Alexei Khomiakov, Third Letter to William Palmer

28 November 1846

Moral obstacle to the West accepting Orthodoxy * The Eastern Church defended from the charge of lack of missionary zeal * The Eastern Church defended from charge of inconsistency with regard to Filioque * The Rebaptism of Westerners * Replies to additional remarks of Palmer upon Filioque and the Inquisition * Difficult for Westerners, whether Latin or Protestant, to join Orthodox Church * The Church cannot be a harmony of discords * Latin power and great future of the Orthodox Church

Most Reverend Sir,

Accept my heartiest thanks for your friendly letter, and my excuses for having been rather slow in answering it. I cannot but call your letter a friendly one, though it contains some very severe attacks on us; but a truly friendly disposition lies in my opinion at the bottom of them, and is manifested by the honest frankness of their expression. I think your attacks generally wrong, but they are sincere, and show a serious desire to find out truth, and to come to a satisfactory conclusion in the debated question. Every doubt, every difficulty, and every accusation, let it be ever so hard for the accused party, should be candidly and clearly stated; this is the only way for establishing the difference between right and wrong. Truth must never be evaded; it should not even be veiled in truly serious questions.

Permit me to resume briefly your accusations. First: If we pretend (as indeed we do) to be the only Orthodox or Catholic Church, we should be more zealous for the conversion of erring communities, as the Spirit of apostleship, which is the true spirit of Love, can never be extinct in the true Church; and yet we are manifestly deficient in that respect. Secondly: Our pretensions are evidently contradicted by the admission (proposed by some our most important divines) of a communion with the Latin Community on very easy conditions. Thirdly: Slight errors (proved by a change of rites) have been admitted by our own Church, and therefore we cannot logically uphold the principle that the true Church can never have fallen into a dogmatic error (be it ever so slight), or have undergone any change, be it ever so unimportant.

I have fairly admitted our deficiency in Christian zeal, though at the same time I exculpated our Church from that accusation with respect to the Western communities. You explain that same faintness by a latent conviction of our Church, which, you suppose, feels herself to be no more than a part of the whole Church notwithstanding her pretensions to the contrary. This explanation seems to me quite arbitrary, and has no right to admission till it be proved that no other explains the case quite sufficiently. But the question stands differently. The distinction I made between our relations to the heathen and our relations to Europe you consider rather as an evasion than as a direct answer, yet I think it is easily maintained by a very high authority. I had said, What new tidings can we bring to the Christian West? What new source of information to countries more enlightened than we are? What new and unknown doctrine to men to whom the true Doctrine is known though disregarded? These expressions imply no fear of a contention which indeed would show weakness and doubt, no distrust of the strength of our arguments and authorities, perhaps even no great want of zeal and love. They simply imply a deep conviction that the reluctance of the West to admit the simple truth of the Church arises neither from ignorance nor from rational objections, but from a moral obstacle which no human efforts can conquer, if it is not conquered by the better feelings of the better part of human nature in those who can know the truth but do not wish to confess it. Such a disposition can exist, though the question is whether it exists in the case of which I am speaking. Did not the Father of Light and Source of Love say in the parable by the lips of Abraham: Have they not Moses and the Prophets? If they do not listen to them, they will not listen to Lazarus, even if he was to rise from the dead. Do not, I pray, consider this quotation as being made with an intention of offence. I would not make injurious accusations; and having once confessed a want of zeal in our country and people, I would confess it again; but my conviction is that indeed in the present case the words of Christ may be fairly applied, and that you are separated from us by a moral obstacle, the origin of which I have tried in my former letter to trace to its historical beginning.

