by Petros Vassiliadis
(in J.Pobee (ed.), Towards Viable Theological Education, WCC Publications Geneva 1997, pp. 66-72)
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
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
which suggests possibilities for making corrective adjustments to the contextual
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
my “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism,” in Oikoumene
and Theology. The 1993-95 Erasmus Lectures, EKO 11 Thessaloniki 1996, pp.
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.
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.
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 ).
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.
Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Studies
in Personhood and the Church, New York 1985, p. 163.