The patristic heritage and modernity.
St John of Damascus has defined the Tradition of the church as the "boundaries put up by our Fathers". (1) Earlier even, St Athanasius of Alexandria spoke of the "Tradition from the beginning" and of the "faith of the universal church, which the Lord gave, which was preached by the apostles and preserved by the Fathers". (2) These words express the essence of our faith as "apostolic", "patristic" and "Orthodox", (3) a faith rooted in holy scripture and holy tradition, an inseparable component of which are the works of the holy Fathers.
It is obvious why Christian faith should be "apostolic": transmitted by God the Word become flesh, it was passed on to the apostles as a talent for them to multiply in order to bear fruit, thirty-fold and sixty-fold and an hundred-fold in the history of different nations. It is obvious why our faith should be "Orthodox": a right notion of God (which is precisely the main significance of the Greek orthodoxo) is essential for salvation, while a wrong understanding of God leads to spiritual ruin.
But why should faith be "patristic"? Might this imply that Orthodoxy must be necessarily styled as in the "patriarchal days of old"? Or is it that, as Christians, we should always be turned towards the past instead of living in the present or working for the future? Should perhaps some "golden age" in which the great Fathers of the church lived, the 4th century for instance, be our ideal, a bearing to guide us? Or, finally, could this imply that the formation of our theological and ecclesial tradition has been completed during the "patristic era", and that, subsequently, nothing new may take place in Orthodox theology and Orthodox church life in general?
If this were so--and there are many who think exactly this--it would mean that our principal task is to watch over what remains of the Byzantine and Russian heritage, and vigilantly guard Orthodoxy against the infectious trends of modern times. Some act in precisely this way: fearfully rejecting the challenges of modernity, they dedicate all their time to preserving what they perceive as the traditional teaching of the Orthodox church, explaining that in the present times of "universal apostasy" no creative understanding of Tradition is needed, since everything already has been understood and demonstrated by the Fathers centuries earlier. Such supporters of "protective Orthodoxy" like, as a rule, to refer to the "teachings of the holy Fathers". Yet in reality they do not know patristic doctrine: they make use of isolated patristic notions to justify their own theories and ideas without studying patristic theology in all its pluriformity and totality.
No one will challenge the need for preserving the patristic heritage. The "protective" element is emphasized in the words of St Athanasius given above: the Fathers have preserved Holy Tradition for us. But have they preserved this treasure for it to wither away, like the talent buried in the ground, unearthed from time to time to establish whether it has corroded from so long a lack of use? Have the Fathers written books for us to keep on shelves, dusting them from time to time and ever so rarely consulting them for that obligatory quote?
If we concentrate only on the preservation and conservation of what has been accumulated by our Fathers before us, then things are quite simple. When, however, our vocation is to invest the talent of the patristic heritage, we find ourselves confronted by a tremendous task indeed, comprising not only the study of the works of the Fathers, but also their interpretation in the light of contemporary experience; it similarly requires an interpretation of our contemporary experience in the light of the teaching of the Fathers. This not only means studying the Fathers; the task before us is also to think patristically and to live patristically. For we will not be able to understand the Fathers if we have not shared their experience and endeavours, at least to a certain degree.
This task is tremendous and inspiring, yet at the same time quite hazardous. Just as no one who decides to invest his "talent" is warranted against bankruptcy, no theologian who approaches the appropriation of the patristic heritage in a creative way is preserved from error. The distance--in time, culture, and spirituality--between the Fathers and us is too great, it seems too difficult to surmount the obstacles that confound our attempts to penetrate the mind of the Fathers. Yet as long as we fail to surmount these obstacles, we cannot fulfil the mission entrusted to us by the modern age as members of the Orthodox church. This mission consists in the capacity not only to make our faith truly "patristic", but also to express it in a language accessible to 21st century human beings.
The works of the Fathers are not a mere museum exhibit, just as the "patristic faith" should not be understood as only a heritage of past centuries. The opinion that the holy Fathers are the theologians of the past is quite widespread nowadays. This "past" itself is defined in varying ways. According to some, the patristic age ends in the 8th century with St John of Damascus's Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, summing up several centuries of theological dispute. Others situate its end in the 11th century with the final schism between the first and the second Rome, or mid-way through the 15th century, when the second Rome, Constantinople, fell, or in 1917, with the fall of the "third Rome", Moscow, as the capital of an Orthodox empire. Therefore a return to "patristic roots" is conceived as a return to the past and the restoration of the 7th, 15th or 19th century.
This point of view must be rejected. In the opinion of Fr Georges Florovsky, "The church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively than in the ancient times"; therefore it is not possible to limit the "patristic age" to one or other historic era. (4) A well-known contemporary theologian, Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia states, "An Orthodox must not simply know and quote the Fathers, he must enter into the spirit of the Fathers and acquire a `patristic mind'. He must treat the Fathers not merely as relics from the past, but as living witnesses and contemporaries." Bishop Kallistos does not consider the patristic age to have ended in the 5th or 8th century; the patristic era of the church continues to this day:
Indeed, it is dangerous to look on "the Fathers" as a closed cycle of writings belonging to the past, for might not our own age produce a new Basil or Athanasius? To say that there Can be no more Fathers is to suggest that the Holy Spirit has deserted the church. (5)
Hence the confession of a "patristic faith" not only implies the study of patristic writings and the attempt to bring the legacy of the Fathers to life, but also the belief that our era is no less "patristic" than any other. The "Golden Age" inaugurated by Christ, the apostles and the early Fathers endures in the works of the church Fathers of our days, to last as long as the church of Christ will stand on this earth and as long as the Holy Spirit will animate it.
Many are accustomed to speak of the "holy Fathers" as a group of persons working together and writing approximately the same things. In reality the Fathers of the church lived at different eras, related their writings to distinct cultural, historical, ecclesial and theological contexts, and were not seldom engaged in controversy with one another (here it is enough to mention St John Chrysostom and St Epiphanius of Cyprus, St Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, St Joseph of Volotsk and St Nilus of Sora). Besides this, some Fathers have expressed so-called "private theological opinions" (theologumena) (6) not adopted by the fullness of the church. One may ask in relation to this: is it at all acceptable to speak of the "teaching of the holy Fathers" as a unique and coherent theological system, or should the expression "patristic theology" be used as a generic term only (in the way that we speak, for instance, of "ancient philosophy")?
I will attempt to answer this question in a moment. For the time being I would like to ask a second question: How is the so-called consensus patrum, the "accord of the Fathers", to be understood? This concept, borrowed from Western theology, is quite questionable. Some understand the consensus patrum as a kind of "theological summa" or "common denominator" of patristic thought produced by cutting away the individual traits of every author. Others consider that the "accord of the Fathers" presupposes their consent on essential matters, with possible disagreement on isolated issues. Personally, I support the second point of view. I believe, as I have said on other occasions, (7) that the many private opinions of the Fathers, the fruits of the spiritual quest of men of faith illuminated by God, may not be artificially pruned in order to produce some simplified theological system or "summa".
This understanding of the "accord of the Fathers" has been criticized for allowing any church Father's private opinions--even if they disagree with those of other Fathers--to be "fixed" (that is, adjusted to conform) to the "consensus". Yet there is no talk of "fixing" things. I have expressed the view that, whilst the Fathers agree on the essentials, their opinions on particular issues may vary and that, when the works of a Father present an opinion that contradicts the teaching of other Fathers, we should not too hastily reject it as a "private theological opinion" which falls outside the "accord of the fathers". It is also pointless to try and prove, against the facts of textual criticism, that patristic texts holding such opinions have been falsely attributed or corrupted by heretics. The fact of such a theological opinion being "private", and even contradictory, to other Fathers does not automatically mean that it falls outside the "consensus".
