Nicolas AFANASIEV. Trans. Vitaly Permiakov. The Church of the Holy Spirit. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2012. xx-327. ISBN-13-978-0-268-02042-2.  Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

            It is a genuine pleasure for me to review this book. The first time I came across Nicholas Nicholaevitch Afanasiev (1893-1966) was in 1975 when I was writing my dissertation on the theology of the icon according to the Orthodox lay Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov, a close friend of Afanasiev’s and his colleague at the Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. Of course, the distance of almost forty years, as well as the expansion of my own theological outlook, has given me a very different perspective on Afanaviev (1893-1966) and his theology. I now appreciate more deeply his pneumatological approach to theology as a whole and to ecclesiology in particular.  

Born in Odessa, Afanasiev emigrated to Belgrade shortly after the Russian Revolution and later moved to Paris. He pursued his theological studies at Saint Sergius under the direction of the famed historian A. P. Dobroklonsky and was heavily influenced by Basil Zenkovsky and Sergius Bulgakov (whom he later defended from the charge of heresy).  In 1930 he began teaching canon law and Greek at Saint Sergius and held this position until his death. Ordained to the priesthood in 1940, Afanasiev served as a pastor in a parish in Tunisia. While there he began writing what would later become The Church of the Holy Spirit. Upon his return to Saint Sergius in 1950 he completed the manuscript and presented it as a dissertation for the doctorate. Afanasiev continued to do research and publications, notable among which are The Lord’s Supper and the unfinished The Limits of the Church. The Russian text of The Church of the Holy Spirit was posthumously published in 1971 and was translated into French in 1975.

The book’s title echoes Tertullian who claims that the Ecclesia Spiritus Sancti belongs not to the “psychics”—whom he despises—but to the “pneumatics,” whose hallmark is prophecy. Afanaviev rejects Tertullian’s Montanist thought, but points out that Tertullian’s basic insight is true: “Without the Spirit there is no life in the Church, no activity, no ministry; in short, there is no Church” (1-2). Afanasiev traces this penumatological ecclesiology back to Irenaeus: “Wherever the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God, and wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and the fullness of grace” (2). It is this ecclesial pneumatology that guides Afanasiev’s theology of the church and the Eucharist.

The Church of the Spirit, with a sympathetic foreword by Archbishop Rowan Williams and a rich introduction by Michael Plekon (vii-xx), is composed of eight chapters, the first and the last of which forming its backbone. Fundamental to Afanasiev’s theology is the common “royal priesthood” conferred upon every Christian by baptism and chrismation (confirmation). Afanasiev never tires of repeating this basic reality: “The gift of the Spirit that every member of the faithful receives in the sacrament of initiation is the charism of royal priesthood” (3). It is this gift of the Spirit that makes very Christian a “minister” and “ordains” her or him to celebrate all the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (Chapter 1).  Thus the church is fundamentally and thoroughly “charismatic.”  The distinction of the members of the church into hierarchy and laity, though necessary, is secondary (Chapters 2-4). There is the need of “those who preside in the Lord” (Chapter 5), of “the one who offers thanksgiving” (Chapter 6) and of the “bishop” (Chapter 7), but these ministries are not “non-charismatic” ministries opposed to the “charismatic” ministries of the apostle, the evangelist, the prophet, the teacher, and so forth. They too are charisms of the Spirit. Afanaviev puts it concisely: The Church lives and acts by the gifts of the Spirit” (7). One New Testament text that he repeatedly cites to support this assertion is Acts 2:17-21. One significant consequence of Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology is the reality of the church as the local church. Speaking of the New Testament churches, Afanaviev writes: “There were only concrete churches in early Christianity, located in a specific place. There was no distinction between an abstract idea and a concrete view of the Church, for the Church resided, lived, and was revealed in all the fullness of its unity and in all the unity of its fullness in each local church” (255). The final chapter, which is entitled “The Power of Love,” is a must-read. Here Afanasiev draws a sharp distinction between power and love as principles guiding the life of the church: “If the power founded on love is insufficient in actual life, which has lost the principle of love, it is on the contrary completely sufficient in the Church, where love is the first and last principle. Juridical power is a substitute for love in actual social life, a substitute as perfect as possible in a very imperfect life. In the Church, where perfect love dwells, there is no need for such a substitute” (274).

Afanasiev’s vision and words appear, half a century later, as fresh and apposite as ever. As the Catholic Church embarks upon a radical renewal under the papacy of Francis, his eucharistic ecclesiology and his ecclesiological eucharistic theology will serve as a sure guide.