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2. Commentary on Western Ecclesiology


B. The problem of priority between Christology and Pneumatology. Ecclesiological consequences

In Western theology, one observes a tendency to over-accentuate Christology, to the detriment of Pneumatology (matters of the Holy Spirit), and this of course affects Ecclesiology.  This preference is attributed to the fact that Christology is chiefly preoccupied with historical realities: the Incarnation, the life of Christ, etc., and Western thought is inclined, as we have said, to focus on History.  The Holy Spirit, Pneumatology, on the other hand, is the opposite. The role of the Holy Spirit in Providence was to liberate the Son from the bonds of History, because the incarnated Son took upon Himself all of the consequences of man’s Fall: He became Adam and entered History with the negative aspect that the Fall bestowed upon it. He entered the History of Time and Space - the Son of God was born in Nazareth of Palestine; He was born during the rule of Caesar Augustus, during a specific point in Time; He was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate, etc. In other words, He partook of History in exactly the same manner that we do, and He became a part of that History.

But History, the way that we are living it, has negative existential consequences, because it carries death inside it. For example, my own history, the way that I am living it, carries inside it the fact that there was a time that I did not exist; that my father used to exist but now no longer exists; that I shall not be alive after a certain number of years. Death is interwoven with historical existence; with Time. Consequently, the Son also entered this status with His Incarnation.

The Spirit did not become incarnate, nor of course did the Father. The Father does nothing but ‘favor’, because He is the source of every ‘gift of God’.  For example, when we say “Thou, the Father of Lights”, as quoted in the prayer that is cited behind the pulpit (which we priests incorrectly cite in front of the icon of Christ). This prayer is addressed to the Father. We must never confuse the Persons, as it is a dogmatic faux pas to do so.  The Father, therefore, has this role; He favors the Incarnation and the coming of the Spirit. The Son is the One Who is incarnated. The Spirit is not incarnated; hence the Spirit does not suffer the consequences of History, which contains decadence and death.  However, the Spirit also has a role; it is not merely that of non-incarnation – the Spirit is the One Who constantly stands by the Son, during the entire period of His Incarnation, in order to liberate Him from the negative consequences of the Incarnation.

We have here a very important fact, which we Orthodox constantly forget.  By assuming human flesh, the Son also assumed death as a part of History, and was crucified and suffered the pain of the Cross and death, however, He was not finally overcome by death; He was not conquered by death, as He overcame it with His Resurrection.  Many people forget that the Resurrection of Christ was accomplished through the Holy Spirit. The Father resurrects the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Instead of this, the idea prevailed that Christ’s divine nature had somehow overcome death.  This is not correct; not biblically (because we have clear testimonies that the Father raised the Son through the Holy Spirit), nor is it correct from the Patristic point of view, because no natures can act on their own; these were ideas that Pope Leo I had introduced in the 4th Ecumenical Synod – the so-called “reciprocation of the characteristics of natures” – but Cyril had insisted more on the hypostatic union.  Whatever occurs in Christology is a matter of persons, and is not simply a matter of natures.

Thus, we should not forget that the Spirit has a significant role in Christology and that role is precisely to be at the side of the Son, during that adventure called Incarnation; He is at the Son’s side in the desert, when He goes to fast. He stands by Him in the garden of Gethsemane, where He is to make His decision. It is not by coincidence that the Spirit accompanies the Son in all of these instances. The major role that the Spirit has is, precisely, to provide the opening for History to move towards End Times; to free History from the limitations of the created. This is why the Spirit is also linked to Theosis as the perfection of the created. When the boundaries of the created and of death are transcended, then the Spirit is present and is in fact playing a main role. However, because the Spirit is not connected to History, i.e., it is not the Spirit Who leads Christ into submission to History, but on the contrary, it is the Spirit Who causes Him to be released from the clutches of History, then, when one has historically-based tendencies like the Westerners have (since they tend to see everything unilaterally, through the prism of History), it is to be expected that they will find something that interests them more, only in Christology.  And this is why they developed Pneumatology (matters pertaining to the Spirit) in retrospect; or, to be more correct, when they eventually developed Pneumatology, they did not connect it organically to Christology.  One of the basic repercussions this had on Ecclesiology was that they regarded the Church as a historical reality – i.e., the Body of Christ, in which, however, the role of the Holy Spirit is somehow only a decorative one.  This is like building the edifice of the Church with Christological material - a Body of Christ, a historical community which has its given form in the past – and then placing inside it the Holy Spirit to act. This is not a placing of the Holy Spirit in the very foundations of the Church and regarding that the Spirit is the One Who builds the Church. (This is within the basis of the Church). Thus, we have a deviation and a preference in Western theology, always towards Christology and at times towards Christomonism, i.e. the stressing of Christ only, while overlooking the Holy Spirit.

