"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, December 5, 2011

On Dumitru Staniloae's Ecclesiology

I drew brief attention earlier to a new book by Radu Bordeianu, Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology (T&T Clark, 2011). It is, as I said before, one of the most rewarding new books in ecclesiology in the last ten years at least. Too much of what passes for ecclesiology today forgets that it is a theological discipline, and thus God should be central. More often than not, God is given a perfunctory mention in a book's preface, and then the author spends the rest of the book running away from Him, often offering us instead what I call ecclesiastical sociology. Not so with Bordeianu's splendid book, which shows us just how deeply Trinitarian Dumitru Staniloae's ecclesiology is. (Several of Bordeianu's articles on these themes are available on his website here.)

In mentioning this book to others, I was reminded by one person of a suspicion of Staniloae that I myself once shared: that he had never sufficiently accounted in general for anti-Catholic views in Romanian Orthodox circles or, in particular, for the brutal suppression of what was once the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world, the Romanian Greco-Catholic Church. That suppression, aided and abetted by some in the Romanian Orthodox Church--some details of which were discussed in a 2005 article by Michael Mates published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies--was something that Staniloae was himself said to be supportive of, or at least did not object to or repent of. I am very glad indeed to now learn otherwise, first in Ronald Roberson's important chapter "Dumitru Staniloae on Christian Unity" in Dumitru Staniloae: Tradition and Modernity in Theology, ed. Lucian Turcescu (Centre for Romanian Studies, 2002), 104-25; and second in Radu Bordeianu's book, especially the introduction and first chapter. It is, indeed, Bordeianu's book that has removed all doubt in my mind about Staniloae and his perceptions of, and relations with, Catholics and other Christians. Thanks to this masterful study, Staniloae now emerges as one of the freshest and most important voices in the on-going dialogue and search for Catholic-Orthodox unity (and much else besides). He is anything but a fulminating Athonite denouncing ecumenism as the "pan-heresy" and stamping his feet while trumpeting Oρθοδοξία ή θάνατος.

On this particular charge of the suppression of the Romanian Catholic Church, Bordeianu comes out at the end of his introduction and flatly admits that "these Byzantine Catholic churches were dissolved forcefully by the political regime, and coerced into becoming Orthodox or simply going underground. Staniloae saw this instance as a restoration of justice--undoubtedly a blemish on his magnificent work"(8).

More widely still, and much more encouragingly, Bordeianu starts his introduction by insisting that "Staniloae was far from being anti-ecumenical, despite the occasional highly polemical tone that he adopted." Indeed, B shows that S often used Western concepts and language as part of his method of "'open sobornicity,' which is defined as the acceptance of valid theological insights in Western theologies without altering the essence of Orthodox teaching. His work provides a model for creative engagement with the West" (5; my emphasis). From here Bordeianu goes on to say that he is "deeply concerned about the growing anti-ecumenical attitude in...Orthodoxy in particular," the representatives of which are "never able to produce evidence of ecumenical documents in which Orthodox representatives...have corrupted the essence of the faith" (6). But it is not enough, Bordeianu insists, for Orthodox merely to defend their faith from all apparent "corruptions" based on dialogues with other Christians: instead, Orthodox need to ask themselves "are we there to learn from other Christians? Few among us would admit it. Even fewer would apply it. And yet, Staniloae's concept of open sobornicity commends it. Orthodox Christians can and must learn from the other instances of God's manifestation outside the Orthodox space," all the while holding in tension the belief that Orthodoxy represents the fullness of truth but not at the exclusion of truth manifested, however partially or inadequately, outside her boundaries.

