Ecclesiology


In the last two blog posts I presented Father Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which forms the first chapter to Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.* Before proceeding to the rest of the book, I want to briefly note some points for ongoing reflection and possible discussion in this post. (I am aware that I am rather theologically out of touch, and seem to have difficulty remembering the details of historical topics I once did know something about, and am sort of thinking aloud here, so if others want to pitch in, please feel free…)

Florovsky’s Context and Ours
Reading this essay, and noting that it was published in The Christian Century in 1951, I could not help but be struck by the context in which Father Florovsky was writing. As Daniel Greeson noted in a comment here,

What is interesting to think about is the intellectual milieu in which Florovsky was moving in at the time. He would have recently moved to NYC and been moving around in the same hallways as Niebuhr and Tillich. Demythologizing would have been at its height if I am not mistaken? Publishing this in the Christian Century at that time, mighty interesting.

Add to this his involvement in the ecumenical movement and the founding of the World Council of Churches,** and we see an Orthodox theologian who was in touch with the modern western theological world. This was in keeping with his oft-quoted statement:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world—a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church—and resolve the question with his historical findings.

Reading this essay, I was struck by how Florovsky was responding to a fundamentally Protestant context that was dominated by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, with what he saw as their respective temptations to Nestorianism and Monophysitism. And, as Dan notes in his comment, “the resonances feel different to me now.” While I agree, I am not sure how to accurately categorize current theological contexts, not only because I am out of touch, but also because they have become more diverse – and the context in which I find myself is rather different from that of many readers of this blog. However, I would tend to see liberal Protestantism as having morphed, together with some other influences, into various theologies of liberation, as well as having re-emerged, together with other influences, in some emphases on spirituality. And I wonder if its major temptation today is not to a form of monism? (As for neo-orthodoxy, I’m not really sure what’s become of it. I’m tempted to say that the “monophysite” temptation is now represented by the resurgence of Calvinism, but I’m also aware that the two cannot be identified).

However, messy as this may be, when I look around me at Christians in South Africa, I do see something that seems to line up with Father Florovsky’s two alternatives. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on “inclusiveness,” a wariness of dogma and of drawing barriers, and the desire for a “human redeemer.” And, on the other hand, there are various forms of fundamentalism and/or Calvinism (and, to give them their due, it is the Calvinists who seem to be the most intellectually serious) with their anthropological pessimism that reduce humanity to “complete passivity.”

A Renewal in Ecclesiology?
This is something that Father Florovsky only touches on in this essay, but he seemed to put some hope in a rediscovery of the Church among western Christians. Again, this reflects the context of his involvement in the WCC, and also the renewal in ecclesiology among both Protestants and Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet I am inclined to think that the results of this renewal have been rather disappointing and am not sure what is really left of it. Certainly, the trend in the WCC to becoming a parachurch movement rather than seeking the visible unity of its various members, together with the various roadblocks that bilateral ecumenical dialogues have faced, makes his optimism about it seem a little naïve. However, that does not detract from his conviction that:

“In a time such as this” one has to preach “the whole Christ,” Christ and the church – totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of gloom and despair like ours. (16)

Does Dogma Matter?
Shining through this chapter is Father Florovsky’s conviction that it is nothing less than the historical faith of the Church that can save his – and our – era. Yet, as noted above, one of the key features of one strand of contemporary Christianity is precisely its aversion to dogma, which it perceives as oppressive and excluding. This is a topic that I have considered writing on before, but I have hesitated for I suspect that the reasons for this are complex and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, it is a question that accompanies me as I read this work, for I am convinced that one of the key challenges in “bearing witness” is to enable our contemporaries to see the truly life-giving nature of Christian dogma. And I hope that Father Florovsky’s works will help us to see that better.

