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Nicholas Afanasiev’s Ecclesiology and Some of Its Orthodox Critics*

 By Victor Aleksandrov


The destiny of the ideas of Father Nicholas Afanasiev has not been a simple one. On the one hand, his name is well known among Orthodox theologians, the importance of his works is widely recognized, and several serious studies of his theology have been written. The term “eucharistic ecclesiology,” coined by Afanasiev, has entered the vocabulary of theologians and has become so common that any person familiar with modern Orthodox theological thought at least slightly is aware of the existence of such a trend. On the other hand, one cannot say that Afanasiev’s ideas  have been enthusiastically welcomed and accepted by all Orthodox theologians and clergy. Polemics against his views are not rare in many Orthodox milieux. Some of his more polemical critics’ perspectives are what I would like to examine in the present article. 

The criticism of Afanasiev can be conventionally divided into two categories. The first one is the polemic of those who wrote special studies on him. Most of the works of this kind have been written by Catholics and Protestants trying to assess Afanasiev’s theological achievement and the value of his theology for modern Christian thought. Here, I do not deal with the criticism found in these works. Although it is possible and often necessary to argue with the occasional polemic of those specialists against Afanasiev or with their interpretations of his theology, their careful understanding and appreciation of his writings cannot be questioned.[1] 

Most of the Orthodox polemic against Afanasiev belongs to the second category: these are incidental remarks of the authors who touched the topics connected with eucharistic ecclesiology and expressed their opinions of it. And it is exactly this criticism that is quite curious: it reveals the critics’ lack of familiarity with the works and ideas of Afanasiev and further shows the critics’ prejudices against eucharistic ecclesiology. 


An example of the criticism testifying to an extremely vague idea of Afanasiev’s theology is found in Andrew Sopko’s book on Romanides.[2] Sopko states that Romanides “in his early study of Ignatius of Antioch, which was actually done for Afanasiev at St. Sergius Institute in Paris, leaned toward a eucharistic ecclesiology, but soon found it unconvincing. According to Romanides, it left much unsaid about the Church’s life.”[3] Leaving aside the ecclesiology to which Romanides turned in his early years, one should notice that in his eucharistic ecclesiology Afanasiev does not try to say everything about the life of the Church but concentrates on some important issues. 

Making an attempt to evaluate Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology from the point of view Romanides (this is how the task is formulated), Sopko presents a set of erroneous ideas about Afanasiev’s work.  It appears from Sopko analysis that Afanasiev reduces the entire life of the Church to the eucharistic assembly and, having reduced and fragmented ecclesial life, prefers one ecclesiastical activity to others.[4] This characterization of Afanasiev’s ecclesiology is completely inadequate and not based on his writings. The main problem seems to be the name “eucharistic ecclesiology.” Somehow influenced by the name, Sopko concludes that Afanasiev reduces the variety of ecclesiastical reality to the Eucharist and liturgy. Contrary to Sopko’s allegation, Afanasiev’s writings are devoted not to the Eucharist in itself (although the latter plays an extremely important role in his theology), but to the Church in all aspects of its life. In Afanasiev’s point of view, the Church with all its manifestations and all its realities – not only the liturgy – is the eucharistic assembly. And, vice versa, the eucharistic assembly is the Church. For Afanasiev, the Church is fully revealed in any eucharistic community. The Eucharist is the origin of the Church, determining ecclesiastical structure and order but not limiting the variety of ecclesiastical phenomena to the liturgy. That is why it makes no sense to speak about reducing the Church to the eucharistic assembly: this latter is not less then the Church but is the Church itself together with all its manifestations. The two are the same. In other words, Afanasiev does not reduce the Church to the Eucharist but extends the eucharistic assembly to the scale of the Church, and this assembly includes all the elements of ecclesiastical life that are compatible with the assembly’s basic principles and structure. 

An exhaustive answer to Sopko’s reproach of reducing the Church to something lesser was given by Alexander Schmeman forty years ago. Emphasizing the fact that the words “eucharistic ecclesiology” sound misleading for some people, he writes: “This term is unhappy because those who were brought up in the concepts of the old scholastic ecclesiology perceive it as the reduction of the life of the Church to the Eucharist and as the narrowing of this life to liturgy alone. In reality it means, of course, exactly the opposite.  points to the gracious source and nature of everything in the Church, not only of sacraments.”[5] The phenomena other than the Eucharist are not denied or ignored by Afanasiev. If they do not contradict the essence of the Church, the theology of Fr Nicholas demeans them in no way. 

Sopko’s claim that eucharistic ecclesiology “inadvertently underemphasizes the charismatic character of the Church through a form of hyper-sacramentalism” should be rejected too.[6] (It is true Sopko immediately makes qualifications, writing that it happens contrary to the intentions of Afanasiev.) I will not dwell on the issue of what this hyper-sacramentalism might be, how it could be characteristic of Afanasiev and in what way it is accompanied in his works by the underestimation of the charismatic nature of the Church, although all these points are absolutely unclear in Sopko’s account. Sopko’s comment is surprising since there have been very few  in modern Orthodox theology who have stressed the charismatic nature of everything in the Church so assertively and consistently as Afanasiev. As is well known, emphasizing that everything in the Church is done by grace, Afanasiev – following Rudolph Sohm – does not hesitate to reject law as a genuine principle of ecclesiastical organization. In particular, he writes: “The Church is the place where the Spirit acts, and the Spirit is the principle of its life and activity. The Church lives and acts by the Spirit through the charismatic gifts which God distributes in the Church as He wills. Grace is ‘the only mover’ of all that happens within the Church. The tradition of the Church has its origin in the Spirit, not in any human actions. […] Consequently, the organizing principle in the Church is the Spirit which excludes any other principle since the latter would be external to the Church.”[7] Similar quotes from the works of Fr Nicholas can be multiplied. How does Sopko manage to interpret such a definite assertion of guiding the Church by the Spirit through the grace as “inadvertent underemphasizing of the charismatic character of the Church”?

