I. Origin and Revelation of the Church
Through the centuries there have appeared many heretical teachings which distorted the revealed truth, and which the holy Fathers confronted “with the sling stone of the Spirit”, that is to say, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is so because the holy Fathers were the bearers of the pure Tradition of the Church.
Among these heresies are those of Arianism, the Pneumatomachs who fought against the Spirit, the Nestorians, the Monophysites, the Monothelites, the Iconoclasts, etc. All these heresies refer chiefly to the Person of Christ, but also to that of the Holy Spirit, and of course they disturb the foundations of man’s salvation. For if Christ is not consubstantial with the Father, but is God’s first creature, and if the Holy Spirit is not true God, man’s salvation is put in doubt, the possibility of deification is cut off.
Later, during the fourteenth century yet another heresy appeared, which was expressed by Barlaam and based on rationalism. If Barlaam’s heretical teaching had prevailed, the method of the Orthodox way towards deification, which is hesychasm, would in fact have ended in agnosticism.
The question being asked is whether there are heresies today as well. The answer is not hard to find, because all of us are being made witnesses of the fact that there are indeed heretics now, descendants of the great heretics, and there are heretical teachings being expressed, perhaps not deliberately, by some who believe, among other things, that they are really members of the Church of Christ. And indeed all of us in our ignorance and lack of learning, may have some erroneous views about God and the way of salvation, but we must struggle never to become heresiarchs or descendants of the great heretics who have appeared in the history of the Church.
Besides, all the heretics were members of the Church for a time, even Clergy, and were active in it. The Apostle Paul’s prophecy applies here: “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30).
All the heresies distort ecclesiology as well. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, every alteration in the teaching about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, about the way to man’s salvation also has ecclesiological consequences.
It can be said that if there is a great heresy today, it is the so-called ecclesiological heresy. And this should be confronted by the Pastors of the Church. There is great confusion today about what the Church is and who are its true members. We confuse or identify the Church with other human Traditions, we think that the Church is fragmented and split up, and furthermore, we are ignorant of the Church’s way of salvation. Thus it is in confusion about this great theme.
In the chapters to follow we shall attempt to examine the subject of the Church from different angles, and we shall try to see what the holy Fathers say about the Church. I think that this will help us to acquire the genuine mind of the Orthodox Church, which is essential for our salvation.
1. Etymology of the word “Ekklesia” (Church)
But before I proceed to elaborate the subject of the “origin and revelation of the Church”, I would like us to take a look at the etymology of the word “Ekklesia”, because it will help us to understand better what is going to be said further on.
The word ‘Ekklesia’ derives from the verb meaning ‘to call out’ ‘call’, ‘call together’, ‘gather together’. Thus ‘Church’ means a gathering of people, a congregation.
We can also find the word in this meaning in ancient Greece with reference, for example, to the ‘ekklesia’ of a municipality, a gathering of the citizens to discuss various concerns which they had.
Also in holy Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, there is repeated reference to the ‘Ekklesia’ as an assembly. The phrases ‘ekklesia of saints’, ‘ekklesia of laity’ etc. , are often used in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament we also have abundant use of the word with a deeper content, since through the incarnation of Christ the Church is not a gathering of people, but the Body of Christ. Thus it acquires a deeper meaning. I would like to cite a few examples.
Christ said to the Apostle Peter, who confessed His divinity: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16″18). The rock (‘petra’) on which the Church is supported is the confession that Christ is the Son of God. The Apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ. This passage from the letter to the Ephesians is characteristic: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). The members, the Christians who make up the membership of a concrete eucharistic community, are also characterised as the Church. The Church possesses the whole truth, because the whole revelation of God has been given to it. The Apostle Paul says: “Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The word `Church’ is also used in these meanings in the teaching of the holy Fathers and in the Worship. According to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, it is called the Church “because it calls forth and assembles together all men”. And St. John Chrysostom says characteristically “in the multitude of the faithful, the Church”. On another subject I shall be developing further what the multitude of the faithful means. In any case I must call to mind here the teaching of St. John Chrysostom that the Church is not a wall and a roof, but living and life.
