Orthodox Ecclesiology in Outline (II)

by Fr. George Dragas
From the Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 26-3, 1981.

The Church of the Trinity and the Church of Christ

Some theologians speak of Orthodox ecclesiology in terms of two models: the triadological and the Christological. In fact, there are not two models, but one. The Church is both the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Church of Christ. It is true that only in Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity incarnate. Yet, the entire fullness of the Godhead dwells in the body of the incarnate Son, as in a temple. This is clear from the teachings of the New Testament and from the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. Christology is inseparable from Triadology. No adequate doctrine of the Son can be developed without the Father. At the same time, the gift of the incarnate Son to humanity, both His incarnate presence and our incorporation into His Body, are unthinkable without the Holy Spirit. It is true that Orthodox theologians have made different attempts to interpret this interpenetration of the Trinitarian and the Christological dimensions of Orthodox ecclesiology. Some, for instance, would see the work of Christ as referring to the unity of nature, and the work of the Spirit to the diversity of persons, whilst both Christ and the Spirit bring the whole of humanity, nature and persons under the monarchy of the Father. Others, however, would point to the biblical pattern of the revelation of the Trinity in salvation history and would see the beginning of the Church in the Father. They would also see in creation the establishment or revelation of the Church in history, in the Incarnation of the Son, and, finally, in the growth and perfection of the Church in the economy of the Holy Spirit, which reaches its end in the final resurrection. This strictly biblical pattern seem to be closer to the ethos of the liturgical traditions of Orthodoxy, but the other model (which is more dogmatic and ontological) also seems to have its basis in the Church’s mind concerning Christ the Lord. The triadological and Christological dimensions cannot be divorced in Orthodox ecclesiology, because the Church is the Church of the Holy Trinity insofar as She is the Church of Christ, and vice versa.

The Church of the Fathers

The Orthodox Church is also the church of the Fathers. By Fathers, we mean the bishops, and those who preside over the Eucharist. That is, those who serve the mystery of the body of Christ to the local churches. Not everybody serves the mystery of Christ to the local church—not everybody celebrates the divine Eucharist, or performs the Christian sacraments of initiation and growth. In the first instance, it is the bishop who does this. The presbyters are his assistants, who participate in his episcopal function through the celebration of the Eucharist and through their ministry to the congregation of the local church. The bishop is the specific focus of the life and existence of the local church. He is the eikon of Christ for the whole diocese, not in a merely symbolic way, but in a real and living way. As Saint Ignatius said: “where the bishop is, there is Christ.” This patristic order of the local church was instituted by the Lord Himself in the establishment of the holy apostolate, and was continued in the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and the presbyters. Whatever the questions about the historical origins and the precise way in which this order evolved, it is clear that its root is to be found in Christ and in the apostles. In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, the patristic dimension of the Church is a sine qua non. Hence, we must speak of the Church as the church of the Fathers, as the Church was, indeed, founded upon the foundation of the apostles, Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. But it is in the Fathers that we have the maintenance of the apostolic heritage, as the Fathers maintain the integrity of the Church by keeping the apostolic Faith and tradition. The dogmas of the Fathers, whether their accredited writings, or in their local and ecumenical synodal decisions, have no other intention but to keep the truth which the Lord gave and the apostles preached. Orthodox dogmatics and doctrine are thoroughly apostolic and patristic. They are not abstract ideas divorced from the persons of the Fathers, the apostles and Christ. Doctrine is the expression of this unbroken line of existence which belongs to the very being of the Church. The guarantee of this unbroken line of holy tradition and existence is none other than the Holy Paraclete given by Christ Himself to His Church, the Spirit of Life who grafts us all on to the one Body of Christ and makes us reside in the one Truth.

