body of the Church by means of canonical points alone.”
Fr. Georges then examines the main argument against his position: the so-called “economical” theory of the reception of heretics and schismatics. First he considers an exposition of this argument by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky. According to this, the reception of heretics or schismatics by other means than baptism does not mean that the Church recognizes the presence of true baptism in their heretical or schismatical communities. Rather, it is a form of “economy” or condescension to the weakness of converts: baptism is not insisted on in order to make their entry into the Church easier, in order that they should not be deterred from entering by false shame at having to admit that they had never had true baptism. But it is implicitly understood that baptismal grace is given to these converts at the moment of their reception into the Church, whatever the external rite by which they are received.
Florovsky rejects this argument with indignation. “Economy”, the practice of not receiving converts by other means than baptism gives them “not only an excuse but a ground to continue deceiving themselves through the equivocal fact that their ‘baptism, worship and hierarchical system differ in little externally from those of the Church’”.
In any case, he continues, “who gave the Church this right not merely to change, but simply to abolish the external act of baptism, performing it in such cases only mentally, by implication or by intention at the celebration of the ‘second sacrament’ (i.e. chrismation) over the unbaptized… If ‘economy’ is pastoral discretion conducive to the advantage and salvation of human souls, then in such a case one could only speak of ‘economy in reverse’. It would be a deliberate retrogression into equivocation and obscurity for the sake of purely external success, since the internal enchurchment of ‘ineophytes’ cannot take place with such concealment. It is scarcely possible to impute to the Church such a perverse and crafty intention. And in any case the practical result of the ‘economy’ must be considered utterly unexpected. For in the Church herself the conviction has arisen among the majority that sacraments are performed even among schismatics, that even in the sects there is a valid, although forbidden, hierarchy. The true intention of the Church in her acts and rules could appear to be too difficult to discern, and from this point of view as well the ‘economic’ explanation of these rules cannot be regarded as convincing.”
Florovsky goes on to quote Alexei Khomyakov’s exposition of the “economical” argument in his dialogue with William Palmer. Palmer was confused by the fact that the Russian Church was prepared to receive him from Anglicanism by chrismation only, whereas, the Greeks insisted on baptism. Defending the Greek practice of receiving reunited Latins through baptism, Khomyakov wrote: “All sacraments are completed only in the bosom of the true Church and it matters not whether they be completed in one form or another. Reconciliation (with the Church) renovates the sacraments or completes them, giving a full and Orthodox meaning to the rite that was before either insufficient or heterodox, and the repetition of the preceding sacraments is virtually contained in the rite or fact of reconciliation. Therefore the visible repetition of baptism or confirmation, though unnecessary, cannot be considered erroneous, and establishes only a ritual difference [between the Greek and Russian Churches] without any difference of opinion.”
Florovsky’s comment on this (although he was in general an admirer of Khomyakov) is very sharp: “This is impossible. The ‘repetition’ of a sacrament is not only superfluous but impermissible. If there was no sacrament and what was previously performed was an imperfect, heretical rite, then the sacrament must be accomplished for the first time – and with complete sincerity and candor. In any case, the Catholic sacraments are not just ‘rites’, and it is not possible to treat the external aspect of a sacramental celebration with such disciplinary relativism.”
And he concludes: “The ‘economic’ interpretation of the canons might be probable and convincing, but only in the presence of direct and perfectly clear proofs, whereas it is generally supported by indirect data and most often by indirect intentions and conclusions. The ‘economic’ interpretation is not the teaching of the Church. It is only a private ‘theological opinion’, very late and very controversial, which arose in a period of theological confusion and decadence in a hasty endeavour to dissociate oneself as sharply as possible from Roman theology.”
Florovsky goes on in effect to defend Roman theology, which depends on St. Augustine’s distinction between the “validity” or “reality” of a sacrament and its “efficacy”. “The holy and sanctifying Spirit still breathes in the sects”, their sacraments are still “accomplished in reality”. But since they are accomplished in violation of love, and in disunity with the Church, they are inefficacious. Just as “baptismal grace must be renewed in unceasing effort and service, otherwise it becomes ‘inefficacious’”, so the sects must be restored to unity with the Church, otherwise their sacraments will continue to be inefficacious. For in them, while “the unity of the Spirit” is preserved in the sacraments, “the bond of peace” with the Church (Ephesians 4.3) is broken.
Florovsky admits that “the sacramental theology of St. Augustine was not received by the Eastern Church in antiquity nor by Byzantine theology, but not because they saw in it something alien or superfluous. Augustine was simply not very well known in the East…”
Let us now turn from an exposition of Florovsky’s argument to a critique of it.
