Archpriest George Florovsky
The Church: her nature and task: The catholic mind. The new reality. The new creation. Historical antinomies.
Christ conquered the world. This victory consists in His having created His own Church. In the midst of the vanity and poverty, of the weakness and suffering of human history, He laid the foundations of a “new being.” The Church is Christ’s work on earth; it is the image and abode of His blessed Presence in the world. And on the day of Pentecost The Holy Spirit descended on the Church, which was then represented by the twelve Apostles and those who were with them. He entered into the world in order to abide with us and act more fully than He had ever acted before; “for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). The Holy Spirit descended once and for always. This is a tremendous and unfathomable mystery. He lives and abides ceaselessly in the church. In the Church we receive the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15). Through reaching towards and accepting the Holy Ghost we become eternally God’s. In the Church our salvation is perfected; the sanctification and transfiguration, the theosis of the human race is accomplished.
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: [Outside the Church there is no salvation]. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church. For salvation is the revelation of the way for every one who believes in Christ's name. This revelation is to be found only in the Church. In the Church, as in the Body of Christ, in its theanthropic organism, the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of the “two natures,” indissolubly united, is continually accomplished. In the Incarnation of the Word is the fullness of revelation, a revelation not only of God, but also of man. “For the Son of God became the Son of Man,” writes St. Irenaeus, “to the end that man too might become the son of God” (Adv. Haere. 3:10, 2). In Christ, as God‑Man, the meaning of human existence is not only revealed, but accomplished. In Christ human nature is perfected, it is renewed, rebuilt, created anew. Human destiny reaches its goal, and henceforth human life is, according to the word of the Apostle, “hid with Christ in God” (Coloss. 3:3). In this sense Christ is the “Last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), a true man. In Him is the measure and limit of human life. He rose “As the first fruits of them that are asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20-22). He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God. His Glory is the glory of all human existence. Christ has entered the pre‑eternal glory; He has entered it as Man and has called the whole of mankind to abide with Him and in Him. “God, being rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, quickened us together with Christ ... and raised us up with Him, and made us to sit with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). Therein lies the mystery of the Church as Christ's Body. The Church is fulness, (Τò πληρωμα) that is, fulfilment, completion (Eph. 1:23). In this manner St. John Chrysostom explains the words of the Apostle: “The Church is the fulfilment of Christ in the same manner as the head completes the body and the body is completed by the head. Thus we understand why the Apostle sees that Christ, as the Head needs all His members. Because if many of us were not, one the hand, one the foot, one yet another member, His body would not be complete. Thus His body is formed of all the members. This means, “That the head will be complete, only when the body is perfect; when we all are most firmly united and strengthened” (In Ephes. Hom. 3, 2; Migne, P.G. Ixii. c. 26). Bishop Theophanes repeats the explanation of Chrysostom: “The Church is the fulfilment of Christ in the same manner as the tree is the fulfilment of the grain. All that is contained in the grain in a condensed manner, receives its full development in the tree ... He Himself is complete and all‑perfect, but not yet has He drawn mankind to Himself in final completeness. It is only gradually that mankind enters into Communion with Him and so gives a new fulness to His work, which thereby attains its full accomplishment (Explan. Of Ep. To Ephes. M. 1893, 2. pp. 93-94. For the same point of view, cf. the late Very Rev. J. Armitage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, pp. 44-45, I. 403; short ed. pp. 57-60).
The Church is completeness itself; it is the continuation and the fulfilment of the theanthropic union. The Church is transfigured and regenerated mankind. The meaning of this regeneration and transfiguration is that in the Church mankind becomes one unity, “in one body” (Eph. 2:16). The life of the Church is unity and union. The body is “knit together” and “increaseth” (Col 2:19) in unity of Spirit, in unity of love. The realm of the Church is unity. And of course this unity is no outward one, but is inner, intimate, organic. It is the unity of the living body, the unity of the organism. The Church is a unity not only in the sense that it is one and unique; it is a unity, first of all, because its very being consists in reuniting separated and divided mankind. It is this unity which is the “sobornost” or catholicity of the Church. In the Church humanity passes over into another plane, begins a new manner of existence. A new life becomes possible, a true, whole and complete life, a catholic life, “in the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). A new existence begins, a new principle of life, “Even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us ... that they may be one even as We are one” (John 17:21-23).
This is the mystery of the final reunion in the image of the Unity of the Holy Trinity. It is realized in the life and construction of the Church, it is the mystery of sobornost, the mystery of catholicity.
The catholicity of the Church is not a quantitative or a geographical conception. It does not at all depend on the world‑wide dispersion of the faithful. The universality of the Church is the consequence or the manifestation, but not the cause or the foundation of its catholicity. The world‑wide extension or the universality of the Church is only an outward sign, one that is not absolutely necessary. The Church was catholic even when Christian communities were but solitary rare islands in a sea of unbelief and paganism. And the Church will remain catholic even unto the end of time when the mystery of the “falling away” will be revealed, when the Church once more will dwindle to a “small flock.” “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). The Metropolitan Philaret expressed himself very adequately on this point: “If a city or a country falls away from the universal Church, the latter will still remain an integral, imperishable body” (Opinions and Statements of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, Concerning the Orthodox Church in the East, St. Petersburg, 1886, p. 53). Philaret uses here the word “universal” in the sense of catholicity. The conception of catholicity cannot be measured by its wide‑world expansion; universality does not express it exactly. Καθολικη from Καθ óλου means, first of all, the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church's life. We are speaking here of wholeness, not only of communion, and in any case not of a simple empirical communion. Καθ óλου is not the same as Κατα παντóς; it belongs not to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the noumenal and ontological plane; it describes the very essence, not the external manifestations. We feel this already in the pre‑Christian use of these words, beginning from Socrates. If catholicity also means universality, it certainly is not an empirical universality, but an ideal one; the communion of ideas, not of facts, is what it has in view. The first Christians when using the words ‘Ekklisía Katholikí (Εκκλησια Καθολικη) never meant a world‑wide Church. This word rather gave prominence to the orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the “Great Church,” as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separatism and particularism; it was the idea of integrity and purity that was expressed. This has been very forcibly stated in the well known words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Where there is a bishop, let there be the whole multitude; just as where Jesus Christ is, there too is the Catholic Church” (Ignat Smyrn. 8:2). These words express the same idea as does the promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:19-20). It is this mystery of gathering together (μυστηριον της συναξεως, Mystírion tis sinákseos) that the word catholicity expresses. Later on St. Cyril of Jerusalem explained the word “catholicity” which is used in the Creed in the traditional manner of his Church. The word “Church” means the “gathering together of all in one union;” therefore it is called a “gathering” (εκκλεσια, Ekklisía). The Church is called catholic, because it spreads over all the universe and subjects the whole of the human race to righteousness, because also in the Church the dogmas are taught “fully, without any omission, catholically, and completely” (καθολικως και ανελλειπως) because, again, in the Church every kind of sin is cured and healed” (Catech. 18:23; Migne P.G. 33 c. 1044). Here again catholicity is understood as an inner quality. Only in the West, during the struggle against the Donatists was the word “catholica” used in the sense of “universality,” in opposition to the geographical provincialism of the Donatists (Cf. Pierre Batiffol, Le Catholicisme de St. Augustin, I; Paris, 1920, p. 212 — “Rappelons que le nom ‘catholique’ a servi à qualifier la Grande Eglise par opposition aux hérétiques … Le nom est vraisemblablement de création populaire et apparait en Orient au second siècle. Les tractatores du 4. siècle, qui lui cherchent une signification étymologique et savante, veulent y voir l’expression soit de la perfection intégrale de la foi de l’Eglise, soit du fait que l’Eglise ne fait pas acception de personnes de rang, du culture, soit enfin et surtout de fait que l’Eglise est repandue dans le monde entire d’une extrémité à l’autre. Augustin ne veut connaître que ce dernier sens.” Cp. Also Bishop Lightfoot, in his edition of St. Ignatius, v. 2 (London, 1889), p. 319. Note ad Loc. The history of the Christian and pre-Christian use of the terms ekklisía katholikí (Εκκλησια Καθολικη) and katholikos (καθολικóς) generally in various settings deserves careful study; apparently there have been no special investigations on the subject. In Russian, reference may be made to the very valuable, though not exhaustive or faultless, article of the late Professor M. D. Muretov in the supplement to his book Ancient Jewish Prayers Ascribed to St. Peter (Sergiev Posad, 1905). See also Bishop Lightfoot, St. Ignatius, v. 2 (London, 1889), p. 310, note). Later on, in the East, the word “catholic” was understood as synonymous with “ecumenical.” But this only limited the conception, making it less vivid, because it drew attention to the outward form, not to the inner contents. Yet the Church is not catholic because of its outward extent, or, at any rate, not only because of that. The Church is catholic, not only because it is an all-embracing entity, not only because it unites all its members, all local Churches, but because it is catholic all through, in its very smallest part, in every act and event of its life. The nature of the Church is catholic; the very web of the Church's body is catholic. The Church is catholic, because it is the one Body of Christ; it is union in Christ, oneness in the Holy Ghost‑and this unity is the highest wholeness and fulness. The gauge of catholic union is that “The multitude of them that believed be of one heart and of one soul” (Act 4:32). Where this is not the case, the life of the Church is limited and restricted. The ontological blending of persons is, and must be, accomplished in oneness with the Body of Christ; they cease to be exclusive and impenetrable. The cold separation into “mine” and “thine” disappears.
