Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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1. Orthodox Ecclesiological topics



B. Therapeutic or Liturgical Ecclesiology?   The synthesis by Saint Maximus

Ecclesiology  evolved smoothly in the expectations of the Jews; expectations that were shared and corroborated by Christ with His teaching, and even more so with His opus and His life.   These expectations were that the people of God – once scattered – would, “on the last day” be called to a place where they would become a unity, around the person of the Messiah, who had been described with various titles.  In Isaiah, He had been called “the child of the Lord” - the One Who would take upon Himself all the sins of the world, while elsewhere (as, for example, in apocalyptic literature, chiefly by the prophet Daniel onwards) He was referred to as “the Son of Man”.  These titles, with which the Hebrews described the Messiah, were also used by the Lord for His Person, thus relating Himself to that Messiah of end times, Who was to become the epicenter of the re-assembling of the scattered people of God.  This is why in John’s Gospel we find all these ideas extensively elaborated on, and in great depth.  At the epicenter is the idea of the Son of Man – the One Who would engulf the many within Himself, basically by offering His Flesh so that the people of God would be provided with sustenance and would also form a unity.  Furthermore, the notion of an eschatological assembly is stressed very intensely in John’s Gospel.  In the Apostle Paul, we also have similar references and thus, on the basis of the expectation that the Lord mentioned with a reference to Himself, the conviction was developed that all those who believed in Christ and became incorporated in His Body through Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, they would be the ones who would comprise the “people of God” assembled for the same purpose.  Hence, we have here the fact of the Church as an eschatological reality.

The. fact that they also believed  - chiefly after the Resurrection of Christ and even more with the Pentecost – that the “last days” had already made their entrance in History, that they were already happening within History, explains why this Messianic, eschatological community believed that the last days were a reality during their time, in every place, whenever that scattered people of God assembled in one place for the same purpose – chiefly to perform the Divine Eucharist, which was the incorporation of the many into the One Messiah, hence a realization of the eschatological community.  As already analyzed, this is the basis on which Ecclesiology is built.  This is the historical experience of God’s people, who were scattered and became united for the same purpose, around the Person of Christ, in Whom they acquired their unity.  That is how Ecclesiology commenced, and that is how it developed after the Apostolic period, mainly during the 2nd century with Fathers such as saint Ignatius of Antioch; this was the Ecclesiology of John and Paul; this assembling of God’s people in one place for the same purpose, mainly for the Divine Eucharist, which not only was embraced but was in fact stressed very much and thus became the basis of overall Ecclesiology

Thus,. with saint Ignatius, we have the notion of the Church mainly as an assembly of the eschatological community assembled for the same purpose.  Ignatius goes on to a more detailed description of that assembly.  In the Apostle Paul, things have not yet been fully settled as to the structure of this assembly; we have but a very loose structure of the community.  For example, we notice that the community consists of those who are heads of the community and who lead the Divine Eucharist, and those who respond with “Amen”.   We had observed a basic distinction between clergy and laity with the Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians, but with Ignatius, we now have a more detailed definition, inasmuch as we don’t simply have clergy and laity; in fact, we have distinctions within the clergy, i.e., of  the one who heads the assembly (whom Ignatius calls “episkopos” (bishop*), the presbyters (priests) who accompany him, and the deacons, who connect this team of officiating clergy with the laity, which has assembled for the same purpose, around the person of the bishop.  We consequently notice here a transferal of the eschatological image of the assembly of God’s people for the same purpose around the Person of Christ, which we now observe reflected in these liturgical aspects of the Church.  This fact has ever since comprised the basis, the overall structure of the Church.  The bishop is the centre, around which the people of God unite.  “Where the bishop is, there let the crowds be gathered, so that wheresoever Christ may be, there the Overall (“catholic”) Church will be”; in other words, just as all of God’s people are united around Christ, so should the crowds be united around the bishop – all of the population, all of the members of the community

