On Conservatives and Liberals
Chapter 29 from Patristic Theology
by Father John Romanides
In their mudslinging campaign, the opponents of the hesychast revival have now called
the supporters of this tradition ‘conservative.’ But what does the word ‘conservative’
mean in the West? In the West, a conservative is someone who still identifies the
Bible with God’s revelation to mankind and the world, because in the old days Protestants
and Roman Catholics believed in the literal inspiration of Holy Scripture. In other
words, they believed that Christ dictated the Bible word for word to the prophets
and writers of the gospels by means of the Holy Spirit, so that the writers of the
Bible were like scribes who wrote down whatever they heard the Holy Spirit say.
But now Biblical criticism has come along and discredited this line of thought,
dividing those in the Protestant world into conservative and liberal camps. For
example, the Lutherans are divided into conservative and liberal factions. In America,
there are separate Lutheran churches—one church for liberals, and the church of
the Missouri Synod for conservatives. One faction does not accept the Bible as revelation
on absolute terms, while the other faction does. One can also observe the same phenomenon
with the Baptists. The liberal Baptists do not accept the Holy Scripture as literally
inspired revelation, while the others embrace it as revelation that is inspired
word for word. You can also find the same division among the Methodists. In fact,
this split between liberals and conservatives over the issue of Holy Scripture can
be seen in all the Protestant denominations in America.
Now, ask yourself whether this division can be applied to Orthodox tradition. Are
there conservative Fathers and liberal Fathers with respect to the Bible? Is there
a single Church Father who teaches the literal inspiration of Holy Scripture? Is
there a single Church Father who identifies the Holy Scripture with the experience
of theosis itself? No, there is not one, because God’s revelation to mankind
is the experience of theosis. In fact, since revelation is the experience
of theosis, an experience that transcends all expressions and concepts,
the identification of Holy Scripture with revelation is, in terms of dogmatic theology,
Can someone who accepts this Patristic teaching on theosis be characterized
as conservative, based on the split over Scripture in the Protestant world? When
liberal Protestants hear about this Patristic principle, they say, “Oh yes, that’s
liberalism!” while conservative Protestants say, “No, it’s heresy!” In other words,
when we follow the Fathers, we Orthodox are heretics as far as conservative Protestants
You may well ask, “who are the Orthodox liberals and the Orthodox conservatives?”
They are those who do theology in a way that corresponds to the theology of Protestant
liberals and conservatives. This is the reason why certain theologians in Greece
have been divided into liberal and conservatives camps. The liberals follow liberal
Protestants on these subjects while the conservatives follow their conservative
But can we classify Patristic tradition using such characterizations and buzzwords?
Of course not. Nevertheless, a hesychast theologian of the Eastern Church will be
viewed as a liberal in the West, because he refuses to identify the written text
of Holy Scripture, including its sayings and concepts, with revelation.
Since revelation is the experience of theosis, it is beyond comprehension,
expression, and conceptualization. This means that the labels ‘conservative' OR
'liberal’ should not be applied to those who adhere to Orthodox tradition. Based
on what is meant by revelation, the Fathers are neither liberals nor conservatives.
Simply put, there are Church Fathers who are saints of the Church who have only
reached illumination and there are saints of the Church who have also reached theosis
and are more glorious than the former class of saints.
This is the Patristic tradition—either you attain to illumination or you attain
to theosis once you have already passed through illumination. Orthodox
tradition is nothing other than this curative course of treatment through which
the nous is purified, illumined, and eventually glorified together with
the entire man, if God so wills. Therefore, is there such a thing as an illumined
liberal or an illumined conservative in this context? Of course not. You are either
illumined or you are not. You have either reached theosis or you have not.
You have either undergone this treatment, or you have not. Apart from these distinctions,
there are no others.
Theology - The University Lectures of Father John Romanides (Thessaloniki,
Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 108-111. This book is distributed in North
America by Uncut Mountain Supply.
Posted April 29, 2008.