"I Believe in the Holy Spirit": Ecumenism in the Churches and the Unfinished Agenda of the Holy Spirit

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 1 2 »I Believe In The Holy Spirit Ecumenism In The Churches And The Unfinished Agenda Of The Holy Spirit

By Aloysius Pieris, S.J.

Aloysius Pieris, S.J. is Director of Tulana (Dialogue Center) in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. He earned the first doctorate in Buddhist studies ever awarded a non-Buddhist by the University of Sri Lanka. An indologist and theologian, he has held Chairs in Theology in many universities and has taught on both Catholic and Protestant theological faculties. His many writings include An Asian Theology of Liberation, God’s Reign for God’s Poor, and Mysticism of Service: A Return to Jesus Formula.


LECTURE I The Catholicity of the Oecumene and Holiness Beyond the Church

"I believe in the Holy Catholic Church and in the Communion of Saints"

Introduction: Equal Partners in a Common Mission

I am very grateful to the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), the Ecumenical Institute for Social Development (EISD) and the National Council of Churches (NCC) for having invited me to share my ecumenical vision before such an eminent assembly of church-delegates from all over Asia. The present climate of hope engendered by the cessation of hostilities between the Sri Lankan State and the Tamil Militants has created an appropriate mood for these lectures. For, in the past two decades, the churches in Sri Lanka have been educated by the Holy Spirit in the task of reconciliation and justice, by being drawn, willy-nilly into the whirlpool of conflicts which we had ourselves stirred up through our sinfulness. This experience has persuaded me that all the churches, including those represented here in this gathering, can forge a fruitful fellowship across our fragmented Christianity, if we make a minor change of emphasis in the accepted practice of ecumenism.

By minor change of emphasis, I mean a major step forward, I suggest that the present preoccupation with doctrinal reconciliation between the churches, backed by overt or covert indulgence in inter-communion, be supplemented and even superceded by an inter-ecclesial program of corporate action that is directly grounded in the twofold sending which, despite our divisions, still remains the common apostolic origin of all our churches and the common spiritual foundation of our ecumenism.

The Twofold Sending

The phrase ‘twofold mission’ is an allusion to the Twelve Apostles, literally, ² The Twelve Sent Ones² (from apostellein, to send), namely those sent by Christ in the Father’s name; and equally the Holy Spirit, the One Sent by the Father (Jn 14:26) and by the Son (Jn 15:26), according to the Promise (Congar 1965:105). For, "the Holy Spirit and the Apostles are manifested jointly at Pentecost," as Cardinal Congar avers (1965:119). It is on the basis of this twofold sending that the Christian denominations, now engaged in ecumenical dialogue, could and should call themselves "apostolic churches."

These Two "Sent Ones," namely, the Twelve and the Spirit, acted as equal partners in a common mission, giving us an example of what the Greek Orthodox theologians have called synergy, literally, "co-operation," i.e., operating together. The Twelve adverted to one of their synergetic decisions with this bold announcement: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). The Spirit and the Apostles decided and acted as co-agents (synergoi) of the same mission. This is a precedent we must follow even today.

Synergetic Action

All our churches trace their origin to this nuclear Jesus-Community, the New Israel, symbolically referred to asThe Twelve, which does not replace the First Israel made of Twelve Tribes but shares its hope in the Spirit that was promised by Yahweh and breathed upon us by the Risen Christ. It is by acting synergetically with the Spirit in the mission of Christ, as The Twelve did, that we incessantly re-found ourselves as the New Israel, that is to say, the Church of Christ. This, I believe, is the more profound implication of the much abused phrase, "Apostolic Succession."

If (according to a Mariology that seems less offensive to non-Roman Catholics) Mary is the first disciple of Christ and the model of the Church, or more precisely, the Church-before-its-own-time, then we have another precedent in synergetic action. For, in the earliest creeds, the churches confessed "that the Lord Jesus was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary" (ex pneumatos hagiou kai Marias parthenou), not "by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin" (de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine) as we have begun to say since perhaps the fifth century.1

In the more primitive formula, the Church seems to have confessed that Mary, its own prototype, has acted as a synergos or co-agent with the Spirit in the conception of the redeemer. So was also the nuclear Church called The Twelve, who were synergoi or co-agents with the Spirit in the continuous formation and growth of the Body of Christ on earth.

Hence, I first appeal to the churches of the Roman Communion to abandon the "instrumental theory" of an Aristotelico-Thomistic provenance, which makes us tools, conscious and free no doubt, nevertheless tools in the hands of the Divine agent; I also appeal to the churches of the Reformed Tradition to convince themselves that sola gratia means that we are so gratuitously forgiven as to be elevated into being equal-partners in the Spirit’s re-creative activity; we are so forgiven, which means, we are so filled with Christ’s Spirit, as to qualify (through grace alone) to be Her co-agents, synergoi, in a mission which we share with Her. We and the Spirit are sent together on a mission by our Maternal Father through the Son. It is "being sent together with the Spirit" that makes us the Church. That is why we are co-responsible with the Spirit for this planet and its inhabitants. The Spirit’s agenda is also ours.

The Art of Discernment

Hence, the churches must relearn the ancient art of diakrisis, to use a Pauline term, that is, the art of discerning what the Spirit tells the churches so that we may not "grieve the Spirit" (Eph. 4:30). For, we are accompanied, both as individuals and as the church, by a Divine Person whom the Scriptures have introduced to us not only as our internal Teacher, ready to instruct us (Jn 16:13), and our Comforter standing by us and for us (Jn 14:16), but also our Personal Secretary, so to say, reminding us, as and when required, of what Christ said and did, so that we might speak and act as Christ would wish us to (Jn 14:26; 16:12-15). What highly favored sinners we are to have such an escort, and how unfortunate that we have lost the art of consulting Her.

