Orthodox Principles in the Service of an Ecumenical Theological Education
Nikos A. Nissiotis, Orthodox Theology and Diakonia,
ed. Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1981, p. 329- 338
Between the efforts of humanity to preserve and develop its identity by respecting the human person and the efforts of the separated Christian traditions to restore the wholeness of the Gospel message through their fellowship in the ecumenical movement, there exists a relationship which is implied in all definitions of "ecumenical" and "ecumenical education." The world is looking to the Church to contribute, through her own oneness and renewal, to the task of building one human family, liberating peoples from all kinds of historical injustice, exploitation, and discrimination based on race or sex and eliminating the divisions among classes of society and nations.
In using the term "ecumenical," we are referring to that which "helps to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole Church to bring the Gospel to the whole world." The main element of this definition-the search for the unity and renewal of the Church in her relationship to the world-implies for ecumenical education a threefold task: first, an affirmation of the wholeness of the Gospel, comprising the good news of salvation for all human beings; second, an emphasis on the need of the churches to renew their lives and commitment as they grow together within one fellowship; and third, a call to students of theology to confess Christ through involvement in the struggle to build a just, participatory, and sustainable society.
It is of paramount importance for the renewal of theological linking today that we undertake a critical self-appraisal of our application of these principles of renewal, unity, and involvement, ach theology needs to examine its ability to build up an authentic ecumenical education on this
three-fold basis, seeking to alert theological educators, students, and church people to the ecumenical vocation.
Eastern Orthodox theology possess sound principles for contributing to such an ecumenical education, being nourished by the experience of an intense liturgical life, with a very strong emphasis on eschatology and cosmic salvation. These include:
1. A global vision of the divine economy in relation to the whole of history. The Church is a pars pro toto, a miniature of Creation in the process of renewal and salvation, as the "kaine ktisis." The oneness of the Church is the vehicle for the regathering of all things into the oneness of the whole universe. The liturgy invites everybody to pray for the "union of all , " and the faithful share in the foretaste of the restoration of the whole Creation.
2. Orthodox theology, thus, does not allow any simple division between sacred and secular and does not favor any kind of sectarianism in the Church, either within herself or in opposition to the world. On account of its fundamental principle of universal salvation, the world is seen as potentially saved. The historical reality has, therefore, a primary importance, and the Church does not alienate herself from any world situation.
3. This attitude affects the understanding of the Church as the world that has been already saved and transformed, or the new Creation, with the implication that the Church cannot but be one throughout the centuries. For the Orthodox, a particular confessional identity separating a local church into a new ecclesial community is totally impossible. The Church is identical only with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church , in unbroken continuity right from the beginning of the Christian era.
4. In this sense every local church possesses the fullness of divine grace and catholicity within all different cultures as part of the whole Church belonging to all times and all places. The local church is never foreign to the prevailing culture of the place where she exists and yet retains her identity with the One Catholic and Apostolic Church .
5. The Church is permanently renewed by the cleansing operation of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth promised by Christ and given to her on the day of Pentecost. Being able to invoke the Spirit of God is the only assurance the Church has of re maining in full communion with Christ and maintaining at the same time a positive and constructive relationship with the world. Guided by these fundamental principles in the understanding of the three-fold task described above, Orthodox theology is by its very nature ecumenical, and has contributed, especially through its fellowship in the World Council of Churches, in the following ways to the ecumenical movement:
1. By a fuller understanding of the Church as the presupposition of all sacraments and of the word of God. The Church is not only identical with the gathering of the local congregation but also with the event of Christ as enacted again and again in her sacramental life and her kerygma by the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply an association of believers whose life can be modified by the application of new administrative rules. She is the Body of Christ, and her nature is a mystery in which one shares only by faith and full commitment. Although the Church is composed of repenting sinners, she is holy, being continually cleansed by the Spirit.
2. By professing an absolute unity between Scripture and tradition, defeating the dualism in Western theology of the so-called two sources of revelation, which led to the problem of authority in the Church, the acceptance or rejection of magisterium, and the acceptance or rejection of tradition, the opposition between Bible and tradition.
