Orthodox Ecclesiology in Outline (I)

What’s the difference? We’ve pretty much got a handle on the protestant and Roman western views of ecclesiology: Split and split and split some more, or swallow the whole and hang in there…
But what about the East? Others have written vast amounts and the plethora of websites about Orthodoxy is sometimes staggering. But here’s something that I came across while researching metousia for Eucharistic Theology. I share it hopefully…

by Fr. George Dragas (click the name to go to the original)

Western Christians often speak of the Orthodox Churches, rather than the Orthodox Church. From the Orthodox perspective, the Church is one, even though She is manifested in many places. Orthodox ecclesiology operates with a plurality in unity and a unity in plurality. For Orthodoxy there is no ‘either / or’ between the one and the many. No attempt is made, or should be made, to subordinate the many to the one (the Roman Catholic model), nor the one to the many (the Protestant model). It is both canonically and theologically correct to speak of the Church and the churches, and vice versa. This is impossible for Roman Catholic ecclesiology because of the double papal claim for universal jurisdiction and infallibility. The same must be said of the Protestant ecclesiologies, which connect the notion of the Church with denominationalism, and which make a distinction between the one and the many in terms of the invisible and the visible Church. From an Orthodox perspective, the Church is both catholic and local, invisible and visible, one and many. To explain what lies behind this Orthodox ecclesiological unity in multiplicity, one has to deal with the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Church.

The Church of the Triune God

The nature of the Church is to be understood as the Church of the Triune God. The Holy Trinity is the ultimate basis and source of the Church’s existence and, as such, the Church is in the image and likeness of God. This being in the image of the blessed Trinity constitutes the mode of the Church’s existence, which, in fact, reveals her nature. Being in God, the Church reflects on earth God’s unity in Trinity. What is natural to God is given to the Church by grace.

The grace of the Trinity is the starting point for understanding the nature of the Church, and especially for her unity in multiplicity, as the Holy Spirit shares one life and one being. The three distinct and unique Persons are one in life and in nature. Similarly, the Church exhibits a parallel multiplicity of persons in unity of life and being. The difference between God and the Church is that, in the former, multiplicity in unity is the truth, whereas in the latter, this is only a participation in the truth. In patristic language the former is ousia, while the latter is metousia. The unity of the three divine Persons in life and being is, therefore, the prototype of the unity of the Church’s persons in life and in being. As Christ Himself says in His prayer for the Church: “even as Thou O Father are in me and me in Thee, so they may be one, that the world may believe that Thou has sent me.” The mark of unity is collegiality and love, and not subordination. Orthodox Triadology, based on the grace of the Trinity, supplies the basic ontological categories for Orthodox ecclesiology. The Church is an eikon of the Holy Trinity, a participation in the grace of God.

The Church of Christ

How does the Church participate in God’s mystery and grace? How is metousia Theou (“participation in the essence of God”) achieved? How does the Church become an eikon of the Holy Trinity? The answer, in its simplest form, is contained in the phrase “in and through Christ.” Christ has established the bond between the image of the Triune God, and that which is made after the image, namely, the Church, mankind. In Christ we have both the eikon and the kat eikon (“that which is according to the image”). Hence, we must say that the Church is the Church of the Triune God as the Church of Christ. The link between the Holy Trinity and Christology, that is, between theology and economy, demands a similar link in ecclesiology. The Church is in the image of the Triune God, and participates in the grace of the Trinity inasmuch as She is in Christ and partakes of His grace. The unity of persons in life and being cannot be achieved apart from this economy of Christ, and we here encounter what the New Testament calls the “Body of Christ.”

