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On «The Truly Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church»

By Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Ierotheos Vlachos


Introduction: His Eminence Hierotheos Vlachos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlassios in Greece, is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the Orthodox spiritual life and Patristic theology. He has taught theology in the Theological School of Balamant, of the Church of Antioch, in the Holy Cross College in Boston, and in the Tacoma Pacific Lutheran University. A prolific writer, he has authored more than sixty books some of which have been translated into English. The text that follows is a first draft translation of a text he recently published online concerning the upcoming Panorthodox Synod. Given how few things are known about this Synod, many have chosen to ignore it as another esoteric exercise in church politics. The Metropolitan, however, skillfully proves that there are deep theological and ecclesiological implications. His Eminence confidently uses difficult theological concepts that are difficult to translate accurately in English. We hope this draft will entice more capable people to provide a more accurate, and flowing, translation. We have attached the Greek original for those that want to do so.




AS WE APPROACH the convention of the “Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church,” more documents are being written and the interest of Christians is increasing about what will happen and be decided in it.


I am trying to see these subjects with calmness and sobriety and mainly through the universal experience of the Orthodox Church. I have already composed and published various documents and I’m to express my opinions, both verbally and on paper, in the convention of the Hierarchy of Greece which will take place this May which is to decide on the stand that our Church will take regarding the “Holy and Great Synod” that is to convene in Crete this June.


We, the Bishops—as all the clergy of all degrees, monks, theologians and in general all Christians—can and should give our thoughts to the instruments of the Church’s Synod and to inform the Christians.


Unfortunately, this debate is already late as it should have taken place before the related documents were signed last January in the Synod of Primates at Pregny-Chambésy of Switzerland. The responsibility for this lies on those people who, instead of publishing the documents for greater debate, kept these under the «bushel» (Mat. 5:15)—away even from the Metropolitans of our Church.


This is a very sad story that does not honor neither those who planned this nor to those who commit it.


While I reserve expressing my opinions to the convention of the Synod of the Hierarchy of Greece, I will note here a few points for those that have good will.


1. The basis of Orthodox Church life is synodical, which means a conversation is happening, opinions are exchanged, and conclusions are drawn. As the Apostolic Synod in Acts (15:28) expressed it, «for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us».


The synodical system, however, neither functions nor is expressed within the body of the Bishops alone but in all levels of church life and generally in the conversations of all clergy, monks, and lay people—in short, in all interested people. This way both clericalism and layitism are avoided. The Church life in all levels is synodically hierarchical and hierarchically synodical.


Therefore, one should not be annoyed by the opinions expressed by clergy, monks, theologians, and laity as if these were against the synodical system. Such a position would be a deviation from the church mindset and would express a papal perception.


At this point, let us quote Fr. George Florovsky:


The Church is a convention that never ends. In other words, the ultimate authority, and the ability to discern the truth in faith, is entrusted to the church[1] which is truly a “Divine Institution” according to the correct and narrow understanding of the word; at the same time no Synod or “Synodical Institution” is de jure Divino, unless it is a true image or manifestation of the Church itself. At this point, it seems we have been bogged down in a vicious cycle. This might be true if we insist on official guarantees in dogmatic issues. But obviously such guarantees neither exist not can be introduced—especially in advance. Certain “Synods” were in actuality failures, nothing more than conciliabula, which of course made mistakes. This is why later these were disavowed. Very educational on this point are the Synods of the Fourth century. The decisions of the Synods were accepted or rejected by the Church not on grounds of canonicity or officiallity; in fact, the decision of the Church was totally eclectic. The Synod is not above the Church; this was the opinion of the ancient Church.


2. Pentecost is the center of the church life and this is not a feast celebrated outwardly but a participation in theosis, to different degrees. It is very important that day of Pentecost was chosen to convene the «Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church» for it shows that the Primates believe that the Synod should express the life of Pentecost.


This means that all the participants should have an apostolic and patristic mindset and life, to participate in various degrees in the purifying, enlightening, and beatific energy of God, to pray (as strange as this may sound) to have the same conscience that the Holy Fathers had in the Ecumenical and Great Synods of the Church.


The voted texts should be fruits of prayer and not texts of worldly compromises and objectives. They should be harmonized in the universal tradition of the Holy Fathers, to have an organic relationship with the decisions of the Ecumenical and Regional Synods and, in general, of the Church. If the participants do not have personal spiritual experience, at least they should have a clear understanding of the phrase “following the Holy Fathers,” as written in the workings of the Ecumenical Councils.…


A very cursory of the workings of the Ecumenical Councils will point out that the basis and foundation of their decisions is the teaching of the experienced Fathers, with the orthodox understanding of the word.


For example, in the “Provision of Faith” of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is written: “…having renewed the unerring faith of the Fathers…” And in the Workings of the same Synod we read the following phrase: “Following in everything the Holy Fathers.” And in the “Provision of Faith” of the Sixth Ecumenical Council is written that the synod follows “the unerring, straight path of the holy and admitted[2] Fathers.”


There are many more such examples from the workings of the Ecumenical Councils from which is gathered that the teachings of the Holy Fathers lead the way, and the decisions of the councils follow.


Those who believe that the Synod is alike a scientific panel of academic theologians are in error.


What’s more, the Church Fathers have demonstrated that the orthodox theology is experience, as demonstrated in the Synods of the 14th century, in which St. Gregory Palamas led.


