Preface to the second edition


Although this work is historical in its method and content, it is not a product of historical curiosity. At a time when church unity occupies an increasingly central place in theological study, the contribution of our theology is required not simply as an academic demand, but also a fundamental debt owed to the Church.

In order to fulfil the demand and pay the debt, our theology can no longer fall back on the sources of its own confessional riches. The gradual abandonment of the confessional mentality of past generations and the recognition of the need for our theology to be an expression not of one confession but of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Herself, now directs the course of theological study towards the sources of the ancient undivided Church. A Church which, in spite of all the disputes and conflicts by which She was often shaken, was always well aware of what is meant by the catholic consciousness of the Church. This holds true, most especially for the study of the unity of the Church which aims to provide our divided Christian world with that supra-confessional thread which will help it to rediscover and actualize its unity through the midst of its various divisions.

For those coming from the Orthodox tradition, a reliable method of turning towards the sources of the ancient undivided Church is through study of the liturgical life of our Church. The reproach levelled at our Church that she has remained through the centuries a "community of worship" today, proves to be the best guarantee of a sure route back to the consciousness of the ancient undivided Church. For the liturgical life of our Church which is characterized by its conservatism and traditional character has not succumbed to overloading with non-essential later elements, but continues to reflect in a changing contemporary world the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of every age, worshipping in one body. 

It is within this general orientation, and encouraged by the flourishing revival in biblical, patristic and liturgical studies in our own day, that this study has been written. Without inappropriately and unthinkingly serving confessional ends, the author has taken as his starting point the fundamental importance of the Eucharist and the Bishop for the unity of the Church as this is recognized especially in the consciousness of the Orthodox Church. For it is unnecessary to stress that out of the entire Christian world, Orthodoxy alone has kept the Eucharist and the Bishop in such a central place in its own consciousness. And if this has been forgotten by certain Orthodox theologians, it has nevertheless always remained in the consciousness of the people of Orthodox piety for whom "the Church" is identified in its concrete sense with the church building in which the Eucharist is celebrated, and in the vaulted domes of which, as a distinguished contemporary Byzantinist has remarked, "the whole (of the architecture and decoration) represents the very Kingdom of God Whose 'realm' the Church is in microcosm, with the communion of saints as the subjects of Christ Pantocrator." The living and mystical depiction of the "communion of saints", i.e. of the body of the Church, in eucharistic worship, in which the bishop's throne rules as "the place of God" according to St Ignatius, reveals the "Eucharist under the leadership of the bishop" as a living symbol and practical expression of the unity of the Church.

Starting from these observations, this study aims to place in the light of the consciousness of the early Church the whole relationship connecting the unity of the Church with the Eucharist and the Bishop. Did this relationship exist in the early Church, and to what extent? Was such a relationship of decisive importance for the formation of the early catholic Church, and what specific implications did it have for that Church's consciousness concerning unity? Such were the basic questions that the present study set itself to address. It is obvious that these questions concern only one aspect of the very broad subject of the Church's unity. This must be underlined here, in order not to lay the study open to being misunderstood as "one-sided" in the position it takes towards the unity of the Church. There, certainly, remain many aspects of this very broad subject which are not covered by this study, and which await investigation. But awareness of this fact does not negate the author's conviction that at least for him, living as he does within the Orthodox milieu, it was impossible to do other than give absolute priority to this aspect of the subject.

Apart from these purely practical limitations, this study is also limited by its methodology and the chronological limits to its sources. It is natural that anything relating to the unity of the Church should touch on problems in many branches of theology and raise questions belonging to various different theological concerns. Without underrating the importance of these questions, the author has consistently distanced himself from the contemporary debate and, in conducting his research, has bypassed the theories of modern theologians concerning the unity of the Church. He has taken a purely historical vantage point and turned to the sources not only for his answers, but also for his questions. It has, therefore, been judged essential in the lengthy introduction to this book to clear the ground of our research from modern schemes within which the subject of the Church's unity has been imprisoned and which historiography, in an inadmissible betrayal of any notion of historical method, has habitually transferred to the study of the ancient Church. Confining itself to a strict examination of the sources, this study has drawn on contemporary literature only selectively and as a subsidiary source.

The literature relating to the Church of the first three centuries is a veritable labyrinth out of which the scholar can find his way only by being strictly selective if he wants to avoid becoming embroiled in discussion with his contemporaries to the detriment of a correct understanding of the historical sources. But this selection requires a knowledge of the literature and demands painstaking effort. The extent of the bibliography at the end of this book and the number of footnotes show how little we have succeeded in our aim of restricting the literature used.

As to the chronological limits on the sources for this work, these have dictated themselves in the course of research. The great figure of St Cyprian and the whole period to which he belongs form a landmark in the history of ecclesiology, while the full development during this time of the axiom ecdesiam in episcopo et episcopum in ecclesia esse naturally presents the scholar studying the subject of this work with the first milestone of an entire period. The three parts of our study are devoted respectively to the presuppositions, the formation and the developments in our subject during this period. The continuation of this endeavour into the sources from the fourth century onwards a task which, fortunately, is infinitely easier owing to the abundance of extant sources, has yet to be accomplished.

