The term ‘Churches’ as a ‘technical term’

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and St Vlassios

Translated into English from the original text in Greek: Ναυπάκτου κ. Ἱερόθεος: Ὁ ὅρος «Ἐκκλησίες» ὡς «τεχνικὸς ὅρος»

Recently it has been asserted repeatedly by some people that, although the Church is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” and it is the Orthodox Church, we can also make use of the term ‘Churches’ for the non-Orthodox, and in this case it is a ‘technical term’(terminus technicus).

This view makes a particular impression, as it is not just written in articles but is also being put forward by Bishops, even in official Synodical bodies, in order to support the decision of the ‘Great and Holy Council’ of Crete that “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her.”

I have a different view, of course, and I would like to express it in this article.

1. What is meant by a ‘technical term’?

A ‘technical term’ (terminus technicus), according to G. Babiniotis’ Dictionary, is “a term that is used by a particular art, science or a professional specialism.”

If we look up the reference to special languages in the Portal for the Greek language , we reach the conclusion that a technical term (terminus technicus) is a term used in the context of technical language by academics of particular specialisations, when they investigate matters concerning their specialty. Thus a technical term is either a term used to describe objects or concepts that do not have a name in current usage, or else it meets the need to describe with a more specific term, to exclude any ambiguity, objects which ordinary language (common vocabulary) already describes. So a technical term can be a newly created word or an existing word in everyday vocabulary with a more specific meaning, which differs to a greater or lesser extent from the meaning that it has in common usage.

In this specific case, with reference to the text of the Great Council, the expression ‘technical term’ means that these “Christian communities and confessions” are not recognised as Churches, but the word ‘Church’ is used for these Christian groups as a convention, in order to facilitate understanding between us.

Starting from the definition of a technical term which we reached on the basis of the information we obtained from the Portal for the Greek language, we could make the following points about the use of the term ‘Church’ as a technical term:

Technical terms are the result of agreement between experts. Their meaning is determined with absolute precision and clarity, and specialists in every field use them to ensure mutual understanding and to avoid ambiguity. However, from the moment that a word’s content is in doubt and provokes discussion, it is obvious that its use is not accurately defined and it is not the result of agreement, so it invalidates itself as a technical term.

Also, technical terms are recorded in specialist dictionaries of terminology and are fixed. They are not used casually and conventionally for the sake of agreement, in order to suit a particular situation. In the case of the Great Council, the use of the word ‘Church’ for non-Orthodox confessions as well is proposed in order to promote agreement and meet a need for communication, in the knowledge that, in this specific instance, the word is being wrongly used with a different meaning from that which had been initially agreed. In this case, however, we are not dealing with a technical term, but with the selection of one of the word’s meanings.

It is true that if we consult dictionaries we see that they cite different meanings of the word. But this is exactly the purpose of dictionaries: to give the meanings of a word and to set out their use by quoting examples.

It is, however, a different matter within a text. The meaning of a word within a text, as we have been taught by linguistics and more specifically by pragmatics, must be defined by the “contextual setting – linguistic and extra-linguistic – of the statement” . The meaning is closely connected with the occasion, the conditions of place and time, the goal being pursued, and so on. Thus the meaning of the word ‘Church’ in this specific ecclesiological text of the Great Council can be defined only in relation to other comparable dogmatic and ecclesiological texts and in relation to internal textual criteria – although, as will be pointed out below, the ‘technical term’ is being used as a substantive term.

Lastly, we cannot link a ‘technical term’ with apophaticism. To begin with, the concept of apophaticism relates only to God, as we will mention below, and we cannot suddenly produce an expanded interpretation of apophaticism for the term ‘Church’ merely because it serves our purpose. In any case, the concept of a ‘technical term’ is the exact opposite of apophatic expression. Apophaticism is, above all, about the inability to give a definition or an exact name. On the contrary, a ‘technical term’ is an attempt to give the most accurate definition possible of a concept.

In fact, the use of a ‘technical term’ for other Christian Confessions is misleading and I will explain below the reasons that support my view.

2. ‘Technical terms’ in confessional texts

In everyday speech and communication with Christians of other Confessions we use the term ‘Church’ incorrectly and accommodatingly for the sake of mutual understanding, because this is how those groups define themselves. The term ‘Church’ is also used with a social meaning (in ancient Greek the expression ‘church of the people’ denoted a popular assembly) and to designate religious groups and cults (e.g. Church of Satan).

