“Always everyone together for one and the same thing” – The Ecclesial and Sacramental Vision of Nicolas Afanasiev

1. Introduction: Fr. Afanasiev’s vision of the Church

The People of God, whom God formed for Himself in the New Covenant, are gathered by God in Christ’s body. The baptized come into being as one body at the Eucharist. Thus the Eucharist, in the words of pseudo-Areopagite, is the sacrament of the assembly, but the assembly of the People of God “in Christ” is the Church.

Participation in the “sacrament of the assembly” is the revelation of the Church’s life and life in the Church. The Eucharist is the center towards which everything aspires and in which everything is gathered. “This is my body”, but the body is realized in the Eucharist. Where the body is, there is Christ. And the opposite: where Christ is there is his body. The coming of Christ in the Eucharist is through the Spirit, which is not merely an assembly but is the Lord’s Supper. He will come since he has been glorified by God and already reigns in the Church in the Spirit. He will come because he comes in the Church, when the faithful are assembled for “The Lord’s Supper”.

“When you assemble in the Church. . . .”. The Eucharist is the assembly of the people of God in Christ but the assembly presumes the idea of concelebration. The people of God assemble in the Church to serve God where each one serves along with the others under the leadership of one. There is no assembly in the Church without concelebration nor is there concelebration without the assembly. There is no supper without participants nor are there participants in the supper without the one who heads it. (The Lord’s Supper, introduction)

In the lines quoted above, all of the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, and all of the people of God, clergy and laity, are connected as they gather together in the assembly that is the Church. For Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev, it’s all about the Church-the Church comes before, is the necessary condition of– the sacraments, the scriptures, the preaching of the Gospel and works of loving kindness to the neighbor. The Church is also the source and location of the hierarchy, all of the clergy and people. Only those washed, sealed and ordained to be God’s priests, kings and prophets in baptism/chrismation can later be called by the ecclesial community to receive the laying on of hands to serve them, to preside at the Eucharist and preach the Gospel and lead them in the work of service to the world. That the call to further ordination is for service of the community, without separating those so ordained into a different, higher caste, Fr. Afanasiev makes clear from the oldest ordination prayers.

This eucharistic and conciliar ecclesiology was the understanding as well as the shape and practice of ecclesial life in the first five centuries. It is not some kind of theological imagination, not a reduction of church life to liturgical celebration. Neither is it a form of “congregationalism” neglecting the bishops and presbyters and deacons in favor of lay rule or “democracy.” In fact, Afanasiev is himself critical of later developments, not only the growth of a clericalized class and the alliance of church and state but even of some aspects (though not all) of conciliar reform and renewal from the 1917-18 Moscow Council. Afanasiev also insists that to be theologians we must also be diligent historians, not shying away from the realities of human life but rather honestly studying and portraying them, since they are the means by which the Spirit works in the world. They are the means by which God takes on humanity and becomes part of his creation in every way: taking on time, space, a body and life, even suffering and death.

When we ask ourselves about the contributions of the Orthodox Church to the world in the modern era, some would name Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Fr. George Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, others Frs Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff. We are beginning to recognize the importance of other, up till now, less noted figures too, such as St. Mother Maria Skobtsova, Paul Evdokimov, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel among others. Many of the émigrés , not just those who taught at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. In overviews of the important contributions of the last century such as Bishops Hilarion Alfayev, Kallistos Ware and Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy all name Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev (1893-1966), a faculty member at St. Sergius for decades, as the one who discovered the “eucharistic ecclesiology” of the Church’s first centuries and who argued for the significance of this in the Church of our time.

Fr. Afanasiev’s writings are marked by his enormous erudition in fields as diverse as church history, liturgical theology, the councils and canon law. His prose is careful, deliberate, sometimes repetitive to make a point and one almost hears an attorney slowly gathering evidence to make his case. Yet he himself said that his own blood and his tears were the source for his research and writing and his colleague Fr. Schmemann said that he had one vision-a truly consuming love for the Church, and this was the “hidden fire” behind his technical, meticulous writing. Much of ecclesiology today remains indebted to Afanasiev, even if there are criticisms and disagreements about his conclusions. The Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church bears the imprint of his vision of the Eucharist and the Church and it is acknowledged (even if criticized) by the likes of Schmemann, Meyendorff, Kallistos Ware, Tillard, Erickson and Zizioulas, among others.

