Lord's Voice | Diakonia | Links | Baptism | Multimedia








The Church as a Sacramental Vision and the Challenge of Christian Witness

Nikos A. Nissiotis Church, Kingdom, World- The Church as Mystery and Prophetic Sign, ed. G. Limouris World Council of Churches, Geneva 1986, p. 99-109

Ecclesiology remains the crucial issue for Christian theology in ecumenical perspective. Because of the growing interchurch dialogues resulting from the ecumenical movement, this special item in systematic theology becomes more and more the focus of interest in modern theological research. At the same time, it becomes evident that in ecclesiology the vast spectrum of theological study assumes a concrete shape and a specialized expression. As a response to the challenges for intensifying interchurch relations, or for making theology more explicitly relevant and concrete in the modern world, ecclesiology today becomes the meeting point for church- centred ecumenism and church- centred theology.

It is not astonishing, therefore, that such a rich theological production has been manifest in this area of theology during these last seven decades. One cannot fail to appreciate the intense ecclesiological research work based on sound biblical premises and historical-patristic studies. Ecclesiology has therefore contributed not only to better understanding between separate Christian confessions, but also towards a more complete self-understanding on the part of each confession; indeed, it has given a new impetus for the renewal of Christian theology itself.

The question now is how to evaluate this extremely rich production, and use it in an appropriate comprehensive and synthetic way, not so much for producing additional statements of confessional ecclesiological positions — this only risks repeating positions which are well known already — but rather in the service of renewal both in ecumenism and in theological work. It seems to me that our tasks at this moment are to use this enormous ecclesiological literature and attempt a new type of ecclesiological approach, with the intention of promoting an ecclesiology of convergence and mutual enrichment between our one-sided ecclesiological positions. It is precisely this kind of ecclesiological approach, which is behind, or better, at the basis of such preconsensus documents as “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” of Faith and Order.

There is clear and sufficient evidence that all ecclesiological approaches can be distinguished into two main streams of thought. Without risking a dangerous generalization — because there are a lot of variations within each one of them — we can detect in all ecclesiologies in contemporary systematic theology on the one hand a pro-catholicizing tendency, and on the other a pro-congregational tendency. There are many attempts at mutual appreciation and at a gratifying exchange between these tendencies, but we are still in the process of constructing a genuine, all- embracing ecclesiology incorporating both elements.

When one regards ecclesiology in ecumenical perspective, we become fully aware, after half a century of work, that there is still a strong dualism prevailing in contemporary ecclesiological thinking. There is a certain “distance” resulting from the opposition between two different ecclesiologies . The first is an ecclesiology conceived on the basis of incorporation of all in Christ, and sharing in the same experience in an inseparable single communion as common members of one “sacramental” body. The second is an ecclesiology deriving itself from the fact of the regathering of the people of God by his word, and sharing in the prophetic actualization of the evangelical message in the world.

The one tendency, in other words, emphasizes the element of belongingness to the body of Christ through definite sacramental events as the sine qua non of the church's existence. This is accompanied by a mystical experience of an inner, spiritual communion with all the saints of the church as immaculate and holy. The other tendency emphasizes belongingness to the body of Christ as a result of a Christ- centred appeal and vocation within the gathered community, which “hears” or acknowledges the absolute supremacy of the word of God addressed to, and exercised in, the world in a prophetic way.

Experience within the mystical body of Christ on the one hand, and kerygmatic -prophetic adherence and consistent devotion and action on the other, are the fundamental elements — amongst many other ones resulting from them — which distinguish these two tendencies in ecclesiology.

Certainly, this schematic (and perhaps, in some respects, too easy and arbitrary) separation does not do justice to the reality of church life in either case. This is because, in ecclesial praxis, i.e. in the actual praxis of the churches and their devotional, liturgical and evangelical-missionary action, there is an inevitable interpenetration of the two tendencies as described above. But I would still maintain that there is clear evidence, especially in ecclesiology as well as in the positions taken over current issues of the life of the church in relation to its own renewal and to the renewal of the world, which make this distinction clearly manifest. Of course we can defend the idea that the “mystical body” tendency includes the kerygmatic -prophetic tendency, and vice-versa, but in reality our ecclesiological thinking, and the corresponding presence and action of our church in the world, betrays our commitment to one view over the other and this one-sidedness is at the basis of all later disagreements over specific ecclesiological issues.

