The polemics and theological reflections surrounding Ukrainian autocephaly are very interesting from the perspective of historical theology. The two most controversial ideas in this debate are those of universal primacy (cf. Constantinople) and canonical territory (cf. Moscow).
In passing, one can note that the term autocephaly gained importance primarily during the 19th century. As Archbishop Job (Getcha) has pointed out, Moscow has never been formally granted autocephaly.
One may also note that the charge of papism has been leveled against the Ecumenical Patriarch. This creates an interesting historical parallel with the ecclesiology presented in the post-Byzantine confessional controversy with Roman Catholicism.
An especially interesting example of this is Bishop Elias Meniates (1669-1714), whose posthumously published Rock of Offence (1718) was not only translated into Latin but also German. Meniates was one of the greatest Orthodox theologians to engage in “controversial theology” (Kontroverstheologie in German) in the post-Byzantine period, perhaps equaled only by Feofan Prokopovich and Vikentios Damodos.
Dealing with the controversy concerning the power of the pope, Meniates concedes that the Orthodox—unlike the Lutherans and Calvinists—do not consider the pope to be the anti-Christ, but are only willing to grant him the primacy of honor of an older brother established by the Ecumenical Councils.
Meniates divides the controversy concerning the power of the pope into three subtopics:
(a) The claim that the pope was granted the supreme power of orders and jurisdiction and that all other bishops receive their powers from the pope;
(b) The claim that the pope is above an Ecumenical Council and cannot be judged by an Ecumenical Council;
(c) The claim that the pope has supreme power in secular matters and may depose and appoint kings and princes.
(It should be noted that Meniates’ 18th-century Austrian translator remarks in his preface that Roman Catholics generally no longer believe such things, with the exception of some monasteries and places in Italy.)
Concerning the first point, Meniates flatly denies the existence of any Petrine ministry beyond the particular role of St. Peter himself, who Meniates notes received a special position among the apostles. Futhermore, Meniates points out that several other ancient sees besides Rome can lay claim to having been founded or ministered to by St. Peter.
Meniates follows the early Fathers before Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403)—the first known Father to equate bishops and apostles—and distinguishes between apostles and bishops, the latter of which were the successors of the apostles. The ministry of the apostles extended to the universal Church and was not limited to any local church. Consequently, all bishops are local successors of the twelve apostles and not the successors of individual apostles. He emphasizes that an apostle and a bishop are two different things.
Concerning the issue of the hierarchy of jurisdiction and the related issue of primacy, Meniates considers this to be a secondary development. He argues that the Church adapted itself to the provincial structure of the Greco-Roman world, which gave a special role to the bishops of the provincial capitals who became archbishops and, in three instances, patriarchs—Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. But he considers that the institution of patriarchates is merely a secondary matter and a matter of adaptation to existing political structures. The new role of Constantinople in the hierarchy of jurisdiction and the ratio legis provided for this role by the Ecumenical Councils are invoked as proofs by Meniates. He also notes that the mighty Russian emperor (sic!) elevated the bishop of Moscow to the rank of patriarch in response to new political circumstances there.
Finally, one can note that Meniates recognizes only Christ as the universal head of the Church, and the supreme power of the Church as residing in councils and not individual bishops. Meniates calls the constitution of the Orthodox Church aristocratic in contrast to the monarchical constitution of the Roman Catholic Church.
What is interesting with the example of Meniates and the ecclesiology that he develops within the context of the controversy over the role of the Pope of Rome is that he makes no use of the theological concepts that dominate the current debate between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate over the future of the Ukrainian Church—concepts which only came into vogue from the 19th century onward: autocephaly, universal primacy, canonical territory, etc.
This raises the issue of the validity of certain theological concepts and categories that are invoked as self-evident expressions of Orthodox tradition today. As Father Robert Taft so aptly put it: “Those ignorant of history are prisoners of the latest cliché, for they have nothing against which to test it.”
David Heith-Stade holds a PhD in practical theology from Lund University in Sweden. He is a translator, researcher, and vice-secretary for the Society for the Law of the Eastern Churches in Vienna. His list of publications and papers can be viewed on his blog.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.