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May 30, 2011 Neopatristic, Postpatristic and Contextual "Theology"

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Translated by John Sanidopoulos

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, in Greek:  Κύριο ἄρθρο: Νεοπατερική, μεταπατερική καί συναφειακή «θεολογία»


As one studies the texts of the Holy Bible and the Fathers, one realizes that the basis of Orthodox theology is God's revelation - as given to the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers - throughout the ages.

Characteristic of this is the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Having spoken in many aspects and many ways in the past to the fathers and the prophets, in these last days God spoke to us through the Son" (Hebrews 1:1).

Thus, it is the Saints who are the divinely-inspired theologians, who formulate their experience in terms, in order to safeguard it from heresy and distortion. Therefore, the terms-dogmas are an important element of our tradition and no one can tamper with them without losing their path towards salvation.

Metropolitan of Nafpaktos HierotheosAn important phrase of the Hesychast Synod of the fourteenth century - as expressed in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy - is that our course is "according to the divinely-inspired theologies of the saints, and the pious conscience of the Church".

The Saints do not express their own theology; they only formulate according to their own particular gifts the revelation that they personally experienced in the Holy Spirit. Not only can there not be an Orthodox theology outside of this perspective; in fact, the very foundation of salvation would be seriously imperiled.

When interpreting what the Apostle Paul had said about his being swept up into Paradise where he "heard ineffable words, which are not befitting a man to utter" (2 Cor. 12:1-4), Saint Symeon the New Theologian said that those words were the illuminations of God's uncreated glory, and that they were referred to as "ineffable" because they could not be expressed perfectly by those receiving the experience of that revelation, as it is something beyond the measure of human nature and power.

Fr. John Romanides, when speaking about this subject, says that a revelation is given to Saints with ineffable words, and the Saints express it, as far as they are able, with created words, meanings and images, in order to teach other people so that they might walk the path of their salvation.

It becomes obvious that God's revelation is conveyed with the terms of each era, by the bearers of that Revelation - the true theologians - according to the definition provided by Saint Gregory the Theologian, that: "It is not for everyone to philosophize about God,... it is not for everyone, because it is for those who have been tested and who have lived in theoria, and before this have at least purified both soul and body or are undergoing purification...."

These theologians - the deified - are acquainted with God through experience; they recognize and respect all the preceding "God-seers" and they accept the terms that they had used.

Consequently, those who can - if necessary - make certain external changes are the true empirical theologians, who have the same tradition as the preceding Fathers. The rest of us owe obedience to those "initiated through experience" and are to be guided by them.

In the "Hagiorite Tome", which is the work of Saint Gregory Palamas, there is mention that the dogmas are familiar to "those who have become initiated by experience", who have forsaken money, the fame that people seek and the bad pleasures of the body, all for the sake of the evangelical life. They have confirmed this forsaking with their submission to those who have progressed to the measure of Christ, and, after having lived in sacred hesychasm with prayer, have become united with God in a mystical union with Him, and have thus become "initiated in things beyond the mind".

These are the true theologians of the Church, who possess the potential to formulate theology. Apart from them, there are also those who become joined to the aforementioned, "through modesty and faith and caring towards them".

There is no other way to theologize in the Orthodox Church, because outside of this theology, there only exists speculation, the chanting of slogans and secularism. Saint Gregory the Theologian, when observing "the tongue-wagging and the current wise men and the self-ordained theologians" who are satisfied only with the desire to be wise, says: "I desire the highest philosophy and seek the ultimate standard - according to Jeremiah - and wish to be only on my own." Indeed, we are nowadays overcome with sorrow, because our era is filled with "self-ordained theologians" who teach Clerics and laity and create confusion among the people.

These introductory words are deemed necessary for a better understanding of what follows.

1. "Palamite" and "Neo-Palamite" Theology

The fourteenth century was extremely important for the Church, because for the very first time Orthodox theology confronted the West's scholastic theology in the persons of Saint Gregory Palamas and Barlaam respectively.

In this dialogue, it became evident that Saint Gregory Palamas was the bearer and the expresser of the entire theology of the Church, from the first era of Christianity up until his time, given that he expressed the teaching of the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, the major Fathers of the fourth century, of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint John of Damascus, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, etc. During this entire period, the theology of the Church was uniform, changing only in its external formulation in certain points for the sake of various needs. That is why Saint Gregory was also characterized as a traditional as well as a progressive theologian.

Thus, the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas cannot be regarded as "Palamite" theology per se, but as the theology of the Orthodox Church as expressed by him. The same is observed with the teachings of all the Saints.

