Written by Vladimir Moss



     “The Church,” wrote the nineteenth-century Russian Slavophile Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov, “does not recognize any power over herself other than her own, no other’s court than the court of faith”.[1] The Church is One, declared Khomiakov, and that Church is exclusively the Orthodox Church. “Western Christianity has ceased to be Christianity,” he wrote. “In Romanism [Roman Catholicism] there is not one word, not one action, upon which the seal of spiritual life might lie”. “Both Protestantisms (Roman and German)… already bear death within themselves; it is left to unbelief only to take away the corpses and clean the arena. And all this is the righteous punishment for the crime committed by the ‘West’”.[2]

     This sharp rejection of the right of Catholics and Protestants to call themselves members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was in itself remarkable in view of the mild ecumenism so prevalent in his time. This anti-ecumenism was shared by some of his educated contemporaries, such as Elder Ambrose of Optina and Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, but not by many.

     However, it was not only the Oneness of the Church that Khomiakov explicated with particular success, but also Her Catholicity (sobornost’ in the Slavonic translation), which he defined as “unity-in-diversity”. “The Church is called Catholic,” writes Khomiakov, “because She belongs to the whole world, and not to some particular locality; because the whole of humanity and the whole of the earth is sanctified by Her, and not some particular people or country; because Her essence consists in the agreement and unity of spirit and life of all Her members who recognize Her throughout the earth.

     “It follows from this that when a community is called a local Church, like the Greek, Russian or Syrian, this signifies only the gathering of the members of the Church living in such-and-such a country (Greece, Russia, Syria, etc.), and does not contain within itself the presupposition that one community of Christians could express the teaching of the Church, or give a dogmatic interpretation to the teaching of the Church, without the agreement of the other communities; still less does it presuppose that some community or community pastor could prescribe its or his interpretation to others. The grace of faith is not separate from holiness of life and not one community of Christians or pastor can be recognized as preservers of the whole faith, just as not one pastor or community can be considered representative of the whole holiness of the Church.”[3] For “it is not people, or a multitude of people, that preserve tradition and write in the Church, but the Spirit of God, Who lives in the coming together of the Church.”[4]

     The principle of sobornost’, writes N.O. Lossky, “implies that the absolute bearer of truth in the Church is not the patriarch who has supreme authority, not the clergy, and not even the ecumenical council, but only the Church as a whole. ‘There have been heretical councils,’ says Khomiakov; ‘for instance, those in which a half-Arian creed was drawn up; externally, they differed in no way from the ecumenical councils – but why were they rejected? Solely because their decisions were not recognized by the whole body of the faithful as the voice of the Church.’ Khomiakov is referring here to the epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (1848), which says: ‘The invincible truth and immutable certainty of the Christian dogma does not depend upon the hierarchs of the Church; it is preserved by the whole of the people composing the Church which is the body of Christ’ (A letter to Palmer, October 11, 1850, II, 363).”[5]

     “Solely because their decisions were not recognized as the voice of the Church by the entire ecclesial people, but that people and within that world where, in questions of faith, there is no difference between the scholar and the unlearned, cleric and lay person, man and woman, and king and subject… and where… the heresy of a learned bishop is refuted by an illiterate shepherd, so that all might be joined in the free unity of living faith which is the manifestation of the Spirit of God.”[6]

     Although councils are not infallible, it is nevertheless in the coming together of the people in councils to decide dogmatic and canonical questions that the Holy Spirit of truth reveals Himself, as in the Seven Ecumenical Councils. And so the Church is Conciliar by essence; Her truth is revealed to a multitude of Her members meeting in council, and not to just one of her members thinking in solitude, as the West supposes - whether that individual is the Roman Pope or a Protestant layman.

     It is at this point that the Slavonic translation of the Greek word kaqolikh, “Catholic”, by the Slavonic word sobornaia becomes illuminating. For the word sobornaia is derived from sobor, meaning a council or a large church with two or three altars. This implies a direct link between the Church's Catholicity and Her Conciliarity. And this in turn suggests that the vital distinguishing quality of Orthodox Catholicity, as opposed to Roman “Catholic” despotism and Protestant “Anti-Catholic” democratism, lies in its Conciliarity.

     For it is in Her conciliar life that the Church preserves Her unity in the truth. This the Protestants cannot do, since they make the opinion of every man the supreme arbiter of truth. And the Romanist cannot do it, since they make the opinion of one man the supreme arbiter.

     Now, as Fr. Michael Pomazansky points out, "in Greek there is no philological or linguistic connection between the concepts "catholic" and "council" (ecumenical). A council of the Church is called in Greek Synodos, and an ecumenical council, oikoumeniki Synodos".[7]

     Nevertheless, there is a philological link between the Greek word “Catholic” and the Greek word for a parish church, “Catholicon”.[8] In any case, the lack of a philological connection does not mean that there is no deeper semantic and theological connection, a connection seen by the translators Saints Cyril and Methodius when they chose this translation.