Bordeianu spends all of chapter one unpacking the concept of open sobornicity, arguing that "Orthodoxy needs to be enriched (even corrected) by other historical instances of God's revelation"(29). This open sobornicity also sees the West and East joining together as friends so that each can help the other develop its tradition. In particular, Bordeianu argues that the East might be aided by the West in two areas: its understanding of sacraments (including their very number, and their differentiation from "sacramentals"); and a fuller understanding of apophaticism in contemporary Trinitarian theology. In his discussion of sacraments and East-West relations, Bordeianu makes two incautious and inaccurate generalizations when he says that "any baptized Christian can be received in the Orthodox Church through Chrismation without needing a second baptism" and "the Orthodox Church recognizes some of the ordinations of other denominations"(39). In fact, there is no consistent practice for the reception into Orthodoxy of other Christians--as John Erickson showed a number of years ago in an article in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly. I know of several cases in which other Christians, including Roman Catholics, have been re-baptized, re-chrismated, and even, in the case of one Roman Catholic priest received into the Russian Church only this year, re-ordained! Many, but not all, Orthodox churches would not commit such sacrilege, but some do--including some Copts whom I know. There is, in fact, no consistency on these questions even within the same Orthodox Church, as recent and contrary examples in the Russian Church alone illustrate. (None of this is surprising, it should be noted: as the late Archpriest Robert Anderson always said to me, "in the East, everything is local custom.")

Staniloae did not always think in these terms of openness to other Christian traditions: early in his life, he sometimes resorted to "caricatures, unfair generalizations" and ambiguous or dubious sources when describing the West and Western theology. But later on he came to praise the ecumenical movement, encourage Orthodox to adopt an irenical posture towards other Christians, and argue that there are no "essential differences" dividing Orthodox and Catholics.

Part of the change in Staniloae came about after his 1946 "trial" and unjust imprisonment in the Gulag for five years. These years of abuse, isolation, hunger and extreme suffering marked him ever after, though he rarely talked about them. For details, one must read his daughter Lidia's essay "Remembering My Father" in the Turcescu volume noted above: Tradition and Modernity.

After this "methodological" first chapter, Bordeianu then begins to take us progressively deeper into the Trinitarian theology at the heart of Staniloae's project, starting with chapter 2, which functions as a general overview--to be unpacked in the next three chapters--of his Triadology.

Chapter 2, "Filled with the Trinity: the Relationship Between the Trinity and the Church" is a lucid overview of four "models" by which most theologians have recently attempted to conceive of the relationship between the Triune God and His Church. Many of those theologians either take that relationship for granted and never bother to elucidate it, or else do so by means that are not always adequate to the task. Bordeianu thus takes us, in increasing order of coherence and usefulness, through the models of reflection, icon, sacrament, and theosis. The first three models are not rejected, but found wanting to greater or lesser degree; each offers something to the task, but inadequately so.

In this chapter, Bordeianu discusses Staniloae's views on the filioque, arguing that Staniloae's treatment of this issue does not reflect the latter's best thinking and noting that much of this debate has been dealt with in the 2003 agreed statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. (See also the splendid book of Edward Siecienski, whom I interview here.)

Bordeianu's book goes from strength to strength as we enter chapter 3, "Adoptive Children of the Father: the Relationship Between the Father and the Church." This chapter is unique in a great deal of contemporary ecclesiology, which tends to ricochet between Christology and pneumatology, but to seldom, if ever, ask "Where is the Father in ecclesiology?" This chapter is unique, as Bordeianu says, because "Staniloae's contribution toward a fully trinitarian ecclesiology is even more significant when considering the paucity of similar contributions among contemporary Orthodox theologians" (82)--to say nothing of other theologians.

The next chapter, on Christ and the Church, sees Staniloae applying "the dogma of Chalcedon...to the Church, adding a Maximian perspective, in reference to Christ's two wills and their symphonic manifestation....He argued that Christ and the Church are united without confusion and without change" (91). The importance of seeing Chalcedon in an ecclesiological perspective is one I always emphasize, and in fact was just this week discussing it again with some of my students. Too often people, in thinking of the Church, are either crypto-Arians (focusing exclusively on the human dimension) or crypto-Monophysites (focusing exclusively on the divine dimension). It always bears repeating that the Church is both divine (and thus holy and spotless) and human (and thus composed of sinful beings). Towards the end of this chapter, Bordeianu focuses on the liturgy, including the epiclesis, a topic given, I think, greater elucidation in Michael Zheltov's recent and very important essay in Issues in Eucharistic Praying in East and West: Essays in Liturgical and Theological Analysis, which I discuss here.

