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Alexei Khomiakov

Essay on the Unity of the Church: the Church is one

As published in: "Russia and the English Church during the Last Fifty Years", Volume I, 1895. W. J. Birkbeck, editor.


The Spirit of God, who lives in the Church, ruling her and making her wise, manifests Himself within her in divers manners; in Scripture, in Tradition, and in Works; for the Church, which does the works of God, is the same Church which preserves tradition and which has written the Scriptures. Neither individuals, nor a multitude of individuals within the Church, preserve tradition or write the Scriptures; but the Spirit of God, which lives in the whole body of the Church. Therefore it is neither right nor possible to look for the grounds of tradition in the Scripture, nor for the proof of Scripture in tradition, nor for the warrant of Scripture or tradition in works. To a man living outside the Church neither her scripture nor her tradition nor her works are comprehensible. But to the man who lives within the Church and is united to the spirit of the Church, their unity is manifest by the grace which lives within her.
Do not works precede Scripture and tradition? Does not tradition precede Scripture? Were not the works of Noah, Abraham, the forefathers and representatives of the Church of the Old Testament, pleasing to God? And did not tradition exist amongst the patriarchs, beginning with Adam, the forefather of all? Did not Christ give liberty to men and teaching by word of mouth, before the Apostles by their writings bore witness to the work of redemption and the law of liberty? Wherefore, between tradition, works, and scripture there is no contradiction, but, on the contrary, complete agreement. A man understands the Scriptures, so far as he preserves tradition, and does works agreeable to the wisdom that lives within him. But the wisdom that lives within him is not given to him individually, but as a member of the Church, and it is given to him in part, without altogether annulling his individual error; but to the Church it is given in the fulness of truth and without any admixture of error. Wherefore he must not judge the Church, but submit to her, that wisdom be not taken from him.
Every one that seeks for proof of the truth of the Church, by that very act either shows his doubt, and excludes himself from the Church, or assumes the appearance of one who doubts and at the same time preserves a hope of proving the truth, and arriving at it by his own power of reason: but the powers of reason do not attain to the truth of God, and the weakness of man is made manifest by the weakness of his proofs. The man who takes Scripture only, and founds the Church on it alone, is in reality rejecting the Church, and is hoping to found her afresh by his own powers: the man who takes tradition and works only, and depreciates the importance of Scripture, is likewise in reality rejecting the Church, and constituting himself a judge of the Spirit of God, who spoke by the Scripture. For Christian knowledge is a matter, not of intellectual investigation, but of a living faith, which is a gift of grace. Scripture is external, an outward thing, and tradition is external, and works are external: that which is inward in them is the one Spirit of God. From tradition taken alone, or from scripture or from works, a man can but derive an external and incomplete knowledge, which may indeed in itself contain truth, for it starts from truth, but at the same time must of necessity be erroneous, inasmuch as it is incomplete. A believer knows the Truth, but an unbeliever does not know it, or at least only knows it with an external and imperfect knowledge. For this reason, even he who is not sanctified by the spirit of grace may know the truth even as we hope that we know it: but this knowledge is in itself nothing but an hypothesis, more or less sound as an opinion, logical conviction or external knowledge, which has nothing in common with inward and true knowledge, with faith which sees the invisible. And whether we have faith or no is known to God alone. — [Author's note.] The Church does not prove herself either as Scripture or as tradition or as works, but bears witness to herself, just as the Spirit of God, dwelling in her, bears witness to Himself in the Scriptures. The Church does not ask: Which Scripture is true, which tradition is true, which Council is true, or what works are pleasing to God: for Christ knows His own inheritance, and the Church in which He lives knows by inward knowledge, and cannot help knowing, her own manifestations. The collection of Old and New Testament books, which the Church acknowledges as hers, are called by the name of Holy Scripture. But there are no limits to Scripture; for every writing which the Church acknowledges as hers is Holy Scripture. Such pre-eminently are the Creeds of the General Councils, and especially the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Wherefore, the writing of Holy Scripture has gone on up to our day, and, if God pleases, yet more will be written. But in the Church there has not been, nor ever will be, any contradictions, either in Scripture, or in tradition, or in works; for in all three is Christ, one and unchangeable.


