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Petros Vassiliadis
Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki

Reconciliation as a pneunatological mission paradigm
(Some Preliminary Reflections by an Orthodox)

II. The Holy Spirit and the understanding of universalism in the theology of mission

Of crucial importance at this stage was the reassessment of the concept of universalism, according to some analysts the primary cause all religious, social and even ethnic conflicts. Following Martin Goodman’s analysis,(4) I argued elsewhere, that following the steps of Judaism, Christianity developed informative, educational, apologetic and proselytizing mission to propagate its faith.(5) However, this pluralistic understanding has gradually given its place to a more or less universalistic understanding, a universal proselytizing mission, which during the Constantinian period became dominant through its theological validation by the great ancient Church historian Eusebius. However, it never became entirely dormant in the undivided Church,(6) with very few exceptions of course.

Universal proselytizing mission was actually promoted in a systematic way only in the second millennium, during which the concept of universalism was developed. With the theological articulation of christocentric universalism the old idea of “Christendom” has determined to a considerable degree the shaping of “old paradigm” of the Christian theology of mission.(7) Universal proselytizing mission was given fresh life by the discovery of the New World, and by the prospect of christianizing the entire inhabited earth. It reached its peak with the so-called African and Asian Christian missions during the last century.(8) This concept of “Christendom”, however, carried with it other non Christian elements to such an extent that eventually industrialized development in Europe and America of the bourgeois society, as well as colonialism and expansionism of any sort, walked hand by hand with Christian mission.

It has been rightly argued that during the “old mission paradigm” Christians felt that they were called “to convey to the rest of humanity the blessings of Western (i.e. bourgeois) Christian civilization...The slogan ‘the evangelization of the world in this generation’ emphasizes the missionary consciousness of this early movement, in which genuine missionary and evangelistic motives were inextricably combined with cultural and social motives”.(9)

It was for these reasons that Christian theology on the world mission scene adopted a more holistic view, and with the contribution – among others – of the Orthodox theology, suggested a radical shift to a “new paradigm,” away from the “christocentric universalism”, towards a “trinitarian” understanding of the divine reality and towards an oekoumene as the one household of life.(10) For mission theology, these meant abandoning the primary and exclusive importance of proselytism, not only among Christians of other denominations, but even among peoples of other religions. Dialogue was suggested as new term parallel to, and in some cases in place of, the old missiological terminology.(11) Nowadays, the problem of reconciliation in the religious field has become not simply a social necessity but a legitimate theological imperative.(12) In the Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, published some 25 years ago by WCC, the people of the other faiths are for Christians “no longer the objects of (their) discussions but partners in (their mission)".(13)

Thus, the Christian theology of mission no longer insists on the universal proselytizing mission, but on the authentic witness of the Church’s eschatological experience. This was, in fact, made possible by the theology of the Holy Spirit, who in both the biblical and patristic tradition is first and foremost eschatologically- (Acts 2:17ff) and communion- (2 Cor 13:13) oriented . This development was the result of the fundamental assumption of the trinitarian theology, “that God in God’s own self is a life of communion and that God’s involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into this communion with God’s very life”.(14)

Bishop John Zizioulas (of Pergamon) has convincingly argued that from the time of the New Testament and early patristic writings there are two types of Pneumatology, one “historical” and one “eschatological”, one which is familiar in the West to the present day and understands the Holy Spirit as fully depended on Christ, as being the agent of Christ to fulfill the task of mission (cf. also the filioque), and the other which more consistently developed in the East and understands the Holy Spirit as the source of Christ, and which understands the Church in terms more of coming together (i.e as the eschatological synaxis of the people of God in his Kingdom) than of going forth for mission.(15)

Taking this second type of Pneumatology seriously into consideration, and building upon the eschatological understanding of the Church,(16) one unavoidably concludes that the mission of the Church deals with the problem of ethics, i.e. the problem of overcoming the evil in the world, not primarily as a moral and social issue, but mainly – and for some even exclusively – as an ecclesial one, in the sense that the moral and social responsibility of Christians, i.e. their mission in today’s pluralistic world, is the logical consequence of their ecclesial (i.e. eschatological) self-consciousness. This meens that mission is the outcome, not the primary of Christian theology. That is why for Orthodoxy what constitutes the essence of the Church is not her mission but the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy;(17) the mission is the meta-liturgy, the Liturgy after the Liturgy. Reconciliation, however, being the primary precondition of the Eucharist, automatically becomes the primary of mission.

