Notes on the Talk by Fr. John Erickson on Primacy in the Orthodox Tradition

Notes on the Talk by Fr. John Erickson on Primacy in the Orthodox Tradition

Given at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, June 6, 2008

By The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


Fr. Erickson is the Dean of St. Vladimir’s. He identified primacy as a both an inter- and intra-Orthodox problem. He affirmed that both Orthodox and Anglicans have an apophatic approach to primacy. Both traditions are articulate about what primacy is not and less articulate about what primacy is. For the Orthodox there is not dogma of the church. “The Orthodox sing hymns about the church but have no dogma of the church.” They have not defined the church in dogmatic terms. Fr. Erickson pointed out that even in Roman Catholic theology the dogmas on the church are of relatively recent origin. “For many centuries ecclesiology was not a forefront of dispute.” The Dean did say that the Orthodox system of autocephalous churches “has proven inadequate.” In practice he thought that the line between primacy and neo-papalism is not always clearly drawn.

Fr. Erickson pointed to the ecumenical nature of the ecclesiological discussion and of the influence of communio ecclesiology. He noted the starting point of much of this theology is with Ignatius of Antioch. The vision here is of the local church gathered about its bishop who acts both in persona Christi and in persona populi. This makes the local Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop and the local church in this sense the starting point. The canonical tradition takes for granted the unity and equality of the bishops. The emphasis in the council of bishops is on unanimity. Fr. Erickson said that the role of the council was to express the common mind of the whole church. Each church calls its bishop who may “preside in love.”

With Zizioulas there is a wide ecumenical recognition that primacy is the sharing of the partrimony of the church’s teaching tradition.

Fr. Erickson continued, Roman Catholics emphasize the hierarchal side of communion but neglect communion in holiness, baptism and martyrdom. One aspect alone of communion is not definitive, a holistic approach is needed. He asked the question, “What structures of communion and unity are necessary?” There appears to be a need for a universal ministry of unity, and from an Orthodox perspective the structures of communion need to be more than administrative and juridical but also sacramental.

The Orthodox have a high regard for Peter and the faith of Peter but are resistant to a localizing of the Petrine office in one bishop but rather see each bishop as an inheritor of the office of Peter. “Each faithful bishop derives his ministry from Peter.” Fr. Erickson pointed out that Peter ordained the Bishop of Rome but the Pope does not nominate his successor. “There is a difference between Peter and the Bishop of Rome. “The faith of Peter is the heart of Primacy.” Fr. Erickson quotes the Orthodox theologian Myendorf that, “Papacy has no indelible character and depends on the orthodoxy of the Pope’s faith.” Fr. Erickson said that, “the bishop is a concilliar being and the question of primacy is what makes one of these first?” He quotes Simeon Thesalonika to the effect that pre-eminence in episcopacy is not from an apostolic foundation but from practical considerations and the pragmatics of history. “Primacy exists for the good order of the church and primacy exists for service.”

In the Orthodox tradition an important concept with regard to primacy is the concept of solicitude or concern. “The metropolitan is charged with concern/solicitude for the whole province.” This solicitude has an extra-provincial dimension and extends to a solicitude for the whole church. This is the way in which the Early Church understood the nature of Roman primacy, as a caring after the conformity of the whole church with the patrimony of the faith. This is best understood “as leadership in love rather than juridical.” Fr. Erickson continued that Rome began to see decisions as juridical and “solicitude gives way to potentia.” This leads away from primacy within a concilliar context where the primate acts as the head of a council of bishops. In theological statements Orthodox and Roman Catholics agree on this vision of primacy but the actual practice of Roman primacy contradicts this vision.

Fr. Erickson warned against a superficial appeal to the church of the first millennium, for from the same historical record very different conclusions can be drawn.

He ended his talk with the hope that the new Pope’s ecumenical openness could lead to a new Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic consensus on the issue of primacy.

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