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The notion of koinonia (communion) in Orthodox Ecclesiology seen within the dialectic of foundation and goalms-e
by Philip Kariatlis
Church as Communion
The notion of koinonia (communion) in contemporary ecclesiological discussions by both Eastern and Western Churches has proven extremely useful as a model for understanding the nature and function of the Church.1 The success of the notion of communion today lies both in its ability to express the very mode of the Church's existence whilst still being deeply rooted in both the Biblical and Patristic traditions. Far from being derived from any sociological, political or ethical understanding, which usually espouses a 'tolerance' of difference in the name of some form of exterior social cohesion and unanimity, communion is a theological term bearing a specific meaning about God's a priori relational way of existence. Whilst secular communities are usually understood as bodies of people forming political or social unities for utilitarian aims so that they can live together for their advancement, the notion of communion within the Church expresses its very mode of existence and function beyond any ideological principles or structures.
Since the Scriptures assert that the Church is "the Church of God"2, this implies that the Church's quintessential nature must fundamentally reflect God after whose image it is. And since the Christian tradition would claim that the very being of God is a communion of three hypostases relating to one another in an interpenetrating communion of infinite love, then the Church's very being must express this communal reality. It is for this reason that many theologians of the Christian tradition have expressed the very nature of the Church in terms of communion. For example quite some time ago Archbishop Stylianos offered a wonderfully comprehensive definition of the Church as a
"communion in grace of created and uncreated, for the salvation of the created and the glorification of the uncreated."3
Therefore the Church must be perceived as that reality where the entire world's eternal eschatological destiny, which is communion in God's very life, is ultimately realised.
This rather basic yet essential truth of the Church's being as communion can already been deduced from the very term "ecclesia" that was chosen by the first
Christian communities to express their identity. Etymologically speaking, the word "ecclesia" (from the Greek verb "to call out") primarily means a gathering, an assembly or a foundational event of communion before and beyond any other meaning.4 It is for this reason that the notion of communion is a determinative factor of the very mode of the truth of the Church's very existence. This leads to an understanding of the Church's communion as a foundational gift or postulate bestowed from above to the world. Already from the above, we could go so far as to say that the very being of the Church experienced as communion could be considered as a foundational ecclesiological article of faith.
Communion as Foundational Gift
Now, being a gift from God, the truth of the Church's intimate communion with God is that gift which safeguards the Church from all error and enables it to rightly proclaim the word of truth.5 Assured of this gift of communion culminating in the historical Jesus Christ, the Church has been established, within history as the ark of salvation which is nothing other than the world's life in God. Furthermore it is that existential reality which represents the unique potential of salvation from alienation and people's struggle for mere survival in their loneliness. This presupposition of communion enables the Church to be the unique means of radical transformation from an "individually-centred" culture of worldly success imposed upon society by consumerism to one of where the person is defined principally in terms of this existential event of communion. In the Church, the entire world can share in God's communal mode of existence, which includes freedom – that is being free from the bounds of death; love - that is ceasing to draw our existence from our individuality which is corrupt and mortal; but instead seeking the freedom of personal relationships - a life as a communion of love.
The Church has always existed to offer this communion of love to the entire world. In fact, the Orthodox tradition would claim that it was for this purpose that God created the world – that is to realise a most intimate communion of love between the world and Himself. Since the Church, in its essence is God's gift of communion to the world – the solution par excellence to the impasse of isolationism - it exists from the very moment that God decides to communicate with the world when He creates it out of nothing. It is for this reason that we can speak of the Church as preceding the creation of the world, since it was part of God's eternal plan to communicate with his creation. For this reason, Bulgakov, in line with many Fathers of the early Church can write that
"the Church [is] the pre-eternal purpose and the foundation of creation."6
Therefore seeing that the Church is this communal event par excellence between God and the world, it would be more correct to speak in terms of the world today in the Church rather than the Church in the world. Such a statement which may seem daring at
first expresses nothing other than God's desire, arising out of His absolute love, to share with the creation those things that are His - life, love and even divinity through Himself, that is through His Church.
Recognition of the Dialectic
Thus far there is nothing new in our enquiry, as many theologians of both East and West have spoken of the Church in terms of God's gift of communion to the world. Taking this as their starting point many theologians therefore have been able to articulate a systematic study of the nature and function of the Church in terms of communion. However, more often than not this has been done without taking seriously how this gift of communion really functions in the Church's concrete historical reality. It is for this reason that others have reacted to what they call a purely speculative ecclesiology pointing out that it has nothing to do with the historical life of the Church in reality. So, in their quest for a corrective, they have been able to highlight the fragility of the Church within the fallen world along with its ceaseless temptations, divisions and even sins in history. Yet more often than not these studies have ended up being nothing other than sociological studies of the Church since they have not been able to distinguish between, nor acknowledge what could be called a "theological ecclesiology" and an "empirical ecclesiology"7. It must be admitted that any theology of the Church without taking seriously its place in history can lead to forms of idealism whilst any ecclesiological exposition denying the reality of God's intimate fellowship with the world is equally extreme and therefore both positions are to be avoided.
