A Critical Reading of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church



This chapter deals on how Dulles explains and discusses individual models of the church as part of an attempt to illuminate the mystery of the church.


The image of the church as a ‘political society’ is that of the church as institution or organization, but in a rather extreme form. It is understood as a ‘perfect’ society, in that it is not subordinate to any other, and lacks nothing from an institutional point of view. This ‘political society’ model tends to highlight to excess the external and organizational features of the church by giving a one-sided emphasis to the church’s constitution or basic set-up, to its set of rules (canon law), to its governing body, and to the members of the church as subjects of the authority of its bishops, priests and deacons. While it makes much of the rights and powers of its officials, it tends to downplay the rights and entitlements of its other members.

This model dominated from the late Middle Ages until 1962, the start of the Second Vatican Council. An excessive focus on external structures, on the power and right of the few to command and on the duty of the many to obey, however, leads to ‘institutionalism’, ‘a system in which the institutional element is treated as primary’.( Dulles, 27) This is a type of ideology which draws lines of separation between the church that teaches and the church that is taught (overlooking the fact that the church that teaches must also be one that learns), between the church sanctifying and the church sanctified, between the church governing and the church governed. (Dulles, 30)


In the years and centuries during which this model was dominant, it served to give Catholics a strong sense of corporate identity and solidarity and a strong sense of institutional loyalty. (Dulles, 35)

Some features of this model are still important in a Catholic understanding of the church, such as the bonds of shared faith and beliefs, of shared prayer and sacraments, and of church leadership and government.


The weaknesses of this model include the following: It has little support in scripture and early church tradition, which suggest that the early church was anything but a single tightly-knit society and functioned in less authoritarian and more communitarian modes than this model suggests. (Dulles, 34)

Three defects flowing from it were identified at the Second Vatican Council. They are, first of all, clericalism, i.e. control, domination and even oppression by ordained persons, on the one hand, and passivity, blind obedience, and non-involvement of lay persons on the other.

Another defect identified is juridicism, i.e. an emphasis on law and order which tends to turn the gospel into laws and obligations with a corresponding lack of attention to relationships with God the Father, with Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with fellow Christians and fellow human beings generally.

A third defect identified is triumphalism, i.e. lording it over others, and putting others down. Triumphalism places more importance on the prerogatives of authority stemming from valid institutional appointment, than on prayerful discernment in the appointees of the gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry. An excessive emphasis on the hierarchy also tends to inhibit the role of theologians as the church’s think-tank. As a closed society, it is out of touch with the demands of the times. (Dulles, 37)


Underlying this model is the conviction that the church is a community of interconnected persons. It therefore emphasizes relationships. Love, acceptance, forgiveness, commitment, and intimacy constitute the church’s very fabric. It is a community in which justice, peace and mutual love are realized and lived.

STRENGTHS(Dulles, 51)

The strengths of this model include the following.

  • It connects with the in-born need of every human being for sharing and intimacy.
  • It is more democratic and less hierarchical than the previous one.
  • It stresses the activity and gifts of the Spirit in all the members, and the dependence of all on the contributions of each.
  • It is very ecumenical, since it accentuates the biblical images of the Body of Christ, the People of God, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, all of which are dear to the hearts of Orthodox and Protestant Christians.
  • It harmonizes with the teachings of the great Doctors of the Church, Augustine and Aquinas, and of the Second Vatican Council, that the church is essentially a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, a shared communion (koinonia) of grace.
  • It tends to revive Christian spirituality and the practice of prayer.42
  • It is a reminder that the Holy Spirit both speaks to and inspires all kinds of persons in the church and not merely those ordained.
  • It can and should challenge office-holders to discover, utilize and coordinate the many charisms among their people for the well-being of the whole community. As St Paul wrote: ‘Do not quench the Spirit…but test everything and hold fast to what is good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20).
  • It is the ultimate basis of rich interpersonal relationships of love within warm, caring human communities. So much so that it represents ‘the fulfilment of the age-old dream of all humanity for union with God and fellow human beings in justice, peace, and joy’.



Weaknesses with this model of communion include the following:

  • There is some obscurity about the relationship between the spiritual and the visible dimensions of the church.
  • Secondly, with its strong focus on the connection of the church with the divine, it may give the impression that the church itself is as fully divine as Jesus, and be blind to the fact that across the board, the church is made up of human beings, who for that very reason are more or less weak, ignorant, sinful, inconsistent, unfaithful and unreliable.
  • Thirdly, it does not provide any strong motivation for missionary work.
  • Fourthly, there is some unresolved tension between the church as a network of friendly interpersonal relationships and the church as a communion of grace.
  • Fifthly, to be wrapped up in the joy and blessing of Christian fellowship may mean forgetting the church’s mission as servant of the kingdom of God.
  • Sixthly, members of close communities may feel at home only among themselves and regard others as outsiders and intruders.