During my recent visit to America I was told that there are around 55,000 ‘Christian’ groups that call themselves ‘Churches’. It is interesting that not all those ‘Christian groups’ fulfil the necessary terms and conditions to become members of the ‘World Council of Churches’.

It is widely known that, in order for a ‘Christian group’ to become a member of the ‘World Council of Churches’, it has to submit an application, and an investigation is conducted to see whether it meets the requirements for consideration as a member. This procedure takes a long time.

So, not all those groups that use the term ‘Church’ are ‘Churches’. This is simply what they call themselves. The fact that the text published by the ‘Holy and Great Council’ of Crete does not make this clarification, but calls all ‘Christian groups’ “non-Orthodox Churches and confessions” is problematic.

In another article of mine, which I also submitted for the proceedings of the ‘Holy and Great Council’, I asserted that the use of the term ‘Church’ for non-Orthodox Christian Communities and Confessions by early and contemporary Fathers, Bishops and theologians cannot be regarded as justifying the use of this term in the Council of Crete’s decision. This is because it must be explicitly clarified. It is one thing to use the word ‘Church’ wrongly and as a matter of convention for non-Orthodox groups, although we do not believe that they are real members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is, however, something completely different to include it in a text of the Great Council as its dogmatic and canonical decision. As we mentioned above, the use and meaning of a word is defined in relation to the contextual setting in which it is placed.

The key question is: Is the Council of Crete a Holy and Great Council or not? If it is a Holy and Great Council, a continuation of the Ecumenical Councils, then it cannot use words that are supposedly ‘technical terms’ in its decisions. I cannot conceive that the Fathers of the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils, who decided upon the Creed, could possibly have used ‘technical terms’, or that the later Fathers of other Ecumenical Councils, who resolved Christological matters, could possibly have used ‘technical terms’. Views like these are in every sense unacceptable.

It is well known that the Ecumenical Councils fought hard for the exact usage of words and terms concerning dogmatic matters. No serious person can possibly claim that the Council of Crete is a Holy and Great Council when at the same time, with the knowledge of the Hierarchs and theologians, it includes ‘technical terms’ in its decisions, particularly on serious ecclesiological matters, which are Christological matters as well.

Perceiving the term ‘Church’ as a ‘technical term’ is also reminiscent of the ulterior political motives of the Monothelites, who, while speaking about Christ’s one will, assured St Maximus that they did not mean one will in Christ for both His natures, but that they wrote it in this way in order to calm people down and bring peace to the world…They promoted the one will in the hope of bringing the Monophysites into the imperial Church.

The connection with today is obvious. On the one hand, the term ‘Church’ is used supposedly as a ‘technical term’, without meaning that ecclesiological status is granted to the non-Orthodox. On the other hand, during the discussion about mixed marriages within the same Council of Crete, the validity of the baptism of the non-Orthodox was established and, similarly, the validity of attributing ecclesiastical status to their communities. We shall look at this matter below.
3. Things and names, with reference to the terms ‘Church’ and ‘Churches’

In order to support the view that the term ‘Church’ is a ‘technical term’, the argument has been put forward that within the patristic tradition there is distinction between things and names (terms or words), as is clear from the way in which the Fathers of the Church dealt with the theories of Eunomius.

The fact that terms do not describe the nature of things is a view common to all the Fathers regarding all things, even created ones. This apophaticism – to use this completely unidiomatic term here – includes all things, which are known in their entirety from their energies, while their nature remains unknown. So the whole attempt to introduce Cappadocian reasoning is mostly rhetorical and aims to cast “the stone of anathema” at those who do not accept the term ‘Church’ for the non-Orthodox, rather than to put forward a theological argument.

It is true that Eunomius, who “gave rational definition to the dialectics of Aetius”, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, preached that God is simple and undivided, and the unique element of His simple essence is unbegottenness, which defines Him. God’s perfect simplicity implied identity. Hence Eunomius identified His essence with His energy. He also taught that due to God’s simplicity we know everything about God, just as God knows Himself. “God knows no more about His own essence than we do. It is not better known to Him than it is to us.”

