The debate on apokatastasis inevitably raises the question: Has Orthodoxy definitively, infallibly, irreversibly, dogmatically rejected the universalist hope? Must Christians believe that some, perhaps many or even most, will—or as some prefer to say may—be eternally damned? Is it constitutive of the dogmatic consciousness of the Orthodox Church? Before we can tender judgment, we must first determine what dogma means and how a doctrinal teaching becomes dogma.
I have found the reflections of Sergius Bulgakov particularly helpful on this subject. In his classic book The Orthodox Church (1935), 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 ressourcement locomotive had built up steam in the Latin Church (Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar) and before the recovery of the Church Fathers by Protestant theologians such as T. F. Torrance, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Thomas Oden. No doubt he would revise his account in light of ecumenical developments. In any case, Bulgakov 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 all Orthodox theologians, Bulgakov confesses the Church as the Body of Christ and the community of deifying life in the Holy Spirit:
Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth. The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Son of God, came to earth, was made man, uniting His divine life with that of humanity. This divine-human life He gave to his brethren, who believe in His name, although He died, rose again and ascended into heaven, He was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us, and our life in the Church is a mysterious life in Christ. “Christians” bear that name precisely because they belong to Christ, they live in Christ, and Christ lives in them. The Incarnation is not only a doctrine, it is above all an event which happened once in time but which possesses all the power of eternity, and this perpetual incarnation, a perfect, indissoluble union, yet without confusion, of the two natures—divine and human—makes the Church. Since the Lord did not merely approach humanity but became one with it, Himself becoming man, the Church is the Body of Christ, as a unity of life with Him, a life subordinate to Him and under His authority. The same idea is expressed when the Church is called the Bride of Christ; the relations between bride and bridegroom, taken in their everlasting fullness, consist of a perfect unity of life, a unity which preserves the reality of their difference: it is a union of two in one, which is not dissolved by duality nor absorbed by unity. The Church, although it is the Body of Christ, is not the Christ—the God-Man—because it is only His humanity; but it is life in Christ, and with Christ, the life of Christ in us; “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). But Christ is not only a Divine Person. Since His own life is inseparable from that of the Holy Trinity, His life is consubstantial with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus it is that, although a life in Christ, the Church is also a life in the Holy Trinity. The body of Christ lives in Christ, and by that very fact in the Holy Trinity. Christ is the Son. Through Him we learn to know the Father, we are adopted by God, to Whom we cry “Our Father.”
The love of God, the love of the Father for the Son and that of the Son for the Father, is not a simple quality or relation; it possesses itself a personal life, it is hypostatic. The love of God is the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father to the Son, abiding upon Him. The Son exists for the Father only in the Holy Spirit which rests on Him; as the Father manifests his love for the Son by the Holy Spirit, which is the unity of life of Father and Son. And the Spirit itself, being the love of two persons, in keeping with the very nature of love lives, so to speak, in Its personal existence outside Itself in the Father and the Son.
