by Petros Vassiliadis

 (in J.Pobee (ed.), Towards Viable Theological Education, WCC Publications Geneva 1997, pp. 66-72)

    The classical approach to theology is being questioned from various quarters at the end of this turbulent and divisions-creating second millennium. If some do not openly admit that  it is in a certain crisis, very few would deny that it has at least run its course. Ever since the beginning of medieval scholasticism, and even after the Enlightenment, theology was defined as a discipline which used the methods of the Aristotelian logic. Rational knowledge was, and in some case is still, considered as the only legitimate form of knowledge. Theological education, thus, gradually shifted away from its eucharistic/liturgical framework, i.e. away from its ecclesial, community, local context.

    The rational understanding of God and humanity had in fact led to a knowledge-centered and mission-oriented theological education. Most Theological Institutions around the globe have been structured in such a way as to educate Church ‘leaders’, not the entire people of God; to equip priests, pastors or missionaries with the necessary means to preserve and propagate certain christian truths or ethical norms, and in some cases even to defend old-fashioned institutions, not to build up local eucharistic communities. They lost, in other words, the community-centered and liturgically/eschatologically-oriented dimension of theological education. Gradually, therefore, we all unconsciously lost sight of the most significant parameter that really makes theology viable: The very often forgotten truth that theology  is the real conscience of the living Church; that theology is first and foremost the voice of the - sometimes voiceless - Christian community and one of its most fundamental tasks; even further: that theology is neither a discipline for young people at the end of adolescence, nor a prerogative of the professionals, be it clergy or academics, but the task of the entire christian community, who according to the well celebrated 1848  encyclical  of the Orthodox Patriarchs is the only guardian of the christian faith. Consequently, little - if any - attention has been given to the fact that theological education is a worldwide enterprise fundamental to the mission of the Church, not in its institutional character - the negative consequences of which have been sufficiently underlined by Dr. Raiser - but in its eschatological awareness of being a glimpse and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, the proleptic manifestation of this ultimate reality that should always determine our approach to history.

Contextuality and catholicity

    This vision of the Kingdom was unquestionably reinforced in modern times through the ecumenical movement, which for a moment created an unprecedented enthusiasm among the deeply divided Christianity that the centuries-long divisions of the Church might find some sort of an agreed solution. Unfortunately the momentum which reached a climax in the 60s, especially through the historic event of Vatican II, did not have an equally optimistic follow-up. Ironically, the ecumenical optimism and enthusiasm towards the goal of the visible unity of the Church was interrupted at the very point an important achievement in the field of theological hermeneutics was reached with the affirmation at a world level, and wide application from the 70s onwards, of the contextual  character of theology. This great achievement has created an unbridged psychological gap between the traditional Churches and the new and most vibrant younger Christian communities. The main reason for this unexpected, and at the same time unfortunate, development  in the ecumenical movement was the complete negation of any stable point of reference, of all authentic criteria in the search for unity and the ultimate truth in the post-Uppsala period culminating at Canberra.[1]

     It is very significant that the discussions in this consultation will be conducted in the context of contextuality and catholicity,  and the “ecumenical vision” is well rooted in the original planning in such a way as to direct our attention towards “how ministry and formation processes can further the unity of the Church (John 17:21) for the sake of the unity and renewal of humankind and indeed all creation”.

    There is no question that it is impossible to make a case for the unity of the Church while being indifferent to the unity of humankind. Today it is a common view in ecumenical circles that we can now definitely speak of "differing, but legitimate, interpretations of one and the same gospel"(Bristol). It has become an axiom that "every text has a context", a context that is not merely something external to the text (theological position, theological tradition etc.) that simply modifies it, but something that constitutes an integral part of it.  None can any longer deny that all traditions are inseparably linked to a specific historical, social-cultural, political, and even economic and psychological context.  And this means that the traditional data can no longer be used as a rationale for an abstract universal theology that carries absolute and unlimited authority. Finally, through contextuality, in contrast to classical approach to theology, we are no longer concerned whether and to what extent today’s theological positions are in agreement with the tradition, but if these positions have any dynamic reference and relation at all to the given contemporary conditions.[2]

    Nevertheless, little - if any at all - attention has been given to work toward reconciling the two currents of modern ecumenism in order to soften the existing antithesis between contextuality and catholicity. My modest contribution will focus only on this extremely important dimension of the ecumenical vision, encouraged by the mandate of the organizers to work towards a synthesis of the legitimacy of all contemporary local/contextual theologies, and the necessity - in fact an imperative, and not simply an option - of a core of the apostolic faith. It is my firm conviction that ecumenical theological education to be able not only to survive, but also to give life and lead to renewal, must have a common point of reference. Otherwise, we run the danger to view any local context and experience as authentic expressions of our Christian faith.[3] Allow me at this point to bring to our memory the accurate observation by the late Nikos Nissiotis, exactly ten years after his tragic death, that we must not exclude the possibility of a universally and fully authoritative theology, perhaps even on the basis of the transcendent anthropology of contextual theology,[4] which suggests possibilities for making corrective adjustments to the contextual methodology.