A sacrament is a sign, a particular kind of sign. A simple sign is merely a pointer to or an indicator of something else, usually of something absent. But a sacrament is a full sign, a sign of something or someone that is really present. So, in the first place, a sacrament is a sign of grace, i.e. a sign of the presence of Christ (acting in the Holy Spirit).

In order to bring together the external and internal aspects of the church into a satisfactory synthesis, many Catholic theologians have viewed the church as a sacrament. They reason that if Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God, the church is the sacrament of Christ. She represents him, not just because she continues his work on earth, but also because she is the continuation of his person. This is to say that the members of the church continue to be for others his body, mouth, eyes, ears, heart, hands and feet. Their responsibility is to bring people into contact with Christ and his Spirit.

As a sacrament itself, the church has both an outward and an inner aspect. The outward or structural aspect of the church is its external organization. That is essential, for without it the church would not be visible. (Dulles, 61)   Its inner aspect is the presence of Christ (acting in the Spirit) within the faith, hope and love of the members of his body.



The strengths of this model include the following.

  • It brings together the visible and the invisible dimensions of the church.
  • It gives a boost to missionary work, by stressing that the community of the church is meant to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
  • It can motivate its members to work together for God’s kingdom of unity, truth, love, integrity, justice, reconciliation, peace and joy.



Weaknesses with this model include difficulties in communicating it, at least at the popular level, and the fact that it has not been taken up much in Protestant life and thought. (Dulles, 67)

Another difficulty is that it does not offer concrete criteria for discerning, evaluating and judging the divine and the merely human features of the church. (Dulles, 67)



This model sees the church as gathered, formed and constituted by the proclamation of the word of God and its acceptance in faith. This model therefore sees the church as the herald of God’s word. It views the church as having received an official message and the commission to pass it on. ‘The basic image is that of the herald of a king who comes to proclaim a royal decree in a public square.’ (Dulles, 69)



Among the strengths of this model are the following:

  • It is biblically-based in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament63 and in the preaching in the New Testament of Peter, Paul and others.
  • Secondly, it gives a clear sense of identity and mission to the church, and especially to the local church as a congregation heralding the good news of Jesus Christ. (Dulles, 76-77)
  • Thirdly, it fosters a spirituality that emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the distance between God and human beings, (Dulles, 77) and God’s call in his word for repentance and reform of life.



A major weakness of this model includes the fact that it can be too wordy, and overlook or downplay the truth emphasized by Catholic Christians that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ,(Dulles, 77ff) and that he is still embodied in the church, his body on earth, and in its sacraments.

Another Catholic critique is that it focuses too exclusively on witness to the neglect of action. (Dulles, 79) It is too pessimistic in regard to human effort to cooperate with grace to build a better. human society (and even the kingdom of God on earth), and that it fails to recognise the duty of Christians to do so.

Lastly, it easily gives rise to biblical fundamentalism, one of the greatest threats to the gospel message today.



The basic attitude that goes with this model is that the church is in the world, not over against the world, and that as part of the human family, it shares the concerns of other human beings. The image which best goes with this attitude is that of the church as servant.


  • A particular strength of this model is that it saves the church from being turned in on itself, but rather turned out towards struggling and suffering human beings wherever they are.
  • It sees the church as an agent of social change.
  • It continues the activity of Jesus himself, whose heart was moved with compassion for all kinds of sick, broken and needy persons, and who frequently restored them to physical and mental health.
  • It is backed by what Jesus says about works of mercy in his Parable of the Great Judgment (Mt 25: 31-46), ‘I was hungry…’



One suggested weakness is the inadequacy or ambiguity of the image of ‘servant’. It suggests work done under orders and not freely, work done for the good of others but not for oneself, and work that is humble and degrading. (Dulles, 91)

Another possible weakness is that in the NT the service (diakonia) mentioned is the service Christians give to one another.



Dulles has added a chapter that he calls ‘The Church: Community of Disciples’. Implicitly, he appears to view this model as a kind of unifying thread running through the five previous models, and one that tends to bring them closer together.

This image and model is solidly grounded in scripture, in the action of Jesus in his public life of gathering around him a big group of followers, both men and women. (Dulles, 199 ff) Among those who followed in his footsteps were his chosen inner circle of close companions and co-workers, known as ‘the Twelve. A new image has been born, one that emphasizes personal experience of Jesus Christ alive.



The discipleship model gives a real boost to evangelisation and service, the emphases of the fourth and fifth models.

Dulles stresses further that the discipleship model motivates the members of the church to imitate Jesus in their personal lives. (Dulles, 214)

He also suggests that the same qualities which make the church the sacrament of Christ also make it the community of disciples. Jesus Christ is really present in the community of disciples as in a sacrament.

But community of disciples is a somewhat better designation than sacrament, since the latter is somewhat impersonal and because it also suggests that the church is without defect.