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.1
The Church is Holy Tradition, and the Holy Tradition is LIFE—the life of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. Before the composition of the books of the New Testament and the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, there was the eucharistic, mystical, and eschatological experience of triadic divinity. The apostolic revelation contains definite theological content, explicit and implicit, but cannot be reduced to statement and proposition. When the Orthodox Church speaks of Tradition, it is not speaking merely of an inventory of propositional truths passed down in history from one generation to the next. It is speaking above all of the gift of transcendent truth, love, vitality, power, and communion that is the Holy Trinity. Tradition is rebirth, regeneration, transfiguration, theosis. Tradition is Holy Spirit … Jesus Christ … the heavenly Father. Tradition is simultaneously the remembrance of God’s saving acts in history and the experience of his self-giving in the eucharistic ekklesia:
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. The unity and continuity of tradition follow from the fact that the Church is always identical with itself. The Church has an unique life, guided at all times by the Holy Spirit; the historical form changes, but the spirit remains unchanged. Thus belief in Church tradition as the basic source of Church doctrine, arises from a belief in the unity and self-identity of the Church. The period of primitive Christianity is very unlike the present time, yet one must admit that it is the same Church like unto itself; by its unity of life, the Church binds together the communities of Paul and the local Churches of today. In different epochs, it is true, tradition has not been known and comprehended in the same degree by all members of the Church, and it may be said, practically, that tradition is inexhaustible, for it is the very life of the Church. But it remains living and active, even when it continues unknown.2
But not only the “past contained in the present,” I would argue, but also the future breaking into the past and present, the coming Kingdom manifest by the Spirit. Tradition is the life and presence of the final future. Though underdeveloped in Bulgakov’s writings, the eschatological dimension is crucial to our understanding of Tradition, if the Church is not to become imprisoned in a lifeless, moribund past. In the words of Paul Evdokimov:
Beside dogmatic theology, there is also the lived theology of the Tradition; beside the structure there is also life. In the whole economy of the realization of the whole Christ, the age of the Spirit is the age of Tradition, with the essential qualification that it must be Apostolic and ready for the Parousia. Doctrine agrees with the Eucharist, but the Eucharist is the future age already present, and by that fulfilment it is the criterion of Tradition. It judges every sclerotic, “rabbinic,” state of affairs, every historical arrangement, and it inspires by opening up history and encouraging its movement toward the eschaton. In the Eucharist the time of the Incarnation is made present (John 7.39), and the continuity of the historical Christ already flows into the glory of his coming.3
The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom begins with an eschatological invocation: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.” The faithful ascend into the heaven that is the eschaton. In the anaphora the Church remembers not only “the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand” but also “the second coming in glory.” At communion the baptized partake of the Body and Blood of the risen, glorified and returning Christ. “In the Eucharist,” writes Alexander Schmemann, “the Church transcends the dimensions of ‘institution’ and becomes the Body of Christ. It is the ‘eschaton’ of the Church, her manifestation as the world to come.”4 Truth and life, resurrection and transfiguration—all is comprehended in the eucharistic parousia. Tradition is Pascha. Tradition is Eucharist. Tradition is Church. Tradition is the Kingdom of God.
In response to anti-life (i.e., 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.”5 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.”6 The Church’s experience of God in Christ Jesus “contains in its depths much more than its oral, rational expression.”8 Articulated in history under the conditions of theological and political controversy and employing the vocabulary and conceptuality of the day, dogmas necessarily partake in the limitations and provisionality of their cultural, philosophical, and linguistic forms, even while serving as givens for further dogmatic reflection. Their theological adequacy must be continuously tested and confirmed in the ecclesial furnace of the Holy Spirit:
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.8
Dogmas may be absolute and eternal, but their historical-cultural expressions are not—hence the need for interpretation. Apprehending and restating their truth requires deep prayer, deep study, and deep and creative rumination. Theology can never be a matter of simply repeating the doctrinal formulae of the past, states Bulgakov. It should be “new, living and creative, for the life of the Church never stops and tradition is not a dead letter, but a living spirit. Tradition is living and creative: it is the new in the old and the old in the new.”9 When theology becomes stagnant and immobile, it denies the Holy Spirit and betrays the mission of the gospel.