The growth of the Church is in the perfecting of its inner wholeness, its inner catholicity, in the “perfection of wholeness”; “That they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:23).
The catholicity of the Church has two sides. Objectively, the catholicity of the Church denotes a unity of the Spirit. “In one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). And the Holy Spirit which is a Spirit of love and peace, not only unites isolated individuals, but also becomes in every separate soul the source of inner peace and wholeness. Subjectively, the catholicity of the Church means that the Church is a certain unity of life, a brotherhood or communion, a union of love, “a life in common.” The image of the Body is the commandment of love. “St. Paul demands such love of us, a love which should bind us one to the other, so that we no more should be separated one from the other ... St. Paul demands that our union should be as perfect as is that of the members of one body” (St. John Chrysostom, In Eph. Hom. 11.1, Migne, P.G. lxii, c. 79). The novelty of the Christian commandment of love consists in the fact that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is more than putting him on the same level with ourselves, of identifying him with ourselves; it means seeing our own self in another, in the beloved one, not in our own self .... Therein lies the limit of love; the beloved is our “alter ego,” an “ego” which is dearer to us than ourself. In love we are merged into one. “The quality of love is such that the loving and the beloved are no more two but one man” (In 1 Cor. Hom. 33, 3, Migne, P.G. lxi. c. 280). Even more: true Christian love sees in every one of our brethren “Christ Himself.” Such love demands self‑surrender, self‑mastery. Such love is possible only in a catholic expansion and transfiguration of the soul. The commandment to be catholic is given to every Christian. The measure of his spiritual manhood is the measure of his catholicity. The Church is catholic in every one of its members, because a catholic whole cannot be built up or composed otherwise than through the catholicity of its members. No multitude, every member of which is isolated and impenetrable, can become a brotherhood. Union can become possible only through the mutual brotherly love of all the separate brethren. This thought is expressed very vividly in the well known vision of the Church as of a tower that is being built. (Compare the Shepherd of Hermas). This tower is being built out of separate stones‑the faithful. These faithful are “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5). In the process of building they fit one into the other, because they are smooth and are well adapted to one another; they join so closely to one another, that their edges are no longer visible, and the tower appears to be built of one stone. This is a symbol of unity and wholeness. But notice, only smooth square stones could be used for this building. There were other stones, bright stones, but round ones, and they were of no use for the building; they did not fit one into the other, were not suitable for the building and they had to be placed near the walls. (Hermas, Vis. 3:2:6,8). In ancient symbolism “roundness” was a sign of isolation, of self-sufficiency and self‑satisfaction — teres atque rotundus. And it is just this spirit of self‑satisfaction which hinders our entering the Church. The stone must first be made smooth, so that it can fit into the Church wall. We must “reject ourselves” to be able to enter the catholicity of the Church. We must master our self‑love in a catholic spirit before we can enter the Church. And in the fulness of the communion of the Church the catholic transfiguration of personality is accomplished.
But the rejection and denial of our own self does not signify that personality must be extinguished, that it must be dissolved within the multitude. Catholicity is not corporality or collectivism. On the contrary, self‑denial widens the scope of our own personality; in self‑denial we possess the multitude within our own self; we enclose the many within our own ego. Therein lies the similarity with the Divine Oneness of the Holy Trinity. In its catholicity the Church becomes the created similitude of Divine perfection. The Fathers of the Church have spoken of this with great depth. In the East St. Cyril of Alexandria; in the West St. Hilary. (For Patristic quotations very well arranged and explained, see E. Mersch, S.J., Le Corps Mystique du Christ, Etudes de Théologie Historique, t. 1-2, Louvain, 1933). In contemporary Russian theology the Metropolitan Antony has said very adequately, “The existence of the Church can be compared to nothing else upon earth, for on earth there is no unity, but only separation. Only in heaven is there anything like it. The Church is a perfect, a new, a peculiar, a unique existence upon earth, a unicum, which cannot be closely defined by any conception taken from the life of the world. The Church is the likeness of the existence of the Holy Trinity, a likeness in which many become one. Why is it that this existence, just as the existence of the Holy Trinity, is new for the old man and unfathomable for him? Because personality in its carnal consciousness is a self‑imprisoned existence, radically contrasted with every other personality (Archbishop Anthony Khapovitsky, The Moral Idea of the Dogma of the Church, Works, vol. 2, pp. 17-18. St. Petersburg, 1911). “Thus the Christian must in the measure of his spiritual development set himself free, making a direct contrast between the ‘ego’ and the ‘non‑ego’ he must radically modify the fundamental qualities of human self‑consciousness” (Ibid., The Moral Idea of the Dogma of the Holy Trinity, p. 65). It is just in this change that the catholic regeneration of the mind consists.
There are two types of self‑consciousness and self‑assertion: separate individualism and catholicity. Catholicity is no denial of personality and catholic consciousness is neither generic nor racial. It is not a common consciousness, neither is it the joint consciousness of the many or the Bewusstsein ueberhaupt of German philosophers. Catholicity is achieved not by eliminating the living personality, nor by passing over into the plane of an abstract Logos. Catholicity is a concrete oneness in thought and feeling. Catholicity is the style or the order or the setting of personal consciousness, which rises to the “level of catholicity.” It is the “telos” of personal consciousness, which is realized in creative development, not in the annihilation of personality.
