A Criticism of the Lack of Concern for Doctrine Among Russian Orthodox Believers

by Father George Florovsky

The late Metropolitan Eulogius was discussing the recent religious revival among Russians, both at home and in exile, during the early years of Russian emigration. The fact was obvious: there was an awakening. The reasons were obvious, also: the shock of tragic events, insecurity and uncertainty, suffering and fear. But exactly what was it that attracted Russians to the Church? The dogmas, the Orthodox doctrine? Yes, said the Metropolitan, so it was in the past, and especially in Byzantium among the Greeks, but not in Russia. There was a time when even lay people were deeply interested in questions of faith. But Russians, the Metropolitan contended, with the exception of the few educated theologians, have not yet reached the point at which they would be concerned with the problems of abstract theological thought, and in fact they are not interested in them at all. It may be, the Metropolitan conceded, that the Church has failed to develop an interest in theology among believers. But, in his opinion, the true reason for this lack of interest among the Russians was that they neither cherish, nor understand the theoretical aspect of the realization or embodiment of the Church's ideals in the lives of men. Above all, they cherish the ritual aspect of religion, the beauty of services, ikons, melodies, and the like. The Metropolitan proceeded to explain the emotional and educational value of the rites. He added, however, that all this ritual may be little understood, and that people do not really know what truth is witnessed or symbolized in the rites. Yet, he contended, rites themselves are so touching and moving, exalting and inspiring, regardless of their meaning.

Whether this is a fair description of the Russian approach to Christianity is open to doubt. But the attitude described by the late Metropolitan is typical of certain elements in the Russian Church. It is persistently asserted by various writers that Russians learn Christianity not from the Gospel but from the Lives of Saints. It is also asserted that for the Orthodox in general, Christianity is not "Doctrine" but "Life." The Orthodox are concerned not with "dogmatic systems" but with "living." They comprehend the truth not through the mediation of intellectual understanding, but through the mediation of "the heart" and in an aesthetical manner. One should look for Orthodox teaching not in systems but in images, rites and ikons. It is even asserted that in the Orthodox East there is "no theory of Christianity," but that instead there are saints, ikons, poetry and so on.

No Orthodox, and no Catholic, would deny the basic importance of sacred rites and the life of sanctity. What is embarrassing in the statements which we have just quoted is their exclusiveness, their emphasis on not—but. One should ask why "doctrinal systems" and "intellectual understanding" are so carefully restricted, so contemptuously devaluated and almost altogether eliminated. The balance seems to be broken. In any case, this over-emphasis on the "artistic" aspect of the ritual is not in agreement with the actual tradition of Orthodox art itself. And if one can be instructed by Orthodox hymnography and ikons, it is precisely because a very definite "theory of Christianity" is embodied and expressed there. "Theory" means above all "contemplation;" it is an insight and a vision, a poetic insight and an intellectual vision. According to Orthodox spiritual tradition, the Nous is the ruling power of the inner life, "to hegemonikon." Traditional Eastern Orthodox hymnography, inherited by Russians from the Greeks, is not just lyrics; it is marked not by emotion, but by sobriety. It is high poetry, indeed, but it is "metaphysical poetry," or rather "theological poetry," and does not hesitate to sometimes use elaborate theological terminology. Indeed, some of the greatest hymns of the Eastern Church are simply paraphrases of dogmatic definitions: a Son, who was born before ages of the Father without mother, and who hath in no way undergone either a change, or intermingling, or division, but hath preserved in their entirety the peculiarities of each nature (Dogmatic Theotokion, in the 3rd tone.) This is precisely the definition of the Council of Chalcedon, and it requires theological understanding. It was aptly said that Orthodox Ikons are "dogmatic monuments" (V. V. Bolotov.) They witness the same truth which is defined in doctrine, and according to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, they must be controlled by sound doctrine. In brief, there is no room for this disjunction: not -but. Of course, dogmas must be lived and not assessed by abstract thinking alone, but for that very reason it is misleading to urge not doctrine but life. This habit of division and disjunction only distorts the "life" itself. One cannot separate "spirituality" and "theology" in St. John of Damascus, or in St. Gregory of Nazianzus. One misses the very center of the spirituality of Father John of Kronstadt when it is deliberately "abstracted" from his theological vision. Holiness in the Orthodox tradition is always interpreted "theologically," and not in the categories of aesthetic emotion or exaltation, but in the categories of spiritual sobriety, in faithfulness to truth.

It is really embarrassing that there is so little concern for "dogmatic systems," as well as for the Doctrine of the Church, in various circles and quarters of the Orthodox society of our day, and that "devotion" is so often forcefully divorced from "faith." There is too much concern with "the vessels" and too little concern with the Treasure, which alone makes the vessel precious. Symbols and rites are vehicles of the truth, and if they fail to convey the truth, they simply cease to function. Unfortunately, it is often suggested that "interest in doctrines" is something rather archaic and is a Greek attitude rather than a Russian one (again, not—but). There is but one Orthodox Tradition of faith, and it transcends all national barriers. The feast of Orthodoxy, which we still faithfully celebrate on the first Sunday in Lent, is precisely a theological feast. The Legacy of Fathers is the core of our Orthodox tradition, and it is a theological legacy. The Doctrine of Fathers is the spring of Orthodoxy in life. One is fully justified in contending that our modern confusion in life comes directly from the contemporary neglect of "sound teaching," from the lack of "sound learning" in matters of faith.

Orthodoxy stands by its faithfulness to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. It is so often forgotten that the Councils were engaged precisely in the formulation of Christian Doctrine, in the elaboration of "dogmatic systems." Is it a step forward that now we are not moved or impressed by the dogmatic teachings of those great men who gave their entire lives to the establishment of the Right Faith, of Orthodoxy? We praise the Three Hierarchs, who were above all the ecumenical teachers, the teachers of the right faith, but we are strangely indifferent to their perennial contribution to the life of the Church: namelytheir teaching, their theology, their interpretation of the Christian truth "in the words of reason." And do we not need, as a matter of first priority, for our intellect to be illuminated by the "Light of Reason" in the present days of intellectual confusion? Without a sober guidance, without the stable element of sound doctrine, our feelings would but err and our hearts would be blinded.

One should accept the present revival of religion, the awakening of the heart, as a gift of Grace, as a token of Divine Mercy, but also as a stem summons and invitation to study and understanding, to the Knowledge of Truth which embraces our Eternal Life. There is an unfortunate prejudice, one which does not stem from Orthodox sources, that "doctrines" are abstract and "theology" is intellectualism. Our Lord and Redeemer is the Logos, and He illumines all men; and the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, is the Spirit of Truth. "Emotions" are human moods, but the truth is Divine.

Let us adorn the vessels, but not forget that vessels are of clay. Yet in them an Eternal Treasure is hidden: the Word of Life.

From The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, ed. Richard S. Haugh (Belmont, MA: Nordland), Vol. XIII, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach, pp. 168-170.

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"What our generation wants, especially in our country [America], is a true theological revival—a revival of a living theology, which would unlock for us the Truth that one can find in the Scriptures, the Tradition, and the Liturgical life of the Church, but which is concealed from us by our ignorance and neglect. Today more than ever before, we need just such a 'band of spiritual firebrands' who can inflame minds and hearts with the fire of a loving knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. In our generation God is calling us to be his witnesses and messengers. How can men believe if they do not hear the quickening Word? Even if we are men of unclean lips, let us respond to the Divine call, and the fire of the Spirit will cleanse us for the ministry of the Word." ("The Witness of the Orthodox Church," ibid., p. 173).