This  bishop is surrounded by the “convention” -as it is called- of the presbyters, which represents the Convention of the Apostles who, in the eschatological community, will have the position of Judge over the tribes of Israel.  “In the last days, you shall be seated on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  In other words, at the End of Time, Christ will not be coming on His own, without being surrounded by the Twelve.  This is an extremely basic factor – that the Twelve, when they were chosen by Christ, were not chosen merely as Apostles who would be sent forth to preach the Gospel; they were chosen in the eschatological sense of the ones who would be surrounding the Person of Christ, so that during the “last days”, the judgment of Israel and the world would take place through the Apostles.  When we envisage the last days, the eschatological community, it is not enough to envisage only the Person of Christ; we must also envisage the Twelve, who, according to the revelation, are the foundations of the eschatological community.  Consequently, the Apostles are reflected in the persons of the presbyters who surround the bishop, according to Ignatius.  As for the bishop, in view of the fact that he will be judging the world in the name of the Father, of God, and not merely as Christ, this is why -according to Ignatius- it is God Who is reflected in the person of the bishop.  The bishop is “in the place or the semblance of God”.  As you can see, we have here a typological Ecclesiology, in the sense of a foretasting of the eschatological reality.  The Church – Her very being – is not, therefore, that which exists in History, but that which will be at the end of Time; in other words, She is a future reality, which presents itself as a foretaste and is experienced in every place that the Divine Liturgy is performed.  Thus, the congregating of the people is imperative, in order to reflect the eschatological community, but equally necessary is the presence of someone incarnate, representing the figure of the Father or Christ, who is surrounded by the twelve Apostles. Thisis of great importance, for the period in question (2nd century), because Ecclesiology changes later on. (We shall see further along what turn it took).  So, on the basis of the eschatological picture, the Church clearly draws Her identity from that which will be in the future. In other words, She is a portrayal of the things to come.

We shall now proceed to the next important stage in History in order to describe the evolution of Ecclesiology, where this notion of the Church as a portrayal of the things to come slowly began to be overturned and substituted by something else. This overturning took place with the Alexandrian theologians, at the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd, and also with the so-called Christian Gnostics, who appeared in the framework of the Catechist School of Alexandria. The leading representatives –as regards the topic of new perceptions that we are examining- were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. They were the ones who gave a new direction to Ecclesiology.  One could even call it something more than a change in direction: an overthrowing.  Because, as I explained, whereas on the basis of biblical data and Ignatius the Church depicts the final stage, the things to come, on the other hand with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, they signify that the Church comprises a depiction, not of the Final stage, but of the original status – the one that used to exist in the beginning. This is a characteristic of the specific school of thought, which was based on the influence of Platonism; in other words, to regard the original state of things as the state of perfection, while everything that occurred afterwards was to be regarded as a falling away from that state of perfection, and what is more, everything that is to occur in the future – the eschatological state – was to be seen as a return to the original state.  In other words, perfection was to be found in the beginning.

This is a basic, ancient Hellenic, mainly Platonic perception; i.e., the world once used to be perfect; the world of ideas is located in the beginning of things; everything that follows thereafter is a repetition of the original idea or a falling away from the original state.  Subsequently, the Church is likewise a reality - for those authors that I mentioned – that once used to be perfect, in the beginning.  And of course, perfection was visualized under that influence of Platonism, as something that is manifested in the individual logos of beings.  We have here a cosmological approach by the Church, and not an historical one, as we have in the Bible.  We are not looking at a historical community, but a perfect state of the entire world.  All beings had their roots inside the logos of beings, which existed originally, even before the creation of the world, and which logos of beings came together and comprised a unity within the one Logos of God.  Therefore the unity of the Church – the Church that we spoke of earlier – is in no way related to the unity of all beings, through their logos, in the one Logos, eternally.  Subsequently, we have here an eternal pre-existence of the Church, and consequently, we not only draw from there the identity of the Church, but also Her content and Her opus.

These all have very serious consequences, for all aspects of Ecclesiology.  You can understand from this comparison that, while Biblical and Ignatian Ecclesiology place a greater significance on the functions, on the institutions, by regarding them to be depictions of future situations, in the Ecclesiology of the Alexandrians (Origen and Clement), all these are of secondary importance, perhaps even of none.  The Logos, not the institution, now acquires a special significance, and not in a juridical sense either; the institution is not something that will count, in the future.  What does count, is the union of mankind with the Logos – the eternal and pre-eternal Logos; the union of the soul with the Logos.  Thus, a kind of mystical “Logocracy” is created.  This is not a logocracy that implies that salvation is not found in the expectation of a new world, with a new structure – a new community; it has rather to do with the uniting of the soul with the Logos and the striving for a catharsis of the soul of anything that hinders it from becoming united to the original Logos, Who is precedent to the material world.  Consequently, catharsis means cleansing oneself of matter - of everything tangible - and uniting oneself to the One who came before the creation of the material world.  Consequently, the Church is located there, at that union with the eternal Logos. In this way, an Ecclesiology is created, which does not place any extreme significance on the functions of the Church – functions, that could very well be considered supportive in the best case, which can bring us to that initial state of the soul’s union with the Logos – or, if you wish, to the state of catharsis. This is where we find the roots of numerous things that preoccupy us today.

