Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Essays about Orthodoxy

The Authority of the Church

Associating the Divine Eucharist

to the Church 

Metropolitan of Pergamus, fr. John Zizioulas



 An excerpt from the exceptional book Eucharistic Exemplarium. Megara 2006. Evergetis Publications. Pages 38-44.

It is to Rev. John Zizioulas that we owe the return of the Orthodox Church in Greece, during the last decades, to the ancient Churchs understanding of the significance of the Divine Eucharist in Ecclesiastic life.

The following excerpt, which has been taken from his new book, gives us precisely that insight, i.e., on how, during the 60s, the Church in Greece reverted to the proper understanding - per the holy Fathers and the Apostles - of the Church and the Divine Eucharist.

We cannot but acknowledge this as a truly powerful weapon of the Church, in its confrontation of heresies and schisms.


The connection between the Divine Eucharist and the Church tends to be regarded as common knowledge nowadays, at least among the Orthodox, and now, thanks to the influence of Orthodox Theology, it is likewise acknowledged among Roman Catholics and a large portion of the Protestant world.  There are now very few who would actually not relate the notion of Church to the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist.  However this was not always the case in our Theology; not in Orthodox Theology, and even less so in Western theology.

If one were to open the classical manuals of Orthodox Dogmatics, such as those of Ch. Androutsos or even P. Trembelas, they would be amazed to discover that the chapters pertaining to the Church and the Eucharist are essentially autonomous and independent of each other; i.e., whatever referred to the Divine Eucharist in no way affected the Church, and vice-versa.  It is characteristic how, even at the beginning of the 1960s, when I submitted my doctoral dissertation at the Athens University School of Theology, titled Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries, the memorable Mr. Bonis had submitted a review (written, as was proved at a later date, by the also memorable Mr. Mouratides an extra-curricular professor who was not desirous of becoming involved in the differences between the professors at the time, in view of his imminent appointment as a regular professor), which condemned the dissertation as dynamite at the foundations of Orthodoxy, precisely because it linked the Divine Eucharist to the Church!   The dissertation was finally approved, having received a unanimous evaluation of excellent, thus, for the first time in Greece, it was officially acknowledged that in accordance with the ancient sources, the Eucharist and the Church constitute two, intertwined and mutually-defining realities

There appeared around about the same period of time in Russian (a language that I was and still am- unfortunately ignorant of) the studies of the Russian theologian N. Athanasiev, with what was thenceforth known as Eucharist Ecclesiology, a study that I had taken into account critically, when printing my dissertation in 1965.  My basic differences with Athanasiev and his Eucharist Ecclesiology are already known and have been discussed internationally; however, the basic principle that the Eucharist and the Church are inter-dependent and inter-embracing is no longer doubted by anyone. From time to time, views have been expressed about the excessive relating of these two realities and the unilateral exaltation of the Divine Eucharist to the detriment of the other elements of the Church, but, as we shall see further down, all of these reservations spring from a misguided perception of the Eucharist - a perception that has its origins in Scholasticism, which confines the meaning of the Eucharist to just one of the seven Sacraments, ignoring the ancient tradition which saw in the Eucharist the recapitulation of the overall sacrament of Christ, and not merely a portion or an aspect of it. 

In this introduction, I shall try to prove exactly this; that is, that the Divine Eucharist expresses and reveals and realizes within History- the Church Herself; not only the way She is, but chiefly how She will be, when the Kingdom of God prevails.   In short, the Eucharist is the way in which the Church must live, be inspired, move and take shape within History; it is what we call Ecclesiology in the language of dogmatics, and it is that which concerns itself with the true nature of the Church, and not merely with a description of Her historical course.


The link between Eucharist and Church in the ancient Church

We mentioned previously that Western Scholasticism is responsible for the reservations of certain Theologians in admitting the profound to the point of the one identifying with the other connection between Church and Eucharist. It is a fact, that with the analytical methods it applied to Theology in general, Scholasticism chopped into pieces the uniform mystery of salvation, into self-contained segments and in such a manner that each one of them could be understood without any reference to the others.  For example, its Christology contains no references to Pneumatology*, as if it were ever possible to speak of Christ the One Who has the Chrism by the Spirit - without any mention of the Holy Spirit.  

The same thing happened to the Church, which was rendered a separate chapter from that of the Sacraments, despite the fact that it is precisely the Sacraments that make the Church a reality.  Thus it was for the Divine Eucharist also.  By segmenting the one and only sacrament into many sacraments, it became confined to a specific area of the Churchs being, and every attempt to connect it to the entirety of the Church gave the impression that the other basic sectors of the sacrament of the Church (such as: Baptism, sermons, missionary work etc., which are frequently mentioned) were being pushed aside and underestimated.

All of these reservations would not have existed, if we had managed to override the Scholastic tradition of segmentation (a difficult feat to accomplish, as it had already corroded our academic Theology) and had regarded the Eucharist as something that contains all the other sacraments and gives meaning and renders ecclesiastical all the other aspects that belong to the Churchs being.  It had already been observed by the memorable fr. George Florovsky and others that, up until the era of Scholasticism, there was no definition of the Church in ecclesiastic literature.  This of course does not signify an absence of ecclesiology in Patristic Theology; it merely signifies that the Church comprised an experienced reality so obvious and familiar to everyone, that any kind of theoretical description of it would have been a redundancy. 

