Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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A. The eschatological identity of the Church

The basic characteristics of the Church’s identity are:  God’s people all assembled for the same purpose, with the entire world around them, united in the Person of Christ, in the Holy Spirit.  This is the identity of the Church, which, however, will be fulfilled in the future. In the meantime, during the course of History, this community struggles firstly to preserve its identity uninfluenced by other identities that exist, and secondly, to bring the rest of the world alongside it.  Thus, it appears we need to have a concept of the term “Church”, rather than a definition of it.  “Church” is mainly something that we experience, something that we observe, and not something that we merely define with words.

Historically, the roots of the Church are located –I believe– in God’s appointment of Abraham and the subsequent forming of God’s nation.  We shall examine later on how the beginning of the Church was perceived by certain theologians (mainly of Alexandria).  Clement spoke of the pre-existence of the Church, Origen and others were more Platonically-oriented, but I imagine the data of Biblical theology lead us there.  When a nation is created from the seed of Abraham, the purpose is specific: “...for all nations shall be blessed in you...” and it is from there, that the Messiah and the eschatological community spring forth.  Given that all this information is available to us in the New Testament (i.e. that this is how the first Christians and Paul perceived the Church), I believe that this is where we should seek its roots. It is within this context that we should also place the Incarnation.  There are certain orthodox theologians who seek the roots of the Church in the reality of the Incarnation.  The Incarnation is the incarnation of the Son and Logos of God.  It wasn’t mine, or yours, or anyone else’s.  The Church does not appear in the Incarnation.  Given that the Incarnation has to do with human nature in its fullness, it has a certain pertinence to the fact that various persons are going to be embodied in the body of Christ. However, the body of Christ (in the sense of being incarnate) is not sufficient, nor is it capable of providing a basis for Ecclesiology, because the Church is not the corpus per se of Christ – a personal Christ who extends into eternity as the Western theologians used to say.  In order for the Church to become the body of Christ, it is in need of our personal incarnation.  A body of Christ which doesn’t include our personal incarnation cannot –I believe– be called a Church, if we were to suppose that the incarnation is left on its own, without the follow-up event of the Pentecost.  But the Pentecost did follow, on account of the fact that there existed the people of God, which is why it is preferable for us to seek the roots there, rather than in the Incarnation of the Son of God.

I repeat, the Incarnation can be perceived as an isolated event, without the creation of a community, whereas the Church without a community is unthinkable.  Of course the Church is also a historical fact, whether we regard it as “God’s people” or as a body of Christ in the sense of a commonness, ie., in the Holy Spirit.  Because, you should not forget that when the Apostle Paul analyzed the term “body of Christ” (Corinthians I, ch.12), he said nothing more than that the members of the body of Christ are those precise charismas.  There cannot be a body of Christ without the Holy Spirit, Who assembles its members. The members of the Body of Christ are not merely His physical members, i.e., the ones that were crucified or even resurrected; the members are the “many” who are joined within the “One”, to become one whole.  Consequently, the Body of Christ is the Church, but with the prerequisite that we are speaking of actual members – of persons – and not of an impersonal human nature, the way that the Son of God assumed human nature and hypostatized it.  If this were so, then it would not constitute the notion of “Church”. [*].

When referring to the primeval Christian communities, it is understood that the eschatological element was more intense during their time, both because their experiences of actually seeing the Risen Christ were more recent, but also because they had a keener anticipation of the arrival of end times events.  The expression “Maran Atha” (=the Lord cometh) was alive in them.  Gradually, with time, the Church began to feel this “Maran Atha” less intensely, because the Second Coming of Christ did not appear to be materializing.  Nevertheless, because the eucharist liturgies had been developed around this core of “Maran Atha”, they were not able to rid themselves of this eschatological aspect of their expectation.  By repeating this phrase in Her liturgies, the Church of the first centuries preserved this awareness of end times expectations to a significant degree.  I fully respect this position, on account of the Divine Eucharist and the fact that the Eucharist had such a central place and such an eschatological destination.  The Church perpetuated the “Maran Atha” with the Divine Eucharist, hence the eschatological perspective that is observed.  Even after the time of Constantine the Great, the eschatological perspective was preserved vividly in the East, thanks to the Divine Eucharist and its central position, and to the fact that it maintained the character of “Maran Atha”.

I think the problem began to first develop in the West, when this eschatological orientation was substituted by an orientation of a rather commemorative nature, i.e., as a kind of commemoration of the past.  The Divine Eucharist became a remembrance of the Last Supper, and thus lost the character of a pre-portrayal of end times. On the other hand, in the Orthodox East with all its hagiography and hymnology and the vestments of the clergy, the Church continued to preserve eschatology. In other words, it transferred the Kingdom of God into the Liturgy.  This is why I believe this aspect was not lost during the period of “Byzantium”.  In the West, it had already begun to wane since the Mediaeval period, and the Church there began to draw from the past, and not fro the future.  Now, one might ask how it came to be that we too have lost this eschatological dimension.  It is my view, that it was the result of the various influences from the West that we succumbed to during the last centuries.  In other words, we too have lost that eschatological orientation, because we too have embraced that perception of the Eucharist that the West had.  When studying the late Trembelas’ Dogmatics, in the section concerning the Divine Eucharist I found no mention whatsoever of End Times.  In all its 200 or so pages, all of the Divine Eucharist is conceived in the sense of a reference to the Last Supper and to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  So we too went ahead and planted these huge crucifixes atop our altars.  Not to mention my favorite Liturgical topics, and to expound how many influences we accepted there.  Well, what can one expect, if the Divine Eucharist (which was the only thing that preserved an awareness of the eschatological identity) has also changed and is heading in another direction? It is to be expected, that this will cause the Church to also lose its eschatological awareness.

