Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Using the Principle of Oikonomia in Ecumenical Discussions: Reflections on "The Limits of the Church" by George Florovsky

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Using the Principle of Oikonomia in Ecumenical Discussions: Reflections on "The Limits of the Church" by George Florovsky

Article excerpt

Philanthropy and pastoral care suggested by OIKONOMIA is a good entry point for the Orthodox in ecumenical discussions but ... is it relevant to the sacrament of baptism?

In the light of recent ecclesiological discussions spurred by the ongoing redrafting of the Faith and Order text "The Nature and Purpose of the Church", and by the work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, the urgent need to find answers to questions raised by Orthodox ecclesiology has brought my attention once more to Fr George Florovsky's celebrated article "The Limits of the Church". (1) This remains an endless source of positive impulses for ecumenical endeavour; the danger, however, is the temptation to misuse its generous spirituality by taking from it only its "desirable" or ecumenically "convenient" aspects. My task here is to examine Florovsky's article "The Limits of the Church", to see what potential it carries for applying oikonomia to ecclesiological issues, whether it coheres with Eastern patristic thought and with the Orthodox tradition, and what are its limitations.

When examining the notion of oikonomia, I do not refer to any particular tradition of the Orthodox churches but I seek rather to focus on the church fathers of the first centuries such as Irenaeus of Lyon or Basil the Great. I also examine 20th-century study on the subject. The results of my research suggest making very careful use of the notion of ecclesiastical oikonomia, especially with regard to baptism when this sacrament is administered outside the Orthodox church, and without any intention on the part of the person being baptized to enter the Orthodox church.

Is it a paradox that Florovsky encourages the Orthodox to consider seriously the Augustinian sacramental theology, for the sake of the principle of oikonomia? I say a "paradox" because his ecclesiology is, on the whole, rooted in the Orthodox tradition which does not associate itself with the Augustinian position. What is it that made Florovsky challenge the Orthodox ecclesiology with Augustinian sacramental theology? Is it a strong pneumatology that helped Florovsky to shift the borders of the church beyond the limits set up by Orthodox ecclesiology?

Oikonomia as a term

The most common way of using the notion of oikonomia is with regard to the whole work of salvation. Although oikonomia has not become a technical term in canonical language, it has been used very widely as a descriptive word. Florovsky refers to oikonomia as opposed to acrivia/strictness; that is, it indicates an exemption from the strict rule. (2) Florovsky relates this opportunity for "exemption" from the strict rule to philanthropy [love for humankind] and pastoral direction, saying that oikonomia ("economy" or the "economic principle") is an aspect of pedagogical rather than canonical consciousness: "Economy is pastorship and pastorship is economy. In this is the whole strength and vitality of the economic principle--and also its limitations." (3) Thus Florovsky has in mind the pastoral aspect of aikonomia, i.e. exemption from the strict rule for the sake of pastoral considerations, when he applies it to the realm of ecclesiology. Is this a helpful argument in the modern ecumenical context, for example when making a convergence statement in a multilateral discussion? Does a pastoral decision recognizing the particular character of a situation apply to a wider, more general level of theological discussion?

Because the church is designed for the salvation of human beings, the church cannot he bound to the letter of the canons. The principle of aikonomia in this respect is a valuable pastoral tool; however, the same principle becomes effective when applied to something which exists, for instance to a valid sacrament.

The number of writings dedicated to ecclesiastical oikonomia from the 1950s to the 1990s shows the anxiety which the term has caused among theologians. …

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