Unfortunately, Sopko demonstrates no direct knowledge of the works of Afanasiev. As his references reveal, the only written source of his information is Nichols’ book.[8] Despite this, and with no direct citation of the texts, Sopko nevertheless does not hesitate to criticize Afanasiev. Even from  Nichols’ study, however, it is evident that “eucharistic ecclesiology” is not just a teaching on the Eucharist and liturgy but much more.[9] In fact, Sopko neglects or misstates even Nichols’ examination of Afanasiev. As soon as the term “eucharistic ecclesiology” is mentioned stereotypes start working in his mind and he readily follows them. Sopko’s judgment thus is based not on Afanasiev’s actual writing but rather on common myths about eucharistic ecclesiology. Being unfamiliar with the latter, Sopko apparently creates arbitrary constructions of Fr Nicholas’ ideas. I believe one should expect more responsibility from a theologian writing on so crucially important topic.


The author who has made polemical comments on the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev more often than others is John Zizioulas, now Metropolitan of Pergamos, the Patriarchate of Constantinople. I would like to trace Zizioulas’ polemic as appears in his two books, Eucharist, Bishop, Church and Being as Communion.[10] 

In the monograph Eucharist, Bishop, Church, which was published in English in 2001 but whose Greek original appeared in 1965, Zizioulas recognizes “a positive element” of the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev and Schmemann.[11] Zizioulas accepts that he is not familiar with the works of Afanasiev and Schmemann in Russian and draws his conclusions about eucharistic ecclesiology only on the basis of their articles in French and English: he gives the list of these writings, including five articles of Afanasiev (of which the most important are The Church Which Presides in Love and Una Sancta) and four of Schmemann.[12] 

Precisely in his first critical remark on the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev and Schmemann, Zizioulas’ claims that this theory arrived at “complete and exclusive identification of the notions of the Church and Eucharist.”[13] Although in both Afanasiev and Schmemann a close relation between the Eucharist and the Church is an extremely important point indeed, one have to ask in which of their works they identify these two notions completely and exclusively. It is hardly surprising that Metropolitan John indicates not one  passage of this sort. The correlation between the two concepts in Afanasiev and Schmemann is more complicated and cannot be described in such a simplified manner as Zizioulas does.

Recognizing that the emphasis of eucharistic ecclesiology on “the ecclesiological character of the Eucharist and also of the eucharistic character of the Church is an important positive element,” Zizioulas urges us “to beware of the lurking danger of one-sidedness which can be damaging to historical research. […] The notion of the Church and her unity is not expressed to the full in a eucharistic unity which lacks any preconditions. The Church has always felt herself to be united in faith, love, baptism, holiness of life, etc.” That is why, according to Zizioulas, “the Eucharist cannot be studied as a closed object, apart from the content of Church life as a whole.” If for methodological reasons we study the Eucharist separately, we should be aware of restricting ourselves only to one part of an extensive issue. “In this way, we shall avoid the danger of one-sidedness inherent in the recognition, correct in principle, of the ecclesiological character of the Eucharist.”[14] 

In the passage which I have tried to sum up the previous paragraph, Zizioulas criticizes eucharistic ecclesiology indirectly. It appears as something that reminds him of the danger of the one-sidedness which he would like to avoid. In this way, he suggests cautiously that eucharistic ecclesiology evokes all the problems he has listed: one-sidedness, the expression of the Church and its unity in the Eucharist without any preconditions, and the study of the Eucharist separately from the life of the Church. However, are any of these problems indeed characteristic of eucharistic ecclesiology? As regards the alleged “one-sidedness” of Afanasiev (the same pertains to Schmemann’s “one-sidedness” too), enough has been said  in the previous section of the present article. This allegation is based on mistaking eucharistic ecclesiology for a sort of liturgics. It is the same misunderstanding that underlies Zizioulas’ call not to study the Eucharist separately from the whole of the Church’s life. As I have pointed out above, the final object of Afanasiev’s reflection is not the details of the liturgy and rite but the Church viewed in the light of the Eucharist and determined in its structure by the Eucharist. Neither Afanasiev nor Schemmann intend, for methodological or any other reasons, to study the Eucharist as “a closed object.” For them, the Eucharist and the eucharistic assembly is rather a prism through which everything in the Church should be seen. Finally, if Metropolitan John really attributes to Afanasiev and Schmemann the idea that “the notion of the Church and her unity is expressed to the full in a eucharistic unity which lacks any preconditions,” one should ask again in which of their works such an opinion is formulated or at least implied. Only if this or similar formula really existed in Afanasiev or Schmemann, it would be worth discussing. Thus, upon closer examination Zizioulas’ quite superfluously associates his warnings, most of which are intelligible in themselves, with the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev.