St Basil the Great initially, followed by St Gregory of Nyssa, as well as St Gregory the Theologian and the later Fathers, spoke about the undivided distinction between essence and energy in God, and they asserted that we know God through His energies, but we are completely ignorant of His essence. Furthermore, they asserted that God has many names with regard to His energies, and is nameless with regard to His essence. We give God names from His energies, but we subtract names as an expression of apophaticism. Thus God’s names are not identified with His nature and God Himself.

St Dionysius the Areopagite made this clear when he said that God has names. He is good, life, wisdom, power, and everything that appertains to intelligible divine appellation, and yet He is supra-essential Trinity, transcendently divine and transcendently good. God is light but His is darkness. He is seen but He is invisible: He is beheld in a way that surpasses understanding and perception.

In general, the Fathers taught that there are words and there are concepts, which are the content of the words. There is no identity between words and concepts, and experience cannot be expressed absolutely by words and concepts.

In any case, the Fathers, in order to express their experience of divine vision, used created words and concepts that they came across in their surroundings. However, they taught that once a God-seer attains to the experience, words and concepts are abolished, since the experience of divine vision comes about by grace in a way that transcends understanding and perception. These are what the Apostle Paul called “inexpressible words”, which are recorded in expressible words and concepts.

This is the basic principle of cataphatic and apophatic theology, since God is seen invisibly and heard inaudibly and is participated in without participation and is multiplied without becoming many.

However, what occurs during the experience of divine vision and refers to the Triune God, that is to say, to theology, cannot be applied to the description of the fact of the Church. We cannot claim that the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers, who objected to the heretical views of Eunomius, applies to describing the fact of the Church.

Anyone who insists on this commits the theological mistake of failing to make the distinction between theology and economy, and consequently he transfers what applies to the Triune God to ecclesiology, in other words, the divine economy. The Son and Word of God, by the good pleasure of the Father and the synergy of the Holy Spirit, assumed human nature and united the uncreated with the created, the immortal with the mortal, without confusion, change, division or separation.

Also, God’s energies refer to specific things, so they are not conveyed by empty names that change from time to time due to the non-existence of the thing that they stand for. This raises many questions: Does the name ‘Church’ for the Orthodox refer to the fullness of the uncreated divine energies of the body of the God-man Christ or not? Do the non-Orthodox groups described by the term ‘Churches’ refer to us, the Orthodox, in the communion of deification that proceeds from the divine and human body of Christ, or not? Do the non-Orthodox groups described by the term ‘Churches’ refer to us, the Orthodox, in the fullness of truth, or not? Is it or is it not duplicity (‘double language’ in Greek) and theological diplomacy when a name that the Orthodox use to refer to a specific meaning is used with another meaning for other religious groups? How does that differ from the policy of the Monothelites, who used the same expression, “one will in Christ”, to assure the Orthodox that one will means the concurrence of two natural wills (thus two natures), while giving the Monophysites to understand that one will obviously refers to one nature in Christ?

All these questions are of crucial importance and significance.

The Fathers talk about the truth of things and they proclaim to dissenters that they are not going to quibble over words and names if they agree on the truth of things. Insisting on words is not about attributing stable and unalterable truth to names, as the “stone of anathema” is speciously cast at those who insist that the non-Orthodox are not a Church. It is about the categorical requirement that all the participants in the Council should agree that when a word is used to describe a reality it is understood in the same way by everyone.

In any case, all the dogmatic struggles over terminology were precisely so that everybody would be in agreement about the things themselves. The 5th Ecumenical Council is a classic example. All the safety valves were put in place so that the dogmatic definition of Chalcedon would be understood linguistically in an Orthodox sense and not in a Nestorian or a Monophysite sense. Words and terminology are used that does not express all Christian traditions, but so many explanatory sentences were included, that any misinterpretation by any part of the Council is excluded. This did not happen with the text of the Council of Crete.

The term or word codifies and defines, as far as possible, the inexpressible experience, and this is neither simple nor insignificant nor accidental. The fact that the term does not identify but describes does not make it useless, nor does it justify us using it in any way we like, or in the way that serves our purpose on each occasion, because we simply cannot reach mutual understanding like this. And we know that mutual understanding is very important. Unless we have the opposite aim, and we want to obscure everything in order to make understanding difficult and problematic, and amidst the general confusion that we cause, to promote our own schemes.