In catholic transfiguration personality receives strength and power to express the life and consciousness of the whole. And this not as an impersonal medium, but in creative and heroic action. We must not say: “Every one in the Church attains the level of catholicity,” but “every one can, and must, and is called to attain it.” Not always and not by every one is it attained. In the Church we call those who have attained it Doctors and Fathers, because from them we hear not only their personal profession, but also the testimony of the Church; they speak to us from its catholic completeness, from the completeness of a life full of grace.
The Church is the unity of charismatic life. The source of this unity is hidden in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and in the sacrament of Pentecost, that unique descent of the Spirit of Truth into the world. Therefore the Church is an apostolic Church. It was created and sealed by the Spirit in the Twelve Apostles, and the Apostolic Succession is a living and mysterious thread binding the whole historical fulness of Church life into one catholic whole. Here again we see two sides. The objective side is the uninterrupted sacramental succession, the continuity of the hierarchy. The Holy Ghost does not descend upon earth again and again, but abides in the “visible” and historical Church. And it is in the Church that He breathes and sends forth His rays. Therein lies the fulness and catholicity of Pentecost.
The subjective side is loyalty to the Apostolic tradition; a life spent according to this tradition, as in a living realm of truth. This is the fundamental demand or postulate of Orthodox thought, and here again this demand entails the denial of individualistic separatism; it insists on catholicity. The catholic nature of the Church is seen most vividly in the fact that the experience of the Church belongs to all times. In the life and existence of the Church time is mysteriously overcome and mastered, time, so to speak, stands still. It stands still not only because of the power of historical memory, or of imagination, which can “fly over the double barrier of time and space;” it stands still, because of the power of grace, which gathers together in catholic unity of life that which had become separated by walls built in the course of time. Unity in the Spirit embraces in a mysterious, time‑conquering fashion, the faithful of all generations. This time‑conquering unity is manifested and revealed in the experience of the Church, especially in its Eucharistic experience. The Church is the living image of eternity within time. The experience and life of the Church are not interrupted or broken up by time. This, too, is not only because of continuity in the super‑personal outpouring of grace, but also because of the catholic inclusion of all that was, into the mysterious fulness of the present. Therefore the history of the Church gives us not only successive changes, but also identity. In this sense communion with the saints is a communio sanctorum. The Church knows that it is a unity of all times, and as such it builds up its life. Therefore the Church thinks of the past not as of something that is no more, but as of something that has been accomplished, as something existing in the catholic fulness of the one Body of Christ. Tradition reflects this victory over time. To learn from tradition, or, still better, in tradition, is to learn from the fulness of this time‑conquering experience of the Church, an experience which every member of the Church may learn to know and possess according to the measure of his spiritual manhood; according to the measure of his catholic development. It means that we can learn from history as we can from revelation. Loyalty to tradition does not mean loyalty to bygone times and to outward authority; it is a living connection with the fulness of Church experience. Reference to tradition is no historical inquiry. Tradition is not limited to Church archaeology. Tradition is no outward testimony which can be accepted by an outsider. The Church alone is the living witness of tradition; and only from inside, from within the Church, can tradition be felt and accepted as a certainty. Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit's unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings. For the living members of the Church it is no outward historical authority, but the eternal, continual voice of God — not only the voice of the past, but the voice of eternity. Faith seeks its foundations not merely in the example and bequest of the past, but in the grace of the Holy Ghost, witnessing always, now and ever, world without end.
As Khomyakov admirably puts it, “Neither individuals, nor a multitude of individuals within the Church preserve tradition or write the Scriptures, but the Spirit of God which lives in the whole body of the Church” (Russia and the English Church, p. 198). “Concord with the past” is only the consequence of loyalty to the whole; it is simply the expression of the constancy of catholic experience in the midst of shifting times. To accept and understand tradition we must live within the Church, we must be conscious of the grace‑giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy Ghost in it. We may truly say that when we accept tradition we accept, through faith, our Lord, who abides in the midst of the faithful; for the Church is His Body, which cannot be separated from Him. That is why loyalty to tradition means not only concord with the past, but, in a certain sense, freedom from the past, as from some outward formal criterion. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration. Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Church. Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to hear witness to the truth. The Church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fulness ... Therein consists that “tradition of truth,” traditio veritatis, about which St. Irenaeus spoke (Adv. Haeres, i. 10, 2). For him it is connected with the “veritable unction of truth,” charisma veritatis certum” (Ibid., 4. 26,2), and the “teaching of the Apostles” was for him not so much an unchangeable example to be repeated or imitated, as an eternally living and inexhaustible source of life and inspiration. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical, principle.
It is quite false to limit the “sources of teaching” to Scripture and tradition, and to separate tradition from Scripture as only an oral testimony or teaching of the Apostles. In the first place, both Scripture and tradition were given only within the Church. Only in the Church have they been received in the fulness of their sacred value and meaning. In them is contained the truth of Divine Revelation, a truth which lives in the Church. This experience of the Church has not been exhausted either in Scripture or in tradition; it is only reflected in them. Therefore, only within the Church does Scripture live and become vivified, only within the Church is it revealed as a whole and not broken up into separate texts, commandments, and aphorisms. This means that Scripture has been given in tradition, but not in the sense that it can be understood only according to the dictates of tradition, or that it is the written record of historical tradition or oral teaching. Scripture needs to be explained. It is revealed in theology. This is possible only through the medium of the living experience of the Church.
We cannot assert that Scripture is self‑sufficient; and this not because it is incomplete, or inexact, or has any defects, but because Scripture in its very essence does not lay claim to self‑sufficiency. We can say that Scripture is a God‑inspired scheme or image (eikón) of truth, but not truth itself. Strange to say, we often limit the freedom of the Church as a whole, for the sake of furthering the freedom of individual Christians. In the name of individual freedom the Catholic, ecumenical freedom of the Church is denied and limited. The liberty of the Church is shackled by an abstract biblical standard for the sake of setting free individual consciousness from the spiritual demands enforced by the experience of the Church. This is a denial of catholicity, a destruction of catholic consciousness; this is the sin of the Reformation. Dean Inge neatly says of the Reformers: “their creed has been described as a return to the Gospel in the spirit of the Koran” (Very Rev. W. R. Igne, The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, 1926, p. 27). If we declare Scripture to be self‑sufficient, we only expose it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation, thus cutting it away from its sacred source. Scripture is given to us in tradition. It is the vital, crystallizing centre. The Church, as the Body of Christ, stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, or cast shadows on it. But truth is revealed to us not only historically. Christ appeared and still appears before us not only in the Scriptures; He unchangeably and unceasingly reveals Himself in the Church, in His own Body. In the times of the early Christians the Gospels were not yet written and could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and, what is more, the Gospel came to life in the Church, in the Holy Eucharist. In the Christ of the Eucharist Christians learned to know the Christ of the Gospels, and so His image became vivid to them.
This does not mean that we oppose Scripture to experience. On the contrary, it means that we unite them in the same manner in which they were united from the beginning. We must not think that all we have said denies history. On the contrary, history is recognized in all its sacred realism. As contrasted with outward historical testimony, we put forward no subjective religious experience, no solitary mystical consciousness, not the experience of separate believers, but the integral, living experience of the Catholic Church, catholic experience, and Church life. And this experience includes also historical memory; it is full of history. But this memory is not only a reminiscence and a remembrance of some bygone events. Rather it is a vision of what is, and of what has been, accomplished, a vision of the mystical conquest of time, of the catholicity of the whole of time. The Church knows naught of forgetfulness. The grace‑giving experience of the Church becomes integral in its catholic fulness.
