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
responsibilitiesespecially in educationto 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
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 clergymanand one
thought facile in the science of theologyabout 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 cumenical 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 Churchsuch as that undertaken
by the Old Calendar movementis 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 usa 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 Athensunder pressure from the
Vatican because of Old Calendarist missionary activities in Italy and intransigence toward
Papal influence over the Church of Greeceexpressed 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 cumenical
Patriarchate, which has been at a level of theological poverty for the last six
decades that simply defies imaginationthough 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
cumenical 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 worldto 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 Patriarchatein
violation of every Canon and traditional Orthodox theology throughout the agesto
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
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
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 thanto paraphrase Kierkegaard's comments about a philosophical
system that begins with doubtis 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.