Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Language of Church and World

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Language of Church and World

Article excerpt

An Adventure of Communication or Conflict?

Studying the church tradition obliges one to be ready for many surprises. And surprise was what I felt recently when I came across a text written by St Gregory of Nazianzus the Theologian in the 4th century: "`Innovators' is what the unwise call the provident."(1)

This statement is both enigmatic and challenging. It poses two crucial questions for the church: "What constitutes an innovation?" and "Who is an innovator?" Indeed, many Orthodox today might disagree with St Gregory, considering innovation an act of audacity and virtually synonymous with secularization.

While this danger surely does exist, we cannot overlook the fact that the church itself promises the world an all-embracing innovation: the vision that the entire creation will finally become new, in communion with God. This is the end described in Revelation 21:1-5. The consequence of this vision is that the believer's life is not a passive expectation of the end, but rather a participation in God's historical work. In other words, the church in history is the anticipation and laboratory of this eschatological end. In this laboratory, the world is gradually transformed into the body of Christ.

Innovation and doctrine

A characteristic of the attitude of the church in history is the way it has formed its own dogmatic formulas. Very soon after its establishment the church faced the danger of heresies and misinterpretations of her faith and experience. One truth it had to defend and clarify was that the three persons of the Holy Trinity are of the same substance. It expressed this truth using the Greek term homoousios meaning "consubstantial". Thus, since the 4th century, the creed recited in every holy liturgy confesses: "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ ..., of one being [or `substance'] with the Father." For believers today, this term "consubstantial" is certainly beyond any dispute, and it succeeds in summarizing extended chapters of doctrine. However, when the fathers of the church established this vital term, they might well have been accused of innovation and impiety! For this dogmatic term (like many others, such as "person", "incarnation", "energies") does not belong to the biblical glossary. The fathers, in other words, seem to have refused to express the dogma in the language of the holy scripture and to have adopted instead another language. What had actually happened?

By the 4th century the church had long since spread beyond its Palestinian cradle and established itself throughout the Mediterranean. Inevitably it came face to face with the dominant Graeco-Roman culture of that time and place. This culture implied a way of life, a mode of thinking and a language different from that of the Jewish culture. The church found itself before a crucial dilemma, which is first evident in the conflict whose eventual resolution is described in Acts 15:1-29. Either it would remain restricted to the Jewish cultural realities or it would open itself to the wider world. The church chose the second option, addressing itself to the nations and using their languages and ways of thinking.

Far from being a routine strategic manoeuvre, this was an historical decision which stemmed from the very nature of the church. As St Maximus the Confessor put it, "Christ wants his mysterious incarnation to take place continuously and everywhere."(2) Seen in this perspective, the incarnation is not an event locked in the past, but a procedure that started almost 2000 years ago and continues through history, mystically and uninterruptedly. In order to save the world, the Son of God assumed human nature, lived in a certain human society, spoke the language of his contemporaries. Ever since, Christ has been inconceivable without his body, the church. The church is the continuation of the incarnation in history: it is not a spiritualistic sect indifferent to the external world, but a workshop in which the world is constantly transformed into flesh of Christ. …

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