4. Definition, apophaticism and definition by others

Following on from the above, some people have linked the issue of using ‘Church’ as a ‘technical term’ with other ecclesiological matters concerning the definition or apophaticism of the Church, and the definition by others or self-definition of other Christian Confessions. We therefore need to examine the issue of defining the Church in relation to apophaticism and definition by others or self-definition.

With regard to definition, we must say that older dogmatic textbooks that had been influenced by scholastic traditions used to define the Church approximately as follows: The Church is all the people who believe in Christ, who confess that Jesus Christ is its Head, that He is their God and their Lord, who have the same faith and confession, who are sanctified through the sacred Mysteries, who are led towards salvation by Bishops who have uninterrupted apostolic succession, and so on.

It has been pointed out, however, that the Fathers of the Church avoided giving such definitions of the Church. Instead they gave descriptions and used images, as Christ did in His parables (for example: house, marriage, flock, vine, and so on). This makes some people claim that we cannot give a definition of the Church, but we should only use images.

Still, this cannot be used as an argument for the term ‘Church’, as the Body of Christ. The expression that the Church is the Body of Christ is not an image. The Body is not an image, but a reality. Christ with His incarnation did not assume…an image, but human nature. He became incarnate: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The three disciples on Mount Thabor did not see the glory of an image, but the glory of the deified Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul on his way to Damascus saw Christ in His glory. He did not see the unincarnate Word, but the incarnate Word. This is why he wrote in his Epistles that Christ is the head of the Body of the Church.

I will quote some passages: “And gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). “And He is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). “I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). The word “is” in these passages is absolute and determinative, and leaves no room for another interpretation, that it refers to an image.

Moreover, the Apostle Paul writes that all of us who are Christians have been baptised into the one body of Christ: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13) and this is why we belong to the one body of Christ: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).

It is significant that St John Chrysostom, who is considered to be the best commentator on the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, continues the same theological thought as the Apostle. He writes in his homilies: “The Church is a body, it has an eye and a head.”  In another homily he writes: “The Church is the fullness of Christ and the head is the fullness of the body.”

At this point I could quote many other patristic passages that refer to the Church being the Body of Christ, which He assumed from the Most Holy Theotokos and deified from the first moment of conception. Nevertheless, I will content myself with a passage from St Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch, taken from his epistle to the Ephesians, where he talks about the Church, which is joined with Christ: “How much more do I reckon you blessed who are so joined to him (the Bishop) as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that all things may agree in unity” (Ephes. 5).

It is obvious that Christ is not the head of an image of the body, but He is the head of the true Body that He assumed from the Most Holy Theotokos, and the Church is not an image of the body that has a non-existent head. Christ became incarnate and He is the head of the true Body. He did not become unincarnate after His Resurrection, because His two natures, divine and human, were united without confusion, change, division or separation. By Baptism and Chrismation we become members of the Body of Christ, and so members of the Church. We are not members of an image of the body!

When we take Holy Communion we do not eat…the image and the description of the Body, but the real Body of Christ. Christ Himself said: “Take, eat; this is My body” (Matt. 26:26) and, “For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him” (John 6:54-55).

In this perspective, the Apostle Paul confesses: “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). The Church is not a descriptive term, but the Body of Christ. It is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

From the Apostle Paul’s revelational teaching we conclude: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). The Lord is one; the head of the Church, the One Church, is one; and there is one faith and one Baptism.

As regards apophaticism, I consider it unacceptable theologically to transfer the concept of apophaticism, which relates to the Triune God and particularly to the innermost aspects of the Triune God (i.e. theology), to the mystery of Church (i.e. economy), which is the true Body of Christ that Christ assumed from the Most Holy Theotokos through the incarnation. We are members of this Body, not members of the image of the body, and we partake of this deified Body of Christ in the mystery of the Divine Liturgy, becoming of one body and one blood with Christ.

If ‘Church’ is a descriptive term, and if it is not the Body of Christ but the image of the Body of Christ, when we celebrate the Liturgy we are play-acting!