There is, on the Eastern Orthodox-catholicizing side, a permanent reference to a kind of ecclesial “ontology”, i.e. a special ontological affirmation by faith and praxis — expressed especially in the liturgy — of the being of the church in itself, beyond the adherence, the loyalty or disloyalty, and the holiness or sinfulness of its human members. This affirmation is due to the direct and unshakable connection between the head, Christ, and the body, the members as maintained by the operation of the Holy Spirit cleansing the church and preserving it as holy (though composed of sinful members). Without denying that a similar trend exists in the life of the churches of the other type, and perhaps that a kind of church ontology can be found in some of the leading reformers also, the truth is that there is no similar insistence there on the permanent, transcending element in the existence of the church itself. This is seen clearly in the different appreciation each side has for the value of church tradition, for the priestly nature of ministry, and for the permanent validity of church structures in their continuity throughout history.

It is because of this ecclesiological “ontology”, for instance, that the Eastern Orthodox “never treats the earthy aspect of the church in isolation but thinks always of the church in Christ and the Holy Spirit. . . and starts with the special relationship which exists between the church and God”. It is because of this reference that the priorities given in ecclesiology are expressed by subjects like the body of Christ, or the bride of Christ, the insistence on the Trinitarian basis for the communion of the church, the interpretation of the church as a continuous Pentecost, or as the celestial Jerusalem established in history, reflecting in it the permanent divino -human intercourse as the image of the incarnate word.

We may speak here of a verticalism of ontological affirmation and mystical experience in the liturgy and the sacraments, with an attendant strong pneumatological -charismatic, eucharistic -sacramental, and eschatological elements. But historical facticity and reality are equally important for a holistic ecclesiology which wants to be based, as it should be, on authentic Christological premises. The question remains, however, how far this kind of ecclesiology could include such historical elements without losing its own “ontological” and sacramental self- affirmation. Certainly this attitude or, better, this necessary extension, would be expected from the evangelical-congregational tendency and from the notion of the people of God in order that both tendencies might converge into one common, more complete ecclesiology capable of contributing to the study of the relationship between the unity of the church and the renewal of the world.


I. The catholicity of the church in relation to the universality of the world

The first and paramount task of the Eastern ecclesiology would be the more inclusive concept of church catholicity. This seems to me to be the key-notion and reality for the study of our theme of church unity and the world's renewal. This is because catholicity is very important amongst the marks of the church directly related to the unity of the church. In fact, all of the four marks of the church are attributed strictly to the church as such. But it would be a great error if we use them as statements of identity only, and not also as points of reference. As there cannot be a self- sufficient oneness of the church for itself alone, without reference to and for the world's realities of a broken human community, in the same way there cannot exist a self-limited and self-perfected catholicity without a reference to the already existing self-consciousness of humankind as experiencing life in a universal, worldwide history. It is especially an Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology which has the task of expounding such an idea of church catholicity based on its traditional, all-embracing and all- inclusive cosmic Christology and pneumatology.

a) Qualitative with geographical catholicity

Orthodox ecclesiologists usually give priority to the qualitative notion of catholicity over the commonly accepted geographical, quantitative understanding of the term. They use the etymology of the Greek word “ katholikos ” as composed off êáôÜ and üëïí thus pointing to wholeness rather than to universal meaning, because in the latter case one should use a term deriving from êáôÜ ðáíôüò or ìåôÜ ðÜíôáò . In this case the Orthodox intend to underline the fullness of grace and truth given to all ecclesial gatherings sharing in the sacramental life with the bishop at their centre. On the other hand, they want to reduce the simplistic, massive and centralized quantitative-universalistic catholicity. Their intention is to prove the priority of “what” and “how” of God's full revelation of his truth over an objectivized and universally institutionalized reality.