    In the recent Congress II of WOCATI (World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions), held a month ago in Nairobi Kenya, it was rightly emphasized, that the most important and necessary perspectives in contemporary theological education are both catholicity[5] and contextuality: catholicity, in the sense of the search for a coherent, ecumenical, global, and catholic awareness of the theological task, and contextuality as the unique expression of it in the various particular contexts. Coherence is important in that it expresses the authenticity and distinctiveness of different contextual theologies, as well as the need to bring these contextual theologies into inter-relationship with others. 

    Of course, the way in which this coherent, ecumenical, global, and catholic perspective is to be achieved, is not an easy task.  But central in this respect is not only the concept of dialogue, but also of unity,  i.e. the question of where does the locus of christian faith reside. In other words, without denying the contextual nature of theology, and taking account of the indispensable nature of dialogue to the theological task ecumenical theological education the inescapable question:  Wherein does the unity  of christian theology reside? needs to be answered. 

    However, for theology to seek for a coherent, ecumenical, global perspective requires the recognition that christian theology, no matter how many and varied be its expressions, must have a common point of reference, a unifying element within all forms of ecumenical theological education and ministerial formation.  It is necessary to focus upon the issue of unity in both general terms and in the specific ecclesiological use of the term as the on-going search to restore the given unity of the Church.  This includes consideration of the unifying and saving nature of the Christ event, continually re-enacted through his Body, the Church, in the life-giving and communion-restoring Holy Spirit. After all, theological education is a worldwide enterprise fundamental to the mission of the Church.

    This given unity of the Church, which does not necessarily mean a strict unified structure, is given expression in an adherence to a broad understanding of christian tradition.  Such  an understanding affirms not only the centrality of Christology, but also the constitutive nature of Pneumatology, i.e. the normative nature of a trinitarian understanding of christian revelation.  This trinitarian understanding affirms the ultimate goal of the divine economy, not only in terms of Christ becoming all in all both in an anthropological, i.e. soteriological, and in a cosmological way, but also in terms of the Holy Spirit constituting authentic communion and restoring the union of all. 

    The communion God seeks and initiates is not only with the Church in the conventional sense, but with the whole cosmos.  Thus the unity of divine revelation, as represented in the broad understanding of christian tradition, is for the entire created world, not only for believers. This understanding of unity is important to keep in mind as it challenges a potential distortion wherein unity is identified with the maintenance of denominational loyalty, which in turn can be an exercise of oppression, excluding suffering people from the community of the people of God.

    This understanding of unity in ecumenical theological education informs and challenges all expressions of contextual theology. It does not locate the unity inherent within christian theology with any ecclesiastical or doctrinal system, and recognizes the varied forms of human and social existence.  In this way, it is congruent with the methodologies and goals of contextual theology.  However, it also challenges these theologies in pointing out the indispensability of an adherence to a broad understanding and acceptance of christian tradition as that which gives expression to the given unity of the Church.

Text and context

    In my view, the main reason of the inability of modern christianity to overcome the existing “theological misunderstandings” is the issue of the criteria of truth. And this is due to the inability to reconcile contextuality with the text/logos syndrome of modern christian theology. It is time, I think, to distance ourselves as much as possible from the dominant to modern scholarship syndrome of the priority of the texts over the experience, of theology over ecclesiology, of kerygma and mission over the Eucharist. There are many scholars who cling to the dogma, imposed by the post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation hegemony over all scholarly theological outlook (and not only in the field of biblical scholarship or of western and in particular Protestant theology), which can be summarized as follows: what constitutes the core of our christian faith,  should be based exclusively on a certain depositum fidei,  be it the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, the canons and certain decisions of the Councils, denominational declarations etc.; very rarely is there any serious reference to the eucharistic communion event , which after all has been responsible and produced this depositum fidei.

    The ecclesiological problem, which is so important an issue in today' s ecumenical discussions, is a matter not so much of church organization and structure, as it is a matter of eschatological orientation. The whole christian tradition from Jesus’ preaching  the coming of the Kingdom of God through the Ignatian concept of the Church as a eucharistic community (with  the Bishop as the image of Christ), and  down to the later christian  tradition (which, by the way, understands the Eucharist as the mystery of the Church and not a mystery among others), reveals that it is the eschatological and not the hierarchical (episcopal, conciliar, congregational etc.) nature of the Church that it was stressed.