As an example, let me mention the "private opinion" of St Symeon the New Theologian that the power "to bind and to loose" does not pertain to all priests but only to those who "who serve in the priestly ministry of the gospel in a spirit of humility and who live a blameless life". (8) It is insufficient to receive "the ordination from men only" (ek anthropon heirotonian); (9) one must be "foreordained" (proheiristheis), that is, designated by God through the Holy Spirit. (10)
Neither monks for their exterior aspect [St Symeon writes] nor those ordained and elevated to the rank of priesthood, nor those granted episcopal dignity--patriarchs, I say, metropolitans or bishops--have received from God the power to forgive sins just like that, only in view of their ordination and dignity--this shall not be! For they are merely allowed to perform the mysteries (hierourgein), and still only those priests, bishops and monks that can be counted among the disciples of Christ for their purity. (11)
At first glance, such a point of view might seem close to Donatism, which maintained that sacraments administered by unworthy clerics and other traditores (betrayers of the faith in Christ) cannot be "effective". There are, however, several arguments that permit us to see more in Symeon's words than merely the Donatist affirmation that the effectiveness of the sacraments administered by a priest depends on his moral condition. First of all, the above texts by Symeon do not so much question the effectiveness of sacraments administered by unworthy priests, as emphazise the need to receive a particular calling from God before attempting the service of spiritual fatherhood; in other words, the power "to bind and to loose" must be "earned" by the priest by means of his moral self-perfection. Secondly, the Eastern tradition never expressed the opition as straightforwardly and unequivocally as the West that the effectiveness of sacraments is independent of the personal qualities of the priest. (12) Thirdly, one cannot fail to see that in expressing such thoughts, Symeon follows the teaching of earlier Fathers. Long before Symeon, St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that as long as a man has not risen above his passions and cleansed his intellect, he should not take the priestly service upon himself. (13) As St Gregory says, "A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others: himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them." (14) Both Gregory and Symeon had a very elevated understanding of the priesthood, and both were concerned by the low moral state of the episcopate and clergy of their times.
We should also bear in mind that Symeon the New Theologian lived in post-iconoclast times, when the authority of the hierarchical clergy among simple believers was very low; many preferred to see monks, even non-ordained, for confession. The moral state of the clergy was therefore an "issue of the day", and the fate of the church in years to come depended on its resolution. Confidence in the hierarchical priesthood could most effectively be restored through a significant rise in its moral level, which was precisely the concern of Symeon the New Theologian: it is in the light of this concern that his demanding attitude and critical assessment of the hierarchy and clergy should be understood.
One may ask with bewilderment: If two Fathers of the church express contradictory opinions, where, then, is truth to be found? I consider such a question to be an inadmissible simplification. There is one truth and, as Clement of Alexandria says, "The way of truth is one." But into it, "as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides". (15) One and the same truth may be expressed differently by different Fathers, in different times, in different languages, in different contexts. Besides this, one and the same truth may have several aspects, each of which may be articulated, emphasized, developed or, on the contrary, left in obscurity. The truth has many facets, many shapes, and is dialectical. For instance, the thesis that sacraments administered by a priest who has been canonically ordained by a bishop are effective and salutary is true. But no less true is the antithesis, according to which the moral countenance of the priest should correspond with the prominence of his orders and the sacraments he administers. Between both affirmations there is quite a wide expanse, wherein a theological synthesis may be sought. All that falls within that expanse belongs to the consensus patrum; all that falls beyond is heresy. Donatism, which goes beyond the framework of the "consensus", is a heresy, whereas the teaching of St Symeon the New Theologian on the "power to bind and to loose", which remains within that expanse, is absolutely correct--even though it is distinct from opinions expressed by other Fathers who lived in other historical contexts, wrote in other languages and emphasized other aspects of the very same truth.
Apart from this, one and the same truth may find different terminological expressions. The best known example is the teaching of the third and fourth ecumenical councils on the God-manhood of Jesus Christ. The third ecumenical council (of Ephesus) expressed this teaching in the terms of Alexandrian Christology, based on the teaching of St Cyril of Alexandria (going back to Apollinarius) about the "one nature, and that incarnate, of the divine Word". The fourth ecumenical council, on the contrary, armed itself with the Antiochene christological tradition emphasizing the "two natures" of Christ. Represented by their finest spokesmen, neither the Alexandrian nor the Antiochene tradition disputed the fullness of the divinity of Christ and the fullness of his humanity; both affirmed that Christ is "consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and the same consubstantial with us in manhood". Yet one and the same truth of the fullness of divinity and humanity in Christ was expressed differently by two theological traditions, with both expressions proven essentially "Orthodox".
Naturally, there were deviations from the Orthodox teaching both on the Alexandrian and Antiochene side. On the side of the Alexandrines the most explicit deviation was the teaching of Eutyches, who spoke about the total absorption of Christ's humanity by his divinity; as if there were two natures before the incarnation, and one nature afterwards. The extremes of Antiochene tradition were expressed in the teaching of Nestorius, who spoke of a cleavage of Christ into "two hypostases", "two persons" and "two sons". One might say that each of the great theological traditions experienced the danger of falling into heresy, and that the boundary between Orthodoxy and heresy was not always sufficiently apparent, with the result that some theologians crossed it without wishing to do so. Among the latter some, realizing the error of their opinions, returned to the bosom of Orthodox theological thought, while others remained on the side of the heretics. Moreover some of these theologians were "fortunate enough" to be condemned for heresy in their life-time, thus having to choose either the Orthodox or the heretical teaching; others died at peace with the church, only to be condemned later, sometimes even after several centuries.
Conformity of a given theological opinion with the "accord of the Fathers" guarantees its Orthodoxy; disagreement signifies heresy. But heresy, like patristic teaching, cannot be reduced to mere terminology. It is a heresy, for instance, to deny the fullness of either of the two natures in Christ; therefore both Arianism, which denies the fullness of Christ's divine nature, and Eutychianism, denying the fullness of his human nature, are heresy. Apart from this, the "partition" of Christ into two persons, the radical opposition of both natures, is heretical. By contrast, views which fall within the understanding of Christ as the God-Man, maintaining the fullness of both natures, of one essence with the Father in divinity and with us in humanity, are Orthodox doctrine, expressed as they may be using different terminology and formulae.
Hence, when this term is interpreted in a dialectial manner, there is space, within the "consent of the Fathers", first of all for so-called "private theological opinions" and, secondly, for distinct terminological expressions of the very same teaching and the very same truth.
The "neo-patristic synthesis" of the 20th century and the contextual reading of the Fathers
Russian 20th-century theology has given much attention to the patristic heritage. The systematic study of the works of the holy Fathers, which began in Russia in the first half of the 19th century and reached its climax in the early 20th century, was continued after the 1917 revolution by the theologians of the Russian emigration. At the St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, the works of such teachers as Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern), of fathers Sergi Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff, and of Nicholas Lossky paved the way for the further study of the holy Fathers. Florovsky was to be the chief impetus behind the "patristic renaissance" in Russian 20th-century theology: his were the key concepts for the interpretation of the patristic heritage, in particular the idea of the "neo-patristic synthesis".
The study of theology, Florovsky writes, led quite early to what I am calling now the "neo-patristic synthesis". This should be more than just a collection of patristic sayings or statements; it must truly be a synthesis, a creative reassessment of those insights which were granted to the holy men of old. It must be patristic, faithful to the spirit and vision of the Fathers, ad mentem Patrum. Yet it also must be neo-patristic, since it is to be addressed to the new age, with its own problems and queries. (16)
The idea expressed by Florovsky--which had been "hanging in the air" throughout the 20th century--has inspired many outstanding patristic scholars not only among the Russian diaspora but also among Western scholars. I would like here to pay tribute to those theologians who, though themselves not belonging to the Eastern theological traditions, have succeeded in uncovering the heritage of the great Fathers of the Eastern church, both for themselves and for the Western world. First should be mentioned Irenee Hausherr, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Walther Volker, Werner Jaeger, Johannes Quasten, John Kelly and Gilles Prestige, as well as, among those still with us, such scholars as Jaroslav Pelikan, (17) Cardinal Cristoph Schonborn, Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge (whose books have begun to appear in Russian) and Sebastian Brock. The "patristic renaissance" of the 20th century would have been impossible without these persons, true zealots of theological scholarship, who in their works were able (in the literal or figurative sense) to reach across the confessional barriers separating them from the Orthodox tradition.
