Bishop-monism and Populism in the Orthodox Tradition

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by Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos (*)

Professor of the Higher Ecclesiastic School of Thessaloniki and the Orthodox Institute of the Cambridge University

Discussing a topic like the one mentioned above makes sense, only in an ontological and existential perspective. We discuss ecclesiological problems, only because they pertain opportunely to man’s Being and the Being of the world. Linking ecclesiology to ontology itself is a tremendous lesson, which springs from the depths of Patristic tradition – a teaching that undoubtedly culminated in the work of one Dionysios the Areopagite and was completed in the work of one Maximus the Confessor.

Our topic – the way it is formulated – entails a differentiation, initially, between two elements in each and every ecclesiology and we are obliged to seek out its source. Indeed, in ancient ecclesiology, we encounter that fundamental tension – which we could describe by using contemporary terminology – as a tension between Subject and Structure; or, more theologically, between Charisma and Institution.

Of decisive significance were the neo-Platonic origin of the dilemma and the equally Platonic texture of both the solutions that had been proposed originally – that is, before either of them was incorporated in the Areopagite ecclesiological model which prevailed in the West and the East from that time on.

The splitting apart of Subject and Structure – or Charisma and Institution – acquired its characteristic form with Origen (for the East) and with Augustine (for the West). With Origen, a factitious distinction was created, between a celestial or intelligible Church on the one hand and a terrestrial one on the other. In the former (with a characteristically Platonic and Stoic and a prematurely individualistic notion) belong all the chosen ones who cultivate their inwardness by pursuing the celestial flight of the Logos after His Resurrection, in which case, His union with human nature proves to be unstable, inasmuch as only His soul can follow an upward course. The terrestrial Church is the one that pertains to the many, who need Mysteries and Hierarchy in order to approach God. Institutionalism and Individualism are thus born simultaneously – a thing that occurs in the West in a like manner, through Augustine.

It is absolutely certain that this split never existed in ancient ecclesiology. However, it is delusional to not notice this split thereafter and attribute the whole affair (as contemporary Orthodox ecclesiologists do) to a deceitful Protestant concoction. In the history of Patristic theology, there has since been a series of attempts to bridge the chasm that we described. Beyond the attempt by Cyprian of Carthage (which one of the other speakers will be expounding), the attempt in this direction by Makarios of Egypt is also extremely significant. Indeed, Makarios wants an “inside pitch” by the Church – as an existential and ontological event – so that personal ascesis be equaled to the personal “churchification” of the faithful, beyond psychologisms and pietisms.

However, the most astounding attempt of all was the one by saint Dionysios the Areopagite. The Areopagite transfers into ecclesiology the fundamental neo-Platonic idea that the ideal terrestrial reality is a replica and an image of the celestial reality; that the ecclesiastic Hierarchy is an image of the celestial Hierarchy. This implies a seeking of Trinitarian structures everywhere – both in the angelic ranks (for example), as well as in the ecclesiastic ones. In this context are Bishop-Presbyter-Deacon; likewise, the deified-the enlightened one-the one being cleansed, or, the Eucharist-Chrism-Baptism – all of which comprise such ecclesiastic triads which are completely existentially linked to each other, and with the obligation, at every level, that the energy or the knowledge or the existential fullness that corresponds to the specific order, coincide. Of course the Areopagite does not regard the ecclesiastic ranks as self-illuminated and he furthermore wants them to be dependent existentially and lovingly, thus surpassing the neo-Platonic Hierarchies. Every rank (according to the Areopagite) ascribes its energy and its knowledge to God Himself, and not themselves. It is in this manner that Structure exists and is ontologically absolute; however, it is necessary for it to also be verified existentially. There is a very serious problem in the Areopagitic writings on this point, in that we cannot finally know – once again – which of the two elements is the more fundamental one. Of course in history the element of a sanctified Structure weighed more (at least for roman catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology) – the consequence of which was an overstressing of the canonical structure in these churches.

In the area of theological research, the vast magnitude of Maximos the Confessor’s work has not yet been appreciated, even though he was the one who resolved this crushing problem. It is on the basis of his theology that we are able to speak of an “Apophatic Ecclesiology on the Homoousion (+)“, which transcends both the problem of “bishop-monism” – that is, an absolute priority of Structure in ecclesiology – as well as the problem of “populism” (laicism) – that is, an unrestrained and uncontrolled individualism. To saint Maximos, therefore, every ecclesiastic charisma is an “emulation” of an analogous, uncreated energy of God (the term “emulation” here implies a partaking). The whole of those uncreated energies constitutes the one Body of Christ, and each one of them is Christ Himself, in a different manifestation of His. Each faithful person is charismatic, partaking thus in Christ Himself, with his charisma. Just as all uncreated energies are united between each other and simultaneously unify Creation, in the exact same way does every charisma unify the Church, by being consubstantially united to all the other charismas. The charisma of the Bishop is to ensure that none of the other charismas is lost, as also is the initiation into the homoousion (+) fullness of every charisma. The unity of the Church, therefore, does not occur solely “in the Bishop”, but also in every charisma, simultaneously. The Church is thus a given (from the part of God); however She is actualized, only to the degree of a freely willed “emulation” – by the charismatics – of the specific uncreated energies of God. We refer to the Church only “apophatically” (because it is impossible to regard Her as an objectified structure and supposedly a fixed image of the Kingdom of God) – that is, only as an evolving Church – to the degree that “emulation” of the divine energies already actualizes “end events” in History, even from now.

(+) “Homoousios” is a Greek word meaning “same substance” or “same essence.” It is used in the Nicene Creed to say that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father. Although it does not appear in the Bible, the fathers of the First Ecumenical Council ultimately decided that this was the best language to use concerning the Holy Trinity. The competing term at that council was homoiousios meaning “similar essence”; it was favored by the moderates among the Arians, the Semi-Arians. Because of how close these two words are in the Greek, it has been said that there was only “one iota” of difference between them.”
(*) Father Nicholas Loudovikos was born in Volos. He studied Psychology, Pedagogics, Theology and Philosophy, in Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris (Sorbonne Paris 4 and the Institute Catholique de Paris)and Cambridge. He has a Doctorate in Theology of the University of Thessaloniki, and has also worked at the “research center for Primeval Christianity”, Tyndale House, Cambridge. He has taught at the Cambridge University’s School of Theology (C.A.R.T.S.) as well as the University of Durham. He is a Professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the Higher Ecclesiastic School of Thessaloniki; a scientific associate at the post-graduate Theological program of the Open Hellenic University and also a part-time lector at the Orthodox Institute of the University of Cambridge. Works in book form by him: Eucharistic Ontology (Domos, Athens, 1992); Closed Spirituality and the Meaning if Self (Hellenic Letters, Athens, 1992) and The Apophatic ecclesiology of the Homoousion. The primeval Church today (Athens, 2002).