Conservatism and secularization in the area of Theology
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios
The trends in Orthodox Theology today
For someone to speak of Orthodox Theology and the currents that exist in our time, both in Greece and beyond Greece – that is, wherever there are Orthodox theologians, I think one should begin with the Creed, where we declare “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. That is, we believe in a Church that is ONE, Holy, Overall and Apostolic.
The word “ONE” signifies that the Church is one, because Her Head is only one – Christ – and His body is only one. He cannot have many bodies.
She is “Holy”, because Her Head is Holy and it sanctifies the body. It is NOT the body that sanctifies the head; it is the body that is sanctified by the head.
Then we say that it is “Apostolic”. Why is the Church called “Apostolic”? She is called Apostolic, because She is based on the Apostles, who had received the experience, the entire teaching, from Christ Himself and on the day of the Pentecost had become members of Christ’s Body, and because it was through them that the Holy Spirit had spoken.
The Church is also called “Catholic” (overall), because She extends throughout the world, and possesses the uniform truth. The word “catholic” is of Aristotelian origin and denotes the “entirety”, that is, the “complete”. Therefore we are saying that the Church is the complete Truth, which is diffused – according to Saint Cyprianos – throughout the world.
It is important to mention that Fr. George Florovsky says that the Church is Apostolic, precisely because She is Patristic. Why? Because the Fathers are the successors of the Holy Apostles. And we are certain that this Church is Apostolic, precisely because of the succession of Fathers throughout the centuries; because, if one were to stop at the Apostles and state that the Church is Apostolic (that there are the Apostles and only the sacred Gospel, and that consequently anyone can interpret it the way they want, without the hermeneutics of the holy Fathers throughout the centuries and more so of the Ecumenical Synods), then that would certainly present an entirely different aspect of the Church: it would confine Her within a time frame. The Fathers were the ones who transferred the Apostolic Tradition into each period of time.
Therefore, that which we call “Church” is the Church that rests on the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers. That is, on the Prophets who had seen the not-yet-incarnated Logos, and on the Apostles who had seen the incarnate Logos and became the blessed Body of Christ – members of Christ’s Body – and it was through them that Christ spoke. The Fathers are the successors of the Holy Apostles.
Saint Gregory Palamas says somewhere: “this is the perfection that is salvific, both in knowledge and dogmas: that prophets, apostles and fathers believed the same things” - throughout the centuries - “through which persons the Holy Spirit is witnessed as speaking of both God and His creations.”
Consequently, the authentic Theology - on which we all rely and is the Theology of the Church – is the Theology of the Prophets, of the Apostles and of the Fathers. It is also the Theology of the Ecumenical Synods, because if we observe – if we actually read the Minutes of the Ecumenical Synods very attentively, we will see that they too rest on the Prophets (who are “sighters” and are called “sighters and seers” like the Prophet Samuel, whom they called “the seer”, the “sighter”, because the Prophets weren’t theorizers; they were God-sighters). But the Synods also rested on the Apostles and the Fathers throughout the years. THAT is the authentic Theology, and THAT is what the Church preserves.
Now, over time, and through theorizing theologians, other theological traditions have been introduced. And so we have the authentic Theology of the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers, and we also have other theologies, certain other trends which have entered the Church - from other directions, or from within the space of the Orthodox Church - given that there are people who theorize by themselves and create various trends. For example, in the West from the 11th century to the 13th, there arose a theology called “Scholastic”, which had Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy at its core; that philosophy mainly rested on logic - not the heart, nor the experience of God in the Holy Spirit. Later, another theology was developed by a certain Russian theologian, Alexei Khomiakov, who wanted to break away from Scholastic theology (and rightly so). But at the same time it was as though he had even surpassed (he thought he had actually gone beyond) Patristic Theology. Thus, a theory was developed that Scholasticism was a theology superior to the Theology of the Fathers; that Patristic Theology ended in the 8th century with Saint John of Damascus.