Behind this completely inappropriate theory about applying apophaticism to the expression of what the Church is, the political attempt to give ecclesiastical status to the non-Orthodox flourishes. The unfortunate fact is, as I mentioned in a previous article of mine, that this theory of apophaticism actually promotes the Protestant theology of the Reformers, who on one hand used to talk about the invisible church, which only God knows and which includes the Roman Catholics, the Protestants and anyone else whom God wishes, and, on the other hand, about the visible church, which is divided.

As regards the matter of definition by others, the view is that a Christian community is not defined by others but defines itself, especially as far as its relations with other communities are concerned. This is trying to tell us that every community can use any term it wishes in order to define its ecclesiastical identity. This is obvious. However, when we speak about a dogmatic term used by a Council, a term which needs to define the relationship between two things (the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox), this particular view about ‘not being defined by others’ abolishes any sense of rational comparison between things, since it is plain that, when two things are compared, we draw up the similarities and differences between them, in order to reveal the particular character of each thing.

The whole history of Triadological and Christological terms in the Councils was about explaining them, and about the refusal of the Orthodox to allow terms to take on the content that the heretics had given them.

The aim of the Fathers’ interpretation of homoousion was to exclude the Monarchian (modalistic or dynamic) interpretation of this term and to prevent it being interpreted in the sense of ‘three divinities’.

The interpretation of the one hypostasis in two natures with regard to the incarnation of God the Word aimed at excluding both the Nestorian interpretation of the coincidence of two hypostases in one person, according to the model of ethical union, and the Monophysite interpretation of the merging of the two natures of the incarnate Word into one nature and one hypostasis.

Based on the logic of ‘not being defined by others’, the Fathers of the Church, when formulating the Councils’ dogmatic definitions regarding the Holy Trinity and Christ, ought not to have defined the heretics’ teachings as heretical.

It goes without saying that the whole rationale of ‘not being defined by others’ is based on the completely anti-Orthodox view that no one is to decide about who is and who is not the Church. The question is clear: Is this any different from what the Protestant Reformers used to say when they spoke about an invisible church that includes everyone, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and all other Christians known to God, whereas the visible churches are split?

At this point I should remind readers of the decision of the 1st Pre-Counciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy 21-28 November 1976), where the agenda of the Holy and Great Council was fixed. From among the approximately one hundred topics that had been specified at the 1st Pan-Orthodox Conference of Rhodes (1961), they chose the ten familiar topics for the Organization and Working Procedure of the Holy and Great Council.

However, the same decision records that among the other proposed topics, the following four were favoured as second priority: “the sources of divine revelation, the concept of the Church, the codification of the sacred Canons and canonical provisions, economy and strictness”. The decision notes that those topics “are referred to the local Churches for individual study, pending possible pan-Orthodox examination in the future.”

This means that the topics about the concept of the Church, as well as economy and strictness with regard how non-Orthodox enter the Orthodox Church, should have been studied by the local Churches so as to be discussed at another Council following the Holy and Great Council. Yet this never happened, at least in our Church. There is, therefore, no decision by our Church about the non-Orthodox in relation to our Church. This means that the subject of definition by others must be resolved by a Council.

Finally, what is being said about definition and apophaticism with regard to the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the communion of deification, and what is being said about the definition by others of Christians outside the Orthodox Church, who have departed from the faith and life of the Orthodox Church, is unacceptable from an Orthodox point of view

5. The ‘technical term’ is used as a substantive term

Coming back to the so-called ‘technical term’ ‘Churches’ for the Christian Confessions, I wish to remark that, although some use this term for the non-Orthodox as a supposedly ‘technical term’, they are actually contradicting themselves and giving the term a substantive meaning, so in fact they do not consider it to be a ‘technical term’. The evidence for this is as follows.

It is known that St Athanasius the Great, during his struggle to persuade the Homoiousians to accept the Council of Nicaea of 325, even if it meant using a different terminology, wrote: “Let them say and think absolutely simply and truly that the Son is the Son by nature…” He made a distinction, as in his other writings, between words and things, between what is said and the sense or meaning of what is said. He wrote: “The words do not subtract from the nature, but rather the nature transforms the words into itself.”

In this case, however, when we are studying the subject of the Church, it is not just the word ‘Church’ that is used as a ‘technical term’, but also the meaning, the thing to which this word refers, since ecclesiastical status is attributed to the term ‘Churches’, as we will demonstrate below. It is, therefore, not a valid argument that there is a distinction between names and things in the term ‘Church’. I think that those who claim that the use of the phrase ‘non-Orthodox Churches’ is a ‘technical term’ are personally aware that in essence it is not a ‘technical term’, but that it attributes ecclesiastical status to these groups.