The re-acquisition of this pristine art of discerning the Spirit should receive top priority in our ecumenical agenda, especially today when the churches, intimidated by the threat of the global market, face an unprecedented challenge which they cannot handle singly. This challenge demands corporate networking as well as active participation at the base in the matter of decision making, policy forming and apostolic visioning, not to mention the obligation to create more effective patterns of thought, witness, and worship. This is a gigantic undertaking which truly imposes on us a spiritual, i.e., Spirit inspired, discernment process, which the churches do not anymore resort to despite the fact that a long tradition of "Discernment of Spirits" supported by centuries of accumulated experience lies hidden in obscure monasteries waiting to be re-discovered and put at the service of churches.

The art of diakrisis is this "silent" variety of charismatic or Pentacostal renewal that can guarantee our synergetic missioning with the Spirit. For "Spirit-possession" is not synergy. The ecstasies and other altered states of consciousness are what St. Paul would have regarded as psychika (mental phenomena) or sarkika(physical phenomena), as these do not necessarily transcend the unredeemed Adam in us. What the apostle desires to see in Christians who claim to experience the Spirit, are the pneumatika, that is to say, events in which human consciousness and human will are fully operative in the Spirit. The "psychic person" (anthropos psykikos) is the natural or Adamic person who cannot discern "the things of the Spirit" (the pneumatika), which, according to Paul can only be "spiritually discerned," pneumatikos anakrinetai (1 Cor 2: 13-14). How slavishly we imitate whatever happened in the Corinthian Church without being guided by the Apostle’s cautionary instructions about such phenomena! The Pentecost we await and the charisma we desire are the gift of discernment, diakrisis, which is the sine qua non of any synergetic partnership with the Spirit.

The Spirit’s Fivefold Agenda

This premised, we can now discuss the five-dimensional activity in which the Spirit and we exercise our synergetic mission within a process of a continuous discernment. These five fields of synergy have been enumerated in the Apostle’s Creed as part of our faith in the Holy Spirit. In this creed, the churches, from very early times, have proclaimed their faith not only in God who created and God’s Son who redeemed, but also in God’s Spirit who has resumed these same divine activities and continues them along a five-dimensional perspective. Our own commitment to these five tasks is part and parcel of the proclamation of our faith in the Holy Spirit! For, the confession "I believe in the Holy Spirit" is immediately followed by the five items in the Spirit’s as well as our ongoing missionary agenda:


The holy Catholic Church
The communion of saints
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
And life everlasting.


My discussion will cover only the first four fields of our synergetic action. The fifth and last item, "life everlasting" is left out, not because I have imposed an unfinished agenda on myself, but because "life everlasting" is the eschatological horizon within which all the other four activities take place.

In this lecture I take up the first two items in the Spirit’s agenda and ours: the holy Catholic Church and the communion of saints. In other words, my reflections focus on the holiness and catholicity of the Church in terms of its obligation to commune with all holy persons, even beyond its visible boundaries. Furthermore, this discourse is a theoretical clarification made in view of something more programmatic which I shall offer in my second and final lecture.

The theme, the holy Catholic Church and the communion of saints, can be summed up under two overlapping captions:


Part One: Holiness within a Communion of Saints is the Catholicity of the Church
Part Two: Catholicity is the globalized holiness of God’s Reign of Justice
Part One: Holiness in the Communion of Saints as the Catholicity of the Church


The Marks of the Church

The Apostles’ Creed mentions holiness and catholicity as the "marks" or distinguishing characteristics of the Church. They are the imprint of the Spirit authenticating a Jesus-Community. The subsequent creedal formulae such as the ones of Nicene and Constantinople have added a couple more such "marks," in response to the needs of the times. We, too, can increase the number today, following the example of Martin Luther, who had listed seven additional marks of the Church over and above those given in the Creeds (Moltmann 1992:340).

My intention is not to multiply such signs of the Church according to "the needs of our time," but re-interpret them according to "the spirit of our times," that is, according to what the Spirit says to the churches of today. It is an exercise in discernment.

Holiness (qodes in Hebrew; adjective qados, and verb qades) is strictly an exclusive attribute of God, extended in a cultic context to places, things and persons in terms of God’s own holiness. The Temple is holy because God who is worshipped there is holy. Each one of us is holy because we are each consecrated by God’s own holy Spirit to be Her Temple; the churches are Holy for the same reason.

Now, it is clear that this holiness depends on God’s presence. The Temple of Jerusalem was meant to be a holy Place, but it was turned into "a den of thieves" in Luke (19:46) and "a business house" oikon emporiou in John (2:16) because the doney-demon had usurped Yahweh’s place. The Spirit consecrates and mammon desecrates. Thus holiness is intimately connected with the renunciation of mammon, the absolutized capital. This means that evangelical poverty advocated for all disciples of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is not an optional extra for those seeking perfection but the basic qualification to enter and serve in God’s Reign. Thus a Holy Church is essentially a poor Church, that is, a Church that has visibly and palpably renounced mammon’s rule for the sake of God’s Reign.

This being an ecumenical gathering, I wish to enlist the support of Juergen Moltmann in this matter, for he is a Lutheran theologian who is as critically loyal to the Reformed Churches as he is constructively critical of the Roman Communion. The Church is holy in its poverty, he argues, a poverty which is made manifest (a) when the Church humbly and openly confesses its own sinfulness and repentance and (b) when it courageously and visibly professes its solidarity with the poor and the oppressed (1992:352-57).

I shall develop this insight of his without, of course, implicating him in the many comments and complementary reflections which I offer here.

Holiness as the Poverty of Forgiven Sinners

The first kind of poverty, which serves as the sign of the Church’s holiness, paradoxically, is its sinfulness, a sinfulness that the Church humbly shares with the rest of humankind. Our solidarity with the rest of sinners qualifies us to present ourselves as a people forgiven and sanctified just as the rest of sinners are. Our churches are only a sacrament of what God is doing universally. The holiness of the Church, which is never complete until the end-time, is the readable sign of a communion of saints that embraces potentially the whole of humankind. In other words, we are not holy above others nor holier than others. Rather, we are called to witness to the source of that holiness which is universally, i.e., catholically, operative. To all manifestations of holiness outside the Church, we say "yes" through a visibly repentant humility. This is at once our poverty and our sanctity.