This fundamental approach in Orthodox ecclesiology centres around the fullness of God's act and presence amongst his faithful, gathered into one visible communion through the Christ event and in the operation of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly there is a priority of the sacramental- eucharistic communion over the universal extension of it which is its result. When we say “catholic”, we mean first “comprising all truth” and not expansion of the institution established on a worldwide scale. We emphasize the depth-dimension of catholicity as representing the totality, wholeness and perfection of the triune God's act of creating, restoring and fulfilling his cosmos as a whole through a personal, concrete reestablishment of his communion with specific persons in a given place at a given time.

Catholicity is, therefore, a notion which can be applied in its qualitative sense for describing the wholeness of God's act of creating, saving, and restoring humankind and the whole world. God, because he is love and therefore personal communion in himself, gives his whole and full grace when he acts in divine economy in and through three distinctive persons. Wholeness of personal communion pre-exists, precedes and essentially postulates the basic creative act of God as well as all of his saving acts in history. Personal-ecclesial communion has priority over all other forms which make it manifest in history.

It would have been, however, a one-sided conclusion of this qualitative priority if one had interpreted it as an individual-mystical experience excluding, or even minimizing, the importance of the historical worldwide facticity of the same notion of qualitative catholicity. The emphasis of the Orthodox, here, intends to ground on a more solid basis the “spiritual” value of the visibility and universality of the church communion in the whole world. Catholicity, expressed and experienced as a total act of sacramental communion, here and now in history and the small local eucharistic communion, validates, exalts and enacts more deeply and fully the universal dimension of catholicity. The quantitative- geographic notion of catholicity is not a secondary one, but it is inherent in the qualitative one as inseparably linked with it. Priority here does not mean exclusiveness or absolutization . On the contrary, this kind of qualitative catholicity “makes” the geographical its immediate outcome, the proof and the absolutely necessary reality of God's total act in and for the whole world.

The concepts of “wholeness” and “everywhere” relate now “ontologically”, i.e. they are both grounded in the one total act of God as equally God-given by his immediate personal contact with humankind through distinctive persons in communion, and in a whole redeemed and restored Creation. “Wholeness” and “everywhere” relates as do “personal” and “cosmic” in the salvation story of the Christian faith. One revitalizes the “whole world” as a restored wholeness of the truth made in it through a concrete person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is proved in the Spirit to be the Christ of God. The cosmic dimension in Christian faith passes through personal communion and universalism for becoming catholicity in both the qualitative and quantitative-geographical senses, but always out of a “small” concrete event, the communion of the ekklesia in each place through which and only through which one becomes a member of the catholic church “everywhere”. It is in this way that one should better understand the patristic phrase “the catholic church which is to be found in the whole oikoumene ”. Universality, which in the ecclesiological sense is a fundamentally ontological term and therefore more deeply grounded in the creative and saving act of God, is of absolutely greater importance since it corresponds more fully to the qualitative “catholic” sense of creation. This is also “not in place but in essence”, as God made everything out of the wholeness of his being as love and “his full will and logos”.

b) Ekklesia with ktisis

This understanding of qualitative catholicity, including the historical reality and the whole created cosmos, makes us conceive the church always in relationship with and together with the divine act of creation. It is only in the ecclesial sacramental communion that we can conceive a full doctrine of creation. The origin, means and purpose of creation can be grasped only in the church and in connection with the “wholeness” and “everywhere” dimensions of the ecclesial reality, i.e. with the total revelation of God as creator of “all things” restored by him in Christ. The self-evident consequence of “wholeness” and “everywhere” is “all things” ( ôÜ ðÜíôá ), as implied by the inseparable connection of God's full action revealing the “wholeness” of his truth through the ekklesia to the whole world as the creator of “all things” by and in his logos and renewed and fulfilled in his Spirit.