An examination of the boundaries and relationship between these two realities is one of the most relevant problems facing the Church today, which has to do with a realistic interpretation of history beyond any idealism. The Church's sacredness and effectiveness is at stake if no theological explanation can be given to this. However no detailed and systematic study has been made, so far which has taken seriously this fundamental paradox between the simultaneity of communion as both foundational gift and goal. It is hoped that a viable contribution into the nature of the Church as communion will be made taking seriously the reality of the Church in the world as a gift from God, and yet one still to be fully realised. Concerned with preserving alive a Christian realism, which alone can be a compassionate and consoling affirmation of life in all its abundance, this brief study will now endeavour to situate the being of the Church within the principle of communion whilst still recognising the dialectic between the communion both as a foundational gift or postulate and a goal yet to be fully realised.
Theological Explanation of the Dialectic
Therefore reflecting critically upon the reality of the Church as communion we are led to a double condition of the Church – communion must not only be seen as a foundational gift in ecclesiology but also as a goal yet to be attained. In other words the Church exists at once in two complementary levels and the relationship between these two levels is the ultimate crux of our enquiry. Using the well known phrases of St Augustine, we can quite easily conclude that the Church is at once in statu viae and in statu viatorae.8 As a communion of believers the Church is a historic community affected by the changes of this world but at the same time a glorious community with the Lord. The Church's communion is simultaneously given from above as a gift but also is a goal for which the entire created world hopes in anticipation.
This theandric and mysterious nature of communion both as gift and goal can be explained theologically in the categories of the Chalcedonian formula. We are faced with the same creative tension or paradox even if only by means of analogy. One can easily discern the Church's frailty and shortcomings but beyond this existential phenomenon of the Church we behold it as a "new creation" as the abiding presence of Christ through the Spirit since all "is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). This double dimension of the Church is at once united "unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably"9 On the historic level the final goal of communion has not yet been attained. But the eschatological reality has already been granted here and now as a foretaste of the ultimate glory. Therefore the Church's communal mode of being is not exhausted by the gift that it has received with the creation of the world and Christ's intervention in history. Rather the fullness of communion is derived from the future.
It is the contention of this brief study that the Church's being can be identified as communion in the world because it is Christ's promise of the Church's future glory, which is the determinative factor of the Church's past and present. It is not the past, which determines the future but it is the future, which shapes history. It is the sacramental nature of the Church, which allows the anticipation of the eschata already from the present. In particular it is in the Eucharist that the Church now lives the communion hoped for in God in the end times since it is the Eucharist which reveals the Body of the God-Man as the way in which the entire world can now be embodied into the one Christ. As paradoxical as it may sound the reality of the Church's communion is not determined only by what was granted to it with the Incarnation and the Spirit's outpouring gift of this communion on Pentecost, but by that future promise and consummation of communion and unity between Creator and created in the age to come.
In other words, the Church being as communion is ultimately found in the future Kingdom of God. From this, the eschatological nature of the Church can be appreciated
as that which bursts into history making a reality the recapitulation and unity of the entire world with God. Seen in this light, we will be able to transcend any problems of the past which either saw the Church's communion only as something which could be hoped for in the age to come or a reality entirely identified within history as a given. Rather we can appreciate the existential event of communion taking into account the vision and potential of the endless possibilities hidden within the Church of what it will be as promised by Christ.
From the above analysis we were able to show that the Church's communion must be seen both as a gift and goal. This was nothing other than situating the existential event of the Church's communion within the parameter of mysterious boundaries of the interpenetration between the Church's divine and human life. As such we were able to show that while the Church exists in the fallen world yet it still has the transformative power of offering the fallen world a sanctified mode of existence based on God's communal mode of being. The historical life of the Church therefore must be understood within the dialectic of a dynamic movement within the two boundaries of these two modes of existence – a Church in the world yet a transformed Church experience already here and now as a foretaste of its future glory.
1 In fact this term has been able to integrate different ecclesiological perspectives in both multi-lateral and bi-lateral Ecumenical dialogues.
2 Cf Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:13.
3 Archbishop Stylianos (Harkianakis) of Australia, 'The Kenotic Character of Theology as Ultimate Glorification of God and Man', Phronema 2(1987): 4 and also 13.
4 This is clearly evidenced in St Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathechesis 24. PG 33.1044. "It is named 'Church' because, as the word itself shows, it gathers all human beings into one meeting place." "Tov gavr th'" ejkklhsiva" o[noma ouj cwrismou', ajllav eJnwvsew" ejsti kaiv sumfwniva" o[noma..."
5 Cf. Stylianos Harkianakis, The Infallibility of the Church, [in Greek], (Athens, 1965): 14.
6 S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1988): 6. This follows St Paul's letter to the Ephesians which states that the world was chosen in Christ "before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love." (Eph. 1:4).
7 First coined by Archbishop Stylianos (Harkianakis) of Australia in a series of lectures on ecclesiology delivered at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney.
8 St Augustine, In Evangel. Joannis tract., 124,5, PL, 35.1044.
9 Well known Chalcedonian formula used to describe the two natures of Christ united in his one person.< Back to the articles list