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 necessary apophatic qualification of our language for transcendent divinity. Our words but point to the inexhaustible Mystery who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Evdokimov asseverates:
In affirming a doctrine, we must always have in view the principle of apophatic theology. Every human affirmation is a negation of itself, because it never reaches the ultimate depth, never achieves fullness, and it is this basic insufficiency which denies it…. Thus human thoughts are inadequate, for all human utterance is contradictory in continually purporting to say more than it actually contains, every thought, once put into words, fixed and given objectivity, becomes a lie because of the poverty of its expression. The ‘coincidence of contraries’ operates only in God. So doctrines are not exactly ‘human words’; the law of identity and contradiction is not merely relaxed, it does not even apply.10
Dogmas do not fall from the heaven. They are verbalized at a specific time and place in response to specific theological questions and polemical challenges. Bulgakov would agree, I believe, with the oft-quoted dictum of Avery Cardinal Dulles: “No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.”11 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 corrective clarifications advanced by the Second Council of Constantinople. Dogmatic construction and theological reflection is an ongoing, necessary work. Such is the way of the people of God 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.”12
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.13 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. He contrasts the dogmatic minimalism of Orthodoxy with the maximalism of Roman Catholicism, “which tends to canonical formulation of an entire dogmatic inventory.”14 Orthodoxy is “a stranger to the legalistic spirit, even in the matter of doctrine.”15 The Orthodox Church firmly rejects the Protestant appeal to private judgment, as if each believer is free to reinvent the Christian faith; yet in comparison to Catholicism, it “leaves more liberty to personal theological thought, to individual judgment in the domain of ‘theological opinions’ (‘theologoumena‘).”16 Bulgakov even claims for Orthodoxy the ecumenical maxim, In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
In his important essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” (1937), Bulgakov distinguishes between dogmatic fact, dogma, and doctrine. He does not clearly explain what he means by “dogmatic fact,” but the term seems to refer primarily to the concrete life of the Church, in the totality of its proclamatory, doxological, liturgical, iconological, and ascetical dimensions, including also the rules that govern homiletic and catechetical discourse. Before the Church began to dogmatize, it simply preached and evangelized, baptized and eucharistized, worshipped and prayed and offered hymns to God. This is the reality of the gospel as lived out in day-to-day life. Lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of worship is the law of belief. Theology, therefore, may be understood as secondary reflection on the Church’s primary speech and practices:
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.17
Between dogmatic facts and dogmas are doctrines, i.e., “theological propositions and theologoumena, which have not themselves received definite dogmatic definition.”18 If 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 explains, “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.”19 The authority of doctrines, as opposed to genuine dogmas, should not be exaggerated. Doctrines are commonly presented to both the faithful and the non-Orthodox as indisputable teachings, yet in actuality they “cannot pretend to infallibility, precision or universally binding authority” and therefore necessarily allow “for different theological opinions.”20 “The boundary of accepted differences in each case,” Bulgakov goes on to add, “is a questio facti.” Later in the essay he provides this instructive elaboration:
It is specifically in polemical (“accusatory”) theology that there arise a great many illusory dogmas or quasi-dogmas whose provisional and relative character is often insufficiently recognized. This false impression is created when dogmatic theology is deliberately given a complete and categorical character, resulting in pseudo-dogmas on every question. In reality a major portion of Orthodox dogmatics needs responsible and serious work. We need the genuine and living tradition of the Church, untainted by confessional/scholastic preconceptions and subjected to objective study and evaluation. This is the theology which must find expression and ultimately pave the way for an authoritative ecclesial discernment of dogma.
Unfortunately, we have a whole series of dogmatic preconceptions which are mistaken for ready dogmas, the main one being that theological opinions expressed in dogmatic language are finalized dogmas of the Church. Here the principle of in necessaries unitas, in dubiis libertas is negated. Gone is the healthy mutual tolerance of dogmatic opinions (a tolerance which of course would be absolutely out of place in the case of actual dogmas). In one dogmatic manual, you have creationism expressed as an Orthodox dogma; in another, traditionism expressed the same way. In one case the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is refuted; in another it is accepted as a sign of true Orthodoxy, and so forth. Such simplification becomes particularly unbearable in eschatology, where the absence of genuine dogmatic definitions gives full license to theological prejudices and fosters the tendency to reject or even fight against research about it.21
At this point Orthodox readers are no doubt asking, “But what about the Church Fathers?” Not to worry. Bulgakov unequivocally affirms the essential 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.22 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.23
Bulgakov firmly rejects the homogenization of the patristic tradition. Differences and disagreements need to be honestly admitted and allowed to stand. Each Church Father needs to be exegeted within his ecclesiastical, cultural, philosophical, and political context and within the totality of his thought. What were the theological and pastoral challenges he sought to address? What resources did he avail himself of? How did he integrate his solutions into the wholeness of the catholic faith? We cannot assume that the questions of the Fathers were our questions nor that their answers must be our answers:
