The debate on apokatastasis inevitably raises the question: Has the Orthodox Church definitively, infallibly, irreversibly excluded the universalist hope? Must Christians believe that some, perhaps many, will be eternally damned? Does everlasting hell belong to the dogmatic consciousness of the Church? Before we can tender judgment, we must first explore how a specific teaching of the Church becomes dogma.
I have found the reflections of Sergius Bulgakov particularly helpful on this subject. In his classic book The Orthodox Church, Bulgakov examines the relationship between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition and carefully differentiates the Orthodox view from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant construals popular in his day. His treatment now appears somewhat dated: Bulgakov wrote before the great patristic ressourcement that came to characterize the Latin Church a few decades later (see Dei verbum and Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition), as well as the partial recovery of Sacred Tradition by more than a few Protestant theologians (T. F. Torrance, Robert W. Jenson, and Geoffrey Wainwright immediately come to mind). No doubt he would revise his account in light of ecumenical developments. In any case, he offers an understanding of the role of doctrine in the life of Church upon which we may constructively address the contentious question of apokatastasis.
Like most modern Orthodox theologians, Bulgakov asserts the primacy of the Church as the bearer of divine revelation and the communication of deifying life:
The Church, in her quality of Body of Christ, which lives with the life of Christ, is by that fact the domain where the Holy Spirit lives and works. More: the Church is life by the Holy Spirit, because it is the Body of Christ. This is why the Church may be considered life in the Holy Spirit, or the life of the Holy Spirit in humanity. … The Church, then, is the Body of Christ. Through the Church we participate in the divine life of the Holy Trinity, it is life in the Holy Spirit by which we become children of the Father and which cries in our souls: “Abba, Father,” and which reveals to us the Christ living in us. …
The Church exists, it is “given” in a certain sense, independently of its historic origin; it took form because it already existed in the divine, superhuman plan. It exists in us, not as an institution or a society, but first of all as a spiritual certainty, a special experience, a new life. The preaching of primitive Christianity is the joyous and triumphant announcement of that new life. The life is indefinable, but it can be described and it can be lived. (pp. 2-3)
This supernatural life of the Church is Holy Tradition. Before the composition of the books of the New Testament and the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, there was the living faith of the Church of Jesus Christ, grounded in the apostolic revelation. This faith is communicated by the Spirit from generation to generation and contains definite theological content. This content takes on dogmatic forms, thus providing norms for proclamation and catechesis:
Tradition is the living memory of the Church, containing the true doctrine that manifests itself in its history. It is not an archaeological museum, not a scientific catalogue; it is not, furthermore, a dead depository. No, tradition is a living power inherent in a living organism. In the stream of its life it bears along the past in all its forms so that the past is contained in the present and is the present. (p. 10)
In response to heretical teaching, the Church has been compelled to gather in council and definitively speak the faith once delivered to the saints. By the Spirit these conciliar definitions become dogma, that is to say, authoritative formulations of divine truth “by means of words and ideas” (p. 70). They are the answers of the Church to questions put to the Church. They are not the Word of God but inspired testimony to the Word of God. Nor do dogmas “express the whole of the faith. They are only guide-posts on the road” (p. 71). Articulated in history, under the conditions of theological and political controversy, employing the vocabulary and conceptuality of the day, they necessarily partake in the limitations and provisionality of their cultural forms, even while serving as givens for further dogmatic reflection:
Let us distinguish between that part of Church tradition which remains absolutely unchanged and that in which a certain development is possible. The Spirit of God living in the Church never changes, neither does Christ Himself, but on the other hand we must clearly recognize the inevitability of dogmatic development in the revelation of Church consciousness, since certain of its expressions are of purely historical origin and pragmatic in character. This recognition of pragmatism or historism in dogmatic development, and hence in dogmatic forms, in no wise diminishes the significance of dogma. It does not introduce a general historic relativism, according to which dogmas may not only arise, but grow old and die. Relativism relates to forms and not to content. As to the latter, it partakes of the unity and constancy of tradition. It cannot be abrogated, and in this sense, the content of dogma is without fault and, so to speak, absolute. But though content is absolute, form is not, although we should recognize the higher appropriateness of a given form and its content. For instance, Greek philosophy was accepted as the most satisfactory form for the expression of Christology. This pragmatism of form is nevertheless no hindrance to the special divine inspiration which, so the Church holds, is evident in the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils. We should remember that the Word of God has its historic external form, belonging to a definite historical epoch, bearing the marks of time, yet in no way thereby losing its divine inspiration. On the other hand, we must not identify the dogmatic formulas of Church tradition, formulas of historic origins, with the Word of God which bears within itself its own absoluteness and eternity. …
All Church tradition consists of such relative[-]absolute, pragmatic, historically-conditioned expressions of the one life of the Church. This means that it must always be historically comprehended in its expression and in its unity, perceived from within. This means, also, that tradition is never completed, but continues such throughout history. Our epoch, our life, in so far as they are in union with the Church, are the continuation of tradition. It results from this, also, that tradition, to be the true tradition of the Church, should be a living tradition. (pp. 32-33)
At this point we may wonder whether form and content can be so easily separated, yet the general principle seems sound, particularly when combined with the apophatic nature of all theological language. Dogmas do not fall from the heaven. They are verbalized at a specific time and place in response to specific questions and polemical challenges. Nor does a dogmatic definition necessarily terminate discussion. The Council of Nicaea needed to be succeeded by the First Council of Constantinople; the Council of Ephesus needed to be followed by the Council of Chalcedon, which in turn needed the clarifications advanced by the Second Council of Constantinople. Such is the way of the Body of Christ in history. “Tradition is not a book,” explains Bulgakov, “which records a certain moment in the development of the Church and stops itself, but a book always being written by the Church’s life” (p. 27).