To sum up: The churches are holy only in the sense that they are a discernible expression of and a living witness to a universal offer of forgiveness, that is to say, a visible proof of the free availability of the Spirit for all God’s creatures in mysterious ways known only to Her. After all, this forgiving love of God, which has carved a date in human history in Christ crucified sub Pontio Pilato, is none other than the very Spirit of Christ "poured out on all flesh" (Joel 2:28) in view of a Communion of Saints cutting across and beyond ecclesiastical frontiers and, therefore, Catholic in its inclusiveness.

Thus, the churches express their holiness, that is, their being ceaselessly forgiven, each time any one of them, prompted by the Spirit, acknowledges their sinfulness and ask pardon from their victims. Moltmann cites the instance of the Protestant churches in Germany after the World War II and the churches in the former colonial countries making a public admission of guilt in a visible spirit of repentance. A similar gesture was made by John Paul II at the end of the Millennium.

The most dramatic act of reconciliation, manifesting "a poverty in spirit," is attributed to Paul VI vis-à-vis the Greek Orthodox Church. He did not stop at merely revoking the Bull of excommunication on Constantinople which, in 1054, Cardinal Humbert, as a Legate of Pope Leo IX (who was already dead by that time), laid on the altar of St Sophia; no, Paul VI went further. In 1975, during a Eucharistic celebration commemorating the tenth anniversary of his own revocation of that excommunication, this Pope, reportedly,

fell on his knees before the Metropolitan Meliton, the envoy of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and kissed his feet. With all the more reason Paul VI said, "We are beginning a new phase of our reconciliation with the common will that it may be the conclusive one" (Fernandez 1989:39-40).

Holiness, therefore, is the opposite of Pharisaic self-righteousness; it is the "spiritual poverty of the repentant sinner," the humility of the publican who went home justified (Lk 18: 10-14). We, the churches, are summoned to witness to this brand of holiness in the Spirit’s agenda for ecumenism, that the world may know that we have been sent to the world escorted by the Spirit of Christ (see Jn 17:21) for the forgiveness of sins!

Holiness as Solidarity with the Poor

Moltmann’s second observation on "Holiness in Poverty" can be formulated as follows: our co-victimhood with Christ crucified, witnessed to in our solidarity with the poor of this earth (i.e., our identification with the victims of injustice) is the most efficacious sign of our holiness. For the saints that the Church revered, observes Moltmann, were the martyrs, "who in the visible fellowship of the crucified Jesus, testified to his invisible glory."

The friends of Jesus, who were called to discipleship and the messianic mission, left everything and became poor for the Kingdom’s sake. The church in Jerusalem was called the "poor saints at Jerusalem" (Rom.15:26). Paul collected money for them in Macedonia and Achaia. Christ himself "whom God made our sanctification" "for your sake became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8: 9). The Church is therefore sanctified where it participates in the lowliness, helplessness, poverty and suffering of Christ. Its (the church’s) glory is manifested through the sign of poverty (1992:355).

In light of these observations of Moltmann, let me draw your attention to the beatitudes where Jesus simply speaks of the poor as such, without using any label, religious or otherwise. If one is poor, one is his disciple. The Reign of God is of the poor.

But there are two categories of poor mentioned in the Gospels.2 Mathew’s beatitudes mention the "the poor in spirit"; Luke speaks of "the poor." They are, respectively, the detached ones and the dispossessed ones. The former have become poor voluntarily for the sake of God’s Reign, by whatever name it is recognized and named, whereas the latter have been forced to be poor under mammon’s rule of terror. While the detached ones seek and find God’s Reign, it is God’s Reign that seeks and finds the dispossessed ones. The first category of the poor renounce their own riches; the second denounce their own poverty. Their common struggle finds a holy alliance only in a Reign of Justice. It is this holy alliance for justice that constitutes the communion of saints, to which the churches are called to testify in word, deed and life-style. In no other way can a church call itself holy.

Add to this the fact that the vast majority of the poor of both categories are non-Christians, here, in Asia. The Spirit that is poured out on all flesh, according to the promise, has been animating this non-Christian Body of Christ. For, Christ gathers both the renouncers of mammon (the detached) and the victims of mammon (the dispossessed) as his own corporate Person, passing the end-time judgment on the nations through them (Mt 25:36ff and parallels).

Here we face a serious dilemma between the Church’s claim to be the Body of Christ, as declared by Paul, and Christ’s claim that the victims of nations are his "Me" (you did it to me), his "person," his true Body. The only solution to this dilemma is for the Church to identify itself with such victims and become one Body with them so that it may become one Body with Christ. Indeed, the Church is branded with the mark of holiness each time the Spirit groaning in the victims of mammon is heard and recognized in all that it claims to teach with Christ’s authority.

Conclusion? The "struggle to be poor" and "the struggle for the poor" together define the holiness that the Spirit and we have pledged together to globalize into a Communion of Saints. It is this that we term catholicity, that other mark of the true Church of Christ. Catholicity is not just any kind of ² mark" of a Church; it is a scar that mars a Church in the eyes of mammon-worshippers, a wound borne by a Church which is crucified in the process of struggling with the Spirit to globalize the holiness of God’s Reign of Justice in response to the cry of the poor.

Part Two: Catholicity: The Globalized Holiness of God’s Reign of Justice

"Catholicity" is the most elusive of the marks attributed to the Church. The word has a strange history. In Greek, the meaning of katholikos ranges from "complete" through "all-embracing" ("common to all") to "that which is right and proper." This last mentioned usage began to dominate from the third century onwards and, consequently, catholicity became synonymous with "truth" or "orthodoxy." As a result, the ecclesia catholica, which was guaranteed State protection by the Imperial Edict of 380, came to be recognized as the one, true, lawful Church of the Empire. Here the expression "Catholic" has ceased to mean "universal" or "all-embracing" and has acquired a restrictive confessionalist connotation, as Christine Lienemann-Perrin laments (2000:60).