The ecclesial understanding and experience of the creation is deeply grounded, ontologically and existentially, in the biblical affirmation that God “created” everything, “recapitulated” all things, and “restored” them in his logos, who has been given by him to be the head of the body which is the church (Col. i: 18), and further that the Holy Spirit fulfills the destiny of the whole creation, which is expecting together with the children of God, and in travail and groaning, its final liberation (Rom. 8:21 — 22). The ecclesial communion represents, incarnates and enacts this biblical basis by incorporating the whole of creation within its sacra-mental being and existence in and together with the world in an inseparable unity.

This approach to the ecclesial understanding of creation has immediate and important repercussions for the themes of church unity, sacramental vision, and witness in the world and further for their relation with its renewal.

First, there is a deeper and broader unity of “all things” rooted in the creative act of the Trinity of God caused by his essence, which is love, leading to communion, communal operation in creation, and communal experience of it in and through the church. The logos's creative “principle” is life and the creative energy transcending, permeating and uniting all things. The logos as hypostasis, endows the whole creation with love and meaning by communicating life which is in him (John 1:4) and his life is identical with inning, sense and reason, i.e. intelligibility, value and beauty, will, goodness and feeling. His life is in this sense relating material, biological and spiritual elements in an absolute unity within human beings and Hough them in the whole cosmos. That is why “his life is the light of men” (John 1:4) and in him everything is recapitulated “becoming thus the head of the body” (Col. 1:15 — 18). The creative “ arche ” (principle) therefore is fully identical with the unity realized within time in the ecclesial communion by the Spirit in virtue of the logos incarnate, crucified and risen, and of the event of Pentecost. The unity principle is deeper and broader than the confessional church unity which is a nucleus, a sign, a manifestation and also the real presence, as microcosm, of the unity of the whole creation. The cosmic dimension of the logos' creativity implies at unity is the authentic proof of the logos being, as creator, the life-light all men. The unity of the whole cosmos, then, is the fundamental life-principle and power, as a continuous process of life from the origin of the creation by God, “who has made of one blood all nations (and everything) to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). The purpose of the creation is the unity of all things under the authority of God so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:27). Unity of all things is given in creation and in the process of life towards its fulfillment. Alongside the given unity in “One Faith, One Baptism by the One Spirit” we have to stride “till we all come to the unity into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Cosmic unity is the fulfillment of the creations its telos in logos, as he is given to be “the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fillet all in all” (Eph. 112-23).

Second, this understanding creation leads to a comprehensive image of the whole historical reality realized and experienced in the ecclesial communion. Creation, as nature ( physis ) with all of its realities, appears to be like a living organism with a deep, unshaken, inner coherence. Alongside the ekklesia but always together with it, and through it, there is the biblical term ktisis for creation. Ktisis includes God's creative act out of his love, the meaning of nation in his logos and the continuous perfection and renewal of all things in Christ by the Spirit: “If any man be in Christ (he) is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5, 7) In this way God, man, nature and “all things” are expressed by the term ktisis and are inseparably linked, and share together, in the creative sustaining and all-renewing and uniting one grace of God. Ktisis as the biblical term for creation, speaks of the meaningful act of God in his logos creating “all things” with a definite purpose. Ktisis denotes the solidarity of man with nature which is given by the creator, within the one and same creative and renewing act in the logos, struggling to fulfill their purpose together in this history. Ekklesia is always therefore with ktisis in solidarity with it, being its hidden focus, a restored image and a prefiguration of its fulfillment and telos in the kingdom of God which is already among us and is still coming and shall be finally realized at the end of time.

