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Professor Dr. Vlassios Pheidas

Τhe limits of the church in an orthodox perspective

Chapter I

Ι shall try to use in this brief paper only the canonical language, which is proper to the orthodox tradition, and to avoid using the kind of language, which is more familiar to modern ecumenical circles. This is because Ι have become fully aware that language is in itself part of the ecclesiological problem, which exists within the ecumenical movement. The usual theological obscurities or ambiguities of ecumenical terminology, especially with respect to ecclesiological questions, are intended to facilitate a growing convergence or agreement of different theological terminologies, in order to move beyond the present traditional frames and to express with the same terms different realities.

It is impossible, however, to do this with the established canonical terminology, which expresses a specific ecclesiological background and clearly describes the same ecclesial reality. Real unity can not be based on a compromise, or on a mere accommodation to pluralism, because unity can not be regarded as a goal to be reached regardless of the principles involved. That is why the purpose of this paper is neither to offer an apology for our orthodox ecclesiological tradition, nor to cover up the real ecclesiological difficulties in contemporary ecumenical dialogue. It represent a honest effort to describe more clearly and to point out more fully the deep rooted theological causes of the historical divisions. Ιn the following lines we shall try to show the main ecclesiological problems and their great importance for our theological dialogue and within the ecumenical movement.

1. The canonical meaning of the «boundaries» or «limits of the Church» is indissolubly connected with the teaching concerning the Church's nature, essence and mission, since the latter describe the inner unit of the ecclesial body. What is usually meant by the term «boundaries of the Church», on the other hand, is derived from the ecclesiological peculiarities of each Church, while on the other, it affects the content of their soteriological teachings. The fact that a variety of ecclesiologies exists (e.g. orthoλox, roman-catholic, protestant, etc.) means that there also exists a corresponding differentiation as to the understanding of the boundaries of the Church, while the relationship between the boundaries of the Church and the range of the action of diving grace determines the soteriological dimension of the meaning of these boundaries. It is true that the variety of ecclesiologies derives from the obνious difference in the understanding of the Church's nature, essence and mission, as it is also true that the ecclesiological teaching of the ancient and undivided Church was, in spite of certain divergencies in Church practice, common to all local Churches.

The nucleus of this traditional ecclesiology was the common understanding of the Church as the historical Body of Christ (Corpus Christi), which is extended and is realised in the history of salvation. This common apostolic tradition was expressed in the teaching of the great Fathers and was lived and experienced continuously as a common faith of the Church both in the East and in the West during the period preceding the great Schism (1054). On this common basis, related Church practice was developed and corresponding decisions were taken by local and ecumenical councils. Τo this body of the Church belong «the faithful throughout the world, those who are such, those who become such and those who enter into such a condition...» (St. John Chrysostom's, Homilies, Ephesians, 10:1). They do not become «many bodies but one body», because «there is no other body» «than the one which is nourished» through holy Eucharist (St. John Chrysostom's, Homilies: 1 Cor. 24:2). The unity is actualised by the Holy Spirit only in this one body of the Church, because «to be or not to be the body is to be united or not be united with the body» (St. John Chrysostom's, Homilies, 1 Cor. 30:2). It is quite clear that this ecclesiology of the Body of Christ describes the Church's Christocentric ontology and reveals the respective ecclesial conscience concerning the boundaries of the Church.

After the great Schism (1054), however, christological differentiations came about, which shaped new presuppositions for approaching the delicate ecclesiological question concerning the Church's boundaries. Τhus, a positive or negative evaluation of any ecclesiological development is possible only on the basis of the authentic relationship of Ecclesiology to Christology, as this was expressed in the entire patristic tradition and in the ecclesiastical praxis of the undivided Church. Theologically, it is self-evident that any differentiation, whatsoever, in the patristic understanding of the relationship between Ecclesiology and Christology leads to a different understanding of the mystery of the Church itself and, consequently, to either a gradual or an immediate ecclesiological differentiation. However, every ecclesiological differentiation affects either qualitatively or quantitatively the corresponding teaching concerning the limits of the Church. This springs from the fact that every Ecclesiology predetermines the identity of its own ecclesiastical body and that of the ecclesiastical bodies outside itself. At the same time it also determines the acceptable framework within which the related practice is to function:

(a)The progressive alienation of western scholastic theology from the ecclesiological criteria of the common patristic tradition reduced, in a progressive way, the importance of the Church's Christocentric ontology and led to a hierocratic understanding of the constitutional basis of the ecclesiastical body (papacy and hierarchy). The theoretical searching of scholastic theologians shaped even the conscience of the Roman Catholic Church, which came more and more to be expressed in the Church's respective praxis. At the same time, however, along with the weakening of the patristic ecclesiology of the Body of Christ, it advanced the ecclesiology of the «People of God» in order to facilitate this hierocratic interpretation. It is quite clear that anti-reformationist theology has influenced deeply all roman-catholic theology until recent times. Τhus, even in the official theological literature of the 18th and 19th centuries one can see that the patristic doctrine of the Christocentric ontology of the Church has been almost completely forgotten. Despite all this, however, the Christocentric ontology of the Church, at least according to the scholastic interpretation, was preserved in a latent manner within the structures and the conscience of the Roman Catholic Church, as this is clearly expressed in the new roman-catholic theology of recent times (Neothomism).

(b)Protestant theology, by rejecting the entire ecclesiological structure of scholastic theology, simultaneously rejected the concept of the Church's Christocentric ontology and stressed, in opposition to roman-catholic theology, the absolute authority of the Word of God, the individual character of the experience of the faith, the eschatological perspectives of the saving act of God, etc. Therefore, the rejection of the Church's Christocentric ontology made the notion of the boundaries of the Church imperceptible and even a matter of indifference. Hence, in Protestant ecclesiological teaching the specific historical boundaries of the «visible» Church are realised and in no way do they coincide with those of the «invisible» Church. This is because those who constitute the invisible Church, on the one hand, are known only to God, while, on the other hand, they could very well be members of the «visible» Churches, even different ones, as for example the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church, etc. The differentiation of protestant ecclesiology vis-a-vis that of Roman-catholicism can be clearly understood through the following diagram: According to Roman-catholic (and Orthodox) ecclesiology, the Church pre-exists and precedes the believers; thus we have the following figure: Christ→Church→Believers. According to the Protestant ecclesiological teaching, the believers pre-exist and precede the Church, which they also constitute; thus we have the following pattern: Christ→Believers→Church.

(c) Orthodox theology, despite some partial and periodical influences from Roman-catholic or Protestant theologies, has remained faithful to the patristic tradition and has fought to preserve the traditional ecclesial experience. According to the orthodox ecclesiology, the Church is the one and only Body of Christ in the history of salvation. This one Body of Christ, which is the Church, is realised in history as one and not as many ecclesial bodies. It is fully manifested in the sacraments of the Church, since the Church is «marked» (σημειούται) in the sacraments. Τhus, orthodox ecclesiology excludes the manifestation of this one Body of Christ in other ecclesiastical bodies outside it, since the Body of Christ is only one and not many. These strict ecclesiological presuppositions predetermines the content and define the specific character of the traditional orthodox ecclesiology.

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