This tangible and specific reality was identified from the very beginning in the conscience of the Church, with the Gatherings of the Divine Eucharist. Here are some examples:

In the earliest texts of the New Testament that we possess that is, in the Epistles of Paul the Apostle - the term Church is used to signify the local Church; and not a church with any morph whatsoever, but in the form of a Gathering for the Divine Eucharist.  This is derived (among other sources) from the 11th chapter of the 1st Epistle to Corinthians.  In this chapter, as in the pursuant ones up to and including chapter 14, Paul refers to the Eucharist gatherings of the Corinthians, which he identifies with the Church:  11:18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.  In other words, when you come together as a Church, as a Eucharist gathering.... Thus, for Paul, this coming together for the same thing signifies a coming together as a Church.  Is it only by coincidence, that in Patristic literature (see Maximus the Confessor, Anastasius the Sinaite, e.a.) the very term gathering defined -without any further explanation- the Divine Eucharist?  The roots of this exclusive application of the term for the Eucharist are quite obviously attributed to its use by Paul, as previously mentioned.

Another testimony of the connection between a Eucharist Gathering and the Church is the phrase the church at home, which we again find in Paul the Apostle.  The prevailing viewpoint is that this phrase connoted the congregating of the local Church inside the home of one of the Churchs members, for the purpose of performing the Eucharist (breaking bread at home - as compared to praying in the Temple Acts, 2:46).  The use of the term Church cannot be understood in this instance, if there wasnt the awareness that Church and Eucharist gathering are one and the same thing.   

The use of this term, in Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church.... (Romans 16:23) by the Apostle Paul testifies towards the same notion.  It is important to note that the Eucharist gathering in Gaius home is referred to by Paul as a hosting of the whole church. This was to be the harbinger of the term Catholic Church (catholic: Greek katholikos = whole, entire) that we  encounter in Saint Ignatius for the first time; he too was not incognizant of the Eucharist gathering, as witnessed by the apostolic Fathers entire ecclesiology. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Smyrnians No.6, para.8)  The Eucharist is the Catholic Church par excellence, precisely because it is a coming together for the same thing by the whole local Church, i.e., the Church of God, the Church that is or that temporarily resides in a certain place.

Further along in this introduction, we shall see the decisively significant consequences of this Ecclesiology for the liturgical life of the Church. At this point, we shall simply mention an indication of how in the conscience of our Orthodox Church- the idea of the Catholic (whole) Church is deeply linked to the Eucharist Gathering of the whole local Church.  It has to do with the use of the term Catholicon in our holy Monasteries, where, according to a most ancient tradition, it signifies nothing more than the Temple in which all the monks gather to perform the Eucharist; in other words, exactly what was done in every local Church during the first centuries and was later transferred to all the Monasteries as well:  The church becomes catholic, when it assembles inside its Catholicon.  Besides, it is not a coincidence that our Orthodox People, who have been kneaded within this ecclesiology, have linked the term Church with the place that the Eucharist is performed; they say: I am going to Church, and not: I am going to the Temple.  This would not have happened, if this relating of Church and Eucharist had not been rooted deep inside the conscience of our People.

The Theology of our Church was aware of this reality and had preserved it, until the time came when a description of the term Church was attempted.  This moment perhaps on account of the influence and the pressure of everything happening in the West with Scholasticism arrived, in the 14th century.  One such representative was Saint Nicholas Kavasilas.  Let us carefully observe what he wrote, because it is a true catapult against those who accuse of extremes and partiality, whenever we mention the link between Eucharist and Church. Says Kavasilas:  

... , ... ... . (. , , . Ǵ, 6 ȴ, 1. Migne P.G., . 150, 452-3).

As for the Church, it is defined by its sacraments.... should one desire to see the Church of Christ, one need not look at anything else except only the Divine Eucharist body....There is nothing absurd or extreme about this.. It is through the sacraments that the Church is defined here.   (Nicholas Kavasilas, Interpretation on the Divine Liturgy, chapters 38,6 and 39,1. Migne P.G., 150, 452-3). 

In other words, if we wish to define what the Church is, then we need not look at anything else except only (the word only clearly renders Kavasilas guilty of partiality) the Divine Eucharist.  That is why the Church is designated, defined within the Divine Eucharist.  The expression through the sacraments is not an inference by Kavasilas to the seven sacraments, but only to the Divine Eucharist, which, in the ancient liturgical terminology is referred to as (plural) the awesome and life-giving ......etc. sacraments.

And so that Kavasilas does not leave us with any doubts whatsoever as to the association between Eucharist and Church, he writes:

Between the Eucharist and the Church there exists, not an analogy of similarity, but a sameness of things.

Really, could there be a more extreme and more Eucharistic ecclesiologist than he?  One can only wonder how he hasnt yet been accused by familiar, contemporary Orthodox Theologians also, of......Eucharistic monism!

Kavasilas is not extreme. He reverberates the conscience of the Paulian and Patristic Tradition that was sullied and destroyed by Scholastic Theology which has even reached our very home, to give birth to theologians who impute Eucharistic monism and partiality to all those who, along with Kavasilas, associate the Eucharist and the Church to the point of sameness.


*Pneumatology: from the Greek Pneuma = Spirit

Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 7-10-2006.

Last update: 7-10-2006.