Moreover, the idea of community of disciples has more support in Scripture than the church as sacrament. (Dulles, 215)



Like the other models, the community of disciples does have some weaknesses, ones which Dulles identifies, but at least partly refutes. (Dulles, 215ff) But it also has this strength that it calls attention to the radical break with worldly values that is required for fidelity to Jesus, and it does not conceal or play down the cost of following him, and of giving him first place in one’s life – above family, friends, property and personal ambition. (Dulles, 215-216) If this seems like ‘mission impossible’, the advice Dulles gives is particularly appropriate ‘Discipleship always depends upon a call or vocation from Christ, a demanding call that brings with it the grace needed for its own acceptance.’ (Dulles, 217)

Dulles continues: I repeat…that the community of disciples is only one perspective on the church. Other images and models, such as servant, sacrament, mystical body, and institution, are needed to remind us that the church is an organic and juridically organized community established by the Lord and animated by his Spirit. Through reflection on these models, we can continually enrich our understanding of discipleship itself. (Dulles, 226)



At the outset of this study, the researcher has a hypothesis in mind that there must be model or models that would best fit or apply into the present circumstances that the Church faces in her struggle to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the mystery of God relevant and significant. This idea of which model is relevant is conditioned by the circumstances that characterize and express the contemporary period like the surge of computer technology and cybernetics wherein people are drawn to the idea of making the whole world into a village, into a community. This new culture attracts more and more people to socialize even in an unreal way, in a virtual mode of interpersonal relationship.

But after evaluating and seeing all the models presented by Avery Dulles, the author still asks the question regarding the model or models which is/are the most relevant in this contemporary period. John Fuellenbach also asks the same question:

What image do we have of the church as the true bearer and carrier of Jesus’ own vision? Do we have an image of the church which can inspire people and provide them with an ideal with which they can identify and to which they can commit themselves with enthusiasm and lasting zeal?’ (John Fuellenbach, Church: Community for the Kingdom(Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 250-251)


But no answers to those questions will be adequate if we take into account the insistence of Dulles that no one model by itself is sufficient for an adequate understanding of the complex mystery of the church in all its dimensions. He has said: ‘In order to do justice to the various aspects of the church, as a complex reality, we must work simultaneously with different models. By a kind of mental juggling act, we have to keep several models in the air at once.’ (Dulles, 10)   The different models must complement one another, and compensate for the deficiencies of each. (Dulles, 206) We cannot just select or choose one model’s salient and important features at the expense of other models’ salient and important features. This is for the main reason that

the models that have come into the fore…reflect the salient features of the Church of Christ as it exists at any time or place. Hence, by its very constitution, the Church is a communion of grace (Model 2) structured as a human society (Model 1). While sanctifying its own members, it offers praise and worship to God (Model 3). It is permanently charged with the responsibility of spreading the good news of the Gospel (Model 4) and of healing and consolidating the human community (Model 5). (Dulles, 204)



Benedict XVI.Light of the World: the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times,translated     byMichael Millerand AdrianWalker.California: Ignatius Press, 2010.

Gibbs, E. and Coffey,I., Church Next Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry. England: Inter-     Varsity Press, 2001.

Dulles, Avery. Models of the Church.New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Fuellenbach,John. Church: Community for the Kingdom.Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books,     2002

A Critical Reading of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church






We are in this contemporary culture that was preceded by the pre-modern and modern time. All the negative happenings and unfulfilled promises of the modern period gave rise to this present age. This contemporary period is characterized by disillusionment with all the harmony, truths and prosperity promised, that didn’t materialize during the modern era. According to George Weigel in his foreword to Light of the World by Benedict XVI said that:

“the Pope sees a world that has lost its story: a world in which the progress promised by the humanisms of the past centuries is now gravely threatened by understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.” (Michael J Miller and Adrian J Walker, trans., Light of the World: the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, by Benedict XVI (California: Ignatius Press, 2010), x-xi.)

Also the contemporary man challenges the Church with her claim on absolute truths. However, the church is increasingly under pressure to be relevant andeffective in a post-modern world where the church is only one generation away from extinction. (E. Gibbs and I. Coffey, Church Next Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 10-11)

From this perspective Avery Dulles’ operational models as presented by different church traditions are evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in our contemporary period. These operational models are researched and explained as an avenue to move people beyond their own limitations and to open conversations between people with different outlooks (Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 12).

And these models need to be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness in our contemporary period; otherwise the church may become irrelevant in its approach to the post-modern man. Therefore, through a model or models of the church, methods need to be established to reach the contemporary man with the gospel.

The church is increasingly under pressure to be relevant and effective in the context of the contemporary world. Holy Mother Church must recognize that she faces a huge task as never before. This challenge must be met in this present time.

The question that the author wished to answer, relevant to this study, is: WHAT ARE THE MOST HELPFUL MODEL OR MODELS TO BE USED IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD BY CHURCH? This question becomes significant in the light of Pope Benedict’s assessment when he said:

“…religiosity has to regenerate itself anew in this large context – and in doing so also find new forms for its expression and comprehension…It means that we really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed; in which the one gospel has to be proclaimed both in its great, enduring rationality and in its power that transcends rationality, so that it can reenter our thinking and understanding in a new way.” (Michael J Miller and Adrian J Walker, trans., Light of the World: the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, by Benedict XVI (California: Ignatius Press, 2010), 135-136.)