Usually, the views of heretics would take on the name of the person involved - for example "Arianism", "Nestorianism", "Paulicanism", etc. It is therefore regarded as unseemly to name the teaching of Saint Basil the Great as "Basilian", of Saint Gregory as "Gregorian", or of Saint John Chrysostom as "Chrysostomian" etc. As such, it is equally inappropriate to name the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas as "Palamite" theology.

However, at a certain point in time, the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas was in fact characterized by some as "Palamite". It is my impression that in most cases the term had a derisive nuance, intended to demote his teaching and make it seem like a strange one and different from the theology of the Church. There had even been theologians who in the past had actually written disparagingly about the overall hesychastic tradition expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas.

Eventually, the term "neopalamite" theology also appeared in an attempt to re-formulate and re-interpret the theology of this major Father of the Church for contemporary requirements. And this has created intense concern, because I believe that this is an endeavour to alter the teaching by Saint Gregory Palamas.

For example, a teaching of the Church on the relationship and the difference between Essence and Energy as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas may be analyzed, but, at the same time, the hesychast tradition is rejected as pietistic, though it is in fact the path for a personal partaking of the uncreated energy of God.

And the question posed here is: How can a scientist discuss a theory, when he rejects a practice that confirms it? That is just unscientific. This is why, according to "synodal opinion", those who do not accept the hesychast tradition as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas and the "monks who are in agreement" are excommunicated.

I have been aware of this mentality for many years now, on account of my preoccupation with the opus and the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas. That is why, when wishing to analyze his teaching and record my conclusions after many years, I did so on the basis of the lives of the sanctified Hagiorite Fathers, who continue to live that same hesychast tradition and experience that Saint Gregory Palamas had been acquainted with and had experienced himself on the Holy Mountain.

Thus, the work that I composed has the title "Saint Gregory Palamas As A Hagiorite". This aroused the displeasure of certain circles who insisted on interpreting the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas in a contemplative, scholastic and philosophical manner. One cannot however examine hesychast teaching independently of the space where it was experienced, and continues to be alive in to this day.

Consequently, the terms "palamite" and "neopalamite" theology belong outside of Orthodox Tradition and are a danger to the foundations of Orthodox theology.

2. Neopatristic and Postpatristic "Theology"

The previous example shows how contemporary theologians behave and react towards the Tradition of our Church. I have been in discussions with an Orthodox professor of biblical theology who teaches at a University abroad, but has been immensely influenced by Protestant ideas and who maintains that, since Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, the Fathers are the clouds that hide the Sun, in which case, we must remove the clouds in order to be illuminated directly by Christ. This point of view is anti-Orthodox.

I therefore believe it was from within this kind of perspective that the terms "neopatristic" and "postpatristic" theology were coined. At first, the term "neopatristic" timidly appeared on the scene, supposedly for the reason that Patristic texts shouldn't merely be repeated, but rather that the "spirit" of those texts has to be traced and be conveyed into present-day circumstances - in other words, to examine how the Fathers would have addressed contemporary issues.

Despite the well-meaning intentions of some, this is a perilous move because in reality, the entirety of Patristic theology is undermined when impassioned individuals attempt to transfer the "spirit" of the Fathers into their own era. An authentic transfer presupposes people who possess the same empirical knowledge - or at least are in contact with it.

Then followed the term "postpatristic" theology, inasmuch as it was considered that we no longer need the Fathers who had lived in other times, encountered other problems, confronted other ontological and cosmological questions, had "a totally different worldview" and, consequently, who are unable to help us out in our own era.

I believe that the neopatristic and postpatristic theologies are reminiscent of a viewpoint according to which Patristic theology was of value to its own era, and that later Western scholastic theology became superior to Patristic theology, while the theology of contemporary theologians surpasses both Patristic theology and scholastic theology.

Views such as these constitute landmines in the foundations of Orthodox theology, because they are characterized by the heretical view of a progressive revelation of the Truth through the ages, and that the Church deepens in Revelation over time, as opposed to the Orthodox teaching which clearly stresses that "all truth" was once-revealed on the day of Pentecost.

Thus, there is no deepening into the Truth over time, nor is there any progressive revelation of the Truth; only that the Church formulates that same, "once-revealed" Truth according to the problems of the time.

The appearance of so-called neopatristic and postpatristic theology is attributed to certain theologians who had worked in the Western sphere, with Paris as the centre. They had embarked in dialogues with Western thought and had tried to give answers to the problems that they had encountered.

We owe much to those theologians, for example Vladimir Lossky, who had written theological works using the Fathers of the Church, and in fact the ones known as Neptic Fathers. Among those theologians however, there are some who had expressed neopatristic, postpatristic and contextual theology. We shall make a brief mention of some of those ideas.