Specifically, from within the Ecclesiology of the Alexandrians – of Clement and of Origen – sprang the perception that the most important thing in the Church – that which gives Her her identity – is that it represents an infirmary for curing passions and for catharsis of mankind, of souls, so that those souls can be joined to the Logos-God.  An entire tradition sprang forth from that perception.  To be exact, this tradition was –historically- linked to Monasticism.  In monastic circles, Origen’s texts were read incessantly, hence an Ecclesiology was cultivated among them, whereby the functions and the institutions of the Church were not considered a primary importance; instead, they viewed the Church as an infirmary for curing souls. On the other hand, however, and parallel to this course, Ignatius’ Ecclesiology was also developing within History.  It was continued by Cyprian and many other Fathers of the Church, and at times, the parallel course of the two ecclesiologies actually coincided creatively, producing an organic and uniform whole.  But, just when they began to form a whole, they would again deviate from one another; the parallel courses would separate, and quite often, they would reach the point of causing dilemmas as to which of the two courses was the more correct one, ecclesiologically.  So, what, finally, is the Church? Which is Her hypostasis?  Where do we find it? In the bishop and those surrounding him? In the structure, the assembling of the people for the performing of the Eucharist, or is it in the monastery, in the anachorite’s cell, in conjunction with the attempt to cleanse oneself of passions? This was posed as a dilemma many times throughout History.

Naturally, from a theological, dogmatic point of view, it should not be a dilemma at all; but, what something should be is one thing, and what actually occurs is another thing altogether. And it is my opinion, that this bi-polar situation in Ecclesiology is the most important problem that the Orthodox Church is faced with today, because we still haven’t been able to solve it creatively – we still haven’t overcome this bi-polarity.  Of course the problem is essentially a spiritual one. That the Church offers therapy for one’s passions is beyond any doubt; one can immediately identify the significance of the various functions and the divine Eucharist. However, to become cured of one’s passions is the most difficult thing to do, especially for those who actually struggle to be cured.  From the moment that even the slightest hint of egotism infiltrates the ones who are struggling to be cured of their passions, they are immediately overcome by an arrogance, which is linked to the common officials of the Church.  I repeat, the problem is strictly a spiritual one.  Experience has shown us that this arrogance is naturally not a characteristic of someone who has been cured of his passions.  A cured person will look upon the bishop with every due respect, without any internal concern nagging at him. But those who have even the smallest trace of a passion will readily say: “But who is this person? What do we need him for? As a spiritual person, I too can undertake the essential work of the Church” – they will thus create spiritual children of their own, which they will influence accordingly, and eventually create their own community, saying: “After all, look at the sorry state the bishops are in!!”  That is when Ecclesiology begins to disintegrate, and the bishop thereafter begins to seek juridical means (thus giving emphasis to the institutional aspect) of quashing the problem and imposing his authority on the monk.  In other words, in order to call things by their name and to not hide or be afraid of mentioning them, we have in the Church a problem of relations between bishops and monks. And the historical roots are located in the place that I have indicated. We need this historical awareness - as a kind of psychoanalysis – in order to become aware of our problems.  It is not by coincidence that the roots are located there; and it is not by coincidence that an Origen (or a Clement, to a smaller extent) finally deviated from the true Faith of the Church. Thus, one could say that it would be an incorrect beginning of Ecclesiology, for one to regard the Church either through a cosmological prism, or through a Platonic one, in the way that I mentioned earlier, i.e., by relating everything of the Church to the beginning and not to the end.

The only one , who succeeded in shaping Ecclesiology in such a way as to combine the two trends without losing balance or be led into a heresy, was Saint Maximus the Confessor.  If I have a reason for acknowledging this Father of the Church as the greatest theologian in History, it is because he was, in fact, the only one who was able to take the cosmological element and unite it with the eschatological one.  No-one else had been able to do this.  If we follow Saint Maximus, if we have him as our guide, we shall not be thrown off course.  But it is a difficult thing to do, and that is why there were so many deviations.  Maximus took Origen, and rendered him eschatological; he took his cosmology and rendered it eschatological. In this way, he ousted Platonism and struck a blow right in its heart.  This is why Western researchers could never understand Maximus; even though they were the ones who had ‘resurrected’ him and written books about him, they were nevertheless unable to grasp his spirit, because they all began with the assumption that he too belonged to the Platonizing fathers. He has a Platonic cortex and terminology, but in essence, he destroys Platonism because he takes us from that “return to the past” and about-faces us towards the future – towards the end of Time.  Thus, in the person of Saint Maximus, Ecclesiology once again becomes the eschatological community, which, unlike the Biblical and the Ignatian perception, also has its mundane dimensions – its clear-cut cosmological aspects.