Catholicity as Pentecost

Today I wish to draw your critical attention to the growing tendency among the churches to associate catholicity with the imperative need for inculturation. This is an understandable reaction to the above mentioned confessionalism (2000:63ff). I do not underestimate the importance of this trend at this time in history, nor do I doubt the validity of the criticism, which Reformed Christians have leveled against the Roman Catholic Church’s unCatholic imposition of its romanitas and latinitas on the churches of Western Europe, in stark contrast with the Orthodox tradition in Eastern Europe; and as a member of that same Church, which calls itself Roman Catholic, I appreciate and fully endorse the charge that its policy of Romanization and Latinization even outside Europe amounts to a "confessionalism" that negates its catholicity (2000:64-67). Though in full agreement with this position, I wish, nevertheless, to suggest that today our zeal for restoring catholicity to our churches, or regenerating it, must be kindled by the same fire of love that descended like tongues on the apostles ( Acts 2:.3).

To make my point clearer, I wish to recall why Pope John XXIII invoked the theme of Pentecost when he convoked the Great Ecumenical Council of our era, Vatican II. The agenda he had envisaged for the Council was a response to the "signs of the times," a phrase by which he meant a response to "what the Spirit is saying to the churches." He proposed a three-pronged program. In the light of a commentary offered by Gustavo Gutierrez on this papal program (Gutierrez 1987:171-93), I can boldly say and even demonstrate that the Pope was offering all churches a new understanding of catholicity.

The three overlapping concerns of the Pope seemed to imply the criticism that the Roman Church had been distanced from contemporary history, distanced also from the other churches, and finally distanced from the poor. The Pentecost he prayed and hoped for the Church consisted of bridging the distance in each of these three areas.

The bridging of the Church with the modern world was what the Pope called aggiornamento. It was his summons to recover a long lost catholicity; that is to say, a call to update the obsolete language in which the Church has been communicating (or rather, not communicating) for centuries in the areas of doctrine, lifestyle, and worship. The Church must leave the ghetto and learn to speak a language which each nation, each culture, each religion, each generation, and each gender in the world today can understand. Catholicity is the gift of tongues, not shouting out unintelligible things but communicating an understandable Word, as the Scriptures counsel us (1 Cor 14:1-19)! It amounts to the globalization of a communication system whereby the language of love which God speaks through the life, death, and resurrection of both Jesus and his co-victims, is universally taught by the Spirit of Christ.

As for the task of bridging the Roman Church with other churches, the Council made an ecumenical leap across several centuries of separation. The descent of the Spirit, synergetically accompanied by arduous human labor of the Council Fathers, accounts for the catholicity that emerged when the Roman Church minimized the language barrier that divided it from other churches on several important issues, such as the ministry in the Church and the priesthood of the faithful, the delicate question of Scripture and Tradition, the centrality of the Word of God in the Church’s liturgy and life, the place of Mary in the economy of salvation, to name only the major ones. These irreversible changes heralded the dawn of a catholicity to be shared by anecclesia ecclesiarum, an oecumene that will tolerate neither a Roman absorption of other churches nor a fruit-salad Christianity that would equally destroy historical identities of churches. Catholicity is an oneness which is so prolifically creative in the Spirit as to purge the churches of all homogeneity and uniformity as a violation of their holiness.

Catholicity and the World’s Poor

The third and last item in the Pope’s agenda harbored the most explosive notion of catholicity, a kind of ecclesiological bombshell which John XXIII dropped on the Council, significantly on 11 September 1962. The full import of this radical stance of the Pope can be missed even by this audience, as it certainly was then, if we do not take into account his strong appeal for social justice that prefaced this far-reaching ecclesiological statement. He began by insisting first on the equality of all people in the exercise of their rights and duties, then on the inviolability of the family, and finally on the obligation to replace individualism with social responsibility, and then he added:

"…. confronted with the underdeveloped countries, the church presents itself as what she is and wants to be: as the church of all, and particularly, the church of the poor" (Gutierrez, 179).

The Church of all, and particularly of the poor in the face of global poverty is the definition of catholicity we proposed when we observed that the Church becomes catholic only when the contradiction between the Church’s claim (to be the Body of Christ) and Christ’s claim (that the victims of injustice are His Body) is reconciled by the Church becoming co-extensive with the two categories of the Poor, who are covenanted with God in Christ.3 Thus, the Church has to stretch itself beyond ecclesiastical frontiers to embrace the holiness, which God and the poor covenanted as was offered in Christ. The Church of all, (not merely a Church for all) particularly of the poor (not merely for the poor) is truly a Catholic Church. All as all, and the poor as poor; no religious label attached. Church is called to embrace all in order to embrace Christ.

Gutierrez adds a postscript. The Council fathers were enthusiastic about the first two items of the papal agenda, aggiornamento and ecumenism; but the Pope’s reference to the poor prefaced by his insistence on equality of all humans and on social responsibilities that bind all persons towards the poor did not leave an ostensible impact in the Conciliar documents. I am forced to observe that the churches were not yet disposed to receive the marks of holiness and catholicity from the world’s poor!

Providentially, the Christians of the poor countries, especially Latin America took up the Pope’s challenge. The little churches of the poor, called base communities, began to mushroom. Through the Medellin Meeting, the World Church began to hear of the art of renewing the Church from below, from Basic Christian Communities of the poor. Their impact was clearly registered in the Roman Synod of 1971, where the growing conviction in the churches of the poor countries that bringing justice to the poor is a constitutive dimension of preaching the gospel to the poor, became a common teaching.