In the Orthodox tradition all bishops and presbyters, and even deacons, are called Fathers, because they serve the mystery of Christ and, thus, give birth and food to all Christian existence. In other words, there is a three-fold patristic order in the local churches. As all local churches are equal, because they receive the same grace, so the three-fold local patristic dimensions is equal from one locality to another. The other titles, which relate to the order of seniority, and which normally imply certain prerogatives for the persons who bear them, are, in fact, secondary elements which relate to the Church’s response to the world. Such prerogatives exist not only among bishops but also among presbyters and deacons. The supreme prerogative in the Orthodox tradition is that of the ecumenical patriarch, which was synodically and canonically given to the bishop of Constantinople, New Rome. Then the Orthodox observed a whole order of seniority which corresponded to the historic expansion of the Church in history. After the ecumenical patriarch the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and then the modern patriarchates, such as the Russian and the Serbian, as well as all the autocephalous churches, such as the Church of Cyprus and the Church of Greece, followed. Within these boundaries there has been a further extension to the order of seniority. Generally speaking, the order of ta presbeia in the Orthodox Church, which finds it ultimate expression in the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, reveals a harmony which has a natural evolution inasmuch as it follows the chronological pattern of the Church’s history. A closer look, however, indicates that the basis for this pattern is not merely historical but also spiritual. It is, in fact, the sacred history, not divorced from the secular, that has imposed its own natural pattern of order. Had it been merely an external historic principle which determined the ‘historic’ evolution of the Orthodox order of seniority, this order would not have outlasted the external changes. The order of seniority in the Orthodox Church has been kept, in spite of external changes in history, because the Church in history is like a family which grows and gives birth to new children. This is a holy family where the children do not reject the parents, the daughters do not forget the mothers, and the mothers do not neglect the distinctive charisms of their daughters. We may say then that the patristic dimension of the Church, especially in its ecumenical structure, rests on the fact that the Church is like a family which grows in history from generation to generation, and from one people to another. The Fathers who have fallen asleep are, in fact, sleepless guardians of the Church. The Church in heaven is united with the Church on earth, and that which our Fathers have established on earth is binding for us because they are still alive. To keep company with them is to keep their work in our heart and practice. It is also to keep the historic perspective which is governed by the sacred history, and is rooted in the service or diakonia of the great mystery of the Body of Christ, the mystery of the divine eikon of the Holy Trinity reflected and realized in the life of mankind. The acceptance of the historic order of seniority, established by the Fathers of the catholic Church, is the way in which Orthodox Christians make sure that merely external historic considerations do not determine the Church’s response to history. The Church follows her Fathers who are not dead, but living, and who are praying for us and celebrating with us until the final consummation and renewal of all history.
The Church of the Saints or Those Who are Called To Be Saints

In the Orthodox perspective of the Church there is no separation between the clergy and the laity. The clergy serves the laity, and both participate and grow in the fullness of Christ’s Body. The apostolic patristic order of ministry was established for the people so that all the people of God may receive the new gift, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. There are many ways in which this relationship between clergy and people in the one body of Christ is realized and revealed in the Orthodox Church. Both the liturgy and the offices have distinctive parts for the clergy and the laity, but this also is the case in the dimension of the Church’s witness, teaching, and general mission to the world. The monastic order, with its single devotion to prayer and to Christian perfection, is one of the most eloquent links between the manifestation of this inner unity of clergy and the people in the Body of Christ. There are also other orders, such as the confessors and martyrs, or those who spend their lives serving the needs of the poor and the sick. The Orthodox Church, as the Church of the saints, is, in fact, the Church of the people of God. Here there is no tension between the shepherds and the flock. Those who minister, and those who are ministered to, pursue the same aim: participation in the grace of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The call to holiness binds them all into one Church. Whatever one’s position in the Church on earth—clerical, ascetical, or lay—it is the one Body of Christ and the one grace of the Holy Trinity that remain the central focus. Each person is appreciated fully as a person in his relation to this one Body and to the one common life and witness. Everyone is called to be a saint and, as such, to serve the mystery of Christ. Therefore, everyone, whatever his place or capacity, will be equally asked to give an account of his response to this calling on the day of judgment. Hence, all Orthodox Christians pray together for “Christian ends to their lives, and a good apology before the judgment seat of Christ.” The Church is holy, or called to be holy, and this is an essential characteristic of Orthodox ecclesiology.


What then is the Church in the Orthodox perspective? She is the Church of the Triune God, the Church of Christ, the Church of the Fathers, the Church of the saints, and the Church of the people of God. She is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Perhaps the best and clearest eikon of this manifold perspective of the Church is to be seen in the seal of the holy prosphora. Here we have the Church in focus in the personal, the historical, the theological, and the anthropological dimensions. Here we have unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Here we have the celebration of the whole mystery of the Church.

In summary, Orthodox ecclesiology is holistic and does not tolerate any arbitrary division between the one and the many. She is not tied to external uniformity or to pluriformity, but she is unity in multiplicity. As such, She asks all divided Christians who have tasted the power of God’s goodness and grace to unite with Her, because She does not seek Her own glory, but the glory of the Lord and His saints as it has been and is still being communicated to us in history, that the world may be saved and renewed.


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