Another critical comment of Zizioulas deals with the “canonical unity” of the Church. In his words, “emphasized to the extreme […], the axiom ‘where the Eucharist is, there is the Church’ […] destroys in the final analysis any notion of canonical unity in the Church leading in essence to the antithesis introduced by Rudolph Sohm between religion and law. It is perhaps not fortuitous that N. Afanassieff, who was chiefly responsible of introducing the so-called ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’, stresses that only love and not canons of law and rights can have a place in the unity of the Church.”[15] He continues: “Such an absolute view of the eucharistic character of the Church to the exclusion of canonical preconditions leads Fr A. Schmemann, too, to the view that we have ecclesiological fullness even in the parish, inasmuch as the Eucharist is celebrated there, which conflicts with the conclusions of this study in which the eucharistic element is interwoven with the canonical, which is to say, the Eucharist with the Bishop.”[16] Zizioulas emphasizes that “the parish can on no account be regarded as a complete Church even though Eucharist is celebrated in it.”[17]

In these lines, Zizioulas reveals a very important difference of opinions with Afanasiev. The formula “where the Eucharist is, there is the Church” was coined by Afanasiev in his article, “Una Sancta,” giving a brief account of his basic ideas applied to the issue of the unity of the Church.[18] Similar to any formula it is schematic. Did Afanasiev emphasize this principle to the extreme as Zizioulas claims? I do not think so. Within the ecclesiology of Afanasiev, this formula is appropriate. It is an essential part of Afanasiev’s vision of the Church, and there is a solid research into the history of the Early Church behind this formula. From the point of view of Metropolitan John, who is seeking for a compromise between the bonds of love and canon law, it may sound as an extreme. Finally, this all depends on whose ecclesiology manifests God’s design for the Church better. 

The formula “where the Eucharist is, there is the Church” implies that the main factor of the unity of the Church is to be sought for in the Eucharist, not in canon law. The significance of canon law in the Church is undermined not only by this formula but by the whole of the works which Afanasiev wrote in his mature years. Contrary to the majority of modern Orthodox and Catholic theologians, Afanasiev accepted Sohm’s opinion that the law is alien to the nature of the Church.[19] Afanasiev supported Sohm’s point of view explicitly and with arguments. One can best read it in his hymn of the power of love opposed to the power of law in The Church of the Holy Spirit, chapter 8.[20]  Sohm’s thesis, as Afanasiev’s theology testifies, is destined to be a recurrent issue in Christian theology since it is well rooted in the New Testament and the history of the early Church. The proximity of Afanasiev to Sohm at this particular point does not discredit him. The rejection of ecclesiastical law as an indispensable element of the Church inevitably destroys “the notion of canonical unity” but, which is most important, does not destroy the very idea of the unity of the Church. Since a real unity is – to use again a formula of Schmemann – that “from above,” while the legal unity tends to degenerate into that “from below.”[21] 

The polemic of Zizioulas against Schmemann is based on an inexplicable misreading. In the article to which Zizioulas refers, Schmemann states that many features of an ancient eucharistic community with a bishop at its head can be found in a modern parish, while a modern priest has many functions of an ancient bishop. However, he absolutely unequivocally points to the limited nature of catholicity of the parish and insist that it is exactly the bishop’s diocese which allows separate parishes to overcome the limits and that only this diocese is a full catholic church.[22] Thus, in the article Zizioulas refers to, Schmemann writes quite the opposite of what Zizioulas attributes to him! One must note that Schmemann follows the same line of thought in his later major work, his testament, Evkharistiia (“The Eucharist”).[23] By this, Schmemann responds to Afanasiev’s call for a theological discussion of the correlation between the parish and the bishop’s diocese in modern situation and makes his choice in favor of one of the two options outlined by Afanasiev.[24] Later, Zizioulas himself wrote an essay on this topic and developed basically the same idea as Schmemann, namely the idea of the primary nature of the bishop’s diocese over the parish.[25] That is to say, there is no essential disagreement between Zizioulas and Schmemann at this point and criticism addressed by the former to the latter is completely pointless.


In Eucharist, Bishop, Church, Zizioulas is still very cautious in criticizing Afanasiev. He returns  to the criticism of Afanasiev in his later theological work, Being as Communion, and here he takes a more definite tone. Zizioulas writes that “through the pages of this volume the reader will easily recognize the fundamental presuppositions of ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’.” However, he points out immediately that in his book one can also find important differences from Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology  and that the author of the book “wishes to go further than Afanasiev or to dissociate his own opinions from the latter, without underestimating or minimizing the importance of this Russian theologian and those who have faithfully followed him.”[26] 

Zizioulas states that many Western Christians as well as the Orthodox believe that Orthodox ecclesiology is only a projection of the mystery of the Church into sacramental categories: “a sacramentalization of theology.” He considers such an impression to be “inevitable if we do not go beyond what eucharistic ecclesiology has said until now, if we do not try to widen our theological and philosophical horizons. Furthermore, eucharistic ecclesiology such as has been developed by  Afanasiev and his followers raises serious problems, and because of this it is in need of fundamental correction. The principle “wherever the Eucharist is, there is the Church,” on which this ecclesiology is built, tends to lead towards two basic errors that Afanasiev did not avoid, any more than those who have faithfully followed him. The first of these errors consists in considering even the parish where the Eucharist takes place as a complete and “catholic” Church. Several other Orthodox theologians, following Afanasiev, have come to this conclusion without recognizing that they are raising in a very acute manner the entire problem of the structure of the Church. 