By this time, quite independently of the Catholic movements, the Asian Protestants had come out with Minjung theology in Korea and Dalit theology in India. At the same time, the Asian theologies of liberation, initially inspired by their Latin American precedents, started gathering momentum. The EATWOT (the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians) became the ecumenical rallying point of all these movements in which increasing groups of Christians took their stand with God among the poor, making God’s standpoint their own viewpoint in all their God-Talk. Here, the Asian women have now joined hands with other women’s movements in the third world, combining the struggle to depatriarchalize civil society with the sacred ambition to purge the churches of their androcracy.

But alas! All this is a drop in the ocean, a scratch on the surface, a storm in a teacup. Our churches are big bodies, are they not? And a big body, like the hippopotamus, moves very slowly. This inertia has evoked despondency among the activists, disappointment among the poor, and disdain in the secular advocates of social justice.

We know the reason. The Spirit is estranged from the churches, and all synergetic action seems to have grinded to a halt. For, there is an attractive beast around, as it used to be in the first century of the first millennium. At that time, the attractive beast was Rome’s imperial splendor which thrived on a cruel economic system: its massive highways and chariots, its colossal arenas of violent entertainment exhibiting mass hedonism… were all maintained by the ruthless machine of slavery. So attractive was this Roman beast that Jesus’ warning against its pomp and purple, "it shall not be so among you" (see Lk 22:25-27), had become an outdated counsel. No wonder the later writings of the New Testament show the churches to be less uncomfortable with patriarchy and slavery, the two indices of Roman imperialism.

What the Spirit said to the churches, then, seems equally familiar today, to those who have ears to hear: salvation comes, not from the attractive beast, but from the Lamb that is slain. Not from the money-demon that devours even the churches, but from the dispossessed on whose graves its diabolical altar stands. Not from the global market, but from its human merchandize. Not from the high priests of mammon’s temple, but from the victims they sacrifice in it. Not from the production machine of the Capital, but from the human waste that issues from it.

This is the Spirit’s call to globalize our faith and hope in the Communion of Saints—saints martyred by this ubiquitous anti-God. As the recent history in Mexico, tribal India, Pakistan, and in many other places has illustrated, only the churches that are stained by the blood of the slain Lamb and scarred by the claws of the attractive beast, bear the authenticating marks of the Spirit: holiness and catholicity.


"I believe in the Forgiveness of Sins and
the Resurrection of the Body"

Reconciliation and Justice for a New Heaven and a New Earth

Sri Lanka has acquired notoriety, among other things, for having produced the first Asian Catholic to be excommunicated precisely for his views about the topic we are about to discuss today. I see, therefore, an historic necessity to clarify this question about "forgiveness of sins" and "the justification of the sinner" without severing my communion with Rome!4 This risk notwithstanding, I lament the fact that neither the Roman nor the reformed churches have been courageous enough to acknowledge that their unresolved dispute about "justification" is based on a questionable premise which both parties had assumed. As a result of this false start, the whole question of reconciliation and inter-human justice has disappeared from their disputatious discourse on sin and salvation.

Two Inadequate Perspectives on Sin and Forgiveness

The Pauline discourse on Adam’s sin and Christ’s redemption, already explained by Paul himself in the legal terms of the Torah, were transmitted to later generations of Christians in the Latin forensic theology of "guilt and acquittal." May I say that the Protestants have been infected by this species of forensic Romanism more than they are prepared to admit? I say this because their justifiable rejection of post-medieval scholasticism was not accompanied by a repudiation of the Latin mentality that animated it. They, too, were using Rome’s jurisprudential idiom of "guilt" and "acquittal." So profound was the impact of Latin jurisprudence on the theological mood of the Church, that neither the Protestants nor the Catholics stopped to think of an alternative model.

Yet, as late as the Reformation period, there was at least one alternative model which had survived Latin juridicism but had failed, understandably, to enter the mainstream of theology. It was the therapeutic model of the Antiochean school, going back to Chrysostom. This biblico-patristic paradigm had been preserved by the Benedictines of the Congregazione Casinese, a concatenation of monastic communities that stretched from Sicily to France through Spain. Luther’s Germany, unfortunately, might not have been aware of its existence.

This theology had a therapeutic orientation, as I have already said. It understood "salvation" in terms of "health, wholeness and wholesomeness" as the Greek verb sozo and Latin noun salus would suggest. It presented the effect of Adam’s sin as mortality rather than guilt. It was "eternal death" that Christ’s grace delivered us from, they argued. But the "healing process" by which our fatally wounded nature is restored to wholeness and wholesomeness is left to our faith and good works.

At the Council of Trent, the melting pot of the Counter-Reform, some Catholic theologians including the Benedictines Chiari and Ottoni pleaded for a switch over from the juridical model of the Latin scholastics with its emphasis on guilt, punishment, and acquittal, to the therapeutic language proper to the Patristic paradigm preserved in the Antiochean school; such a change of paradigm, they argued, would obviate the imminent Western Schism. But they were shouted down by the majority in the Council, accused of being biased towards Protestantism. How tragic!5

There is another serious deficiency in the Reformation theology, which needs to be amended before we can forge an ecumenical fellowship of churches capable of partnering the Spirit in the eschatological mission of reconciling humans through justice (= "forgiveness of sins") as well as that of transforming the earth (= "resurrection of the body"). Here, let me once more allow Juergen Moltmann to do the talking for me (Moltmann, 1991:44ff).

The Reformers, in Moltmann’s analysis, have taken Paul’s theology of sin and justification unilaterally without complementing it with Jesus’s praxis of dealing with sin and sinners as evidenced in the Gospels. This one-sided approach accounts for "Luther’s erroneous judgment in the German Peasants’ War." The dominant Protestant theology has focused on the perpetrators of sinful actions and their forgiveness; it has not been sensitive enough to recognize the suffering of the victims of such sinful activity as well as their passive sins; it completely ignored "God’s judging and saving ‘option for the poor’"(Moltmann 1991:48).