The Church is presented in many liturgical texts as a gathering, and especially as a eucharistic place, because the Eucharist is the deepest expression of the Church. I would like us to look at a characteristic passage from the Liturgy of the apostolic era as it has been preserved in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. At the end of the Eucharist when the Celebrant of the eucharistic gathering took the bread into his hands, he prayed: “We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou gavest us through Thy Son Jesus”. And then he spoke an amazing prayer “Just as this fraction was scattered over the granaries and, gathered together, became one, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom”. The bringing together of many grains of wheat and the preparation of the bread is an image pointing to the gathering of all the faithful into the Kingdom of God.
Among the expressions which are to be found in the liturgical texts and show exactly what the Church is, there is also the expression that the Church is “a holy people” or “communion of saints”. The people of God is not only the Clergy or only the laity, but the unity of Clergy, monks and laity, and this unity is in Christ. `In Christ’ means that members of the Church are all those who are united with Christ, all who are actually members of the Body of Christ through the sacramental and ascetic life, all who are baptised and confirmed in the faith, according to the teaching of St. Symeon the New Theologian.
This unity is shown clearly on the holy paten. In the middle there is the lamb of God, Christ Himself, on His right the portion of the Theotokos and on his left the portions of the saints, and in front the Bishop of the local Church with the living and those who lie asleep whom the priest mentions during the proskomidi. St. Symeon of Thessaloniki, speaking of the holy paten, says: “God among gods who are deified by Him Who is God by nature”. Christ is God by nature and the saints are deified by grace through Him Who is God by nature. The assembly of the faithful is expressed once more during the Sacrament of the divine Eucharist.
I shall not concern myself further with this point here, because the subject of who are the true members of the Church will concern us in other sections and other chapters.
2. Origin and revelation of the Church
Many of us have the notion that the Church was created on the day of Pentecost, that is to say, when the Holy Spirit descended into the hearts of the Apostles. And of course we could say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church from the point of view that it was then that the Church became the Body of Christ. It acquired substance. However, the beginning and existence of the Church is to be found in the time before Pentecost.
Professor John Karmiris states that there are three phases in the emergence of the Church. The first is the creation of the angels and men, the second is the life of Adam in Paradise, but also the period of the Old Testament, and the third phase of the Church is the incarnation of Christ. Indeed the full revelation of the Church will take place at the Second Coming of Christ
Let us look more analytically at these periods of the Church, for then in some way we can grasp the mystery of the Church and gain a deeper awareness of our being and scope.
a) The beginning of the Church
It is a teaching of the holy Fathers that with the creation of the angels we have the emergence of the first Church. And it can be seen in the writings of the Fathers of the Church that the angels too are members of the Church. Moreover, God the Father is the creator of “all things visible and invisible”. Among the invisible are listed the angels, who sing in praise of God. In the book of Job this witness is preserved: “When the stars were born all the angels in a loud voice sang in praise of me” (Job 38:7). Thus, before the creation of the sensible world there were angels, who sang in praise of God for the creation. And, to be sure, this means that the angels were the first to be created by God.
The fact that the angels are members of the Church, since they sing in praise of God, appears in many troparia. I would like to mention one of these: “By Thy Cross, O Christ, one flock came into being, of angels and men, and one Church: heaven and earth rejoice; O Lord, glory to Thee”. Angels and men belong to the same Flock, to the same Church after the incarnation of Christ. But this means that this unity also existed in the life before the fall. In the teaching of the holy Fathers it is clear that the `last things’ are like the first and like those in between, because we cannot speak of eschatology apart from the life of man before the fall and apart from the deification of the saints already even before the Second Coming of Christ. Besides, according to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and other saints, the vision of the uncreated Light is the substance of the good things to come, this very Kingdom of God.