They mention an ecumenism which "should abandon verbal arguments in order to be founded upon an experimental reality of salvation: by re-submerging those systems and ideas (which in the long run are nothing more than traces within the spherical experience of the Church) into the best that Her experience possesses".

Fanaticism is linked to "confessional identity", which "constitutes, if not its seed, then at least the ground in which it is cultivated", and that is why there is word of reconstructing a house "with open doors, the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom", in which everyone will have a place. And whosoever does not wish to toil for the construction of such a house should be removed, while the "key" to that house is the best thing that one could possess, and that which unites us.

Also being traced are common, "contextual" points between Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. From within this perspective, "a new cultural mutation" must be attempted, and also (as stressed), "we Christians need to work hard on the prospect of this convergence. This is far more interesting, compared to arguing amongst ourselves."

"Postpatristic" and "contextual" ideas such as these are transferred into Greece in "middleman" style and are intended to either contradict the Fathers (who are regarded as "museums" of the past), or to misinterpret Patristic passages in order to incorporate them in the new mentality.

The purpose and the perspective of postpatristic and contextual theology is evident in just how dangerous it is for the Orthodox Church, leading Her into a syncretism - not only in the way of life but also in the expression of the faith. This in reality gives rise to doubt about the demarcation of the faith as done by the holy Fathers; in other words, it dismantles the entire theology of the Ecumenical Councils. This is a serious problem which needs to be tackled ecclesiastically.

3. The Terms of the Ecumenical Councils and the Living Organisms

We all need to accept the basic position that the Church is a living reality; that She is the Body of Christ and the community of theosis and, subsequently, that the Church gives birth to Fathers and not the Fathers who give birth to the Church. This means that every era is a patristic era, and that in every era there appear Fathers of the Church who are "living organisms".

However, these "living organisms" are not at all different to the preceding Fathers. Characteristically, when Saint John of Damascus - who lived in the 8th century - spoke of the Theotokos and repeated the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian: "If one does not confess the holy Virgin as the Theotokos (God-bearer), he is without deification", he commented: "These are not my own words, but they also are my words; for I have received this inheritance from the theologically endowed theologian Father Gregory."

In other words, Saint John of Damascus does not regard these words to be his, given that he had received them from Saint Gregory the Theologian who lived four centuries before him, but at the same time he also regards them as his own words, because they were an inheritance - a "most theological inheritance" - which he received "from a theological father" and verified. Those who desire to be theologians acknowledge the true theologians, accept their teaching, render them their own fathers, and they inherit - through spiritual birth - their words as well as their godly lifestyle.

It is in this manner that spiritual life is passed on from the past, during every era. Just as biological life is transferred from generation to generation from living - not dead - parents, thus likewise is the spiritual life within grace, the true theology, transferred by living - not dead - spiritual organisms. When referring to the illumination of the angelic hosts on high "according to rank" by God - that is, "from the first legion to the second and then onto the next one and so on" - Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that the same applies to the Saints also: "Thus, those who are attached to the preceding saints who, from generation to generation had become saints by observing God's commandments, similarly become illuminated." One becomes attached to the preceding Saints by observing God's commandments and becoming illuminated like they did. In this manner an uninterrupted chain is formed and every link is attached to the others with faith, with works and with love.

With this patristic teaching, the following words of the Apostle Paul are interpreted: "For even if you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, you do not have many fathers; in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you" (1 Cor.4:15). There is a difference between teachers-in-Christ and fathers-in-Christ. Spiritual Fathers beget spiritual children through the Gospel, that is, through observance of Christ's commandments, whereas educators simply teach.

Those living in the same tradition enforce the evangelical commandments in their lives; they struggle against their passions in order to attain the partaking of God; they also achieve communion with the other Saints who lived before them and who likewise belong to the same tradition. A characteristic quote by the Fathers who endorsed the "Hagiorite Tome" is the following: "These things we have been taught by the Scriptures; these things we have received from our Fathers; these things we have learnt with our small experience."

In the Biblical-Patristic tradition there is a difference between Prophets (God-seers or Theologians) and Speculators, analogous to the difference that exists between prophecy and speculation. The Prophet Elijah cries out: "Behold, the Lord God Sabaoth takes away from Judea and from Jerusalem the powerful man and the powerful woman ... and the prophet and the speculator" (Isaiah 3:1-2).