The subject under discussion is connected with ecclesiology, and it would be a significant study if the author will be able to present which model or models of the church as introduced by Dulles to be relevant and effective in this contemporary period. To address this matter, theology enters the picture by studying the faith of the present period concerning the revelation of God and the attitude of the people towards the Catholic Church. Thus, it is the author’s intention to focus on this study.

This study will be done through literature review most especially the work of Avery Dulles titled Models of the Church published in 1987. The focus will move to the six models of the church described by Dulles. The research of these models will be mainly theoretical. The evaluation of the models will then be incorporated and compared into the contemporary world.



The aim of this chapter is to assess the theology of the church through the models of the church as considered by Dulles. He defines the mystery of the church in the following way: “In selecting the term ‘models’ rather than ‘aspects’ or ‘dimensions’ I wish to indicate my conviction that the church, like other theological realities, is a mystery. Mysteries are realities of which we cannot speak directly. If we wish to talk about them at all we must draw on analogies afforded by experience of the world. These analogies provide models. By attending to the analogies and utilizing them as models, we can indirectly grow in our understanding of the church”. (Dulles, 9)

Dulles’ aim is to enhance the readers understanding of the church. Working with different models simultaneously has this objective. He believes that the church can only exist within an organization or structure. (Dulles, 10)

Dulles makes it clear that when focusingand dealing with models, a good ecclesiologist always focuses on more than one model. Models can also be seen as a way of dealing with problems in the church. Dulles explains this: “In order to do justice to the various aspects of the church, as a complex reality, we must work simultaneously with different models. By a kind of mental juggling act, we have to keep several models in the air at once” (Dulles, 10).

One of the outstanding attributes of a model is the fact that it can be broken down into subtypes. In practice this means that models are a way of approaching theology from all directions and not only from an ecclesiologist point of view. Dulles makes this approach towards theology clear through the following words: “The method of models is applicable to the whole of theology, and not simply to ecclesiology. “(Dulles, 12).

The idea of models is to help people move beyond their own limitations when being church and to open conversation between people who have very different outlooks (Dulles, 12).



Models are used to standardize ways of measuring successes in the church. Dulles’ emphasizes the mystery of the church and causes him to criticize theologians who define the church in terms of visible elements only. (Dulles, 16).

Dulles doesn’t define the church with scientific speech and from this perspective he calls the church a mystery. “We cannot fully objectify the church because we are involved in it; we know it through a kind of inter-subjectivity. Furthermore, the church pertains to the mystery of Christ.

Christ is carrying out in the church his plan of redemption. He is dynamically at work in the church through his Spirit” (Dulles, 17). At the heart of the church, one finds mystery. Dulles makes it clear that mystery has been given many definitions from biblical and non-biblical religions. From an ecclesiological point of view as an introduction to specific models Dulles approaches mystery as God’s plan of salvation as it comes to concrete realization in the person of Jesus Christ. The mysterypar excellence is not so much God in his essential nature, or the counsels of the divine mind, but rather God’s plan of salvation as it comes to concreterealization in the person of Christ Jesus. In Christ are ‘unsearchable riches’ (Eph. 3:8); in him dwells the whole fullness of God (Col. 3:9); and this fullness is disclosed to those whose hearts are open to the Spirit which is from God (1 Cor. 2:12)” (Dulles, 17).

Dulles identifies images as positive tools to illuminate the mysteries offaith. (Dulles, 18)  Thus Dulles works with images to formulate models. Within images Dulles identifies cognate realities such as symbols, models and paradigms. Images are used for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the mysteries of faith. Dulles also identifies these images as models. Within this understanding of models the approach is from the more visible images like temple, vine or flock to the more abstract images like institution, society or community. Thus, the aim of models is to touch and activate the whole person by influencing both themind and heart of a person. (Dulles, 21-22).

Dulles agrees that any model used in isolation will lead to distortions because each model exhibits only a particular reality given in our human experience of the world. The moment a model succeeds in dealing with a number of different problems, it becomes an object of confidence. Dulles identifies the danger of such a model being used to address questions not outside the reality of the specific model.

The Spirit, Place of the Sanctified Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto and Messalianism




In the study made by Mary Ann Donovan entitled The Spirit, Place of the Sanctified: Basil’s De Spiritu Santo and Messalianism she synthesized the positions of the developed Messalians condemned at Side and at the council of Ephesus namely:

  • The HUMAN SOUL is inhabited by the demon
  • BAPTISM and the SACRAMENTS are inefficacious to purify the soul of the diabolic presence.
  • PRAYER is the only remedy to purify the soul.
  • The EFFECT OF PRAYER is twofold: a) Exclusion of passions and b) The coming of the Holy Spirit.

These positions are trying to make prayer very important and at the center while neglecting the efficacy and dethroning Baptism and the Sacraments from their proper positions. This may also be the reason why those who believed in these positions are called Messalians which the term’s etymology is from Greek which means “to pray”.

