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Thomas Shaw: Talking about the devil - Tribute to Fr. John S. Romanides

The Orthodox Reader
January, 1999
No. 17


Talking About the Devil

by Thomas Shaw

( Article translated in Greek: Π. Ιωάννης Σ. Ρωμανίδης (1927-2001) - Thomas Shaw: Μιλώντας για τον Διάβολο )

Two decades ago, while still a young Orthodox Christian, I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Alexander Schmemann speak. I cannot clearly remember now the topic of his talk, but one sentence still rings in my ears, "What surprises those in the ecumenical movement is that while they are discussing the great project of unification of the churches, the Orthodox are still talking about the Devil."

Orthodoxy is still talking about the Devil because we continue to see his effect on the culture around us and we continue to experience his war upon the Church. Because we are engaged in this unseen warfare, Orthodox theology has always been dynamic. Each generation must discover the truths of the Holy Tradition anew, and in that process of discovery there will be differing understanding of the content of the Tradition. This dynamism has always brought forth controversial theologians within the Church. They are those who step outside the safe formulas and attempt to rephrase the Tradition using unfamiliar guideposts.

Thomas Shaw:  Talking about the devil - Tribute to Fr. John S. RomanidesOne such theologian is Fr. John Romanides. His work, in contrast to today’s micro-specialist, presents a strong unified thesis that he applies over vast periods of time and place. His boldness is dismissed as simplistic and overly dogmatic by some.
I first encountered Fr. Romanides as a student of theology at the University of Thessaloniki. I was in the last course he taught in Orthodox Dogmatics before his retirement. I took classes from him for three years and have read most of his works including Franks, Romanism, Feudalism and Doctrine (available from Holy Cross Theological School).

Fr. Romanides is every bit the absentminded professor. His nickname at Holy Cross was Fr. Midnight because he seemed so unaware of his surroundings when he talked. He would always begin a lecture the same way. Sitting down, he would speak in a soft, almost inaudible, voice. Beginning almost in mid-thought, it seemed as if the lecture were already going on in his head. As he warmed to his subject his voice would raise and his eyes would flash. Sometimes he would become very quiet and would even seem to nod off for brief periods. His lectures were always well attended because he was a man with something to say. It seemed odd that even though his area of expertise was dogmatics, his lectures always seemed to be history. The details of the goings-on in 9th and 10th century France and Italy were constantly being related, or the details of 18th century France and Russia. He was criticized for this. After all, he was not a trained historian!. But as a patristic theologian, he taught that the Fathers cannot be understood without understanding their history.

Fr. Romanides has an overarching thesis: the purpose of the Church is to heal man of spiritual illness brought on by the Fall (this spiritual illness is characterized by the quest for happiness) and enable him to know God. His secondary thesis is that dogmatic controversies throughout the history of the Church are caused by those who do not understand the function of the Church as a spiritual hospital. Thus, the real difference with the West is their loss of this understanding which occurred because the Western ecclesiastical institutions were subverted by political forces into mere political institutions. As political institutions they became concerned with man’s happiness instead of his glorification; with mere forgiveness of sins, rather than purification.

It is this thesis that is controversial. It is accepted in ecumenical  circles that the explanation for the schism of East and West is cultural. According to this concept, the Western, Latin-speaking, Roman Church and the Eastern, Greek-speaking, Byzantine Church became estranged due to cultural and political factors. The essential elements of the "undivided Church" remain the same in both East and West. The task of ecumenical theology is to regain this lost common understanding.

Romanides’ thesis attacks these concepts. There never was a "Byzantine" Empire.  This was an invention of 18th century Western historians. The Roman political institutions remained intact from the founding of New Rome, Constantinople, in the 4th century to its fall in the 14th century. Romanides, then, tells a different story. Not the story of the Greek East and the Latin West, but the story of Romans and Franks. His is a story not of people drifting apart, but of the Romans struggling to assert the truths of Orthodoxy even when faced with impossible opposition. His understanding of the crucial centuries leading up to the schism and the crusades is one of the systematic subjection of the Roman population of the West to the Frankish overlords who eventually were able to capture even the Roman papacy and conform it to their feudalistic scheme.

The truth of his thesis is captured in our language where franchise (to have the rights of a Frank) means to be able to vote and villain (Roman town dwellers) means an evil man. It was not the Roman Empire in the East that was estranged from its roots and traditions, but the Roman Empire in the West which was replaced by feudalism. So, while other theologians discuss the great project of unifying the churches, Romanides keeps talking about the Devil.

It is the story of warfare, seen and unseen. It is the story of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in the West and the threat to us as Orthodox if we do not understand our history, our heritage, and our Holy Tradition rightly. If we allow the Holy Orthodox Church to become simply another cultural institution with its peculiar rites and practices, if we allow the Holy Orthodox Church to become a religion, we will be playing the Devil’s own game and will subject ourselves to our overlords without a peep.

Because of the controversy surrounding Romanides’ secondary thesis, many lose track of his first and primary thesis. Let Fr. John state it himself, "We are obliged to have a clear picture of the context within which the Church and the State viewed the contribution of the glorified to the cure of the sickness of religion which warps the human personality by means of its search for happiness both in this life and after the death of the body. It is within this context that the Roman Empire legally incorporated the Orthodox Church into its administrative structure. Neither the State nor the Church saw the mission of the Church as the simple forgiveness of sins of the faithful for their entrance into heaven in the next life... Both the Church and the State knew well that the forgiveness of sins was only the beginning of the cure of the happiness seeking sickness of humanity. This cure begins by the purification of the heart, it arrives at the restoration of the heart to its natural state of illumination and the whole person begins to be perfected beyond one's natural capacities by the glorification of body and soul by God's uncreated glory (shekina). The result of this cure and perfection was not only the proper preparation for life after the death of one's body, but also the transformation of society here and now from a collection of selfish and self-centered individuals to a society of persons with selfless love ‘which does not seek its own.’"

For those interested in reading Fr. Romanides’ works, they are available on the World Wide Web at
@Copyright 1999, by Thomas Shaw.  All rights reserved.

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