The writings of the Holy Fathers in their dogmatic proclamations must also be understood within their historical context. One must not apply to them a meaning which is not inherent in the nature of the problems they were actually concerned with. One cannot seek in the writings of one period answers to the questions inherent in another. In any case the writings do not possess a universality applicable to all periods in history. The writings of the Fathers are historically conditioned and therefore limited in their meaning. This does not prevent them from having an eternal value insofar as they are woven into the dogmatic conscience of the Church, but it is important to establish that the writings of the Fathers are not the Word of God and cannot be compared to it or made equal to it. In principle, nobody is making such an equation nowadays, as was done before, but in fact it does happen, and this approach is harmful when put to ill use. We say this not to diminish the authority of the Fathers of the Church but so that this authority may be taken for what it is.24
Too often, Bulgakov observes, a high regard for the Church Fathers leads to an “anti-historical Talmudism”: the polyphony of patristic voices is synthesized into a flat, colorless monophony. This artificial and distorting harmonization may make the work of the parish priest or apologist easier, but it brings with it its own serious problems: “One of the dangers of theologizing ‘according to the Fathers’ is a tendency toward patristic exegesis in support of one’s own particular doctrine, prooftexting from statements put forward—sometimes tendentiously—in the patristic texts.”25
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.26
Bulgakov was not alone among 20th century Orthodox theologians in his criticism of the Vincentian Canon. Georges Florovsky also deemed it inadequate as a guide for the determination of Christian doctrine. Taken by itself, with its emphasis on formal criteria and consensus, it can too often lead to a “harmful primitivism”:
We are not to seek for outward, formal criteria of catholicity; we are not to dissect catholicity in empirical universality. Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient.
Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa [“church dispersed”] often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum [“number of bishops”] does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality. The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as a formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth. The whole body of the Church has the right of verifying, or, to be more exact, the right, and not only the right but the duty, of certifying. It was in this sense that in the well known Encyclical Letter of 1848 the Eastern Patriarchs wrote that “the people itself” (laos), i.e, the Body of the Church, “was the guardian of piety” (hyperaspistês tês thrêskeias) And even before this the Metropolitan Philaret said the same thing in his Catechism. In answer to the question. “Does a true treasury of sacred tradition exist?” he says “All the faithful, united through the sacred tradition of faith, all together and all successively, are built up by God into one Church, which is the true treasury of sacred tradition, or, to quote the words of St. Paul, ‘The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.'”27
An asserted consensus of the Fathers, therefore, no matter how impressive and imposing, cannot, in and by itself, enjoy the status of infallible or irreformable dogma. “Consensus” is always a construct, a picking-and-choosing of ecclesial voices over against other ecclesial voices. The truths of the Christian faith are not determined by plebiscite. As Florovsky states above: the truth of divine revelation can be expressed by the minority, even a minority of one. Hence it may well be the case that St Gregory of Nyssa, the “Father of Fathers,” as the Seventh Ecumenical Council confessed him, may in fact be right about apokatastasis; and the many who followed after him wrong.28 Gregory’s universalist views have never been carefully assessed, much less condemned, by an Ecumenical Council. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find an in-depth critique of his views by any first-millennium theologian. In a very real sense his evangelical proposal remains untested, even though it is grounded in a profound and penetrating reading of the Scriptures. That a doctrinal consensus on everlasting damnation coalesced and established itself sometime during the 6th-8th centuries no one questions; but does this consensus possess the authority of irreformable dogma? A Roman Catholic will immediately answer in the affirmative, appealing to the ordinary magisterium of the universal episcopate in communion with the successor of Peter (Lumen gentium 25); but Orthodoxy does not possess a dogmatically defined equivalent of the Catholic position. The critical question, “Does this teaching belong to Tradition or tradition?” may always, therefore—and sometimes must—be asked under the urgent movement of the Spirit. One does not do theology by simply quoting the Fathers in fundamentalist, ahistorical fashion, as if that immediately settles debate. Not only does this practice compress the witness of the Fathers into an artificial uniformity, ignoring the important differences between them—and when employed for apologetic-polemical purposes, prematurely closing a theological controversy that needs to be thoroughly studied, discussed, evaluated, and prayerfully lived—but it transforms the Fathers into a criterion external to the dynamic life of the body of Christ, analogous, at least in Bulgakov’s eyes, to the way Roman Catholicism legalistically imposes the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope upon 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.”29 Orthodoxy is a living and growing tradition. How could it be otherwise if the Orthodox Church is the temple of the Spirit? The Spirit will not be quenched. He is always bursting old wineskins and creating new ones by which to declare the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. “An unchanging preservationism,” avers Bulgakov, “… is in fact actively reactionary and, in this sense, ironically, is in itself an innovation. Immutability is impossible, being only a disguise for regression.”30 The Spirit can be quenched for a time, but he will always have his way with the Church, at a time of his choosing.