In primitive Christianity, a local church consisted only of one parish-community, Zizioulas continues, but a modern parish does not meet all the criteria of catholicity and, consequently, is not a complete and catholic church: it does not include all the faithful of a place and all the presbyterium with the bishop at its head. Zizioulas asks if the principle “wherever the Eucharist is, there is the Church” is weakened by this fact. Not necessarily, he answers, but it has to be reinterpreted in order to express the correct relation between the parish and the diocese and the Eucharist and the Church.[27] 

Let us examine some of Zizioulas’ allegations. First of all, who are those Western Christians and Orthodox that, influenced by eucharistic ecclesiology, perceive Orthodox ecclesiology as “a sacramentalization of theology?” Zizioulas indicates no instances of such a perception, and this leaves some doubt if the problem is real. Then, is the impression of eucharistic ecclesiology as the “sacramentalization of theology” so inevitable as Zizioulas claims it to be? Both Afanasiev and Schmemann build their ecclesiology not on sacraments in general but on the Eucharist, which they perceive not as just one of many sacraments but as a unique and fundamental phenomenon of the Church’s life. Upon the attentive reading of Afanasiev and Schmemann, the perception of eucharistic ecclesiology as “a sacramentalization of theology” cannot even emerge. Such a misinterpretation testifies to a drastic lack of understanding of what eucharistic ecclesiology is. It is not accidental that here Zizioulas limits himself to general criticism, not dwelling on details and not analyzing the texts of those whom he criticizes. Finally, it is more that doubtful whether Afanasiev ever considered a modern parish to be a catholic church. Zizioulas, again, fails to refer to such a place in Afanasiev’s writings. As has been mentioned, in the Lord’s Supper, written in 1952, Afanasiev raises the issue of the correlation between the two ecclesiastical districts (parish and bishop’s diocese) as a theological problem and proposes to discuss it. He admits that “the modern parish resembles the primitive local church most” but does not give preference to any of the two possible solutions he offers. In his other work, Vstuplenie v Tzerkov’ (“Entering the Church”), published in the same year 1952, he states explicitly that neither the modern diocese nor parish express the fullness, that is, catholicity, of the Church of God.[28] Or, probably, Zizioulas’ reproach of identifying a parish with a catholic church refers only to the followers of Afanasiev? Who are these people, then? If Zizioulas means Schmemann, whom he criticizes for the same mistake in Eucharist, Bishop, Church, Schmemann, as I have demonstrated above, does not identify the parish with the catholic church: contrary to what Zizioulas states, Schmemann believes such a church to be a bishop’s diocese, and at this point he is in agreement with Zizioulas himself! Thus, there no trace of the simple identification of the local church and the parish either in Afanasiev or in Schmemann. Whom does Zizioulas blame for this error? And who are the anonymous followers of Afanasiev he is attacking? 

Zizioulas considers the second great problem of Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology to be the relationship between the local and universal church. According to him, “the principle of ‘wherever the Eucharist is, there is the Church’ risks suggesting the idea that each Church could, independently of other local Churches, be the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’.” “Several Orthodox theologians faithful to the doctrine of eucharistic ecclesiology – Afanasiev had already given such an interpretation – have a […] tendency to give priority to the local Church.” Metropolitan John calls for creative theological work and a solution “which would justify eucharistic ecclesiology without carrying with it the risk of localism.” He believes that it is the Eucharist that guides us in this since by its nature it transcends both localism and universalism.[29] 

In another place in his book, Zizioulas raises this issue once more. The line which his thought follows here is quite contorted. Since Afanasiev, he writes, the idea that there is no priority of the universal Church over the local has become current in Orthodox theology. However, neither Afanasiev nor many other Orthodox theologians see a danger in this idea.  “It is often too easily assumed that eucharistic ecclesiology leads to the priority of the local Church over universal, to a kind of congregationalism. [Here Zizioulas makes a cross-reference to another place of his book, in this latter place referring, in turn, to the works of Alivizatos and Florovsky].[30] But as I have tried to argue in another study of mine [at this point Zizioulas refers to the next chapter of Being as Communion], Afanasiev was wrong in drawing such conclusions because the nature of the Eucharist points not in the direction of the priority of the local Church but in that of the simultaneity of both local and universal.”[31] 

Zizioulas is quite unclear in both of the places discussed above. In the first one, he claims that eucharistic ecclesiology is fraught with the risk of localism and has the tendency of giving priority to the local Church. But, if it is just the risk and tendency, what does the clause “Afanasiev had already given such an interpretation” mean? What kind of interpretation has Afanasiev given? In the second passage, Zizioulas starts with the allegation that Afanasiev does not recognize the primacy of the universal over the local. Then, he vaguely claims that “it is often too easily assumed” (by whom? by Alivizatos and Florovsky to whom Zizioulas refers indirectly?) that the eucharistic ecclesiology leads to the primacy of the local over the universal. Finally, making a jump in his logic, Zizioulas claims that Afanasiev “was wrong in drawing such conclusions.” Again, what does this “such” mean? What conclusions has Afanasiev drawn? In which of his works does Afanasiev argue for the primacy of the local church over the universal one? It is evident that his rejection of the primacy of the universal over the local does not automatically mean the recognition of the primacy of the local over the universal. What does Afanasiev write on the correlation of the local and universal after all? After careful reading of the two polemical passages of Zizioulas, it is impossible to take away clear answers to all these questions. Instead of intelligible analysis of real ideas taken from Afanasiev’s writings, Zizioulas makes an attempt – confused and unsupported with any references – to credit Afanasiev with conclusions he never made.

