The question of authority has stood for centuries in the very center of the issues between East and West. Writing in the middle of the last century the Russian lay theologian A. S. Khomiakov defined the issue in the form of a somewhat romantic overstatement, which, however, remains quite suggestive today. ‘The Church is not an authority, just as God is not an authority and Christ is not an authority, since authority is something external to us. The Church is not an authority, I say, but the Truth, and at the same time the inner life of the Christian, since God, Christ, the Church, live with him with a life more real than the heart which is beating in his breast and the blood flowing in his veins. But they are alive in him only insofar as he himself is living by the ecumenical life of love and unity, i.e., by the life of the Church.’ Khomiakov’s main reproach to the West is that it has transformed authority into external power: the magisterium in Roman Catholicism, Scripture in Protestantism. In both cases, he concludes ‘the premises are identical.’

Khomiakov’s notion of an ‘internal’ knowledge of the Truth, independent of ‘external’ criteria and authorities, would appear to be pure romantic subjectivism if it were read outside the context of the Greek patristic understanding of God and man. For the Greek Fathers knowledge of God is based on the idea of communion, transfiguration, and deification of man. It implies the theory of the ‘spiritual senses,’ i.e. an utterly personal experience of the Living God, made accessible through the sacramental, communal life in the Body of Christ. This gnosiology does not suppress ‘authorities’ and ‘criteria,’ but it conceives them as clearly internal to the Christian experience. They furnish an authenticity which is incomprehensible to anyone who has not first personally accepted the validity and tasted to the reality of the experience.

The experience is that of Truth itself, not simply of a means for attaining the Truth. It involves the ‘uncreated’ and divine presence of God in man through the Holy Spirit. It is the Truth therefore that authenticates authority, and not vice versa. It is precisely this understanding of authority which made the East resist so stubbornly against accepting the institution of papacy as the criterion of Truth. Because of this the Orthodox reaffirm consistently that it is the faith of Peter which conditions primacy, while primacy itself is not a guarantee of infallibility. Here, in fact is the traditional issue between Rome and Orthodoxy.

Father John Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 76-78.

I haven’t actually read this book but found this quote saved by a friend and thought that it expressed better than I can some of the things that I’ve been feeling but not quite getting to articulating. Something else to put on the “to-be-read” list!

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