Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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Á. Ôhe dialectics of “the one” and “the many”: The priority of the universal Church

We shall.now talk about the Ecclesiology of Western theology, by presenting the basic principles that characterize its mentality. One, first, characteristic principle of Western theology is the priority it has ascribed to the essence. To prioritize the essence means giving a priority to an objective, or a general, reality. The essence is given the characteristic on one hand of being objective (and in this case, it even precedes the person) and on the other hand it is also regarded as something general, while the person is regarded as something specific, something particular. Let us take the example of human nature versus specific persons: “Persons” are the individual hypostases; they are “John”, “George”, “Kostas”. Their “nature” is human nature, which always implies a general thing, whereas their “persons” indicate something specific. Furthermore, the term “nature” always implies a unity, whereas the term “persons” indicates multiplicity and difference. One single person cannot be characterized as a general “person”. There is no such thing as a general “person”. On the contrary, a nature is “nature”, and an essence is “essence”. Thus, when we acknowledge a priority in the essence and nature, we are also acknowledging a priority in unity, and not multiplicity. The problem of “the one” and “the many” is one of the basic problems of both philosophy and theology, but also of ecclesiology, and with existential repercussions at that. It is a very serious problem.

Our analysis begins with ancient Hellenic philosophy, because that is where the roots of our thoughts are. When we say “our” thoughts, we do not mean exclusively the thoughts of the Hellenes, but at least all of the Europeans – the West Europeans – to whom we Hellenes also relate, as descendants of classical thought. Well, in ancient Hellenism, the “One” always had precedence over the many. It is characteristic, that from Heracletus (who was one of the first to shape ancient Hellenic thought), through to Parmenides and all the pre-Socratics, the “One” was always predominant; the entire world was one unity. But, this unity was not pursuant to something else; it actually preceded everything else. The “One” held the beginning, while multiplicity had to compromise with the “One” in order to exist correctly. This was the meaning behind Heracletus’ work, “ÎÕÍÏÓ ËÏÃÏÓ” (On Things Common); this was the meaning that was portrayed with such tragic consequences in ancient tragedy and in Plato, when he says: “You, the component, beware! You exist, because the Whole and the One exist, and because you are obliged to comply with the Whole”. Thus, ancient Hellenic thought prioritized the One, which, by means of the “effluences” proposed by neo-Platonism, became “many”. Consequently, the “many” are not only secondary to the “One”; they are also a kind of breaking down – a worsening - of the “One”. This is also why, throughout all of neo-Platonic soteriology, man must re-assemble the many (through the soul), and restore them, back to the “One”. This was the only way that the cycle of salvation could close: by concentrating the many back into the “One”. Thus, the “many” (or multiplicity) was something secondary, something incidental and a cadence of the “One”… So much for ancient Hellenic philosophy.

In Western theology, however, because the roots of Western theology (in its theoretical form) are found in Augustine who was influenced by neo-Platonism, unfortunately this form – this system – of placing the One before the many was also transposed into Trinitarian theology, hence the reason for placing the essence before the divine Persons. Because this is precisely the train of thought that prevails and determines Western theology, and this is why this mentality – this method of thinking – is also prevalent in Western Ecclesiology. We shall examine the consequences that it brings about in that area also.

Now, let us commence from a basic principle: The Church is one. This is an ecclesiological principle that we all accept. However, the one Church is simultaneously many Churches. So, what is precedent here, logically and theologically, or axiologically? Which is the real Church? The one, or the many Churches?

Western theology clearly took the stance that logically, the one Church in the entire world – the universal Church – the ecumenical Church – has priority over the others. The related, local Churches are merely pursuant; therefore they must comply with the one Church. This took on a more specific form in Western Ecclesiology, and it reached the point of regarding the worldwide Church, the ecumenical Church, as one single Church for the entire world, as though it had its very own structure, its very own existence, above all of the local Churches. This structure is of course familiar. It is expressed specifically, with the function of the Pope, who is not just the bishop of a local Church, but an ecumenical bishop; a bishop, as the head of the entire Church – the one and only, worldwide Church. J. Ratzinger (the current Pope), along with Rahner, had published a book several years ago, in which the distinction made by Rahner (which was a very delicate and profound one) between the essence and the existence of the Church, implied precisely that the essence of the Church is in the worldwide Church, which exists in the form of the many, partial Churches.

