The International Orthodox Theological Association: Conciliarity from Below

by Paul Gavrilyuk  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский

The Holy and Great Council of Crete (2016) demonstrated that pan-Orthodox gatherings are possible in our time. The Council also made manifest global Orthodoxy’s enduring tensions and divisions. The delegation of the Patriarchate of Antioch did not attend the Council primarily because of its broken communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church did not attend the Council because of its tensions with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which have now escalated into the Moscow Patriarchate’s unilaterally breaking the communion with Constantinople.

Our geopolitical quarrels have turned us inward; they have drained our financial resources; they have distorted our spiritual compass and diminished the potential of the Church’s salvific mission. Nevertheless, the Holy and Great Council has awakened a desire for a more connected global Orthodoxy in the hearts of many. Despite our divisions, the conciliar spirit is afoot. It is time to become the Church of the Councils not only in theory, but also in practice.

Responding to the call of the conciliar spirit, in February 2017 a group of Orthodox scholars and professionals created the International Orthodox Theological Association, or IOTA. IOTA is a US-based nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the global exchange of knowledge within the context of the Orthodox tradition. We chose the acronym “IOTA” for our association for two main reasons. First, because iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. As scholars and professionals, we wish to contribute our iota to the life of the Church and to do so with due humility. Second, because iota is the first letter of the word “Jesus” in Greek. IOTA’s Hebrew and Phoenician equivalent, iod (yod) also happens to be the first letter of God’s sacred name in the Old Testament, Yahweh. This symbolism will serve as a reminder that Christ the Logos incarnate needs to be at the center of IOTA’s work.

Over the past two years, our association has quickly grown into a network of several hundred well-respected Orthodox leaders from over thirty countries. Besides theologians, IOTA includes philosophers, historians, social scientists, political scientists, and professionals. We welcome church leaders, professionals, scholars, scholar-practitioners, and community leaders as its members (join here). IOTA is organized into twenty-five groups, each representing a different knowledge domain, including both traditional theological disciplines, such as Biblical Studies, Dogmatic Theology, Moral Theology, and Liturgical Studies, as well as newer fields, such as Missiology, Orthodoxy and International Relations, Orthodoxy in the Public Square and the Media, Religion and Science, and so on. These groups are parts of what one might call an Orthodox Republic of Letters, dedicated to free, honest, and respectful exchange of ideas, helping the Church to come to terms with the challenges of our time.

Our Republic of Letters is unusual. It needs no army to defend itself. Rather, our main weapons are competence and persuasion. Our treasury reserve is not money, but the deposit of faith. Unlike the empires of this world, we are not interested in territorial expansion. Rather, our goal is to expand our knowledge base in order to contribute to the Church’s mission of spreading the faith. Unlike the nation-states, we have no national interests to protect. We are an international society that seeks to build up the Church with no particular expression of Orthodoxy dominating another at our gatherings.

IOTA’s Inaugural Conference will be held in Iasi, Romania on January 9–12, 2019. The initiative is supported by the leadership of the Romanian Orthodox Church as well as several organizations in the US and abroad (see the list of sponsors). The theme of the conference is Pan-Orthodox Unity and Conciliarity. The keynote address will be given by metropolitan Kallistos Ware. An unprecedented number of scholars have responded to our call for papers. As a result, nearly 300 speakers will present their papers in seventy conference sessions (see the conference program). In terms of knowledge output, IOTA’s Inaugural Conference is poised to become the largest gathering of church leaders, scholars, and professionals in Orthodoxy’s modern history.

What is our hope for the conference? We wish to given the conference participants a concrete experience of “conciliarity from below.” Such a form of conciliarity—which includes pastors, professionals, and scholars—complements “conciliarity from above,” which manifests itself in the pan-Orthodox gatherings of bishops. At the Council of Crete, Patriarch Daniel of the Romanian Orthodox Church expressed a hope that pan-Orthodox councils would be convened more regularly in the future. IOTA could put its growing knowledge network at the disposal of a future council. For example, IOTA could channel the input of the seminaries and other Orthodox institutions into the pre-conciliar deliberations. In addition, IOTA could prove vital for assuring lay participation in a future council. Along these lines, IOTA welcomes cooperation with the pre-conciliar commissions and with the Orthodox episcopate. To be clear, IOTA does not privilege the leadership of any one particular local Church and seeks to work constructively with all.

We take our inspiration from the spiritual boldness and intellectual courage of the Church Fathers, whose ministry brought about a gradual conversion of the Roman Empire and the eventual emergence of Christendom. The transformation of society by the Gospel is a dynamic process, a constant ascetic struggle, which requires the gathering of intellectual, spiritual, and missionary resources. When undertaken with due focus and determination, such a gathering could bring about a new renaissance of Orthodox thought and missionary activity. Dare we hope that this renaissance could become possible, with God’s help, in our time?

For more information on the conference, visit IOTA’s website.

Paul Gavrilyuk is Founding President of the International Orthodox Theological Association and Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas (MN).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.