The 20th century has contributed much to the study of the patristic heritage, thanks to new critical editions of the works of the holy Fathers and to those of the Western and Eastern scholars mentioned above. But has the "neo-patristic synthesis" of which these researchers dreamed been achieved? I think not. There was an objective reason for this: in the 20th century the time for such a synthesis had not yet come. It may yet be achieved in the 21st century, if we do not abandon the way outlined by the theologians of the 20th century. They have achieved a mighty, qualitative leap forward and succeeded in breaking down the wall between the Christian East and West, laying the foundations for a truly "catholic" theology (meaning a theology which, following Fr John Meyendorff, includes and organically assimilates the theological heritage of East and West in all its diversity). (18) But another qualitative leap forward is needed in order to build the neo-patristic synthesis upon this foundation, a leap that we, who have entered the 21st century, must make.
It is necessary to find a new approach to the Fathers, one which would allow us to see the patristic heritage more comprehensively. I am deeply convinced that a fundamental and indispensable element of such a new approach should be the logically consistent use of a contextual method of patristic reading. Let me deliberate on the main characteristics of this method in more detail.
The contextual method presumes that one takes, as a point of departure, the fact that the Fathers of the church lived and wrote in different ecclesial, theological, cultural, historical, temporal and linguistic contexts. The patristic tradition is not one single "patch" that the Fathers worked. It has many extremes and comprises many historical, linguistic and cultural layers. As far as dogma is concerned, for instance, the Greek and Latin traditions were already sharply contrasted in the 3rd century (it is sufficient to compare Origen's and Tertullian's teaching about the Trinity to confirm this). Differences deepened in the 4th and 5th centuries (compare the triadology of the Great Cappadocians and Blessed Augustine). Several centuries later, significant differences in the field of ascetic practices and mysticism became apparent (compare Symeon the New Theologian with Francis of Assisi, or Gregory Palamas with Ignatius Loyola). The impression arises that the two traditions were predestined from the very outset to develop along different lines! This does not mean that the division between East and West that took place in the 11th century was entirely unavoidable; after all, throughout an entire millennium both traditions had lived side by side in the bosom of the one church.
A particular place belongs to the different national traditions of patristic writing--the Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian and Georgian. When we compare the theological thinking and language of Ephrem the Syrian and Gregory of Nyssa, two representatives of the same faith sharing the same spirituality and near contemporaries, yet living in totally different cultural and linguistic contexts, we cannot but notice the enormous difference between them: Gregory's language and manner of thinking are turned towards Greek culture; Ephrem, on the other hand, lives in the world of Semitic Christianity. Gregory expresses the richness and diversity of Christian Tradition in the figurative categories of Greek mythology, whilst Ephrem appeals to the characteristic imagery of the Palestinian-Aramaic tradition; as befits a Greek, Gregory is more rational and disposed to definitions, while Ephrem is more emotional and expressive.
It is essential to remember that, in earlier times, there were no strong links between different theological traditions. With some rare exceptions, theologians of one tradition neither knew nor understood the exponents of other traditions. In the first millennium Latin authors were virtually unknown to the Hellenic East; in the West, only select Greek authors (in particular Dionysius the Areopagite) were known. Both the Hellenic East and the West barely knew the Syriac tradition (once again, with the exception of one or two authors such as Ephrem the Syrian and St Isaac the Syrian). Things were different for those peoples that had received Christianity together with a fully shaped theological culture, in particular the Slavs: from the very beginning they oriented themselves to Greek patristic writings. Here we can speak of a transplantation of Greek culture to Russian soil rather than links between two independent traditions or their interpenetration: nothing came back from Russia to Byzantium in return.
Until the very end of the Middle Ages the world was disposed in such a way that few managed to break free from the limits of their own linguistic and cultural context. Comparative cultural studies were out of reach for the ancients. We must recognize the fact that, with some extremely rare exceptions, the early Fathers did not have the possibility to go beyond the limits of their theological, linguistic and cultural context. Phenomena that were proper to other traditions were judged though the eyes of one's own tradition; there was no all-encompassing vision.
The numerous examples of anti-Latin polemics preserved in Byzantine ecclesiastical writings are a clear illustration of this. I will not touch upon the dogmatic issues discussed in these materials: my interest concerns the way representatives of Byzantine and Latin traditions viewed one another. St Photius of Constantinople, One of the most erudite hierarchs and theologians of all Byzantine history, does not begin his Encyclical Letter on the fundamental theological question of the procession of the Holy Spirit with serious theological considerations, but with attacks on the Latins for various liturgical trifles. Fasting on Saturdays is declared a "minor deviation" which may, however, "lead to full disregard for dogma". The Western custom of beginning Great Lent one week later than in the East is described as "an inducement to milk and dairy products and such like voracious behaviour" which, according to the author, drives the Latins upon the "way of transgression" and "deviates" them from the royal and right path. (19) Even if we bear in mind that these accusations were expressed in the heat of polemics and had propagandistic aims, one cannot but wonder at how even the smallest differences between Western and Eastern tradition were frowned upon in the East and seen as digressions from the true faith. And as for fundamental dogmatic differences, they were seen as nothing but ill-intended and conscious deformations of Orthodox dogma.
Rarely did the East ask about the reasons for the emergence of certain practices, or the development of certain dogmatic teachings, in the West. Rarely did anyone endeavour to look at the Latin tradition through the eyes of the Latins themselves. One of the exceptions was St Maximus the Confessor, who tried to discern the teaching about the filioque from - as it were - the Western context. (20) In his Letter to Marinus, St Maximus likens the Western teaching on the procession of the Spirit "from the Father and the Son" to the Eastern teaching on the procession "from the Father through the Son"; he does not apply the Byzantine criterion to the Western teaching but merely compares both traditions and looks for similarities between them. Although St Maximus gives a far from exhaustive answer to this matter, which is treated with far more detail in the works of later Byzantine authors, the very fact of a Byzantine saint attempting to view Latin teaching through Latin eyes remains remarkable.
I am deeply convinced that, in general, any phenomenon can be adequately judged only from within the context where it has originated and developed. Thus the theology of each church Father should be studied, as far as possible, in relation to the historical, theological, cultural and linguistic situation in which he lived.
I am also convinced that one should not apply criteria from one context to a patristic author belonging to a totally different context. One cannot, for instance, judge Syriac, Latin or Russian patristics from a Byzantine perspective. That is to say: such a judgment is possible, but it will be neither adequate nor fair. As an example one can mention Florovsky's famous Ways of Russian Theology, which perceives the entire Russian theological tradition through the spectacles of Byzantinism; the result, characterized by Berdyaev as "The Waylessness of Russian Theology", (21) was a merciless critical analysis, razing the whole of Russian theological tradition to the ground. In appreciation of Florovsky's monumental work, John Meyendorff wrote:
Disputing neither the mind nor the talent of individual authors ... Fr Georges imposes the patristic or Byzantine standard on each and every one, the standard he adopted once and for all as the one truly Orthodox ... An Orthodox theologian might wonder: isn't Florovsky's understanding of the patristic heritage too narrow? If Russian Orthodoxy may be criticized in the name of "Byzantinism", should one not take a critical look at Byzantinism itself as well? Is it equivalent with holy Tradition as such? (22)
Meyendorff raises a question of key significance here. To me, the reply seems quite obvious: holy Tradition is not equivalent with Byzantinism since, besides the Byzantine tradition, it includes Latin, Russian and many other traditions as well. Were indeed Byzantine criteria to be applied to Russian theology, one might conclude that before the 17th century nothing significant existed in our country since we did not "reach up" to the Byzantine and our entire literature was to a greater or lesser degree imitative, and that after the 17th century our "Western captivity" began. When we apply Byzantine criteria to the Syriac tradition we will find numerous "deviations" as well. As for seeing the Latin tradition through the eyes of Byzantinism (and the Byzantine tradition through Latinism), here we have a vast experience of polemics, focusing on the same questions for over a thousand years, from the days of Patriarch Photius to our times, and reaching an ultimate dead end in the early 20th century: for talking in circles never reaches a goal. Only the shifts in positions among Eastern and Western theologians in the course of the 20th century allow us to hope that a way out of this dead end may be found. I believe that such a way out may be sought precisely in the consistent use of the principle of the contextual reading of sources, which presumes the capacity of theologians to relativize their own context (though by no means breaking with it) and to examine another tradition from within and with the desire to understand rather than to denounce or humiliate it.