This study owes its completion and publication to the blessing of God, which is manifested through many people. The writing of it was made possible thanks to the abundant research material available at Harvard University which gave hospitality to the author for many successive years. The presence at that university of distinguished professors, in particular G. Florovsky, G. Williams and K. Stendahl, was a font of inspiration and encouragement during the entire course of the research. Again, the submission of this study as a doctoral dissertation at my own alma mater, the Theological School of the University of Athens, provided the opportunity for some valuable suggestions and comments from the faculty there. The author is, therefore, deeply grateful, both for the trouble they took with him as teachers, and for all they did particularly for the present work, according it the honour of unanimous approval. Warmest thanks are due especially to my adviser Professor Gerasimos Konidaris both for his kind introduction to the School and for all his invaluable help. Finally, the original publication of this work would not have been possible but for the generous and touching financial support of Metropolitan Panteleimon of Thessaloniki and of Metropolitan Dionysios of Servies and Kozani who ungrudgingly took great trouble reading the drafts and followed the progress of the study, giving invaluable help from his rich literary and theological resources. To all of these and many others who indirectly and in various ways contributed to the appearance of this work, the expression of my gratitude repays only a small part of an unpaid debt.


J. D. Z.


Preface to the second edition (1990)

The reception accorded to the present work was such that it long ago went out of print. The repeated calls from various quarters for the book to be republished accorded with the author's own desire to add some chapters to the study which he considered indispensable for its completion, and to furnish the whole work with a new bibliography. Unfortunately, because of the time such an undertaking would require, it was proving ever more impracticable, and became virtually impossible after the author took on ecclesiastical obligations and duties in addition to his academic responsibilities about three years ago. There was thus nothing to be done but to reprint the work as it was, merely with the correction of some printing errors and omissions in the original edition.

Two observations contributed decisively to the decision to reprint this work. The first is academic in nature, and consists in the fact that even though 25 years have passed since this study was first published and many other studies relating to its subject have appeared in the meantime, the basic theses of this work are still sound and need no revision. It could indeed be said that the whole course of research internationally since this study was written has confirmed its theses with the result that they have become quite widely and internationally known and are now often regarded as commonplace. This was an encouraging factor in the decision to reprint this book even in its original form.

The second observation which contributed decisively to the reprinting of this work is ecclesiastical in nature. The Orthodox Church, particularly in Greece, is today going through a critical period which, if the necessary care is not taken by the Church leadership, will soon lead to a crisis in institutions with unforeseen consequences for the doctrinal purity and substance of the Orthodox Church in that country. The characteristics of this critical period could be summarized in the following points.

Firstly, under the influence of the modern spirit of so-called "democratic" tendencies, the institution of episcopacy, which had in the past been identified with "despotism" is, today, experiencing a severe crisis. Many priests, a large part of the lay faithful and many bishops, too, do not know what exactly the task and the institution of the bishop consists in, and how it is connected with the doctrinal substance of the Church. Unfortunately, many Orthodox have it firmly entrenched in their mind that the the bishop is in essence an administrator, and that in his liturgical function, including indeed the Divine Eucharist, he is not a person constitutive of the Mystery but more or less decorative someone who is invited to "embellish" the whole service by his presence and his vestments. Precisely because of the weakening of the ancient conception which this work demonstrates in such detail, namely, that the bishop is in essence the only president of the Divine Eucharist and that no Divine Liturgy is thinkable without reference to the bishop in whose name it is celebrated, ordination as priest has come to be regarded by many as sufficient for someone to celebrate the Divine Eucharist and transmit grace to the people without any clear dependence on his bishop. This idea can be seen at its ultimate extreme in cases where the Divine Liturgy is celebrated without the commemoration of a bishop!  When this "presbyterianism" is permitted (a "presbyterianism" which, thanks to the influence of Orthodox theology, is starting to be questioned even by Protestants today), it threatens the doctrinal foundations of the Church as they were laid down during the first centuries. In her attempt to avoid the Scylla of "despotism", the Church is in danger of falling into the Charybdis of a sort of "presbyterianism" if the proper place of the bishop in the Church is not brought to people's awareness.

Secondly, under the influence of a revival of the "charismatic" element in contemporary Orthodoxy - or rather of the emphasis placed on it because that element had never disappeared from the life of the Church - the institutional aspect of ecclesiology tends to be relegated to second place. Orthodoxy tends to be turned into an ideology. It is forgotten that Orthodoxy is Church, and that the Church is a community with a specific structure, and that this structure is episcopocentric. Everything that is performed in the Church, including those manifestations considered most "spiritual" and "charismatic" (not that there is anything in the Church that is non-charismatic or non-spiritual) such as spiritual fatherhood, confession etc., all stem from the bishop and have need of his approval and permission. Never in the past, throughout the long history of the Orthodox Church, was it possible to exercise spiritual fatherhood without express episcopal permission in writing. Only in our day do we have a superabundance of "charismatics" who are active and carry on their spiritual work simply by right of their priesthood or their "gifts", without it being clear that everything in the Church is done in the name of the bishop. In this way the Orthodox laity begins to get accustomed to situations which threaten to blow up the foundations of Orthodoxy as it has been passed down to us, and we knew it only a generation ago.

The present work, grounded as it is in the sources of the first centuries, is made available in its reprinted form in fulfilment of the author's debt to the holy Orthodox Church as a bishop and as a theologian. The scholarly grounding of its conclusions seeks to persuade any sincere reader, Orthodox or not, that Orthodoxy, not as ideology but as Church, as founded on the teaching and the blood of a St Ignatius of Antioch, an Irenaeus or a Cyprian, is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church because it possesses the truth not only in its teaching but also in its structure. It is the duty of Orthodoxy to bear witness to this everywhere in the critical period through which we are now passing.

+John of Pergamon




Article published in English on: 30-10-2007.

Last update: 30-10-2007.