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On the Terms "Catholic" and "Soborny"

A Letter to the Editor of l'Union Chretienne

Translated by Hieromonk Luke

From the beginning of their labors the First Teachers of the Slavs desired to give the people whom they called to Christ a translation of the sacred Scriptures. It is more than likely that before anything else they translated the Creed. It is true that we have no extant manuscripts by them, but there can be no doubt that it is their translation which has come down to us. There is no basis for assuming that these first teachers, Cyril and Methodius, although Greek by origin and still having communion with the Roman Latinizers, were sympathetic to the Latinizers. In order to convey the correct meaning of the Greek word catholic they chose the word soborny, and by this choice we can judge how they understood the original expression. The question naturally arises: did there exist a word in the Slavonic tongue which corresponded fully with the understanding of universality? One could cite a number of words, but it is sufficient to bring forth two: worldwide, and ecumenical. This is enough to convince us that there was no lack of vocabulary to convey the proper meaning. The first word cited, worldwide, is frequently met with in very ancient hymns; the antiquity of the latter word—ecumenical—is equally unquestionable. When speaking of the Church it is used to express Her universality (Ecumenical Church), and it is used, in speaking about councils (Ecumenical Council/Concile Oecumenique). Here we have the words to which the first translators would have had recourse in order to convey the word catholic, if they had wanted to give it the meaning universal ("ecumenical"). It should be understood that I in no way reject the fact that the word katholikos (from kata and hola, with the word ethne understood, i.e., nations or some similar noun) may well have the meaning universal, but I contend that it was not understood in this context by the First Teachers of the Slavs. The thought never occurred to them to define the Church as geographic or ethnic, such a definition had no place in their theological system. They chose the Word soborny, sobor expressing the idea of assembly not only in the sense of an actual, visible gathering of many people in one place but also in a more general sense of the continual possibility of such a gathering, in other words, to express the idea of unity in multiplicity. It is obvious that the word katholikos, according to the understanding of the two great servants of God's Word, sent from Greece to the Slavs, was not derived from kata and hola, but from kata and holon, kata frequently having the same meaning as the preposition according to"; for example, kata Matthaiou, kata Markou, "according to Matthew, according to Mark." The Catholic Church is the Church according to everyone, or according to the unanimity of all (the oneness of all), kath'holou ton pisteuonton—the Church of voluntary oneness of mind, complete unanimity, the Church in which nationalities have vanished, there is neither Greek nor pagan, no social differences, no masters, no slaves, it is that Church which was foretold in the Old Testament and which was fulfilled in the New Testament; in a word, the Church described by St. Paul. I cannot say whether it was a deep understanding of the essence of the Church drawn from the very sources of truth in the schools of the East, or whether it was an even higher inspiration sent from Him Who alone is the Truth and the Life, that made the suggestion to render the word catholic in the Creed by means of the word soborny. But I must firmly assert that this word alone contains in itself an entire confession of faith. You Romans who claim the Teachers of the Slavs as your own, renounce them quickly! You have destroyed single-mindedness and unity, having changed the Creed without the participation and counsel of your Eastern brethren. How would you come to terms with the definition of the Church which has been handed down to us by Cyril and Methodius? It judges you. Give up your pretense of geographical ecumenicity, you cannot go further than that anyway. Let the reformers to whom you gave birth adhere to your understanding as well, for in the true meaning of the word catholic they will also find themselves judged. The Apostolic Church of the 9th century is not the Church kath'hekastou (according to the understanding of each individual) as the Protestants teach, It is not the Church kata tou episkopou tes Romes (according to the understanding of the bishop of Rome) as the Latins preach; She is the Church kath'holou (according to the understanding of all within her unity), the Church as it was before the Western schism and as it is now for all whom the Lord has preserved from schism; for, I repeat, this schism is a heresy against the dogma of the unity of the Church.

