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C.  The Trinitarian basis of Ecclesiology

In. the previous lesson, we discussed how Ecclesiology was shaped during the Patristic period, and we saw how two braches of it appeared, which at times had joined forces and comprised a robust Ecclesiology, while in other instances, they moved along parallel paths, thus causing problems to Ecclesiology.  We concluded with the ascertainment that in contemporary orthodox Ecclesiology, we again have the same problem of a synthesis of the two branches, which we shall now examine

The first branch, which commences from the Bible and is chiefly expressed by Saint Ignatius in his “Teaching”, as well as by other texts of the beginning of the 2nd century, asserts that the identity of the Church – its very being – is located in the end of Time, i.e., in that which the Church will be, eternally.  (This is already being experienced by the Church, as a foretaste, mainly during the Divine Eucharist.)  This is why the form of sacramental Ecclesiology is found in the Church’s functions that are predominant and are expressed and fulfilled primarily during the Divine Eucharist, i.e., the functions of the Bishop, the presbyters, the deacons and the laity. These are the things that comprise the structure of the Church, which lives -and in a certain way eternally lives- because it is a fore-portrayal of the eschatological community.  This was the one direction of Ecclesiology.

The other direction began mainly with the Alexandrian theologians: Clement, Origen, etc. and was influenced by Platonism.  Instead of visualizing the Church’s being in the future, in the end of Time, it visualized the Church as something of the past, i.e., at the beginning.  The predominant concept there was that of the Logos being the unifying power, the center of unity of the entire world – a cosmological center – hence this Ecclesiology was more cosmologically-centered, whereas for the other direction, Ecclesiology was more “Sacramentally”, “Eucharistically” centered. In the instance of the second branch, which is based on the Logos and the unification of all in the Logos, the dominant element was the union of souls generally with the Logos; a union that used to exist originally and which must now be restored, so that the souls will be re-joined to the Logos, after having been cleansed of everything tangible, to return to the way they were in the beginning.  Therefore, the true Church is the place in which souls are cleansed of everything tangible and, thus cleansed, they return to the original union that existed between the Logos and the soul.  The sacraments and the Divine Eucharist in this instance are regarded as supporting means, and not as a final objective.  If the sacraments exist, if the Divine Eucharist exists, it is precisely for the sake of assisting the soul to be cleansed and joined to the Logos. This is an entirely different concept than the one that looks upon the Divine Eucharist as the final realization; that there is nothing beyond it, or more than it.  It is not a means for achieving a goal; in this case, it is the goal, per se.   In the other case, it is just a means for achieving a goal.  This dilemma, this division, continuously keeps showing up in the Orthodox tradition.

Before the commencement of this lesson, I had an interesting conversation with Mr. S. Yagazoglou, who works at Saint Gregory’s; he reminded me of certain discussions that had taken place in our time, between Trembelas and Theocletus Dionysiates etc...  All of these discussions were reminiscent of the exact same problem:  What, finally, is the ultimate goal?  Is there something else, that is more than the Divine Eucharist?

One observes a tendency in many people to reply that there is something more; that the Divine Eucharist is –supposedly- for the “simple” people, while for the spiritually “advanced” ones – the ones who have attained theosis etc. – these are secondary items, they have gone past them, they have “moved on”!  As you can see, the roots go deep into History.  And if these two trends are not clarified, if they are not synthesized between each other in a manner that doesn’t cause any polarization and division, we will have terrible consequences in the overall life of the Church.

So, I believe we said the last time (and I am repeating it) that Saint Maximus the Confessor is an ideal example of a synthesis between both these trends, because there, the one trend indeed does not negate the other.  I would say, however, that in Maximus, finally, the Divine Eucharist (i.e. the Church as a fore-portrayal of eschatological events – a foretasting of end times) is that which dominates his Ecclesiology.  In other words, even though he admits the significance of the catharsis of souls and the union with the Logos etc., Saint Maximus sees the Logos, not as something fleshless and pre-eternal, but as the incarnate Logos in His future, eschatological state and he subsequently relates Him to the Divine Eucharist in a basic sense.  And that, I believe, is where proper, Orthodox Ecclesiology is located.

Unfortunately, not many studies have been made yet, to determine where other significant representatives of the Patristic Tradition stand on this issue of Ecclesiology.  It would be very interesting if someone were to study –say- Saint Simeon the new Theologian, because there, one is tempted at first glance to deviate towards the Origenian perception rather than the other way that I described. Maybe he sees the sacraments and the Divine Eucharist and those functions of the Church that are related to the Eucharist – such as the bishop etc. – possibly as preliminaries, versus the spiritual paternity and filiality that is born in the ascetic environment – in the monastic infirmary. But again, I repeat, in view of the fact that there have been no relative studies, when observing Saint Simeon the New Theologian I am under the impression that this is not the way things are; I mean, this matter has to be clarified one day.