I allow myself one more quote from the "theological testament" of Florovsky, as preserved for us by one of his students:
Salvation has come "from the Jews" and has been propagated in the world in Greek idiom. Indeed, to be Christian means to be Greek, since our basic authority is forever a Greek book, the New Testament. The Christian message has been forever formulated in Greek categories. This was in no sense a blunt reception of Hellenism as such, but a dissection of Hellenism. The old had to die, but the new was still Greek - the Christian Hellenism of our dogmatics, from the New Testament to St Gregory Palamas, nay, to our own time. I am personally resolved to defend this thesis, and on two different fronts: against the belated revival of Hebraism and against all attempts to reformulate dogmas in categories of modern philosophies, whether German, Danish or French (Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin) ... (23)
I believe that Florovsky, had he lived to the end of the 20th century, would have lost the war he wished to unleash, at least on the "first front". In the first half of the 20th century the revival of what Florovsky calls "Hebraism" - the revival of interest for the Semitic tradition (in its Jewish, Aramaic, Syriac or Arabic form) - was only beginning to gain momentum. Florovsky could not have anticipated that in the late 20th century a whole corpus of writings by St Isaac the Syrian (24) would be discovered, which was significantly to enrich our understanding of this great Syriac writer-mystic of the 7th century. Florovsky could not have known many of the many Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian writings that were to be published in the monumental series Corpus Christianorum Orientalium (currently counting over 500 volumes), which fundamentally reversed the then-dominant understanding of the patristic heritage as the sum of the Patrologia Graeca and the Patrologia Latina. Only towards the end of the 20th century did it become obvious that besides these traditions there existed a Patrologia Orientalis as well, the thriving world of "Oriental" theological traditions, deeply authentic in form and content; it became clear that Christianity cannot be reduced to either Byzantinism or Greece.
As for Florovsky's "second front", although it is indeed dangerous to attempt to "reformulate" dogmas in the categories of contemporary philosophical tendencies, some of these trends--first of all Heidegger's and Kierkegaard's existentialism mentioned by Florovsky--themselves indicate the departure of Western thought from Renaissance anthropocentrism and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, thus clearing the way for a return to the truly Christian catholic theological tradition. As did ancient philosophy at the times of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, existentialist philosophy may serve--and for many has already served--as a "pedagogue" towards Christ. Existentialism can be ecclesialized in the way that ancient philosophy was ecclesialized by the Greek Fathers in the 3rd and 4th centuries. (25) Moreover the conceptual language of existentialism, which doubtless is closer to persons today than that of the ancient philosophy employed by the Greek Fathers, may be used, if not for the formation of a "neo-patristic synthesis", then at least for the interpretation of its main elements in the language of our contemporaries. Finally we cannot ignore the fact that the theology of the Fathers is, as Florovsky has worded it so well, itself "existential" in essence, in opposition to all "essential" theologies not founded upon a real experience of communion with God. (26)
To close this reflection on the "neo-patristic synthesis" I would like to add the following. Such a synthesis cannot be the work of one person. It necessarily requires a team, an entire school made up by a new generation of scholars, each specializing in one or several areas of patristic studies, studying several ancient languages (including Oriental ones), working with critical editions of patristic texts and, when needed, with original manuscripts. This new generation of patristic scholars should have a good command of the rich Orthodox theological heritage, be knowledgeable in such areas as both ancient and modern philosophy, philology and linguistics, and be familiar with textual criticism, palaeography and other auxiliary disciplines. For only by covering such a wide range of academic disciplines could each of these scholars master the contextual method without which, in my opinion, no neo-patristic synthesis can be conceived.
Use of the contextual method
Let me now proceed to the concrete use of the contextual method, the main principles of which have been outlined above.
Firstly, this method may be used while studying a certain individual church author. The better we know the context of this author, the more chance we have of adequately perceiving his theological system. One cannot make statements concerning a church Father without knowing the language in which he wrote, the history of his country and church, the sources he consulted and the authors he referred to as authorities. Only exhaustive contextual study can allow contemporary scholars to appreciate any of the Fathers of the church. The contextual method categorically prohibits pulling words or thoughts of the holy Fathers out of the overall context of their theological system, and drawing whatever desired conclusions from such thoughts; on the contrary, the method presupposes the study of a given author's theology as a congruent system in which all elements are inter-related.
Secondly, the contextual method allows for comparative analysis of the works of several Fathers who are connected in a certain way, under the condition that the contextual criteria be strictly followed. One cannot artificially draw together two church writers who have lived in totally different contexts. On the contrary, one should look for real connections between authors. These connections may nevertheless be of various kinds. Between the three great Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa), for instance, there exists a direct and immediate connection: they knew each other, were "allies" in theological writing, lived in the same church-historical context, used the same sources, wrote in the same language and read each other's works. There existed a direct connection between Augustine and Tertullian: although Augustine had not known Tertullian personally, he read his work and was deeply influenced by his theological system. Cyril of Alexandria and Blessed Theodoret were contemporaries, took part in the same christological dispute (although on different sides of the barricades) and engaged in polemics with one another which, once again, provide abundant material for comparative analyses. In other words: before comparing two church Fathers one must define precisely their contextual interconnectedness: they should either belong to the same period or to the same theological tradition, be in a teacher-disciple relationship, be adversaries of one another, and so on.
Thirdly, the contextual method allows comparison of church Fathers with authors who fall outside the limits of patristic tradition (pagans, heretics, representatives of other confessions), provided there has been a certain degree of actual contact between them. One may, for instance, compare the teaching of St Athanasius and Arianism (since the former was engaged in polemics with the latter); the theological systems of Eunomius and Gregory of Nyssa (since Gregory refuted Eunomius); the viewpoints of Gregory the Theologian and Julian the Apostate (since they were contemporaries, knew each other, and Gregory wrote denunciatory letters against Julian); Manichaeism and the theology of Blessed Augustine (since Augustine was a Manichaean before his conversion to Christianity); the theology of St John of Damascus and Islam (since St John was engaged in polemics with Islam), and so on. Much may be obtained from a comparative analysis of the theology of the Greek Fathers and the teaching of Western authors who, although they lived after the schism, were familiar with at least some Byzantine patristic works, in particular Meister Eckhart, John Scotus Eriugena, Thomas Aquinas and Lancelot Andrewes. (27) Very little, on the contrary, may be obtained from comparing the writings of Theresa de Lisieux and St Gregory Palamas (since Theresa never read, nor could have read Palamas) or Buddhism and the theology of St Maximus the Confessor (since there does not exist--nor can there exist--any connection between them). It is altogether inadmissible to compare the thoughts of two different authors, both taken out of context.