*****

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through the Collected Works of Father Georges Florovsky, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

** See here and here for more background on Father Florovsky’s role in the ecumenical movement.

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This post continues to present the opening chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition* entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which I began here. In the following post, I plan to discuss some of the issues that this chapter raises…

Having argued that one should preach “the doctrines of the creed,” Father Florovsky continues to consider why this is problematic for “modern man” and argues that this is because it is seen in metaphysical terms that “is for him nothing more than a piece of poetry, if anything at all.” (12) However, Chalcedon was never intended to be seen in these terms; rather, it is a statement of faith and “cannot be understood when taken out of the total experience of the church. In fact, it is an ‘existential statement.’” (12-13)

Chalcedon’s formula is, as it were, an intellectual contour of the mystery which is apprehended by faith. Our Redeemer is not a man, but God himself. Here lies the existential emphasis of the statement. Our Redeemer is one who “came down” and who, by “being made man,” identified himself with men in the fellowship of a truly human life and nature.

… this mystery was a revelation; the true character of God had been disclosed in the Incarnation. God was so much and so intimately connected with the mystery of man (and precisely in the destiny of every one of “the little ones”) as to intervene in person in the chaos and misery of the lost life. The divine providence therefore is not merely an omnipotent ruling of the universe from an august distance by the divine majesty, but a kenosis, a “self-humiliation” of the God of glory. There is a personal relationship between God and man. (13)

This means that the whole of human tragedy appears in a new light, for the Incarnation is the mystery of the divine identification with lost humanity, which culminates in the cross of Christ, the turning point of human history. However, this “awful mystery” can only be comprehended within the wider perspective of an integral Christology in which we believe that “the Crucified was in very truth ‘the Son of the living God.’” (13) There is

an amazing coherence in the body of the traditional doctrine. But it can be apprehended and understood only in the context of faith, by which I mean in a personal communion with the personal God. Faith alone makes formulas convincing; faith alone makes formulas live. (14)

Father Florovsky goes on to argue that, while it may seem ridiculous to preach Chalcedon “in such a time as this,” it is only the reality to which this doctrine bears witness that can bring true spiritual freedom. Moreover, the ancient Christological controversies are far from irrelevant.

It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age. Modern man, deliberately or subconsciously, is tempted by the Nestorian extreme. That is to say, he does not believe in the Incarnation in earnest. He does not dare to believe that Christ is a divine person. He wants to have a human redeemer, only assisted by God. …

On the other extreme we have in our days a revival of “monophysite” tendencies in theology and religion, when man is reduced to complete passivity and is allowed only to listen and to hope. The present tension between “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy” is in fact a re-enactment of the old Christological struggle, on a new existential level and in a new spiritual key. The conflict will never be settled or solved in the field of theology, unless a wider vision is acquired. (14-15)

Father Florovsky then proceeds to bemoan the neglect of theology in modern times. While preaching in the early church was decidedly theological, and was not “vain speculation,” the modern neglect of theology has led to both the decay of personal religion and “that sense of frustration which dominates the modern mind.” (15) Yet both clergy and laity are hungry for theology and, moreover,

… because no theology is usually preached, they adopt some “strange ideologies” and combine them with fragments of traditional beliefs. The whole appeal of the “rival gospels” of our days is that they offer some sort of pseudo theology, a system of pseudo dogmas. They are gladly accepted by those who cannot find any theology in the reduced Christianity of “modern” style. (15)

Within this context, the first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” Florovsky refers to belief here as “the map of the true world.” (15) The modern crisis has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, which is “no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas.” (15-16) Moreover, the rediscovery of the church is also key here:

It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized… (16)

In contrast to those who see them as outdated and out of touch with our realities, Father Florovsky argues that this is the time to return to the Fathers of the Church.

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God has done for man. We have, “in such a time as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience. (16)

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

I have sometimes thought of writing on the topic of the Church, for I suspect that it is issues around ecclesiology that often form a stumbling block for many people. I have often encountered other Christians who are fascinated by Orthodoxy, want to learn from us and “use” our tradition, but who balk at the full implications of what Orthodox tradition really means. You cannot, to be quite frank about it, have Orthodoxy without the Church – and by this we mean the visible, historically mediated Church which is the Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop. Yet it is this Church that is often the stumbling block.