     Moreover, there is no serious difference between Khomiakov’s definition of Catholicity and Pomazansky’s: "Catholicity refers to the fact that the Church is not limited to space, by earthly boundaries, nor is it limited in time, that is, by the passing of generations into the life beyond the grave. In its catholic fullness, in its catholicity, the Church embraces both the Church of the called and the Church of the chosen, the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven."[9]

     It also accorded with St. Maximus the Confessor’s definition: "Men, women and children, profoundly divided as to race, nation, language, manner of life, work, knowledge, honour, fortune... are all recreated by the Church in the Spirit. To all equally she communicates a divine aspect. All receive from her a unique nature which cannot be broken asunder, a nature which no longer permits one henceforth to take into consideration the many and profound differences which are their lot. In that way all are raised up and united in a truly catholic manner."[10]

     Khomiakov wrote: “’Sobor’ expresses the idea of a gathering not only in the sense of an actual, visible union of many in a given place, but also in the more general sense of the continual possibility of such a union. In other words: it expresses the idea of unity in multiplicity. Therefore, it is obvious that the word kaqolikoV, as understood by the two great servants of the Word of God sent by Greece to the Slavs, was derived not from kata and ola, but from kata and olon; for kata often has the same meaning as our preposition 'according to', for instance: kataMatqaion, kataMarkon, 'according to Matthew', 'according to Mark'. The Catholic Church is the Church according to all, or according to the unity of all, kaq'olwntwnpisteuontwn, the Church according to complete unanimity, the Church in which all peoples have disappeared and in which there are no Greeks, no barbarians, no difference of status, no slave-owners, and no slaves; that Church about which the Old Testament prophesied and which was realized in the New Testament - in one word, the Church as it was defined by St. Paul.”[11]

     “The Apostolic Church of the ninth century (the time of Saints Cyril and Methodius) is neither the Church kaq' ekaston (according to the understanding of each) as the Protestants have it, nor the Church katatonepiskoponthVRwmhV (according to the understanding of the bishop of Rome) as is the case with the Latins; it is the Church kaq' olon (according to the understanding of all in their unity), the Church as it existed prior to the Western split and as it still remains among those whom God preserved from the split: for, I repeat, this split is a heresy against the dogma of the unity of the Church.”[12]

     The Catholicity of the Orthodox Church was shared, according to Khomiakov, neither by the Roman Church, which sacrificed diversity for the sake of unity, nor by Protestantism, which sacrificed unity for diversity. Instead of Orthodox Catholicity, which belonged only to the Orthodox Church, the Papists had Romanism, that is, mechanical obedience to the Bishop of Rome and his ex cathedra definitions of truth. This guaranteed external unity (for a time), but no inner consensus. And so it violated the truth of the Church Herself, Her Catholicity.

     Moreover, Romanism contains the seeds of Protestantism insofar as the Pope was the first protester against the inner Catholicity of the Church. This Catholicity was expressed especially in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which were accepted in both East and West but which the Romanists later replaced with the “infallibility” of the Pope. As Khomiakov put it: "Having appropriated the right of independently deciding a dogmatic question within the area of the Ecumenical Church, private opinion carried within itself the seed of the growth and legitimization of Protestantism, that is, of free investigation torn from the living tradition of unity based on mutual love."[13] The truth is given, not to individuals as such, but to the Church, - “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3.15), in St. Paul’s words, - understood as a conciliar organism united in freedom and love. Thus “clarity of understanding is placed in dependence on the moral law. The communion of love is not only useful, but completely necessary for the attainment of the truth, and the attainment of the truth is based on it and is impossible without it. The truth, being unattainable for individualistic thought, is accessible only to the coming together of thoughts bound by love.”[14]


June 20 / July 3, 2013.

[1] Khomiakov, The Church is One, in Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenij (Complete Works), Moscow, 1907, vol. II.

[2] Khomiakov, op. cit., vol. II, 127, 139, 141; quoted in S. Khoruzhij, “Khomiakov i Printsip Sobornosti” (Khomiakov and the Principle of Sobornost’), Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizhenia, №№ 162-163, II-III, 1991, p. 103.

[3] Khomiakov, The Church is One, 4. Quotations from Bishop Gregory (Grabbe), “Istinnaia Sobornost’” (True Conciliarity), 1930; in Tserkov’ i ea Uchenie v Zhizni (The Church and her Teaching in Life), Montreal: Brotherhood of St. Job of Pochaev, 1964, pp. 112-113.

[4] Khomiakov, The Church is One, 5. In Grabbe, op. cit., p. 113.

[5] Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952, p. 35. The epistle continues: “With us neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce anything new, because the defender of religion is the very body of the Church, or the people itself, who wanted their religion to remain forever unchanged and in accord with the religion of their Fathers.”

[6] Khomiakov, “Po povodu broshiury g-na Loransi” (On Mr. Lawrence’s article), Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenij, vol. II, 91; translated in Vera Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of the Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 30.

[7] Pomazansky, "Catholicity and Cooperation in the Church", in Selected Essays, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, 1996, p. 50.

[8] Fr. Andrew Louth writes: “A parish church was called in Greek the katholikon (the church for all)” (Greek East and Latin West, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007, p. 195).

[9] Pomazansky, op. cit., p. 49.

[10] St. Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogy, I, P.G. 91, 665-668.

[11] Khomiakov, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenij, Moscow, 1907, vol. II, pp. 312-313.

[12] Khomiakov, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenij, vol. II, p. 313.

[13] Khomiakov, "On the Western Confessions of Faith", translated by Schmemann, A. (ed.), Ultimate Questions, New York: Holt, Tinehard & Winston, 1965, p. 49.

[14] Khomiakov, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenij, vol. I, p. 283.


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