Then we have Saint Gregory of Palamas, where I am looking forward to Mr. S. Yiagazoglou’s elucidations on the above topic, because there is a vast amount of confusion there also nowadays.  Palamas appears to be a representative of an Ecclesiology in which the divine Eucharist and the Sacraments and those functions seem to be a means serving an end, and not the end itself.  At least that is how he has been interpreted and presented by many nowadays, and we need to examine this area as well, to see what is going on there.  Because ou current Orthodoxy is very dependent on Palamas.  We are currently living a “Palamic” era. With the projection of Palamas by Russian theologians (those who migrated to Paris – especially Lossky and then Meyendof and others) as the par excellence symbol of Orthodoxy, as compared and in contrast to the West, Palamas has become a banner and has greatly influenced contemporary Orthodoxy. All of us more or less draw our Orthodox identity from Palamas’ views. This must be attributed to the studies that have been written in the meantime, which have also been springing up constantly like mushrooms, and also in Greece, after the publication of Palamas’ woks by professor Christou. However, under the influence of this excessive zeal for Palamic studies, whose bearers (as a rule) are monks, or by those who are pro-monk or monastically-inclined Orthodox (because we have this species also in Greece), Palamas was interpreted in a manner that marginalized Ecclesiology, which, as I said, regards the Divine Eucharist and the functions as the purpose of the Church – that the “being” of the Church is located there – and that they are not just means that serve a purpose.

We shall now  move away from the history of Ecclesiology, in order to take a deeper look into the issues and the problems that this double approach creates for Ecclesiology.  I would like to first start by placing Ecclesiology in the broader framework of theology, in order to see how it was shaped therein.  Naturally, no-one can deny that what the scholastics did in the West during Mediaeval times, when they chopped up theology into almost autonomous chapters – one of them being Ecclesiology – was a wrong move and a very dangerous one. You cannot speak of Ecclesiology without referring to the other chapters of theology. Because the Church is a reality that springs from the Holy Trinity; it springs from God Himself. She is the result of the Father’s will – a will common to the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity – and is realized through the Providence of God, which Providence incorporates all three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore one cannot tackle Ecclesiology without any reference to the Triadic God.

Therefore the question is raised:  What is the particular contribution of each Person of the Holy Trinity in the realization of that which we call “Church”?

In very broad terms, everything in Providence begins from the Father and everything returns to the Father. And the Church, as I also mentioned previously, was likewise “willed” by the Father.  The Person that wills in the Holy Trinity – the One Who commenced everything – was the Father.  So, the Father willed the Church. What does this imply? That the Father willed to unite the created to the Uncreated; to unite His world with His self. And not to unite it simply and at random, but to unite it in His Only-begotten Son. This was how the Father favored things to be. The Father favored the world to arrive at an eternal communion, so that it would be able to live, otherwise, Creation would have been unable to live on its own – to arrive at a communion with God Himself, and in His Son.  Therefore, the initiative for the existence of the Church is the Father’s.

Of course the Son and the Holy Spirit are also in favor of this, however, in saying this, we must not lose sight of the delicate distinction that it is one thing to co-favor something, and an entirely different thing, to have the initiative in favoring something. It is a very delicate, but also a very important distinction that exists between the roles –so to speak- of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In other words, when referring to this “volition”, this “favoring”, we are in fact observing a certain movement taking place in the Holy Trinity: there is nothing static within the Holy Trinity, so that the volitions of the three persons would simultaneously (from the aspect of their eternicity) have to make their appearance, or relate to each other without discrimination. The Father favors; the Son and the Spirit co-favour. In other words, they say “yes”. There is a “yes” inside the Holy Trinity – a dialogue. The Son consents – let’s call it that --; He too favors; He co-favors, to be the one “in Whom” this favoring of the Father (for the union of the created to the Uncreated) will be realized.

The role therefore of the Son, His particular contribution, is: firstly, to acquiesce freely to the favoring of the Father and secondly, to become Himself the focal point, the center, upon which this union of created and Uncreated is to be realized. In other words, the union of the created to the Uncreated will NOT be realized with the Father as the focal point, nor will it be realized “in the Father”.  Creation will not be saved “in the Father”. The salvation of Creation does, of course, eventually end up with the Father; it will report to the Father, but only “in the Son.”

The Holy Spirit likewise has a particular contribution: to ensure that the incorporation of Creation “in the Son” is rendered possible, by offering with His presence the ability for Creation to open up – to open itself – to its incorporation “in the Son”.  Because Creation cannot on its own communicate with God, on account of its natural limitations and not only on account of its Fall, which entails a reaction towards God and hinders the incorporation “in the Son”. Creation has to overcome its boundaries; a finite thing cannot be a part of the infinite, if its boundaries aren’t transcended. Thus, neither is the Holy Spirit the one “in Whom” Creation will be united, nor is the Father. It is only the Son. This is why this entire plan, this whole “Providence” as we call it, is realized “in the Son”, and it is the Providence of the Son, of Christ. Of course the Son does not act without the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit, but we mustn’t confuse the roles of each person.