She also pointed out the characteristics of the developed Messalianism and how it shares its forms with the early Messalianism which stressed on revelation received by the individual, consequent on the experienced presence of the Spirit.

But the main point of this study by Donovan is to prove whether St. Basil’s work De Spiritu Sancto especially in chapter 26 is characterized by the doctrine of the Messalians which the Church condemned. Or she may prove in a more wide scope whether the positions of the Messalians had entered the Christian Tradition of the Church through the work of St. Basil, the De Spiritu Sancto.

I was asking and looking for the significance and importance of this study. Why do I need to read this article? Or just have to read it for the sake of its being a requirement? What do I care if the doctrines of the Messalians, which were condemned, entered into the work of St. Basil? If it ever entered in Chapter 26 of De Spiritu Sancto, so what then? There are other fathers of the Church like Origen who did not present orthodoxy in some of their works.

This work is useful in the sense that, if the author proves the compatibility or incorporation of the positions and doctrines of the Messalians in the Tradition through De Spiritu Sancto, this will render a seismic change that would trigger the collapse of the Christian faith.

We can ask and ask and ask so many questions here. But raising the right question is very crucial because it will lead us to the solution we are looking for. Sometimes we even have to answer the question with another question so as to make some things clear.

The first question is: How will the incorporation of Messalian doctrine trigger the collapse of the Christian faith? This is a complicated question because this presupposes the vulnerability of the faith founded by Jesus Christ, the stone rejected by the builder which became the corner stone of the Christian faith. This presupposes the weakness of the foundation of the Church which is founded upon the Rock and further more this question belittles the strength of the structure of the Church which is made of living stones. Can the faith founded by Jesus Christ really collapse? I will undoubtedly believe that it cannot collapse but it can be triggered.

As to the how of the first question, it is quite clear if we answer it with another question. How can the Church condemn the Messalians in one of its councils and then consider the work of Basil De Spiritu Sancto as orthodox if it happens that the latter incorporated the doctrines of the condemned? How shall I hold on to the deposits of Faith which Tradition belongs and then eventually be condemned from the same deposit I am holding to? What will happen if the faithful are not holding on to the deposits of Faith because of fear of being condemned? Or what will happen if the faithful keep on holding to the faith from the deposit which contains errors? I really cannot imagine the abominable consequence if Tradition has incorporated the erroneous doctrines of the Messalians through St. Basil.

The second question is: What beliefs will the incorporation of the Messalian doctrine destroy in the Christian faith? It will destroy everything! Yes! Everything!

Then we will ask, Why? How? What? And all the other questions that the Christian believer can think of. Even I myself would ask out of my rage and pity because I was made to believe of something unfounded, false and lie.

Going back to the second question: What beliefs will the incorporation destroy? I will try to answer this by going back to the main issue why both the Councils of Side and Ephesus condemned the Messalians. Well, the primary reason was stressed on revelation received by the individual, consequent on the experienced presence of the Spirit. What does this imply? What is the problem if they stressed on revelation? St. Gregory identifies the Messalians as considering themselves inspired, considering their dreams more inspired of belief than the gospels and calling their phantasies revelations (St. Gregory De Virginitate 23.3.4-23.4.1). This is the problem, their too much emphasis on revelation even to the point of exaggerating and taking their dreams and phantasies as revelations and inspired. And according to their position, the only efficacious in purifying the soul is through prayer. And prayer for them is very important because through this process it can produce a determined psychological state which is capable of forcing the coming of the Holy Spirit. Prayer then drives out the demon to give place to the Spirit and to grace and according to the Messalians only after this Holy Spirit had come to the soul can the individual have a true baptism. And if you are baptized by the Holy Spirit through prayer then the spiritual individual can now have the other revelations coming from God.

If this doctrine entered the Tradition of the Church, then, we can opine that there are still further revelations from God after the Incarnate Word had been revealed in history.

But according to Karl-Heinz Weger “God has revealed himself to man, and he has completed and perfected his salutary self-disclosure in the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, so that no new revelation of God to man is possible till the parousia.”[1]

From here, the claim of the Messalian is logically taken as the complete opposite of what the Church is teaching about revelation. There is no more revelation until the parousia. The definitive revelation by Christ which the individual must encounter for his supernatural salvation must reach to him fully, incorrupt and unmixed with error. Weger asks the question, How does the fullness of God’s revelation reach the individual incorrupt and unmixed with error so that the individual knows that he is really addressed and challenged by the word of God and not by any other men?[2]

The answer to this question is through the Tradition of the Church. The word of God reaches man through the preaching handed down in the Church. “The mystery of Christ remains present in history because there is a fellowship of believers which in the vital process of life, doctrine and worship preserves the word of God, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, through all the changes of history, and thus hands it on safely to all generations till the Lord comes in glory.”[3]

If ever the Messalians got their ideas and doctrines in the Tradition, then even the revelation made by Christ will be of no avail. This will make every tenet, doctrine, dogma and the very faith of Christians doubtful since it will render the revelation of Christ as incomplete, not definitive and not universal.