3. By the importance of the liturgical-sacramental life centered on the Eucharist, the event which reaffirms the Church as the Body of Christ, renewed by the Spirit and preserving her identity in all world situations. The Church, thus understood, does not depend on confessional statements or scholastic definition. She is her own life in Christ. Ecclesiology is a commentary on the operation of the Holy Spirit. Church structure, apostolic ministry and succession have to be interpreted through a charismatic pneumatology. Church orders are not de jure derived from divine potestas or a pyramidal hierarchy but are a communal event, a gift of grace to the Ecclesia, which guarantees its authenticity. That means that there is no qualitative difference in essence between a general and a special ministry. Instead there is a particular, indispensable diakonia, incarnating not an order and a discipline but rather the love of the Spirit , binding the members of the Church community into one body. There cannot be an organic unity in the Church without one mutually recognized ministry, and each local church is recognizable through the one who presides at the liturgy and thus unites it with the universal Church.
4. By its understanding of the unity of the Church, which is given in one faith, one baptism, and one spirit and is gradually being realized in the life of the Church. Unity is both a gift of the Spirit and also a goal which the faithful must strive to achieve so as to grow into mature manhood or womanhood in the image of Christ. This dynamic concept of unity is a sine qua non for authentic Church life and the indispensable precondition of the presence and action of the Church and her ministry in and to the world.
5. By the insistence that unity in faith and praxis, with the bond of love and peace, is the condition for sacramental communion. The non acceptance of intercommunion by the Orthodox in ecumenical gatherings should not be interpreted as a judgment against other churches. It is the expression of an attitude consistent with the fundamental principle that unity is full union and communion. The practice of intercommunion must presuppose this kind of full union or should lead to the immediate abolition of church divisions among those who practice it. The Orthodox, without passing any judgment on those practicing intercommunion, play the necessary role in reminding the ecumenical movement of the final requirements for re-establishing a full church like the Orthodox, which is in the end a rather positive contribution to a realistic, hopeful, and authentic vision of the unity to come.
On the whole one can say that the Orthodox have helped ecumenical theological circles to regain their sacramental ecclesiology, the centrality of the liturgy in Christian life, and the theology of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, controversial theological issues between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, like the question of ministry and apostolic succession, have been discussed in a more flexible manner with the broader Orthodox vision of Eucharistic theology, which can overcome a unilateral, confessional theology.
On the other hand, Orthodox theology has certainly benefited from:
1.The insistence of the Western reformed theologians on the centrality of the Bible and the kerygma of the Church;
The critical approach which is wary of an easy acceptance of church history as the unique criterion and norm of present church life;
The work of the historical critical method applied to biblical texts;
The need for permanent renewal of church life and theology.
The continuous concern for man's daily life and the sharing in human efforts to improve the human condition;
The missionary character of Christian theology as contextual and inductive, i.e., in permanent relationship with a changing cultural and social environment, which has to be taken seriously as a norm for theological thinking and methodology.
While the contribution of Orthodox theology is undeniable regarding ecclesiological subjects in the realm of ecumenical education, it appears that its contribution in the field of renewal and social ethics is not proportionately high. The Orthodox appear to be reactionary as regards certain recent trends in the World Council of Churches that are considered by many to be vital to an authentic and full ecumenism, for example: attempts to create new forms of Church, to readapt church structures in conformity with the modern world, and, especially, assisting in liberation movements of all kinds.
It is true that the Orthodox, by their total devotion to the "inner" sacramental life of the Church, are tempted to neglect this other dimension of ecumenism. It seems that their fidelity to their distinctive Church life has led them to a one-sided, partial interpretation and application of their ecumenical vocation. There is a kind of esoteric language developing in Orthodox circles which proves to be more and more incompatible with the ecumenical mandate's sense of profound responsibility; they are not, in fact, fully and rightly interpreting their ecumenical tradition.