But first its strong points must be admitted. The practice of “economy” in the reception of converts is often confusing – not only for the converts themselves, who are not given a clear, unequivocal sign that they are coming from darkness into light, from the sphere of the devil into the grace of God, but also for many of the Church clergy themselves, who through long practice of “economy” have come to believe what it appears, to a superficial view, to imply – that the heretics have valid baptism. The present writer vividly remembers a ROCOR priest trying to dissuade him from being baptized into Orthodoxy (although the date had already been fixed, and the local hierarch’s blessing obtained) on the grounds that he had already been validly baptized in Anglicanism…
Having said that, the practice of “economy” is not in itself deceitful, nor need it be done, as Florovsky claims, “with equivocation and obscurity”. It is quite possible to catechize without equivocation, teaching that the Orthodox Church is the True Church outside of which there are no sacraments, while going on to receive the convert by “economy” of one kind or another. The decisive argument in deciding whether to use strictness or economy remains, in all cases, the salvation of the many. This is particularly clear in the case of the reception of a large group, which may include clergy as well as laity and in which some members may be clearer in their faith and willing to accept baptism, while others are weaker and would be repelled by such a demand. In order that the group as a whole be integrated in the Church, with all the obvious advantages that would entail for the salvation of each member, condescension or “economy” may be applied for the group as a whole.
In any case, Florovsky ignores the clear evidence that the Holy Fathers rejected the doctrine of sacraments outside the canonical limits of the Church which he accepts, and accepted the “economical” interpretation that he rejects. Thus Apostolic Canon 46 decrees: “We order that a bishop or priest who has accepted the baptism or sacrifice of heretics should be deposed. For what agreement has Christ with Beliar, or what portion has a believer with an infidel?” On which the Serbian Bishop Nikodim (Milash) of Dalmatia comments: “According to the teaching of the Church, every heretic is outside the Church, and outside the Church there cannot be either true Christian baptism, or the true Eucharistic sacrifice, or in general any true and holy sacraments. The present Apostolic canon also expresses this teaching of the Church, citing, moreover, Holy Scripture, which does not admit anything in common between those who confess the Orthodox faith and those who teach against it. We read the same also in the Apostolic Constitutions (IV, 15), and the Father and Teachers of the Church taught the same from the very beginning. Consequently, the heretics can have neither true baptism, nor true priesthood, and the Orthodox bishop or priest who recognizes baptism or any other sacred action accomplished by a heretical priest to be correct must be, according to this canon, deprived of his priestly rank, for he thereby shows that either he does not know the essence of his own belief, or he is himself inclined to heresy and defends it, as a consequence of either the one or the other he is not worthy of the priesthood.”
As regards the true purpose of receiving heretics and schismatics by other means than baptism, St. Basil the Great writes in his First Canonical Epistle: “Although the beginning of the departure [from the Church] took place through schism, those who departed from the Church no longer had the grace of the Holy Spirit upon themselves. For the bestowal of grace had withered away, because the lawful succession had been cut off. For the first who departed had received consecration from the Fathers, and through their laying-on of hands, had the gift of the Spirit. But those who had been torn away became laymen, and could not give to other the grace of the Holy Spirit, from which they themselves had fallen away. Which is why the ancients ordered those who came from them to be cleansed again by the true Church baptism as ones who had been baptized by laymen. But insofar it was pleasing to some in Asia, for the sake of the building up of many, to accept their baptism: let it be accepted.”
Here we see what the “acceptance” of the baptism of schismatics really meant to the Holy Fathers. The schismatics had no grace of sacraments – that is made quite clear by St. Basil. But it was clearly a tradition of the Church not to insist on baptism in all or even most such cases “for the sake of the building up of the many” – so that more could be saved. Later in the canon St. Basil gives reasons for not accepting the Encratite schismatics’ baptism, and for baptizing them again. However, he writes, “if this could be an impediment to the general welfare, then again let custom be upheld, and let the Fathers who have ordered what course we are to pursue be followed. For I am under some apprehension lest, in our wish to discourage them from baptizing, we may, through the severity of our decision, be a hindrance to those who are being saved.” In other words, let “economy” be applied even in the case of the Encratites, if thereby the salvation of the many is achieved.
As another, more recent example of how the True Church thinks in the reception of converts, let us consider the decision of the Synod of ROCOR on September 28, 1971, to suspend the use of “economy” in the reception of Catholic and Protestant converts to Orthodoxy: “The Holy Church has from antiquity believed that there can be only one true baptism, namely that which is accomplished in her bosom: ‘One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism’ (Ephesians 4.5). In the Symbol of Faith “one baptism” is also confessed, while the 46th canon of the Holy Apostles indicates: ‘We order that a bishop or priest who has accepted (that is, recognized) the baptism or sacrifice of heretics should be deposed.’
