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Alexander Schmemann

"Unity", "Division", "Reunion" in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology

Adress given at the Annual Conference of the Fellowship of S. Alban and St Sergius at Abingdon, England in August 1950.

From Theologia, ΚΒ, 1951, p. 243-254

Chapter III

This, however, is only one aspect of the Church's unity, an aspect which may be termed ontological. Yet, the Church is not only something given to men by God in Christ, but it also implies their acceptance and assimilation of this gift, their answer to God's calling and their election. And if that which is given is the fullness, always identical with itself, the eschatological fullness of the Church, even Christ Himself, it is yet impossible to abstract this fullness from its incarnation and manifestation in history. In this sense catholic ecclesiology is also essentially the theology of the history of the Church. I should like to emphasize that I mean the theology of the history of the Church and not the philosophy of history. The philosophy of history seeks to discover the significance of the historical process, its teleology,— and in this sense, the only real pattern of a philosophy of history is the sacred history of the Old Testament, the history of Salvation, «Heilsgeschichte», wholly moving towards its own fulfillment, to the Incarnation of the Son of God. And this history was fulfilled. «But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son»(Gal. IV,4). In Him the fullness of Divinity and the fullness of Salvation are granted to men. The history of Salvation was fulfilled and «the time of the Church» is eschatological : «the last time». From the point of view of Heilsgeschichte the Church has no history, it is already in statu patriae, and is always the actualization of it fullness of salvation accomplished by Christ ἅπαξ— once for all.

The statement that the Church has a history means that this fullness of salvation is not only given to men, but is accepted by them, that human nature, restored and renewed through the Incarnation, has become capable of accepting and assimilating Salvation; that historical reality, this world of ours, can actually receive Christ, and our human nature acquire conformity with Him. God became man, the Divine Word became the word of human scriptures, and just as it is impossible to disincarnate Christ, or to separate the Word of God from the word of man, so is it impossible to abstract the eschatological fullness of the Church from its historical and human manifestation. The theology of the history of the Church presupposes that in history, in the changing and limited world, it is possible adequately to comprehend, express and assimilate Divine Truth which is granted in Christ. Thus, from a purely historical point of view, the history of the Church, like any other history, is contingent. For instance, the structure of the early Church was shaped by the world in which it was born, and the dogmatic formulae of the Ecumenical Councils, the very doctrine of the Church and the development of its organization were determined by purely historical factors. But the nature of the Church is such that all that is Divine, absolute and «eschatological» in it can be expressed in these «historical» forms, and what is purely historical can be transfigured and made to conform with Truth. More than that: this is a task set before the Church. Just as each of us, who has received in baptism the fullness of the gifts of salvation, has become «a participant in the death and Resurrection» of Our Lord, and has found a new life, is called to grow in it, so does the Church «till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ» (Eph. IV, 13).

This notion of the organic unity of eschatology and history within the Church provides the key to the true understanding of the Church's Tradition. On the one hand the Orthodox Church rejects the theory of «the development of dogma» regarded as a kind of quantitative enlargement of Truth : the fullness of Truth is given to the Church from the very beginning and, in its entirety, is transmitted to the Church always and everywhere. «Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est». It is not the truth that grows, it is we who grow in the truth. But, on the other hand, this growth is not simply a series of historical and relative apprehensions of one and the same Truth, but an actual and adequate reply to the summons of God, the fruit of the Incarnation and of the Holy Spirit; and so it becomes an integral part of the Church's life and is transmitted as such by Tradition. This is no mere «explicitation» of some basic «kernel» of Tradition, exterior to it and only of «historical value: it is Tradition itself, the very Truth, manifested and expressed, In this sense Tradition for us includes the Scriptures which form its foundation and content, and the dogmatic formulae and the holiness of the saints and the veneration of the Mother of God and the whole teaching and the whole life of the Church.

And so the true sign and condition of the unity of all the Churches, that is of the whole Catholic Church, is the unity of Tradition, which is that adequate interpretation of the Church's eschatological fullness which alone permits us to comprehend and manifest our unity, not merely to believe in it but to possess it. This is the unity in Truth, in real and objective Truth, not merely in a pale, relative and «historical» expression of it. These, it may be objected, are human words and human beliefs and human truths. But we must not forget that the word «human» has acquired two different meaning's since the day when God became man and has remained man: it may mean the sum total of human weakness, sin and the falling away from God; it can also signify the deified and glorified humanity of Christ: «we are the Body of Christ» (1 Cor. XII, 27), «we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. II, 16), «yet, not I, but Christ live in me...» (Gal. II, 20): these words, spoken by a man, could be said by the Church of itself… And for this reason its Tradition, its faith and its Truth, received and witnessed by the Holy Spirit, are the true expression of its unity. Our unity in Christ cannot be otherwise manifested by us than in this «unity of faith and love» and it is thus that St Ignatius of Antioch defines the Church. The eschatological unity of the Church, its identity in time and space, is manifested in the actual historical and visible unity of faith; and the criterion of this faith is, again, the historical tradition of the Church. Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism were fourth and fifth century Oriental heresies; yet the dogmas, that were formulated by the Church as a reply to these heresies are not merely fourth or fifth century Oriental dogmas. They are the very Catholic Truth, the words of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and this Truth cannot be a relative one. To enter into the Church, to live in the Church is not merely to achieve an individual and eschatological union with Christ ; it implies the necessity of entering into and living in the historical Church which possesses its own language and its own historical form, of accepting this history as one's own history; and, far from dragging the Catholic Truth down to the level of one's own time and personal needs, this act implies a constant widening of one's personality, one's faith and one's language towards the goal of full Catholicity.

To sum up, the unity of the Church is expressed and realized in the unity of faith, manifested in the full Catholic agreement of all the Churches; through this agreement each Church knows the others as it does itself, and in the others it knows the One Catholic Church. It is this Catholic agreement that finds its expression in communion in the sacraments, in intercommunion ; through it the sacraments of another Church are recognized as the sacraments of one's own Church, and ultimately as the sacraments of the Church Universal. The Church is not a universal organism, yet its faith is always the universal faith, the faith of the Apostles, the Fathers and Doctors; it is a visible unity, the unity of the Catholic Church throughout the earth (2).


1. Adress given at the Annual Conference of the Fellowship of S. Alban and St Sergius at Abingdon, England in August 1950.

2. I do not, of course, wish to deny the visible organization of the Universal Church, the grouping of local Churches into provinces, metropolitan areas and patriarchates; the primacy of certain episcopal sees; in brief, that whole ecclesiastical order (τάξις) which is sanctioned by the canons of the Church. My point is simply that this organization is not an organism as understood by the Church of Rome, but is historical by its very nature—changing in accordance with the historical process. It changes in such a way as to always express the catholic agreement of the whole Church and her real identity with every local Church. Cf. my brief essay: «.The Ecumenical Patriarch and the Orthodox Church» in the «Messenger of the Russian Church in Western Europe» No 1 (28) 1951, pp. 3-12 (in Russian).

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