This experience has not been exhausted either in Scripture, or in oral tradition, or in definitions. It cannot, it must not be, exhausted. On the contrary, all words and images must be regenerated in its experience, not in the psychologisms of subjective feeling, but in experience of spiritual life. This experience is the source of the teaching of the Church. However, not everything within the Church dates from Apostolic times. This does not mean that something has been revealed which was “unknown” to the Apostles; nor does it mean that what is of later date is less important and convincing. Everything was given and revealed fully from the beginning. On the day of Pentecost Revelation was completed, and will admit of no further completion till the Day of Judgment and its last fulfilment. Revelation has not been widened, and even knowledge has not increased. The Church knows Christ now no more than it knew Him at the time of the Apostles. But it testifies of greater things. In its definitions it always unchangeably describes the same thing, but in the unchanged image ever new features become visible. But it knows the truth not less and not otherwise than it knew it in time of old. The identity of experience is loyalty to tradition. Loyalty to tradition did not prevent the Fathers of the Church from “creating new names” (as St. Gregory Nazianzen says) when it was necessary for the protection of the unchangeable faith. All that was said later on, was said from catholic completeness and is of equal value and force with that which was pronounced in the beginning. And even now the experience of the Church has not been exhausted, but protected and fixed in dogma. But there is much of which the Church testifies not in a dogmatic, but in a liturgical, manner, in the symbolism of the sacramental ritual, in the imagery of prayers, and in the established yearly round of commemorations and festivals. Liturgical testimony is as valid as dogmatic testimony. The concreteness of symbols is sometimes even more vivid, clear, and expressive than any logical conceptions can be, as witness the image of the Lamb taking upon Himself the sins of the world.
Mistaken and untrue is that theological minimalism, which wants to choose and set apart the “most important, most certain, and most binding” of all the experiences and teachings of the Church. This is a false path, and a false statement of the question. Of course, not everything in the historical institutions of the Church is equally important and venerable; not everything in the empirical actions of the Church has even been sanctioned. There is much that is only historical. However, we have no outward criterion to discriminate between the two. The methods of outward historical criticism are inadequate and insufficient. Only from within the Church can we discern the sacred from the historical. From within we see what is catholic and belongs to all time, and what is only “theological opinion,” or even a simple casual historical accident. Most important in the life of the Church is its fulness, its catholic integrity. There is more freedom in this fulness than in the formal definitions of an enforced minimum, in which we lose what is most important — directness, integrity, catholicity.
One of the Russian Church historians gave a very successful definition of the unique character of the Church's experience. The Church gives us not a system but a key; not a plan of God's City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan, risks remaining outside and not really finding anything (B. M. Melioransky, Lectures on the History of Ancient Christian Churches. The Pilgrim, Russian, 1910, 6, p. 931).
The well known formula of Vincent of Lerins is very inexact, when he describes the catholic nature of Church life in the words, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. [What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all]. First of all, it is not clear whether this is an empirical criterion or not. If this be so, then the “Vincentian Canon” proves to be inapplicable and quite false. For about what omnes is he speaking? Is it a demand for a general, universal questioning of all the faithful, and even of those who only deem themselves such? At any rate, all the weak and poor of faith, all those who doubt and waver, all those who rebel, ought to be excluded. But the Vincentian Canon gives us no criterion, whereby to distinguish and select. Many disputes arise about faith, still more about dogma. How, then, are we to understand omnes? Should we not prove ourselves too hasty, if we settled all doubtful points by leaving the decision to “liberty” — in dubiis libertas — according to the well known formula wrongly ascribed to St. Augustine. There is actually no need for universal questioning. Very often the measure of truth is the witness of the minority. It may happen that the Catholic Church will find itself but “a little flock.” Perhaps there are more of heterodox than of orthodox mind. It may happen that the heretics spread everywhere, ubique, and that the Church is relegated to the background of history, that it will retire into the desert. In history this was more than once the case, and quite possibly it may more than once again be so. Strictly speaking, the Vincentian Canon is something of a tautology. The word onmes is to be understood as referring to those that are orthodox. In that case the criterion loses its significance. Idem is defined per idem. And of what eternity and of what omnipresence does this rule speak? To what do semper and ubique relate? Is it the experience of faith or the definitions of faith that they refer to? In the latter case the canon becomes a dangerous minimising formula. For not one of the dogmatic definitions strictly satisfies the demand of semper and ubique.
Will it then be necessary to limit ourselves to the dead letter of Apostolic writings? It appears that the Vincentian Canon is a postulate of historical simplification, of a harmful primitivism. This means that we are not to seek for outward, formal criteria of catholicity; we are not to dissect catholicity in empirical universality. Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality. The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as a formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth. The whole body of the Church has the right of verifying, or, to be more exact, the right, and not only the right but the duty, of certifying. It was in this sense that in the well known Encyclical Letter of 1848 the Eastern Patriarchs wrote that “the people itself” (λαος, laós), i.e, the Body of the Church, “was the guardian of piety” (υπερασπιοτης της Θρησκειας). And even before this the Metropolitan Philaret said the same thing in his Catechism. In answer to the question. “Does a true treasury of sacred tradition exist?” he says “All the faithful, united through the sacred tradition of faith, all together and all successively, are built up by God into one Church, which is the true treasury of sacred tradition, or, to quote the words of St. Paul, 'The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth'” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The conviction of the Orthodox Church that the “guardian” of tradition and piety is the whole people, i.e. the Body of Christ, in no wise lessens or limits the power of teaching given to the hierarchy. It only means that the power of teaching given to the hierarchy is one of the functions of the catholic completeness of the Church; it is the power of testifying, of expressing and speaking the faith and the experience of the Church, which have been preserved in the whole body. The teaching of the hierarchy is, as it were, the mouthpiece of the Church. De omnium fidelium ore pendeamus, quia in omnem fidelem Spiritus Dei Spirat. [We depend upon the word of all the faithful, because the Spirit of God breathes in each of the faithful, St. Paulin. Nolan, epist. 23, 25, M.L. 61. col. 281]. Only to the hierarchy has it been given to teach “with authority.” The hierarchs have received this power to teach, not from the church-people but from the High Priest, Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of Orders. But this teaching finds its limits in the expression of the whole Church. The Church is called to witness to this experience, which is an inexhaustible experience, a spiritual vision. A bishop of the Church, episcopus in ecclesia, must be a teacher. Only the bishop has received full power and authority to speak in the name of his flock. The latter receives the right of speaking through the bishop. But to do so the bishop must embrace his Church within himself; he must make manifest its experience and its faith. He must speak not from himself, but in the name of the Church, ex consensu ecclesiae. This is just the contrary of the Vatican formula: ex sese, non autem ex consensu ecclesiae. [From himself, but not from the consensus of the Church].
It is not from his flock that the bishop receives full power to teach, but from Christ through the Apostolic Succession. But full power has been given to him to bear witness to the catholic experience of the body of the Church. He is limited by this experience, and therefore in questions of faith the people must judge concerning his teaching. The duty of obedience ceases when the bishop deviates from the catholic norm, and the people have the right to accuse and even to depose him (For some more details cp. my articles: “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Revelation,” The Christian East, 5.13, No. 2, 1932, and “The Sacrament of Pentecost,” The Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, No 23, March 1934).
