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Contemporary Orthodox Theological Training


Some time ago we promised to write a few words about contemporary Orthodox theological training, in response to inquiries from a number of readers of Orthodox Tradition. This is, of course, an important topic, but one which prompts rather harsh reaction from those involved in the various Orthodox theological schools worldwide. The notorious decline in the quality of American education reflects a problem everywhere, so that almost all those involved in theological training, too, are understandably sensitive to criticism. It is natural that we should react to criticism of that in which we may be sincerely involved and to which we may be wholeheartedly dedicated. However, it is by criticism that we grow, that we understand the need to correct and to improve what is lacking, and that we are encouraged to fulfill our responsibilities—especially in education—to meet the challenges of changing situations. The observations that we will subsequently make, then, are not meant to insult or to condemn our theological educators, but to point out some serious and threatening flaws in Orthodox theological education that must be addressed, if we are to progress beyond the present state of mediocrity that besets the whole educational scene in the West.

The "dean" of Orthodox theologians in the West, as his Harvard colleagues described the late Father Georges Florovsky, always cautioned the same colleagues not to call him a theologian. Indeed, much to everyone's shock at first hearing this fact, Father had no earned degrees in theology! His doctorate was in a non-theological field. He saw the role of the theological educator in a classical Orthodox way, bowing to the Church's bestowal of the term "theologian" on only three of Her great Fathers. What a stark contrast this is to the custom of half-educated graduates from our contemporary theological schools calling themselves "theologians" and pontificating on matters which they hardly understand with the supposed expertise of Church Fathers!

Let us characterize the theological knowledge of our contemporary "theologians" (or, more properly, holders of elementary theological credentials) with some surprising, but nonetheless true, experiences from real life. Some years ago a very amiable and obviously intelligent woman visited our monastery. In the course of discussing with [Archbishop] Chrysostomos some of his research projects, the woman asked, with some embarrassment, what His [Eminence] meant by the expression, "the Fathers of the Church." In the course of his reply, he discovered that she had never read a primary Patristic text. Nor was she familiar with the standard collections of Patristic texts in Greek or English, despite the fact that she had completed a degree in theology, with remarkably high marks, at the University of Athens.

Yet more recently, we read some rather pointed remarks by a clergyman—and one thought facile in the science of theology—about the use of the term "True Orthodox" by the Greek Old Calendarists. He rather sarcastically wondered whether we would eventually read of "really True Orthodox." In a certain context, the point might be well-taken. Nonetheless, we were taken aback by the fact that the clergymen in question was unaware that the expression "True Orthodox" is not only Patristic, but is employed by the Fathers of the First Œcumenical Synod.

In a similar display of inadequacies in Patristic reading and research among Orthodox clergymen, the Greek State Church Bishop of Hydras, in his rather unbecoming attack (in the secular courts!) against a clergyman who had decided to return to the Old Calendar, circulated a legal brief, written by a number of advisors, claiming that resistance within the Church—such as that undertaken by the Old Calendar movement—is impossible and has no historical justification. We wonder if His Eminence has ever heard of St. Basil's call to lawful and righteous resistance, the whole witness of the Cappadocians, or the "resistance" undertaken by the Studites during the Iconoclastic Controversy! Basic knowledge of Church history would challenge the very premise of the document circulated by the Metropolitan.

Here in America, a visiting Patriarch from one of the ancient Orthodox Sees was recently heard to remark that the Orthodox Church differs from the Roman Catholic Church in that the Orthodox Church has "many Popes" in its Patriarchal system, not just one. Apparently the Patriarch had missed his basic catechism class the day that the teacher spoke of the equality of all Orthodox Bishops. Not many years ago, in a book more marked by poor grammar than good ecclesiology, a modernist clergyman set out to define "canonicity" in the Orthodox Church by whether a Church body is in communion with its "Mother Church" or Patriarchate, thus, of course, rendering all resistance moves impossible, condemning such Fathers as the Cappadocians to uncanonical status, and setting up a kind of Papal standard in Orthodoxy unknown to any Father of the Church. (See Surrency, Archimandrite Seraphim, The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity; New York, 1973). [Father Seraphim's innovative ecclesiology especially served the moves of the old "Metropolia" in seeking "canonicity" from the Moscow Patriarchate as the so-called Orthodox Church in America (OCA).] What a sad spectacle of poor theological education these latter two instances present to us—a spectacle especially dangerous in an age when such misunderstandings reinforce excessive and anti-Orthodox ecumenist notions.

We Old Calendarists have particularly suffered in the atmosphere of poverty in contemporary Orthodox theological knowledge, as witnessed by instances of misunderstanding, not only of the nature and possibility of our resistance in the Church, but of the very nature of ecclesiastical authenticity itself. Recently, in statements that shocked his own clergy and that were, to put it mildly, ill-advised and wholly outside Orthodox tradition and practice, the Archbishop of Athens—under pressure from the Vatican because of Old Calendarist missionary activities in Italy and intransigence toward Papal influence over the Church of Greece—expressed his opinion that Greece's two million Old Calendarists were "outside the Church," "schismatics," and thus without Grace. Many State Church Bishops reacted with embarrassment at this extremism. Not a few theologians, both in and outside the Old Calendar movement, reminded His Beatitude that in Eastern Orthodox theology we do not consider schismatics to be without Grace and the Mysteries. Nor, indeed, do we pronounce on the authenticity of a Church in terms of whether it maintains communion with us. These are purely Latin inventions!