Social ethics and liberation movements which help to create a just, participatory, and sustainable society, by eliminating the power centers of unjust structures and of racial and sex discrimination, are not a political program, nor are they a reflection of the outlook of certain very revolutionary societies in the so-called Third World . This action is implied in the doctrine of the Trinity as communion revealing the communal nature of the whole Creation; in the mystery of the Incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection, pointing to the human-centered world reality, which needs continual restructuring, defeating all kinds of attempts against human dignity; in the operation of the Holy Spirit renewing the whole world by libertating it from the forces of evil which disrupt its peace. For the Orthodox, the liturgy itself is linked to all aspects of daily life history is taken into serious consideration. The role of the Christian and of the churches is not simply reconciliatory, passively irenic, assisting the poor, and the sick a posteriori, but also revolutionary in the face of injustice and exploitation, preventive in the face of threats of famine and sickness, and creative of new, more just and more participatory structures.
Confessing Christ today as an ecumenical task does not imply only fidelity to creeds of the past and spiritual devotion to the sacramental life. It is precisely the confession of the faith through ancient creeds and churchly devotion that forces Christians into a dynamic presence in the world. This is not another modern, politicized, activist, and human-centered act of confessing Christ, but precisely the other side of the same coin, the other indispensable, inseparable dimension of the one and the same confession.
Under difficult historical circumstances, among enemies of the Christian faith, the Orthodox churches were obliged to preserve their faith by concentrating on their church life "internally," "mystically," "liturgically." Nor were they allowed to interpret and apply their faith in the way the ecumenical nature of their church life and theology would imply. But these restrictions of the past should not lead them now to a one-sided fulfillment of their ecumenical vocation. Orthodox patristic thought, as it must be followed up and reinterpreted today, is equally as activist, creative, and revolutionary -(in a positive sense) as other kinds of theology that profess a strong social gospel of liberation today. The difference, perhaps, is only that patristic thought is continually fed by a sacramental-ecclesiological vision of the world that does not allow any kind of absolutization of sociopolitical action.
Here, certainly, Orthodox ecumenical education must allow itself to be affected by contemporary trends of ecumenical activism. Orthodox ecumenical educators must be willing to accept a beneficial exchange, with non-Orthodox ecumenical teachers and students, of the elements missing from their respective ecumenical curricula. This does not signify that they are to copy or imitate a type of social gospel foreign to the principles of Orthodox ecumenical theology . In this connection the following remarks can be made:
1.Sociopolitical action cannot become a substitute for the sacramental life, but is its natural and self-evident outcome.
2. Liberation activism is not another confession of faith, uniting Christians of separated traditions into a new type of Church commitment and reality, but the same ancient act of confessing the faith in its right and indispensable application.
3.There are not different kinds of Gospel messages to be applied in a pluralistic society by a multiform human-centered activism, but the one all-embracing and all-uniting Gospel.
4.Though the need to change the world's political, social, and economic structures may be a priority on the agenda of a local church if human dignity is under immediate threat, it cannot become a criterion of church life which excludes those who cannot share in this activism; sociopolitical puritanism should not replace the old ethical puritanism, leading the Church to further divisions and schisms.
5. Sociopolitical action cannot become the unique and final Christian confession and shape the core of ecumenical education, but it must always be authorized, cleansed from human absolutisms by a serious Christian discernment of the Spirit. Thus the Orthodox may regain from other church traditions a dimension missing from their ecumenical theological education and at the same time contribute a certain restraint to any extremist tendencies in the application of the Christian social gospel.
As a matter of fact, some enriching exchange is taking place between Orthodox theological education and non-Orthodox traditions within the ecumenical movement. To favor and foster this exchange, several chairs in ecumenics have been established in Orthodox faculties, and far more chairs in Orthodox theology have been created in Protestant and Roman Catholic universities and in church institutions in non-Orthodox countries.
It is true, however, that in most cases this exchange is not really taking place. It remains one more dimension in theological education. It is also descriptive and informative in character. No deep er influence is exercised on the way of thinking about our theological task today. Though there are some interesting exceptions, theologies remain untouched in their traditional vision. There are only specialized theologians, who are able to interpret more authentically the others' traditions. In this respect, however, a certain progress has taken place. There is also more readiness to include the others' approach while preparing books on theology, without a defensive attitude.
