Are the Fathers Relevant Today?
Monk Moses the Hagiorite
Meta-patristic Theology represents a new trend in Orthodox
theological circles, which claims that Orthodox theological
teaching should move beyond its traditional patristic
outlook, which is based on the teachings of the Holy Fathers
of the Church, in order to respond to the challenge of the
contemporary society and its particular trends.
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For the last few years there has been much talk about “Neo-patristic synthesis,” “Metapatristic Theology,” “Theology of contextual relevance” and other ambitious, vainglorious and sad witticisms, which wish to prevail, and to be ‘original’ and ‘different.’ All these create surprises, puzzles and devious reasoning and thought. We shall present below some of these in a concise and humble way, having first emphasized some known ecclesiastical positions.
Clement, the Alexandrian catechist, was the first to speak on “right theology” and on “real philosophy and true theology.” Eusebius of Caesarea refers in his work On Ecclesiastical Theology to “Two choirs that handed down to mankind the Theology of our Savior, the first to arrive was the Prophetic, the second to proceed was that of the Apostles and Disciples of the Lord.” The first Theologian is John the Evangelist, the second is Gregory Nazianzus and the third is Symeon the New. St. Gregory the Theologian, through his celebrated Homilies, composes a system of truths of the Christian faith, proclaims the Trinitarian Godhead, describes the unattainable being, the uncreated energies, the complementarity of the three divine persons and the knowledge about them...Theology means the exact word about God, the truth of the faith, the way of drawing near to God, the deification of man, the perfection of the believer by grace and participation, the experience of the living God, God’s revelation in our life, the renovation and transformation of the fallen man. There are several ways of approaching God and every believer chooses the most suitable. All these ways, however, have humility and love as their mark.
The First Theologians are the Apostles, then, the Apologists, the great Fathers of the Church and all the Saints. Christian Theology is the true philosophy, which encompasses genuine doctrines about God. The Great Athanasius in Alexandria and John Chrysostom in Antioch and in Constantinople direct theology to a discreet and sober Christocentrism. The Cappadocian Fathers emphasized mainly the distinction of divine essence and energy. Subsequently, St. John Damascene, and later St. Gregory Palamas, constitute a genuine and systematic synopsis of the entire patristic spirit. Mystical theology, the stream of the holy hesychasts has brilliant representatives from Dionysius the Areopagite to Symeon the New Theologian and the others that followed.
The trend for a return to the Fathers that has prevailed in recent years through the work of the great theologian Fr. George Florovsky has rendered much fruit, which we enjoy to this day. Distanced from the western forensic and pietistic theology, Orthodox theology stressed man’s regeneration and transformation in Christ through seeing and participating in God within the body of the Church by means of watchfulness, ascesis, prayer, sacramental life, purification, illumination and sanctification. Western scholasticism became boring and tedious. The liberational, modern, innovative, novel ideas of certain eastern theologians are problematic. Protestantism insisted on faith alone and not on the Dogmas and the Theology of the Church. Saint Diadochos of Photike calls Theology the seeking of God and being in communion with Him, through study and prayer. Theognostos considers pure life and a clear mind to be preconditions for Theology and pure theoria. Theology is the experience of being involved with God. The vision of God (θεοπτία) is superior to Theology and a seer of God (θεόπτης) is superior to a Theologian.
The great Fathers of the Church are her great theologians. They are the God-bearers, the God-inspired, the God-moved, the Enlightened, those who rightly administer the word of truth in their life, their teaching and their works. The strain of their theological ascent is what it is, not only because of their constant study of Holy Scripture, but also because of their experiences, since the Word of Scripture became the earnest acceptance of their heart. All the Fathers of the Church are characterized by the holiness of their lives and orthodox doctrine.
There is a great need today to return again to the sacred patristic sources, which are always inexhaustible and life-giving. Great Fathers are not only the ancient ones but also the newer ones, who continue on the path of those who have greater experience from the useful past of the Church. Contemporary theologians need to study faithfully the works of our holy Fathers. Distortion or ignorance of the sacred tradition and the creation of a new Theology, which bypasses the Fathers, who are considered obsolete, with a language which is culturally fashionable, more complex terminology, incomprehensible sometimes even to themselves, neo-theological, anti-ascetical, uncut, unattested, easy-going, joyful and very happy, but also as shallow, lukewarm and perfunctory.
