What Is the Magisterium of the Orthodox Church?

Very often the Orthodox hear the following question: “What does your Church teach on this or that issue?” Where can the Orthodox faithful find universally authoritative and religiously binding teaching? References to the holy fathers and their works do not always lead to exhaustive answers, since their views on different issues may vary or omit certain questions. Besides, the sayings of the saints can be interpreted in different ways. Any of the holy fathers’ separate opinions do not necessarily have to coincide with what the whole church teaches. How do we address questions and heresies that arose after the era of the Ecumenical Councils? Where is the authoritative voice of the Orthodox Church? We will try to give a plausible answer to these questions.

Magisterium of the Church

What is the magisterium or teaching of the Church?  The Savior, building the church on His Blood, endowed it in the person of the holy apostles (“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matt. 16:18) and their successors by the power to teach, minister and shepherd, i.e. to give guidance and lead its members to salvation. Each church community should have its own hierarchs, leading their succession from the apostles. It should render obedience to them in faith and discipline. St Ignatius the God-bearer, prelate and martyr of the early church in his epistles urged Christians to obey their bishop in everything and follow him as Jesus Christ Himself (see Ignatius of Antioch, to the Trallians, 2).

At the same time, can the voice of one hierarch, or one community be equated with the voice of the Ecumenical Orthodoxy? Certain difficulties arise here. If something is “the voice of Orthodoxy”, then, of course, the whole Church accepts it. But how can one understand whether the entire Catholic Church believes this way? The answer to this question lies in the universal agreement of opinion and faith shared by the ecumenical episcopate and attested by church councils in a particular way. In this context, the authoritative voice of the holy church can be heard most clearly during its general councils.

The Voice of the Church

The final say-so of the Church on any significant dogmatic issues is defined by the ecumenical episcopate. But what can we do and where do we look for authoritative ecclesiastical teaching if it is not possible to convene an Ecumenical Council? In this case, as the established practice in the history of the Orthodox Church shows, it is one of the local churches that makes the first step in resolving the issue. If other Churches approve of its decision, then they also express their consent, confirming it at their local council. Thus, the doctrinal unity of the ecumenical episcopate, whose decisions are binding for all believers, is achieved either through an Ecumenical Council, or by pan-Orthodox recognition of any separate Orthodox church’s single decision.

Creedal Documents of the Church

Can any doctrinal document, whether it is the catechism of the Orthodox faith, or the Orthodox profession by one of the prominent hierarchs, be recognized as authoritative and true, whose provisions are binding for all Orthodox Christians? This question appears especially vital when it comes to doctrinal documents adopted after the Ecumenical Councils era. Answering it in the negative, would essentially be recognizing that the Spirit of God has left the holy church of Christ and she no longer has the power and strength to produce dogmatic definitions, protecting the truth of the Gospel from the ever new challenges and distortions.

A positive answer to this question was given by the Jerusalem Council of 1672, whose acts and creeds were accepted by all Orthodox Churches. The Council of 1672 produced the following criterion, according to which a single document can be recognized as ecumenically significant and binding for all: “The votes and signatures of the holy patriarchs are essentially required, as well as the general voluntary and non-violent agreement of all the clergy and others, prominent for their holiness and wisdom; so that almost no one (σχεδ ὸ ν μηδένα) of them would object» (Πρακτικ ὰ τ ῆ ς ἐ ν Ἰ εροσολύμοις Συνόδου. Κεφ. II). The same church-wide recognition was received by the Palamite councils of 1341, 1351, which were local in scale, as well as, for example, the Synod of Jassy (1642), convened against Calvinism.

The Role of the Church People

The traditional emphasis on the importance of the Orthodox Church hierarchy and its creedal authority, should in no way diminish the role and functions of the faithful in church. All laity have the so-called baptismal priesthood, referred to as “royal” by the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 2: 9) and foretold by the Israelite prophets. Received in the waters of baptism, the universal priesthood of Christians is that ontological basis without which the functional, hierarchical priesthood, serving the сhurch, would be impossible. (Protopriest Nikolay N. Afanasyev. The Lord’s Meal).

Every bishop going to a council carries with him the confession of his community and serves as the voice of its faith, being a legal representative of his church, rather than a self-sufficient source of unerring formulations. If a bishop betrays Orthodoxy, his community is free not to accept him into their ranks and to proclaim to him, in case of persistence in heresy, “Anaxios!” (Unworthy) and even “anathema”! Any dogmas produced by councils of bishops, despite all their authority, must still go through a certain reception by the laity. (Met. John Zizioulas. Church and Eucharist).

To this end, the teaching (Latin magisterium) of the Orthodox Church did not go anywhere. During the first millenium its sound doctrine was taught to the faithful through the creedal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, while during the second — through generally recognized doctrinal documents and the concordant testimony of the ecumenical episcopate.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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