In Holy Scripture it is taught repeatedly that the angels constitute the first church. The Apostle Paul writing to the Hebrews says: “You have come to Mount Zion to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” (Heb. 12:22-23).
Thus the first Church, of which the angels were members, was spiritual. Clement of Rome says that the Church “from above, first, created spiritual before the sun and moon, and being spiritual, it was made manifest in the flesh of Christ”. And St. John Chrysostom, urging silence during the services in the Temple, said with his characteristic expressiveness: “For the Church is not a barber’s shop nor a perfume shop nor any other workshop in the markets, but a place of angels, a place of archangels, Kingdom of God, heaven itself”. Chrysostom says further that the Christian should have in mind that in the Church, especially during divine Worship, there is a “choir of angels”.
The angels are members of the Church because they too are created by God. Everything created is a creature, since it has a beginning. The angels not only were created by God, but they have also been perfected by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. Therefore St. John of Damascus writes: “All the angels were created by the Word and were perfected by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, taking part according to the standing and rank of their illumination and grace”.
This view that the angels are members of the Church is very moving. It is a witness of the saints, because many of them, like St. Spyridon, saw angels worshipping with them during the Divine Liturgy. And this offers another dimension to the spiritual life.
The first Church was completed with the creation of man, Adam and Eve, and their being placed in Paradise. So it is that men sang praises to the glory of God with the angels.
b) The Church in the Old Testament
Adam and Eve lived an angelic life in Paradise. They were in the state of illumination of the nous, which is the first degree of the vision of God. They had communion with God.
According to the teaching of the holy Fathers, Paradise was tangible and intelligible. This is said by St. Gregory the Theologian and is repeated by St. John of Damascus. The tangible Paradise was a particular place, and the intelligible Paradise was the communion and union of man with God. And of course the two Paradises interpenetrated, in the sense that the Paradise of Eden was receiving God’s uncreated energy.
St. Gregory of Sinai gives us an interpretation of Paradise, which was the second period of the Church. He writes that Paradise was twofold, “tangible and intelligible, namely that in Eden and that of grace”. About the Paradise of Eden he says that it was not completely incorruptible nor completely corruptible, but it had been created “between corruption and incorruption”. The trees that were in Paradise had their natural cycle of flower-bearing, fruit-bearing and the falling of the fruits. When the ripe fruits fell to the ground, and when the trees decayed “they became fragrant dust and did not have a stench like the plants of the world”. There was the natural recycling in the trees and plants, but since Adam had not yet lost the grace of God and therefore the deep darkness had not fallen on the whole creation, there was no decay, a stench did not prevail. There was the whole cycle, but not also decay and stench. And this was so, as St. Gregory of Sinai says, “because of the great wealth and holiness of the ever-abounding grace there”.
Through Adam’s fall, man’s communion with God, with himself, and with the whole creation was broken. Thus man was wearing the garments of the skin of decay and mortality, and of course the whole creation fell into darkness, and “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22).
However, in spite of Adam’s fall, the Church does not disappear completely. Man struggles to restore his communion with God and attempts it through various forms of religion, because he has lost the true mindfulness and real knowledge of God.
In the Old Testament there were righteous men, like the Judges, Prophets and saints, who were blessed with divine revelation and vision. They saw God. And since the vision of God in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church is identified with deification and man’s communion with God, we say that in the Old Testament the small remnant is preserved, the Church exists.
In what follows I would like to cite some patristic passages which clarify this truth.
We know from the teaching of the saints that all the manifestations of God in the Old Testament are manifestations of the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The difference between the manifestations in the Old and New Testaments is that in the former we have manifestations of the unincarnate Word, while in the New Testament we have manifestations of the incarnate Word.