The Orthodox understanding of the Church is often either completely unknown to other Christians, or else it is seen as scandalously arrogant. There is a common – basically Protestant – assumption that “the Church” is an invisible entity made up of various “denominations” that makes it very difficult for Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) Christians to engage in discussions without appearing arrogant or exclusivist.

Linked to this is a widespread horror at our insistence that the reception of Holy Communion is limited to Orthodox Christians – and those who are suitably prepared for it, at that. Such practices fly in the face of contemporary demands for “inclusivity,” which has come to be seen as far more important than the theological integrity of the Church and its Liturgy.

There are issues around this that I keep wanting to explore more, but Father Stephen Freeman has expressed some of them far better than I could in his recent post The Politics of the Cup. Drawing on Hauerwas, he writes:

Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).

The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.

Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.

In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.

I have more thoughts on this, including on the violence implicit in inclusivist agendas – if everyone can receive communion, then it will not be long before everyone must do so – and on the underlying monism that influences such thinking, but I don’t know when I’ll get them together. But Father Stephen’s post helps to unmask what many people take for granted, and articulates the true vision of a genuine hospitality that is offered to all. Do go and read the whole post.

This is an article that I wrote a few years ago, before I became Orthodox. I didn’t get to publishing it, and once I had become Orthodox I hesitated to do so as it discusses issues that I was dealing with as a Catholic. However, I have shared it with a few people over the last few years, and some of their reactions have made me think that it may be worth making it available more broadly, hence my decision to post it here. However, I’m not posting it to initiate discussion or debate and so am closing the comments section on this post. While the issues that it raises were crucial for me at the time – and I still stand by everything that I argued – I am no longer Catholic and don’t really want to get involved in discussing these things now.

Eighteen years ago, on a rainy winter’s day, I attended Mass in a small village on the west coast of South Africa. The event is etched in my memory, for it is among the most “traditional” Catholic liturgies I ever attended. The elderly priest was regarded as something of a maverick by his religious confreres; he had been a leading progressive before the Second Vatican Council but had become resolutely opposed to many of the changes following the Council and was now left to do his own thing in this back-of-beyond fishing village. I presume that he must have used the Novus Ordo, for anything else would have been unthinkable at the time for a priest who, despite his oddities, remained in communion with his bishop and the See of Rome. But it was a liturgy unlike any I had experienced. While my memory is vague on details, the one thing that has remained with me is that not only did people kneel at an altar rail to receive communion on the tongue, but that an altar boy held a sort of plate under their chins in order catch any fragment of the Host that might fall.

If this liturgical detail has stuck in my mind, then that was partly because of my own reaction, and that of the friends who accompanied me. We were all theologically educated, post-conciliar Catholics. We cared deeply about the liturgy, had been formed by some of the best trends in liturgical renewal, and would certainly not have thought of ourselves as irreverent. Nor would we have welcomed the idea that we were snobbish – in fact I had just written a Master’s thesis that argued for the importance of rehabilitating popular religion. And yet what now strikes me about my own reaction is its extraordinary arrogance and insensitivity. For my reaction, like that of my friends, was to find the whole thing rather amusing, an example of the backwardness of this reactionary priest.

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When St Basil was attempting to define the hypostatic qualities of the Holy Spirit, he could find no other words than hagiasmos or hagiosyne, meaning “sanctification” or “holiness.” It is difficult, therefore, to speak of the Spirit without taking into account his work of sanctification, but it is no less difficult to speak of the Church’s holiness without evoking the Holy Spirit, the source and power of sanctification. It sheds light on the whole final section of the Creed: the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Sanctification is not only moral sanctification, it is the sharing of divine life, of eternal life, of the resurrection. It is the very mark of the Spirit on the flesh itself, on all of human nature, the gift of incorruptibility, of deification.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Church: A Course in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 133.

I haven’t started reading this book properly yet, but was looking through it today, came across this, and thought it worth sharing!

