The Eastern Orthodox Church claims to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that Christ established. This is an extensive as well as intensive claim. Extensively, Orthodoxy claims to be the breadth, the whole canvas, of the true Church across both history and geography. Intensively, Orthodoxy claims to be the heart or pure mystical body from which any peripheral Christian activity stems and in which all Christian truth subsists. The Roman Catholic Church and claims very much the same for itself (cf. CCC 811 ff.).
A major difference in their claims, however, is the Roman Pope. Catholics can and should listen with special attention to the See of Rome on all matters, but can also rely on their local bishop for most daily matters of faith. Most of the time, and for most issues, the collegiality of all the bishops worldwide suffices to guard the faithful. However, when things become really dicey, when a crisis of faith looms especially large, Rome is the final stop. RCism does not claim Rome is the sole possessor of truth. It merely claims that, in the heat of battle between heresy and orthodoxy, Rome is the one sure harbor for truth if all other sees fall.
I'm not interested for the moment in judging the merit of this claim. Rather, I wonder what the equivalent harbor for Orthodox Christians is. The most obvious answer is the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Indeed, although it's a false caricature, many people think of this patriarch as "the Orthodox Pope" and that city as the Orthodox Rome. Constantinople seems like a good contender for the "last man standing" in contemporary Orthodoxy, but I think most informed Orthodox would reject such "popish" assurance in Constantinople. Church history is rife with ancient episcopal sees, no matter how ancient or honorable, careening into heresy and there is no reason Constantinople is exempt from this ecclesial law of sin (cf. Romans 7). The frailty, as it were, of each see apart from the indefectible infallibility of the WHOLE Church is, in fact, the basis for Orthodoxy's violent resistance to Rome's supremacy. How dare the lone hand of Rome set itself over the whole Body of Christ? Orthodox deny the whole Church should submit to the decrees of Rome. Of course, the same denial can and should be held against Constantinople, or any other see. After all, why should (let alone why must) a Russian Orthodox submit to the whims of a Mediterranean patriarch over against his own Muscovite patriarch?
I witnessed a very interesting discussion on an Orthodox blog about the current shabbiness of Orthodox missions. The blogger asked why Moscow is not doing more to evangelize Africa. A commenter replied that Moscow has no reason, not to mention very little collegial right, to intrude on the Alexandrian patriarchate over Africa. The commenter makes a very good point. Alexandria is Alexandria; Moscow is not; so, with all due respect, back off.
But then I began wondering why Moscow, ex hypothesi, could not intervene with full authority to rebuke and restore Alexandria from a scourge of heresy? If Moscow must be more or less hands off about Alexandria's missions, how could the former be any more hands on about preserving the latter, or anyone else, from heresy? It's one thing to have practical problems evangelizing. It's another to deny the deity of Christ or the resurrection of Christ.
These are easy cases, however. What if a bishop, call him Harrius, is advancing novel and extremely nuanced claims about very controversial matters in the Tradition? And what if there is not a clear canon or dogma already "on the books" to address his subtle maneuverings? What if his heresy truly was an open question? What if, to keep it simple, half the Eastern sees were against him and half for him? In that hairy case, what Eastern see COULD intervene in a supreme manner without infringing on the collegial autonomy of each bishop, no matter how heretical he APPEARS to be? Who has final say?
Forget the larger Church scene for the moment. Let's get personal. My basic question is this: when it really comes down to it, what see of the Eastern Church MUST a man, such as myself, listen to in order to be saved from all heresy? Who MUST each and every Orthodox believer listen to in that great day of heresy? Who has final say?
I know the correct answer is “God the Holy Spirit.” Yes indeed, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate authority in the Church. I accept that awesome truth; but I need to know a little (or a lot!) better what that truth means in the all too concrete world God has placed me in. How, exactly, does the Holy Spirit speak? All I can muster is the following chain of revelation – and then I short-circuit.
The Holy Spirit speaks (to the world and to Christians) in the human conscience.
The Holy Spirit speaks in the Bible over the conscience.
The Holy Spirit speaks in the Bible with and in Tradition (BiT) over the conscience.
The Holy Spirit speaks in the BiT in a local church over the conscience.
The Holy Spirit speaks in the BiT in a local church within the whole global and mystical Church.
And then? What happens when the whole Church is rent asunder with divisions and heresy? What happens when the local church is divided into factions? What happens when the BiT is up for grabs by every theologian, bishop, layman, apologist and skeptic? What happens when the conscience is clouded and wounded by sin? Who speaks for God when all do? Who has final say? Try as I might to "see the big picture," I regret that the Orthodox answer, of a global consensus (a la Vincent of Lerins), or of a mystical Eucharistic wholeness in each church (a la Afanassiev), strikes me as an elegant but ultimately useless abstraction.
I mean all of this very sincerely and very humbly. I am looking for my Lord and Savior, the Truth. I eagerly invite any and all Orthodox readers (or anyone else) to shed some light on my plight.