Phronema and Canons

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?

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.