Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
The notes below are just a brief summary of everything that we talk about. For the most benefit, listen to the audio! The podcast of this session can be listened to at www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/class-7
Class 7 – The Church of the Romans: Topic 4, The Church
…that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. – I Timothy 3:15
…[God the Father] hath put all things under His feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the Church, Which is his Body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23
…Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant. – Hebrews 12:22-24
Here is born a people of noble race, destined for Heaven, whom the Spirit brings forth in the waters he has made fruitful. Mother Church conceives her offspring by the breath of God, and bears them virginally in this water. Hope for the Kingdom of Heaven, you who are reborn in this font. Eternal life does not await those who are only born once. This is the spring of life that waters the whole world, Taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ. Sinner, to be purified, go down into the holy water. It receives the unregenerate and brings him forth a new man. If you wish to be made innocent, be cleansed in this pool, whether you are weighed down by the ancestral sin or your own. There is no barrier between those who are reborn and made one by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith. Let neither the number nor the kind of their sins terrify anyone; Once reborn in this water, they will be holy. – Inscription above the Lateran Baptistery (Pope St. Sixtus III, +440)
Introduction – Our entire course, ultimately, is about the Church, and, specifically, learning to view history through the lens the Church gives us. But tonight we will, God willing, study ecclesiology itself for a little while, in distinction from our overall project of developing an ecclesiastical, Church centered view of history. How did the Church of the first millennium, the Church of the Fathers recognized by East and West until today, view Herself?
Obviously, we cannot teach an entire course on patristic ecclesiology in one class. To give the subject its due, I would estimate, would take two semesters of a regular academic curriculum. And, of course, experientially, through prayer, through our own reading, through our participation in the Holy Mysteries, life according to the Gospel, and, in short, everything involved in living the life of the Church, we should be acquiring and interiorizing a greater understanding, appreciation, and love of what the Church is every day. Tonight we simply wish to touch on and illustrate a few key ecclesiological themes that will come to our attention again later, when we get into the main topic of our course, which is the falling away of the West in the second millennium and how this impinges on our life today.
(For a comprehensive short introduction to Orthodox ecclesiology, “The Church of Christ,” which is Chapter Seven of Fr. Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, is excellent. For our earlier course, when we read Fr. Michael’s book cover to cover, and discussed it, we produced some notes in the form of an outline to help study the book. I’ve attached those notes to tonight’s notes, for those who want to study more about ecclesiology per se. The entire text of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology can be found online at http://www.intratext.com/X/ENG0824.HTM . The URL for the beginning of Chapter Seven is http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0824/_P1S.HTM.)
I. The Church as Pillar and Ground of the Truth
St. Paul’s words to St. Timothy, which we read above, reveal a very different vision of the relationship of the Church to the question of “What is Truth” than that held by Protestants. The Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Pillars uphold; the ground provides the pre-condition for everything else. So being in the Church, being of the Church, is the pre-condition for knowing the truth, because the Church is the ground of the Truth. We don’t read the Bible and figure out where the Church is. We join the Church and learn what the Bible means. Once we learn this Truth, the Church is the pillar that upholds the true teaching, and upholds us, that supports our staying in this structure. No one person, whether a Pope or a “reformer,” can stand outside or above the Church and tell Her what the truth is. Everyone who is an authentic teacher of truth teaches that truth from within the Church and in obedience to the Church. Recall the quote we read in Class 4, from the Anglican editor’s introduction to the volume on the Ecumenical Councils: The Fathers came to the Councils not to “discover” Truth, but to witness to that which they had received. This vision of the Church as the unique place where we can know the Truth, and as the uniquely qualified judge of What is Truth, was common to all Christians of the first millennium.
II. The Church as a Family
Earlier in this same passage, St. Paul calls the Church the “house of God.” This word in Greek, oikos, means literally a “house,” but also, by extension, a “family,” an association found in many if not all languages, as in English, a “household.” Recall from our earlier discussion of church architecture that the original place of worship and the center of parish organization was someone’s home. Both in Her literal buildings (churches) and in Her “buildings” figuratively speaking (parishes, dioceses, etc.) the Church never forgot Her domestic character and origin. The Church as a whole is a family, and each local Church is a family. Thus just as the family is primarily an organic reality which takes on an organizational structure for its survival and flourishing, so too the Church is primarily an organic reality which naturally takes on various forms of organizational structure for Her survival and flourishing. The two aspects – organism and organization – are not separate, but they are distinct. Which organizational aspects of the Church are inherent to Her organism, to Her divine constitution, and which are not, will become a great point of contention, first between the Orthodox and the papists, and later between papists and Protestants.