The one and the many are mutually constitutive: there is no Son and Spirit without the Father, but equally there is no Father without the Son and the Spirit. This pattern of relations recurs throughout the Church, which participates in God’s life. The one and the many is indeed “the mystery of Christology and Pneumatology, the mystery of Church and at the same time of the Eucharist.” Christ Himself, in whom the Church participates in God’s life, is constituted by the Spirit as a “corporate personality”: there is no Church without Christ, but also paradoxically there is no Christ without the Church: “Christology without ecclesiology is inconceivable” – “What is at stake is the very identity of Christ.” The Church, says Zizioulas, “is part of the definition of Christ;” and he acknowledges how problematic this notion is: “This de-individualization of Christ is in my view the stumbling block of all ecclesiological discussion in the ecumenical movement.”

Rev. Msgr. Paul McPartlan, “Introduction” to John D. Zizioulas, The One And The Many (Sebastian Press, 2010) xv-xvi.

It should be pretty obvious by now that I’ve been neglecting this blog, and, while it is tempting to apologize and promise to try and amend my ways, that may not be terribly realistic, at least not for the next couple of months. I do hope to finish the posts on Earthen Vessels and I do hope to continue the blog in the future, although I’m not sure how that will develop, but for the time being posting may well be somewhat sporadic.

However, I have been meaning to say something about this book by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon which arrived a few weeks ago courtesy of Sebastian Press of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It is a collection of essays edited by Father Gregory Edwards and is subtitled “Studies on God, Man, the Church, and the World Today.” I have only dipped into it and, as I know from previous experience, to really benefit from Metropolitan John’s works one has to do considerably more than just dipping into them, to say nothing of the fact that I still have to get my head around some of the critical issues that people have with his work. Given that at present the word “books” unfortunately conjures up more the thought of binding than that of reading, it will probably take a while before I really get into this. On the other hand, the advantage of a collection of essays is that they can be read separately and so I hope to say more on at least some of them before too long.

The collection of essays is organised around three themes. The first is entitled “Studies in Triadology” and deals with questions of Trinitarian theology and anthropology. The second is entitled “Studies in Ecclesiology” and addresses  questions relate to the Eucharist, Pneumatology, Liturgy, eschatology and authority. The third is entitled “Studies on the Ecumenical Movement” and addresses the Orthodox understanding of participation in the Ecumenical Movement and specific related issues such as theological education and proselytism.

More again, hopefully!

Father Schmemann begins this fifth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom by looking at the antinomy between the universal and the particular that underlines the contrast between the Great Litany (at the beginning of the Liturgy) and the Augmented Litany which completes the first part of the Liturgy but which has lost its proper meaning and has consequently been omitted in the Greek practice. While the Great Litany calls us to focus on the whole, the personal and concrete find their place in the Augmented Litany.

the antinomy of Christianity consists in the fact that it is simultaneously directed to the whole – to the entire creation, the whole world, all mankind – and to each unique and unrepeatable human person. … The Christian faith can say that the world was created for each individual, and it can say that each person was created for the world, to surrender himself “for the life of the world.” (82-83)

However, when the proper balance between the common and the private is lost in the liturgy, we find a profusion of “services of needs.” While these are indeed a contradiction in terms, as Archimandrite Kyprian Kern pointed out, “this essentially correct accusation remains fruitless as long as the balance between the common and the private is not within the liturgy itself…” (84)

Next follows the litany for the catechumens, which is another anomaly in contemporary practice, given the lack of catechumens who depart at this point. Here Father Schmemann takes issue with those who omit, or recommend omitting this part of the service. While agreeing that “nominalism can have no place in church life,” he goes on to ask “how nominal these petitions are and what is the proper meaning of the ‘relevance of the service to real needs’?” (85) He warns of the danger of taming the tradition according to our own perceptions and asks: “what must we see in the prayers for the catechumens – only a dried and withered limb … or an essential part of the very order of Christian worship?” (86-87) He sees them as the latter and argues that

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