    Should we not remind ourselves again that the Church does not draw her identity from what she is, or from what  it was given to her as institution,  but  from what she will be, i.e. from the eschata?  Should we not reaffirm our understanding of the Church as portraying the Kingdom of God on earth, in fact as being a glimpse or foretaste of the Kingdom to come? After all the main concern of all great theologians of the apostolic, post-apostolic was to maintain clearly  the vision of  that Kingdom before the eyes of God’s people. And the episcopo-centric (and by no means episcopo-cratic)  structure of the Church- the main stumbling block for the titanic effort towards the visible unity of the Church - was an essential part of that vision. The bishop as presiding in love in the Eucharist is not a vicar or representative, or ambassador of Christ, but  an image or icon of Christ. So with the  rest of the ministries of the Church: in their authentic expression they are  not parallel to, or given by, but identical with those of, Christ[6]. That is also why christian theology and life should always refer to the resurrection. The Church exists not because Christ died on the cross but because he is risen from the dead, thus becoming the aparche of all  humanity.

    The importance of Eucharist, and of the "eucharistic theology" (more precisely of the "eucharistic ecclesiology") in the ecumenical debate has only recently been rediscovered and realized. The proper understanding of the Eucharist has been always a stumbling block in christian theology and life; not only at the start of the christian community, when the Church had to struggle against a multitude of mystery cults, but also much later, even within the ecumenical era. In vain distinguished theologians (mainly in the East) attempted to redefine the christian sacramental theology on the basis of the trinitarian theology. Seen from a modern theological perspective, this was a desperate attempt to reject certain tendencies which overemphasized the importance of Christology at the expense of the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit. The theological issues of filioque  and the epiclesis  have no doubt thoroughly discussed and a great progress has been achieved in recent years through initiatives commonly undertaken by the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church; but their real consequences to the meaning of the sacramental theology of the Church, and consequently to theological education, have yet to be fully and systematically examined. Theological education should no longer treat the Church neither as a cultic  religion nor as a proclaiming/confessing institution.

    The Eucharist has not been more successfully interpreted than with the use of the "trinitarian theology", i.e. not only as the  Mystery of Church, but also as a projection of the inner dynamics (love, communion, equality, diaconia, sharing etc.) of the Holy Trinity into the world and cosmic realities. Ecumenical theological education, therefore, and ministerial formation should focus not so much on a doctrinal accommodation and of organization and structure (Faith and Order) of the Church(es), but on a diaconal attitude and on an eschatological orientation. In order words on a  costly eucharistic vision.

Education and koinonia

    With such a costly eucharistic vision our future theological education can not only develop gender sensitivity; not only articulate a new paradigm to equip the whole people of God; not only allow an innovative, experimental, people-centered approach; it can also ensure that the processes of formation be relevant and renewing to individuals and communities of faith.

    After all, our theological education can no longer be conducted in abstracto,  as if its object, God (cf. theo-logia= logos/word about God), was a solitary ultimate being. It should always refer to a Triune God, the perfect expression of communion, a direct result of the eucharistic eschatological experience; an experience directed toward the vision of the Kingdom, and centered around the communion (koinonia), which includes justice, peace, abundance of life and respect to the created world.

     What comes out of such an affirmation is self-evident: theological education should always refer to communion as an ultimate constitutive element of being, in other words it should have relevance to the relational dimension of life, and therefore be in a continuous and dynamic dialogue, not only in the form of theological conversation among Churches or christian communities in order to promote the visible unity of the one body of Christ, but also with people of other faiths; after all theological reflection on God’s self-revelation to humankind can no longer be done from a christendom perspective.



[1]Cf. my “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism,” in Oikoumene and Theology. The 1993-95 Erasmus Lectures, EKO 11 Thessaloniki 1996, pp. 145-182. 

[2]It is tragic irony that the 1971 Louvain Conference of the Faith and Order commission almost led to a break because of the presidential address of the late Fr. John Meyendorff, moderator then of the Faith and Order Commission,  and one of the leading Orthodox ecumenists. And twenty years later, with the initiative of an Orthodox theological faculty, that of the University of Thessaloniki, an attempt was made to clarify the relationship between Orthodox theology and contextuality. More on this in my “Orthodoxie und kontextuelle Theologie,” OR 42 (1993), pp. 452-460.

[3]Cf.Kuncheria Pathil, Models in Ecumenical Dialogue: A Study of the Methodological Development in the Commission on "Faith and Order" of the World Council of Churches, Bangalore 1981, pp. 393ff; also Konrad Raiser, Identitat und Sozialitat, München 1971; and Ecumenism in Transition, Geneva 1991.

[4]Nikos Nissiotis, "Ecclesial Theology in Context", in Choan-Seng Song (ed.), Doing Theology Today, Madras 1976, (minutes of the Bossey conferences, 101-124, p. 124. Cf. also the special issue of Study Encounter, Vol. VIII No. 3 [1972]).

[5]Although the term used was “globalization”, it was stressed that this very term can imply another form of domination which would endanger the autonomy of the various contextual theologies. 

[6]John Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church, New York 1985, p. 163.