Phronema and Canons
If you are Orthodox long enough, you will hear the term “phronema.” Phronema can have both a positive and a negative meaning. Many sources say that the word is used in Greek in two senses. One definition says:
Phronema is a transliteration of [a] Greek word, . . . which has the meanings of ‘mind’, ‘spirit’, ‘thought’, ‘purpose’, ‘will’, and can have either a positive meaning (‘high spirit’, ‘resolution’, ‘pride’) or a bad sense (‘presumption’, ‘arrogance’).
At its best, phronema is the process of acquiring not only the mind of the Church, but also the mind of Christ, both in dogma and in practice. Notice that phronema does not simply mean knowing correct dogma, but also doing correct practice. After all, the mind of the Church ought to always be the mind of Christ. The Orthodox Christian Information Center says the following concerning phronema:
The development of an Orthodox mindset—so essential in our day when there are so very few who propagate, or even recognize, the patristic ethos of Orthodoxy—cannot take place apart from orthopraxis.
And Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos says:
When we speak of having an orthodox mind we mean chiefly that our nous is the nous of Christ, as the Apostle Paul says, or at least that we accept the experience of the saints and have communion with them. This is the way of the life of the Orthodox Tradition and the way of life of Christ’s life. The orthodox mind is expressed by the dogmas of the Church, because, on the one hand, the dogmas express the life which the Church has and the revelation which the saints have received, and on the other hand, they lead the passionate people and the babes in Christ to unity and communion with God.
We must say at this point that the theology of the Church is ascetic, that is to say, it defines the methods of cure in order for man to attain deification….So the dogmas express the revelation and the life which the Church has and they also cure man and lead him towards deification. They are spiritual road signs. In this sense we can say that the dogmas save man and sanctify him. This happens because they cure him and give him the right orientation on his way towards God.
Now notice that the word “canon” shows up nowhere in the above definitions. That is because canons are the practical outworking of the dogma of the Church in the current pastoral situation. The word for canon (kanon) is a different word in Greek from the word which is used for “law” (nomos). That word for law, nomos, you find in the theological term “antinomian.” That is, an antinomian is a person who does not follow the law, or any restriction placed upon themselves. But, in the Greek (and Orthodox) mindset, a canon is not a law, but rather a canon is the practical or “medical” outworking of the dogma of the Church in order to apply what we believe and what we have received to the current situation in which the Church finds herself.
Because the purpose of canon is to apply the mind of Christ (phronema) to the practical circumstances in which the Church finds herself, canons themselves are medicine that help to keep us on the path of deification. But, because what is written can never completely and exactly apply to every pastoral situation, our hierarchs are called to apply those canons to us in a living way. Canons do not apply themselves. Living men whom the Holy Spirit has called apply the canons in a medicinal way. Where the bishop is, there is the Church. This is where the concept of eikonomia comes from. Eikonomia applies every time a bishop applies a canon, even if he applies it exactly as written. Eikonomia is the idea of the bishop rightly applying not just the canons, but also applying his wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to each and every situation in which he must render a decision or give guidance. Eikonomia is not an exception to the rule, rather, eikonomia is the way in which a bishop ought always to work. That is, their calling is to manage the household of God, the Body of Christ, which is what eikonomia means.
Most people assume that eikonomia is a special dispensation that frees you from observance to a certain canon. But, I have already said that eikonomia is the way in which the Church functions. In certain cases, out of pastoral concern, a bishop will not apply a canon in its as-written form. However, I was taught that the bishop could apply it either to loosen requirements or to go beyond the requirements of the canons to require even more than the canon requires. That is, as Saint John Chrysostom put it, some people cannot tolerate strong medicine and so, out of concern for their souls, we give them less medicine so that they may be able to bear it. But, I was taught that some people require “tough love,” and they may require the equivalent of the old joke about the mule. First, you have to get their attention, then you can tell them “giddiup.”
So, phronema, eikonomia, and canon are all linked together, but not in a juridical way. Rather, we pray that our bishops will have the mind of Christ (phronema) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that they can correctly oversee the household of God (eikonomia), applying the decisions of the Church (canon) in a way which will bring greater and greater health to the Body of Christ. Does it all make sense to you?
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