2. “The Church makes the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes the Church”

“The Church of God is in Christ” since the people of God are gathered by God “in Christ”, and thus it belongs to God as Christ belongs to him. From this follows the identity of the Church with the Eucharist and the identity of the local Church with the Church of God, which is actualized each time during her Eucharistic assembly. On the strength of this double identity, the members of a local church, gathered at the Eucharistic assembly, are revealed as the Church of God. Members of the local church become members of the body of Christ and all that are gathered together for the Eucharistic assembly are “The Church of God in Christ”. Thus to gather together for the Eucharistic assembly means to gather “in the Church”. “When you assemble in the Church. . .”. Christ is present in the Eucharist in the fullness of his body, one loaf and one cup, but his body is the Church. The Church is where the Eucharist is celebrated, and where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is the Church. This is the fundamental principle of the Eucharistic ecclesiology revealed by Paul. (The Lord’s Supper, chap. 1)

When we read Afanasiev’s careful historical analysis of the early church, we feel as though we are in familiar as well as very strange territory. It is familiar because we have come to understand in the past half century that the Church is eucharistic and the Eucharist ecclesial, that the “Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” Such is the popular summary of “eucharistic ecclesiology,” the central point without many of its corollaries.

However, readers will also find the terrain of the early church of the first five centuries to be quite unlike what they experience today. This eucharistic church was intensely communal, ruled by love not law as Afanasiev argues. There is no clerical caste in it, separated from the non-consecrated, “worldly” laity.

In the New Testament, those who became this race and nation (genos eklekton, ethnos hagion) which the Lord has chosen and formed for himself were Christians who before were not at all a nation but who in the Church became God’s people (laos Theou). The Church is God’s people, and every faithful in the Church belongs to this people. He is laikos, a laic. The ethnic principle, according to which the ancient Israel was chosen has been surpassed and replaced by the principle of belonging to the Church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11.29), therefore one cannot be in the Church and not be a laic, laikos –a member of God’s people. Every one in the Church is a laic and all together are God’s people and each one is called, as a priest of God, to offer spiritual sacrifices to Him through Jesus Christ. (The Church of the Holy Spirit, chap 1, 1 The royal priesthood)

The presiders of eucharistic assemblies, that is of “local churches”– communities of Christ in diverse places-as Cyprian of Carthage says, “do nothing without their presbyters, deacons and people.” Those who lead these communities do so because they preside at the eucharistic liturgy, because they preach God’s word and because they serve the community as Christ does. The presiders come from the rank and file membership, are elected by the community and then set apart, ordained, to serve in, for and with that community. The idea of the proestos/hegumen or bishop-presbyter being above or other than the community, of such a one celebrating the liturgy or making any decisions without the community would have been unimaginable. Listen to Afanasiev’s strong words about the primacy of love in the community of the Church at the conclusion of The Church of the Holy Spirit.

Authority is part of the life of the Church which has this ministry of administration. But the ecclesial authority ought to conform to the nature of the Church and not be in conflict with her. If such authority claims to be superior to the Church then it must also be superior to Christ. This is why the Church can never be founded, nor her authority based upon a juridical principle, for the law is external to, outside of Love. Such authority cannot belong to the vicars of Christ on earth, since God has not delegated his power to anyone, but has put all people in submission to Christ, “put all things under his feet.” In the Church, which is Love, there is only the power of love. God gives the pastors not the charism of power but that of love and, by his mediation, the power of love. The bishops who exercise the ministry of administration are the representatives of the power of love. The submission of all to the bishop takes place in love, and it is by love that the bishop submits to the faithful. Every submission of one to another is realized through the mediation of the love we have for Christ. The submission of all to the bishop is actualized by the love he has for all and by the reciprocal love of the faithful for him. There can be no other foundation of power in the Church, for Christ is the only foundation of power in her. The pastors are able to have only that which Christ gives to the Church. Law cannot be the foundation of power in the Church because Christ has not given it as a charismatic gift but rather he has rejected it. “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” (Matt. 11, 29) The power of Christ in the Church is the power of Love, acquired by the love which he has for us.
(The Church of the Holy Spirit, chapter 8, “The Authority/Power of Love”)