But the question is: could it be that, just as the essence of the persons is precedent in Triadic theology, so it is in Ecclesiology respectively, i.e., the one, ecumenical Church is precedent to the many, local Churches? Western theology’s reply to the question is affirmative. Even Rahner, who tried to take a few steps forward with his distinction between the essence and the existence of the Church, tried to say that even in order for the one Church to exist, it must necessarily have its local Churches; it cannot exist without the local Churches. Despite all this, the one, worldwide Church is, logically, precedent. This logical priority in Ecclesiology took on a specific form, mainly during the 1st Vatican Synod, with the infallibility of the Pope, and with the principle that all bishops must agree with the Pope. This is not a juridical matter. Its roots are found precisely within that principle of placing the “One” and the essence before the many and the “components”. We must always dig deep in theology, not cursorily, the way we see things at first glance. Everything, eventually, leads down to common, deeper roots.

This ecclesiology, in which the “One” is placed before the “many”, and the essence before the “components”, as validated by the 1st Vatican Synod, was somewhat amended by the 2nd Vatican Synod. And this is the crucial point that we are in today. Did the 2nd Vatican Synod differentiate itself or not, on this prioritizing of the ecumenical Church by the 1st Vatican Synod? Everything hinges on this detail, because, if Roman Catholic theology ever reached the point of acknowledging that the local Churches are not pursuant to the one, ecumenical Church, then it would automatically reach the conclusion that the Pope likewise is not precedent to the other bishops, but that he too is just another bishop, and the local Churches that are expressed through their bishops are equally determining factors for the unity of the Church. In other words, it is the multiplicity of the Churches that is a determining factor for unity; it is not unity that is the determining factor for multiplicity, or, at least, the two should coincide somehow. Thus, the West has left itself in mid-air in its ecclesiology, on this crucial point.

All those who have studied the 2nd Vatican Synod have seen that it did not actually correct the 1st Vatican Synod, but that it had in fact introduced a new Ecclesiology, which was now obliged to conform to the ecclesiology of the 1st Vatican Synod. This new ecclesiology ascribed catholicity to a local Church, and that is where the crucial problem lies. Up until that time, the Roman Catholic church correlated the “catholic” (overall) Church with an ecumenical church. Thanks to the influence of Orthodox theologians in the West, Western theology began to recognize that each and every local Church is “catholic” and complete in itself, under its bishop. And this was what had been incorporated in the 2nd Vatican Synod. However, the catholicity of the local Church conflicted with the catholicity of the ecumenical one, thus, we again note the problem of the priority of the One or the many, and the need to find a way out of this problem.

If one were to carefully examine Roman Catholic theology today, he would see the perplexed state it is in. From the moment it allowed that Orthodox stream to flow through it, new potentials for approaching Orthodoxy in Ecclesiology were created. These potentials are very, very significant. On the other hand, dilemmas were generated in Roman Catholic theology, which are nowadays rampant among the Roman Catholic theologians: they must either move in the direction that Orthodoxy somehow introduced – i.e., to acknowledge the catholicity of each local Church – with all the consequences that this will entail, especially on the matter of papal infallibility, or, they will move back, in the direction of returning to the 1st Vatican Synod, where the powers of the Pope over the local bishops will once again prevail. This is the dilemma that the Roman Catholic Church and its theology are facing today. The Roman Curia is making attempts, so that the power of the Pope opposite the other bishops might be legalized by means of a law, which they have named Lex Fondamentalis. The reactions that appeared in the Roman Catholic family were truly impressive. There are many who are foreseeing (Losky has already pointed this out) repercussions of the Filioque on Ecclesiology, mainly because the Filioque - with its precedence of the essence versus the person – is giving priority to the unity of nature. Losky suggests a formation between Christology and Pneumatology. He places Christology before Pneumatology, and relates Pneumatology to the person and Christology to nature. This is a formation that requires a lot of discussion, but it also contains many truths. We shall move on to these consequences, in the following lesson. For the time being, we have merely set out the basis that all this theory of prioritizing the essence before the person (which we also linked to Triadic theology and especially to the Filioque) has direct consequences on Ecclesiology.


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Transcript: Erasmia Papaioannou

Proof-reading: Stavros Giagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 26-2-2007.

Last update: 19-4-2007.