Justice: Roman and Biblical

Let me now leave Moltmann and the Reformers and come to my own Church. The Catholic problem is not taking a partial view of the biblical soteriology, as the Protestants have done, but a wholesale exchange of the Scriptural teaching on justice for a species of legal justice inherited from the Roman Empire. It was this notion of justice that had gradually evolved into the West’s human-rights discourse now accepted in almost all the countries.6 Passing through the Aristotelico-Thomistic mill in the middle ages, this notion of justice not only solidified its juridical character but also sunk permanent roots in Rome’s official theology as one of the four cardinal virtues, i.e., one of the four purely human virtues around which human morality revolved. This is one of the many instances in which Roman Catholicism has departed from the biblical stance.

We know that, in the bible, justice is not juridical nor is it human in origin. Rather it is one of the four cardinal characteristics of Yahweh: namely, love, fidelity, righteousness, and justice. These are recurrently mentioned in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, as divine attributes which God’s people are also called to emulate. For, this justice and righteousness of God, as much as Her love and fidelity, register a strong and unabashedly overt bias towards the victims of injustice. For there is a covenant, i.e., a defense pact between God and the poor, i.e., with those victimized on the basis of class, creed, caste, color, culture, gender, or language. This covenantal justice is not the justice that Roman theology speaks about, even today.

It is true that, in the Roman Synod of 1971, the Catholics redefined their mission as Proclamation of Faith through Promotion of Justice. But in their still medieval mentality, what they mean by justice is what the Roman law has defined for them, a human virtue, which is contrasted with faith, a theological virtue. In the subsequent decades, Catholic activists who took this teaching seriously were accused of neglecting the divine dimension of faith in favor of a human commitment to justice.

Pope John Paul II tried to resolve the conflict in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, appealing to mercy as a mitigating factor to be introduced in meting out justice.7 It was an attempt at curing the symptom rather than removing the cause of the ailment. Once our notion of justice is rigidly legal, then such an appeal to mercy is legitimate, but it does not solve the problem unless the notion of justice is completely revised. That is why Desmond Tutu rejected the retributive justice of the West in favor of restorative justice of his Ubuntu tradition (Tutu 1999:32). For in the Roman theory of justice, now evolved into the human rights discourse, there is no room for forgiveness as required by Yahweh’s justice.

Jesus himself has given us a precedent in this regard. If he hurled the "love above the law" or the "mercy above justice" argument against the Scribes and Pharisees, it was because the latter interpreted justice in purely legalistic terms (Mt 9:13; 12:7; 18:33; 23:23), and not because he accepted their narrow notion of justice; on the contrary, he wanted his disciples to excel in another kind of justice (Mt 5:20) which was also known in Israel. This is the righteousness and justice of Yahweh which is inseparably linked with his love and fidelity. In other words, mercy and forgiveness are not added to Yahweh’s justice as a corrective; but are constitutive dimensions of Her justice which includes forgiveness of sins and cancellation of debts.

God’s justice, in other words, is not the Roman justice of rigorous equity before a law that served only the non-salves of the Empire. On the contrary, the law by which God metes out justice is the covenant between God and the slaves, between God and the defenseless.

Justice of God and Forgiveness of Sins

Let us note, however, that the Scriptural revelation of God’s modus judicandi makes a smooth transition from the Old to the New Testament through the Servant Songs of Isaiah. In Israel, God’s mercy is revealed in God’s judgment in favor of the poor. God’s misphat and sedeqa, i.e., righteousness and justice, are saturated with Her other two divine characteristics, hesed, Her love towards the weak, and emet, Her fidelity to the covenant with the weak.

In the Servant Songs of Isaiah, there is a further development. There, God’s merciful justice that defends the poor is seen in the Messiah who is himself the victim. According to Isaiah, 1:17, he "will judge the poor with righteousness and bring justice for the meek of the earth"; In Isaiah, 42:1, God’s Spirit rests on the Messiah that he may "bring forth justice to the nations." It is to bring God’s merciful justice to the world that the Messiah becomes the victim of injustice. He triumphs by his sufferings; he saves by taking upon himself the iniquities of others.

No wonder the compilers of the New Testament could not understand nor explain adequately to their contemporaries what Jesus did and taught, and what he suffered and died for, simply by appealing to any other messianic model such as David or Moses, or even some of the prophets. Jesus crucified is the Suffering Messiah: in him God is violated together with all the victims of injustice; in him, this violated God offers the oppressors a gruesome indication as to whom they oppress when they oppress the weak; in him, a bleeding God calls for repentance and amendment; and what is more, this defeated God gives hope to the vanquished by rising with them, inviting them to join Her in declaring amnesty to their oppressors in view of their possible and desirable conversion. This then is forgiveness of sins, an outpouring of the Spirit by the Victim-God whose love defies death and survives it. Forgiveness of sins is the Resurrection.

Here, I once again return to Moltmann (Tutu, 53). The Western Church’s atonement theology, he avers, revolves exclusively around the death of Christ and not his resurrection, while resurrection is interpreted only as the divine authentification of Christ. Moltmann contrasts this with the Orthodox Tradition which "has proclaimed forgiveness at the Easter festival and celebrated Easter as the great feast of atonement." Hence, he confronts the Western tradition with Paul’s Christology "according to which Christ has died for us but much more (pollo mallon) is risen for us (Rom. 5.10). The Resurrection transforms our knowledge of the past into a hope in a sure future. Something more lies ahead.

Harping on the past, even atonement for past sins, is not the ultimate Christian ideal. For the Old has passed away (2 Cor 5:17). Forgiveness of sins means resurrection of the body. There is more in the future waiting for our active involvement than the past can offer with the blame resting on oneself or on others. Reconciliation, not remorse. Restoration, not simply retribution. Forgiveness of the past ensures hope for a certain future. In this country at this time nothing more is demanded of the churches than preaching and witnessing to a forgiveness that culminates in a New Creation.