Every action of the Church, directed by the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of life and truth, sets forth the full completeness of all His gifts, — of faith, hope, and love: for in Scripture not faith only, but also the hope of the Church, is made manifest, and the love of God; and in works well pleasing to God there is made manifest not only love, but likewise faith and hope and grace; and in the living tradition of the Church which awaits from God her crown and consummation in Christ, not hope only, but also faith and love are manifested. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are inseparably united in one holy and living unity; but as works well pleasing to God belong more especially to love, and prayer well pleasing to God belongs more especially to hope, so a Creed well pleasing to God belongs more especially to faith, and the Church's creed is rightly called the Confession or Symbol of the Faith.
Wherefore it must be understood that Creeds and prayers and works are nothing of themselves, but are only an external manifestation of the inward spirit. Whereupon it also follows that neither he who prays nor he who does works nor he who confesses the Creed of the Church is pleasing to God, but only he who acts, confesses, and prays according to the spirit of Christ living within him. All men have not the same faith or the same hope or the same love; for a man may love the flesh, fix his hope on the world, and confess his belief in a lie; he may also love and hope and believe not fully, but only in part; and the Church calls his faith, faith, and his hope, hope, and his love, love; for he calls them so, and she will not dispute with him concerning words; but what she herself calls faith, hope, and love are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and she knows that they are true and perfect.


Holy Church confesses her faith by her whole life; by her doctrine, which is inspired by the Holy Ghost; by her Sacraments in which the Holy Ghost works; and by her rites, which He directs. And the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Symbol is pre-eminently called her Confession of Faith.
In the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Symbol is comprised the confession of the Church's doctrine; but, in order that it might be known that the hope of the Church is inseparable from her doctrine it likewise confesses her hope; for it is said: we look for, and not merely, we believe in, that which is to come.
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Symbol, the full and complete Confession of the Church, from which she allows nothing to be omitted and to which she permits nothing to be added, is as follows:
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, who was begotten of His Father before all worlds, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; [Who] for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified. [Who] spake by the Prophets. In one, Holy, Catholick and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and for the life of the world to come. Amen. The translation of the Symbol by W. J. Birkbeck, obviously is much influenced by the English version and is not an accurate translation of the Niceno-Constantionoplitan Symbol. — trv.
This confession, just as also the whole life of the Spirit, is comprehensible only to one who believes and is a member of the Church. It contains within itself mysteries inaccessible to the inquiring intellect, and manifest only to God Himself, and to those to whom He makes them manifest for an inward and living, not a dead and outward, knowledge. It contains within itself the mystery of the existence of God not only in relation to His outward action upon creation, but also to His inward eternal being. Therefore the pride of reason and of illegal domination, which appropriated to itself, in opposition to the decree of the whole Church (pronounced at the Council of Ephesus), the right to add its private explanations and human hypotheses The Russian word, догадка, literally means a guess or a conjecture. — [W.J.B.] to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Symbol, i.e. the Filioque — trv is in itself an infraction of the sanctity and inviolability of the Church. Just as the very pride of the separate Churches, which dared to change the Symbol of the whole Church without the consent of their brethren, was inspired by a spirit not of love, and was a crime against God and the Church, so also their blind wisdom, which did not comprehend the mysteries of God, was a distortion of the faith; for faith is not preserved where love has grown weak. Wherefore the addition of the words filioque contains a sort of imaginary dogma, unknown to any one of the writers well pleasing to God, or of the Bishops or successors of the Apostles in the first ages of the Church, and not spoken by Christ our Saviour. As Christ spoke clearly, so did and does the Church clearly confess that the Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father; for not only the outward, but also the inward, mysteries of God were revealed by Christ, and by the Spirit of Faith, to the holy Apostles and to the holy Church. When Theodoret called all who confessed the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son blasphemers, the Church, while detecting his many errors, in this case approved his judgment by an eloquent silence. Silence on the part of the Church in not rejecting a writer is of great significance; but this silence becomes a decisive sentence when the Church does not reject a decision brought against a doctrine of any sort; for in not rejecting the decision she maintains it with all her authority. — [Author's note.] The Church does not deny that the Holy Spirit is sent not only by the Father, but also by the Son; the Church does not deny that the Holy Ghost is communicated to all rational creatures not only from the Father but also through the Son; but what she does reject is that the Holy Ghost had the principle of His procession in the Godhead itself, not merely from the Father, but also from the Son. He who has renounced the spirit of love and divested himself of the gifts of grace cannot any longer possess inward knowledge — that is faith — but limits himself to mere outward knowledge; wherefore he can only know what is external, and not the inner mysteries of God. Communities of Christians which had broken away from the Holy Church could no longer confess (inasmuch as they now could not comprehend with the Spirit) the procession of the Holy Ghost, in the Godhead itself, from the Father only; but from that time they were obliged to confess only the external mission of the Spirit into all creation, a mission which comes to pass, not only from the Father, but also through the Son. They preserved the external form of the faith, but they lost the inner meaning and the grace of God; as in their confession, so also in their life.