How many dogmas are there? Orthodoxy, the Russian theologian insists, has only a small number of de fide tenets that bind the conscience of its members—specifically, the articles of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the dogmatic definitions of the seven Ecumenical Councils. This does not mean that everything else in the Church’s life is optional—quite the contrary—but it does mean that much of the Church’s teaching lacks the degree of obligatoriness possessed by authentic dogmas. Bulgakov mentions the following areas open to future dogmatic definition: pneumatology, sacraments, salvation, predestination, ecclesiology, the veneration of the Theotokos and the saints, and eschatology. Bulgakov contrasts the dogmatic minimalism of Orthodoxy with the maximalism of Roman Catholicism, “which tends to canonical formulation of an entire dogmatic inventory” (p. 100). Orthodoxy is “a stranger to the legalistic spirit, even in the matter of doctrine” (p. 100). The Orthodox Church firmly rejects the Protestant appeal to private judgment, as if each believer is free to invent the Christian faith for himself; yet in comparison to Catholicism, it “leaves more liberty to personal theological thought, to individual judgment in the domain of ‘theological opinions’ (‘theologoumena’)” (p. 83). In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
In his important essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” Bulgakov distinguishes between dogmatic fact, dogma, and theologoumena. He does not clearly explain what he means by “dogmatic fact,” but the term seems to refer to the proclamatory-sacramental-mystical life of the Church. Before the Church began to dogmatize, it simply preached and evangelized, baptized and eucharistized, worshipped and prayed and hymned. This is the reality of the gospel as lived out at its primordial experiential level. Lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of worship is the law of belief. Theology, therefore, should be understood as secondary reflection on the primary discourse and ministry of the Church, as identification and explication of the dogmatic facts:
Dogmatic theology does not stop at the specific dogmas; it is much broader and therefore must inevitably be supplemented from sources other than the clear and obligatory dogmatic definitions. This “supplementing” happens on the basis of the living tradition of the Church, the analysis of dogmas, and the study of doctrines.
In this, therefore, we are dealing with the immediate life of the Church, which includes dogmatic facts of the first importance. These need to be elucidated in all their meaning and opened up in their dogmatic content with the assistance of doctrinal theological explication. In this way they become dogmatic definitions. Here dogma is not so much a given as it is an object of pursuit for the dogmatic theologian. The very foundation of dogma assumes a combination of effort, creative intuition, factual research, and dogmatic construction (i.e., religious philosophy or, more precisely, metaphysics). Dogmatic construction is unavoidable when defining dogmas, as it was a part of the various theological schools and conflicting doctrines and opinions that existed in the era of the ecumenical councils, and continues to exist to this day. For at the heart of dogmatic theology lies dogmatic quest, and therefore the possibility not only of finding but also of not finding.
