The Word of God and the Church from an Orthodox Perspective-4

14 June 2013

IV. The eschatological, ecclesiological and Christological dimension of the word of God

a. The eschatological criterion. First of all, we have to emphasize that the Christian eschatology is neither a denial of history, nor an attachment to history and the past; it is rather an invasion of the eschaton in our historical realities. The eschaton “invades” history via the Holy Spirit – chiefly during the Divine Eucharist – and it is within this framework that a true meaning is given to the terms ‘priesthood’, ‘the word of God’, ‘the Holy Bible’, and the life of the Church in general. Underlining the eschatological eschatological dimension of the Church we do not by any means discard the scientific interpretation of the Bible. It is not proper to say that all that biblical scholarship say are incorrect. The Church does not ignore scientific interpretation altogether; but scientific knowledge is not the means by which one acknowledges the Scripture as the word of God speaking to us. The Church has a different context, a different framework, in which she places the Bible, so that it can finally “speak” to us. All of these things therefore have to do with ecclesiology.  The key issue for the Church is the congregating of God’s people in a specific place and time, portraying the community of End Times.


However, after the influx of modernity into our theological thinking there is no eschatology incorporated into history.  History is completely separated from Eschatology. The End Times is either a separate chapter that will take place “afterwards” (cf. e.g. all the scholastic Handbooks of dogmatics, some “Orthodox” included) or, it is a charismatic experience of a select few, to be isolated from the framework of the historical community. In this way we are splitting in a traffic way Ecclesiology: the Church of Saints and the Church of the historical community. This is one, and that is another.  In this way, however, it is doubtful whether we can still call the historical community “Church”. The eschatological approach needs to be incorporated into the historical one, and this happens only during the Divine Eucharist, nowhere else.

From the early stages, and in agreement with the teaching, work and life of the Historical Jesus, the Church adopted a horizontal historical eschatology, an eschatology which identified the Church not by what she is in the present, but by what she will become in the eschaton. Consequently her mission was understood as a dynamic journey of the people of God as a whole towards the eschaton, with the Eucharist as the point of departure. This understanding, however, became interwoven very early with a vertical one.

This fundamental biblical and early Christian eucharistic/liturgical and eschatological understanding of the Church, by the third century AD began (under the intense ideological pressure of Christian Gnosticism and especially neo-Platonism) to gradually coexist with concepts promulgated by the Catechetical School of Alexandria. The type of spirituality and Christian ecclesiology which were developed around these circles did not have the eschaton (the Ω omega), as their point of reference, but the creation (the A alpha), the beginnings of human beings, humanity’s primal state of blessedness in paradise before the Fall. The main representatives of this school, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, gave Christian ecclesiology a new direction which, in Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ terms, was “not merely a change (trope), but a complete reversal (anatrope)”.[xxiv] Thus the Church ceased to be an icon of the eschaton and became instead an icon of the origin of beings, of creation,[xxv]  with the Alexandrians the concept is torn completely from its biblical roots in eschatology. The eschaton is no longer the focal point and apex of the Divine Economy. The direction of interest has been reversed, and now the focus is on creation. Thus we have a cosmological approach to the Church, and not an eschatological one, as in the Holy Scriptures. The Church is now understood, completely apart from the historical community, as a perfect and eternal Idea.

b. The Christological criterion. The eschatological ecclesiology is linked to Christology and the whole story about the one Persona and the two natures.  Starting with the dogma of the IV Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, according to which Christ together with the divine nature he also possesses a perfect human one, and taking into account the inability to subjugate His persona to the nature,[xxvi] the Christological criterion becomes essential in determining the profound theological meaning of the word of God. And this cannot be done without the eschatological and ecclesiological dimension we analyzed above.

The basic consequence of our Christology is that Christ Himself ceases to be an individual. It is not possible – nor will it ever be possible – to isolate Christ from His body, which is the communion of the Saints.  Christ, therefore, is an inclusive concept; He is a head, together with a body.  He cannot be imagined without the body; and that body is not a personal body – it is the body of the Church, the body of Saints.  This is why Christology is inseparable from Ecclesiology.  Therefore, the Church is not an interim situation, between the Resurrection and the End of Time. The notion “Church” is nothing other but the very Kingdom of God.

If this is so, the Church is not just a community, which we can perceive in juxtaposition to Christ. Christ doesn’t stand opposite the Church, or “face-to-face”; He is the very “I” of the Church. This is precisely the reason why the Church is Holy: because, as it is emphatically stated in the Divine Liturgy “One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ…”   Despite the sinfulness of her members the Church is Holy, because her personal identity is none other than the personal identity of Christ. And the word of God is not meant to build the social, moral, missional etc. awareness of the faithful. The social, ethical, and missional values are of course important, but they come only as a consequence of the ecclesial identity of the faithful. In addition, during the Eucharist, it is not the Church that is actually praying but Christ, who cannot of course be separated form the Church. He prays as a Church, and similarly the Church prays as Christ. This is a special characteristic of the eucharistic anaphora, which is addressed to the Father.