Taken from Orthodox Life, Vol. 38, No. 3 (May-June, 1988), pp. 2-3. Originally from On the Church by A.S. Khomiakov, Berlin, 1926, pp. 58-59. Translator's Note: This letter has great contemporary significance because of the current misuse of the words catholic and ecumenical. The word ecumenical is often used to give more importance to an event or person, when, in fact, it has nothing to do with worth, in the moral or Church understanding of the word. On the other hand, the word catholic, if used properly, is very important. One might say that the guiding force in the Orthodox Church is the Spirit of catholicity.

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Webmaster Note: Readers of this web site may notice that some of the articles contain the term "Œcumenical" in place of "Ecumenical. This is in part due to reasons noted above. The former term means what Mr. Khomiakov states while the latter refers to things related to ecumenism, e.g., the Ecumenical Movement. For further insight into the word "catholic," consider the following excerpt from Ch. 2 of The Mind of the Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos:

The term 'catholic' originates with Aristotle and means whole, entire, "the common name in contrast to that of each one". Furthermore, we can say that the term 'catholic' is identified and linked with what is Orthodox.

When we say that the Church is catholic, we mean it in three particular respects. First, that it exists in the whole world, second, that it has all the truth about God, man and man's salvation, and third, that the life which the Church has is common for all Christians, for all its members.

In the first place it is called catholic because it is in the whole world. There is no place in which the Orthodox Church does not exist. St. Kyril of Jerusalem gives this definition: "It is called catholic because it is spread throughout the world... because it is everywhere in the world from end to end of the earth... because of the unity of the Churches spread everywhere, all of which make up one catholic whole in the bond of the Holy Spirit". So then the presence of the Church in the whole world and its unity with the power and energy of the Holy Spirit characterise it as catholic.

Then it is called catholic because it has the whole truth, as it was revealed on the day of Pentecost. Here we must point out that the scholastic theology of the West teaches that through the ages we have greater deepening in the dogmas of the faith and that they are still developing further. But this is not orthodox teaching. We believe that on the day of Pentecost the Apostles reached deification, experienced Revelation and so reached the whole truth. Those who through the ages reach deification share in the same experience of revelation. But this truth is formulated and expressed in every epoch, as heresies appear. Thus we have not developed and gone deeper in the faith, but on the one hand, we struggle to live the faith, and on the other hand we are preserving the expression of faith in terms that will protect it from wrongdoings and distortions.

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writes: "The Church, having received this message and this faith, although spread throughout the world, carefully keeps it, as living in one house: and nevertheless it trusts all, as it has one and the same heart".

In this sense catholicity is bound up with Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy preserves the whole truth, both as revealed and dogmatic, and as experience, while heresy breaks the catholicity of the truth, because it takes up one side of the truth and overlooks the other. For example, Arios did not deny that the Angel of the Lord appears in the Old Testament, but he denied the divinity of the Word. The Monophysites did not deny the divine nature, but they overemphasised it at the expense of the human nature, whereby they did away with the possibility of salvation. We observe this in all the heresies. They take one part of the truth, separate it from its catholicity, and overemphasise it at the expense of the whole. Thus the Orthodox-Catholic Church teaches, as St. Kyril of Jerusalem says, "In a catholic and complete way all the dogmas which should come into the knowledge of men".

Likewise, the Church is said to be catholic because the life which it offers belongs to all; that is to say, all Christians have the possibility of attaining deification, regardless of their way of life, their occupation and the place where they live. The Orthodox person is one believing in a catholic way, a virtuous person living in a catholic way, one who applies to his life all the commandments of Christ. As Father Justin Popovich teaches, the members of the Church "live with what is His own (Christ's), they have what is His own and they know through His own knowledge, because they think with the catholic mind of the Church, and they feel with the catholic heart of the Church, and they desire with the catholic desire of the Church, and they live with the catholic life of the Church". We are members of the Church "through living the one, holy and catholic life of the Church, through the holy and catholic faith of the Church, through the holy and catholic soul of the Church, through the holy and catholic conscience of the Church, through the holy and catholic mind of the Church, through the holy and catholic will of the Church. And thus let us have everything common and catholic, the faith, and love, and righteousness, and prayer, and fasting, and truth, and sorrow and joy and salvation and deification and godmanhood, and immortality, and eternity, and blessedness."