Fourthly, through a consistent use of the contextual method we may learn to distinguish between the eternal and the temporary in patristic writings, that is, between that which holds timeless value and retains immutable significance for Christians, and between the remnants of the past which appeared--and disappeared--within the historical context of the church author. Many views on natural sciences held, for instance, in St Basil the Great's Hexameron and St John of Damascus's Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith are obsolete, while their theological interpretation of the created microcosm remains significant to this day. The anthropological views of the Byzantine Fathers present a similar case. They held, as did everyone in their times, that the human body consists of four elements and the soul is divided into three parts (intellectual, volitive and desiring); although these views, appropriated from ancient anthropology, are out of date today, much of what these Fathers said about humanity, the human soul and body, passions, and the abilities of mind and soul has lost nothing of its significance for our times.
Fifthly and finally, by making use of the contextual method it is possible to develop systematic anthologies of Orthodox theology based upon statements of individual church Fathers, each now seen in the general context of Christian church tradition rather than within its individual context. In other words, answering the question raised at the beginning of this address of whether "patristic theology exists at all", it is indeed possible to study "patristic theology" as a complete and coherent system. This task must, however, be preceded by the meticulous work of establishing the contextual particularities of each church Father and of the contextual connections between individual authors. The path must be cleared, and a sound scientific basis for such research established, before any sort of compilation of patristic doctrine as a "system" can be undertaken. This is the prime and principal obligation facing patristic scholars today.
I would like to emphasize that all that has been said above about the various linguistic, cultural, historical and other contexts in which the Fathers lived does not deny the unquestionable fact that they shared the common context of the one universal Christian Tradition, the context of the "evangelic and apostolic faith": the Tradition received from their predecessors, and not only vigilantly preserved but also creatively developed by each one to be passed on to following generations of Fathers.
Anyone working in the field of patristic studies should be well aware of this common context of the one faith for the entire patristic tradition. It should be remembered that any attempt to view the Fathers outside their global context leads to a dead end. (28) This is why the efforts of many secular scholars who consider themselves if not atheists, then, as is fashionable nowadays, "agnostics", to interpret the theology of certain church Fathers fail. It is impossible to comprehend the theology of the Fathers and at the same time consciously distance oneself from that which represents the essence of their faith and spiritual experience. Therefore, even if the contextual method of reading the Fathers does not necessarily require the scholar's adherence to the Christian faith, it does require at least a very high degree of trust in the experience of the Fathers and the church of Christ within which patristic theology developed. Someone knowingly distancing himself from the patristic context, or alien to the "patristic faith", cannot be a patristics scholar.
Examples of the use of the contextual method in academic study of the Fathers
Let me now share several examples from my own experience in applying the contextual method when working with patristic writings. For several years I did research on St Symeon the New Theologian. The aim of my work on this author was to define his place within the Orthodox tradition. This made it necessary to uncover his "spiritual roots", to identify the sources that he used and the authors that might have influenced him, to study the historical circumstances in which he lived, to denote the spiritual lineage to which he belonged, and so on. In modern Western scholarship numerous attempts to carry out comparative analyses of different church Fathers' theology have been undertaken; as a rule, however, their authors tend to limit their analysis to a comparison of the given author with the most well known anterior Fathers. For instance, the French scholar B. Fraigneau-Julien, author of a work on The Spiritual Senses and the Vision of God in Symeon the New Theologian, (29) starts his study of St Symeon's teachings with a description of the mystical doctrine of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, the author of the Dionysian corpus, the author of the Macarian corpus and Maximus the Confessor.
The difficulty lies, however, in the fact that St Symeon experienced no influence whatsoever from any of those authors: it is possible that he had not read their works at all. At the same time, he repeatedly quotes St Gregory the Theologian, whose influence on him can be distinctly perceived. Besides this, the writings of St Symeon are littered with quotes from holy scripture as well as references to liturgical texts and works of his spiritual father Symeon the Studite (the Pious). Studying the historical circumstances in which St Symeon lived, I discovered that he was by no means someone who gained theological learning from reading the books of the ancient Fathers: during his nearly fifty years in the monastery he spent many hours per day in church; church services, rather than the reading of patristic works, were his principal occupation. He knew predominantly the works of those Fathers which were read during the services (in particular Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom and Theodore Studite).
Studying the conflict between Symeon and the church authorities of that time, I also made a number of discoveries that shed light on his own theological system, as well as the overall state of the Byzantine church at that period. The question posed to Symeon by his adversary, Stephen of Nicomedia, "How do you distinguish the Son from the Father, in thought or in reality?", was more than a mere rhetorical question aimed at demonstrating Symeon's Jack of erudition and absence of a formal theological system: this matter had been disputed in Constantinople for centuries. Indeed, a century and a half after Symeon's death a group of theologians were condemned for teaching a distinction between Father and Son "in thought".
Having established these interesting facts, in my work on St Symeon I first of all investigated in detail his approach to the Bible, i.e. his understanding of scripture and his exegetical method. Subsequently I examined Symeon's attitude to worship, and the influence of liturgical texts on his work (an issue completely ignored by most modern patristic scholars). I tried then to discern Symeon's place in the Studite monastic tradition as well as to conduct a comparative analysis between his teaching and the views of his spiritual father Symeon the Pious. Symeon's polemics with Stephen of Nicomedia on triadological matters were examined separately. I also tried to outline the spectrum of sources--patristic, hagiographic and other--known or accessible to Symeon. Finally I investigated Symeon's theology, anthropology, ecclesiology and mysticism in the context of the patristic tradition by comparing his teaching with those Fathers who had a direct or indirect influence on him. In other words, my research focused exclusively on real channels through which Orthodox tradition influenced Symeon the New Theologian, systematically dismissing all that was not directly related to the matter. It seems to me that in this way it proved possible to reconstruct the world in which St Symeon the New Theologian lived and worked with maximum possible accuracy.
In its turn, the work on reconstructing his context led to several important conclusions both about Symeon and about the Orthodox tradition as a whole. Most importantly, it proved possible to revise fundamentally the view of Symeon, very widespread among modern Western scholars, as an "inspired mystic" who opposed his personal mystical experience to traditional Orthodoxy, and to prove that, on the Contrary, Symeon was a very traditional (in the best sense of the word) church writer fully rooted in the Orthodox tradition. I also succeeded in shattering the myth that Symeon was an "amateurish" theologian with an insufficient command of dogmatic terminology.
Apart from this, the example of Symeon led to a very significant conclusion about the nature of Orthodox tradition itself. His case clearly illustrates that nothing else than the personal mystical experience of the individual Christian constitutes the cornerstone of Tradition: Tradition cannot be truly Orthodox if it is not founded upon a personal encounter with God; those who try to oppose a formal and rationalized "tradition" (held by the majority in the Church) to an inspired "mysticism" (of individual enthusiasts) fall into error, not understanding the very essence of Tradition. The true mystic is not the one who considers his own personal experience superior to the Tradition of the church, but he whose experience is in agreement with the experience of the church. (30)
In my work on St Symeon I used the contextual method for the study of phenomena that fall within the Orthodox tradition. Let me now give an example of the possible use of the contextual method for examining something that falls outside this tradition; namely Catholic mysticism, which has lately been the object of fierce debate.
The opinion of St Ignatius Brianchaninov that all works by Catholic mystics after the great schism have been written in a state of spiritual "drunkenness" and delusion is well known. Since Bishop Ignatius has been canonized, some value his opinion as "patristic". Yet we also know a different approach by other--equally canonized--church writers with a somewhat less cautious and categorical attitude towards Catholic spirituality. (31) Some Orthodox Fathers are known for the direct influence Catholic spirituality exercised upon them. St Dimitri of Rostov was under this influence for his entire life: his homilies as well as other works, including the Reading Compendium of Saint's lives, based primarily on Latin sources, (32) have a distinctly "Westernizing" character; St Dimitri's library held books by Bonaventure, Thomas a Kempis, Peter Canisius and other Catholic authors, and in his spirituality such elements as the devotion of the passions of Christ, the five wounds of Christ and the heart of Christ may be traced. (33) The influence of Catholic spirituality on St Tikhon of Zadonsk (34) can equally be sensed.
