Publications: Articles - Biblical
The Church as Koinonia (Gift and Goal) in the New Testament:
A Case Study from the Church in Corinth
A comprehensive understanding of the communal nature of the Church in the Scriptures (and in our case, the Corinthian Church) also dictates an assessment of the Holy Spirit's role in the constitution of the Church. The Pneumatological foundation of the Church must be seen together with the Christological since the Scriptures clearly betray real reciprocity between the Son and Spirit in the work of salvation.(1) Whilst Christ became incarnate and in this way gave the Church its 'body', it was the Spirit who breathed life into this body thereby 'animating' (i.e. giving it a spiritual or Spirit-filled existence) and preparing it for its universal mission in the world. That is to say, the Church must also be seen as a product of the Holy Spirit who constitutes it as the gathering of Jesus and leads it, in Christ, to a communion with God the Father. It is only through the Spirit that the Church can exist as the sacrament of salvation offering to the faithful a real encounter with Christ in history. As we shall see, therefore, any theology of the Church must take into account the founding roles of both Christ (which were discussed in our last issue) and the Holy Spirit from which is born the community of believers, dedicated to God in faith and discipleship.
The importance in highlighting the constitutive role of the Holy Spirit for the formation of the Church can be seen especially when the Church's ontological structure is understood in terms of koinonia. Indeed the intense solidarity not only between the faithful of the Church and God but also between the faithful themselves, and between humanity and the whole of creation will not adequately be explained without fully appreciating the gift of the Spirit bestowed upon the Church 'from on high' - especially on the day of Pentecost. It becomes clear therefore that Christ's foundational role in the establishment of the New Testament Church must be seen equally together with constitutive role of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Limouris:
While thinking of the church Christologically as the body of Christ, we need also to keep in mind another "icon" to complete and balance our ecclesiology; a pneumatological "icon" of the church as the kingdom of the Holy Spirit The Church is at the same time Pentecostal: it is an extension of the incarnation and of Pentecost.
Limouris rightly noted that whilst Christ founded the Church, it would be the Spirit's role to make the glorified Christ present in the Church, after His ascension thereby giving it access to God the Father. Simply put, the intimate bond of communion between the church and Christ throughout the ages is made possible by the Spirit. We will see that the early Christians eschatological awareness of having received the Spirit bound them intimately together in such a way that any feeling of alienation or lack of koinonia was overcome once and for all. However, as we shall also note, the gift of koinonia bestowed upon the Church by the Holy Spirit still awaited its ultimate fulfilment with the certainty of the grace already experienced. It was this flourishing of the Spirit as both gift and goal to which the early Church appealed for its formation, consolidation and ultimate fulfilment as a communal body. It is for this reason, that in our systematic articulation of our understanding of the New Testament Church of Corinth, we must also integrate the work of the Spirit, otherwise our vision of the Church will not only be one-sided but its full reality will also be distorted.
Ekklesia: Koinonia of the Spirit
In two of his letters, St Paul spoke of the Church's koinonia with the Spirit.(3) Appearing for the first time in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 13:13) St Paul used this expression, koinonia to the ecclesial gathering which had assembled within the city of Corinth, in the final exhortation of his letter:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit [hJ koinwniva tou aJgivou pneuvmato] be with all of you. (2 Cor 13:13).
Beyond the Trinitarian structure that can be seen in this benediction, the Holy Spirit is identified as the divine Person who bestowed the gift of koinonia to the Church. Indeed, it is only against the context of St Paul's conviction of the Church as an intimate koinonia with Christ effected by the Holy Spirit and leading the community back to the Father(4) that one can adequately explain St Paul's cause for thanksgiving in the extremely chaotic Corinthian Church. In this sense, convinced of God's gift of koinonia, St Paul set about to write his letter to the Corinthians so as to promote reconciliation and unity within the Church. That St Paul believed the Holy Spirit to be the basis of the Church's koinonia is undeniable, but we will need to show in what way the communal being of the Church was seen also as the goal of the Church, one requiring a response by the faithful so that it could be fully realised within their historical context.
In order to fully appreciate the final exhortation of St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians (i.e. 2Cor 13:13), it has to be read in conjunction with a verse from the opening part of the same letter where St Paul establishes the fact that it was God who established the community in Christ and who anointed it with His Spirit and will fulfil His God-given promises to the Church:
But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment (ton aOrrabwna touv pneumatos). (2 Cor 1:21-22).
If it is accepted that this verse explains 2 Cor 13:13, then it becomes clear that it was only by the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in the Corinthian church (since it was only given as a pledge at this stage) that the communal relationship established in Christ could be upheld and maintained. In this case, the communion of the Holy Spirit given as a first instalment (1 Cor 1:22) was understood to express the unwavering and continued fidelity on God's part to be in communion with the Church in Christ. In this sense St Paul identified the Holy Spirit as both the basis and the inherent principle of growth within the Corinthian community given as a gift at baptism and awaiting its further realization. Indeed the fact that this koinonia of the Holy Spirit is given 'as a first instalment' in the opening of this letter naturally betrays its dynamic character, the consummation of which the Church will live only in the eschatological age by the growth caused by the Holy Spirit. St Paul undoubtedly saw the Spirit in dynamic terms, that is, not only as a given gift but also one which was further guaranteed so that God could fulfil the promise of intimate communion with Himself in the Parousia.