Having confessed her faith in the Tri-hypostatic Deity, the Church confesses her faith in herself, because she acknowledges herself to be the instrument and vessel of divine grace, and acknowledges her works as the works of God, not as the works of the individuals of whom, in her visible manifestation [upon earth], she is composed. In this confession she shows that knowledge concerning her essence and being is likewise a gift of grace, granted from above, and accessible to faith alone and not to reason.
For what would be the need for me to say, I believe, if I already knew? Is not faith the evidence of things not seen? But the visible Church is not the visible society of Christians, but the Spirit of God and the grace of the Sacraments living in this society. Wherefore even the visible Church is visible only to the believer; for to the unbeliever a sacrament is only a rite, and the Church merely a Society. The believer, while with the eyes of the body and of reason he sees the Church in her outward manifestations only, by the Spirit takes knowledge of her in her sacraments and prayers and works well pleasing to God. Wherefore he does not confuse her with the society which bears the name of Christians, for not every one that saith, Lord, Lord, really belongs to the chosen race and to the seed of Abraham. But the true Christian knows by faith that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church will never disappear from the face of the earth until the last judgment of all creation, that she will remain on earth invisible to fleshly eyes, or to the understanding which is wise according to the flesh, among the visible society of Christians, exactly in the same way as she remains visible to the eye of faith in the Church beyond the grave, but invisible to the bodily eyes. But the Christian also knows that the Church upon earth, although it is invisible, is always clothed in a visible form; that there neither was, nor could have been, nor ever will be a time in which the sacraments will be mutilated, holiness will be dried up, or doctrine will be corrupted; and that he is no Christian who cannot say where, from the time of the Apostles themselves, the holy Sacraments have been and are being administered, where doctrine was and is preserved, where prayers were and are being sent up to the throne of grace. The Holy Church confesses and believes that the sheep have never been deprived of their Divine Pastor, and that the Church never could either err for want of understanding, —for the understanding of God dwells within her; or submit to false doctrines for want of courage, — for within her dwells the might of the Spirit of God.
Believing in the word of God's promise, which has named all the followers of Christ's doctrine the friends of Christ and His brethren, and in Him the adopted sons of God, the Holy Church confesses the paths by which it pleases God to lead fallen and dead humanity to reunion in the spirit of grace and life. Wherefore, having made mention of the prophets, the representatives of the age of the Old Testament, she confesses Sacraments, through which, in the Church of the New Testament, God sends down His grace upon men, and more especially she confesses the Sacrament of Baptism for the remission of sins, as containing within itself the principle of all the others; for through Baptism alone does a man enter into the unity of the Church, which is the custodian of all the rest of the Sacraments.
Confessing one Baptism for the remission of sins, as a Sacrament ordained by Christ Himself for entrance into the Church of the New Testament, the Church does not judge those who have not entered into communion with her through Baptism, for she knows and judges herself only. God alone knows the hardness of the heart, and He judges the weaknesses of reason according to truth and mercy. Many have been saved and have received inheritance without having received the Sacrament of Baptism with water; for it was instituted only for the Church of the New Testament. He who rejects it rejects the whole Church, and the Spirit of God which lives within her; but it was not ordained for man from the beginning, neither was it prescribed to the Church of the Old Testament. For if any one should say that circumcision was the Baptism of the Old Testament, he rejects Baptism for women, for whom there was no circumcision; and what will he say about the Patriarchs from Adam to Abraham, who did not receive the seal of circumcision? And in any case does not he acknowledge that outside the Church of the New Testament the Sacrament of Baptism was not of obligation? If he will say that it was on behalf of the Church of the Old Testament that Christ received Baptism, who will place a limit to the loving-kindness of God, who took upon Himself the sins of the world? Baptism is indeed of obligation; for it alone is the door into the Church of the New Testament, and in Baptism alone does man testify his assent to the redeeming action of grace. Wherefore also in Baptism alone is he saved.
Moreover, we know that in confessing one Baptism, as the beginning of all the Sacraments, we do not reject the others; for, believing in the Church, we, together with her, confess Seven Sacraments, namely, Baptism, the Eucharist, Laying on of Hands, Confirmation with Chrism, Marriage, Penance, and Unction of the sick. There are also many other Sacraments; for every work which is done in faith, love, and hope, is suggested to man by the Spirit of God, and invokes the unseen Grace of God. But the Seven Sacraments are in reality not accomplished by any single individual who is worthy of the mercy of God, but by the whole Church in the person of an individual, even though he be unworthy.