Afanasiev’s views cannot be criticized through the opposition of the local and universal church in the way Zizioulas tries to do. According to Afanasiev, “the whole Church of God resided, lived and was revealed in all fullness of its unity and in all unity of its fullness in each local church.”[32]  Such an attitude does not exclude the “simultaneity of both local and universal” on which Zizioulas insists but implies it! Also, Afanasiev would be happy to accept Zizioulas’ statement that the nature of the Eucharist transcends the localism and universalism. What is the matter of Zizioulas’ polemic, then, if at this point he, actually, is in agreement with Afanasiev? Zizioulas criticizes not the real Afanasiev but an imaginary scholar. Who, again, are those mysterious “several Orthodox theologians faithful to the doctrine of eucharistic ecclesiology” whom Zizioulas repeatedly reproaches for making Afanasiev’s conclusions too extreme? 

 Zizioulas makes one more critical comment related to the issue of the local and universal. He argues that in his eucharistic ecclesiology Afanasiev has failed to see and appreciate the fundamental fact that the presence of the two or three neighboring bishops during the ordination of a bishop in a local church links this bishop and this local community with the eucharistic communities all over the world. He makes the claim that one may conclude this from the views of Afanasiev as expressed in his Una Sancta “and elsewhere”[33] (I cannot refrain from the question “where exactly?”). Presumably, Zizioulas suggests that Afanasiev considers separate eucharistic assemblies to be segregated or, at least, not bound closely enough. It is true that in Una Sancta Afanasiev does not mention the presence of neighboring bishops in the ordination of a local bishop. However, it is in the same Una Sancta that Afanasiev develops the idea of the unity of local churches through the unity of their inner nature, through their communion in love and through the reception of what have happened in each one by others.[34] Zizioulas ignores this completely. The presence of neighboring bishops in the ordination is one of the elements of Afanasiev’s concept of reception. In The Church of the Holy Spirit, Afanasiev writes about the ordination as follows:

 The acknowledgement of an ordination happening in the Church is a catholic act: performed by the local church that ordains, it takes place not only in that church alone but in the Church of God. That is why the acknowledgement by the local church is accompanied by reception by the other churches. Every local church as being a Church of God appropriates everything that takes place in the other churches as its own action. Thus, every church, at least in principle, bears witness to the fact that the ordination conformed to the will of God. Cyprian of Carthage tells that the ordination of Cornelius of Rome was received by the bishops of the whole world. In Cyprian’s language, this means that the ordination was received or witnessed to by all the churches.”[35] 

In other words, Afanasiev’s idea of reception involves the presence of neighboring bishops in an ordination of a local bishop. For Nichols, for example, this is evident: he emphasizes specially that for Afanasiev the presence of the presidents of other local churches in an ordination is important.[36] Thus, at this point Nichols interprets Afanasiev in a way opposite to that of Zizioulas, and – of course – it is Nichols who is right. Once again, Zizioulas’ criticism falls apart when one goes to Afanasiev’s actual texts. 


Zizioulas objects to several more ideas of Afanasiev. First, he disagrees with depicting Cyprian of Carthage as the father of the “universalist ecclesiology.”[37] The opposition between the origins of the universalist ecclesiology in Cyprian and of the eucharistic one in Ignatius of Antioch is one of the most often criticized points in Afanasiev. It may be that the opposition is made too sharply by Afanasiev. The issue, however, requires further detailed research, which is beyond the scope of the present article. In addition, even if Afanasiev went too far in contrasting the two ecclesiologies, it does not affect the basics of the eucharistic one. 

Second, Zizioulas questions the following vision of apostolic succession, attributing such a vision to Afanasiev: “N. Afanasiev, in spite of [is this “in spite of” appropriate here?] his eucharistic ecclesiology, failed to appreciate the indivisibility of the apostolic college in succession and put forth the view which is incompatible with the eschatological image of the Church that ‘the bishop through his church is the successor of one apostle, not of apostles in general’.”[38] It appears from the words of Zizioulas that the idea of the bishop’s succession from an individual apostle was the personal theological conclusion of Afanasiev which he propagated. In fact, in his essay “The Teaching on Collegiality” (originally a paper read in March 1965 in the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris), which seems to be the Russian version of the French article Zizioulas quotes, Afanasiev just recognizes that the succession of the bishop to one concrete apostle, not apostles in general, was the most usual form of the theory of apostolic succession in history.[39] At the same time, he emphasizes first that in general “the doctrine of apostolic succession is quite indefinite” and second that this predominant understanding of apostolic succession faces some historical difficulties. Thus, Afanasiev does not demonstrate special personal sympathy to the idea of the succession to an individual apostle but accepts that this has been the predominant vision of the Church. It also must be noted that the book of Francis Dvornik, referred by Zizioulas to support his opinion that a bishop succeeds the whole of the college of apostles, includes no evidence in favor of such a hypothesis. On the contrary, it provides the data testifying that in many local churches there was a firm tradition of tracing the chain of local bishops back to one concrete apostle.[40] 

        Finally, discussing the problems of ministry and arguing that “the very question of whether ordination is to be understood in ‘ontological’ or ‘functional’ terms is not only misleading but absolutely impossible to raise,” Zizioulas John places Afanasiev among those who speak of ordination as “functional.”[41] It is correct in the sense that Afanasiev considers the difference between ecclesiastical ministries as functional.[42] I will not dwell on the problem of whether discourse about “functional” versus “ontological” is possible or not, but in Afanasiev these terms are used quite adequately. 