Speaking on this theme, St. Gregory the Theologian, in his Homily on the Maccabees, says that the saints in the Old Testament knew Christ, and calls this saying mysterious and ineffable. He says that before the incarnation of Christ no one was perfected without faith in Christ. “For the Word spoke boldly later in His own times, but He was also known before to the pure in mind, as is clear from many held in honour before that”. And indeed he says of the Maccabees that we should not scorn them with the justification that they lived and acted before the cross, “but that they should be praised in accordance with the cross and are worthy of honour by their words”. The righteous men in the Old Testament acted according to the teaching of the cross and, essentially, they experienced the mystery of the Cross.
St. John Chrysostom, referring to the righteous men of the Old Testament, says that they too belong to the Body of Christ, because “they too knew Christ”. Besides, by His incarnation Christ, as Chrysostom says again, “assumed flesh of the Church”. The Body of Christ is one and the Church is one. Chrysostom asks: “What is one body?” And he himself answers characteristically: “The faithful of the world everywhere, those who are, those who have been and those who will be. And again, those who were well pleasing to God before Christ’s appearance are one body”. Moreover, both the Old and New Testaments are inspired by the same Spirit. Therefore the holy Father says again: “The Old and New Testaments are of the same spirit, and the same Spirit that uttered the voice then has spoken here”. And this is seen from the fact that the holy Fathers interpreted the Old Testament, just as they also interpreted the New Testament, they spoke about dogmatic topics with arguments from the Old Testament as well as Old Testament persons whom they presented as examples of perfection. A characteristic example is St. Gregory of Nyssa, who, in order to present an example of a perfect spiritual man, analysed the person and work of Moses. The life of Moses is a model of the spiritual life for every Christian.
But also the champion of Orthodoxy, Athanasios the Great, presents a teaching of the same kind. He writes that the Holy Spirit is one Who, both then, that is, in the Old Testament, and now, sanctifies and comforts those receptive to being comforted. “As one and the very Logos Son Himself leading the worthy ones into adoption even then. For they were sons also in the Old Testament, but if adopted by the Son, not by another”.
Thus there was a Church in the Old Testament as well, in spite of the fall of man. Members of this Church were the righteous and the Prophets, who had the grace of God. This is confirmed by the sacramental practice of the Church. All the sacraments which we perform in the Christian Church have reference to the Sacraments and rites of the Old Testament. We can take the Sacrament of marriage as an example. During the this ceremony, in the prayers which we address to God, we ask Him to bless the couple, as He blessed Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rebecca, etc. Then the words “bless them, our Lord God as Thou didst bless Abraham and Sarah” show that the blessing is the same. We observe this in all the sacraments. Actually there is one difference which we shall see in the next section, about the third period of the Church, that of the incarnation of Christ. In any case, here it is to be noted that the Church exists also in the Old Testament.
c) The Church in the New Testament
With the incarnation of Christ we have the manifestation of the Church. The Church becomes the Body of Christ and acquires its Head, Who is Christ. Let us recall the passage in Clement of Rome which we mentioned before, according to which the Church was “first created spiritual from above, before the sun and moon, and being spiritual, was manifested in the flesh of Christ”. And St. Maximos the Confessor says characteristically: “the mystery hidden from the ages and from the generations, was now made manifest by the true and perfect incarnation of the son of God, who united our nature to Himself inseparably and unconfusedly”.
By the incarnation of Christ the human nature which Christ assumed was made divine, and through this the Christians, the members of the Church, are full members of the Body of Christ.
Here too we find the difference between the New and Old Testaments. At this point there needs to be an explanation, so that we can place things in their true dimensions.
We said before that in the Old Testament the holy Prophets attained deification. For according to the teaching of the holy Fathers, and of St. Gregory Palamas as well, the vision of God, which is the vision of the uncreated Light, comes through man’s deification. The man is deified and thus made worthy of seeing the uncreated glory of God. Man cannot see God by his own powers. In the Church we sing: “in Thy light shall we see light”. Thus the vision of God comes from within, not from outside, that is to say it takes place through man’s deification. It is not a matter of seeing external things and signs. This is a crucial point in patristic theology. In this sense the holy Fathers speak of the friends of the Cross who existed in the Old Testament, and say that the righteous ones of the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses, etc., experienced the mystery of the Cross.