If ever Messalianism got its way in the Tradition through St. Basil, how could the faithful attain his supernatural salvation through the word of God which reaches to him through Tradition which is the vital source of life, doctrine and worship but which does not preserve the word of God?

I said Messalianism will trigger the collapse of everything in the Christian faith – morals, dogma, and worship i.e. the very vital source of life of faith. Even the Sacred Scripture and everything contained in it will be questioned. The very foundation and the very core of the bible is the Paschal Mystery. It is the passion, death and in Christ’s resurrection that the incarnate Word was revealed to man once and for all. And if the Messalians were able to penetrate its doctrine into the sacred Tradition of the Church then even this Paschal Mystery and needless to say – the sacred Scripture will be triggered.

And the third and final question I wish to raise in this reflection paper is this: Was there any semblance of incorporation and sharing in the Messalianism in the chapter 26 of St. Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto?

Donovan denied any semblance and incorporation of Messalianism even to the slightest detail into the work of St. Basil. Aware of the influences and the doctrine of the Messalians, St. Basil was not influenced by the Messalians.

So what now is the stand of the St. Basil regarding the presence of the Spirit in the soul of the individual? Can the Spirit not reveal something divine in the soul of the individual? Well, according to St. Basil and affirming it strongly that the Holy Spirit works in the soul of the individual. St. Basil said that the Holy Spirit’s role may be identified analogously as power, thought, form, habit and bond of unity. Under the first to methapors, power and thought, the Spirit may be said to exercise quasi-revelatory activities in the soul of the individual. Here we take note of the term quasi be cautioned not to take this kind of activity as to what the idea of the Messalians have about the revelatory activity of the Spirit in the soul of the individual. The Spirit’s role in the soul as a power may be likened to the power of the eye to see. The Spirit as a power in the soul means that the individual has the power live a Christian and holy life. Rendering the role of the Holy Spirit as thought seems to give us an impression of the revelatory act of the Spirit in the soul. But according to St. Basil, Spirit as thought means that the Holy Spirit is moving like thought which articulates faith in the believer or impels him to announce that faith externally and that it (the Spirit) reveals in the soul divine things.

More clearly and manifestly did St. Basil reject and deny the revelatory activity of the Holy Spirit in his work when he identified, though analogously, the role of the Holy Spirit as the principle of unity. For him, the Holy Spirit is the principle of unity of the individual believer to the body Jesus Christ and this principle is the mark of being a believer. And so it is important that the individual be a part of the believing community – the body of Christ. From this role of the Holy Spirit as identified by Basil, makes the community as the important witness of revelation and not just the individual. Individualism and relativism have no place in this point.

To cap it all, the roles which St. Basil analogously identified serve as evidence that his work and the spirituality of his chapter 26 in De Spiritu Sancto have no tinge or any slightest semblance of Messalianism in fact Messalians and St. Basil are much much more different from each other. The former 1) associates the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul with revelatory experiences 2) it also associates repugnance for work and looseness in sexual matters. In their contrast is St. Basil who insists 1) that the Spirit is in the Christian as a form, power, habit, though and bond of unity 2) the Christian is in the Spirit during the process of sanctification to the extent that the Spirit is the place of the sanctified in contemplation and worship and in the daily struggle.

[1] Karl-Heinz Weger (Tradition), Sacramentum Mundi: Concise Edition, ed. Karl Rahner. (Mumbai, India: St. Pauls, 2004), 1728-1729.

[2] Karl-Heinz Weger, Tradition, 1729.

[3] Karl-Heinz Weger, Tradition, 1729.

A Letter of Athanasius to Bishop Serapion Concerning the Holy Spirit (A Critical Reading)





I have no pretensions that this paper will be an exhaustive and detailed critical evaluation and reaction to the letter of St. Athanasius to Bishop Serapion concerning the Holy Spirit.

I personally and rationally wish, however, that this will help me in my incessant struggle to know and understand the Holy Spirit and eventually later on be able also to argue and defend the divine existence of this often forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity.

Sad to say that nowadays, many are neglecting to recognize the primordial and indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in their life. They assert that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are only for persons who are called to holiness, hence are unnecessary. I further aim that this critical reading about the letter of St. Athanasius will bring light and comfort to persons who are tempted to be discouraged and turn away from God’s call to holiness which the Holy Spirit’s role is very indispensable. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, asserted that the Holy Spirit is always necessary in order that a person can attain his supernatural end. “No one can say: ‘Lord, Jesus,’ except in the Holy Spirit” according to St. Paul.

Hence I want to resolve two questions that will hopefully end to my main objective above.

The first question is, “How did Athanasius struggle to write and make his point as he argued about the divinity of the Holy Spirit?”

Secondly, I want to deal with his sources. And so I ask, “What are the sources of Athanasius to support his claim?”

