The Mystery of the Church, The Orthodox Church from Adam to the Second Coming of Christ, by Vladimir Moss, is nothing if not ambitious. The topic of the current page on this blog is much less so. Here the focus is just on some of his comments regarding “the Excuse of Ignorance”. It is notable that this concept coincides exactly with the Roman Catholic teachings on “Invincible Ignorance” and is quite similar to the concepts that under-gird Protestant “Fundamentalism”.
In the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks running Soviet Russia gained control in their fight to take over the Russian Orthodox Church, it became clear that the Church could no longer be headed hierarchically. They had imprisoned and then probably poisoned to death the legitimate pre-revolution Metropolitan of the Church, Tikhon of Moscow, and were forcing out the locum tenentes that he had named to head the Church in his place.
The last of these was Archbishop Seraphim of Uglich; and when they came for him, there remained no canonical means of establishing a central administration of the Church without convening a local council – something that the Bolsheviks were making impossible. Archbishop Seraphim made this explicitly clear at the time.
[W]hen the Bolsheviks came to remove him, too, and asked Seraphim to appoint a deputy, he refused, saying:
“I lay the Church in the hands of God, our Lord. I am doing this, so that the whole world may know what freedom Orthodox Christianity is enjoying in our free State.”
This was a decisive moment, for the central hierarch of the Church was effectively declaring the Church’s decentralisation, since the conditions for an effective centralised administration no longer existed.
Moss points out that this action had precedent in the Church and also that it was affirmed by other canonical Orthodox Churches and opines that the various splinters of the Catacomb Church form “branches” of the same True Church of Russia which is united by the Holy Spirit rather than by a monolithic administration. He supports this view by reference to the Russian Church Abroad in its All-Emigration Council in Serbia in 1938 which stated, “We must follow the example of the Church prior to the Council of Nicaea, when the Christian communities were united not on the basis of the administrative institutions of the State, but through the Holy Spirit alone.” He also cites the July, 1937 Ust-Kut Council of the Catacomb Church which stated:
All branches of the Church which are on the common trunk – the trunk is our pre-revolutionary Church – are living branches of the Church of Christ. We give our blessing to common prayer and the serving of the Divine Liturgy to all priests of these branches. The Sacred Council forbids all those who do not consider themselves to be branches, but independent from the tree of the Church, to serve the Divine Liturgy. The Sacred Council does not consider it necessary to have administrative unity of the branches of the Church, but unity of mind concerning the Church is binding on all. (The Mystery of the Church)
Moss affirms that these canons were not describing the anathematized “branch theory” of the Ecumenists since these canons affirmed the branches were united in faith:
Is this a form of the ecumenist branch theory of the Church? No, because the branch theory that was anathematised by the ROCOR in 1983 spoke of branches “which differ in doctrine and way of life”, whereas the different branches of the Church envisaged in the conciliar decisions quoted above are understood to have the same faith and way of life, even if they may not agree about everything. In other words, the Catacomb Church has branches in the same sense that the pre-revolutionary Orthodox Church had branches (in the form of national churches such as the Greek, the Russian, the Syrian, etc.) rather than in the sense that the World Council of Churches has branches made up of denominations with completely different faiths. … The Church is not divided into different branches differing in faith and life – that is the heresy of ecumenism. But neither is it an absolutely monolithic structure in which the slightest deviation from the norm of unity as understood in the holy canons immediately entails the deviant “branch” being deprived of the grace of sacraments. (The Mystery of the Church, Appendix 5. The Branch and Monolith Theories of the Church)
Meanwhile, the communists desired a centralized church authority that was under their control. After two exiled metropolitans turned them down, the communists released Sergius from prison and installed him over the Russian church.
As for the legitimacy of Sergius, Moss points to the statement of one of the potential locum tenentes that Met. Tikhon had named before his death: Metropolitan Cyril of Kazan (now in exile). When Sergius was first released from prison Met. Cyril at first affirmed that the sacraments of Sergius had grace, and this is often cited by pro-Moscow and pro-Ecumenist sources as evidence that communion with schismatics and heretics is acceptable. But Met. Cyril changed his mind after Sergius usurped the title of Metropolitan of Krutitsa and declared himself patriarchal locum tenens. That prompted Met. Cyril to write these words:
The recent events have finally made clear the renovationist nature of Sergianism. We cannot know whether those believers who remain in Sergianism will be saved, because the work of eternal Salvation is a work of the mercy and grace of God. But for those who see and feel the unrighteousness of Sergianism it would be unforgiveable craftiness to close one’s eyes to this unrighteousness and seek there for the satisfaction of one’s spiritual needs when one’s conscience doubts in the possibility of receiving such satisfaction. Everything which is not of faith is sin…(Met. Cyril, March, 1937 as in Protopresbyter Michael Polsky, Novie Mucheniki Rossijskie, Jordanville, 1949-57, vol. II, p. 30, retrieved from The Mystery of the Church)
Moss agrees with and elaborates on this theme contrasting “genuine, unwitting ignorance” (which Catholics call “invincible ignorance”) and ignorance from “lack of zeal” (which Catholics call “vincible ignorance”):
If an Orthodox Christian is ignorant that his hierarch is a heretic because of his own lack of zeal for the faith, then he himself is largely to blame… But let us suppose that the Christian really loves the truth, but is uneducated or unintelligent or a long way from good pastors or surrounded by misinformed or malicious people. Then we believe that God will enlighten him in one way or another, or simply move him out of danger. There are many, many examples from the lives of the saints to show that God does not abandon His faithful sheep when they are in danger of going astray; for, as the Lord said, “no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10.29). For there is such a thing as genuine, unwitting ignorance, and it does serve as an excuse in God’s eyes. If ignorance did not serve as some kind of excuse, then the Lord would not have cried out on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.24). Nor would the Apostle Peter have said to the Jews: “I know that through ignorance you did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3.17; cf. 17.30). Again, St. Paul says that he was forgiven his persecution of the Church because he did it unwittingly, out of ignorance and unbelief (I Tim. 1.13). (The Mystery of the Church)
Essentially Moss is saying that the true lover of truth is secure in Jesus Christ, God the Son, as their Lord and savior no matter which Christian church they are attending. For Moss, “Christian” would be restricted to branches claiming descent from and adherence to one or another canonical, but no longer extent, Orthodox Church. Catholics and Protestants, obviously, would have other interpretations.
I would like to add that today it seems the world is entering the time prophesied in the Bible as the great apostasy. All the church heirarchies and denominations are under attack by subversions of very imaginable kind. More and more, the Christian Church is perforce becoming a catacombs church, made up of those having the Holy Spirit in their midst – whoever they are.
In practical terms, for the Orthodox, the discussion leaves one wondering which, if any, of the Old Calendarist hierarchs adopt this view, i.e., recognizing the validity of one another’s faith while nevertheless refraining from communion on the basis of non-theological canonical infractions.