How can such different approaches towards Catholic spirituality and mysticism between St Ignatius on the one side, and St Dimitri of Rostov and St Tikhon of Zadonsk on the other, be explained? It seems to me that much is accounted for by the differences between the contexts in which each of them lived. St Ignatius lived at the time of Tsar Nicolas the First (second quarter of the 19th century), when a systematic struggle with Western mysticism was underway. The time of Alexander I (first quarter of the 19th century) had witnessed a nearly unanimous passion for "inner Christianity" among high society, the Russian aristocracy devoured the works of Thomas a Kempis, Francis de Sales and Fenelon, noblemen en masse joined Masonic lodges and the Jesuits opened their schools in many towns and villages; and a healthy reaction against these Western influences had set in during the reign of Tsar Nicholas. The same period witnessed the beginnings of the so-called "patristic revival": the systematic work of translating and studying the Fathers of the church, something of no small significance for the gradual liberation of Russian theology from its "Western captivity". As a child of his times, St Ignatius could not remain entirely a stranger to these processes.
St Dimitri and St Tikhon, however, lived in an altogether different historical context. Contrary to St Ignatius (who had never studied theology in an ecclesiastical school), both were graduates of Latin schools which had shaped their thought; both had been reading Western authors all their lives. The inevitable influence of the Catholic spirituality which St Dimitri and St Tikhon experienced in the 18th century did not, however, undermine their deep rootedness in the Orthodox tradition.
Of course, everything must not be reduced to context, to someone's historical period, church-political circumstances or education. Differences between church writers' taste, views or attitudes towards the same phenomenon can, and may, appear without being conditioned by education or the "spirit of the day". St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, who translated the work of a Latin Theatine monk, Invisible Warfare, into Greek, had not been educated in a Latin school and was by no means influenced by Catholic mysticism. The same can be said about K.P. Pobedonostsev, who translated Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ into Russian. All the same, both considered it profitable to familiarize Orthodox readers with certain works of Catholic authors (be it in a slightly adapted form, and brought into closer agreement with the Orthodox context).
The contextual method may help in studying Catholic mysticism itself as well. Not infrequently, Orthodox readers are shocked by recipes in books of Western Renaissance mystics prescribing the use of the human imagination to visualize the passions of Christ, or other events of the gospel. It is correct to point out that traditional Orthodox mysticism demands control of the imagination, and warns about the dangers of imaginative representations in prayer. But in considering Western Renaissance mysticism, the cultural specificity of the times cannot be ignored: mediaeval theocentric culture was being replaced by a totally different, anthropocentric culture where imagination was given a near-central role. The task facing spiritual teachers of the time, then, was not to force people to renounce their imagination altogether, but to teach them how to direct their imagination towards matters from which spiritual benefit could be gained, in particular towards the events of sacred history. It is evident that, were the criterion of Byzantine ascetic literature to be applied to such mysticism, it would not meet its requirements. But, to repeat John Meyendorff's question, is the Byzantine criterion the only just criterion according to which non-Byzantine phenomena are to be judged, or are other approaches possible? I shall state once again my belief that the universal Orthodox tradition is wider than Byzantinism, that not all that lies outside is either heresy or spiritual delusion. Otherwise not only Western mystics should be declared to have fallen in spiritual delusion, but also Dimitri of Rostov, Tikhon of Zadonsk and many other pious Russian ascetics of the period of the "Western captivity" (that is, the 17th and 18th centuries) when access to the works of the Eastern Fathers was extremely difficult.
Please do not attempt to find in my words any effort to "justify" Catholic mysticism. I am by no means an "Eastern admirer of Western spirituality" and have no personal sympathy whatsoever for Catholic mysticism, since I have been raised on totally different examples: the writings of the Fathers of the Eastern church, in particular Greek and Syriac. I have not mentioned Catholic mysticism in order to debate its content, but to present and illustrate a method that, in my view, should be applied to any phenomena whatsoever, whether within or without the framework of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Concrete tasks facing the study of patristic literature
It seems to me important to draw up now, in the beginning of a new era, the principal lines along which Russian patristic scholarship should develop in the 21st century, and to point out the many gaps that still need to be filled. The following remarks on this matter are far from exhaustive: they are merely an attempt to sketch the global outlines of that which, in my understanding, must necessarily be accomplished in the near future.
Nineteenth-century Russian patristic studies depended upon Western sources: most books translated into Russian had been published in the original language in the West, principally in Migne's monumental Patrology. Many works by the early Fathers and the Greek Fathers of the period of the ecumenical councils were translated, together with the most well known Latin authors of the same period. Among later Byzantine authors, the works of St Symeon the New Theologian and the ascetic treatises from the Greek Philokalia were translated, thanks first of all to the endeavours of St Theophan the Recluse; but many other key works of later Byzantine literature remained "out of view". Very little was translated from Syriac, Armenian and other Oriental languages. Consequently the corpus of patristic writings accessible today in Russian is far from complete.
Besides this, pre-revolutionary translations of the works of the Fathers use archaic Russian and need to be reviewed; some works translated in the past must be translated anew. It is gratifying to see that, over the last decade, work on patristic translations has resumed; this work, however, is sporadic and without a coordinating centre. I consider one of the most urgent tasks the establishment of such a centre, an institute for patristic studies that would gather scholars working in the field. Such a centre could develop research programmes, send Russian scholars abroad if need be, and maintain contacts with similar institutes abroad. A centre might renew the publication of multi-volume series of patristic translations and produce, as an "appendix", a series of patristic studies. This would restore continuity between contemporary Russian patristic scholars and the pre-revolutionary scholars who dedicated their strength and talents to the sacred work of translating and studying the patristic heritage.
Russian pre-revolutionary authors, and the theologians of the Russian diaspora, have created an entire corpus of patristic studies and monographs on individual church Fathers. Among these outstanding monuments of patristics let me mention at least Archbishop Philaret (Gumilev)'s Historical Study of the Fathers of the Church, Fr Georges Florovsky's Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century and Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries and, among monographs on individual authors, Prof. Basil Bolotov's Teaching of Origen on the Holy Trinity, Macarius Oksiyuk's (the later Metropolitan Macarius's) Eschatology of Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore Vladimirsky's Anthropology of Nemesius Emesenus, and Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern)'s Anthropology of St Gregory Palamas. Much, however, remains to be done in this area. "Patristic research must continue: new monographs are needed to make patristic writings accessible and acceptable to educated Russian readers." (35)
The 20th century has seen the publication of a vast number of studies in (first of all Western) patristics: an entire library dedicated to Blessed Augustine, numbering thousands of volumes, numerous monographs dedicated to Tertullian, Jerome and other Latin authors of the first millennium. In the study of Oriental patristics, Western scholars have achieved much as well. I have already mentioned the Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars whose dedication to the study of the Eastern Fathers has greatly contributed to a renewal of interest in patristic literature in the West. These scholars' interest in Oriental patristics was nevertheless limited to a few names only. Studies dealt with Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and the author of the Dyonisian Corpus; the last decades have seen much interest in Maximus the Confessor. Other Eastern Fathers either received no attention whatsoever from scholars, or were at most granted two or three monographs and a dozen articles in periodicals. In this manner, the interest of Western scholars in the Fathers of the church has been unevenly distributed. Still, a vast work has been achieved, and Russian readers deserve to be acquainted with the best examples of Western patristics. It is essential that such classical works as Quasten's Patrology (36) and Grillmeier's many-volume christological study (37) should be translated into Russian, together with the most felicitous monographs on individual church Fathers from East and West.