If in Eucharist, Bishop, Church (the Greek original of which was published, as I have already mentioned, in 1965) Zizioulas’ criticism of Afanasiev is still moderate, in Being as Communion (which first appeared in 1985) it is articulated much more boldly. In both books, however, my contention is that Zizioulas’ criticism is mostly pointless. Zizioulas persists in distorting the ideas of Afanasiev or credits him with the opinions the latter never held. The review of Zizioulas’ criticism, undertaken in the present article, reveals his amazingly fragmentary and scarce knowledge of the writings of Afanasiev. In Eucharist, Bishop, Church he mentions, as has been said, five of Afanasiev’s articles. Two of these, “Una Sancta” and “The Church Which Presides in Love,” can be called programmatic works but none of them gives whatsoever full exposition of Afanasiev’s ecclesiology. In addition, Zizioulas’ references to these articles leave doubts that he has read them in full and attentively. In Being as Communion, Zizioulas refers to three articles of Afanasiev, of which one (“Una Sancta”) is the same as in the Eucharist, Bishop, Church. In both of his books, Zizoulas does not demonstrate familiarity whatsoever with either of Afanasiev’s two major works, The Lord’s Supper and The Church of Saint Spirit. It is true that in Being as Communion Zizioulas refers to page 3 of the Russian text of The Lord’s Supper, but his acquaintance with this work does not seem to go beyond this page.[43] It is important to say it once more and emphatically: Zizioulas is very poorly informed about Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology. His familiarity with the writings of Schmemann, whom he often (correctly!) places in company of Afanasiev, is not evident either. All these do not prevent him from repeatedly criticizing “Afanasiev and his followers.” Alas, the criticism of Zizioulas is based rather on caricatures and rumors about the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev and Schmemann, not on their works. Such a lack of satisfactory knowledge of their writings leads Zizioulas to misinterpretations and distortions. 

This, however, is not the most surprising fact in the reception of eucharistic ecclesiology. It is even more surprising that in modern Orthodox theology Zizioulas is considered to be the one  who has made the most important correctives to the ideas of Afanasiev. It is exactly as those correctives that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware recommends Being as Communion.[44] This point of view is shared by John Erickson who writes that, “once identified chiefly with the late Fr Afanasieff and émigré Russian theologians, ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’ has been given both balance and scholarly precision quite independently by […] John Zizioulas.”[45] Ware and Erickson are joined by Sopko who repeats that recently the ideas of Afanasiev have been “emended” by Zizioulas.[46] Here, I would not like to discuss Erickson’s note that Zizioulas has contributed “balance and scholarly precision” to the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev and others although, in my opinion, it is far from being accurate. Nevertheless, I have to agree with Erickson that Zizioulas worked “quite independently.” In this case, however, it is not a reason for praise. Some reasonable dependence on and recognition of one’s predecessors, at the very least in the form of better acquaintance with their writings, is to be expected. The statements that Zizoulas “corrected,” “emended,” “balanced” etc. the eucharistic ecclesiology of Afanasiev are not based on any real comparison of their works. Perhaps the scholars making these statements give superfluous trust to Zizioulas’ declaration of his wish to go beyond Afanasiev, but, as I have tried to demonstrate above, Zizioulas attempted to accomplish his aim without reading Afanasiev properly. Have those who support Zizioulas similarly neglected careful examination of Afanasiev’s texts? 

There is one more interesting detail of Zizioulas’ attitude towards the ideas of Afanasiev. As Afanasiev’s works were written mostly in Russian, up until more recently this linguistic barrier has played some role in Zizioulas’ poor acquaintance with the former’s writings. The problem, however, is not limited just to a linguistic barrier. Being as Communion, containing most of the critical comments of Zizioulas, was printed for the first time in 1985. The Church of the Holy Spirit was published in Russian in 1971, and in 1975 its French translation appeared.[47] Thus, before the publication of his book Zizioulas had enough time to familiarize himself – at least in French – with the most significant work of the scholar whom he criticizes and whom he would like to surpass. Nevertheless, compared to Eucharist, Bishop, Church written in the first half of the 1960s, in Being as Communion one finds no signs at all of Zizoulas’s greater familiarity with the ideas of Afanasiev (despite the more extensive criticism of Afanasiev in the later book). Is it a lack of interest towards the theology of Afanasiev (and Schmemann, I have to add)? Or is it satisfaction with that folkloric image of Afanasiev’s ecclesiology that Zizioulas created for himself in the 1960s? 


In this article, I have not attempted to answer to all critics of Afanasiev[48] but just to draw attention to the fact that the major part of their criticism deals with imagined, not real Afanasiev. A striking discrepancy between the actual statements of Afanasiev and allegations of his critics has been already observed by Michael Plekon. As he points out, Afanasiev “is sometimes unjustifiably accused of exaggerations or deficiencies of which he is not guilty,” and “upon closer view it becomes clear that Afanasiev does not hold the positions for which he is most often attacked.”[49] Plekon wonders why the attitude towards Afanasiev’s basic vision has been so neuralgic.[50] Absolutely in line with Plekon’s observations, in the criticism which has been discussed above, one can discover not the polemic based on the texts of Afanasiev – such a criticism should be welcomed – but seemingly causeless resistance accompanied by the evident lack of knowledge of his works. 

One may guess at the reasons of this resistance. In the works of Afanasiev, we encounter many realities and problems to which we are not accustomed in our daily ecclesiastical life. Besides, in his works we do not find most of those ready solutions which “scholastic theology” offers as indisputable. While we are longing for Byzantium and its cultural and ideological heritage, Afanasiev explores the heritage of the early Church. For all these reasons, he is somewhat unusual and difficult. Quite a typical reaction to Afanasiev is described by Archimandrite Zinon Teodor, a contemporary Russian icon-painter: “About eight years ago, […] I was given the book by Fr Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit. I looked it through and put it aside, thinking that it is not for me. Now, I cannot image my work without it. Each needs to raise his questions by himself.”[51] 

Not everybody is ready to accept the challenge of Afanasiev and to ascend to the level of the problems he discusses. As his ideas are in complete disagreement with the widespread attempts to build a stylized Church, for some people his conclusions generate nervousness. His thought deprives some of us of the ecclesiastical comfort and security we have obtained, probably at great cost. His works powerfully shake views about the structure and daily life of the Church which have been dominant in the Orthodox churches (in fact, not only in the Orthodox churches) for centuries. Probably it is this profound psychological anxiety that can explain why there are Orthodox theologians who so easily criticize the scholar of whose ideas they have quite a vague idea, why they so willingly caricature and “correct” his thinking and so inexplicably attribute him the opinions he never held. 