Theological chairs in ecumenics are of great help and we should wish that their numbers continue to increase. What is more necessary, however, is (a) more frequent two-way exchange of more students and teachers (not only Orthodox students studying in non-Orthodox faculties); (b) the establishment of institutes of an ecumenical character to provide possibilities for life and prayer together; (c) attempts to teach theology through teams of lecturers of Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds; and (d) the introduction of extension programs in theological faculties with the participation of non-theological educators.
Especially if we want to promote a deeper knowledge of Orthodoxy, we should organize special courses of intensive study of Orthodox theology and Church life. The annual liturgical seminar for non-Orthodox students, initiated at Bossey twenty years ago, can serve as an example. This fifteen-day intensive course combines theoretical instruction with attendance at the Holy Week offices of the Orthodox Church, thereby giving the students a double enrichment.
In all the methods we use to promote ecumenical education, we should try to bear in mind that ecumenics is not just one more theological discipline for specialists. Rather, it is intended to permeate the whole theological curriculum with an alert ecumenical spirit. This is especially true in the interaction of Orthodox and non-Orthodox undertakings. Here, however, we cannot say that there has been satisfactory progress. In the area of studies of Orthodoxy there is among some non-Orthodox a sentimental pro-Orthodox attitude, which narrows ecumenism into a sympathy, an appreciation of the symbolism and richness of liturgy, and an admiration of the exotic or extravagant elements. On the other hand, the Orthodox must appreciate the ethos of the non-Orthodox and be ready to listen and comprehend attitudes and positions that may appear to he unilateral or extremist. Here, ecumenical education must be concerned with very profound problems, not necessarily all of a theological nature. There are prejudices derived from cultural, political, and ethical presuppositions which affect the theological attitude of an Orthodox vis-a-vis a Roman Catholic or a Protestant; a certain psychological barrier often renders the possibility of a new, open horizon towards a non-Orthodox very difficult. Education, in the narrow sense of increasing knowledge about subject matter, does not help to change attitudes at this point. What is needed is a thoroughgoing exchange of experience and sharing of community life. This must have priority in any exchange of theological programs with traditions foreign to the Orthodox.
The same difficulties exist with those non-Orthodox who are eager to penetrate the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy is deeply enmeshed in its cultural and national backgrounds as well as in specific ethical choices the Orthodox have to make in their particular environment. One cannot study Orthodoxy dissociated from these non-theological elements. That is why a non-Orthodox can enter into the life and mind of the Orthodox churches only if he is ready to appreciate the popular religiosity of their members and the simplicity of their appreciation of national and church history, as well as their uncritical acceptance of the sacramental life that sanctifies their entire social, family, and professional existence.
In that end, what is necessary is not to overemphasize the need for a special Orthodox/non-Orthodox axis, thereby intensifying one particular branch of ecumenical education. Although we accept this as an area requiring special attention, experience has convinced us that this "specialization" should be treated as an integral part of the broad ecumenical concern. It would be a tactical error to isolate the Orthodox/non-Orthodox axis as if this were a special ; area on account of the particularity (strangeness, extravagance, conservativism) of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox must be involved in ecumenical education as a whole, feeling that they are making their contribution by shaping it from within. There cannot be a true exchange of educational experiences nor can ecumenical education in the service of the Church be truly authentic without the wholehearted participation of the Orthodox. Unless the Orthodox are accepted without the slightest open or hidden discrimination-arising from the fact that they appear at first sight to be conservative, past-oriented, and politically hesitant when confronted with radical liberation theologies- they cannot share to the full extent of t heir potential in the potential in the promotion of ecumenical theological education. Their contribution in developing a more comprehensive program could be most fruitfull, given their global vision of the relationship between nature and grace, Church and world, Church and state. There is a particular qualitative catholicity that Orthodox devotion presupposes and professes in very simple, non-theological terms. Such an existential approach can be of some importance for ecumenical education today.