We have briefly outlined all the above, in order to declare clearly and firmly, that because the Church does not have her own “I”, her own identity, but her identity is Christ, the word of God – at least in the Divine Liturgy – has divine and not human characteristics; it refers not to ordinary, rational, historical components, but to eschatological, ecclesiological ones.

V. Some concluding thoughts

Having said all these and being so critical to the modern understanding of the word of God and its relation to the Church (which I have clearly defined as an exclusively eschatological reality), I do not by any means suggest a return to a pre-critical approach to all theological issues, including those pertaining to the Bible. I do not hide my positive appreciation to post-modernism and my discontent with modernism, if not for anything else at least because it has over-rationalized everything from social and public life to scholarship, from emotion to imagination, seeking to over-control and to limit the irrational, the aesthetic and perhaps even the sacred. Modernism in its search to rationalize and historicize everything, modernism has transformed not only what we know and how we know it, but also how we understand ourselves. And this applies to theology and to the Church.[xxvii]

Having said all this, it is important to reaffirm what sociologists of knowledge very often point out, i.e. that modernism, counter (alternative) modernism, post-modernism, and even de-modernism, are always simultaneous processes. Otherwise post-modernism can easily end up and evaporate in a neo-traditionalism, and in the end neglect or even negate the great achievements of the Enlightenment and the ensuing scholarly critical “paradigm”. The rationalistic sterility of modern life, has turned to the quest for something new, something radical, which nevertheless is not always new, but very often old recycled: neo-romanticism, neo-mysticism, naturalism, etc.   In fact, all these neo-isms share a great deal in common with the early 18th century reactions to the modernist revolution, which the Church and her theology should unequivocally reject.[xxviii]

The Catholic Church with Vatican II, and especially with her Constitution Dei verbum, has been pioneer among our traditional Churches in reconsidering our attitude to modernism, and rightly so. Although during that council  (a historic event for the entire Christian world) many eastern Orthodox views were adopted, with regard to the Bible, and all pertaining issues like the “word of God”, the impression is, at least to my understanding, that the Catholic Church paid at that specific moment more attention to her western sisters and brothers, again rightly so. The time has come, I believe, that the Catholics reassess the Orthodox perspectives, at least the invaluable contributions made by the Eastern Catholics of that time (Bishop Edelby and others). After all, despite any objection a biblical scholar like me can have about His Holiness personal book on The Jesus of Nazareth (2007 in many languages and by many publishers), this book is a signal for such a change.[xxix]


[xxiv] J.Zizioulas, Issues of Ecclesiology, University notes Thessaloniki 1992 (still unpublished in Greek) p. 28. Cf. also his Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church, SVS Press: Crestwood 1985.

[xxv] Christ was primarily considered as the source of man’s union with God and as the recapitulation, in some sense, of man’s fallen nature. But “recapitulation” has ceased to be understood biblically. (cf. also St. Irenaeus’ use of “recapitulation”  in his Adver. Her. 3, based on the pauline theology. One can also compare how finally St. Athanasius articulated this concept more definitively in his classic statement that “He [God] became man so that we could become God”, On Incarnation, 54:). The Alexandrians, under the influence of the ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism, believed that the original condition of beings represents perfection and that all subsequent history is a decline. The mystery of the incarnation contributes almost nothing to this system of thought. On Origen’s soteriology and its minimal salvific significance of the Christ’s human nature see A.Grillmeier,  Christ in Christian Tradition, Atlanta 1975Ç; also R.Taft, «The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Structure and Interpretation on the Eve of Iconoclasm»,  DOP  34-35 (1980-81)  45-75  p. 62, n. 79.

[xxvi] Note here that it is not nature which determines the persona of Christ but His persona that assumes the nature, a theme that the Cappadocian Fathers developed.

[xxvii] The phenomenon of Postmodernity and its bearing upon the theology and the mission of the Orthodox Church was examined in my book Postmodernity and the Church. The Challenge of Orthodoxy, Akritas Publications Athens 2002 (in Greek), now incorporated in a newer book of mine entitled Unity and Witness, Epikentro Publication, Thessaloniki 2007 (also in Greek).

[xxviii] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn’s most recent book Jesus Remembered (vol. 1 of his projected trilogy Christianity in the Making), Eerdmans Grand Rapids 2003, pp. 92ff. Also in my “The Universal Claims of Orthodoxy and the Particularity of its Witness in a Pluralistic World,” Diakonia and Logos, Festschrift  to Archbishop Christodoulos, Armos Publications, Athens 2004, pp. 195- 212.

[xxix]  If I am not mistaken, the revision of the Bible de Jerusalem, initiated by the pioneering for the Catholic Vatican II revolution in biblical matters L’ ECOLE BIBLIQUE of Jerusalem.