In the catholicity of the Church the painful duality and tension between freedom and authority is solved. In the Church there is not and cannot be any outward authority. Authority cannot be a source of spiritual life. So also Christian authority appeals to freedom; this authority must convince, not constrain. Official subjection would in no wise further true unity of mind and of heart. But this does not mean that everyone has received unlimited freedom of personal opinion. It is precisely in the Church that “personal opinions” should not and cannot exist. A double problem is facing every member of the Church. First of all, he must master his subjectivity, set himself free from psychological limitations, raise the standard of his consciousness to its full catholic measure. Secondly, he must live in spiritual sympathy with, and understand, the historical completeness of the Church's experience. Christ reveals Himself not to separate individuals, nor is it only their personal fate which He directs.
Christ came not to the scattered sheep, but to the whole human race, and His work is being fulfilled in the fulness of history, that is, in the Church.
In a certain sense the whole of history is sacred history. Yet, at the same time, the history of the Church is tragic. Catholicity has been given to the Church; its achievement is the Church's task. Truth is conceived in labour and striving. It is not easy to overcome subjectivity and particularism. The fundamental condition of Christian heroism is humility before God, acceptance of His Revelation. And God has revealed Himself in the Church. This is the final Revelation, which passeth not away. Christ reveals Himself to us not in our isolation, but in our mutual catholicity, in our union. He reveals Himself as the New Adam, as the Head of the Church, the Head of the Body. Therefore, humbly and trustfully we must enter the life of the Church and try to find ourselves in it. We must believe that it is just in the Church that the fulness of Christ is accomplished. Every one of us has to face his own difficulties and doubts. But we believe and hope that in united, catholic, heroic effort and exploits, these difficulties will be solved. Every work of fellowship and of concord is a path towards the realization of the catholic fulness of the Church. And this is pleasing in the sight of the Lord: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).
“The Church: Her Nature and Task” appeared in volume 1 of the Universal Church in God’s Design (S.C.M. Press, 1948).
It is impossible to start with a formal definition of the Church. For, strictly speaking, there is none which could claim any doctrinal authority. None can be found in the Fathers. No definition has been given by the Ecumenical Councils. In the doctrinal summaries, drafted on various occasions in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century and taken often (but wrongly) for the “symbolic books,” again no definition of the Church was given, except a reference to the relevant clause of the Creed, followed by some comments. This lack of formal definitions does not mean, however, a confusion of ideas or any obscurity of view. The Fathers did not care so much how to define the Church precisely because the glorious reality of the Church was open to their spiritual vision. One does not define what is self-evident. This accounts for the absence of a special chapter on the Church in all early presentations of Christian doctrine: in Origen, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, even in St. John of Damascus. Many modern scholars, both Orthodox and Roman, suggest that the Church itself has not yet defined her essence and nature. “Die Kirche selbst hat sich bis heute noch nicht definiert,” says Robert Grosche (Robert Grosche, Pilgernde Kirche Freiburg im Breisgau, 1938, p. 27). Some theologians go even further and claim that no definition of the Church is possible (Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, 1935, p. 12; Stefan Zankow, Das Orthodoxe Christentum des Ostens, Berlin 1928, p. 65; English translation by Dr. Lowrie, 1929, p. 6gf). In any case, the theology of the Church is still im Werden, in the process of formation (See M. D. Koster, Ecclesiologie im Werden, Paderborn 1940).
In our time, it seems, one has to get beyond the modern theological disputes, to regain a wider historical perspective, to recover the true “catholic mind,” which would embrace the whole of the historical experience of the Church in its pilgrimage through the ages. One has to return from the school‑room to the worshipping Church and perhaps to change the school‑dialect of theology for the pictorial and metaphorical language of Scripture. The very nature of the Church can be rather depicted and described than properly defined. And surely this can be done only from within the Church. Probably even this description will be convincing only for those of the Church. The Mystery is apprehended only by faith.
The Greek name ekklesia adopted by the primitive Christians to denote the New Reality, in which they were aware they shared, presumed and suggested a very definite conception of what the Church really was. Adopted under an obvious influence of the Septuagint use, this word stressed first of all the organic continuity of the two Covenants. The Christian existence was conceived in the sacred perspective of the Messianic preparation and fulfilment (Heb. 1:1‑2). A very definite theology of history was thereby implied. The Church was the true Israel, the new Chosen People of God, “A chosen generation, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). Or rather, it was the faithful Remnant, selected out of the unresponsive People of old (Luke 12:32 “little flock” seems to mean precisely the “remnant,” reconstituted and redeemed, and reconsecrated). And all nations of the earth, Greeks and Barbarians, were to be coopted and grafted into this new People of God by the call of God (this was the main theme of St. Paul in Romans and Galatians, cf. Ephesians ch. 2).
Already in the Old Testament the word ekklisía (a rendering in Greek of the Hebrew Qahal) did imply a special emphasis on the ultimate unity of the Chosen People, conceived as a sacred whole, and this unity was rooted more in the mystery of the divine election than in any “natural” features. This emphasis could only be confirmed by the supplementary influence of the Hellenistic use of the word ekklesía meaning usually an assembly of the sovereign people in a city, a general congregation of all regular citizens. Applied to the new Christian existence, the word kept its traditional connotation. The Church was both the People and the City. A special stress has been put on the organic unity of Christians.
Christianity from the very beginning existed as a corporate reality, as a community. To be Christian meant just to belong to the community. Nobody could be Christian by himself, as an isolated individual, but only together with “the brethren,” in a “togetherness” with them. Unus Christianus — nullus Christianus [One Christian — no Christian]. Personal conviction or even a rule of life still do not make one a Christian. Christian existence presumes and implies an incorporation, a membership in the community. This must be qualified at once: in the Apostolic community, i.e. in communion with the Twelve and their message. The Christian “community” was gathered and constituted by Jesus Himself “in the days of His flesh,” and it was given by Him at least a provisional constitution by the election and the appointment of the Twelve, to whom He gave the name (or rather the title) of His “messengers” or “ambassadors” (See Luke 6:13: “whom also He named apostles”). For a “sending forth” of the Twelve was not only a mission, but precisely a commission, for which they were invested with a “power” (Mark 3:15; Matt. 10:1; Luke 9:1). In any case as the appointed “witnesses” of the Lord (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8) the Twelve alone were entitled to secure the continuity both of the Christian message and of the community life. Therefore communion with the Apostles was a basic note of the primitive “Church of God” in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42: koinonía).
Christianity means a “common life,” a life in common. Christians have to regard themselves as “brethren” (in fact this was one of their first names), as members of one corporation, closely linked together. And therefore charity had to be the first mark and the first proof as well as the token of this fellowship. We are entitled to say: Christianity is a community, a corporation, a fellowship, a brotherhood, a “society,” coetus fideliuim. And surely, as a first approximation, such a description could be of help. But obviously it requires a further qualification, and something crucial is missing here. One has to ask: in what exactly this unity and togetherness of the many is based and rooted? what is the power that brings many together and joins them one with another? Is this merely a social instinct, some power of social cohesion, an impetus of mutual affection, or any other natural attraction? Is this unity based simply on unanimity, on identity of views or convictions? Briefly, is the Christian Community, the Church, merely a human society, a society of men? Surely, the clear evidence of the New Testament takes us far beyond this purely human level. Christians are united not only among themselves, but first of all they are one — in Christ, and only this communion with Christ makes the communion of men first possible — in Him. The centre of unity is the Lord and the power that effects and enacts the unity is the Spirit. Christians are constituted into this unity by divine design; by the Will and Power of God. Their unity comes from above. They are one only in Christ, as those who had been born anew in Him, “Rooted and built up in Him” (Col. 2:7), who by One Spirit have been “Baptized into One Body” (1 Cor. 12:13). The Church of God has been established and constituted by God through Jesus Christ, Our Lord: “she is His own creation by water and the word.” Thus there is no human society, but rather a “Divine Society,” not a secular community, which would have been still “of this world,” still commensurable with other human groups, but a sacred community, which is intrinsically “not of this world,” not even of “this aeon,” but of the “aeon to come.”