Chapter 1


Credits are often given towards the end of any venture. Be it in books, movies, in stage plays, concerts, academic courses and many others. But in this paper, I want first to give St. Athanasius credits which he rightly deserves. He’s a good writer. He’s a philosopher. An elite theologian on the Holy Spirit. An excellent biblical scholar. He’s a hermeneutist. A metaphysician. A good logician. An apologist in his own right. An exegete. A brave man. An undeniably impressive and reasonable thinker. I have no doubts or any reservation with all the credits I made of him.

And so, there is even greater reason for me to use the thoughts and teaching of this writer-saint in that nearly all of them seem to me to be inescapably true. Hence, whenever in the course of this article I quote his words, it should be understood that they represent my own beliefs, unless I make definite mention of disagreement or doubt.

Done with credits and praises! Let us then see the struggle of Athanasius as manifested in his letter. We begin to wonder. How was he able to write such an excellent work despite all the difficulties existing like the notorious environment of the desert and its inadequacy of sources and materials or the fear of being slain by the persecutors? Therefore we go to the first question:

“How did Athanasius struggle to write and make his point as he argued about the divinity of the Holy Spirit?”

In the opening sentence of his letter, he mentioned that he was in the desert or wilderness somewhere in Egypt. And he even used this wilderness to protect him from his enemies “who sought to slay us[1].” They were being persecuted by the Arians during that time, middle of 4th century AD.

The desert is a wasteland, barren region, desolate tract, also a phenomenon wherein we pattern our struggle in spiritual dryness. One of the episodes in National Geographic Channel deals with the deadliest animals on earth. Many deadliest animals are found in the desert like snakes and spiders. For additional difficulties aside from those creatures are the scarcity of food and water supply. The burning heat during broad daylight adds furthermore to the difficulties one can encounter in the desert plus the fact of being easily caught. These are some of the environmental and physical phenomena that will bother Athanasius. These are some factors that add to his struggles – the environment.

Psychologically speaking, he must also be bothered by his persecutors – the Arian persecutors. The reality of persecution, therefore, is another reason of his struggle.

Perhaps he is also struggling, in terms of spirituality, in purifying his soul in the desert. He must also be spiritually bothered by the transcendence of the mystery he was trying to expound. Was he also led by the Spirit towards the desert like Jesus to be tempted by the devil? I will absolutely affirm that he was also led by the Holy Spirit just like when Jesus was also led by the Holy Spirit (Mk 4:1-11). Like Jesus, Athanasius became despondent by the temptation and arguments of his opponents – the Arians and especially the Tropici – the two parties who have divided between them the offensive against the truth; …with the one opposing the Son and the other the Spirit, they both maintain the same blasphemy against the holy Triad.[2] Hence, the blasphemies of the Arians and the Tropici but more especially the latter added to the struggle of Athanasius. He said: “…it is not necessary to say anything more in reply to them (the Arians); what has been previously said against them is sufficient. But it is right that in some way we should make careful reply to those who have been deceived about the Spirit.[3]

And lastly, his intellectual disposition falls short of the immensity and transcendence of the issue in question he was trying to expound and defend – the Holy Spirit. He struggled, also therefore, because of his intellectual inadequacy. That is the reason why he humbly tells Serapion “…I write this letter in brief, though I am scarce able to do this much; only that you…  may supply what it lacks in the light of your understanding, and the argument against this unholy heresy may be complete[4].” This statement is a result of the complete awareness of St. Athanasius of the struggles and difficulties he was dealing with.

Chapter 2


Readers might wonder why I did not include sources as part of his struggle. A good argument must have reliable, factual, solid and true sources. An argument based on these kinds of sources will enjoy a more persuasive effect. In the case of St. Athanasius, I firmly believe that he did not have trouble as regards the foundation and source of his arguments. At this point the question that I will try to answer about the sources of St. Athanasius is “What are the sources of Athanasius to support his claim?”

St. Athanasius used the books in the Holy Bible as his sources to support his arguments. From here, we can conjecture that he was standing in a reliable, factual, solid and true ground. Why? It is because, plainly speaking these sacred books in the bible are divinely inspired – of course by the Holy Spirit. And secondly, the opponents of St. Athanasius (Arians and Tropici) were using the Bible (Amos 4:13 and Proverbs 8:22) as their bases of their erroneous arguments and claims and so it is just but fitting to combat the Arians and especially the Tropici regarding their cunning and deceptive assault[5] against the Holy Spirit in the same ground and level of arena, the Scriptural Arena.