Yet rivalry and conflicting opinion in dogmatic teaching are balanced in the life of the Church, because preceding these differences, and over and above them, exists the one life of the Church as its prevailing strength: the lex orandi in the largest sense is the lex credendi. The inexhaustible font of tradition irrigates dogmatic thought and doctrine. Unity in this life of the Church also predetermines unity in theological thought, although the latter always requires a dialectical freedom. (Tradition Alive, p. 68)
Between dogmatic facts and dogma are doctrines, i.e., “theological propositions and theologoumena, which have not themselves received definite dogmatic definition” (p. 69). If a dogma represents a definitive, and therefore irreversible, crystallization of the apostolic faith bequeathed to the Church, then doctrine represents a potentially disputable opinion that may, or may not, be in the process of becoming dogma. “With regard to dogma proper,” Bulgakov states, “the process of determining their ecclesiastically infallible expression is complete. On the other hand, theological propositions or theological opinions are at the stage that corresponds to the time before the ecumenical councils, when there were only theological schools with differing opinions” (p. 69). The authority of specific doctrines, as opposed to dogmas, should not be exaggerated, lest they become “illusory dogmas or quasi dogmas whose provisional and relative character is often insufficiently recognized” (p. 74).
At this point Orthodox readers are no doubt asking, “But what about the Church Fathers?” Not to worry. Bulgakov affirms the creative authority of the Fathers in the life of the Church. “It is universally understood that dogmatic theology has to be ‘according to the Fathers’ and to agree with patristic tradition,” he comments (p. 70). But he is critical of how they are sometimes employed by Orthodox theologians as infallible authorities:
Before all, we must uphold wholeheartedly the spiritual and theological authoritativeness of the Fathers’ writings as monuments of Church tradition. The Fathers are, in a sense, the Church’s witness to itself. This leads to a practical challenge for the theologian—to analyze as deeply as possible the contents of the tradition of the Fathers. For this it is necessary to bring in all possible elements of church history and critical textual analysis, which is so richly facilitated by contemporary resources and methodology. On the basis of such research we must firstly establish the actual views of the Church writers, and secondly, understand them in their historical context, their concrete circumstances and historical relativity.
Here it becomes clear to anyone who happens upon patristic writing that even in the realm of one and the same question, there is rarely a single patristic tradition. These often-contradictory (or at least different) opinions therefore force us to make a choice, to give preference to one or the other patristic tradition, as is in fact done. This means that the Holy Fathers’ writings in themselves cannot be considered dogmatically infallible. They are authoritative witnesses but they cannot by any means be transformed into unerring texts. … Indeed, to claim inerrancy in the works of each Church writer on any topic would truly be a patrological heresy. (pp. 70-71)
Each Church Father needs to be studied carefully within his cultural, philosophical, and political context and within the totality of his thought. What were the problems they were addressing in their writings? We cannot assume that their questions were our questions, nor can we assume that their answers must be our answers. Too often, Bulgakov comments, a high regard for the Church Fathers leads to an “anti-historical Talmudism”—a “tendency toward patristic exegesis in support of one’s own particular doctrine, prooftexting from statements put forward—sometimes tendentiously—in the patristic texts” (pp. 71-72). Before the Church Fathers became “Church Fathers,” they were simply believers seeking the truth.
For these reasons, Bulgakov finds appeal to the consensus patrum, as expressed in the Vincentian canon, problematic and unworkable:
The maxim of St. Vincent de Lerins on tradition: “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus traditum est” [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all]—is often considered as a guiding rule on the subject. Nevertheless, this principle, systematically applied, cannot have the universal importance which is sometimes attributed to it. First, this maxim excludes all possibility of the historic origin of new dogmatic formula (this includes even the pronouncements of the seven ecumenical councils), for they do not agree with the “semper” of the maxim. So, to demand that tradition should be ecumenical quantitatively—ab omnibus et ubique—does not seem to correspond to the essentials of things, for then local traditions would become impossible (and nevertheless these traditions can, in the course of time, become universal). Besides, it can happen that the truth of the Church is professed not by a majority but by the minority of members (for example, at the time of Arianism). In general the above maxim makes impossible all movement in Church tradition, which is nevertheless movement itself; the life of the Church would be condemned to immobility, and its history would become superfluous and even impertinent. This is why the maxim of Vincent de Lerins, understood formally, does not correspond at all with the whole of the life of the Church. Thus it can be accepted only in a limited and relative sense, in the sense that true dogmas, already proclaimed by the Church as such, are obligatory for all. (The Orthodox Church, p. 29)
One does not do Orthodox theology simply by quoting the Fathers. Not only does this practice too often seek to prematurely close a theological issue that needs to be thoroughly studied, evaluated, and debated; but it transforms the Fathers into a criterion external to the dynamic life of the Church—analogous, at least in Bulgakov’s eyes, to the way Catholics exalt the Pope over the Church. “If a guide is sought in tradition, it must be accepted not as an external norm or an order, but as an internal and creative work” (p. 25).