Moreover, Christ Himself belongs to this community, as its Head, not only as its Lord or Master. Christ is not above or outside of the Church. The Church is in Him. The Church is not merely a community of those who believe in Christ and walk in His steps or in His commandments. She is a community of those who abide and dwell in Him, and in whom He Himself is abiding and dwelling by the Spirit. Christians are set apart, “born anew” and re‑created, they are given not only a new pattern of life, but rather a new principle: the new Life in the Lord by the Spirit. They are a “peculiar People,” “the People of God's own possession.” The point is that the Christian Community, the ekklesía, is a sacramental community: communio in sacris, a “fellowship in holy things,” i.e. in the Holy Spirit, or even communio sanctorum (sanctorum being taken as neuter rather than masculine — perhaps that was the original meaning of the phrase). The unity of the Church is effected through the sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist are the two “social sacraments” of the Church, and in them the true meaning of Christian “togetherness” is continually revealed and sealed. Or even more emphatically, the sacraments constitute the Church. Only in the sacraments does the Christian Community pass beyond the purely human measure and become the Church. Therefore “the right administration of the sacraments” belongs to the essence of the Church (to her esse). Sacraments must be “worthily” received indeed, therefore they cannot be separated or divorced from the inner effort and spiritual attitude of believers. Baptism is to be preceded by repentance and faith. A personal relation between an aspirant and his Lord must be first established by the hearing and the receiving of the Word, of the message of salvation. And again an oath of allegiance to God and His Christ is a pre‑requisite and indispensable condition of the administration of the sacrament (the first meaning of the word sacramentum was precisely “the (military) oath.”) A catechumen is already “enrolled” among the brethren on the basis of his faith. Again, the baptismal gift is appropriated, received and kept, by faith and faithfulness, by the steadfast standing in the faith and the promises. And yet sacraments are not merely signs of a professed faith, but rather effective signs of the saving Grace — not only symbols of human aspiration and loyalty, but the outward symbols of the divine action. In them our human existence is linked to, or rather raised up to, the Divine Life, by the Spirit, the giver of life.
The Church as a whole is a sacred (or consecrated) community, distinguished thereby from “the (profane) world.” She is the Holy Church. St. Paul obviously uses the terms “Church” and “saints” as co‑extensive and synonymous. It is remarkable that in the New Testament the name “saint” is almost exclusively used in the plural, saintliness being social in its intrinsic meaning. For the name refers not to any human achievement, but to a gift, to sanctification or consecration. Holiness comes from the Holy One, i.e. only from God. To be holy for a man means to share the Divine Life. Holiness is available to individuals only in the community, or rather in the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” The “communion of saints” is a pleonasm. One can be a “saint” only in the communion.
Strictly speaking, the Messianic Community, gathered by Jesus the Christ, was not yet the Church, before His Passion and Resurrection, before “the promise of the Father” was sent upon it and it was “endued with the power from on high,” “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4-5), in the mystery of Pentecost. Before the victory of the Cross disclosed in the glorious Resurrection, it was still sub umbraculo legis [Under the Shadow of the law]. It was still the eve of the fulfilment. And Pentecost was there to witness to and to seal the victory of Christ. “The power from on high” has entered into history. The “new aeon” has been truly disclosed and started. And the sacramental life of the Church is the continuation of Pentecost.
The descent of the Spirit was a supreme revelation. Once and for ever, in the “dreadful and inscrutable mystery” of Pentecost, the Spirit‑Comforter enters the world in which He was not yet present in such manner as now He begins to dwell and to abide. An abundant spring of living water is disclosed on that day, here on earth, in the world which had been already redeemed and reconciled with God by the Crucified and Risen Lord. The Kingdom comes, for the Holy Spirit is the Kingdom (Cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa, De oratione Dominica 3, MG, 44, c. 1150.-1160). But the “coming” of the Spirit depends upon the “going” of the Son (John 16:7). “Another Comforter” comes down to testify of the Son, to reveal His glory and to seal His victory (John 15:26; 16:7 and 14). Indeed in the Holy Spirit the Glorified Lord Himself comes back or returns to His flock to abide with them always (John 14:18 and 28)... Pentecost was the mystical consecration, the baptism of the whole Church (Acts 1:5). This fiery baptism was administered by the Lord: for He baptizes “With the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16). He has sent the Spirit from the Father, as a pledge in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of adoption, in Christ Jesus, “The power of Christ” (2 Cor. 12:9). By the spirit we recognize and we acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). The work of the Spirit in believers is precisely their incorporation into Christ, their baptism into one body (1 Cor. 12:13), even the body of Christ. As St. Athanasius puts it: “being given drink of the Spirit, we drink Christ.” For the Rock was Christ (S. Athan. Alex. Epist. I ad Seraponiem, MG 26. 576).
By the Spirit Christians are united with Christ, are united in Him, are constituted into His Body. One body, that of Christ: this excellent analogy used by St. Paul in various contexts, when depicting the mystery of Christian existence, is at the same time the best witness to the intimate experience of the Apostolic Church. By no means was it an accidental image: it was rather a summary of faith and experience. With St. Paul the main emphasis was always on the intimate union of the faithful with the Lord, on their sharing in His fulness. As St. John Chrysostom has pointed out, commenting on (Col. 3:4), in all his writings St. Paul was endeavouring to prove that the believers “are in communion with Him in all things” and “Precisely to show this union does he speak of the Head and the body” (St. John Chrysostom, in Coloss. Hom. 7, MG, 62, 375). It is highly probable that the term was suggested by the Eucharistic experience (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17), and was deliberately used to suggest its sacramental connotation. The Church of Christ is one in the Eucharist, for the Eucharist is Christ Himself, and He sacramentally abides in the Church, which is His Body. The Church is a body indeed, an organism, much more than a society or a corporation. And perhaps an “organism” is the best modern rendering of the term to soma, as used by St. Paul.
Still more, the Church is the body of Christ and His “fulness.” Body and fulness (to sóma and to pléroma) — these two terms are correlative and closely linked together in St. Paul's mind, one explaining the other: “which is His body, the fulness of Him Who all in all is being fulfilled” (Eph. 1:23). The Church is the Body of Christ because it is His complement. St. John Chrysostom commends the Pauline idea just in this sense. “The Church is the complement of Christ in the same manner in which the head completes the body and the body is completed by the head.” Christ is not alone. “He has prepared the whole race in common to follow Him, to cling to Him, to accompany His train.” Chrysostom insists, “Observe how he (i.e. St. Paul) introduces Him as having need of all the members. This means that only then will the Head be filled up, when the Body is rendered perfect, when we are all together, co‑united and knit together” (St. John Chrysostom, in Ephes. Hom. 3, MG, 52, 29). In other words, the Church is the extension and the “fulness” of the Holy Incarnation, or rather of the Incarnate life of the Son, “with all that for our sakes was brought to pass, the Cross and tomb, the Resurrection the third day, the Ascension into Heaven, the sitting on the right hand” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Prayer of Consecration).