But does not this faintness of zeal which I admit (with regard to the heathen nations) imply a defect in the Eastern Church herself, and prove her to be no more than a part, perhaps even not so much as a part of the whole true Church? This I cannot admit. It may be considered as a defect of the nations to whom the destiny of the Church is temporarily confided (be they Russians or Greeks), but can nowise be considered as a stain to the Church herself. The ways of God are inscrutable. A few hundreds of disciples in the space of about two centuries brought to the flock of Christ more millions of individuals than there were hundreds in the beginning. If that burning zeal had continued to warm the hearts of the Christians, in how short a space of time must not all the human race have heard and believed the saving Word? Sixteen centuries have elapsed since that epoch; and we are obliged to confess with an unwilling humility that the greater and by far greater majority of mankind is still in the slavery of darkness and ignorance. Where then is the zeal of the Apostle? Where is the Church? That would prove too much if it proved anything at all. Many centuries, particularly in the middle ages, and at the beginning of modern history, have hardly seen some few examples of solitary conversions and not one national, and not one remarkable effort at proselytism. This seems to inculpate the whole Church. The spirit of missions is now most gloriously awakened in England, and I hope that that merit will not be forgotten by the Almighty in the days of trial and danger which England has perhaps to meet; but this noble tendency is a new one, or at least has become apparent only very lately. Is it a sign that the Church of England is now nearer to truth than it was before? Is it a proof of greater energies or purity? No one can admit this. Or let us take the Nestorian community, which you hold out as a parallel to us. I do not consider the parallel as a caricature, though you have added that word, probably with an intention to avoid offence. The Nestorians are generally ignorant, but ignorance (in the point of Arts and Sciences) was our own lot not more than a century ago. The Nestorians are, generally speaking, poor; but that is no great blemish for any man and particularly for a Christian. They are few, but the truth of a doctrine is not to be measured by the number of votaries. The Nestorians have been richer and more learned and more numerous than they are at present. They have had the spirit of proselytism. Their missionaries have extended their activity over all the east as far as the inner India and the centre of China, and that proselytism was not ineffectual. Millions and millions had embraced Nestorianism (Marco Polo's testimony is not the only one to prove their success). Was Nestorianism nearer to truth in the time of its triumph than in our time? Mohammedanism and Buddhism would give us the same conclusion. Truth and error have had equally their time of ardent zeal or comparative coldness, and the characters of nations may certainly produce the same effects as the characters of epochs. Therefore, I see no reason for accusing the Orthodox Church in herself of a defect or weakness which may, and in my opinion evidently does, belong to the nations that compose her communities.

Having thus distinguished the notes of the Church herself from the national qualities or defects of the Eastern community which alone represents it temporarily, permit me to add that the comparison which you institute between the zeal of the Latins and the seeming indifference of the Eastern World is not quite fair. I do not deny the fact itself, nor do I express any doubt concerning the apparent superiority of the Latins in that respect; but I cannot admit their spirit of proselytism to be anything like a Christian feeling. I think it should be left quite out of the question, as being the necessary result of a particular national or ecclesiastical organisation, nearly akin to the proselytising spirit of Mohammedanism in the days of its pride. I will not condemn the zeal of the Latins; it is in some respects too praiseworthy to be ill or even lightly spoken of; I can neither praise nor envy it. It is in many respects too un-Christian to be admired, as having produced more persecutors than martyrs. It is, in short, a mixed feeling not dishonourable for nations which belong to the Latin Community, but quite unworthy of the Church, and not to be mentioned in questions of ecclesiastical truth. I am, I trust, very far from having the disposition to boast, and yet I cannot but call your attention to a strange and generally unnoticed fact, viz., that notwithstanding the apparent ardour of the Latin Community, and seeming coldness of Orthodoxy as to proselytism, yet that since the time of the Papal Schism (which certainly begins not with the quarrels of Photius and Nicholas, but with the interpolation of the Symbol when the West declared itself de facto sole judge of Christian doctrine) it has been the destiny of Orthodoxy to be happier in its conquests than its rival community. No one will doubt the fact if he considers the numerical superiority of Russian Orthodox Christians over the inhabitants of Scandinavia and about a third part of Germany, which were called to the knowledge of Christ after the time of Charlemagne. To this comparison, you must add that even of that lesser number more, and by far more, than a half was not converted, but driven into the Latin Communion by cudgel, sword, and fire. I repeat that I am rather ashamed of our having done so little, than proud of our success; but in the unaccountable ways of Providence it is perhaps a particular dispensation of the Eternal Goodness to show that the Treasury of Truth must and shall thrive though confided to seemingly careless hands. No Anscar or Wilfried, no Willbrod or Columban came to instruct Russia. We met truth more than half-way, impelled by the grace of God. Since then, we have had our martyrs, we have had and still have our missionaries, whose labour has not been quite fruitless. [Ed. - In fact, Russia spread the Christian Faith across ten time zones and over 180 of longitude, across the Ural Mountains, through Siberia, through Alaska and into present-day California.] I admit they are few in numbers; but is not the voice of truth which calls upon you, the voice of the whole Church? You have as yet seen no Russian or Greek missionary. But did Cornelius reject the Angel's voice and declare that he would not believe till the Apostle came? He believed, and the Apostle came only as a material instrument of Christian confirmation; and shall the message of God, the emanation of the whole Church, the voice of truth, be the less powerful or the less acceptable because no single individual has been found worthy of bringing it to you? The Church may have and has undoubtedly many different forms of preaching.