The Table below shows how intensively St. Athanasius made use of the Bible:

The Pentateuch

Genesis (1:2) (6:3) (7:1) (48:15-16) (1:1) (28:12)

Exodus (33:1-2) (33:15) (33:17-18) (14:31)

Numbers (11:29) (14:24)

Deuteronomy (1:30) (4:26) (32:8)

The Historical Books

Judges (3:10) (11:29) (12:24-25) (15:14)

1 Kings (18:45)

The Wisdom Books

Job (15:15) (14:18) (25:5) (1:6)

Psalms (51:11) (143:10) (77:6) (107:25) (148:7-8) (104:29-30) (51:10) (93:2) (77:20) 78:53) (136:16) (50:4) (65:9) (146:7-8) (14:1) (104:30) (116:11) (139:7) (147:18) (43:3)

Ecclesiastes (7:16) (3:11)

Wisdom (1:5) (12:1)

The Prophetical Books

Isaiah (61:1) (30:1) (48:16) (59:21) (63:9-10) (7:2) (63:11-12) (63:14) (44:8) (48:16)

Jeremiah (2:13) (1:1)

Baruch (3:1) (3:10-12)

Ezekiel (11:24) (27:28) (18:31) (36:26) (18:31-32) (28:12) (10:7)

Daniel (3:36) (7:10) (12:4) (12:13)

Joel (2:28)

Amos (1:3)

Jonah (1:4)

Micah (2:7) (1:1)

Haggai (2:4-5)

Zechariah (1:6) (7:12) (12:1) (1:19) (4:5-6) (1:6)


Matthew (12:32) (4:1) (10:20) (12:28) (28:19) (13:41) (13:49) (28:19) (4:11)

Mark (3:29)

John (20:22) (14:25) (15:26) (1:1) (14:26) (20:23) (15:26) (1:9) (1:12) (20:22) (14:23) (14:16-17) (14:10-12) (3:16) (16:17) (17:4) (16:14) (8:26)  (4:14) (7:39) (4:21-24) (14:6)

Luke (4:1) (3:21-22) (1:35) (18:2) (10:18)


Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles (7:51-52) (1:4) (2:1-5) (21:11) (20:28) (8:39) (8:30) (3:15) (1:16) (4:24-25) (28:25) (20:23)


New Testament Letters

Romans (8:9-11) (8:16-17) (7:14) (7:6) (7:25- 8:2) (11:33-34) (4:3) (8:15) (16:27) (1:4) (8:29) (3:23) (20:22-23)

1 Corinthians (2:10-12) (3:16) (6:11) (12:11) (3:17) (2:11) (12:13) (10:4) (1:24) (2:4) (2:8) (6:3) (12:4) (2:14)

2 Corinthians (1:3) (3:6) (12:4) (2:15) (13:13) (13:3)

Galatians (3:2) (3:14) (4:6-7) (2:20) (4:19)

Ephesians (4:30) (4:3) (2:15) (4:24) (4:6) (1:17-18) (1:13) (3:16-17)

Philippians (1:18-20) (3:3)

Colossians (1:20)

1 Thessalonians (5:19) (4:8) (5:23)

2 Thessalonians (2:8)

1 Timothy (5:21) (4:13) (6:13) (4:1)

Titus (3:5) (3:10) (3:4-7)

Hebrews (9:8) (10:29) (9:13-14) (10:1) (12:26-28) (1:14) (3:5) (11:6) (1:3) (6:4)

The Catholic Letters

James (1:17)

1 Peter (1:9-11) (4:14) (3:4)

2 Peter (1:4)

Jude (3) (6)


St. Athanasius almost covered all the books in the Bible as his reference. He used both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the OT, he used extensively the Books of Psalms, Prophet Isaiah and Prophet Ezekiel. And in the NT, St. Athanasius considers the Gospel of St John extensively and the works of St. Paul. In fact he considers St. Paul as the Apostle of Grace. The Acts of the Apostles too played significantly as a good reference in the Arguments of St. Athanasius regarding the Holy Spirit.


We can conclude that despite the struggles and difficulties – physically, materially, geographically, psychologically, spiritually and intellectually – St. Athanasius was still able to argue that the term spirit alone is different from the Spirit of God or My Spirit or the Spirit of my Father and others. Despite the struggles St. Athanasius was still able to argue that the Holy Spirit is not a mere creature or like the angels differing only in degree from the latter.

We can conclude further from here that the Holy Spirit can be defended just by using the sacred text – the holy Bible. But in arguing from the bible we must be conscious that the Sacred Scripture provides specifically the function of the Holy Spirit and not his nature per se. but then we can still employ the principle that agere siquitur esse.

Michael Schmaus opines that “the Scripture speaks more of the Holy Spirit’s function than of his nature.”[6] This is a good observation about the Holy Spirit as presented in the Bible both Old Testament and New Testament because this will complement the point of St. Athanasius in establishing the Bible as the foundation of his argument. What do I mean here is that, in establishing the argument St. Athanasius he started from the function or operation of the person of the Trinity in question – the Holy Spirit – because by doing so he might as well conclude the Holy Spirit’s nature and essence. Again, this is true because of the principle agere siquitur esse.

[1] C.R.B. Shapland, trans., The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, by St. Athanasius (London: The Epworth  Press, 1951), 58.

[2] Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 60.

[3] Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 61- 62.

[4]Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 61.

[5] They, the Tropici, say that this third person of the Trinity is actually not God nor divine but rather just a mere creature.

[6]  Michael Shmaus, Sacramentum Mundi: Concise Edition, ed. Karl Rahner. (Mumbai, India: St. Pauls, 2004), 642.