Well, what then do we observe happening, when we creatively unite cosmology with eschatology – the Ecclesiology of Ignatius or Cyprian with the cosmological element?  We then arrive at Saint Maximus, who can see within the structure of the Church and the Divine Eucharist the eschatological community, and not merely the ideas and the logos that relate to the past.  One such eschatological community incorporates the logos of beings, the world, but only as realities of the future.  Consequently, we return to the ‘iconological’ Ecclesiology, where the Church portrays the future, the events of the end.  However, these end events are not simply functions and assemblies of God’s people; they constitute an event of cosmological significance, i.e., the assembling of all beings in the person of the Logos ( the already incarnated Logos, not the Logos prior to the Incarnation ), the incarnated and eschatological Adam.  Thus, Ecclesiology also takes on the form of anthropology, because the eschatological Adam also recapitulates everything in his person,  and this relieves us of the dichotomy between – let’s call it “therapeutic” - and “liturgical” Ecclesiology.  This is very sad, because in our time, in the Orthodox Church, this dilemma is still so alive.  You see some people being preoccupied by and supporting that this aspect is everything, while others are preoccupied only with liturgical or institutional Ecclesiology, and not being able to combine these two trends.  This chasm is ever widening, and it will have very serious consequences for the Orthodox Church.  You younger people are the first victims of this situation, and it will be necessary for God to arrange so that you might be hindered by someone from being led by this chasm, or from you actually leading things towards this chasm between the two Ecclesiologies.

Anyway, I would like to be more analytical, in the next lesson.



: -I would like us to examine in more detail the difference between Ignatius’ and Origen’s Ecclesiology. What is the relationship between private prayer catharsis, and the prayer of the Eucharist community for the realization of salvation?  

R:  -I would have no difficulty in replying on behalf of Saint Maxiums to this question, saying that the supreme prayer is the common one – the one offered during the divine Eucharist.  Of course private prayer in one’s cell is also a basic thing, but I don’t think it can comprise a means for man’s salvation or have the same significance as the prayer of the community in the Church. Of course, when one takes the stance of leaning more towards private prayer in a cell, he is naturally making a concession towards Origen’s Ecclesiology, not Maximus’.  Now, how much more specific can one be? Whether we look at it through the prism of Ecclesiology, or that of cosmology, the point where one is united with God is the Divine Eucharist. This, I believe, is how Saint Maximus’ would reply. Consequently, one could ask:  “Can’t someone participate worthily in the Divine Eucharist without having undergone catharsis and without private prayer?”  Perhaps for purely educational and ascetic reasons, one could give a monk such a method, which would begin with the one kind and reach the other, but I believe that the co-existence of both kinds of prayer is a genuine characteristic of Orthodoxy’s monasteries. I believe that whoever doesn’t participate in the Divine Eucharist and the common Worship with his brethren, has no yet found the road to salvation. That we are hearing differing opinions nowadays is a fact, and that is what made me say earlier that we are experiencing a serious problem in Orthodoxy nowadays. However, that is also the reason we are discussing it: so that we can determine where the danger lies, and what we should avoid.  I am not sure how much more specifically I could reply, and if my reply was satisfactory.

Q:  -How is catharsis related to the sacraments?

R: -Catharsis is not fulfilled, without a liturgical life. It might be a good start, indeed, but it will not lead to the result of catharsis because the absolution of sins – catharsis itself – is a result of Grace, of the union with Christ, which takes place within the community of the Divine Eucharist.  One cannot claim that he has attained catharsis without the experience of the Divine Liturgy – to answer those who assert such things. Then there are others who consider the divine Eucharist to be enough, without the need for catharsis, and they too have a problem to face. But in any case, if we were to make an evaluation, I would say that the catharsis that the divine Eucharist provides is the final one, the greater one, the supreme one.

The Church can lose Her identity in two ways.  One way is by wallowing in this world so much, that She loses interest in Her eschatological identity – and that is where the Protestant ‘churches’ are found, to a large degree.  The other way is for Her to show a complete indifference to the advent of the end times events and of course end up the same, so that She can expect nothing more than what She has at present – either in the form of the saints or in the form of the various experiences that She has of the End Times (experiences of the Holy Spirit).  When they were given during the Pentecost, they were not given so that we would say that everything is over.  They were given, in order for us to experience the End of Time. Thus, the Church is that community which has a foretaste of the end times, which expects the advent of the end times, which knows that its identity (which is drawn from the end of Time) is situated within History. It is that which the Lord said to His Disciples in John’s Gospel:  “they are in the world, but are not of this world”; i.e. its identity is not drawn from History, but from the End of Time, but is, nonetheless, in the world.