The Orthodox theologians had reacted to this situation. This aspect was pointed out, chiefly during the previous century in Russia, by the Slavophiles, with A. Khomiakov.  But they went to the other extreme, by saying that it is definitely Orthodox and anti-Western to regard the Church basically as a communion in the Holy Spirit, and not as the Body of the historical Christ. This immediately causes a contrast – which is a very serious one – and we Orthodox encounter it frequently enough in our time, i.e., the contrast between the charismatics who have the Spirit, and the ordinary, historical bishops’ successors who have Apostolic succession.  Thus, one hears the question: “What does the Holy Spirit have to do with a historical, institutional framework?”  This is the outcome precisely of that over-accentuation of Pneumatology. In fact, nowadays, many people say that in its essence, the Church is a community of charismatics. Then what are the ordinary Christians? Aren’t they also part of the Church? Doesn’t the Spirit have anything to do with them?  They claim that the Baptism does not transmit the Spirit! How can Baptism not transmit the Spirit, when all the sacraments transmit the Spirit?

We Orthodox – as opposed to the West – have very often taken Ecclesiology from its historical basis and placed it onto a Pneumatological basis.  The first ones to have taught this point of view were the Slavophiles in Russia, with A. Khomiakov.

Florovsky had opposed himself to A. Khomiakov’s viewpoint; however, he had over-accentuated the other extreme, making Ecclesiology simply a chapter of Christology. So, Florovsky, by reacting against Khomiakov and reproaching him (and very justifiably at that), that by making the Church a community of the Spirit, he gave a sociological meaning to the Church and had demoted History, thus somehow falling into the Western trap.  Others, in their reaction to Florovsky, had over-accentuated Pneumatology within Ecclesiology; these were for example Lossky, Nisiotes, Bobrinskoy, e.a.. Nonetheless, the accentuation of Christology does remain forever a Western phenomenon.

Consequently, when we refer to “Western theology” we must always bear in mind that, along with the over-accentuation of History, we also have an over-accentuation of Christology, to the detriment of Pneumatology.  Pneumatology at times has a secondary and decorative role. With Roman Catholics, this becomes apparent in their Ecclesiology, inasmuch as they overstress historical succession and the historical privileges of the hierarchy.  Their overall Ecclesiology, the Papist one, with the idea of a Pope at its center, is justified precisely by means of the argument of historical privileges.  They assume that the Pope has a historical succession that goes as far back as Saint Peter. This is of immense importance to them; if they can prove the historical succession, the historical link, then the Ecclesiological argument is definitely a convincing one for them. From an Orthodox viewpoint, this is not enough.  Even if it could be proved (and it cannot be), it would still not be enough, because for us, the Church is not merely a society that is perpetuated throughout Time historically; it is the charismatic element that permeates Her foundations and Her institutions.  Consequently, in our relations with Western theology, we have –and must always have- this issue in mind:  How do we synthesize Christology with Pneumatology properly in Ecclesiology?

By giving precedence to Christology, Western theology created the following situation as regards the Church: the Church basically became the Body of Christ for Roman Catholics. For the Protestants, it became a community that follows Christ and His teaching and listens to His word, the Gospel.  This creates along-distance relationship”, one could say.  The Head and the Body do not coincide; they do not fully connect, because the Holy Spirit was not introduced from the very first moment, to create that communion which liberates beings from the limitations of the individual.  The Holy Spirit creates persons, He creates a community.  When we place Pneumatology at the base of Christology, then we do not have Christ first, with a group that follows behind Him; instead, we have Christ as a Person that embraces all of us within Him.  The Church, therefore, is formed in this way: it is a community that has its identity, not in Herself but in Christ Himself, because She is so closely tied to Christ that one cannot refer to Her being, without a reference to Christ.  Thus, for example, we Orthodox speak of the sanctity of the Church; that sanctity is found in Her very nature, Her very being. Why Well, where does the Church draw this sanctity from? The answer is given in the Divine Liturgy, every time we cite: “The sanctified (gifts) unto the saints” …. “One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ”.  The “saints”, to whom the sanctified gifts are given, are the members of the community.  The members of the community are sinful; and yet, they are addressed as “saints”; however, by being fully conscious that they are not per se holy, they respond with the words “One is Holy – Jesus Christ”.

If the being, the identity of the Church – Ecclesiology – resides in the community per se, as opposed to Christ, then it would be scandalous to say that the Church is holy.  And in the ecumenical movement in our time, we are constantly faced with this problem.  The Protestants remonstrate – they consider it blasphemous to say that the Church is holy, and they always pose the following argument: “Are you out of your minds? How can the Church be holy? Can’t you see the sin that prevails in there?”