The Incarnation is being completed in the Church. And, in a certain sense, the Church is Christ Himself, in His all‑embracing plenitude (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12). This identification has been suggested and vindicated by St. Augustine: “Non solum nor Christianos factos esse, sed Christum” [Not only to make us Christians, but Christ]. For if He is the Head, we are the members: the whole man is He and we — totus homo, ille et nos — Christus et Ecclesia.” And again: “For Christ is not simply in the head and not in the body (only), but Christ is entire in the head and body” — “non enim Christus in capite et non in corpore, sed Christus totus in capite et in corpore” (St. Augustine in Evangelium Joannis tract, 21, 8, MG. 35, 1568); cf. St. John Chrysostom in I Cor. Hom. 30, MG, 61, 279-283). This term totus Christus (Augustine in Evangelium Joannis tr. ML, 38, 1622) occurs in St. Augustine again and again, this is his basic and favourite idea, suggested obviously by St. Paul. “When I speak of Christians in the plural, I understand one in the One Christ. Ye are therefore many, and ye are yet one: we are many and we are one” — “cum plures Christianos appello, in uno Christo unum intelligo” (St. Augustine in Ps. 127, 3, ML, 37, 1679). “For our Lord Jesus is not only in Himself, but in us also” — “Dominus enim Jesus non solum in se, sed et in nobis” (St. Augustine in Ps. 90 enarr. 1, 9, ML, 37, 1157). “One Man up to the end of the ages” — “Unus homo usque ad finem saeculi extenditur” (St. Augustine in Ps. 85, 5, ML, 37, 1083).
The main contention of all these utterances is obvious. Christians are incorporated into Christ and Christ abides in them — this intimate union constitutes the mystery of the Church. The Church is, as it were, the place and the mode of the redeeming presence of the Risen Lord in the redeemed world. “The Body of Christ is Christ Himself. The Church is Christ, as after His Resurrection He is present with us and encounters us here on earth” (A. Nygren, Corpus Christi, in En Bok om Kyrkan, av Svenska teologer, Lund, 1943, p. 20). And in this sense one can say: Christ is the Church. “Ipse enim est Ecclesia, per sacramentum corporis sui in se ... eam continens” (St. Hilary in Ps. 125, 6, ML, 9, 688). [For He himself is the Church, containing it in himself through the sacrament of his body.] Or in the words of Karl Adam: “Christ, the Lord, is the proper Ego of the Church” (Karl Adam, Das Wesen Katholizisimus, 4 Ausgabe, 1927, p. 24).
The Church is the unity of charismatic life. The source of this unity is hidden in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and in the mystery of Pentecost. And Pentecost is continued and made permanent in the Church by means of the Apostolic Succession. It is not merely, as it were, the canonic skeleton of the Church. Ministry (or “hierarchy”) itself is primarily a charismatic principle, a “ministry of the sacraments,” or “a divine oeconomia.” Ministry is not only a canonical commission, it belongs not only to the institutional fabric of the Church — it is rather an indispensable constitutional or structural feature, just in so far as the Church is a body, an organism. Ministers are not, as it were, “commissioned officers” of the community, not only leaders or delegates of the “multitudes,” of the “people” or “congregation” — they are acting not only in persona ecclesiae. They are acting primarily in persona Christi. They are “representatives” of Christ Himself, not of believers, and in them and through them, the Head of the Body, the only High Priest of the New Covenant, is performing, continuing and accomplishing His eternal pastoral and priestly office. He is Himself the only true Minister of the Church. All others are but stewards of His mysteries. They are standing for Him, before the community — and just because the Body is one only in its Head, is brought together and into unity by Him and in Him, the Ministry in the Church is primarily the Ministry of unity. In the Ministry the organic unity of the Body is not only represented or exhibited, but rather rooted, without any prejudice to the “equality” of the believers, just as the “equality” of the cells of an organism is not destroyed by their structural differentiation: all cells are equal as such, and yet differentiated by their functions, and again this differentiation serves the unity, enables this organic unity to become more comprehensive and more intimate. The unity of every local congregation springs from the unity in the Eucharistic meal. And it is as the celebrant of the Eucharist that the priest is the minister and the builder of Church unity. But there is another and higher office: to secure the universal and catholic unity of the whole Church in space and time. This is the episcopal office and function. On the one hand, the Bishop has an authority to ordain, and again this is not only a jurisdictional privilege, but precisely a power of sacramental action beyond that possessed by the priest. Thus the Bishop as “ordainer” is the builder of Church unity on a wider scale. The Last Supper and Pentecost are inseparably linked to one another. The Spirit Comforter descends when the Son has been glorified in His death and resurrection. But still they are two sacraments (or mysteries) which cannot be merged into one another. In the same way the priesthood and the episcopate differ from one another. In the episcopacy Pentecost becomes universal and continuous, in the undivided episcopate of the Church (episcopatus unus of St. Cyprian) the unity in space is secured. On the other hand, through its bishop, or rather in its bishop, every particular or local Church is included in the catholic fulness of the Church, is linked with the past and with all ages. In its bishop every single Church outgrows and transcends its own limits and is organically united with the others. The Apostolic Succession is not so much the canonical as the mystical foundation of Church unity. It is something other than a safeguard of historical continuity or of adminnistrative cohesion. It is an ultimate means to keep the mystical identity of the Body through the ages. But, of course, Ministry is never detached from the Body. It is in the Body, belongs to its structure. And ministerial gifts are given inside the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 12).
The Pauline conception of the Body of Christ was taken up and variously commented on by the Fathers, both in the East and in the West, and then was rather forgotten (See E. Mersch, S.J., Le Corps Mystique du Christ, Etudes de Theologie Historique, 2 vols., 2nd edition, Louvain, 1936). It is high time now to return to this experience of the early Church which may provide us with a solid ground for a modern theological synthesis. Some other similes and metaphors were used by St. Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament, but much to the same purpose and effect: to stress the intimate and organic unity between Christ and those who are His. But, among all these various images, that of the Body is the most inclusive and impressive, is the most emphatic expression of the basic vision (The image of the Bride and her mystical marriage with Christ, Eph. 5:23f, express the intimate union. Even the image of the House built of many stones, the corner stone being Christ, Eph. 2:20f; cf. 1 Pet. 2:6, tends to the same purpose: many are becoming one, and the tower appears as it were built of one stone; cf. Hermans, Shepherd, Vis. 3, 2, 6, 8. And again “the People of God” is to be regarded as an organic whole. There is no reason whatever to be troubled by the variety of vocabularies used. The main idea and contention is obviously the same in all cases). Of course, no analogy is to be pressed too far or over‑emphasized. The idea of an organism, when used of the Church, has its own limitations. On the one hand, the Church is composed of human personalities, which never can be regarded merely as elements or cells of the whole, because each is in direct and immediate union with Christ and His Father‑the personal is not to be sacrificed or dissolved in the corporate, Christian “togetherness” must not degenerate into impersonalism. The idea of the organism must be supplemented by the idea of a symphony of personalities, in which the mystery of the Holy Trinity is reflected (cf. John 17:21 and 23), and this is the core of the conception of “catholicity” (sobornost, Cf. George Florovsky, “The Catholicity of the Church,” above). This is the chief reason why we should prefer a christological orientation in the theology of the Church rather than a pneumatological (Such as in Khomiakov’s or in Moehler’s Die Einheit in der Kirche). For, on the other hand, the Church, as a whole, has her personal centre only in Christ, she is not an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, nor is she merely a Spirit‑being community, but precisely the Body of Christ, the Incarnate Lord. This saves us from impersonalism without committing us to any humanistic personification. Christ the Lord is the only Head and the only Master of the Church. “In Him the whole structure is closely fitted together and grows into a temple holy in the Lord; in Him you too are being built together into a dwelling‑place for God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:21‑22, Bp. Challoner's version).