The Mission of Christ and the Mission Mandate

This premised, we can now discuss the two facets of the mission mandate, which we and the Spirit have received together, namely, the Forgiveness of Sins guaranteeing the Resurrection of the Body. This mission cannot be detached from Jesus’ own mission, which Jesus himself, anointed by the Spirit, spelt out in the Synagogue of Nazareth. For the mandate to baptize nations and make disciples of them is grossly misinterpreted as a charter for proselytism when it is ruthlessly severed from the source of that Eternal Mandate, namely, the mission for which Jesus was anointed by the Spirit (Lk 4:18-19), and therefore, the mission for which we too are anointed by the same Spirit:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me
He sent me to announce the good news to the poor
(to heal the brokenhearted)
To preach deliverance to the captives
And sight to the blind
To set free the oppressed (tethrausmenos)
And declare the acceptable Year of the Lord.

The mandate to baptize and make disciples of nations cannot and should not be taken out of this context, namely, the mission of liberation directed clearly to the poor, the broken hearted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The crowning point of his mission manifesto is the proclamation of "the acceptable Year of the Lord," i.e., the Jubilee ruling on the "release of debtors from their debts" which included an ecological amnesty to land and animals! Periodic release of debts among humans and amnesty to infra-human nature was the guarantee that among a people who have Yahweh as their sole Sovereign, the land, which was their means of production, was not desecrated by excessive exploitation, private appropriation, and unfair distribution.

It is noteworthy that in Luke’s version of the Our Father, the notion of "release of debts" alternates with the notion of "forgiveness of sins," which, therefore, indicate their semantic identity. The literal translation of Lk 11:4 is "Release us from our sins, for indeed, we relieve everyone who is indebted to us." It is, therefore, not farfetched to conclude that the forgiveness of sins that Jesus brings with him coincides with the end-time year of grace, or the Jubilee Year of universal amnesty, when the land itself will also rise into an eternally restful Sabbath together with the resurrected humanity.

Forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of all things are, respectively, the negative and positive expressions of our mission, which, therefore, involve a massive socio-political commitment to the oppressed, a concerted engagement of all churches in the exaltation of the lowly, the resurrection of the dead, and the regeneration of an Eden out of a desecrated earth, a communion of saints who possess the whole earth as the inviolable temple of their unending worship. This is the unfinished agenda of the Spirit.

Baptism and Discipleship of Nations

It is in the perspective of this unfinished missionary agenda that I wish to understand the command to baptize nations and make disciples of them. Let us disinfect our notions of baptism, nations, and disciples from the venomous zeal for proselytism.

Did not Jesus criticize and even ridicule proselytism or conversion from one religion to another in Mt 23:15? Jesus’ call was to change one’s ways (metanoia, shub) and not to change one’s religion. He invites all to abandon slavish dependence on creatures (idolatry) and to enjoy the freedom that comes from sole dependence on God, our maternal Father. This beatitudinal spirituality of Jesus is, naturally, couched in a strongly theistic idiom, whereas Buddhists and Hindus, for instance, have a non-theistic version of it inalpecchata and vairagya. In either case, it is our rejection of every form of idolatry that constitutes conversion. Those who renounce the worship of creatures are his disciples. The Kingdom belongs to the poor.

In this sense, we can understand what it means to "make disciples of nations." In the earlier strata of the Bible, it is generally admitted that a rough distinction is made between a nation (goy/ethnos) and a people (‘am/laos). The implicit conviction seemed to have been that "nations" are groups of persons who do not recognize Yahweh as their sovereign, but worship idols or baals and other false gods of the oppressive rulers and, therefore, constitute unjust societies. A "people," on the other hand, is formed when Yahweh, the defender of the poor, reigns as their sole sovereign, thus guaranteeing justice. In the Reign of Yahweh, who is the God of the oppressed, no other god is allowed to rule. For in the Bible idolatry is associated with injustice.

Perhaps, we can infer from this that a nation becomes a people when it abandons idolatry. Thus, to make a disciple of a nation, say, our nation, is for the churches to participate in its own struggle to break down the false gods, the baals, the moloks that it has enthroned, that is to say, relativize the good things that it has absolutized, such as gender, race, language, money, culture, land, and even religion.

This struggle against idols is a risky enterprise entailing an inevitable social conflict which necessarily risks political reprisal. This is what baptism is. Baptism was Jesus’ term for his own assassination on the Cross, as well as the identical or similar fate awaiting his disciples (Mk chapters 8 and 9). It is in participating in his baptism that we become his disciples. The social-conflict culminating in his baptism was the direct result of his zeal for Yahweh’s Reign. What is true of an individual disciple is true of a nation. No nation can be "baptized" into discipleship unless it dies as a nation with all its idols and rises as a people enjoying peace through justice. This death and resurrection of a nation is its baptism. Such baptism which delivers it from its bondage to mammon, i.e., from sin and slavery, is the guarantee of its discipleship.

A New Heaven and a New Earth

The arduous task of baptizing the nations and making them disciples in the manner described above cannot be globalized by the churches without also making the earth from which we are made partake in this death and resurrection. Here, we are dealing with a concept unique to biblical religions: the final renewal of all creation as an indispensable accompaniment of life everlasting.

For, when we confess "I believe in the resurrection of the body," we pledge to do our part in the dawn of a new heaven and a new earth. The phrase "heaven and earth" refers to this world-system, for we have no other world where we can go to as to a "heaven." This world has to be transformed through our bodily resurrection into a new creation, which is our future which dawns from God when we with Her Spirit do our part of this humanly impossible task.

However, we cannot believe in the resurrection of all creation without believing in our bodiliness. The Greco-Roman worldview, through which our understanding of Christianity has been filtered, has taught us to think that we have bodies. This means that we are different from our bodies. But the resurrection of the body is nonsense if we do not accept the biblical view that we are our bodies. The Greek philosophers have taught us that the Spirit is what guarantees union among humans, whereas matter (body) divides us into separate individuals. But the Bible teaches us the exact opposite: it is the Spirit in us that calls each one of us into an individual identity while the body involves us in socio-physical solidarity with other humans and with nature. The body is the human person epitomizing as well as linking up the whole of creation. Therefore, we cannot have life everlasting in the Spirit without our bodiliness, i.e., without the whole physical universe being resurrected into a new heaven and a new earth.