The above two types of Pneumatology, together with the two ecclesiological and missiological perspectives which came out of them, survived to the present ecumenical era. Today’s world mission in order to be consistent with the idea of “Common Christian Witness”, and more importantly faithful to the tradition of the undivided Church, needs to proceed to a theological synthesis of the above two types of Pneumatology, of ecclesiology, and above all of missiology. And this I will attempt to provide in the following section.


4. M. Goodman, Mission and Conversion. Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1994, p.3ff.

5. “Mission and Proselytism. An Orthodox Understanding,” Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspecrives on the Unity and Mission of the Church, WCC Press-Holy Cross Press, Geneva, Boston, 1998, pp. 29ff.

6. M. Goodman, Mission and Conversion, p. 7.

7. Cf. the characteristic work of W.A.Visser’t Hooft, No Other Name: The Choice between Syncretism and Christian Universalism, SCM London, 1963.

8. It was the conviction that the "Decisive hour of Christian Mission" had come that impelled John R. Mott to call the World Mission Conference of 1910, with the primary purpose of pooling resources and developing a common strategy for the "world's conquest" for Christ. The task of "taking the Gospel to all the regions of the world" was seen to be of paramount importance. On the recent history of Christian mission see J.Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction, engl. transl. Grand Rapids Michigan 1978.

9. K.Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications Geneva 1991, p.34.

10. Ibid., pp.79ff.

11. This development is a radical reinterpretation of Christology through Pneumatology (cf.John Zizioulas, Being as Communion, SVS Press New York 1985), through the rediscovery of the forgotten trinitarian theology of the undivided Church (cf. A.I.C.Herton ed., The Forgotten Trinity, London, 1991).

12. For an Orthodox contribution to the debate cf. (Archbishop of Albania) Anastasios Yannoulatos, Various Christian Approaches to the Other Religions (A Historical Outline), Athens 1971; also Metropolitan George Khodre,“Christianity in a Pluralistic World-The Economy of the Holy Spirit,” ER 23 (1971), pp. 118-28.

13. Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, WCC, Geneva, 1990 (4th printing). Cf. Stanley J. Samartha, (ed.), Faith in the Midst of Faiths Reflections on Dialogue in Community, WCC, Geneva, 1977.

14. I. Bria (ed.), Go Forth in Peace, WCC Publications: Geneva 1986, p. 3.

15. J. Zizioulas, “Implications ecclésiologiques de deux types de pneumatologie,” Communio Sanctorum. Mélagnes offerts à Jean Jacques von Almen, Labor et Fides, Geneva 1982, pp. 141-154.

16. In some traditional Churches, like the Orthodox to which I belong, even the episcopocentric structure of the Church is seen as an essential part of the eschatological vision of the Church. The bishop e.g. as the presiding primus inter pares in love over the eucharistic community, has very seldom been understood as a vicar or representative, or ambassador of Christ, but as an image of Christ. So with the rest of the ministries of the Church: they are not parallel to, or given by, but identical with those of, Christ (J. Zizioulas, “The Mystery of the Church in Orthodox Tradition,” One in Christ 24 (1988), pp. 294-303)

17. The imporance of Liturgy has been recently reaffirmed by cultural anthropologists as a constitutive element of all religious systems, and certainly of Christianity. The Eucharist, heart and center of Christian Liturgy, in its authentic perception is widely now accepted, especially within the ecumenical dialogues (multilateral and bilateral) as a proleptic manifestation of the Kingdom of God, as symbol and image of an alternative reality, which was conceived before all creation by God the Father in his mystical plan (the mysterion in the biblical sense), was inaugurated by our Lord, and is permanently sustained by the Holy Spirit.

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