Concerning the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Holy Church teaches that in it the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is verily accomplished. She does not reject the word Transubstantiation; but she does not assign to it that material meaning which is assigned to it by the teachers of the Churches which have fallen away. Cf. the following passage from the longer Catechism of the Russian Church (Blackmore's translation, p. 92.). Question. How are we to understand the word Transubstantiation? Answer. In the exposition of the faith by the Eastern Patriarchs [i.e. Peter Mogila's Confessio Orthodoxa, was drawn up in Kieff in 1640, examined by the Synod of Jassy, and approved by the four Greek Patriarchs in 1643] it is said that the word transubstantiation is not to be taken to define the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; for this none can understand but God; but only this much is signified, that the bread truly, really, and substantially becomes the very true Body of the Lord, and the wine the very true Blood of the Lord. In like manner John Damascene, treating of the Holy and Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord, writes thus: It is truly that Body united with the Godhead, which had its origin from the Holy Virgin; not as though that Body which ascended came down from heaven, but because the bread and wine themselves are changed into the Body and Blood of God. But if thou seekest after the manner how this is, let it suffice thee to be told, that it is by the Holy Ghost; in like manner as, by the same Holy Ghost, the Lord formed flesh to Himself, and in Himself, from the Mother of God; nor know I aught more than this, that the word of God is true, powerful, and almighty, but its manner of operation unsearchable (S. Joh. Damasc. De fide orthodoxa, l. iv. cap. xiii. 7.) — [W.J.B.] The change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is accomplished in the Church and for the Church. If a man receive the consecrated Gifts, or worship them, or think on them with faith, he verily receives, adores, and thinks on the Body and Blood of Christ. If he receive unworthily he verily rejects the Body and Blood of Christ; in any case, in faith or in unbelief, he is sanctified or condemned by the Body and Blood of Christ. But this Sacrament is in the Church, and for the Church; not for the outside world, not for fire, not for irrational creatures, not for corruption, and not for the man who has not heard the law of Christ. In the Church itself (we are speaking of the visible Church), to the elect and to the reprobate the Holy Eucharist is not a mere commemoration concerning the mystery of redemption, it is not a presence of spiritual gifts within the bread and wine, it is not merely a spiritual reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, but is His true Body and Blood. Not in spirit alone was Christ pleased to unite Himself with the faithful, but also in Body and in Blood; in order that that union might be complete, and not only spiritual but also corporal. Both nonsensical explanations concerning the relations of the holy Sacrament to elements and irrational creatures (when the Sacrament was instituted for the Church alone), and that spiritual pride which despises body and blood and rejects the corporal union with Christ, are equally opposed to the Church. We shall not rise again without the body, and no spirit, except the Spirit of God, can be said to be entirely incorporeal. He that despises the body sins through pride of spirit.
Of the Sacrament of Ordination The Russian word, Рукоположеніе, is equivalent to Χειροτονία. — [W.J.B.] the Holy Church teaches, that through it the grace which brings the Sacraments into effect is handed on in succession from the Apostles and from Christ Himself: not as if no Sacrament could be brought to effect otherwise than through Ordination (for every Christian is able through Baptism to open the door of the Church to an infant or a Jew or a heathen), but that Ordination contains within itself all the fulness of grace given by Christ to His Church. And the Church herself, in communicating to her members the fulness of spiritual gifts, in the strength of the freedom given her by God, has appointed differences in the grades of Ordination. The Presbyter who performs all the Sacraments except Ordination has one gift, the Bishop who performs Ordination has another: and higher than the gift of the Episcopate there is nothing. The Sacrament gives to him who receives it this great significance, that even if he be unworthy, yet in performing his Sacramental service, his action necessarily proceeds not from himself, but from the whole Church, that is, from Christ living within her. If Ordination ceased, all the Sacraments except Baptism would also cease; and the human race would be torn away from grace: for the Church herself would then bear witness that Christ had departed from her.