However, this deification of the Prophets was temporary, because death had not yet been abolished, and that is why they were brought to Hades and the vision was outside the Body of the divine human Christ. This is seen in the difference between the experience of the Apostles at the Transfiguration of Christ and the experience which they themselves had on the day of Pentecost.
At the Transfiguration the Disciples saw the uncreated glory of the Holy Trinity in the human nature of the Logos. In order for them to attain this great experience, they had to have been
transfigured beforehand: “they were changed in turn, and they saw the change”. This change of the Disciples is identical with deification. Through deification they attained the vision of God, and therefore in the patristic teaching the vision of God is connected with men’s deification. However, although the vision of the uncreated glory of God came from within, that is to say, through deification, nevertheless the Light which poured forth from the Divine human Body of Christ was external to the holy Apostles, since they had not yet become members of the Body of Christ.
At Pentecost we have this great gift. The Disciples saw the glory of God inwardly, that is to say through deification, but also from within the Divine-human Body of Christ, since with the coming of the Holy Spirit they had become members of the Body of Christ. At Pentecost the Body of Christ was not external to the Apostles, as it was at the Transfiguration, but internal, in the sense that the Disciples had become members of the Body of Christ and as members of the Body of Christ they were worthy of this experience.
With the incarnation of Christ the Church became a Body. The Sacraments of the New Testament are different in this way from the Sacraments of the Old Testament. They are performed within the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and they have reference to and conclude in the Sacrament of the divine Eucharist, in which we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the Sacrament of marriage God’s blessing is offered, as in the Old Testament, but at the same time it is linked with the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist as well, and thus the relationship of the couple is not only a biological unity, but also an ecclesiastical, eucharistic unity. This has great significance and gives a different perspective and a different authentication to the Sacraments.
d) The perpetuity of the Church
By his incarnation Christ assumed human nature, and indeed human nature was united with the divine nature immutably, without confusion, inseparably, unchangeably and indivisibly. They are never separated. They remain united forever.
Thus the Church will exist also after the Second Coming of Christ and we shall be able to speak of the perfect manifestation of the Church. This is said from the point of view that the saints are already tasting the last things, because, as we said in the beginning, the last things in the Church are not isolated from the first and intermediate things. Living in the Church, we reach the state of Adam in Paradise before the fall, and we ascend still higher, because we attain communion and unity with Christ, united in His Divine-human Body, having become members of His Body.
The saints from now on are enjoying the glory of God, and therefore St. Symeon the New Theologian says that those who have been granted the vision of the uncreated Light are not waiting for the Second Coming, because they are already experiencing the Kingdom of God.
Besides, the Kingdom of God is not something created, nor is it an earthly reality, but, as St. Gregory Palamas teaches, participation in the Kingdom of God is identified and linked with the vision of the uncreated Light.
However, there will be a continuous perfecting of this participation in the glory of God. This is important, because if the future life is a stationary condition, then it will not have fullness. St. Gregory of Sinai says characteristically: “It is said that in the age to come, the Angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life”.
And St. Gregory Palamas, referring to this point, speaks of the continual development in deification, in man’s continual perfecting. Asking: “Do not the saints progress infinitely in the vision of God in the age to come?” He gives the answer himself: “In everything it is clearly to infinity”. Indeed he makes use of the case of the Angels who, according to the teaching of St. Dionysios the Areopagite, become increasingly receptive “to the clearest illumination”. God is infinite and therefore grants His grace abundantly and plentifully. St. Gregory Palamas asks: “What way is left but for the sons of the age to come, to advance in this to infinity, admitted from grace to grace and patiently making the tireless ascent?” This will be because, according to the same saint. “the previous grace empowers them to partake of greater things”.