There is no other way to explain that, during the discussions that took place at the Council of Crete, they supported the “validity and reality of non-Orthodox Baptism”, that the Western ‘Churches’ have Mysteries, that nothing important happened when they broke away from the Orthodox Church, as the Churches “were split” among themselves: the Eastern Orthodox Church was split from the Roman Church as “a cassock is split into two parts, but still remains a cassock”!!

It is neither rational nor acceptable linguistically that the same word, in this case the word ‘Church’, but also words that are closely related to it, namely, Baptism and Mystery, are be used with their ‘real’ meaning, whereas in the text of the Great Council, which is the same kind of document – a dogmatic document in this case – they are used as ‘technical terms’.

The fact that those who use the term ‘Churches’ as a supposedly ‘technical term’ do not believe it, and in essence they regard them as real Churches, is proved by the prevailing policy on this matter. The official texts that have been signed between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Pope of Rome, as well as various statements, speak absolutely clearly about real Churches. They are therefore conscious of the fact that the term ‘Churches’ is not ‘technical’ but substantive. I shall give some impromptu examples.

In his book The Thyateira Confession, which was approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Archbishop Athenagoras Kokkinakis of Thyateira and Great Britain writes:
“Orthodox people believe that those who are baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [by a Priest or a Layperson in time of need are true Christians and] belong to the One Church and are Members of the Body of Christ Who is One and remains Undivided God and Man.”

Elsewhere he writes:
All Christians believe in the same Baptism by which all have become members of His Body, the Church. All Christians in various ways and forms look to the Holy Eucharist as the Mystery of Communion which unites us with Christ.”

Elsewhere he writes:
“It is fact, however, that the Roman Catholic Christians as the Orthodox do worship Christ in the Eucharist.”

Again he writes:
“On account of friendly relations it has become customary for the Orthodox to perform funerals for the Anglicans and offer to them the Holy Eucharist in places where there is no Anglican clergyman available. This is reciprocated for the Orthodox Christians wherever there is no Orthodox clergyman available. This is done both officially and unofficially and in various localities it is a necessary practice expressing Christian sacramental hospitality. Furthermore it is certain that the Christian people themselves seek this sacramental hospitality. This is certainly a sign of the intention of the People of God by thus establishing practical unity because they see that both groups believe in the same Bible and traditions [and Priesthood] and confess the same Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople.”

Furthermore, Pope John Paul II, in his speech of 5 June 1991 at Bialystok in Poland, said:
“Today we see more clearly and understand better the fact that our Churches are Sister Churches. To say ‘Sister Churches’ is not just a polite phrase, but rather a fundamental ecumenical category of ecclesiology.”  

The decisions that were taken at the ‘Seventh Meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics’ in the grounds of the Orthodox Theological School of Balamand University in Lebanon (17-24 June 1993) are characteristic.

The first part of the text, which is entitled ‘Ecclesiological Principles’, after referring to how “the Oriental Catholic Churches came into being” (Unia), which restored “full communion with the See of Rome and remained faithful to it”, goes on to say that this form of unity, which was has been called ‘uniatism’, “can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed or as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking”, although these ‘Churches’ (Unia) “as a part of the Catholic Communion have the right to exist and act in answer to the spiritual needs of their faithful.”

But why do they write this? Because now, according to this decision, there is no particular problem, since the way the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics see themselves has changed, “because of the way in which the Catholics and Orthodox once again consider themselves in their relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches.”

It is made even clearer that “the two Churches”, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, have the same faith and life which Christ entrusted to the Church. The text continues:
 “On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church - profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops - cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches. It is clear that in this context any kind of rebaptism is excluded.”

Immediately afterwards it writes:
“It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches recognize each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity.”

Reading this decision I wonder: Why do some people continue to characterise the non-Orthodox Christians as ‘Churches’, asserting that this is supposedly a ‘technical term’, while official texts of the ‘Dialogue between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics’ show clearly that ecclesiastical status is ascribed to this term and thus it is a substantive term and not a technical one?

