Friday, July 23, 2010

A Word Study on the Greek Term applied to the Church=Ecclesia

The second Vatican council which convened between the years 1962-1965 endeavored to address a number of issues which were facing the Church in regard to her own self-understanding and mission. Of all the documents that came out of this holy synod it was Lumen Gentium which actually addressed directly the Church's understanding of being 'Church'. In speaking about herself and in order to articulate her self-reflection, the Church alluded to the holy scriptures, the writings of the Church Fathers and the faithful witness of her own Tradition which never ceases to be a loyal and formative guide. In the same document mentioned above, the fathers of the holy synod outlined eight areas pertaining to the Church's self-understanding. The list of eight includes the following: "The Mystery of the Church, the People of God, the Hierarchy, the Laity, the Call to Holiness, the Religious, the Pilgrim Church, and Our Lady." (Flannery 350-432) The area of concern for this paper will obviously be upon the Church, but specifically upon the Church as the 'People of God'. The people of God in both Old and New Testaments were defined by a certain word. In the Tanak, the word used for the people of God is lhq,, which is 'qahal' and in the New Testament the term that speaks of the people of God is 'ekklesia which is 'ecclesia'. The focus of this paper therefore will be to analyze the Greek word 'ecclesia' as it is used in the New Testament. This task will necessitate a certain amount of reflection upon the term 'qahal' that has already been mentioned. In addition to examining the semantic range of the term 'ecclesia' and it's Hebrew counterpart 'qahal', it would be fitting to tackle the question of why the early Christian communities chose such a word to define their fellowship in Christ. Upon completion of this study it would be helpful to examine the importance of this word study for our own spiritual lives.
Starting with Strong's Exhaustive concordance we find that the Greek term for Church is 'ekklesia' and it entails the following meaning: "Church, congregation, assembly; a group of people gathered together. It can refer to the OT assembly of believers (Ac 7:38), or a riotous mob (Ac 19:32), but usually to a Christian assembly, a church: as a totality (Eph 3:10), or in a specific locale (Col. 4:15). In the NT a church is never a building or meeting place." (Strong's 1494) The term ecclesia occurs in the New Testament a total of "118" times. (Strong's 1494) The term ekklesia comes from a Greek preposition "ek" and a Greek verb "kalew". (TDNT 488) The preposition ek means "out of" and the verb kalew means "to call, invite or summon". (TDNT 488) By virtue of the roots of ekklesia we are able to see that ecclesia denotes the idea of being called out of something, to be summoned out of or from something. The verb kalew, being of such fundamental importance to our term ecclesia also deserves an examination of its own. In the New Testament this verb occurs a total of "145" times and entails the following connotations: "to call, invite, summon. The authority of the speaker dictates the nature of the calling (friends invite; kings summon). This is also translated 'to name', the giving of an attribution to someone or something." (Strong's 1506)
Ekklesia, as an assembly seems to have been very political in its origins. It "denotes the popular assembly of the competent citizens of a polis, city-state (in Athens, they met 30-40x a year, more in times of emergency). Decisions were made on suggested changes in law, on appointments to official positions, and on every important question of internal and external policy (contracts, treaties, war and peace, finance). To these was added, in special cases (e.g., treason), the task of sitting in judgment, which normally fell to regular courts. The ekklesia opened with prayers and sacrifices to the gods. Every citizen had the right to speak and propose matters for discussion; a decision was valid only if it won a certain number of votes." (Verbrugge 388) Despite being fairly political in structure, the translators whose task it was to translate the Tanak into the Greek Septuagint chose to employ its use in rendering the Hebrew term lhq. Two questions arise around this topic. One: what does the Hebrew word 'qahal' mean?; two: why choose the Greek term 'ecclesia' to translate its meaning? Let us now look at the meaning of the word 'qahal'. lhq "means a summons to an assembly and the act of assembling. What assembles is the h'de, the m' (people), Israel, Judah, the elders, or the princes. This breadth of usage indicates that the decisive meaning of the word is to be determined from the noun, not from the verb. Who make up the qahal? In the earliest strata of the OT, the word stands primarily for the summons to war of all the men capable of bearing arms. To a certain extent, the soldiers represent the people, but occasionally the word stands for the whole congregation of the people." (Verbrugge 389) The term 'edah' is "the unambiguous and permanent term for the covenant community as a whole, while 'qahal' is the ceremonial expression for the assembly that results from the covenant. Where ekklesia is used in the LXX for 'qahal', it indicates the assembly of the people or a judicial assembly, i.e., a political body. It also indicates, especially in Chr,. the assembly of the people for worship. Still, even in these cases ekklesia is only used where it is a question of the people of God's assembly, characterized by Yahweh's call. Admittedly the word is used esp. where the historic greatness of Israel is implied and avoided where it could be a merely political claim. Perhaps that is why, in legal passages regulating the life of the community, qahal is translated by synagoge." (Verbrugge 390) From these few quotes we can see that the term 'edah' is somewhat of an umbrella term for the people of God in general and that qahal is more narrowly the 'assembly' that has responded affirmatively to Yahweh's initiative. Verbrugge also points out that the term 'qahal' is not only translated by ekklesia but rather it also appears as 'synagoge'. The earliest Christians could have chosen either 'ekklesia' or 'synagoge' to convey the reality of their assembly or gatheing, so why did they choose the former over the latter? It appears that "toward the end of the first century, Christians were no longer welcome in the synagogue", which maybe accounted by the strong presence of polemic in the writings of the New Testament. (Verbrugge 391)
So, to distinguish themselves from the legalism of the Jewish religion and the synagogues in which they were no longer welcome the first century Christians consciously chose the Greek term 'ekklesia'. What did the early Christians understand by this term 'ekklesia'? "One can say with certainty that all the early Christian writers used ekklesia only for those fellowships that came into being after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Its roots lie in the fact that some of the disciples became witnesses of resurrection appearances and were commissioned to bear the news that the time of salvation had dawned. In other words, the concept of the Church developed through the consciousness of being in the eschatological situation created by the resurrection appearances. The early Christian ekklesia understood itself as the herald of the lordship of Christ, which was already being realized in their midst." (Verbrugge 392) What is really interesting about this self-understanding of being a witness of the resurrection can be seen in a word that is related to the verb Kalew which underlies the term 'ekklesia'. The related word is Parakalew, Paraklesis. This is the word used by Jesus to refer to the coming 'comforter' or 'paraclete' who would lead the apostles into the fullness of truth which they were not able to receive prior to his death and resurrection. The 'Paraclete' was the gift of the Father which Jesus was going to send in his name so that his disciples could be witnesses to the ends of the earth of the 'Good News'. It is from the opened side of Christ on the Cross that the Church find's her origins. The nature and mission of the ekklesia is bound up in the Most Holy Trinity. The Church is the sacramental extension of Christ's incarnation in the world. The presence of the Spirit in each and every member of the ekklesia helps to complete the saving work of Christ. The term found in John's gospel for the 'paraclete' has the same root as that of the 'ekklesia'. "Parakletos means legal advisor, advocate, counselor or helper;" and understood in this way both Christ and the Holy Spirit are for the Church its advocate and helper. (Balz 28) This very same paraclete, the Holy Spirit, had descended upon the disciples who had been gathered in the upper room at Pentecost. This descent of the Holy Spirit ensured in a definitive manner the birth of the 'ekklesia' in that the disciples were now fully equipped with boldness for the mission that lay ahead. As mentioned above, the earliest Christians understood themselves as being witnesses to the resurrection and the dawn of a new day in the plan of God's salvation. This understanding is inextricably bound up with the Pentecost experience. Another interesting point about the relation between Parakaleo and Ekkaleo is that St. Paul speaks about our inefficiency to pray as we ought but at the same time we have the Spirit of Christ who prays for us in the inner depths of our spirits. We are the Church, those who have been called out of spiritual slavery into the light of God's presence, called to be a holy people, a royal priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices. The Spirit, is the Paraclete which is the adjectival form of parakaleo, assists us in being Church.