The Church is located within this Triadic plan, where the Father favors, the Son is the One Who offers Himself so that Creation can become incorporated and be able to have a relationship with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the One Who liberates Creation from its limitations, from the restrictions of being created.

It is therefore within the Church that all these things take place, but, they take place with the Son at the epicenter, which is why the Church is described as “the Body of Christ”.  Never as “the Body of the Father” or “the Body of the Holy Spirit”. From this, it becomes apparent that there are differences. Given, therefore, that the three persons collaborate with each other, we must not omit to mention why it is so important to point out Who does what.  Each Person’s role has a vast significance.  It is the Providence, the favoring of the Father, for Creation to attain union “in the Son”.  This incorporation of Creation “in the Son” and its subsequent union with God – its referral to the Father, is the final objective of Creation.  It was the favoring of the Father (that existed from the very beginning of Creation as its final objective), which explains why the Church –as that incorporation “in the Son”—would inevitably become a reality. The purpose of Creation was the Church. In other words, when creating the world, the Father desired to transform it into a Church. But for this incorporation of Creation “in the Son” to take place and in order for the Church to materialize, it was necessary to secure mankind’s willing consent. Because it is mankind, who, on the part of nature, as the only free being within Creation – material Creation – would be utilized in order for Creation to be able to refer to God. But mankind, instead of summarizing Creation, instead of finally reporting to God, preferred to report to itself; in other words, it deified itself. It was for this reason, that God’s whole plan for the conversion of the world into a Church stumbled onto Man’s denial, and, as Saint Maximus had said, God had to thereafter think of another way to save the world and unite it with Him.  This “other way” was the incarnation of the Son in (now fallen) Creation, something that required the Son, mankind, and Creation in general, to all pass through the experience of death in order to attain that union; in other words, it was necessary for the Crucifix to intervene. This is why the Church could no longer be realized, without first going through the Calvary Cross.

The Church therefore, now took on a new form, as compared to the one that God had originally foreseen and desired. But here we have a very delicate and very important observation. Despite the fact that the Church, as well as Providence, now took a path that passed through the Crucifix, the end of that path remains the same as it was in the beginning, i.e., the union of the created with the Uncreated God.  Subsequently, the Church is a reality that goes through the Crucifix and in going through it, She takes unto Herself all the characteristics of the Crucifix, but with the objective and destination to not remain there; She must convert these characteristics of the Crucifix into characteristics of the eschatological status.

This is where ecclesiologists begin to encounter difficulties. Because the Church’s passage through the Crucifix leaves the scars of the Crucifix on Her; scars, which are the wounds that evil and History have dealt on the Body of Christ.  Consequently, there are many who stop at that point and assert: “this is the identity of the Church - a body, a Creation that is incorporated ‘in the Son’, but one that has been wounded by evils like the Crucifix.”  This is the notion that mostly Western theologians tend to lean towards, because they are inclined to begin with History, and end with evil (with an ontological disposition, one could say); they tend to place on evil a final, ontological stamp.  This is also why all the music, literature and theology of the West seem to preoccupy themselves with the problems that evil causes in the world, and because of this, they do not move further on, to the Kingdom of God.  Thus, it becomes evident how an Ecclesiology can be formulated here – as it has, in fact, been formulated – having at its core the Crucifix, and Calvary.  The characteristics, therefore, of this Ecclesiology is the concept of the Church as the body of the One Who is sacrificed in History, Who suffers and Who ministers to the world.  This is a very appealing Ecclesiology, which is addressed mostly towards mankind’s sentiments; however, it is an Ecclesiology that excessively incarcerates the Church within the world. Thus, the Church’s activity within the world acquires a predominant place inside this Ecclesiology:  What will the Church do, in the face of the threat of evil, in the face of the world’s problems, in the face of human suffering?  How will She console mankind?  How will She minister to mankind, to ease its suffering?

You have only to observe the Churches of the West: how, in one way or another, they are chiefly preoccupied with such problems. This is why they also become involved in political issues andsocial problems, with poemantics that focus on relieving suffering, helping the hungry and the sick. Thus, the Church acquires a par excellence moralistic character; something that predisposes one to attribute an identity  – define the very being - of the Church, based on this activity of Hers within the world.  Moreover, the Son is clearly the Crucified Son.