I hope that, even in the last minute, it will be officially expressed that the “Holy and Great Synod” will be a continuation of the great hesychastic synods of the 14th century, especially the one of 1351, which demonstrated that the real dogmatic methodology in the Ecumenical and Regional Synods is the hesychastic tradition and life.…


3. Observing the present ecclesiastical condition, we see that it moves within the “geopolitical strategies,” nationalistic objectives, and “cold war” mentalities between East and West. There is such a reality because, unfortunately, certain indiscreet and non-theological[3] clergy were entangled in politics and diplomacy…


To avoid this worldly approach, all the people participating in the “Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church” should rely on the theology of the Church and have a clear ecclesiastical mindset. Only by employing orthodox theology can we distance ourselves from such worldly mentalities.…


4. The truth prevails with the participation and witness of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, with the inspired word and divine love, with sobriety and calmness, in a peaceful and Godly manner.


On the contrary, offensive slogans, elaborate labels, empty theological talks, poisonous implied meanings, the stigma of egotistical statements with a Papal mindset, belittlement of other Christian brothers, fighting conservatism with another conservatism and liberalism, and many other things do not consist of an expression and consciousness of the truth, but rather a show of panic.


In general, for the truth to reign, it is necessary to have the inbreathing of the Comforter, the atmosphere of Pentecost, a peaceful spirit, and the distancing of the pus-flowing wound of the passions. Supporting the truth with passions, pride and aggression, fanaticism and intolerance, totally weaken it.


Passionate clergy who do not respond to theological provocations/challenges with theological arguments, but with ideological attacks contribute absolutely nothing to the theological and ecclesiastical dialogue, which they supposedly pursue and support.


The words of St. Maximos the Confessor are known: “The theology of those who haven't reached revelation through the keeping of the commandments, and yet theologize out of vainglory, this theology is obviously demonic”[4] as are those of St. Gregory the Theologian for “the present-day wordiness, the same-day wise men, and the self-ordained theologians.”


5. For as many of us that love the Church, we truly hope that the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church which will come together at Pentecost will rise to the height of the occasion. The documents which it will eventually form and mainly the message that it will put forth will need to be clear, without implied meanings and annotations, authentic, and true, just as the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of Truth.” This means that these documents must emit the fragrance of Orthodox theology, the conscience of the One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church, the prayer of Hierarchs as well as hermits and pious people. In other words, may they be documents of prayer and Orthodox theology.


Certainly in our daily speech we all fall into theological errors or oversights or even unintentionally accept foreign influences, but the Synodical documents must be clear. When the Church synodically decides it does not philosophize, it does not talk idly, it does not attack, it does not distinguish itself with verbosity, rather, it expresses the truth with clear terms without hiding various meanings.


It is with this perspective that I wrote about replacing the term “human person” with the term “human.” I do not have a problem with the term “person” in the way Elder Sophrony uses it, but with the misinterpretations of various modern theologians who express unorthodox views.


After many years of study, I verified that today the term “person” is taken more with the scholastic and existential way of thinking, with Germanic idealistic views together with a humanistic voluntarism, and in general with Western personalism which undermines all of the ecclesiastical tradition of the person in regards to God, to Christ, and to man, since it connects nature with necessity and the will with the person, as did all the early heretics. ……


To close these brief points, I emphasize that the Holy and Great Synod to come, which I shall attend, without precedence, I desire to be infused by the doxastikon hymn of the Holy Fathers cited below, which we magnificently chant in the holy churches especially in this period of Pentecost (on the Sunday before Pentecost) in which the Synod will come together. Everything said in the service of the Sunday of the Holy Fathers should have a correlation to the members of this Synod.


When the choir of Holy Fathers flocked from the ends of the inhabited world, they proclaimed the doctrine of the One Essence and One Nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thereby delivering plainly to the Church the mystery of theology. As we acclaim them in faith, let us call them blessed, saying: O divined array, ye God-proclaiming hoplites of the Lord’s company, most brilliant stars of the spiritual firmament, impregnable towers of the mystical Sion, ye fragrant flowers of Paradise, ye all-golden mouths of the Word, the boast of the Church and adornment of the whole world: Intercede ye fervently in behalf of our souls.


This is how we hope this synod’s members will be, or at least the majority of them.


Let whomever champions the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church look at himself in the mirror of the spirit of this doxastikon hymn, so that he may partake in the glory of the Fathers and of the Orthodox Church.


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[1] The Greek word is «εκκλησία» which strictly means the “assembly of the people.” In ancient Athens, for example, it meant the assembly of all free citizens to decide upon matters of state. The word is first encountered in the Bible in the book of Judges (A) 20:2 in a similar sense: «καὶ ἔστη τὸ κλίμα παντὸς τοῦ λαοῦ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ Ισραηλ ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ λαοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τετρακόσιαι χιλιάδες ἀνδρῶν πεζῶν σπωμένων ῥομφαίαν» (And the chief of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword.)


[2] The Greek word ἔγκριτος, according to Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon, means “those admitted to knowledge of mysteries by faith.” In other words, here the word signifies the people that have achieved of the vision of God.


[3] «Ἀθεολόγητους,» meaning “people without [sound] theology”.


[4] «δαιμόνων θεολογία προδήλως ἡ τῶν ἐπ’ αὐτῇ διὰ φιλοδοξίαν μέγα φυσώντων δίχα πράξεως γνώσις». A text hard to render, both because of the complex syntax and the theological terms. “Gnosis” (γνώσις or knowledge) here refers to the knowledge of God which properly can only be a revelation. Praxis (πράξις or action) refers to the Christian conduct, that is keeping God’s commandments.


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Original text, in Greek: http://aktines.blogspot.com.cy/2016/05/h.html


Translator: anonymous

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