Christ is the head, the heart, the center of the Church. The title of Afanasiev’s book comes from Tertullian, “the Church of the Holy Spirit,” yet the same understanding of the Church as the Spirit’s place of work is also there is so many of the teachers and fathers of the Church.[i] The epigram on the title page is Irenaeus of Lyon’s way of putting it: Ubi spiritus ibi ecclesia et omnis gratia. “Where the Spirit is, there is the Church and all grace.” (Against the heresies, III, 24, 1)

As a member of the faculty at the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, Fr. Afanasiev taught many different courses–about “initiation” or entry into the Church (Vstuplenie v Tserkov), that is, the sacrament of baptism/chrismation, also the reception of those from other churches, and about the ordination of the clergy, as well as courses on marriage, monasticism, the councils of the church, on canon law, the history of the early Church and of the Russian church. He wrote on the priesthood of all the baptized, the laity, as well as on the development and decadence of the liturgy.[ii]

Afanasiev’s view of ecclesiology integrates the sacraments into the life of the Christian community as well as the individual Christian. Contrary to some of his critics such as John Erickson, for example, Afanasiev does not value the Eucharist to the detriment of baptism as the center of the Church’s life. Neither does he restrict the actions of the ecclesial community, both the leaders and the membership, to liturgical worship alone. Preaching, teaching, administration of the community’s affairs as well as ministry to the society, the world outside are pivotal to his vision, for example in The Church of the Holy Spirit and The Lord’s Supper, not to mention numerous other essays.

Baptism/chrismation or the sacrament of initiation is fundamental for him, since this is the consecration/ordination of each and every Christian to the priesthood of all believers, also to the status of prophet and king in the Kingdom. (1 Peter 2: 4-10) Initiation is a singular event however, not repeated in the life of an individual Christian. Through this initiation the people of God is formed and is sustained each Lord’s Day, by the Eucharist.

The apostolic church did not know the separation of clerics from laics in our meaning of the words and it did not have the terms themselves in its usage. This is a basic fact of the ecclesial life in the primitive era but it would be wrong to infer from this fact that ministry in the Church was exhausted by the notion of the priestly ministry, common for all. It was a ministry of the Church. Another fact of the life of the primitive Church was the diversity of ministries. The same Spirit by whom all were baptized into one body and of whom all were made to drink distributes particular gifts to each one “for the common good,” (sympheron) (1 Cor 12.7) for action and service within the Church.

And the gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Eph 4.11-12)[1]

The diversity of ministries stems from the “organic” nature of the Church. Each of her members occupies in it his own position and place, proper to him alone. “God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” (1 Cor 12.18) In a living organism, place and position of its members depends on the functions executed by them. So in Christ’s body diverse ministries are associated with the place and position of the members. The gifts of the Spirit are not given for their own sake, as a reward of some sort but for ministry in the Church and they are given to those who already have drunk of the Spirit.(The Church of the Holy Spirit, ch 1, 4)

The incorporation into the body of Christ, the Church, is recalled every Lord’s Day, enacted in the assembly’s concelebration of the Eucharist. It is not just the bishops, presbyters and deacons (as well as other ministers) who celebrate the Eucharist, all the priesthood of the baptized do so. All of the people of God are then sent on mission, to proclaim the Good News to the world and to serve.

