Modern Orthodox Theology: Do What the Fathers Did, Not Just What They Said

St. Paul

”…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.”

Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council

 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.

Next:  Tradition: Revealing the Eschaton Not Seeking the Past

13 thoughts on “Modern Orthodox Theology: Do What the Fathers Did, Not Just What They Said

  1. If a complacent attitude exists in the Orthodox church, might it be due to the perception of the passive nature of the martyrs who just accepted the will of God? Should not the emphasis be on living for Christ instead of dying for him?

    1. Fr. Ted

      It is possible.
      There may be many reasons why the Orthodox are passive about certain things – certainly the hierarchical nature of the church sometimes encourages it as did the hierarchical nature of the Byzantine and Russian cultures; the monastic ephmasis on obedience can encourage it; having members perceive of themselves as receptors of the Holy Spirit or of the sacraments or of instruction rather than active ministers encourages it; and over emphasis on a master-disciple relationship can encourage it; clericalism or the professionalization of the clergy can encourage it;fears of heresy or even of change can encourage it as can a distorted fear of God.
      But the point of the article is we can look at ourselves as Orthodox and think about our lives in Christ and choose a new way – we can repent!

  2. Pingback: Patristic Fundamentalism? | The Church of Jesus Christ

    1. Fr. Ted

      For me, your reading of the text treats each sentence like a talisman – each sentence has magical power in and of itself and you rip them from their context and just mix and combine them to “prove” or disprove anything you want. The text of the Scriptures has a context – a people entrusted with interpreting them, the text has a history, and the texts come together as a whole, not as a a series of 10,000 passages which can be magically fit together to make them say something you want them to say. Sorry, your witness is totally unconvincing.

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    It’s been said that fundamentalism is the flip-side of liberalism–both are creations of modernity. Every Christian tradition has its own form of fundamentalism. Protestantism has its biblicism. Catholicism has its Denzinger manualism. And Orthodoxy has its patristic florilegia.

  4. What it seems to do is neglect that the Fathers are amongst the Communion of Saints. Reading the church fathers is not bad at all but turning them into a critical study or reducing them to such proof-texting leaves them void of their relationship with us. They become our slaves rather than sharing actual communion with us.

    1. Fr. Ted

      In some ways, I feel the opposite, we don’t turn them into slaves, but we enslave ourselves to them – patristic fundamentalism. We insist they must be read literally and their words are no longer living but are petrified and ossified walls which imprison us. To steal and rework a phrase – they are meant to be good servants to us – to help us deal with our current issues, but we turn them into tyranical masters. They actively engaged their world, but we want to use them to prevent ourselves from engaging the world.

      1. I’m not certain if I would be able to think for a moment that the Fathers who have proceeded us and belong to the Church Triumphant can be thought of to any extent as our servants. I read many medieval mystics and some of the Eastern Fathers and I think of them as more engaging with a friend who has fought the battle already and has taught us as well.

        I agree that much of the time, we look to the Fathers for confirmation bias and refuse to let ourselves engage the world but at the same time, the primary purpose is to listen to them. The scriptures were gifted to us by the Church that they were a part of and they laid down the path the Church ought to follow. We continue in the following of them. They followed our Lord. In some aspects, they can be servants in that they do help to lead us to God as God came to serve us in the incarnation. But primarily we are their audience.

        With respect to literal readings, the fathers do teach us a multi-layered sense to understanding scriptures which includes both literal and allegory. I presume that the church fathers may have a multi-layered sense of meaning as well but I dare not venture to tell another man who is in relation with me what it is he means.

      2. Fr. Ted

        I think about Christ’s words: But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
        The Fathers are the great among us, and so I think they fulfill the teaching of Christ by serving us, just as we are to sever one another.

  5. Be VERY careful here, as this sort of excited and heady atmosphere was exactly what eventually led to the near collapse, whitewash and rewrite of Roman Catholicism in the wake of Vatican II. While I agree that fundamentalism and an obsessive use of the Fathers out of context is a bad thing, I think that thus far Orthodoxy’s strength lies in its inherent conservatism and respect for Tradition, both in the big and he small things. Don’t open a Pandora’s Box too soon, or without being very humble and careful about it.

  6. Pingback: Thou shalt be historically literate! – moreorthodoxy

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