“However, when the zeal of any heretics in their struggle against the Church weakened, and when there was a question of their mass conversion to Orthodoxy, the Church, to ease their union, accepted them into her bosom by another rite. [There follows a discussion of St. Basil the Great’s first canonical epistle.]
“And so St. Basil the Great, and through his words the Ecumenical Council, in establishing the principle that outside the Holy Orthodox Church there is no true baptism, allowed out of pastoral condescension, so-called oikonomia, the acceptance of certain heretics and schismatics without a new baptism. And in accordance with this principle, the Ecumenical Councils allowed the reception of heretics by various rites, taking account of the weakening of their fierceness against the Orthodox Church….
“In relation to the Roman Catholics and Protestants who claim to preserve baptism as a sacrament (for example, the Lutherans), the practice was introduced from the time of Peter the First of receiving them without baptism, through the renunciation of heresy and chrismation of Protestants and unconfirmed Catholics. Before Peter Catholics were baptised in Russia. In Greece the practice also changed, but for almost three hundred years, after a certain break, the practice of baptising those who came from Catholicism and Protestantism was again introduced. Those who are received by another rite are not recognized as Orthodox in Greece. In many cases also such children of our Russian Church were not even allowed to receive Holy Communion.
“Bearing in mind this circumstance, and the present growth of the ecumenical heresy, which tries completely to wipe out the difference between Orthodoxy and every heresy, so that the Moscow Patriarchate, in spite of the sacred canons, has issued a resolution allowing Roman Catholics to be communed in certain cases, the Hierarchical Council has recognized the introduction of a stricter practice to be necessary, that is, that all heretics coming to the Church should be baptized, and that only insofar as it is necessary and with the permission of the bishop, from considerations of oikonomia, should another practice be allowed in relation to certain people, that is, the reception into the Church of Roman Catholics and Protestants who have been baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity through renunciation of heresy and chrismation.”
So we may now pose the question: is the distinction between the validity and efficacity of sacraments, which was introduced by St. Augustine and supported by Florovsky, accepted by the Orthodox Church?
It is a sad but undeniable fact of the spiritual life that we do not always receive the holy mysteries to our salvation. St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, points out that some received the Body and Blood of Christ to their condemnation, and some had even died as a result. Thus it is possible to receive a valid sacrament which turns out to be inefficacious because of the unworthiness of the recipient.
However, the Apostle was writing to those inside the Church: he was not commenting on the possibility of there being sacraments outside the Church. And, as we have seen, the idea that there can be valid sacraments outside the Church is in fact condemned by the Tradition of the Church (Apostolic Canon 46, First Canonical Epistle of St. Basil).
So it is likely that St. Augustine’s teaching was not taken up in the Eastern Church, not because it was not known, but because it was not accepted, as being contrary to Church Tradition. For the canonical boundaries of the Church do coincide with the limits of her sacramental ministrations.
Of course, it is not always easy to determine the canonical boundaries of the Church with precision. There are many examples of ruptures in communion in the history of the Church, where it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty whether the one or the other side – or both – were in the Church. Thus in fourth century Antioch there was a schism in which Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom supported one side, and St. Athanasius the Great and the Church of Rome – the other. Which side constituted the canonical Church of Antioch, or were they both in the Church in spite of the rupture of communion? It is very difficult to say… Again, in the nineteenth century the Ecumenical Patriarchate anathematized the Church of Bulgaria, while the Russian Church and the Jerusalem Patriarchate remained in communion with it. Was the Bulgarian Church inside the Church or not? It is very difficult to say… As for the chaos reigning among the True Orthodox Churches of Russia and Greece today, it would be a bold man who would declare with certainty exactly where the canonical boundaries of the two Churches are…
However, the difficulty, in many historical cases, of determining exactly where the canonical boundaries of the Church are does not affect the general principle: that her canonical boundaries (wherever they are, God knows where) coincide with the limits of her sacramental ministrations.
Let us consider, finally, a possible objection to this conclusion based on the teaching of the Catacomb Hieromartyr Mark (Novoselov), Bishop of Sergiev Posad: that the Church as mystical organism is to be distinguished from the Church as a canonical organization. "It is necessary to distinguish between the Church-organism and the Church-organization. As the apostle taught: 'You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it' (I Corinthians 12.27). The Church-organism is a living person, and just as the cells of our body, besides having their own life, have the life that is common to our body and links between themselves, so a man in the Body of Christ begins to live in Church, while Christ begins to live in him. That is why the apostle said: 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me' (Galatians 2.20).