Fr. Afanasiev’s protégé and colleague, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, assimilated much from him as well as from Frs Bulgakov and Kern, even if these are not always cited. The same was true for Paul Evdokimov and Fr. John Meyendorff.[iii] Schmemann retained Bulgakov’s eschatological awareness, the sense that the liturgy, all the rest of the sacraments and ministries and ministers of the Church witnessed to the presence of the Kingdom here and now and its coming in fullness. From Fr. Cyprian Kern, with whom he served the parish in Clamart, he drew the sensitivity to the prophetic and servant character of the ordained priesthood, also the recognition that the liturgy had been buried beneath centuries of accretions and individualism. Schmemann wrote, in the introduction to his doctoral dissertation on liturgical theology that it was various religious “needs” which dominated the consciousness of both Orthodox laity and clergy. From Afanasiev, especially the perspectives of The Lord’s Supper, he took a critical view of the individualization of communion as a rare obligation, the individual Christian’s unworthiness requiring length and severe preparation for reception of communion. (govenie) Other aspects of liturgical celebration, noted by not only Kern and Afanasiev but also Boris Sové were the clericalization of the liturgy, the silent recitation of the anaphora and many other prayers, the high iconostas, closed royal doors and curtains further cutting off the faithful. As a historian, Afanasiev, who had contributed to the Living Tradition anthology of 1937, argued that the liturgy took shape not only gradually but in diverse ways over the centuries. Different rubrics and customs were to be found not only in the Russian Church but across the Orthodox churches worldwide.

Perhaps the most widely read Orthodox book in America, Fr. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, originally bore the title, “Sacraments and Orthodoxy.” Each chapter takes up one of the sacraments, from baptism/chrismation to penance to the Eucharist, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick. Yet, as would be the case in his posthumously published work, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, Fr. Schmemann’s debt to Fr. Afanasiev is clear. The Eucharist is THE sacrament of the church and of the Kingdom, repeatedly expressing what the Church is, always drawing the church together, assembling the faithful, uniting them again to Christ as they first were in baptism (“Have you united yourself to Christ?”). And dismissing them to service “for the life of the world,” the “liturgy after the liturgy” as John Chrysostom, Mother Maria Skobtsova and others expressed it. It is no surprise that Schmemann entitled a collection of his essays Church, World, Mission, and another, Liturgy & Life.

3. Conclusion: Implications of Afanasiev’s views

So, these are the most important ways in which Afanasiev, and indeed others with him, expressed the relationships, the connections among all the sacraments and the Christian life.

-All Christian life begins with the new life in Christ given in washing of baptism and in the seal of the Holy Spirit, the chrismation or “Christification” (Mother Maria Skobtsova) of the sacrament of initiation.

-The Church is the community of Love, where Love, not status, law or power rules.

It is only in the love of Christ and in him that the charism of Love is acquired, the gift which permits one to give oneself to others so that at least some may be saved. To win all not for oneself but for Christ is the content of the power of love in the Church. The opposition of katakyrieuô to douloumai, of domination to servitude is the opposition of the power not based upon love to the power of love. The first demands that one be served, the second serves the others. The first dominates, the second makes oneself the servant of all. (Phil. 2: 7) I repeat here nearly word for word the saying of Origen: “Let the rulers of nations exercise lordship over them, but let the rulers of the Church be to it as servants.”(Comm. on Matt. 16:8) Such a power does not create superiors and inferiors, masters and slaves. It does not provoke division in the Church but by it all are reunited in love. It does not dominate by fear or force but “takes the form of a servant,” for the fear has no love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

In recognizing in the Church the existence of a power other that that of love, one diminishes, one even denies grace, for this would be to diminish or deny the common charism of love without which there could be no ministry. The power of vicars of God as divine power has no need of the gifts of the Spirit. It is this power which gives all ministries and all is accomplished in the name and authority of this power. Juridical power no longer has any need of grace. The existence of such a power in the Church would signify that the life of the church is directed according to the norms of law. These would then have imposed limits upon the Spirit who blows in the Church when and where he wishes. The norm of law would prefer that the Spirit blow there, where law itself is respected. Even if these norms of law were of divine origin they would constitute a kind of sealed treasure, formed at the moment of the birth of law from which the Church would then draw, not by grace but by law. Only love, as the common content of the ministries of the Church, as well as the power based on love and flowing from love cannot banish the grace from the life of the Church.

