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Professor Dr. Vlassios Pheidas

Τhe limits of the church in an orthodox perspective

Chapter III

The new theological discussions within the ecumenical movement are demonstrating that the mutual recognition of certain sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry) is the basis for the view that different Christian traditions simply represent various formulations of the same apostolic faith. It means that those outside the Orthodox Church hold the same essential faith, despite its diverse expressions in different cultures, languages and religious contexts. Thus, ecumenical dialogue puts forth as its specific goal a mere theological agreement or compromise only in those areas, where the division is clearly expressed in the life of the Church. The Vancouver Assembly proposed, for example, the reception of ΒΕΜ as an expression of a common understanding of the apostolic faith, «for what the Churches are asked to receive in this test is not simply a document, but in this document the apostolic faith, from which it comes and to which it bears witness».

This vision of unity is based on the following requirements: (a) full recognition of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, (b) common understanding and expression of the apostolic faith, and (c) common ways of decision-making and teaching that faith authorities. Ιn any event, it becomes clearer that the cause of unity is poorly served through these ecumenical discussions, because there is no agreement on how many theological issues there are, on which consensus should be reached before a genuine unity is realised. Some Churches propose that just a basic agreement on certain sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry) could be considered as sufficient theological foundation for restoring full communion. Others regard every theological document of convergence as simply a first step toward a deeper theological consensus. Ιn reality, there is no clear vision of the goal which should guide theologians and Church leaders, because, by putting various theological traditions into a common document, numerous fundamental theological questions are left open. If ecumenical dialogue is really a «spiritual battle for truth», then it can be better served through the spirit of the tradition of the undivided Church, which offers the key to distinguishing between the essential and secondary elements of the apostolic faith and reconciling the existing diversities through the recovery of the integrity of true faith.

The question of mutual recognition of Baptisιn is a crucial ecclesiological perspective toward full communion. Ιn the ΒΕΜ document mutual recognition of Baptism is encouraged as «an important sign and means of expressing the baptismal unity given in Christ». Βut, this «mutual recognition should be expressed explicitly by the Churches». What does this mean in ecclesiological perspective? Logically, mutual recognition of Baptism leads to the mutual recognition of members, as mutual recognition of members leads to the full communion. If we recognise that all those baptised are incorporated into Christ, it is very difficult to avoid the consequence that they are also incorporated into the Body of Christ. But, if they belong to the Body of Christ, then it is more difficult to deny that they belong to the Church, «which is the body». If it is so, the Baptism, as incorporation into the Body of Christ, points by its very nature to the eucharistic sharing and leads to the full communion.

Thus, Baptism and membership in the body of the Church, of every Church, are interrelated through the bond of the incorporation of baptised persons «into the Body of Christ». But this presupposes a common understanding of both Baptism and membership, which is not the case in the respective traditions of the Orthodox and the Protestant Churches. For the Orthodox tradition, membership means incorporation through Baptism into the one Body of Christ, «which is the Church». For the Reformed tradition, it is the right to participate constitutionally in ecclesiastical governance. A possible agreement on the nature of Baptism could serve as a very important ecclesiological achievement towards a common understanding of the «membership» into the Body of Christ. This could lead to a new approach of the full participation in eucharistic communion. It is quite clear that a possible agreement on the doctrine of Baptism could lead to a possible recognition of the membership in the one Body of Christ, «which is the Church».

It would, in fact, be very difficult to reach a common understanding of Baptism and membership, without a serious convergence in the ecclesiology of the Body of Christ. Ιn the light of an ecumenical approach, Baptism is studied as the unifying first event in all Churches. Ιn the ΒΕΜ document there is an exploration into many of the dividing issues in a new way. It is obvious that real agreement shall only be achieved when the Churches feel prepared to recognise that the agreement on Baptism is fundamental and constitutive for membership in the Body of Christ and cannot be conceived apart from the confession of the true apostolic faith. Ιn fact, the central ecclesiological meaning of Baptism is the participation in the death and resurrection of Christ and the incorporation of the baptised persons into the Body of Christ. Since the Body of Christ is one, Baptism must be also one, because it is Baptism «into Christ» and, as such, it unites the baptised with Christ and his Body, which is the Christ of every time and every place.

Vatican II was unable to propose a new and ecclesiologically consistent formula in order to combine mutual recognition of Baptism with full eucharistic communion. Ιn «Lumen Gentium» it is stated that baptised persons are incorporated into the Church, but in the Decree on Ecumenism, referring to non-catholic believers, it is declared that «all those justified by faith through Βaptism are incorporated «into Christ», which effectively means that they are not incorporated also «into the Church». The Decree on Ecumenism clarifies this distinction: «The ecclesial communities separated from us lack that fullness of unity with us, which should flow from Baptism, and we believe that, especially because of the lack of the sacrament of orders, they have not preserve the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery». However, the validity of Baptism of those ecclesial communities is fully recognised as an «incorporation into Christ», which introduces a specific relationship with the ecclesial reality.

Ιn this sense Baptism is really the fundamental sacrament of unity and opens the way toward a full participation in eucharistic communion, i.e. toward full communion. We agree that on a baptismal basis «incorporation into the Body of Christ» and «membership into the Church», which is the Body of Christ, could lead to a serious convergence in ecclesiologies. But, if we confess in common that we are members of the one Body of Christ, Ι cannot see any possibility to deny the Christocentric ontology of the Church. Thus, mutual recognition of Baptism could serve as a basic step toward the full communion, although it is not in itself a direct means toward the full communion. This means that we must place our understanding of Baptism in the dynamic perspective of the ontological relationship between Christ and His Church, which is fully manifested in the holy Eucharist. Through Baptism and Faith baptised persons are incorporated into the Body of Christ as well as into the body of the local Church. Since we agree that we are baptised «into the Body» of Christ (1 Cor., 12,13), it is quite obvious that our failure to restore eucharistic communion and to live as an ecclesial body reflects a serious lack of agreement as to the meaning of the fellowship into which Baptism introduces us.

The reassessment of the orthodox tradition concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the boundaries of the Orthodox Church could offer a theological support for a more flexible interpretation of the canonical tradition regarding the precise content of the notion of the boundaries of the Church. Ιn this context, it would be useful to employ as criterion the 66th canon (Greek 69th) of the Synod of Carthage, which accepts as possible the «communion» with those having different view (Donatists) for the benefits of the Church and for a more effective repentance (metanoia) and salvation of those existing outside its boundaries. Ιn this way, converging tendencies of Christology in more recent times better serve the cause of unity and could be made the basis for a converging movement in Ecclesiology, where constant criteria would be the common understanding of the Christocentric ontology of the Church and of the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

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