Of course, in saying these things, we must emphasise that it is not a matter of the restoration of all things, a teaching which was not adopted by the Church, but of the development and perfection of the saints, those who during their lives partook of the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God. For those men who did not participate even in the purifying grace of God, that is to say, did not enter the stage of repentance, this good development will not take effect. Furthermore, the passages which we mentioned speak of the saints who acquired the grace of God, and therefore in them the previous grace is empowering towards participation in greater things. Therefore the memorial services which the Church performs for those who have died also have this aim. They help the person in his perfecting, because, according to the teaching of the saints, “this is the perfect unending perfection of the perfect ones”.
In this sense we can say that after the Second Coming of Christ we shall have a more complete manifestation of the glory of God. And it is in this perspective that we should interpret the teaching of the saints that now we have as a pledge a taste of the good things of the Kingdom of God.
After all that has been reported we must end with a few conclusions, without, of course, having exhausted this great theme.
a) Only in Christ is there salvation. Since the saints of the Old Testament saw the unincarnate Word and the saints of the New Testament saw and see the incarnate Word and have close communion with Him, this means that man’s salvation takes place only through Christ. And of course since Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and salvation is a common action of the Trinitarian God, it means that we are saved when we have communion with the Holy Trinity, when the grace of the Trinitarian God enters our being, when “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit” are with us.
b) The Church is not a human organisation, but a Divine-Human Organism. It is not a human corporation, but the Divine-human Body of Christ. The source of the Church is this God Himself. It is not men’s invention, it is not a fruit and result of men’s social need, but it is the sole place of man’s salvation. That is to say, the impression is created that men made the Church in order to be able to survive in such difficult and tragic social conditions of life. But, as we explained before, the source of the Church is God Himself, and man’s salvation takes place within it. Clement of Alexandria observes: “for just as it is a work of his will and is called the world, so also the salvation of men is his will and this is called the church”. And this means that the Church will never cease to exist, in spite of such difficult and unfavourable circumstances.
c) In the Church all the problems are solved. We are not speaking of an abstract Christianity which we link with an ideology, but of a Church which is a communion of God and man, of angels and men, of earthly and heavenly, of man and world. The Church is “a meeting of heaven and earth”. Peace, justice, etc. , are not simply some social conventions, but gifts which are given in the Church. Peace as well as justice and all the other virtues, such as love etc. are experiences of the Church. In the Church we experience the real peace, justice and love, which are essential energies of God.
d) The Church is the Body of Christ, which has Christ as its head, and the members of the Church are members of the Body of Christ. Members of the Church exist in all the ages and will exist until the end of all time. And when members of the Church cease to exist, the end of the world will come. Thus we are living with many people. The people of God manifest the true communion. As we said at the beginning, on the paten during the Liturgy there are many people. They are the Panagia, the Angels, the Prophets, the holy Fathers, the great martyrs, and, in general, the witnesses of the faith, the saints and ascetics, the living and the dead who have a share in the purifying, illuminating and deifying uncreated energy of God. We are not alone. We are not “foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household” (Eph. 2,19).
The greatest gift of grace which we have is that we belong to the Church. The greatest gift is that we are in this great Family. We should value this gift, we should feel very deeply moved and struggle to remain in the Church, experiencing its sanctifying grace and showing by our lives that we are in its place of redemption and sanctification. Thus we shall also have the great gift of the “blessed ending”, when we are granted to lie asleep “in the midst of the Church”.
by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios
His Grace Metropolitan Ierotheos (Vlachos) was born in 1945 in Ioannina. He has studied Theology. He was ordained a deacon in 1971 and a priest in 1972. He served as lecturer in the Theological School of Antiochian Patriarchate. He was elected and ordained as bishop in 1995. He has written a great number of books.