What is really the meaning of “Theology of contextual relevance?” Firstly the term contextual implies relation, likeness, functionality, correlation of things with common elements. This term appears to be quite vague. It appeared in inter-Christian meetings as a compromised unity, not to expose the divided Christians to the followers of other religions. They put aside basic doctrinal differences and presented themselves as friends and partners in philanthropy, ecology, pacifism and agapetism. They gave preference to reasoning related to social justice and humanism, and not to the great truths of the Holy Gospel. In the unchanged Orthodox Church we do not meet different “churches” because the Church is one, holy, and apostolic. It is not a joint venture, an association, a club, but the Church that saves, redeems, sanctifies, deifies, perfects. It is unthinkable and unacceptable that the profound soteriological content of Orthodox Ecclesiology could be distorted by Orthodox Theologians and especially clergymen.
The Fathers of the Church have not grown old, have not become outdated, or expired, or have been expended. There is no Theology after the Fathers, but there is Theology with the Fathers. The Fathers are based on the Holy Scripture and are moved by the Holy Spirit. They are “containers of the Spirit,” “God-sounding trumpets,” “allgolden mouths,” “lyres of the Spirit,” “The Tablets of Grace,” “The flowers of paradise.” Orthodox Theology without personal struggle, ascesis, watchfulness (νήψη) and divine illumination does not exist, just as there is no Theology without the God-bearing Fathers. The Holy Fathers, the teachers of the Ecumene, had no anxiety to become innovators, or to impress, or to present something novel that would give them glory. The Fathers wrote and spoke, when there was a great need in the Church and they did not want to develop new, personal theories and philosophical theorems. Bathed in the light of the vision of God, they humbly laid down exalted truths, interpreting them by divine illumination, saving truths, which Christ Himself revealed to the world.
The Fathers do not belong to the past of the Church, but to her present. We cannot talk about before and after the Fathers. It is as if we think that we surpassed them, or that they gave us what they had to give us, that they are no longer needed, that we can move forward without them, that we too are fathers and do not lack in anything… All these considerations are reminiscent of Protestant view-points on dignity, authority and emancipation. The Fathers follow in the steps of the Apostles and of the Lord, and the younger Fathers walk in the footsteps of the Fathers who were their predecessors. Arbitrariness is heresy for Orthodoxy.
Much of what was said in the theological Conference in June last year in the Academy of Theological Studies of the Holy Metropolis of Demetrias on the subject of “Neopatristic Synthesis, or Metapatristic Theology: The Quest for a Theology of Contextual Relevance in Orthodoxy” is unacceptable (this article was original published 12/17/2010). Questions are raised against the contribution of Fr. George Florovsky, the unique truth of Orthodoxy; proposals are put forth that the Fathers belong to the past; the Tradition is underestimated; our Theology is accused that it contains myths, that it is not original, that the Fathers be passed over, that doctrines be redefined…An Orthodox Theological Academy can not invite speakers who present what they imagine and whatever they like…
Isn’t perhaps self-criticism needed here instead of critiquing the Fathers? Isn’t greater study of the Fathers to be undertaken rather than by-passing them? A theology that freely negates the contribution of the Fathers is clearly Protestant. A dissident theology creates problems instead of solving them. Theology should grow without conceited knowledge, original witticisms, arbitrary interpretations and newly generated ideas, but in a climate of modesty, of humility, of asceticism, of sobriety and of the tradition of our Church. Our Church gives birth to Saints and saves souls. We need saintly Theologians. The Theology that is Orthodox is rendered magnificent by the grace of the all-enabling Holy Spirit and the intercessions of the Saints, the leading Ecumenical Teachers.
Originally published in The Presbyter (the digital periodical published by the GOA‘s Archdiocesan Presbyters Council), Vol. 15Winter 2014, p. 15. Translated by Protopresbyter Prof. George D. Dragas. For some astute comments that effectively rebut a prominent critic of this article, see this post by Fr. John Whiteford.