Nikos Nissiotis was an academically respected Orthodox theologian who lived in the 20th century (1925-1986). He wrote various theological essays bringing new approaches to the field of systematic theology and presenting a dynamic Orthodox ecclesiology. Although his work preserves a scholarly and academic character, it also reflects Nissiotis’ desire for inter-Christian cooperation and ecclesial unity.
The nature and ministry of the Church
Nissiotis follows the Pauline definition of Ecclesia as the “body of Christ”. This definition connects ecclesiology with the other dogmatic themes: theology, anthropology, and Christology. According to Orthodox dogmatics, the Triune God created the world and the human beings freely and out of love. The destiny of humanity was to be in communion with God. However, the fall of man brought a temporary rupture between God and his creation. The incarnation of the divine Logos (Jesus Christ), his death on the cross and his resurrection reconciled people with God. The Church, the “body of Christ” manifests to the world the redemption of humankind by Christ. This redemption will be completed at the eschaton, when the faithful enter the Kingdom of God.
The aforementioned dogmatic summary reveals, for Nissiotis, that the Church has always existed in the thought and intention of God. It is the fulfillment of God’s creation and not simply an organization that appeared in history. The Church prepares people for the world’s eschatological fulfillment, allowing them to pre-taste the kingdom of God in the ecclesial ethical and sacramental life.
The Eucharist, the Church and the Kingdom
The faithful become members of the “body of Christ” by committing themselves to live a Christian life. This commitment is a re-orientation of human life towards Christ and the coming of God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is revealed mysteriously in every Eucharistic gathering, in the church, which brings in time and space the whole of the divine economy, and unites time and eternity, the heavenly and the earthly, into an inseparable unity. The Eucharist is a representation of the new life in Christ and a calling for service (diakonia) to all the faithful who want to imitate the example of Jesus.
Church and Diakonia
Diakonia, according to Nissiotis is the para-eucharistic act par excellence. It is a reflection of God’s creative work, a typological presentation of the Holy Trinity reflected in the fellowship of the Church, and a realization of the Christian witness. Nissiotis emphasizes that Diakonia has a synergistic character: God and people work together to help those in need, aiming to bring everyone in communion and reconciliation with God. This aim differentiates Church’s service (diakonia) from other secular, socio-cultural, philanthropic activities.
Church and Culture
Nevertheless, Nissiotis does not believe in a separation of ecclesial and secular culture. Secular culture’s destiny is to be part of Ecclesia, because culture has its roots in the creation event and its fulfillment in the incarnation of the divine Logos. Even a non-Christian culture is part of Ecclesia, because all civilizations derive from the Creator God. The Ecclesia embraces all cultures and transforms them, leading people to conversion, and unity with each other and with God.
The Unity of the Church
But how can we talk about unity when the Church appears divided? Nissiotis remarks that the unity of the Church is an absolute reality pre-established by God. It is the unity of the Pentecost, the unity that surpasses all docetic views, and which is manifested at the eschaton. Nissiotis’ position agrees with the Orthodox patristic theology and appears to have some resemblance with the Augustinian ecclesiology.
Bibliographic notes for further reading
The present article offers only a sketch of Nissiotis’ ecclesiology. The following essays -written by Nikos Nissiotis- present analytically his ecclesiological thought.
“The Ecclesiological Significance of Inter-Church Diakonia,” The Ecumenical Review, vol. XIII, no. 2 (Jan. 1961): 191-202.
“The Ecclesiological Foundation of Missions,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. VII, no. 1-2 (Summer 1961 – Winter 1961/2) : 22-52.
“The Witness and the Service of Eastern Orthodoxy to the One Undivided Church,” The Ecumenical Review, vol. XIV, no. 2 (Jan. 1962): 192-202.
“Spirit, Church, and Ministry,” Theology Today, vol. XIX, no. 4 (Jan. 1963): 484-499.
“Worship, Eucharist, and Intercommunion: An Orthodox Reflection,” Studia Liturgica, vol. II, no. 2 (June 1963): 193-222.
“Conversion and the Church,” The Ecumenical Review, vol. XIX, no. 3 (July 1967): 261-270.
“The Theology of the Church and its Accomplishments,” The Ecumenical Review, vol. 29, no.1 (Jan. 1977): 62-76.
Rev.Fr.Dr.Vassilios Bebis is the Presiding Priest at Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church in Rosindale,Boston