A more helpful metaphor for doing theology according to the Fathers, as John Behr has proposed, is that of a symphony:
The history of theology is perhaps best thought of, to adapt an image of Irenaeus, in terms of a symphony, the coming together of many distinct voices in the praise of God; a symphony, comprised of different voices throughout time, each lending themselves to the melody being played, with different timbres and tonalities, inflections and themes, and each in turn being shaped by the symphony. In their preaching, bound up as this is with the interpretation of Scripture, these figures were all part of the same symphony, with all the diachronic and synchronic diversity that this entails. This symphony moreover is both public and continuously unfolding, in contrast, those who, from time to time, prefer to play their own tunes. Such discordant voices certainly continue, nevertheless, to influence voices sharing in the symphony; but they do so as ones who have separated themselves from the symphony of the one body of Christ. Speaking theologically, moreover, this symphony is not, therefore, constructed by any individual voice or all the voices together but is governed by its own rhythm and rules, so that, to use Irenaeus’ words, it is God who “harmonizes the human race to the symphony of salvation” (haer. 4.14.2).31
But, some may object, the above exposition only represents opinion. Yes, that is correct and unavoidably so. Orthodoxy has never dogmatically defined a specific understanding of doctrinal irreformability nor specified hermeneutical rules for the interpretation of dogma. In the 7th and 8th centuries some believed that even the acts (minutes) of an ecumenical council possessed dogmatic authority, yet rarely is that asserted today. In the 14th and 15th centuries many believed that the teachings of the Church Fathers must be interpreted as being in substantive agreement with each other, yet that hardly accords with the practice of contemporary Orthodox scholars. Unlike Catholicism, Orthodoxy does not possess a holy office—whether in Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, Mt Athos, or the internet—that can definitively resolve theological disputes. As Fr Thomas Hopko bluntly states: “There is no infallible magisterium in Orthodoxy.” Some Orthodox may disagree, but the disagreement confirms the point.32
 Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, pp. 1-3. Cf. Vladimir Lossky: “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light that belongs to it, and not according to the natural light of human reason” (“Tradition and Traditions,” In the Image and Likeness of God, p. 152).
 Bulgakov, pp. 10-11; emphasis mine.
 Orthodoxy, p. 204.
 Alexander Schmemann, “Theology and Eucharist.”
 Bulgakov, p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Ibid., pp. 32-33.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Evdokimov, pp. 180-181.
 Avery Dulles The Survival of Dogma, p. 185.
 Bulgakov, p. 27.
 Bulgakov also adds the definitions promulgated by the Synod of Carthage (A.D. 419) and the 14th century Palamite synods (p. 78).
 Ibid., p. 100.
 Ibid. p. 83.
 Bulgakov, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” in Tradition Alive, p. 68.
 Ibid., p. 69.
 Ibid., p. 68.
 Ibid., pp. 74-75.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid., pp. 70-71; emphasis mine.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Ibid., pp. 71-72.
 Orthodox Church, p. 29.
 Georges Florovsky, “The Catholicity of the Church,” Collected Works, I:52-53; emphasis mine. Needless to say, Florovsky does not agree with Bulgakov on apokatastasis.
 St Gregory of Nyssa, of course, was hardly alone in his espousal of universal salvation during the early centuries of the Church. See Ilaria Ramelli’s magisterial monograph The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. She summarizes her findings in the shorter (and more affordable!) volume, A Larger Hope?
 Orthodox Church, p. 25.
 “Dogma,” p. 75.
 John Behr, “Reading the Fathers Today.”
 This article is a significant revision and substantial expansion of “Dogma and Doctrine in the Orthodox Church,” published on 15 February 2016.
(Edited on 4 February 2021)