III. The Church as the Body of Christ
Of course, the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, employed by St. Paul
in the passage above from Ephesians, is very familiar to us. It is an even more powerful image of the Church as an organism than is the image of the household or family. There are other important quotes from St. Paul containing this image, notably his great plea to the Corinthians to remain in unity, speaking of each Christian as a “member of the Body” (see I Corinthians 12), each with its unique charism. Our Lord Himself uses the organic image of the Vine and the Branches (John 15:5). We are not just servants, followers, or disciples or even just friends of Christ, though we are all of these things. We are members of His Body; we are organically part of Him, as branches are of a vine. Neither Our Lord nor St. Paul meant these as purely poetic expressions, though they certainly are beautiful considered as poetry. They meant it ontologically – yes, these are metaphors, but they are metaphors expressing something that is, not just some pleasant thoughts about some vague something or other in Never-Never land. It’s not less real than the image; it’s more real, more solid, and the image points to it, leading our intellect to surpass the earthly shadow in pursuit of the heavenly reality. Which leads us to…
IV. The Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven
The magnificent passage above, from Hebrews, states very clearly that our membership in the Church is a membership in a heavenly, not merely earthly assembly. The reality of the Church below derives hierarchically from the super-reality of the Church above. That Church is the authentic Church whose earthly manifestations are authentic participations here below in the heavenly types above. The classic, paradigmatic patristic explanation of this is The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of St. Dionysios the Areopagite, which can be found online at https://archive.org/details/celestialandecc01parkgoog. In this essential treatise, St. Dionysios, a disciple of St. Paul, explains in detail the authentic tradition about the angelic orders and how the heavenly hierarchy is reflected in the Church’s hierarchy of bishops, presbyters and deacons, and in the Church’s liturgical life. Let’s go online and read the opening passage of St. Dionysios’ great work…
The true character of the authentic Church on earth, then, is eschatological, otherworldly, transparent and anagogical, which is why Her art is such, as we discussed in our sessions on sacred art. Her purpose is not to “build the kingdom of God on earth,” which is the heresy of chiliasm, an important topic we will discuss later in reference to high medieval Western Christianity, but to be a participation in as well as an icon of the heavenly and eternal kingdom.
V. Institutional Authority and Charismatic Authority in the Church
In Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Fr. Michael Pomazansky cites the specific New Testament passages which testify to the apostolic origin of the Church’s threefold priesthood of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, as well as quoting early Fathers. Here is St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer (+110), writing to the Trallians: “…it is essential, as indeed you are acting, to do nothing without the bishop. Likewise obey the presbytery as apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope, in Whom may God grant that we live. And everyone should cooperate in every way with the deacons that serve the ministers of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ, for they are not ministers of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God.”
St. Paul, however, often refers also to the non-hierarchical, charismatic offices in the Church, and most notably the “prophets,” those inspired directly by God to speak the Word of truth. St. Dionysios links the gift of personal holiness to the selection of the hierarchy and clergy, stating that the bishops should be in the state of theosis and the presbyters should be in the state of theoria, while it is permitted to ordain to the diaconate those still in the stage of praxis, that is, active struggle with the passions. Of course, we know that all too often – to be honest, usually – the Church cannot find enough men at the higher levels of spiritual life to fill all of Her higher positions. But it is notable that She has always understood that the hierarchical priesthood should be related to charismatic worthiness, just as “official” theology must derive from authentic spiritual experience.
There is an edifying passage in the Life of a saint we all read every year during Great Lent, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, which illustrates beautifully the co-equal and complementary character of these two sources of authority in the Church, the institutional and the charismatic. S. Zosimas flings himself on the ground and asks S. Mary’s blessing. She demands that he bless, because he is a priest; he demands that she bless, as being one possessing higher spiritual gifts. Both demonstrate humility and charity in their mutual respect.
This question of the relationship of these two sources of authority in the Church will come to the fore during the period of the West’s falling away from Orthodoxy and its development of the “high papal” ecclesiology.
VI. The Church as a Holy Mystery
The amazing inscription from the Lateran baptistery poetically describes the Church as our Mother giving birth to a new race of men, the Christians. St. Augustine aptly relates our being members of the Body of Christ, the Church, to our receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.”
The Church is the pan-mysterion, the All Encompassing and All Sufficient Sacrament of our salvation and deification. Very early on, in the writings of a Latin Father, S. Cyprian of Carthage (+250), regarding the unity of the Church and the non-existence of valid mysteries outside the Church, this fundamental teaching is expressed very clearly. See Volume V of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, available online at http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1819-1893,_Schaff._Philip,_1_Vol_05_Hippolytus._Cyprian._Novatian,_EN.pdf
The Greek Fathers, and the Orthodox East as a whole, sided with St. Cyprian in his understanding that only the Church can confer the grace of the Mysteries, as opposed to St. Augustine, and later the consensus of the Western writers, who took Pope Stephen’s contention that heretics can confer valid baptism, combined it with Augustine’s theory of sacraments performed ex opere operato, and created a sacramental theology at odds with the essentially churchly character of the economy of the Holy Mysteries. Thus the understanding of the essentially churchly character of the Holy Mysteries and the essentially mysteriological character of the Church will be obscured later as the West grows farther away from Orthodoxy.
VII. The Church as Mother – As hymned so eloquently in the Lateran baptistery inscription, through Holy Baptism the Church becomes the Mother of a new genos, a new “race,” the Christian nation, as well as the Mother of each Christian personally and of entire Christian nations considered in the plural, as various ethnic or national groups convert en masse and received a new identity and the birth of a new Christian culture from the Church. We will examine this latter reality in more detail in our next class, on the relationship of the Church to the nation and to the state.