This "Mission Impossible" is an article of our faith and the sure horizon of our hope because the Spirit of God is at work with us. We have to restore health to a fatally sick world, as the Antiochian theology tells us. Were we not given this world as a garden of delight to be enjoyed, and have we not turned it into a hospital of incurable diseases? The care of our bodies is jeopardized because we have poisoned the earth. We have hurt our bodies by hurting nature. The power-hunger of the serpent within us has turned the paradise of plenty into a desert of want, where only a wasteful few live in oases of affluence.

No wonder Jesus prepared himself for his mission by visiting the desert that we have created, where he showed us how to re-create the paradise by resisting the three destructive forces within us and among us: (a) the abuse of one’s powers to satisfy one’s own selfish wants (stones into bread); (b) the inclination to bow down before any agent who brings power and wealth (devil on the mountain), and (c) tempting God by resorting to exhibitionist actions that nature forbids as having lethal consequences (jump from the pinnacle). Here we have three don’ts which, if observed, can ensure our enduring involvement in the unfinished agenda of the Spirit: namely, the recreation of this universe as the risen Body of Christ. Our immediate and initial task in this agenda, therefore, roughly corresponds to the three don’ts of the New Adam, and can be summed up as the attempt to transform the planet earth into something of what the Creator meant it to be, already here and now, namely,

(a) A Home with One Table, where the gifts of creation are enjoyed together by all its inhabitants, where some do not gorge while others starve (1 Cor. 11. 21);

(b) A Temple of Worship and a House of Prayer where mammon is given no chance to turn it into a "Den of Robbers" (Lk 19:46) or an "Open Market" (Jn 2:16);

(c) A Garden of Delight where Creation remains the "enjoyable Icon" of the Creator’s beauty, which is the desired fruit of liberating wisdom, rather than "a monstrous idol" of technocracy which is the forbidden fruit ofpower-generating knowledge (Gen 3:1ff).

Appendix: The Response to a Question Raised during the Discussion

The Question: "Can your understanding of baptism and discipleship of nations be reconciled with the conversion movement that the apostles began immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2)?" The Answer consisted of referring to two very significant facts which make that precedent in the Acts not necessarily applicable in our part of the globe, in our times, and in that same manner.

The first is the peculiar situation in the Mediterranean region during the time of Acts 2, a situation which radically differs from what we experience in South Asia today. In the post-Pentecostal decades, the religion of the Romans and the Greeks was on the wane and there was a spiritual vacuum which, providentially, served as the entry-point for Christ’s message of liberation into the then known civilized world. Our situation here is quite the opposite. It is traditional Christianity that is in crisis. Here the non-Christian religions are not on the decline but very much self-assertive and spiritually capable of inculcating the anti-idolatrous beatitudinal spirituality, notwithstanding the persistence of many negative elements (which are not absent also in Christianity).

Add to this the second fact, which is even more significant: the five-hundred year old failure of Christianity to convert the masses in this part of the globe, in contrast with its cent per cent successes in Latin America, Philippines, and Oceania!8 This phenomenon must serve as a "sign of the time." In order to read what the Spirit is saying to the churches through this remarkable datum of history, and act according to that reading, we could follow a precedent recorded in that same Book of the Acts: the radically revolutionary decision not to impose circumcision on gentiles. As an "essential" initiation rite, circumcision in Israel parallels baptism in the Church. What authority did the apostles have to change this sacrosanct obligation issuing from the revealed law of God?

Here, the Spirit and the apostles made a synergetic decision. The "power of binding and loosing," which Israel’s leaders claimed to have received from God, was the authority to determine halakkah, i.e., to decide what practices should be followed by the community (stern 1994: Introduction, xxiii), rather than what new dogmas should be imposed on the believers. This very same authority of "binding and losing" was given by Christ to his disciples, obviously as the power of discretion in the matter of making policy changes in the praxis of the Church. The apostles, guided by the Spirit, exercised this authority under pressure from the frontier ministers such as Paul and Barnabas and changed a pristine practice sanctioned by Scripture and the sacred tradition.

Similarly, the frontier ministers working in South Asia, today, press on the Church to re-consider the policy of the "necessity of the baptismal rite" in favor of the practice of the more radical form of baptism (of death and resurrection), which Jesus offers to the whole of humankind, as explained above. It is in this sense that we speak of the possibility of "baptism of nations into discipleship," which makes proselytism both redundant and unethical.


* The Christian Conference of Asia sponsored Ecumenical Lectures delivered on 28 and 29 July 2002 at the Ecumenical Institute Colombo 6, Sri Lanka.

1. Moorhead 1989:349. It is suggested, here, that this less ancient formula could be traced back to Augustine’s follower, Fulgentius of Ruspe, who seemed to have mixed up his master’s alternating use of the two formulae.

2. For a detailed and comprehensive discussion of these two categories of the poor, see Pieris 1999.

3. About this "Covenant Christology," see Pieris 2000:45-65.

4. See my comment on the excommunication of Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I. in Pieris 1998:280-92.

5. Barry Collett, Italian Benedictine Scholars and the Reformation, Oxford, 1985, chapters 4-8; Idem, "The Benedictine Origins of a Mid-Sixteenth Century Heresy," The Journal of Religious History, June 1986, 17ff.

6. I have developed this in my recent article "Catholic Theology of Human Rights and Covenant Theology of Human Responsibilities," to be included in the forthcoming Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza Felicitation Volume (USA)

7. For a sustained critique of this Catholic Church’s faith-justice paradigm and the proposal of a new paradigm, see Pieris 1999:47-66.

8. See my socio-historical analysis of this situation in "Does Christ have a Place in Asia," Concilium, 1993/2, 33-47 and reprinted as Chapter 7 in Pieris 1996:65-78.


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