The second point of accusation concerning the easy conditions on which communion was proposed to the Latin Community may equally be answered without difficulty. First, I readily admit that Mark of Ephesus went too far in his concessions; but in a fair trial of that great man and eminent divine we should, I think, rather admire his undaunted firmness than condemn his moments of human weakness. His was a terrible task. He felt, and could not but feel, that in rejecting the alliance of the mighty West he was literally condemning his country to death. This was more than martyrdom for a noble spirit, and yet he stood the trial. Are we not to be indulgent in our judgment over an unwilling error inspired by the wish of saving his country, and are we not to bless the memory of his glorious opposition? Other divines of a later period [may have] consented to a communion with Latins requiring nothing but a restitution of the Symbol to its ancient form and other less material changes in doctrine. These you consider as too easy conditions. [You ask,] Would Athanasius have admitted Arius to communion, and allowed him the liberty of teaching Arianism everywhere excepting the Symbol? Very certainly he would not; but there is an immense difference between the heresy of Arius and the false doctrine of the Latins. The first rejects the true doctrine; the second admits it, and is only guilty of adding an opinion of its own (certainly a false one) to the holy truth. That opinion in itself has not been condemned by the Church, not being directly contrary to the holy Scriptures, and therefore, does not constitute a heresy. [Ed. - Khomiakov was obviously unaware that the Synod of Blachernae condemned the Filioque as a heresy.] The heresy consists in calumniating the Church and in giving out as her tradition a human and arbitrary opinion. Throw the interpolation out of the Symbol, and tradition is vindicated; opinion is separated from Faith; the keystone is torn out of the vault of Latinism, and the whole fabric falls to ruins with all its proud pretensions to infallibility, [Ed. - When this letter was written, papal infallibility was a widespread opinion, but had not been proclaimed by the Latins to be dogma. In fact, many Latin bishops were very vocal in rejecting it as a teaching.] as if the Latins were the sole judge of Christian truth; the rebel spirit is hewed down and broken. In short, all is obtained that need be obtained. A deeper insight into the question would show (and that observation did not probably escape our divines) that the [human] opinion which is [merely] added to [the true] dictionary doctrine and implied in the Filioque has indeed no other support but the decision of ignorant Synods, and the declarations of the Roman See. Being once rejected out of the Symbol, and consequently out of Faith and Tradition, it could not stand by itself, and would be sure to fall and be forgotten like many other partial and local errors, such as, for instance, the error of considering Melchizedek as an apparition (though no incarnation) of Christ. The high majesty of the Church, most reverend sir, has nothing to do with individual opinions, though false, when they do not run directly against her own doctrine. They may, and do, constitute a heresy only when they dare to give themselves out as her doctrine, her tradition, and her faith. This seems to me a sufficient justification of the conditions proposed to the Latins and a proof that they did not imply the slightest doubt of the Eastern Orthodoxy and of her doctrine being the only true one.