When you bring an eschatological dimension into the world, you create a morality and a behaviour which has social repercussions.  You aren’t supposed to make a special effort to emulate the activities of secular societies, to copy their methods and to familiarize yourself with their activities in order to compete with them.  Instead of getting itself involved in philanthropic projects, with all the specifications of a successful philanthropic organization or a Ministry of Welfare, the ancient Church simply had almsgiving.  You cannot turn love into an institution (if we were to take love as an example). This of course does not mean that you remain inactive.  When someone is hungry, you give him food.  The more that you carry the eschatological identity inside you, the more you will love him and help him, even sacrificing yourself.  I am trying to say that there are ways that the Church can better perform its duty in such areas, without spending itself in social activities, without becoming inactive, but rather in a personal manner, and not as an institution. I would say the same thing applies to missionary work and to all related topics.  Things evolved more naturally in the ancient Church.  Nowadays, everything is “organized”.  What we call “organization of the Church” is based on secular standards.  We may not be inactive, but we certainly haven’t avoided secularization, because that is what will happen, when you emulate secular forms.  I happened to read a newspaper article, whose commentary-response by a professor Gousides I found very interesting.  He labelled the article “the exodus”, while the reference was to the clergy. Apparently, everyone seeks an exit in order to become more active, hence the clergy should do the same.  But the nature of the Church is entirely different, and I believe that the people need that “otherness”, that eschatological difference.  Proof of this, is that whenever the Church attempted to develop secular activities, even though She may have momentarily noted success, it eventually dwindled away.  We (of the previous generation at least) had actually lived through such attempts years ago, where bishops strived to build boarding homes, foundations, etc.  All of these were quite nice of course – they were a testimony of the Church. But then along came the welfare state and improved them or even took over such institutions. So, what do the people expect? How was this act of the Church evaluated? Very little.  People go to Church to worship, to cross themselves, to light a candle, and not because the Church has, say, a retirement home for the aged.  You may very well ask: can’t the Church have such a retirement home?  Of course it can.  But what I am trying to say is, that the Church must not make this a part of Her identity, or Her program.  Naturally every diocese has its elderly, and it will take care of them. So will the bishopric. What I am referring to, is the spirit, the stance, the placing.

Anyway, the Church seems to be bipolar at this point. On the one hand, it has to attend to its mission, since it is dispersed throughout the world. On the other hand though, in contrast to the Jews (and even the Westerners, I would say), the Church also has the experience of an eschatological congregation, on account of the Resurrection of Christ and the Pentecost.  In other words, the Church has a foretaste in the present of that which is to be expected in the future.  The Church is linked to this eschatological union, which has not yet been fully realized and is still anticipated, hence She exists between these two situations.  She exists within History, She is dispersed, She makes missionary attempts, but that is not the entire issue. She simultaneously tastes and experiences the eschatological congregation – a situation that does not contain missionary work or dispersal.  That is to say, while the missionary experience and the dispersion are elements of the Church, they do not constitute Her identity.  The Church that does not have this experience of an eschatological congregation has lost its identity. Its identity is linked to that very foretasting of the eschatological union of God’s people.

Anyway, judging from all the above, it appears that the Church is going through an “identity crisis”, as it is fashionable to say nowadays in Sociology.  It is a fact that people also go through an identity crisis, just like institutions do.  And if you were to pose the question: “where is the identity of the Church? – where does each one of us place it?” then, not only in theory, but also in practice, I am afraid you will observe a vast difference of opinions.  The temptation of History is immense.  Eschatology seems like a vaporous thing, which cannot be grasped.  But we do not realize –as a Church – that people do not want us like that.  I believe that Man needs this vaporous and elusive and future element; he cannot find it in any other institution of society, only in the Church. And that is why he will continue to go to Church, regardless of how many activities the priest or the bishop may have to show for themselves, because that is where a person wants to drop anchor – in that elusive future.  And woe betide, if the Church deprives him of it.  Fortunately, we Orthodox have a form of worship that is permeated with the eschatological dimension, the eschatological character. That is what makes it so appealing.  That is what attracts the people, otherwise we would have no-one in the Church, just as it is beginning to occur in England nowadays, where those gigantic churches are being shut down and sold.  They lack people. Because the social work that the churches believed was of greater importance, has been supplanted by other institutions; it has been substituted.  And the clergyman does not know what else to do, or to give.  The more we displace the eschatological element, the more that it dwindles within the Church, the more we are at risk of losing the true identity of the Church.


[*] OODE note: In our humble opinion, the historical roots of the Church should be sought in the garden of Eden, when the first Man and Woman who were made “in the image” of God were partaking of Divine Grace, and were on the course for constituting members of the body of Christ, as they were deemed “regal priesthood”.  The Church should not be perceived as something static; it is an ever-changing reality, which moves towards an objective and which, during the course of History, has changed many forms, as for example in the Old Testament, where it was the ‘Church of Israel’, and from the Pentecost onwards became the “Christian Church”.  We most assuredly encounter the roots of the Church of Israel in the person of Abraham, but they are not the roots of the overall Church.


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Transcript: Anna Navrozidou and Nick Zarkantzas

Proof-reading: Stavros Yiagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 9-1-2007.

Last update: 22-1-2007.