So we have Scholastic theology which sees itself superior to Patristic Theology because it rests more on Philosophy and on Speculation and not just on some external symbols; then came Russian theology of the 18th and 19th century, which regarded itself superior both to Patristic Theology as well as Scholastic theology.
These trends unfortunately arrived in Greece also. There are people who went abroad to study and who transferred those trends into our space, so now we have on the one hand the genuine expressers of Patristic Theology – which is the living Theology of the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers – and there are others who have a speculative, moralistic (and I could say even a slightly cultural theology), which differentiates itself in many ways from the teachings of the Holy Fathers. And why does it differentiate itself? It differentiates itself, because they are trying to interpret all of God’s matters through the contemporary philosophy of the West – let’s say for example the philosophy of German idealism. They assumed elements of German idealism regarding the matter of “being”, which is a revival of Platonism, while others revived Aristotelianism also. Thus, it was from within these that they had taken certain elements and had transferred them into our Orthodox Tradition.
We can see these trends. I don’t need to make any specific analysis of these matters now, as it would demand too much time. But what I must stress now is the Authentic Theology of the Holy Fathers, which is the succession of the Prophets and the Apostles, and is also of the Ecumenical Synods. At the same time, there are two other trends that we could mention: the one is conservative, and looks upon this Theology in an impermeable and limited manner, minus the experience; it merely focuses on the dogmas without focusing on the essence of the dogmas, because dogmas presuppose an “inner” life; as Fr. John Romanides used to say: “Dogmas aren’t supposed to be placed on the iconostasis and be venerated; a dogma is intended for the shaping of an ethos”. Subsequently, they are merely regarding and relaying the Patristic terms, but with a certain ill will that creates a problem; it is a form of conservatism. Then on the other hand there is a kind of secularization, whose upholders say: “Let’s leave the Fathers to that era, and let’s see how the Fathers would have spoken in our day and age, and that they would have spoken somewhat differently in our time”. This may contain a truth, but it also creates a delusion; why? Because – most certainly – if one has the experience that the Fathers had, he can speak in our time thanks to having that experience, and merely using a somewhat different phraseology, but certainly NOT by disregarding the terms and the dogmas of the Ecumenical Synods. However, if one does NOT possess that experience, how can he regard himself as a Father of the Church? The Fathers had attained “theoria” – the sighting of God; they had attained the “innermost” experience and they expressed that experience, using the terms of their time.
I therefore believe that the genuine Theology exists, and that we can observe it, in living organisms – for instance, when we visit the Holy Mountain we see people today who possess the experience and the life of the Church and of the Saints as preserved within the Church. THEY are the living organisms; THAT is the authentic Theology: the one that is expressed using the terms of the times. And while these people possess this living Theology, they also have a love for God, they have experience of God without any fanaticism, without zealotry, and without secularizing it. And THAT is where I believe the basis of everything rests: Experience, which is linked to prayer – which we refer to as “nepsis” or sobriety, fasting, night-vigil, praying… And whoever possesses the experience, can later transfer this life of the past into the present, thus averting conservatism and zealotry on the one hand, and on the other, also averting secularization.
Saint Paisios, whom we became acquainted with here, on the Holy Mountain, used to say: “There are some who take the dogmas and squeeze them into their own logic and subject them to mental processing and render them an intellectual Theology, and there are those who take the dogmas and use them with anger and their teeth, by grinding the dogmas with their teeth and thus generating fanaticism. True Theology however is life; it is the living Tradition that exists inside the Church, which expresses itself in the Holy Spirit without conservatism and fanaticism, but rather with strength and fervour of spirit, without remaining superficial (that is what conservatism is). Tradition is one thing, conservatism is another. Conservatism is to take the past and carry it into the future like a canned product – a conserve; THAT’S what conservatism is. Tradition is the fresh product, the living tradition that one savours inside the Church with repentance and the ecclesiastic way of life overall, and that is how conservatism as well as secularization are averted – both of which are problems within the Church.
We are therefore invited to be actual Orthodox, having repentance, prayer and Holy Communion as our basis and living charismatically within the space of our Church.”