On interpreting this passage, Saint John the Chrysostom makes the distinction between speculator and prophet: "Here, it seems to me that he (Isaiah) calls 'speculator' the one who, because of much prudence, as well as out of an experience of things, ponders about the things to come," whereas prophecy is the inspiration of the Prophets by the Holy Spirit: "For speculation is another thing, and prophecy another; the latter utters things in the divine Spirit, contributing nothing of his own, while the former, taking causes from things already that have happened, and activating his own prudence, foresees many things of the future, as much as befits a prudent person to foresee." And he concludes: "But there is much in between the one and the other, as much as is the difference between human prudence and divine grace." And in order to justify that distinction, he indicates the difference between King Solomon and the Prophet Elisha.

Christ had declared to His contemporaries: "Did you not read what was told to you by God, Who said 'I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob'? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:31-32). For us Orthodox, God is not an abstract notion, nor is He an ideology; He is the one Who abides in living organisms - the Saints - according to the words of the liturgical prayer: "God, the Holy One, Who abides in the saints...", and according to the hymn, "the God of our Fathers" (not of post-fathers); the God of living organisms who exist in every era.

According to Fr. Georges Florovsky, the Church is apostolic because it is Patristic. He writes: "The Church is indeed 'apostolic', but it is also 'patristic'. Essentially, She is the 'Church of the holy Fathers'. It is impossible to separate the two characterizations. It is because the Church is 'patristic' that She is truly also 'apostolic'."

He also points out that in our time, after so many studies, "we are ready to admit the eternal prestige of the 'Fathers', as well as the fact that the Church is not 'a museum of dead deposits, nor is She a research company". The deposits are living ones - "depositum juvenescens" according to Saint Irenaeus. Faith is not an heirloom of the past, but rather 'the sword of the Spirit'". He furthermore confesses that the interpretation of the Holy Bible is done by the theology that is expressed by the Saints of every era. "The Scriptures are in need of interpretation. They are revealed in theology. And it is only possible through the bearer of the living experience of the Church."

Thus, in order for us to be Orthodox and possess the certainty of our salvation, there is no need for any neopatristic, postpatristic and contextual theology. We need two things: First, to remain steadfast - as it is our duty - to the terminology of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils because that terminology constitutes a significant part of the Orthodox Tradition - the true and authentic consensus patrum - but also to remain firm in the revealed truth that was given to the Fathers. Second, to seek "living organisms" who live within the "spirit of the Gospel" and the Ecumenical Councils - in other words, those who observe the Orthodox prerequisites of the dogmas, in order to guide us correctly in the observance of the dogma.

Unfortunately, those who speak of neopatristic, postpatristic and contextual theology have a problem with both of these prerequisites - that is, with the terms of the Ecumenical Councils and with the "living organisms" of ecclesiastical life.

This is the reason they are vexed by the theology that Fr. John Romanides expressed. It was because of this important teacher that the genuine Orthodox theology of the Ecumenical Councils with contemporary hesychastic tradition were linked; in other words, he linked theology with experience - the professorial chair with the hesychast retreat.

If theology is not expressed empirically it becomes speculation and it tires people, and if experience is not supported on the theology of the Ecumenical Councils it is merely a personal piety, which can possess "contextual" elements found in the other eastern traditions. Fr. John Romanides appears as a nuisance to the speculators, the philosophizing theologians, who are possessed by "speculative analogy" - as Saint Gregory Palamas called it.

Furthermore, this is the reason that - in my opinion - certain contemporary, significant Hagiorite personages (such as the Elders Porphyrios, Paisios, Joseph the Hesychast, Sophrony Zacharov, etc.) are doubted by some; the life and the teaching of such "living organisms" of ecclesiastical living are a nuisance to contemporary syncretistic theology.

In one of my speeches presented in the past for the purpose of documenting the theoretical teaching of the Church, I made use of texts by Fr. Porphyrios - a sanctified Hieromonk of our own time. I felt remarkably surprised when Orthodox theologians and Clergymen who were present had disagreed with my reference to words by Fr. Porphyrios, because according to their views, the Orthodox faith was being "ideologized".

My surprise was immense, because even in science, reference to people who produce an artistic or philosophical work is a token of its veracity, but according to certain contemporary theologians, a reference to people who live the true Orthodox theology is regarded as ideologizing! I have transcribed this entire discussion; if it is ever published the "deliberations of many hearts" will be revealed.

In conclusion, I believe that modern theology - which disengages itself from the Fathers and is expressed with sonorous terms, supposedly out of love for contemporary man - is dangerous for the Church and Her theology. It is truly a speculative method of theology - a populism that is practiced by "self-ordained theologians" on account of their incorrect interpretation of the term "royal priesthood".

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