Concerning the Sacrament of Confirmation with Chrism, The word Мѵропамазаніе is a compound word, derived from Мѵро, chrism, and помазати, to anoint. The word Мѵро (μύρον) is used exclusively for the chrism consecrated by a Bishop (in Russia only by the Metropolitans of Moscow and Kieff) on Maundy Thursday, and never for the oil used for anointing the sick, or for that of the Catechumens, both of which are blessed by the priest or priests when they are required, and not, as in the West, once a year on Maundy Thursday by the Bishop. The Eastern Church, like the English Church, uses Chrism at the Coronation of the Sovereign, whereas the Roman Church uses the Oil of Catechumens. — [W.J.B.] the Church teaches that in it the gifts of the Holy Ghost are conferred upon the Christian, confirming his faith and inward holiness: and this Sacrament is by the will of the Holy Church performed not by Bishops only, but also by Presbyters, although the Chrism itself can only be blessed благословенно, literally blessed, but according to Western usage consecrated would be a better rendering. — [W.J.B.] by a Bishop.
Of the Sacrament of Marriage the Holy Church teaches that the grace of God, which blesses the succession of generations in the temporal existence of the human race, and the holy union of man and woman for the organisation of the family, is a sacramental gift, imposing upon those who receive it a high obligation of mutual love and spiritual holiness, through which that which otherwise is sinful and material is endued with righteousness and purity. Wherefore the great teachers of the Church, the Apostles, recognise the Sacrament of marriage even amongst the heathen: for while they forbid concubinage, they confirm marriage between Christians and heathens; saying that the man is sanctified by the believing wife, and the wife by the believing husband (1 Cor. 7:14). These words of the Apostle do not mean that an unbeliever could be saved by his or her union with a believer, but that the marriage is sanctified: for it is not the person, but the husband or wife, who is sanctified. One person is not saved through another, but the husband or the wife is sanctified in relation to the marriage itself. And thus marriage is not unclean, even amongst idolaters; but they themselves know not of the grace of God given unto them. But the Holy Church through her ordained ministers acknowledges and blesses the union, blessed by God, of husband and wife. Wherefore marriage is not a mere rite but a true Sacrament. And it receives its accomplishment in the Holy Church, for in her alone is every holy thing accomplished in its fulness.
Concerning the Sacrament of Penance the Holy Church teaches that without it the spirit of man cannot be cleansed from the bondage of sin and of sinful pride: that he himself cannot remit his own sins (for we have only the power to condemn, not to justify ourselves), and that the Church alone has the power of justifying, for within her lives the fulness of the Spirit of Christ. We know that the first-fruits of the Kingdom of heaven, after the Saviour, entered into the sanctuary of God by the judging of himself, that is to say, by the Sacrament of Penance; for he said for we receive the due reward of our deeds; and he received absolution from Him who alone can absolve, and does absolve by the mouth of His Church.
Of the Sacrament of Anointing with consecrated oil The Slavonic word елеосвященіе is derived from елеӥ (ἔλαιον) olive oil, and свящати, to hallow. Thus the very title of the Sacrament points to the fact that in the Eastern Church the oil is blessed each time by the priest or priests by whom it is administered, not once a year by the Bishop, as is the custom in the West. The Sacrament is also commonly called in Russian соборованіе, an assembling together, from the fact that, in conformity with the direction of the Apostle (James 5:15) as many priests as it is possible to collect are summoned to bless the oil and administer the Sacrament. The ideal number is seven, in which case each priest reads one of the seven Gospels appointed, and administers one of the seven anointings. But this number is not necessary, and the oil may be hallowed and administered by fewer, or even by a single priest. In the East this Sacrament is not necessarily deferred until the man or woman is at the point of death, and may be administered in any serious illness, and, if desired, more than once during the same illness. As an illustration of the practice of the Eastern Church with regard to its administration I may mention the case of Archbishop Nicanor of Odessa, who, after hearing from a medical specialist at Moscow that his illness was incurable, returned to Odessa, and summoned the priests of his Cathedral and the Suffragan Bishop of his see to administer the Sacrament to him. The Suffragan Bishop and seven priests, assisted by seven deacons and the Cathedral choir, administered it, the Archbishop sitting throughout the ceremony in an arm-chair, and himself rising to give the blessing before the reading of each of the seven Gospels. His death did not take place until three months later, i.e. in January 1891. — [W.J.B.] [i.e. Unction of the Sick] the Holy Church teaches that in it is perfected the blessing of the whole fight (2 Tim. 4:7), which has been endured by a man in his life upon earth, of all the journey which has been gone through by him in faith and humility, and that in Unction of the Sick the divine verdict itself is pronounced upon man's earthly frame, healing it, when all medicinal means are of no avail, or else permitting death to destroy the corruptible body, which is no longer required for the Church on earth or the mysterious ways of God.
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