We must also mention the sad state of the Œcumenical Patriarchate, which has been at a level of theological poverty for the last six decades that simply defies imagination—though we can understand the external causes of this poverty on account of the evil, tyrannical control that an unenlightened Turkish state has exercised over the Greek minority in the Phanar during this time of decline. In the ecumenical frenzy of the '60s and '70s, which has subsided to some extent now, the Œcumenical Patriarchate was happy to sit back and let Rome make it the "Papacy of the East," even though such a notion is actual heresy in the Orthodox Church. Thus, by closely associating with the Patriarchate in Constantinople and attributing to it "Papal" dimensions, the See of Rome was able to say that the uncanonical and unilateral actions of the Patriarchate in lifting the anathemas of 1054 extended to the whole Orthodox Church: to the "Papal" realm of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Only poor theological training could ever have allowed the Phanar to let the Vatican make such a foolish and un-Orthodox spectacle of Constantinople before the whole world—to make of the Great Church not only an ecclesiastical "prostitute," but a "clown," as the late Archimandrite Justin Popovich wrote.

The Russian world, too, has shown us endless examples of near theological stupidity in modern times, not the least of which was a decision by the Moscow Patriarchate—in violation of every Canon and traditional Orthodox theology throughout the ages—to give Communion to Roman Catholics in emergencies. It is no secret, of course, that Russian theology was dominated by a Western spirit during the last several hundred years before the Bolshevik Revolution, having begun to emerge from that captivity only shortly before the fateful end of Orthodox Russia. One sees this influence in the current misunderstanding, among many Slavic theologians, of the traditional Orthodox teaching on economy, on basic ecclesiology, and on the role of culture in Orthodox mission and self-expression. Even in traditionalist Russian jurisdictions, like the Church in Exile, there prevail some decidedly Latin notions of the Church that have proved harmful and, to use the words of Father Georges Florovsky, "compromising" of their very witness. All of these things we can attribute to the modern-day state of Orthodox theological education.

If we are humble and we seek the unity of Orthodoxy in authentic tradition and piety, we will have no difficulty admitting these weaknesses in our knowledge of the Church's theology. Moreover, there are many exceptions to these weaknesses, and we should draw on this richness of theological and spiritual learning otherwise lost in the disunity of Orthodoxy in our age. In so doing, we must re-define and seek to expand our notion of theological training, returning to the systems of education that have marked Orthodoxy in Her highest periods of development.

Firstly, we must understand that the very model of "seminaries" and theological schools is not a classical one in our Church. The idea of separating a life anchored in God from the study of God is unknown in traditional Orthodoxy. If one studies in a secular university to gain skills in writing, studying, and reasoning, it is in the monastery and in teaching institutions attached to monasteries that knowledge of God is to be had, the study of God being accompanied by prayer, fasting, and discipline in the personal life. Theology is passed on in the monastic atmosphere or in the exchange of knowledge between a spiritual teacher and student that reflects the monastic atmosphere.

Secondly, we must retreat from the rubrics of modern secular learning. A foolish and arrogant young man once told a theologian friend of mind that the study of Patristics begins with an attitude of questioning all, of questioning the very basis of the Fathers. The attitude of this young convert is based in the Western notion of building on doubt. It has no place in Orthodoxy and thwarts the transmission of the Patristic spirit which is basic to Orthodox theological learning. To be sure, such an attitude is no more effective in teaching Orthodoxy than—to paraphrase Kierkegaard's comments about a philosophical system that begins with doubt—is the technique of teaching soldiers to stand at attention by asking them to fall in a dead heap on the ground! Textual criticism conducted by scholars who hardly even read the languages with which they work, critical responses by students who do not even know the rudimentary rules of English grammar and composition (a widespread problem in American education), and research conducted according to the prevailing whims of the academic world (today, largely relativism, cynicism, and even nihilism)—these have no place in Orthodox theological education. They are limited approaches for those of limited outlook and abilities.

The cynical attitude that complements modern secular learning is equally deadly for Orthodoxy. It allows petty personal difficulties with Orthodoxy and the spiritual life to take on pseudo-scholarly dimensions, just as in non-theological secular education today a spirit of derision betrays a generation of scholars who have become effete and who lack those guiding geniuses who can give us perspective and breadth. We hear about pseudo-this and pseudo-that, since doubt and cynicism, fostered by the latest scholarly whim about who or what is "in" or "out," clearly cover the coward who is afraid to venture belief and sustantiate it with logic and research. Cynicism and Orthodoxy have nothing in common.

Finally, we must develop an acute awareness of the threat posed by theological mediocrity in the Orthodox Church today. It serves the ends of political ecumenism, substituting simplistic formulae for Church union for the circumspect and cautious deliberations of the Fathers. It serves to alienate and separate Orthodox. And it fosters the arrogance that accompanies the ignorance which will usher in the time of Antichrist.

Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IV, No. 2, pp. 29-33.