Chapter 5, on the Holy Spirit in ecclesiology, begins with the age-old struggle between "charismatic" and "institutional" authority in the Church. Staniloae is adamant in not separating the two, just as he insists that one cannot separate Christology and pneumatology in ecclesiology. In the end, Staniloae insists that each of the Persons must be understood in "their reciprocal interiority" (118). Staniloae's Trinitarian ecclesiology is perhaps given greatest articulation in this passage:
On account of these interior relations with the others [perichoresis] no divine Person is ever, either in the Church as a whole or in the individual believer, without the other divine Persons or without the particular characteristics of the others. "The Church is filled with the Trinity," said Origen, and the faithful too....Christ and the Spirit work together to make us sons of the Father (118, quoting Staniloae's Theology and the Church).
In the third and final section of the book, Bordeianu treats the question of "Priesthood Toward Creation" and "The Priesthood of the Church: Communion between Clergy and the People." I will pass over these chapters in the interests of length, but also because they do not seem entirely well connected to either the foregoing six chapters, nor to the eighth and final chapter. (In addition, I think the treatment of infallibility at the end of chapter 7 is too brief and needs greater development, as I called for here and also attempted, too briefly I freely admit, in my own book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Let me turn, in conclusion, to the last chapter, "Locality and Universality: Eucharistic Ecclesiology," which positions Staniloae between Nicholas Afanasiev and John Zizioulas, arguing that those two "positions...need to be complemented or at times even corrected by Staniloae's ecclesiology" (189). Part of what both Zizioulas and Staniloae rejected in Afanasiev was his recognition that, while doctrinal harmony is the ideal, it has never been the sine qua non for eucharistic sharing between Christians. (As Bordeianu notes, almost all other contemporary Orthodox theologians also reject this, but Paul Evdokimov's recently translated Orthodoxy is the one exception.)

Bordeianu concludes his chapter and his splendid book by presenting "four elements" necessary for unity: "doctrinal unity, episcopal communion, love, and eucharistic communion" (209).

Doctrinal Unity: Here Bordeianu recognizes, as Zizioulas and the others have also, that the only serious issue is that of papal primacy (which, again, if I may be forgiven the repeated self-references, I treat in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity).

Episcopal Communion: Here Bordeianu admits that "Ideally from an Orthodox perspective" such communion would consist of the pope and all the bishops of the world exercising authority together in a synod (which I have also suggested) "without overlapping jurisdictions" (211). This, he says, is less important than the first point, citing the current jurisdictional mess in North American Orthodoxy which does not inhibit eucharistic sharing among bishops: "eucharistic communion is possible even before solving all the juridical issues" (212).

Love: Bordeianu says that he does not support eucharistic sharing between Catholics and Orthodox currently, in large part because of a lack of love between both. Once greater bonds of love are built between both--especially outside of North America, where relations are, he says, on the whole quite amicable--then we will be in a better position to move toward...

Eucharistic Communion: But before we get to that happy day, Bordeianu proposes something I have not seen advocated by others before, "namely, communion in all the other sacraments except the Eucharist."

In sum, Radu Bordeianu's Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology is an incredibly rich, challenging work that has cogently and convincingly introduced us in a deeper and more satisfying way than anyone has hitherto done to the ecclesiological thought of Romania's preeminent theologian, who offers great wisdom for all Christians in our ongoing search for that unity which the Lord wills for His Church. Nobody who cares about Christian unity, or about ecclesiology, can afford to ignore this book.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good review. I'm wondering though, if Fr. Dumitru's views on ecclesiology, like everyone else's, developed over time. I'm interested in what the biographer said of the spiritually mature Fr. Dumitru.

    The man was a profound disciple of St. Gregory Palamas, and his Orthodox Spirituality, now translated into English, is an instant classic, describing as he does the path of theosis, citing both the holy fathers and modern western sources.

    I wonder, though, about his mature views because people like Fr. Georges Florovsky have sometimes been characterized incorrectly due to statements made in their earlier academic career.


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