Now the Orthodox are fallaciously leaning towards a Pneumatology that acts against Christology. They maintain that the few saints, the charismatics, are the ones who comprise the Church. Thus, when we say that the Church is holy, we are supposedly referring to the saints. No, this is not the answer that the liturgy at least gives us. In the liturgy, when we say “The sanctified (gifts) unto the saints”, the response is not “certain saints”, hence they would be the ones giving the tone of sanctity.  The tone of sanctity is given by Christ. The response is: “One is holy” – none is second.  Even if we placed all the saints in front of Christ, they would be sinful by comparison.

Thus, the reply to Protestants who say: “Cant you see? How can you say the Church is holy, with so much sinfulness inside Her?” is not to respond with: “we have our saints”.  In this instance, we must uphold the position that the Church, Her being, is Christ. As the Chrysostom had said, the union between the head and the body is so close and un-severable, that even if one were to even slightly and mentally make such a distinction, they would risk leading the body to its death, because it is the Head that gives life to the body. And the union with the head is that which ensures the body’s life and sanctity.

Thus, we are perpetually being led into traps by the Westerners. And everything depends on the correct relationship that we give to Christology and Pneumatology. For heaven’s sake, we should never separate the two!  Because they were separated, in the West also. And quite often, this idea of the few and charismatic is clearly reminiscent of the West.  If we were to look through History, we will see this idea in the West, during the mediaeval era, i.e., that the Holy Spirit has this purpose within History: to pick a few isolated cases, be preoccupied with them, and the rest left to Christ, to History.  Consequently, Pneumatology is for the Saints, it is the preoccupation with saints, whereas Christology is the preoccupation with History with this general, main corpus that the Church moves in.

So, if we look at Pneumatology in its proper relationship to Christology, we Orthodox should then discard all those ideas of an elite of saints, of Spirit-bearers.  Pneumatology, when linked organically to Christology, influences the entire body of the Church, and not just certain individuals. For Orthodoxy, there are no charismatics, in that sense. This, therefore, is a characteristic of Western thought, in which Orthodoxy also became entrapped from the beginning with the Slavophiles, and continues to be entrapped, to our day.

Now, to get back to Western theology specifically, we shall see that this distinction, this distance (it is, literally, a distance) between Christology and Pneumatology, led the West to an internal speculation among Roman Catholics and Protestants, in which they wanted to definitely involve us also, during the 17th century with the Confessions; this speculation has the following content, more or less:

Can the Church relate to the historical community, or not?  If it can, then it relates to Christology. Roman Catholics had said yes, the Church can absolutely relate to the historical community.  Protestants had even reached the point of developing the notion of an invisible Church; i.e., that the true being of the Church is not in the historical community. And they would ask us Orthodox what we thought on the matter. If one were to read the content of their confessions, one would see that we essentially said nothing, and that we had entered in vain into the problematics of a topic that is not in the least Orthodox, because for us, the historical reality of the Church relates –chiefly during the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist – to the eschatological reality, by means of imagery.  Everything for us is with images. And that precise imagery is created by the Holy Spirit, Who brings History into an organic and dialectic relationship with the eschatological status. Therefore, for us Orthodox, it is of no interest if the historical or the eschatological Church is “the Church”.  We Orthodox can bypass this pondering, only if we place the Divine Eucharist at the center of Ecclesiology.

And we now come to another crucial point.  The West was never able to place the Divine Eucharist at the centre of Ecclesiology, because, first of all, it viewed the Divine Eucharist itself clearly through the prism of History and isolated it from eschatology, as it did the other Sacraments.  And here again, the West carried us away, into its own ponderings.  During the Reform and the anti-Reform eras, the question was posed as to whether the Divine Eucharist is just a repetition of the sacrifice on Calvary, or not.  If one were to read the confessions of Peter Mogilas and the others that had appeared, one would see that we too have been drawn into this discussion, because the West was intent on viewing the Eucharist as a continuation of a historical event.

But for us, if we study the divine Liturgy thoroughly, we shall see that the divine Eucharist is a combination of a historical, but in parallel also an eschatological, event.  Remembrance for us is not the simple remembrance of a historical event of the past.  That is why we have this paradox within the Divine Liturgy, which the Westerners truly cannot accept, nor understand.

The Monastery of Essex had produced a truly wonderful English translation of John the Chrysostom’s Liturgy. Yet they could not accept the part that is found in the prayer (prior to the citing of the words: “…we offer Thee everything; Thine own, of Thine own, and on behalf of everything”), i.e., the words: “Remembering, therefore, this salvific commandment (=Jesus’ instructions to the Apostles to eat of His Body and drink of His Blood, in remembrance of Him), and everything else that came to pass for our benefit: the Cross, the Tomb, the third-day Resurrection, the Ascent into the heavens, the right-hand Seating, the Second and glorious once-again Presence (=Coming), we offer Thee……”.  They exclaimed here: “What is this? How can someone say this in the English (Western) form, that we are remembering the Second Coming – in other words, an event that has not yet taken place? What kind of remembrance is that?”  This is indeed scandalous, for Western thought.