Your third accusation is not positively stated; it is rather insinuated by a comparison with the sale of Indulgences than directly expressed; but I cannot leave it without an answer. Your own expressions that the re-baptising of Christians was prevalent for many years and even sanctioned by local canons would be sufficient for our justification; for local errors are not errors of the Church, but errors into which individuals can fall by ignorance of the ecclesiastical rule. The blame falls on the individuals (whether they be Bishops or laymen signifies nothing). But the Church herself stands blameless and pure, reforming the local error, but never in need of a reform. I could add that, in my opinion, even in this case the Church has never changed her doctrine, and that there has only been a change of rites without any alteration in their meaning. All Sacraments are fulfilled only in the bosom of the true Church, and it matters not whether they be completed in one form or another. Reconciliation renovates the Sacraments or completes them, giving a full and Orthodox meaning to the rite that was before either insufficient or heterodox, and the repetition of the preceding Sacraments is virtually contained in the rite or fact of reconciliation. Therefore, the visible repetition of Baptism or Confirmation/Chrismation, though unnecessary, cannot be considered as erroneous, and establishes only a ritual difference without any difference of opinion. You will understand my meaning more clearly still by comparison with another fact in ecclesiastical history. The Church considers Marriage as a Sacrament, and yet admits married heathens into her community without re-marrying them. The conversion itself gives the sacramental quality to the preceding union without any repetition of the rite. This you must admit, unless you admit an impossibility, viz., that the Sacrament of Marriage was by itself complete in the lawful union of a heathen pair. The Church does not re-marry heathens or Jews. Now, would it be an error to re-marry them? Certainly not, though the rite would seem altered. This is my view of the question. The re-baptising of Christians did not contain any error, but the admission of the error (if error it be) having been a local one is quite sufficient for the justification of the Eastern Church. The case is quite different with the sale of Indulgences. It was an error of the whole Latin Community, being not only sanctioned by her infallible head, but emanating directly from him. But I will be content to leave that argument aside, decisive though it be for a true Latin, and will admit that the sale of Indulgences was attacked by some divines who were never condemned as heretics. It matters little whether it be so or not. The error remains the same. The sale of Indulgences cannot be condemned from a Latin point of view. As soon as Salvation is considered capable of being obtained by external means, it is evident the community believing thus has a right to choose the means, considering the different circumstances of the community. Charity to the poor may be reasonably changed into charity to the whole body of the visible community or to her head, the See of Rome. The form is rather comical; but the doctrinal error does not lie in the casual form; it lies in the doctrine itself of the Latin Community, a doctrine which is fatal to Christian freedom, and changes the adopted sons of God into hirelings and slaves.

I have thought it necessary to answer the accusation hinted at by the comparison you institute between two errors of the Latin Community and the Orthodox Church, yet I do not much insist on accusing Rome in that particular case. The only thing I wanted to show that we have a right to uphold the doctrine that no error, even the slightest, can ever be detected in the whole Eastern Church (I neither speak of individuals nor of local communities); and permit me to add that without this doctrine the idea itself of a Church becomes an illogical fiction, by the evident reason that, the possibility of an error being once admitted, human reason stands alone as a lawful judge over the holy work of God, and unbounded rationalism undermines the foundations of faith.

I must add some observations concerning the remarks that conclude your letter.

1. I have no doubts about the passage of St Augustine (principaliter, autem, etc.) being an interpolation. The proofs given by Zernikov seem conclusive; but I am inclined to consider it as an ancient interpolation and no wilful falsification, and therefore, thought it not quite useless to show that it contained nothing in favour of the Latin doctrine.

2. I am quite aware that the doctrine attacked by Theodoret was not the Latin one, which was quite unknown at that early period; but the expressions of Theodoret are directly opposed to the addition in the Symbol, and this is quite sufficient to show that such an addition would have been utterly impossible at the time of the Ephesian Synod, and is contrary to the doctrine then admitted as Orthodox.

3. The Inquisition of the Gothic period in Spain is not known under that name, and is not united by any visible historical link with the later one; that is the reason why no historian has ever sought for the origin of that dark institution in those remote centuries; but the bloody and iniquitous laws which were so fiercely urged against Arians and Jews in the time of the predecessors of Roderick have all the character of religious Inquisition in its most abominable form, and originated, as did the later Inquisition, from the will of the clergy. That is the reason why I have given them a well-known name, though that name was not yet used in the Gothic epoch. It is to be remarked that neither the Mohammedan conquest, nor a struggle of seven centuries, nor all the changes of manners, habits, and civilisation which must have taken place during such a long space of time, could alter the national character of the Spanish clergy. No sooner was Spain free and triumphant than it renewed its old institutions, a terrible and [hitherto] unnoticed example of the vitality of errors and passions and of their hereditary transmission to the remotest generations.