Third, it becomes evident that this approach to the full sense of catholicity (qualitative and geographical-quantitative) endows history and material things with a paramount value in the logos of creation. History becomes a meaning-bearing event with inner cohesion and continuity as a process of life towards a definite telos . In the logos which takes flesh is revealed also the supreme value of material things for a meaningful creation. History and material things are not simply the place in which the sacred history of the divine economy is taking place, but they are organically inter-related with revelation as its form, i.e. as its qualitative presence here and now. This goes beyond any kind of historical dialectical materialism which professes the autonomy of man, man who deals by his own spirit with the infinite possibilities of nature, thus reducing history to a closed system which realizes only its own purposes. This qualitative-quantitative understanding of ecclesial catholicity incorporates history and matter organically within the creative act of God in logos. Nature is no longer merely instrumental or exploited material. It belongs, as ktisis to the existence and positive reality and givenness of creation out of God's love and purpose for it. The “logos- ktisis ” as creation becomes ekklesia and renewed human existence. Therefore, nature shares (as the self-evident event) in the revelation as a living organism, having the same origin in God's love and the same purpose: the liberation of the children of God. History is becoming ktisis also, and nature becomes a historical meaningful event. Matter is neither itself the creator, nor does it have autonomous life from itself, nor is it a simple instrument of inferior value in God's creative plan and act. Matter is the open possibility for new life by the creative logos with men. Matter is sine qua non in the one catholic-cosmic act of creation. Without matter there is no historical being, and no reality is possible. To be a human person means to be a bodily existence. New life in the resurrection cannot be but bodily, while history is a receptacle of divine economy and revelation by, in and through matter. Over against the term “historical dialectical materialism” we should use the term theo -materialism, pointing to the pivot-event of history as being God-in-nature creating, restoring, renewing and fulfilling his cosmos, as it is experienced in the ecclesial communion in full solidarity with the world as ktisis . Therefore, any anthropo nistic vision and use of the matter and nature as ktisis is a sin in the most authentic sense of the word. Our whole technical civilization which has also biblical-Christian roots and makes us all as Christians co- responsible for the abuse of nature today, distorts nature as ktisis as we have to conceive it through the sacramental vision uniting church and all things in the world.

Fourth, the catholicity of the ekklesia conceived in this sense of creation manifested and experienced in the ecclesial communion can preserve Christian theology from all kinds of monisms or dualisms, which try to conceive the doctrine of creation unilaterally and thus destroy the appropriate and dynamic relationship between church and world. Christian theologies of creation without strong ecclesiological bases are easily tempted to fall into the approaches of theistic idealisms or pantheistic monisms and, in some cases (for the sake of a “pro-worldly” attitude), into mechanistic autodeterministic naturalisms. The cause of all of these deviations is the dualism between spirit and matter and the discontinuity between creation and cosmos, or the confusion caused by an unreflective fusion between creative act and creation. The creation conceived through the catholicity of the ekklesia safeguards the distinction of creator from the creation in which he acts. Nature as ktisis includes the whole of created reality as an organism composed of distinctive elements of being and existence. They are in full relationship and interdependence as they are created out of the love of a personal God as creator. He is in distinctive full communion with all of them, renewing “all things” by his creative logos. The clear distinction between creator and creation as well as between the different beings and their modes of existence, becomes thus the dynamic power of inner coherence without either dualistic separations or monistic tendencies, or fusion and confusion between them. The ecclesial communion is the locus for experiencing the catholicity, i.e. the fullness and distinctiveness of the creative act of the Trinitarian God, securing both the distinction between creator and creation and also continuity and personal relationship between them.

c) The broken catholicity or the catholicity of the Fall

This understanding of qualitative catholicity and geographical catholicity as an inseparable whole should not be regarded as an abstract vision and contemplation. It is, simply, the first reality and mystical experience within the sacramental life of the ecclesial communion, as a foretaste of the final fulfillment of the continuously renewed creation as ktisis . It is not an irenic-static, introverted and esoteric attitude of the sacramental gathering enjoying the beatitude of grace in isolation from the realities of this world. This would have been an illusory vision or meta-historical fantasy and chiliastic interpretation of history, and against the premises of the authentic understanding of catholicity within the ecclesial communion according to which “all things” are brought into a new relation for the sake of their continuous process of renewal.

Within this reality of catholicity there is, as a reality which permanently resists it, the “catholicity of the Fall”, i.e. of the broken relationship between Creator and creature (which is also experienced as redeemed in the sacramental life of the ecclesial communion). The distinctive act of brokenness by one person binds together all human beings and all things. Everybody and everything everywhere and at every time in history is in solidarity with this one person Adam, whose act is causing brokenness of communion— | å ö' ù ðÜíôå ò Þìáñôïí (“in whom”, or better, “with whom and his act all have sinned”, Rom. 5:12). But it is, precisely, the love of God that preserves the plan of the whole creation as it is revealed and experienced within the sacramental life of the ecclesial communion by another “catholic act”, i.e. “concluding all men in unbelief that he might have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32). This solidarity of Fall and sin is again the result of a concrete act by a concrete person at a definite time so that through another distinctive person at a concrete moment in history all men and “all things” might be restored into the communion with God (Rom. 5:17).