When mentioning individual authors, let me first of all record the fact that most of Origen's works, in particular his commentaries on the books of holy scripture, are as yet inaccessible to Russian readers. (38) Whatever our attitude towards this extremely contradictory church writer, who was indeed condemned for dogmatic errors in the middle of the 6th century, few are likely to contest his place in the history of Eastern Christian literature. Study of his literary heritage is not only essential for understanding most later Eastern church Fathers--whom he directly or indirectly influenced--but also for interpreting the Eastern Christian tradition as such, in the shaping of which he played an enormous role. Among monographs by Western authors that deserve to be translated into Russian I will mention the classical studies by Jean Danielou and Hans Urs von Balthasar, works which have lost nothing of their relevance in our own time. (39)
Another key figure is St Maximus the Confessor: many of his works dealing with fundamental theological questions (especially Ambigua, Quaestiones et dubia, as well as many dogmatic and polemic treatises and epistles) likewise still await their Russian translator. Several studies on St Maximus by Western scholars deserve to be translated as well, in particular the recent monograph by the French Orthodox researcher Jean-Claude Larchet. (40)
Translation and extensive study of such late-Byzantine theologians as St Gregory Palamas is essential. In his work, as well as that of his predecessors (Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Gregory of Cyprus, Theoleptus of Philadelphia, Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople) and those who inherited his legacy. (Patriarch Philotheus Coccinus, Nicholas Cabasilas), the theological doctrine of Hesychasm gained its complete and thorough expression, thus providing the Eastern Christian ascetic and mystical tradition with the amplest possible dogmatic interpretation. What is today quite conventionally named "Palamism" has been studied very little in Russia (until the late 19th century, Hesychasm was considered a heresy in Russia, and Palamas its main champion). (41) Yet I consider the theological current represented by St Gregory Palamas the most significant for contemporary Christians, as it gives access to the depth of a truly Orthodox dogmatic consciousness founded upon mystical experience.
In Russia, we are far from having fully studied Western patristics. Without adequate appreciation of this, however, the much-needed leap forward in relations between the Christian East and West will be impossible. The third millennium which we have entered will see a continuation of dialogue between Eastern and Western ecclesial and theological traditions, which one way or another will be obliged to consolidate in the face of ever-increasing secularization, and the growing influence of Islam and Oriental cults. It appears to me that, apart from church-political reasons, the inability of East and West to find a common language throughout the second millennium was due, in no Small degree, to the fact that the West knew little about the Eastern tradition, and vice versa. This gap needs to be filled as well. One way towards this would be the extensive study of Western patristic literature.
Syriac patristics, hardly known to Russian researchers, deserve great attention. Although eight volumes of the works of St Ephrem the Syrian exist in Russian, his theology remains virtually inaccessible since many works in the series are wrongly attributed, (42) while a considerable number of his genuine works have not been translated into Russian. Most of St Isaac the Syrian's writings (with the exception of his 400 "chapters on knowledge") are available in Russian, yet the theology of this great writer and mystic has not been sufficiently studied. Outstanding Syriac authors such as Jacob Aphrahat, John of Apamea, Jacob of Sarug and Narsai the Great, not to mention St Isaac's near-contemporaries Martyrius-Sahdona, Dadisho' Qatraya, Symeon Tabitha (the Merciful), Joseph Hazaya (the Sagacious or Seer) and John of Dalyatha are virtually unknown to Russian readers. All these authors deserve to be translated into Russian: acquaintance with these sources would not only enrich Russian patristic studies, but also our perception of Christianity as the religion of divine love, a theme that has found its particular expression in the writings of Syriac mystical writers.
Coptic, Ethiopian, Arabic, Georgian, Armenian and other Oriental ecclesial literary traditions have hardly been studied by Russian scholars at all. Before the 1917 revolution, as well as during the Soviet era, individual Oriental manuscripts were translated and examined by Orientalists, yet their theological interpretation proved either difficult (since before the revolution, Orientalists had little involvement with theology), or impossible (since Soviet Orientalists had no means of expressing themselves on theological issues whatsoever). This vast rift must gradually be filled.
Until recently, Russian patristics of the pre-Petrine period were the privilege of secular Slavists: the works of such Old Russian authors as St Hilarion of Kiev, St Serapion of Vladimir and St Cyril of Turov were primarily considered for their literary qualities, just as the writings of St Joseph of Volokolamsk and St Nilus of Sora were almost exclusively regarded in the context of the struggle between the "possessors" and the "non-possessors". As for pre-Petrine theologians, most often their work was considered void of distinctive value and therefore little and unsystematically studied from a theological viewpoint.
As a science, Russian patristics do not at present exist; yet such a discipline is vitally needed. In this sense, Florovsky's Ways of Russian Theology maintains its significance as virtually the only attempt to provide a global interpretation of the Russian theological tradition. Still, the main drawback of the work has already been mentioned: Florovsky could not--and did not attempt to--determine the criteria according to which Russian theology is to be understood, as he viewed any phenomenon through the spectacles of Byzantinism. Here lies yet another gap to be filled by a new generation of Russian patristic scholars: the creation of Russian patristics, the elaboration of criteria for the study of Russian church Fathers, the theological assessment of the most prominent works of Russian church literature.
It is equally essential to study the works of contemporary theologians which have, in one way or another, continued and developed key themes of patristic theology. This does not so much concern such patristic scholars as Florovsky, Lossky and Meyendorff as those authors who have made an independent contribution to the treasure-trove of Orthodox tradition. Among the names of those many authors whose works deserve serious theological interpretation in the context of the patristic tradition we may mention at least those of St Silouan of Mount Athos, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Fr Sergi Bulgakov and Alexis Losev.
Finally, it is essential--as I have stated before (43)--to come to a theological interpretation of the liturgical tradition of our church, of the liturgical texts composed by ancient (known and unknown) God-inspired Fathers which constitute an inseparable part of patristic literature. Without a sound understanding of worship, church life cannot be lived to the full; without church life, there is no salvation. The liturgical texts are the school that every Orthodox Christian should complete. In a situation where, for various reasons (not least the liturgical use of old church slavonic), liturgical texts are incomprehensible to the church community, the publication of books offering a theological analysis of liturgical texts would be as desirable as indispensable.
The holy fathers and modernity
In conclusion, I will attempt to answer a question which perhaps should have been raised at the very beginning: Why study the holy Fathers at all, what do
patristics have to offer to contemporary Orthodox Christians?
First of all, the study of the holy Fathers, in particular the Fathers of the Eastern church, provides an opportunity to understand the tradition to which we belong, to receive the very "patristic faith" that the spiritual writers of the Eastern church have preserved for us, to assume ownership of the treasure of Orthodox tradition. Many in our days prefer the "customs of the elders" to the centuries-old Tradition of the church, living by the various types of "mythologems" circulating on the periphery of the church and in pseudo-ecclesial circles. This situation can be overcome only if the "rapture between theology and life is overcome", (44) if the living connection between patristic teaching and church practice is restored. The fact that our church practice is not founded upon the teaching of the Fathers is at the root of many of today's problems.
Knowledge of the Fathers helps Orthodox Christians not to lose their way amidst the multitude of currents in modern philosophy and world-views, not to get "carried away by strange teachings" (Heb. 13:9). It helps Christians to understand themselves, to build a sound relationship with God, to build their spiritual life. Contrary to the recipes of such modern teachings as psychoanalysis, the counsels of the Fathers radiate a healthy spirit, based as they are on a sound understanding of the human mind, the need to combat one's sinful tendencies and to exercise good deeds. The counsels of the Fathers, I believe, are far more universal that the fundamental postulates of Freudianism and apply to people living in the most diverse cultural and temporal contexts.