"The basis for the affirmation of the Church-organism is love for Christ. The Lord Himself saw the basis of His Church precisely in love for Him. He asked Peter: did he love Him? And He added: 'Feed My sheep'. The Church of Christ is the union of mutual love of the believers ('United by the bond of love and offering themselves to Christ the Lord, the apostles were washed clean', Canon of Holy Thursday). Only in the Church organism can true democratism, equality and brotherhood come into being; we are equal and brothers only if we are parts of one and the same living body. In the organization there is not and cannot be ‘organic’ equality and brotherhood."
"Only to the Church-organism can we apply such titles as we meet in the Word of God, for example: 'glorious, holy, spotless' (Ephesians 1.4); 'the Bride of the Lamb' (Revelation 19.7; 21.9); 'the Body of Christ' (Ephesians 1.23; Colossians 1.24); 'the pillar and ground of the truth' (I Timothy 3.15). These concepts are inapplicable to the Church-organization (or applicable only with great qualifications); they lead people into perplexity and are rejected by them. The Church-organism is the pure 'Bride' of Christ (Revelation 21.2), but the Church-organization has all the faults of human society and always bears the marks of human infirmities... The Church-organization often persecutes the saints of God, but the Church-organism receives them into her bosom... The Church-organization rejects them from its midst, deprives them of episcopal sees, while they remain the most glorious members of the Church-organism. It is possible to belong externally to the visible Church (organization), while one belongs only inwardly to the Body of Christ (organism), and the measure of one's belongingness is determined by the degree of one's sanctity."
However, both the Church-organism and the Church-organization belong to the Church, whereas heretics and schismatics belong to neither. St. John Chrysostom was expelled by the canonical Church of his time, and died in exile. And in almost every age the canonical Church has acted unjustly at some times to some of its members, showing that her holiest members are by no means always her leaders. Nevertheless, this disparity in holiness in the members of the Church, which sometimes leads to open ruptures in communion, unjust expulsions and bans, does not change the boundaries of “the canonical Church” so long as the Church remains in Orthodoxy. But if it falls away from the truth even in one of the dogmas, then it ceases to be the canonical Church – the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church - and loses the grace of sacraments. For, as St. Maximus the Confessor said, “Christ the Lord called that Church the Catholic Church which maintains the true and saving confession of the faith”.
This truth is illustrated in the career of Florovsky himself. Although he was a fine and very erudite theologian, and one of the first to talk about a return to the Greek Fathers, whose teaching he championed so admirably, his departure from Church truth as revealed in “The Limits of the Church” eventually led him away from the Church and Orthodoxy. Thus he exposed the Sophianist heresy of Sergius Bulgakov – but refused to call him a heretic, and remained friendly and in communion with him until his death. He also remained in communion with the new calendarists and the sergianists. For, after all, if even “Catholic sacraments are not just ‘rites’” and may be valid even though performed outside the canonical Church, the same must be true, a fortiori, of all the organizations calling themselves “Orthodox”. And why should this extension of the mystical limits of the Church include only the Catholics? Why not also the Protestants? And so he was a founder-member of the World Council of Churches, whose Protestantism was inscribed in its very constitution. And even though he was a highly “conservative” member of that organization, and did not like many of its developments, he remained in it to the end. For ecumenism is a progressive disease: you begin by conceding a little to those outside the Church, you go on by conceding more, and in the end you end up in communion with them – and outside the Church.
And so we can concede nothing to the heretics. For: “Baptism being one, and the Holy Spirit being one, there is also but one Church, founded upon oneness by Christ our Lord. And for this reason, whatever is performed by them [the heretics] is reprobate, being counterfeit and void. For nothing can be acceptable or desirable to God which is performed by them, whom the Lord in the Gospels calls His foes and enemies: ‘Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters’ (Matthew 12.30).”
August 12/25, 2009.
St. Maximus the Confessor.
 Fr. Georges restated his thesis some years later in “The Doctrine of the Church and the Ecumenical Problem”, The Ecumenical Review (1950), 152-161.
 Khomyakov, in Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, p. 62.
 Milash, Pravila Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi, St. Petersburg, 1911, Moscow, 2001, volume 1, pp. 116-117.
 Tserkovnaia Zhizn’ (Church Life), July-December, 1971, pp. 52-54. This decision brought the practice of ROCOR back into line with the practice of the Russian Church under Patriarch Philaret in the early seventeenth century, and of the Greek Church since 1756. “It should be noted,” writes Andrei Psarev, “that, within the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, it was Bishop James of Manhattan, who led the American Orthodox Mission for a period of time, who first began the reception of Catholics by baptism, regarding which he informed the Council of Bishops in 1953.” (“The Development of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Attitude Toward Other Local Orthodox Churches”, http://www.sobor2006.com/printerfriendly2.php?id=119_0_3_0, pp. 708)
 Novoselov, Pis'ma k druzyam, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, letter 5.
 Novoselov, op. cit., Letter 18.
 Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, 258 A.D.