The Christology of the Church does not lead us into the misty clouds of vain speculations or dreamy mysticism. On the contrary, it secures the only solid and positive ground for proper theological research. The doctrine of the Church finds thereby its proper and organic place in the general scheme of the Divine Oeconomía of salvation. For we have indeed still to search for a comprehensive vision of the mystery of our salvation, of the salvation of the world.
One last distinction is to be made. The Church is still in statu viae and yet it is already in statu patriae. It has, as it were, a double life, both in heaven and on earth (Cf. St. Augustine in Evang. Joannis tract, 124, 5, ML, 35, 19f, 7). The Church is a visible historical society, and the same is the Body of Christ. It is both the Church of the redeemed, and the Church of the miserable sinners — both at once. On the historical level no final goal has yet been attained. But the ultimate reality has been disclosed and revealed. This ultimate reality is still at hand, is truly available, in spite of the historical imperfection, though but in provisional forms. For the Church is a sacramental society. Sacramental means no less than “eschatological.” To eschaton does not mean primarily final, in the temporal series of events; it means rather ultimate (decisive); and the ultimate is being realized within the stress of historical happenings and events. What is “not of this world” is here “in this world,” not abolishing this world, but giving to it a new meaning and a new value, “transvaluating” the world, as it were. Surely this is still only an anticipation, a “token” of the final consummation. Yet the Spirit abides in the Church. This constitutes the mystery of the Church: a visible “society” of frail men is an organism of the Divine Grace (See Khomiakov’s essay On the Church; English translation by W. J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, first published 1895, ch. 23, pp. 193-222).
The primary task of the historical Church is the proclamation of another world “to come.” The Church bears witness to the New Life, disclosed and revealed in Christ Jesus, the Lord and Saviour. This it does both by word and deed. The true proclamation of the Gospel would be precisely the practice of this New Life: to show faith by deeds (cf. Matt. 5:16).
The Church is more than a company of preachers, or a teaching society, or a missionary board. It has not only to invite people, but also to introduce them into this New Life, to which it bears witness. It is a missionary body indeed, and its mission field is the whole world. But the aim of its missionary activity is not merely to convey to people certain convictions or ideas, not even to impose on then a definite discipline or a rule of life, but first of all to introduce them into the New Reality, to convert them, to bring them through their faith and repentance to Christ Himself, that they should be born anew in Him and into Him by water and the Spirit. Thus the ministry of the Word is completed in the ministry of the Sacraments.
“Conversion” is a fresh start, but it is only a start, to be followed by a long process of growth. The Church has to organize the new life of the converted. The Church has, as it were, to exhibit the new pattern of existence, the new mode of life, that of the “world to come.” The Church is here, in this world, for its salvation. But just for this reason it has to oppose and to renounce “this” world. God claims the whole man, and the Church bears witness to this “totalitarian” claim of God revealed in Christ. The Christian has to be a “new creation.” Therefore he cannot find a settled place for himself within the limits of the “old world.” In this sense the Christian attitude is, as it were, always revolutionary with regard to the “old order” of “this world.” Being “not of this world” the Church of Christ “in this world” can only be in permanent opposition, even if it claims only a reformation of the existing order. In any case, the change is to be radical and total.
Historical failures of the Church do not obscure the absolute and ultimate character of its challenge, to which it is committed by its very eschatological nature, and it constantly challenges itself.
Historical life and the task of the Church are an antinomy, and this antinomy can never be solved or overcome on a historical level. It is rather a permanent hint to what is “to come” hereafter. The antinomy is rooted in the practical alternative which the Church had to face from the very beginning of its historical pilgrimage. Either the Church was to be constituted as an exclusive and “totalitarian” society, endeavouring to satisfy all requirements of the believers, both “temporal” and “spiritual,” paying no attention to the existing order and leaving nothing to the external world — it would have been an entire separation from the world, an ultimate flight out of it, and a radical denial of any external authority. Or the Church could attempt an inclusive Christianization of the world, subduing the whole of life to Christian rule and authority, to reform and to reorganize secular life on Christian principles, to build the Christian City. In the history of the Church we can trace both solutions: a flight to the desert and a construction of the Christian Empire. The first was practiced not only in monasticism of various trends, but in many other Christian groups and denominations. The second was the main line taken by Christians, both in the West and in the East, up to the rise of militant secularism, but even in our days this solution has not lost its hold on many people. But on the whole, both proved unsuccessful. One has, however, to acknowledge the reality of their common problem and the truth of their common purpose. Christianity is not an individualistic religion and it is not only concerned for the “salvation of the soul.” Christianity is the Church, i.e. a Community, the New People of God, leading its corporate life according to its peculiar principles. And this life cannot be split into departments, some of which might have been ruled by any other and heterogeneous principles. Spiritual leadership of the Church can hardly be reduced to an occasional guidance given to individuals or to groups living under conditions utterly uncongenial to the Church. The legitimacy of these conditions must be questioned first of all. The task of a complete re‑creation or re‑shaping of the whole fabric of human life cannot or must not be avoided or declined. One cannot serve two Masters and a double allegiance is a poor solution. Here the above‑mentioned alternative inevitably comes in. Everything else would merely be an open compromise or a reduction of the ultimate and therefore total claims. Either Christians ought to go out of the world, in which there is another Master besides Christ (whatever name this other Master may bear: Caesar or Mammon or any other and in which the rule and the goal of life are other than those set out in the Gospel — to go out and to start a separate society. Or again Christians have to transform the outer world, to make it the Kingdom of God as well, and introduce the principles of the Gospel into secular legislation.
There is an inner consistency in both programmes. And therefore the separation of the two ways is inevitable. Christians seem compelled to take different ways. The unity of the Christian task is broken. An inner schism arises within the Church: an abnormal separation between the monks (or the elite of the initiated) and the lay‑people (including clergy), which is far more dangerous than the alleged “clericalization” of the Church. In the last resort, however, it is only a symptom of the ultimate antinomy. The problem simply has no historical solution. A true solution would transcend history, it belongs to the “age to come.” In this age, on the historic plane, no constitutional principle can be given, but only a regulative one: a principle of discrimination, not a principle of construction.
For again each of the two programmes is self‑contradictory. There is an inherent sectarian temptation in the first: the “catholic” and universal character of the Christian message and purpose is here at least obscured and often deliberately denied, the world is simply left out of sight. And all attempts at the direct Christianization of the world, in the guise of a Christian State or Empire, have only led to the more or less acute secularization of Christianity itself. (For a more detailed treatment, see George Florovsky, The Antinomies of Christian History, which will be published in the Collected Works of George Florovsky).
In our time nobody would consider it possible for everyone to be converted to a universal monasticism or a realization of a truly Christian, and universal, State. The Church remain “in the world,” as a heterogeneous body, and the tension is stronger than it has ever been; the ambiguity of the situation is painfully left by everyone in the Church. A practical program for the present age can be deduced only from a restored understanding of the nature and essence of the Church. And the failure of all Utopian expectations cannot obscure the Christian hope: the King has come, the Lord Jesus, and His Kingdom is to come.
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