The works of the Fathers never lose their relevance, since they deal with questions to which the answers are decisive for the present and future of humanity. It has become fashionable lately to speak of a "post-Christian" era, of a decline of interest in traditional Christianity among young people, of "Christianity without a future". Forecasts predict the disappearance of Christianity from the religious world map in the third millennium, its absorption by Islam. Allow me to express my hope that these forecasts will be found wrong, that Christians will stand firm together for the preservation of their doctrine, their church and their tradition. From the example of my country we see that Christian faith is by no means a "relic of the past", that thousands and millions of people, including youth, are returning to the "patristic faith". I wish to hope that a Christian spring is yet to come. I want to believe that the 21st century will witness the healing of divisions among Christians and the revival of the "faith of the universal church, which the Lord gave, which was preached by the apostles, and which was preserved by the Fathers".
(1) Third Apologia against Those Who Decry Holy Images, PG 94, 1356C.
(2) Letter to Serapion I,28.
(3) Synodicon, Sunday of Orthodoxy.
(4) Fr Georges Florovsky, St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers, in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vaduz, 1987, pp.105-20.
(5) Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, London, 1992, p.212.
(6) This term was introduced to scientific use by Basil Bolotov.
(7) Cf. Hieromonk Hilarion Alfeev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Moscow, 1996, pp.9-10 (in Russian).
(8) St Symeon the New Theologian, Catechetical Discourse 28, 263-265.
(9) Ibid., 28, 292-293.
(10) St Symeon the New Theologian, Ethical Discourse 6, 428.
(11) St Symeon the New Theologian, Treatise on Confession.
(12) At least one liturgical text of the Eastern church is known to assume a connection between the moral qualities of the priest and the effectiveness of the sacraments administered by him: the prayer read by the priest at the Liturgy of St Basil the Great: "Withhold not, because of my sins, the grace of thy Holy Spirit from these gifts here set forth." This text does not give a direct affirmation that the priests' sins bar the action of grace and, therefore, the effectiveness of the sacrament; neither, however, is this possibility excluded.
(13) St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 2,91.
(14) St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 2,71; cf. Oration 2,95, 8-27.
(15) Stromata, or Miscellanies 1,5.
(16) Andrew Blane, ed., Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual and Orthodox Churchman, Crestwood, NY, 1993, p.154.
(17) The American patristic scholar who recently converted to Orthodoxy at an advanced age, thus changing from "the best Lutheran specialist on Orthodoxy" into "the best Orthodox specialist on Lutheranism".
(18) As Fr John wrote in his article Orthodox Theology in the Contemporary World (Messenger of the Western-European Patriarchal Exarchate, no. 67 b., Paris, 1969, p.175, in Russian), "All Christians face the challenge of a unified and deeply secularized world. We must look this challenge into the face ... as an issue that requires a theological and spiritual answer. For younger generations, wherever they may find themselves, it is not essential from which spiritual genealogy--Western or Eastern, Byzantine or Latin--this answer depends, as long as it has a truthful and living resonance to it. Therefore Orthodox theology will either be truly `catholic' or it will be no theology at all."
(19) St Photius of Constantinople, Circular Missive.
(20) On St Maximus as a "mediator" between East and West and in particular about his understanding of the filioque see Jean-Claude Larchet, Maxime le Confesseur, mediateur entre l'Orient et l'Occident, Paris, 1998, pp.11-75.
(21) Nicholas Berdyaev, Ortodoksia and Humanness, in the review Put', no. 53, 1937, p.53 (in English): www.berdyaev.f2s.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1937_424.html#1.
(22) Fr John Meyendorff, introduction to Florovsky's Ways of Russian Theology, Vilnius, 1991 (in Russian).
(23) Blane, op. cit., p.155.
(24) Florovsky had only a most approximate knowledge about the Syriac corpus of the writings of St Isaac. Cf. the remark in his Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Century (Paris, 1933, p.186, in Russian): "The ascetic book of St Isaac (in manuscripts usually without a separate title) has only recently become available in its Syriac original (and, its seems, not the integral text)."
(25) On this issue cf. the article by Hieromonk Arseni (Sokolov): "A Kind Word on Existentialism", in the newspaper NG-Religii, 14 April 1999 (in Russian).
(26) Fr Georges Florovsky, "St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers", in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. I, op. cit., pp.380-81,392.
(27) The following brilliant monographs should be mentioned: Alexander Brilliantov, The Influence of Eastern on Western Theology in the Works of John Scotus Eriugena, Saint Petersburg, 1898 (in Russian); Vladimir Lossky, La theologie negative chez Maitre Ekhart, Paris, 1959; Nicholas Lossky, Lancelot Andrewes le predicateur (1555-1626), Paris, 1986.
(28) Cf. Fr Georges Florovsky, "St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers", in The Collected Works, op. cit., p.381.
(29) Bernard Fraigneau-Julien, Les sens spirituels et la vision de Dieu chez Symeon le Nouveau Theologien, Paris, 1986.
(30) Cf. Hieromonk Hilarion (Alfeev), St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition, pp.443-44 (in Russian).
(31) Let me remark in passing that the question to which degree the personal holiness of a church author, as well as his official canonization, may be considered a warranty for the infallibility of their theological views deserves detailed research. Does the canonization of a person who has been magnified for the holiness of his life or his suffering for the sake of Christ automatically imply the elevation of all their writings to the rank of patristic writings? This question has become particularly pressing with the canonization of many Russian new martyrs and confessors who have left behind a literary heritage.
(32) Cf. Fr Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, p.82.
(33) Cf. Hieromonk John (Kologrivov), Essays on the History of Russian Sanctity, Brussels, 1961, pp.296-302 (in Russian).
(34) Cf. Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, op. cit., p.157.
(35) Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, "Overcoming the Rupture between Theology and Life", in Church and Time, no. 2, 1999, p.144 (in Russian).
(36) Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. I-III, Utrecht-Brussels, 1950-60.
(37) Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. I-IV, London, 1965.
(38) In Russian, only the treatises Exhortation to Martyrdom, de Principiis, on Prayer, the first four books of Against Celsus and some minor works exist.
(39) Jean Danielou, Origene, Paris, 1948; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Parole et mystere chez Origene, Paris, 1957.
(40) Jean-Claude Larchet, La divinisation de l'homme selon Maxime le Confesseur, Paris, 1996. Larchet, Maxime le Confesseur mediateur entre l'Orient et l'Occident, Paris, 1998.
(41) Cf. Sergi Bulgakov, Handbook for Church Servers, Moscow, 1913 (repr. 1993; in Russian), p.1622: "Hesychasts (the tranquil). Thus a company of monks was designated in Greece in the 14th century, who distinguished themselves by the very oddest dreaminess. They considered the navel the centre of all spiritual energies ... and thought, that by placing their chin on their chest and continually watching their navel, they would be able to see the heavenly light and enjoy angelic visions ... The Hesychasts' absurd opinion about the conditions for receiving the uncreated light soon tell into oblivion by themselves." The same book does, however, present a more positive opinion on the Hesychasm of St Gregory Palamas on pp.570-71. It is startling to see such texts reprinted in the late 20th century without any comments whatsoever.
(42) A considerable part of the works in volumes I-IV have been translated from Greek and are not authentic. Among the works translated from Syriac in the volumes V-VII some are wrongly attributed as well; volume VIII contains Ephrems commentaries on the Diatessaron, genuine but translated from Armenian.
(43) In particular, cf. Hieromonk Hilarion Alfeev, Orthodox Theology on the Fringe of Two Centuries, Moscow, 1999, pp.408-409 (in Russian).
(44) Metropolitan Cyril, Overcoming the Rupture, op. cit., pp.141-42 (in Russian).
* Hilarion Alfeyev has done advanced study in Oxford and Paris. Newly consecrated bishop of Kerch of the Russian Orthodox Church, he serves now in the UK as an assistant bishop to Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. This address was given at the 9th international conference of Russian monasticism and spirituality, Bose Monastery (Italy), 20 September 2001; it has been translated from the Russian by Hildo Bos.
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|Author:||Alfeyev, Hegumen Hilarion|
|Publication:||The Ecumenical Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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