Pastoral Application

From what I have learned from my study is directly related to the lives we live as Christians. The usage of the word 'ekklesia' denotes the idea of being called out of something. The call in and of itself finds its importance in the one who does the calling. As Church, specifically Roman Catholics, we have been called by God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit to live lives in keeping with our baptismal dignity. In the sacrament of baptism we enter through the doors of the Church into the family of God and are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables and 'helps' us in our Christian vocation. Even within our 'gathering together' as Church, our rich Tradition has shown us that God not only calls people out of the world to be his very own people but also that he calls some of our very own members out from our midst to serve in various ministries for the good of the 'assembly'. The whole notion of Church as 'ekklesia' is linked to the concept of vocation. We are a people that have been called into holiness, we are the elect of God, we are the people who have answered the call of God through our affirmative response that is seen most clearly in our covenantal remembrance of Christ in the Eucharist. Within our 'ekklesia' some are called by God to offer their lives in service as ministerial priests, while others are called to the consecrated life and further still some are called to the married life in which they exercise and make concrete in the secular world the dignity of our divine calling as Church. I think that this study also shows even if only on a semantic level the deep connection between our calling as Church and the pneumatic stamp that is characteristic of that calling. In order for us to live out most fully our baptismal calling we are in need of the advocacy and counsel of the Holy Spirit who teaches us what it truly means to pray. The Holy Spirit defines who we are as Church. It is by the power and invocation of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, that the Church is able to live out its calling which is to make present to the world for all ages the saving mystery of Christ's life, death and resurrection. Our Church teaches in its official documents that the source and summit of our strength as Catholics is to be found in the mystery of the Eucharist. It is by the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the epiclesis, and the word of Christ that the Eucharist is effected for us in our liturgies. Furthermore, this analysis of the origins of the term Church or 'ekklesia' reminds us that we have been born out of the Paschal mystery of Christ. It was from the disciples awareness of being witnesses to Christ's resurrection that the Church's message grew in strength. This particular awareness is in like manner to be appropriated within each of us. We must be mindful that we are the people, God has chosen for his own. We are a people of election, covenant, and remnant. We are bearers of a message purer than gold. As Church or 'ecclesia' we are on the threshold of the kingdom of God of which we are the seed in the world. With this insight we must make known to the world around us the same call to holiness that has been given to us which in reality has called us out of the world and our former ways of behaving that were provoking God's wrath. To be 'ekklesia' involves a constant becoming, for we are not static but rather we are a pilgrim people summoned to make our election sure. The certitude of our calling is to rest on him who has called us. The root underlying the word for Church in the original Greek has for its meaning call, invite or summon and experts in the area of the Greek language tell us that the significance of such a call rests upon the one who is calling. Let us therefore reflect upon the exalted nature of our calling which has been made by God our heavenly Father. Let us implore the help of the Holy Spirit as we try to discern our own individual call of service within the Church.

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