Afanasiev, however, was not naïve. He was aware that in the current situation the involvement of law in the life of the Church is inevitable, which does not mean that law is inherent, absolutely necessary for the Church. He does not suggest replacing the Byzantine, Muscovite or Imperial Russian “reductions of the Church” – to use a favorite term of Schmemann – with an artificially re-constructed “reduction” from the “early Church.” Similarly, he is far from nihilism with regard to the periods of ecclesiastical history following the early Church: “We cannot return to the time of early Christianity, not only because of radically changed historical conditions but also because the experience of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church, accumulated through the passage of time, could not be laid aside.”[52] Afanasiev never claimed to have answers to all questions. His works, although always related to contemporaneous theological agenda, are not ecclesiastical to-do lists but studies inviting further research, reflection and discussion. His major writings, above all The Lord’s Supper and The Church of the Holy Spirit, are creative attempts at responding to the crisis of contemporary Christianity, attempts to keep the Church from further erosion. 

As time passes, it becomes clear to what a great extent Afanasiev was far ahead of his own period. Alexander Schmemann, a student of Afanasiev and a theologian sharing some of his basic intuitions, was one of the few who were fully aware of Afanasiev’s crucial importance for modern Orthodox theology. He wrote that Afanasiev, “when his message is understood and deciphered, will remain for future generations a genuine renovator of ecclesiology.”[53] “When the time to sum up comes, when history ranks everybody in accordance with their real value, it will turn out that the lines he wrote and the paths he explored will be more important and significant than many of those writings that once struck us and preoccupied our minds. In the final account, his not lengthy, always irreproachably constructed, although seemingly a bit dry essays [Schmemann was writing these lines before the posthumous publication of the book The Church of the Holy Spirit] will have greater weight than multitude of other volumes.”[54] The time to sum up came long ago, and we should further explore the ways Afanasiev and Schmemann discovered and proceeded.   

Sobornost, vol. 31.2 (2009).

* This article is a revised version of the Russian original published in Vestnik russkogo khristianskogo dvizheniia 192 (2007). I am very thankful to Fr Michael Plekon for editing my English text.

[1] The two studies in English are representative of the works of this category: Aidan Nichols, OP, Theology in the Russian Diaspora: Church, Fathers, Eucharist in Nikolai Afanas’ev (1893–1966). Cambridge University Press, 1989; and Joseph Aryankalayil, Local Church and Church Universal: Towards a Convergence between East and West: A Study on the Theology of the Local Church according to N. Afanasiev and J. M. R. Tillard with Special Reference to Some of the Contemporary Catholic and Orthodox Theologians. PhD Dissertation, Fribourg, Université de Fribourg, Institut d’études oecuméniques, 2004 (available on the Internet: http://ethesis.unifr.ch/theses/index.php#Theologie; last visited 10/05/08 ). For further special literature on Afanasiev, consult the bibliographies of Nichols and Aryankalayil (pp. 284 and 501–502 respectively). Besides, a useful resource on Afanasiev is a web site maintained by Deacon Andrei Platonov: http://www.golubinski.ru/academia/afanasieffnew.htm (last visited 10/05/2008). Also, Afanasiev deserved an anonymous (?!) entry in the recent Russian Pravoslavnaia Entsiklopediia (Orthodox Encyclopedia), vol. 4, 77 and 78.

[2] Andrew Sopko, Prophet of Roman Orthodoxy: The Theology of John Romanides. Dewdney, B. C.: Synaxis Press, The Canadian Orthodox Publishing House, 1998.

[3] Sopko, 150.

[4] Sopko, 151.

[5] Alexander Schmemann, “Pamiati ottsa Nikolaia Afanasieva” (In Memoriam Fr Nicholas Afanasiev), Vestnik russkogo khristianskogo dvizhenia  82.4 (1966). Available for me in the Internet: http://www.golubinski.ru/academia/afanasieffnew.htm (last visited 10/05/2008).

[6] Sopko, 151.

[7] Nikolai Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo (The Church of the Holy Spirit). YMKA-Press: Paris, 1971, 283. Reprint, Balto-slavianskoe obshchestvo kul’turnogo razvitiia i sotrudnichestva. Riga, 1994. My page references are to the reprint edition. Here and henceforth, I am quoting, with minor changes of my own, the  English translation recently published: Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit. trans. Vitaly Permiakov, ed. with an introduction by Michael Plekon, foreword by Rowan Williams. Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, 257.       

[8] See note 1 above.

[9] Nichols, 163–221.

[10] John Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries. Translated By Elizabeth Theokritoff. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001; and Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

[11] Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church, 17.

[12] Ibid., 36 (n. 47).

[13] Ibid., 17.

[14] Ibid., 17.

[15] Ibid., 258 and 259. Here Zizioulas refers to Afanasiev’s article “The Church Which Presides in Love,” in the first English edition of The Primacy of Peter. London: The Faith Press, 1963, 57–110.