Christ is the Head of the Church and She is His Body. It is from this Christological angle that we better understand the multiplicity in unity which exists in the Church. This angle of the Body of Christ is normally connected with the divine Eucharist, because it is in the Eucharist that the Body is revealed and realized. In the divine Eucharist we have the whole Christ, the Head, and the Body, the Church. But the Eucharist is celebrated in many places and among many different groups of people. Does this then mean that there are many bodies of Christ? This is not the case because there is one Head, and one eucharistic Body (His very body which He took up in the Incarnation) into which all the groups of people in the different places are incorporated. It is the Lord Himself who is manifested in many places, as He gives His one Body to all, so that in partaking of it they may all become one with Him and with one another. “In that there is one bread, the many are one Body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The many places and the many groups of people where the eucharistic Body of Christ is revealed do not constitute an obstacle to its unity. Indeed, to partake of this Body in one place is to be united with Him who is not bound by place and, therefore, to be mystically (or “mysterially,” or “sacramentally”) united with all. This is how St. Athanasius explains the prayer of our Lord that the apostles may be one. “… because I am Thy Word, and I am also in them because of the Body, and because of Thee the salvation of men is perfected in Me, therefore I ask that they may also become one, according to the Body that is Me and according to its perfection, that they, too, may become perfect having oneness with it, and having become one in it; that, as if all were carried by me, all may be one body and one spirit and may grow up into a perfect man.” And St. Athanasius concludes: “For we all, partaking of the same, become one Body, having the one Lord in ourselves.” What is given in one specific place is something which also transcends it, because of its particular perfection, that is, its being Christ’s risen body. The different eucharistic localities, with the eucharistic president (the bishop), the clergy, and the participants (the people) constitute or reveal the whole Church. It is a local church, and yet she reveals the catholic mystery of one Church. The one Church of Christ is equally and fully in all these localities because of the one, perfect Eucharist, the one Lord, and the one Body. This equality of the presence of the one Christ in the local churches is the ground for what is often called “Orthodox eucharistic ecclesiology” and its logical implication, the autocephaly of the local bishops and churches, which is rooted in, and springs from, the equal share in the fullness of the great eucharistic sacrament. Autocephaly is not autonomy. It must be understood in terms of the equality of bishops, and the participation of all in the one Body of Christ. It is their equality in grace which binds them to one another.

In Orthodox ecclesiology there is no difference in status between the bishop of a small place in Cappadocia and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. As eucharistic churches established upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, they are equal. This order of equality and its corollary, communion in the one Body of Christ, pertains to the very nature of the Church, that is, it constitutes the ecclesiastical ontology. It is this order which gives rise to the hierarchical, or ecumenical, order (or order of seniority, “ta presbeia“) which pertains to the historical structure of the Church. But there is no antinomy between the order of equality and the order of seniority in Orthodox ecclesiology. Catholicity (the equality of the local churches as participants in the grace of Christ and the Holy Trinity) and ecumenicity (the order of seniority among the bishops as participants in the mission of the Church to the world in history) are not antipodes. From the Orthodox perspective, it is the development of such antipodes which have resulted in the historical divisions within Christendom. The Roman Catholic claim of universality and primacy on the one had, and the Protestant claims of individual or local autonomy on the other, are, in fact, contradictions between catholicity and ecumenicity, since they claim that the integrity of the local churches of God is not guaranteed by their participation in the one grace of Christ and the Trinity, but by their acceptance of the one local church (the church of Rome) and by one local bishop (the pope of Rome) as their absolute head. The Protestants, on the other hand, in their attempt to reclaim catholicity on the basis of the free grace of God in Christ, have ignored the historical order established by the catholic churches, and, as a result, have often confused the autocephaly of the local church with autonomy. The strength of the Orthodox vis-a-vis the other Christians is their fidelity to the mystery of the catholic Church, the Body of Christ, as it has been established and manifest in history. The Orthodox alone have kept in their full integrity both the catholic mystery of the Eucharist, and in the ecumenical order of seniority among the catholic Churches (ta presbeia) which springs out of the mystery of the Eucharist. This is why they claim to be the one Church of God, founded upon Christ, and keeping the historic canonical order of seniority which constitutes the Church’s response to the challenges of history. The Orthodox believe that there is always room for development in the Church’s historic response to the world, provided that it is consistent with the established canonical tradition, but they remain absolutely adamant on the essential belief of catholicity and unity.


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