And it is not only Western thinking here; there is also Hellenic philosophy behind this story. And for Hellenic philosophical thought, a remembrance is a remembrance of the past.  And this is where the major conflict appears. This is where we have a complete overturning of Hellenic thought.  It would be impossible for an ancient Hellene to state “remembering the future”.  Whatever the ancient Hellene might remember, is an unfolding of the past.  So, this is what the Westerner also sees, in his historical conscience. This history-dominated conscience, this historicism, is intended for recording past events in the way that they occurred, but essentially without their inner meaning, which may very well be eschatological.  It is truly treasonous, not only towards History, but even towards human logic, for a Westerner to admix the eschatological element into the unfolding of History.

“History”, “historical conscience”, means to actually detect the time and the place of an event, solely in the past; to perceive it as an event that the mind apprehends and confines within noetic boundaries.  In which case, what role can the Holy Spirit play here?  Christology is dominant here, because it is once again understood as containing events of the past, i.e.: the Cross, the Tomb, the third-day Resurrection, the Ascent into the heavens…  All these events can be traced and be placed within a timeframe…. “During the time of Pontius Pilate”….”on the third day”…..etc.  So far, so good.  But when we insert the element of the future – a remembrance of it – that is when we part ways with the West.  Can you see how deep all these things go, not only with regard to the general perception (which includes mentality), but also with regard to Christology and Pneumatology, because the element of the future enters History, thanks only to the energy of the Holy Spirit. Christ brings God into History; He brings the End Times into History, with the collaboration of the Holy Spirit. “In these last days, I shall pour forth from My Spirit, upon every flesh.”

Christians saw the Pentecost as the advent of End Times.  The Westerner sees the Pentecost and the Spirit as something that illuminates him personally, and bolsters him so that he can comprehend historical events.  But that is not the case.  The Spirit actually takes me into another dimension altogether.  It is the dimension of the future – that is where the Spirit places me, and also places History and Time there, thus freeing me of the confinements – the boundaries – that Time and Space entail, and which are expressed mainly by death.  And that is why the Holy Spirit is simultaneously life-giving: because He introduces the End Times into History.

All of these things, we experience during the Divine Eucharist. For Orthodox theology and experience, the Eucharist is the advent of the End Times and does not constitute a repetition of anything.  This pondering does not exist for the Orthodox as it did for the Reform, i.e., if it is or isn’t a repetition of Calvary.  Unfortunately, if we were to open up our Scholastic Dogmatics books, that is we would read. However, that is not our concern at present. It is a Western pondering.  For us, it is neither a repetition, nor the continuation of a past. It is the penetration of the future in Time, something however, that creates a new event each time.  And that event is the Eucharist.  The Divine Eucharist is – every time – a new Incarnation, a new Crucifixion, a new Resurrection, a new Ascension and simultaneously a new advent once again, and a new Judgment Day.  That is why it has all the accompaniments of Judgment Day that the Divine Eucharist has always had.  That is why one should not approach it unworthily.  It is no chance event The world is being judged Now is the judgment of the world”.  The word “now” of the 4th Gospel refers, precisely, to the Divine Eucharist, because the experience embraced by the Gospel is a Eucharist one.

Thus, we have new events, without any definitive rifts with History. Therefore, for us there is a historical continuation; except that the future dimension is introduced therein – the dimension of End Times – which frees History of its limitations. With all the above, one can understand how easy it is for us Orthodox to slide into Western mentality, Western theology, almost imperceptibly. That is why we must always have this alertness, whenever theological positions are projected as Orthodox ones.

The West has no eschatological approach incorporated in its History.  It has separated History and Eschatology. And, either the End Times is a separate chapter that will take place “afterwards” – like it does in our own, scholastically “Orthodox” dogmatics - or, it is a charismatic experience of a select few, to be isolated from the framework of the historical community. In this way, however, we are splitting Ecclesiology: the Church of Saints and the Church of the historical community. This is one, and that is another.  It remains to be seen, whether we can still call the historical community “Church”. This, therefore, is a Western view.  The eschatological approach needs to be incorporated into the historical one, and for Orthodoxy, this happens only during the Divine Eucharist, nowhere else.  Outside the Divine Eucharist, we can easily slip into the aforementioned splitting.

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Transcript into Greek: Erasmia Papaioannou

Proof reading (Greek): Stavros Yagazoglou

Typing (Greek): Í. Ñ.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 19-4-2007.

Last update: 8-5-2007.