Heresy in Russian Orthodoxy

Heresy in Russian Orthodoxy April 19, 2022

We have blogged about the crisis in Eastern Orthodoxy, with the Russian Orthodox Church breaking off fellowship from other Orthodox communions for recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian church.  Since then, the head of Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill, in the name of “Holy Russia,” has been a major cheerleader for the invasion of Ukraine.

Now, though, a number of Orthodox theologians are formally charging Patriarch Kirill and those who agree with his teachings with heresy.

Now a heresy is not just a theological disagreement or error.  It is a fundamental distortion of the meaning of Christianity.  I don’t think the document that has been drawn up has any kind of canonical status, at least not yet.  It’s written in the classic “we affirm/we condemn” structure that will be familiar to Lutherans, whose Formula of Concord takes the same theologically-rigorous approach.

Read it all, but here is a sample.  From A Declaration on the “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) Teaching:

In view of the “Russian world” teaching that is devastating and dividing the Church, we are inspired by the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Tradition of His Living Body, the Orthodox Church, to proclaim and confess the following truths:

1. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36).

We affirm that the divinely-appointed purpose and accomplishment of history, its telos, is the coming of the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a Kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, a Kingdom attested by Holy Scripture as authoritatively interpreted by the Fathers. This is the Kingdom we participate in through a foretaste at every Holy Liturgy: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages!” (Divine Liturgy). This Kingdom is the sole foundation and authority for Orthodox, indeed for all Christians. There is no separate source of revelation, no basis for community, society, state, law, personal identity and teaching, for Orthodoxy as the Body of the Living Christ than that which is revealed in, by, and through our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.

We therefore condemn as non-Orthodox and reject any teaching that seeks to replace the Kingdom of God seen by the prophets, proclaimed and inaugurated by Christ, taught by the apostles, received as wisdom by the Church, set forth as dogma by the Fathers, and experienced in every Holy Liturgy, with a kingdom of this world, be that Holy Rus’, Sacred Byzantium, or any other earthly kingdom, thereby usurping Christ’s own authority to deliver the Kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24), and denying God’s power to wipe away every tear from every eye (Revelation 21:4). We firmly condemn every form of theology that denies that Christians are migrants and refugees in this world (Hebrews 13:14), that is, the fact that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 3:20) and that Christians “reside in their respective countries, but only as sojourners. They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home a foreign land” (The Epistle to Diognetus, 5).

2. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

We affirm that in anticipation of the final triumph of the Kingdom of God we acknowledge the sole and ultimate authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this age, earthly rulers provide peace, so that God’s people might live “calm and ordered lives, in all godliness and sanctity” (Divine Liturgy). Yet, there is no nation, state or order of human life that can make a higher claim on us than Jesus Christ, at whose name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).

We therefore condemn as non-Orthodox and reject any teaching which would subordinate the Kingdom of God, manifested in the One Holy Church of God, to any kingdom of this world seeking other churchly or secular lords who can justify and redeem us. We firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state (theocracy) and absorb the Church, depriving the Church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice. We also rebuke all those who affirm caesaropapism, replacing their ultimate obedience to the crucified and resurrected Lord with that of any leader vested with ruling powers and claiming to be God’s anointed, whether known by the title of “Caesar,” “Emperor,” “Tsar,” or “President.”

3. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

We affirm that division of humanity into groups based on race, religion, language, ethnicity or any other secondary feature of human existence is a characteristic of this imperfect and sinful world, which, following the patristic tradition are characterized as “distinctions of the flesh” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 7, 23). Assertion of superiority of one group over others is a characteristic evil of such divisions, which are entirely contrary to the Gospel, where all are one and equal in Christ, all must answer to him for their actions, and all have access to his love and forgiveness, not as members of particular social or ethnic groups, but as persons created and born equally in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).

We therefore condemn as non-Orthodox and reject any teaching that attributes divine establishment or authority, special sacredness or purity to any single local, national, or ethnic identity, or characterizes any particular culture as special or divinely ordained, whether Greek, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, or any other.

[Keep reading. . .]

Now here is my question.  Heresies, such as the Arian denial of Christ’s divinity or the Gnostic denial of creation, generally afflict the universal church in a broad way.  What this document condemns in the cult of “Holy Russia” would also seem to apply to “Christian nationalism” more generally, including at least some manifestations of American civil religion, wouldn’t it?

I am against the way “Christian nationalism” is being used by progressives to beat up on Christians who are politically and culturally conservative.  It is completely legitimate for a Christian to support Donald Trump and to be patriotic.  That’s not a heresy.  I have, however, seen some extreme cases of America worship that are beyond the pale.

In addition, these statements can apply to the Christian left.  Statement #3, above, would seem to condemn both racists and advocates of critical race theory, both of whom make too much of racial “distinctions of the flesh.”  And Statement #1 would seem to apply both to social gospels of the left as well as of the right, both of which confuse the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God.


Image:  Russian Orthodox Church by David Mark from Pixabay

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