This negative aspect of “catholicity” makes church catholicity a permanent experience of a continuous tension between opposed realities. They are, of course, redeemed, and the fullness of God's grace has overwhelmed the brokenness of humankind by his new personal communion in the ekklesia but the opposition is still there, both inside the church and in the whole universe. The catholicity is a process of God's grace creating, redeeming and saving all men and all things. Grace binds everything together into a strange Oneness. In the ekklesia and its sacramental reality the negative side is overcome, because the brokenness as a reality in the whole of creation happens outside the Being of God and concerns man's relationship with him. The sin is in the mode of existence and not in the essence of God's being, or in some imperfection in his divine ikon in mankind. Therefore, the sacramental communion is possible as redeeming and restoring the communion of “all things” with God.

This approach to the mystery of “including all men” into the sin of Adam through the concept of sacramental communion within the church prevents any minimizing of the reality of the brokenness in creation or, at the other extreme, making it a fata morgana devaluing human life and history. It preserves the absolute, overwhelming power of the grace of God over sin and acknowledges at the same time the historical reality of sin and its destructive presence mainly in the world, but also within the ecclesial communion. The brokenness has been once for all defeated by God, as received in the sacramental life of the church, but the historical reality of all human relations are still subjected to the rule of “concluding” all men into the oneness of sin so that they might be all together saved. The negative “catholicity”, as universal Fall, is the main element in human relationships and “deeds”, reflected also in all created things; but sacramental communion within the ekklesia is happening within these broken relationships as a sharing in the restored communion of God.

It is very important that an ecclesiology should keep this curious and unique dialectic between unshaken communion in essence and brokenness in existence in the whole creation. This is because the ekklesia as sacramental communion is absolutely holy, and a sure guarantee for sharing in the full communion with God by his grace, but all men yet remain sinful and in broken relationship both in the ecclesial communion and in the world. There is an immense difference, however, between redeemed sinfulness in repentance and non-repenting human sinfulness outside the ecclesial communion. There is a great difference between a broken unity within the sacramental communion and a broken humanity outside of it, but on the other hand there is also an inevitable reciprocity and mutual interdependence between the two as being subjected to the one and the same historical predicament of sin and brokenness. The church is one communion, but it is also reflecting the brokenness of the world within its communion. The world, on the other hand, is broken but strives for unity on the basis of qualities and aspirations which God has given to all human beings. The ecclesial sacramental communion is thus the focus and image of the redeemed brokenness of the world and the world is brought back into the personal communion with God. The unity of the church and the renewal of human community are thus inseparably linked not as two separate entities but as two concentric circles around the one, unique and the same pivotal event in history: God redeeming brokenness and bringing back into his communion “all things” in order to renew them. There is one and the same redeeming, uniting and saving grace of God, which is connecting the ecclesial communion with the whole creation, as cosmos and ktisis restored to his communion. The final stage of communion, in its as yet unfulfilled eschatological sense, unites, in hope, the ecclesial sacramental communion and the broken human community into a single worldwide community which is in process of growing towards unity around the unique, pivotal historical event of the divine economy.

In other words, the “sacramental vision” is an anticipation of the coming kingdom of God in which we participate in hope and which exercises an immediate pressure on history. The not-yet fulfilled ecclesial sacramental communion looks forward to its final fulfillment. But it already participates by anticipation in the coming kingdom of God by sharing in the gradual restoration of the whole creation- ktisis as it also expects the same fulfillment at the end of time. Eschatology, thus, becomes in the sacrament a real presence in history.

For receiving news, offerings and in general any actions regarding the Organization please fill in the next fields. For protection of data see here.

{ technical support        contact