There is also the tendency (because this is considered the most important element in Providence) to transfer the event of the Crucifix into the eternal, Triadic life of God.  We have such tendencies nowadays; for example, in J. Moltmann and other Western theologians, Providence, the Crucifix, and even the suffering of the Crucifixion are transferred into the eternal life of God. The same tendency is observed in certain Russian (Slav, mainly) orthodox theologians, who have a highly developed sentimentalism. The Slav soul is more sentimental than rational. They more or less see God, the eternal existence of the Holy Trinity, very closely tied to the mystery of suffering and the Cross. But in Orthodoxy, this is only a tendency that hinders it from developing and from establishing the liturgical and Eucharist experience of the Church, which in Orthodoxy, transcends the experience of the Crucifix and takes us beyond it.  This is why, in Western Ecclesiology, the sacraments (and especially the way it perceives the Eucharist) are in essence nothing more than a continuation and a repetition of Calvary - a perpetuated presence.

The Crucifix is planted in the center of the Eucharist, just like it is in many Orthodox temples nowadays (which was not how it was, in the past). But that is how things are in the West. In the East, one cannot easily stop at the Crucifix, because the Eucharist is thus designed, that it leads us to the transcendence of the Cross.  The Eucharist takes us, not to Calvary, but to the Kingdom of God. It takes us to the communion of the Saints, the luster, the radiance, the splendor of the times to come, with its iconography, its attire, its psalms – with everything that the Orthodox Tradition had adorned the Eucharist. All of these things indicate a transcendence of Calvary, and it is for this reason, that our Ecclesiology reverts to that initial ‘favoring’ of the Father to unite the created with the Uncreated, as the final objective of Creation and Providence.

So, once again we return to those two courses that appeared in the history of the Church.  If the final objective of the Church – and subsequently Her final identity – are found in the realization and the ‘foretasting’ of the Kingdom of God, then ascesis (which is our personal participation in suffering and the Crucifix) ceases to be the final and sublime objective of the Church. Of course, the ascetic cell is part of the Church; the monk – who bears the marks of his participation in the Cross of Christ very clearly on his person – is assuredly inside the Church.  But, when that monk, or someone else (to portray it in a more dramatic way) dons the gold-trimmed attire of the Holy Mountain Priory (I don’t know if you have ever gone to see what kind of attire they have; so much more intricate and splendid than our own, which they wear during the hour of the Eucharist), that is when the Eucharist – the Kingdom of God – is realized. It is that transcendence of the Crucifix, in the light of the Resurrection, that constitutes the Being of the Church.  Consequently, it is not possible to reach the Resurrection without the Cross.  We all say this, again and again, but many of us forget it, and we tend to speak of a Church that lacks the resurrectional experience of transcending the Cross – without the experience of transcending the Cross, the experience of the “new Creation”, which glows, filled with light.

One could say that the “new Creation” and the experience of the Church can only be found in the person of a monk who glows with sanctity. Of course it can be seen there also, but that is not the Church. The Church is what should reflect the transformation of the entire world; the transformation of the material world, along with the human society and community. Therefore, it is only when we have a community, that we have a Church. This is also why it is necessary for the monk whose person glows with sanctity to also be a participant of this community of end times (which is the Eucharist community), so that he too might be “churchified”.

We therefore come to the conclusion, that: the ‘favoring’ of the Father is for the entire world – including the material one – to become a Church, in the Son, as the body of the Son (not only mankind, or only certain people), and also that, because of Man’s Fall, this incorporation of the world with the Son passes through the Crucifix but does not stop at the Cross.  It passes through the ascetic’s cell – through that profound and overwhelming experience of evil that the ascetic faces, when he battles with the devil (that is what a true ascetic is, not the merely contemplative monks), just like Saint Anthony did, and who participates in the Crucifix and that passage through God’s ‘favoring’ – the passage through the narrow gate and narrow path which is the experience of evil. But his destination is to leave that narrow gate, and enter the Kingdom of end times.  And the Church indeed goes that far; She does not stop at the Cross, or at the narrow gate; She is fulfilled and realized, in the Kingdom.  Therefore, the Westerners in their Ecclesiology have this immense weakness for focusing on History, on Calvary, and thus focusing the Church there also.  And this, in Orthodox Tradition and Ecclesiology, is translated as a tendency to regard the battle with evil (the Devil), as chiefly experienced in Monasticism, as the endmost element that par excellence expresses the Church.

It is therefore a case of Western influence, wherever this tendency is found in Orthodox Ecclesiology. There are those who will not forgive my pointing this out; on the contrary, as I already told you, it is the healthy Orthodox Ecclesiology that leads the monk and the lay person who wrestle with evil into the tasting – the foretasting - of the Kingdom of God in the divine Eucharist; into the experience of the Light – that experience where a community of people portrays the world of the future – the world of the future society and the world of the future material world which has overcome corruption.

This has its consequences, with regard to the perception that we have of spiritual living, on the organization of the Church, on the Sacraments, and on any specific aspect of Ecclesiology.


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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: 5-2-2007.

Last update: 15-2-2007.