[16] Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church, 259.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nikolai Afanasiev,Una Sancta,” V, 1, in Tradition Alive, ed. Michael Plekon. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 13-15.

[19] For example, this view is repeatedly expressed in Sohm’s work I am familiar with: Tserkovnyi stroi v pervye veka khristianstva. Trans. A. Petrovskii and P. Florenskii. St Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Olega Abyshko, 2005, 43 and 92–94 (which is a reprint of an old Russian translation of Rudolph Zohm, Kirchenrecht, vol. 1, Dei geschichtlichen Grundlage. Leipzig, 1892).

[20] Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo, 281–303; The Church of the Holy Spirit, 255-276.

[21] For more on these concepts, see Alexander Schmeman, Evkharistiia – Tainstvo Tsarstva. Moscow: Palomnik, 1992, 180–191 (chapter 7, sections VI–VIII); The Eucharist: The Sacrament of the Kingdom, trans. Paul Kachur. Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988,  101-170.

[22] Alexander Schmemann, “Towards a Theology of Councils,” St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 6.4 (1962), 178 and 182.

[23] Schmeman, Evkharistiia, 113–117 (chapter 5, section IV).

[24] Nikolai Afanasiev, Trapeza Gospodnia (The Lord’s Supper), ch. 2, III, 4. http://www.golubinski.ru/ecclesia/trapeza_poln.htm (last visited 10.05.2008).

[25] I am familiar with the Russian translation of Zizioulas’ essay: Metropolitan John of Pergamos, “Pomestnaia tserkov’ s tochki zreniia evkharistii (pravoslavnyi vzgliad) (The local church from the point of view of the Eucharist: An Orthodox perspective),” Pravoslavnaja obshchina 16–18 (1993). Available for me on the Internet: http://www.sfi.ru/ar.asp?rubr_id=367&art_id=2741 (last visited 10.05.08). The French original is to be found in Vestnik russkogo zapadno-evropeiskogo patriarshiego ekzarkhata 97-100 (1978), 35-48.

[26] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 23.

[27] Ibid., 23–24.

[28] Nikolai Afanasiev, Vstuplenie v Tserkov’ (Entering the Church). Moscow: Palomnik, 1993, 170 and 171.

[29] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 24–25.

[30] Ibid., 133, n. 21 and 245, n. 111.

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo, 281; Church of the Holy Spirit, 255. Similar formulas occur many times in Afanasiev. For example, cf. Trapeza gospodnia, ch. 1, II, 4 (the last passage of the chapter).

[33] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 155 (including n. 57).

[34] Afanasiev, Una Sancta, V, 4-5.

[35] Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo, 101–102; The Church of the Holy Spirit, 98-99. For one more exposition of the same idea, see Afanasiev, Vstuplenie v Tserkov’, 120–122.

[36] Nichols, 179.

[37] Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church, 126 (including n. 205), and Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 156 (n. 59) and 200–201 (including n. 107). In all the three places, Zizioulas refers to the following article: N. Afanassieff, “La doctrine de la primauté à la lumière de l’ecclèsiologie,” Istina 2 (1957), 401–420. Afanasiev develops the same idea in “Una Sancta” and “The Church Which Presides in Love.”

[38] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 194, n. 83, with reference to Afanasiev’s essay “Réflexions d’un Orthodoxe sur la collegialité des évêques,” Le Messanger Orthodoxe (1965), 7–15.

[39] Nikolai Afanasiev, Uchenie o kollegial’nosti (so storony pravoslavnogo) (The teaching on collegiality: The view of an Orthodox), Pravoslavnaia obshchina 57 (2000).  I used it from the Internet: http://www.sfi.ru/ar.asp?rubr_id=706&art_id=3342 (last visited 10/05/08).

[40] Fransis Dvornik, The Idea of Apostolicity in Byzantium and the Legend of the Apostle Andrew. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958, 39–50 and 62–63.

[41] Zizioulas, Being as Communion,  226, n. 46, with reference to Fr. Nicholas’ article “L’Eglise de Dieu dans le Christ,” Pensée Orthodoxe 13 (1968), 19.

[42] For example, see Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo, 15–17; Church of the Holy Spirit, 13-16.

[43] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 196, n. 91.

[44] Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia), The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, 1997, 338.

[45] John Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminar Press, 1991, 76.

[46] Sopko, 150.

[47] Nicolas Afanassieff. L'Église du Saint-Esprit. Traduit du russe par Marianne Drobot. Préface de Dom O. Rousseau. Paris: Cerf, 1975. See the web site of the editor: http://www.editionsducerf.fr/html/fiche/fichelivre.asp?n_liv_cerf=1137

[48] For some more instances of the criticism of Afanasiev, one can consult Michael Plekon, “Always Everyone and Always Together: The Eucharistic Ecclesiology of Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Lord Supper Revisited,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 41.2-3 (1997), 141–173.

[49] Plekon, 144 and 147 respectively.

[50] Ibid., 145.

[51] Archimandrite Zinon, Besedy ikonopistsa (The Talks of an Icon-Painter). Nizhnii Novgorod: Russkaia provintziia, 1993, 49.

[52] Afanasiev, Tserkov’ Dukha Sviatogo, 283; Church of the Holy Spirit, 256-257.

[53] Alexander Schmemann, “Father Nicholas Afanasiev: In Memoriam,” St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 10. 4 (1966), 209.

[54] Schmemann, “Pamiati ottsa Nikolaia Afanasieva” (In memoriam Fr Nicholas Afanasiev), Vestnik RKhD 82.4 (1966).

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