Furthermore, in their common statements the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch ascribe ecclesiastical status to the Christians outside the Church. Consequently the term ‘Church’, which is used for those who are outside the Orthodox Church, is a substantive, not a technical term. I will quote some extracts from one such joint statement (29 June 1995):
“This dialogue – through the Joint International Commission – has proved fruitful and has made substantial progress. A common sacramental conception of the Church has emerged, sustained and passed on in time by apostolic succession. In our Churches, the apostolic succession is fundamental to the sanctification and unity of the People of God. Considering that in every local Church the mystery of divine love is realized and that this is how the Church of Christ shows forth its active presence in each one of them, the Joint Commission has been able to declare that our Churches recognize one another as Sister Churches, responsible together for safeguarding the one Church of God, in fidelity to the divine plan, and in an altogether special way with regard to unity.”

Further on it officially declares:
“In this perspective we urge our faithful, Catholics and Orthodox, to reinforce the spirit of brotherhood which stems from the one Baptism and from participation in the sacramental life.”

A little later it officially states:
“In meeting one another, the Pope of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch have prayed for the unity of all Christians. In their prayers, they have included all the baptized who are incorporated into Christ, and they have asked for an even deeper fidelity to his Gospel for the various communities.”

Finally, the disturbing aspect of this case is that, in discussions within the Orthodox Church and outside it, language with two, three or more meanings is used. There is no unified language. They express themselves in one way in Orthodox and monastic surroundings, and in a different way in non-Orthodox surroundings. In reality, as can be clearly seen, they drift away from the principle of exclusivity towards the principle of inclusivity.

No one can be in any doubt about this. This is the basic line taken by many contemporary members of the clergy and theologians.

I think that what is needed today from those in positions of responsibility in the Church is a combination of truth with love and the virtue of discretion. We cannot, in the name of truth, be lacking in love and discretion. Nor can we be deprived of truth for the sake of love. In dialogues with these Christian groups, ‘red lines’ need to be drawn. One must know how far one can go and how far one can give way, in other words, to what extent to manage things with economy and to what extent to be strict. This distinction can be made where there is illumination of the nous and empirical theology.

Only empirical theologians who know by experience the uncreated glory that exists in the Orthodox Church and the fall of those Christians who have departed from it know how to confess the truth and really to love non-Orthodox Christians. But such empirical theologians are ignored in the dialogues and their experience is not used, precisely because diplomacy is chosen in preference to theology.

The conclusion is that ‘technical terms’ are defined with absolute precision and clarity in order to avoid ambiguity. However, when a ‘technical term’ is in doubt, it invalidates itself as a technical term and it cannot be used casually and conventionally.
Also, using the term ‘Church’ in an Orthodox theological sense in a confessional text of a Great Council, and confessing that it is the Body of Christ and the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, while at the same time using the term ‘Churches’ as a ‘technical term’ for those who are outside it, is paradoxical, contradictory, and extremely problematic from every point of view, both from the Orthodox and the linguistic perspective.

Furthermore, it is a deceitful use of language with two or more meanings to claim sometimes that the term ‘Churches’ for the non-Orthodox is used as a ‘technical term’, and at other times, particularly in official decisions, to give this so-called ‘technical term’ substantive meaning and ecclesiological status. Sometimes a ‘technical term’ is referred to, and sometimes a substantive term. This indicates a serious problem.

An equally serious problem is to assert that the term ‘Church’, as the Body of Christ and a communion of deification, is a descriptive term and a simple image, that it is allegedly an expression of apophaticism in this case, and that we cannot define the Christians who are outside the Church and have departed from the faith of the Church, as this faith was expressed by the Fathers in the Ecumenical Councils.

Finally, ecclesiological matters are serious and must be faced in a responsible way and through patristic teaching, as it was expressed by the Councils. When the Fathers spoke about dogmatic and ecclesiological subjects they used exact terms with Orthodox presuppositions. And when they had to make a change in the terms, they did so with substantial presuppositions, and with great care, so as to define the truth that they were living empirically and to facilitate the unity of the Church, not for the sake of diplomatic communication.

Certainly, as has been mentioned in this text over and over again, ‘Church’ is not a descriptive term, but it is the deified Body of Christ. This is why it is “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

February 2017

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