The notion of koinonia as both gift and goal can now be better appreciated in the concluding thanksgiving of the letter in 2 Cor 13:13. Indeed, the dynamic character of koinonia depends upon the understanding of the phrase 'communion of the Holy Spirit', something which has raised much discussion amongst biblical scholars throughout the centuries. The debate has centred on the type of genitive (subjective or objective) that is to be inferred from this phrase. If taken as a subjective genitive(5) the expression would lend itself to the idea of a 'community realized or effected by the Holy Spirit' (i.e. it is the Holy Spirit who is the subject of this communion since it is the Spirit imparting this koinonia). In this sense Paul was referring to the ecclesial koinonia created the Holy Spirit and bestowed as a gift to the Corinthian community. Understood in this way, that is, as a subjective genitive, the phrase points to the divine source of the gift of koinonia to the Corinthian community, hence highlighting the 'gift' aspect of koinonia.
If, on the other hand the genitive is understood in the objective sense, then the phrase would imply the dynamic response of the community to, and its participation in, the Holy Spirit . that is, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit as the object or task of life. Far from being a gift given only once to the Church, the gift of ecclesial koinonia is continually being bestowed to the Church by the Spirit and will do so since Christ has promised the Spirit's presence in the Church guiding it into all truth until the end times:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (Jn 16:13).
Like St Paul, the Johannine text emphasises the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And in so far as the Spirit is permanently present in the world, it requires the continued response of the faithful firstly to accept and obey it and secondly to allow it to work by not shunning it. Therefore, as an objective genitive the emphasis is on the participation of the Corinthian community to the Holy Spirit as opposed to the subjective which emphasises the source of koinonia enjoyed within the community.
Understood both as a subjective and objective genitive the expression 'the communion of the Holy Spirit' could signify not only the gift of fellowship created by the Spirit but also the dynamic response of the faithful to receiving this gift which they would subsequently strive to make a permanent reality in their life within an ecclesial context. Perhaps one meaning need not exclude the other since it is quite possible that both meanings were intended. The 'communion of the Holy Spirit' required a continued sharing in this gift of the Holy Spirit on the part of the Church. This is most clearly seen in the first council in Jerusalem whereupon the completion of its deliberations, the apostles declared: "for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). In this sense the Spirit was not only the basis (or gift) of the Church's communion with Christ but the goal of the Church's destiny which would also bring the Church to its eschatological fulfilment.
It is only in recognizing the dialectic character of koinonia that one can fully appreciate the Pauline perspective to 2 Cor 13:13. Undeniably for Paul, 'the communion of the Holy Spirit', as this can be evidenced in his other letters, was a divine gift, which was bestowed upon the communities creating a fellowship amongst believers(7) but it also required a reciprocating acceptance on the part of the faithful and a continued sharing in it.
The analysis of 2 Cor 13:13 therefore clearly showed that the koinonia within the community was not only a gift bestowed by the presence of the Holy Spirit but also a dynamic and activating force behind the whole movement of the Church towards God. As such the notions of an ecclesial fellowship created by the Holy Spirit together with the common participation of the faithful in the Spirit could be simultaneously present in the verse. Due to his concern for harmony within the Corinthian community Paul was thus expressing his desire that the Corinthian church continue in its common participation of the Spirit which was the goal of the original gift bestowed by the Spirit which inevitably had to continue to be deepened on a daily basis until the Parousia.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1 The New Testament, for example describes the constitutive role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ (Luke), His baptism (Mark) and resurrection (Rom 1:4; 8:11). And in John, the Holy Spirit is given not only to Christ "without measure" (Jn 3:34) but also to the faithful enabling them to become sons and daughters by fellowship with Jesus Christ (Rom 5:15; 6:3-5).
2 Gennadios Limouris, 'The Church as Mystery and Sign in Relation to the Holy Trinity . Ecclesiological Perspectives', in Church-Kingdom-World: The Church as Mystery and Prophetic Sign, Faith and Order Paper no. 130, ed. Gennadios Limouris (Geneva: WCC, 1986), 29.
3 The expression 'communion of the (Holy) Spirit' can be found in 2 Cor 13:13 and Phil 2:1.
4 Note the similarities with the opening section of the same letter in 2 Cor 1:21-22 which brings out the aim of the letter.
5 Those who argue for a subjective genitive do so in order to uphold the same construction in the three expressions found in 2 Cor 13:13. 'the grace of Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit'.
6 Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Church in the New Testament, Trans W.J. O'Hara (London: Burns & Oates, 1974), 123-125 and 158-164.
7 In relating the results of justification, Paul, in Rom 5:1-11 referred to God's love which had been given to the church not only in Christ's death and resurrection but also through the Holy Spirit. In this pericope, both Christ and the Holy Spirit are depicted as working to bestow the love of God to the faithful . Christ restoring our relationship to God and the Holy Spirit pouring the love of God into the hearts of believers.
8 Evidence of the Holy Spirit's continued presence in the church is reflected in its work a) to safeguard the community against all falsehood (2Cor 6:11-18), b) to vivify the community (1Pt 2:5) and c) to bestow its charisms (1Cor 14:1). In all this there is a movement towards God and towards one's neighbour whereby Christians come into fellowship with God and with one another.