4. There is no doubt that, at the end of the eighth, and at the beginning of the ninth century, the Filioque was not yet generally admitted by the Western Communities. Zernikov is right in that respect, and a decisive argument may be derived from Alcuin's testimony; but the Spanish origin of the addition is an undoubted fact, and I see as yet no conclusive reason to suppose that the Acts of the Spanish Synods have been falsified. The addition itself may be easily explained by the struggle between Arians and Catholics at the time of the Goths, and by a desire of attributing all possible qualifications of the Father to the Son, whose divinity was denied by the Arians. This indeed is, I think, the only reasonable explanation of the arbitrary change in the Western Symbol. After the Arian struggle, and at the time of the Arabs, I can see no reason nor occasion to suggest such a change, and therefore have not the least doubt that the error originated from one of the Gothic Synods, though I am not quite sure whether it was from one of the earliest. At all events, it must have begun no later than the end of the seventh century.

Having thus answered your remarks, I will take the liberty, most reverend sir, to add some observations on the whole tenor of your friendly letter. It is a friendly one, not to me alone, but to all of us children of the Orthodox Church. We could not have asked for larger concessions, nor for a greater agreement in points of doctrine. That yours is not a solitary instance may be inferred not only from your quotations in your most valuable book about the Russian Catechism, but still more from the letters and professions of the Reverend Bishop of [the Scottish Church at] Paris. Believe me, this assurance is a source of great and heartfelt joy for all who feel an interest in truth and unity; and yet, sad to say, what have we gained? Nothing. We have been tried in our doctrine and found blameless; but now we are again tried in our morals (for zeal and love, which are the impelling motives of the Apostle, are nothing but a part of Christian morality), and we are found defective, as indeed we are, and our doctrine is to be condemned for our vices. The conclusion is not fair. You would not admit it if a Mohammedan was to bring it as an objection against Christianity itself, and yet you urge it against Orthodoxy.

Permit me to search into the latent causes of this fact, and excuse me if you find something harsh or seemingly offensive in my words. A very weak conviction in points of doctrine can bring over a Latin to Protestantism, or a Protestant to the Latins. A Frenchman, a German, an Englishman, will go over to Presbyterianism, to Lutheranism, to the Independents, to the Cameronians, and indeed to almost every form of belief or misbelief; he will not go over to Orthodoxy. As long as he does not step out of the circles of doctrines which have taken their origin in the Western world, he feels himself at home; notwithstanding his apparent change, he does not feel that dread of apostasy which renders sometimes the passage from error to faith as difficult as from truth to error. He will be condemned by his former brethren, who will call his action a rash one, perhaps a bad one; but it will not be an utter madness, depriving him, as it were, of his rights of citizenship in the civilised world of the West. And that is natural. All the Western doctrine is born out of the Latins; it feels (though unconsciously) its solidarity with the past; it feels its dependence from one science, from one creed, from one line of life; and that creed, that science, that life was the Latin one. This is what I hinted at, and what you understand very rightly, viz., that all Protestants are Crypto-Papists; and, indeed, it would be a very easy task to show that in their Theology (as well as philosophy) all the definitions of all the objects of creed or understanding are merely taken out of the old Latin System, though often made negative in the application. In short, if it was to be expressed in the concise language of algebra, all the West knows but one datum, a; whether it be preceded by the positive sign +, as with the Latins, or with the negative , as with the Protestants, the a remains the same. Now, a passage to Orthodoxy seems indeed like an apostasy from the past, from its science, creed, and life. It is rushing into a new and unknown world, a bold step to take, or even to advise.

This, most reverend sir, is the moral obstacle I have been speaking about; this, the pride and disdain which I attribute to all the Western communities. As you see, it is no individual feeling voluntarily bred or consciously held in the heart; it is no vice of the mind, but an involuntary submission to the tendencies and direction of the past. When the Unity of the Church was lawlessly and unlovingly rent by the Western clergy, the more so inasmuch as at the same time the East was continuing its former friendly intercourse, and submitting to the opinion of the Western Synods the Canons of the Second Synod of Nicaea, each half of Christianity began a life apart, becoming from day to day more estranged from the other. There was an evident self-complacent triumph on the side of the Latins; there was sorrow on the side of the East, which had seen the dear ties of Christian brotherhood torn asunder, which had been spurned and rejected, and felt itself innocent. All these feelings have been transmitted by hereditary succession to our time, and, more or less, either willingly or unwillingly, we are still under their power. Our time has awakened better feelings; in England, perhaps, more than anywhere else, you are seeking for the past brotherhood, for the past sympathy and communion. It would be a shame for us not to answer your proffered friendship, it would be a crime not to cultivate in our hearts an intense desire to renovate the Unity of the Church; but let us consider the question coolly, even when our sympathies are most awakened.