In the case of Origen, we are led to a religious individualism and this constitutes a very serious problem. We are not in need of the other – we head towards salvation on our own! This is a very basic consequence; in other words, we have a notion of salvation, without love, given that it is love that leads us towards the other. Thus, although we are talking about the curing of passions, in essence we are looking at subservience to the passion of egotism.

One other, basic consequence (which is noted in Origen and the entire Origenic tradition) is that we lose touch with the tangible, material world. A disregard towards the material world is generated – if not a tangible repulsion; it is, at any rate, a lack of reference to the material world.  This also causes many problems; it causes a disturbance in our relationship – not only with the material world around us, but also with the material world that is inside us and above us: our own body. In general, it causes tremendous anomalies in man’s life; the disregard for the material world can even lead to the phenomena that we observe today, in the destruction of the environment and our indifference towards it, and a thousand other things also. One might say: “Why should it interest us, if forests are being burnt down, or if the oceans are being polluted? We pray, we tend to the catharsis of o passions etc..”  But a healthy state will also make you pray for these things and weep for the death of that bird or that animal. But I am now describing the deviations and the situations that we can reach, should Origen’s Ecclesiology prevail.  We can therefore see that the existential consequences are indeed very serious. The association between Ecclesiology and Pneumatology is immediately related to the division that we just expounded.

Anyway, therapeutic Ecclesiology is not heretic, nor is it Origenic. Of course when over-emphasizing it, to the detriment of the liturgical Ecclesiology, will lead to Origenism.  Because even in Origen, if you study him, will not find any objections on these things.  Ignatius cannot merge into Origen, in any way whatsoever.  One can even observe in the hymns an emphasis on the therapeutic element. Of course we have a more important influence, but not even the Church’s hymns can exhaust Her Ecclesiology.  Depending on the hymnographer’s and the community’s experiences, hymns merely touch on certain aspects and highlight them.  Naturally we mustn’t forget that the hymns we have in Church are all taken from the monasteries, written by monks.  And quite frequently, this is evident from the manner in which the verses are composed; the saints are chosen, and the references that are made.  One can venture an analysis, thus, every time I participate in worship, I can see there is a deviation towards the presupposition and the anxieties, the preoccupations of the monk, because he is normally the author.

On the other hand, if you take a liturgy – a eucharist anaphora – whose author is always a bishop (we do not have eucharist anaphorae by monks – we say Basil the Great’s Liturgy, or the Chrysostom’s liturgy etc. – and we don’t have any liturgies by presbyters either in History, because the bishop is the one who heads the Divine Eucharist and those anaphorae (prayers of reference) in the beginning of the liturgy were once improvised and gradually, with the problems that the heresies caused from the 4th century onwards, there began to be a selection of anaphorae, some of which had been written by certain bishops and became established; in fact, some of them acquired the authority and the name of major fathers and bishops), you will notice there that the concerns, the content, is entirely different. You will of course notice an opening towards cosmology – towards the world – towards all of Creation – towards daily needs – towards the course of all mankind – while at the same time, another thing is observed: an eschatological synthesis, in the sense of a participation in the Kingdom of God etc.. Anyway, this danger is always found in the innermost content of Ecclesiology.

Like everything else, when we walk on a tightrope, it is thus easy to slip here. Of course one does find outstanding cases of those who haven’t merely slipped, but have literally sunk into the unilateralism of the one or the other form of Ecclesiology. But let’s not refer to specific examples – the things that are happening are too disheartening.

Anyway, the existence of hope-filled syntheses (and not only hope-filled, but actual instances) here and there does not drive away the problem, which we must stress, in order to become fully aware of it, otherwise, if we do not know how dangerous a path it is – if someone doesn’t say to us “be careful, there are landmines there”, we will stroll over them without a care.  The duty of a teacher is, precisely, to point out were the mines are.  I am not saying that only mines exist; of course the correct, safe path also exists somewhere; the problem is, that a mine can explode and send you way out of your path, which is something that occurs to a large extent, hence the need to discuss it.

 (*Bishop = Greek : Episkopos, overseer-supervisor)


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Transcript: Anna Navrozidou and Nick Zarkantzas

Proof-reading: Stavros Yiagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 22-1-2007.

Last update: 5-2-2007.