I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose (Gal 2:21). (The Church of the Holy Spirit, ch 8, 11)

-Every sacramental action refers us back to Baptism and the Eucharist, for as Afanasiev intuited and Schmemann made explicit, these are first and foremost Paschal sacraments, sacraments in which we die and are raised with Christ.

-Every vocation and sacramental event is rooted in Baptism and the Eucharist, for example, ordination is the setting apart of Christians for the service of presiding and preaching and counseling and administration in the ecclesial community. As Afanasiev’s friend, the lay theologian Paul Evdokimov described it, (borrowing from John Chrysostom) the “sacrament of love,” marriage, joins together men and women into a relationship that is an image of Christ and the Church. Their homes become as Chrysostom called them, “miniature churches.” If there are children, their biological or adoptive parents also become spiritual mothers and fathers, raising them up in Christ. And though not ordinarily seen as a sacrament, monastic tonsure/profession, like marriage, is a living out of one’s baptism in a specific way, in a Gospel community with the promises of obedience, chastity, poverty. There is no vocation that cannot be a life of praise and thanksgiving and love that is essentially eucharistic.

-The Church gathers all together into one, one with Christ. Again, it’s all about the Church. Afanasiev puts forward the somewhat striking ecclesiological mathematics of the fullness of each local church, over against a universalistic ecclesiology which sees each church as only a part of the great Church. The formula is 1+1+1=1. While each local church is complete, the local church in all its fullness also needs to be in communion, in fact must be in communion with all the rest of the churches. Some critics claim that this is a defective ecclesiology, a kind of “Orthodox congregationalism.” But close reading of Afanasiev tells us otherwise. True, Afanasiev argues that the first several centuries did not know the universal ecclesiology that later dominated, especially in the west. It is likely that the universalism he criticizes in Cyprian of Carthage was not intended as a depiction of the Church worldwide, ecumenical but of the local Church of Africa.

It also may be that the developing history of the presider Afanasiev sketches is difficult for many to integrate with their own views of an exclusively hierarchical/synodally-led church or a universal pastor. Afanasiev has his critics, both Orthodox and Catholic. For myself, I would agree with Fr. John Meyendorff’s criticism of Afanasiev’s rigidity when it comes to administration, teaching and representation in church councils. The efforts of the Moscow Council of 1917-18 to restore conciliarity by representation of clergy and lay delegates was not just a response to centuries of ecclesial decadence there and the domination of the church by the state. With Fr. Meyendorff I think it was an attempt to speak to a much larger, broader set of problems in the life of local churches around the world, whose conciliar shape remained perhaps only in symbolic form, not at all in practice.

The recovery of a conciliar understanding of the Church and truly conciliar practice is a debt we owe to the Moscow Council of 1917-18. It is most relevant and necessary in our time. But it is also a debt we owe to Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev’s recovery of the Church’s eucharistic and baptismal nature.

Michael Plekon is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), is the associate priest at St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls NY and is professor in the department of Sociology/Anthropology and the Program in Religion and Culture at Baruch College of the City University of New York, where he has taught since 1977.

[i] This fall the first ever English translation of Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev’s posthumous study, The Church of the Holy Spirit (Tserkov Dukha Sviatogo) is being published by the University of Notre Dame Press, a leading Roman Catholic university press (the university also home to one of the finest theology departments in our country). The UND Press has made a commitment to important works on Eastern Church theology, history, philosophy, the studies of both classical and contemporary theologians. Vitaly Permiakov, a young and brilliant scholar completing his doctorate at UND did the translation and me the editing. (A translation of Afanasiev’s companion volume, The Limits of the Church is also planned.)

[ii] The Dominican scholar Fr. Aidan Nichols chronicles all these courses and Afanasiev’s lecture notes for them, as well as all Fr. Nicolas’ published articles and books.:Theology in the Russian Diaspora: Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas’ev, 1893-1966, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[iii] Antoine Arjakovsky traces out many of the lines of thought, shared as well as debated in his study of the religious thinkers of the Paris emigration in his masterful study, La génération des penseurs religieux de l’émigration russe, Kyiv/Paris: L’Esprit et la Lettre, 2002.

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