The Church cannot be a harmony of discords; it cannot be a numerical sum of Orthodox, Latins, and Protestants. It is nothing if it is not perfect inward harmony of creed and outward harmony of expression (not withstanding local differences in the rite). The question is, not whether Latins and Protestants have erred so fatally as to deprive individuals of salvation, which seems to be often the subject of debate; surely a narrow and unworthy one, inasmuch as it throws a suspicion on the mercy of the Almighty. The question is whether they have the truth, and whether they have retained the ecclesiastical tradition unimpaired. If they have not, where is the possibility of unity?

Now permit me to add some observations not only on your letters, but on your book (which I have received with the greatest gratitude and perused with unmixed pleasure), and on all the mode of action of those Anglicans who seem, and are indeed, nearest to us. You would show that all our doctrine is yours, and indeed, at first sight, you seem quite right. Many bishops and divines of your communion are and have been quite orthodox. But what of it? Their opinion is only an individual opinion, it is not the Faith of the Community. Ussher is almost a complete Calvinist; but yet he, no less than those bishops who give expression to Orthodox convictions, belongs to the Anglican Church. We may, and do, sympathise with the individuals; we cannot and dare not sympathise with a community which interpolates the Symbol and doubts her right to that interpolation, or which gives communion to those who declare the Bread and Wine of the High Sacrifice to be mere bread and wine, as well as to those who declare it to be the Body and Blood of Christ. This for an example and I could find hundreds more but I go further. Suppose an impossibility suppose all the Anglicans be quite orthodox; suppose their Creed and Faith quite concordant with ours; the mode and process by which that creed is or has been attained is a Protestant one; a simple logical act of the understanding, by which the tradition and writings of the Fathers have been distilled to something very near Truth. If we admit this, all is lost, and Rationalism is the supreme judge of every question. Protestantism, most reverend sir, is the admission of an unknown [quantity] to be sought by reason; and that unknown [quantity] changes the whole equation to an unknown quantity, even though every other datum be as clear and as positive as possible. Do not, I pray, nourish the hope of finding Christian truth without stepping out of the former Protestant circle. It is an illogical hope; it is a remnant of that pride which thought itself able and wished to judge and decide by itself without the Spiritual Communion of heavenly grace and Christian love. Were you to find all the truth, you would have found nothing; for we alone can give you that without which all would be vain the assurance of truth.

Do not doubt the energies of Orthodoxy. Young as I am, I have seen the day when it was publicly either scoffed at or at least treated with manifest contempt by [too many in] our [high] society; when [I] myself, who was bred in a religious family and have never been ashamed of adhering strictly to the rites of the Church, was either supposed a sycophant or considered a disguised Latin; for nobody supposed the possibility of civilisation and Orthodoxy being united. I have seen the strength of the Eastern Church rise, notwithstanding temporary aggression, which seemed to be fatal, or temporary protection, which seemed to be debasing. And now it rises and grows stronger and stronger. Latinism, though seemingly active, has received the deadly blow from its own lawful child, Protestantism; and, indeed, I would defy anybody to show me the man with true theological and philosophical learning who is still at heart a pure Latin. Protestantism has heard its knell rung by its most distinguished teachers, by Neander, though unwillingly, in his letters to Mr. Dewar, and consciously by Schelling in his preface to the posthumous works of Steffens. The ark of Orthodoxy alone rides safe and unhurt through storms and billows. The world shall flock to it. Let us say with the beloved Apostle: Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Accept my thanks for your book. I consider it as a very valuable acquisition not only for your countrymen, but for all truly and seriously religious readers. The books contained in the parcel sent to me from Kronstadt, I have forwarded to their respective addresses except the one for C. Potemkin, whose address I have not yet learnt. Pray excuse the length of my letter and the frankness of some expressions which are perhaps too harsh, and believe me, most reverend sir, your most obedient servant,

Alexei Khomiakov

(28 November 1846)

Etext from