”…one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
I found the article by Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis Director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, “From the ‘Return to the Fathers’ to the Need for a Modern Orthodox Theology” in Volume 54, Number 1 2010, of the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY to be one of the most uplifting and exciting articles I have read in years (I haven’t used the word exciting with an Orthodox writer for a long time!).
Orthodoxy’s efforts to define itself by adopting an absolutist and oppositional attitude Western Christianity has caused the Orthodox to become exclusivist and even sectarian, despite proclaiming in the creed a belief in a universal/catholic church. “Oneness” in much of current Orthodox interpretation of the Creed has come to mean not One universal church of all those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, but a sectarian view of a never pure enough remnant whose major task seems to be not just to stand against those who don’t measure up but even to expel as many people from the fellowship of Christ as is possible. Kalaitzidis notes:
“The consequences of this ‘return to the Fathers’ and the subsequent overemphasis on patristic studies were, among other things: (1) the neglect and devaluation of biblical studies; (2) an ahistorical approach to patristic theology and a subsequent exaltation of traditionalism;(3) a tendency toward introversion and Orthodox theology’s near total absence from the major theological developments and trends of the 20th century; (4) the polarization of East and West, and the cultivation and consolidation of an anti-western and anti-ecumenical spirit; and (5) a weak theological response to the challenges posed by the modern world and; more generally, the unresolved theological issues still remaining in the relationship between Orthodoxy and modernity.”
In a sense what the Patristic Revival in Orthodoxy has devolved to is a parroting of the Fathers, rather than understanding them and how and why they came to the conclusions they did in their day and age. The Fathers actively engaged their culture and time, today in Orthodoxy we assume that simply repeating the Fathers ought to be a defense against the modern age. The Fathers did not simply parrot the Scriptures, they interpreted and used them with authority, as Christ Himself had done in His lifetime (Mark 1:22). Kalaitzidis says this occurred because “Patristic theology was mythologized” – or perhaps even worse we treat the words of the Fathers as some kind of magic against the dark powers of modernity: simply by repeating their words we assume the truth will be established in hocus pocus fashion. Kalaitzidis says we have lost sight of the history of the battles that took place to adopt the language of the Patristic age.
“Today, we have come to regard that encounter as self-evident, forgetting the titanic battles that preceded it. Perhaps we are unaware or fail to notice how difficult and painful it was for primitive Christianity (with its Jewish and generally Semitic roots and origins) to accept and incorporate Hellenic concepts and categories such as nature, essence, homoousion,hypostasis, person, logos, intellect, nous, meaning, cause, power, accident, energy, kath’holou, cosmos, etc. But this ahistorical approach to patristic theology is in fact a ‘betrayal’ of the spirit of the Fathers inasmuch as it betrays and ignores the very core and essence of their thought, i.e., a continuous dialogue with the world, and an encounter with and assumption of the historical, social, cultural, and scientific context of their time…”
The end result of this process is that the Orthodox by invoking the Fathers for every problem we face has simply created a “patristic fundamentalism” exactly like the biblical fundamentalism Orthodox reject, including an endless proof texting of the Fathers. Passages and quotes are totally removed from their context and put in collections of sayings that are treated like magic. No longer do the Orthodox feel the need to study, wrestle with or interpret the Scriptures for now all they have to do is read quotes from the Fathers which become the Scriptures for Orthodox. Orthodoxy today sometimes behaves as if it is a house which must keep its doors shut and blinds drawn on its windows so as not to see the world, yet somehow hoping the world will be attracted to the house by its strangeness. It is also why I found Kalaitzidis’ article so exciting: he is opening the blinds and the doors and telling us Orthodox to take a good look at ourselves AND to see the world around us.
Kalaitzidis wrote: “Orthodox people content themselves with theory, and make no progress or fall tragically short when it comes to practice; that we prefer to ‘contemplate’ and ‘observe’ rather than to act…” I found this statement to resonate with the Orthodox of Russia, especially as I listen to the lectures, A HISTORY OF RUSSIA: FROM PETER THE GREAT TO GORBACHEV, by Professor Mark Steinberg. For decades crossing centuries Russian tsars and noblemen discussed reform and freeing the serfs without doing anything about it. It all seemed to be exercises in philosophy with no changes being brought about. The lack of reforms though allowing decades of discussions on such topics contributed to the Bolshevik revolt simply sweeping aside those who had no intention of changing anything.