by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae
Our father Dumitru was a priest of the Church of Romania who was renowned as an Orthodox theologian, academic, and professor. In addition to commentary on the works of the Church Fathers and a Romanian translation of the Philokalia, his 1978 masterpiece The Dogmatic Orthodox Theology established him as one of the foremost Christian theologians of the later half of the twentieth century. His book, Orthodox Spirituality, is available in English and is a masterpiece of dogmatic theology. This excerpt is taken from the hommage to Nicos A. Nissiotis, Athens 1994.
It is a fact that Orthodoxy is identical in its faith-content and worship with the faith-content and worship of primitive Christianity.
Yet the extraordinary and absolutely genuine fact about it is that, while being essentially the continuation of the faith, worship, and spirituality of the undivided Church of the first centuries, Orthodoxy meets in a perfect manner, the spiritual need of the people who have remained loyal to it down to this day.
Orthodoxy did not change essentially during the historical periods experienced by humanity over two thousand years. But it is due to this fact that Orthodoxy did not become impregnated during these centuries with anything which would require elimination of in our times. Nor did Orthodoxy make an essential feature of its existence out of the temporary element of one historical period or another and hence the need to get rid of it nowadays.
Orthodoxy did not turn ‘middle-aged,’ as happened with Roman Catholicism; nor is it the by-product of the protest movement of the Renaissance as is the case with Protestantism; it does not seek, even today, to reform itself essentially in order to accommodate itself to our times by way of secularization.
Orthodoxy has not introduced into the mysterious sanctuary, long-proven by a simple expression of faith, subtle and complicated innovations of certain maîtres, dominated by the desire for a certain sweetness offered by an intellectual exercise rather than by the abysmal and overwhelming awe of the mystery of the relationship between man and God.
Orthodoxy has never mixed together superfluous patterns of human thought with the simple, mysterious, majestic, permanently and inevitably lived essence of the fundamental data of the mystery of salvation.
One could say Orthodoxy has preserved a mass character, for the people in their simplicity remain very little sensitive to the successive ideologies of the historical periods, but stay open to the real and essential problems of all times.
Orthodoxy needs no secularization today in order to encounter the contemporary man. On the contrary, it knows well that, by becoming secularized it would lose sight of man and would no longer respond to the fundamental problems of salvation that keep burning under the ashes in the very depths of man’s being.
Certainly, Orthodoxy has always accommodated itself to the times. It has always helped the loyal faithful in all the circumstances and in their endeavors and struggles to preserve their existence, to free themselves from alien domination. The Romanian Orthodox Church, having introduced the national (vernacular) language in church services over three centuries ago, has helped create a Romanian literary language.
But the accommodation of Orthodoxy to the times did not mean an alteration of its being a mystery, nor did it mean a replacement of the mystery by an ideology determined by one epoch or another. Orthodoxy has done all this by fully understanding the value of creation. It has always remained the mystery of simple data, but fundamental and necessary for the religious life.
Orthodoxy has always done and still does things that way. In this respect it mediates Christ to the faithful, Christ who is
the same yesterday and today and for ever. (Heb. 13,8).
It is Jesus Christ who, being the same forever answers in a perfect manner today as He did yesterday.
The Ancient Law was subject to alteration since its revelation was ever growing and, by that, it kept on widening its meaning before being, eventually, replaced by Christ. The setting aside of the Law was caused by the latter’s imperfection as a mystery of salvation:
A former command is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect) (Heb.7,18-19).
All human ideologies undergo the same process. Each dies and another one takes its place like
the priests who were many in number (Heb.7,23).
But He holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues for ever. Consequently He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God…, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Heb.7,24-25).
Orthodoxy has understood that it needs no changing for the perfect dignity of the High Priesthood of Christ, nor to add or suppress anything, but rather that its only task is to emphasize time and again this dignity in its fullness. The saying: “Ecclesia semper reformanda” (The Church is always reforming) does not apply in Orthodoxy since Orthodoxy communicates Christ integrally, Him who is “semper conformis cum omni tempore.”
The mystery of salvation has always been lived to the full within Orthodoxy. Those few recent terms adopted by the Ecumenical Councils did not mean to bring down the mystery to a rationalistic definition but precisely to guarantee its being a mystery as against those temptations to rationalize and limit it, or to make it disappear altogether.
Those terms were meant to protect permanently the mysterious and salutary fact announced in the New Testament, namely that we are saved by the Son of God, who, to that end, became man and remains eternally the same God and man; also that we are saved by God who at the same time is perfect man and, as such, entirely accessible to us, for that we are saved by a man who, being fully accessible to us as man He is also fully accessible to us as God, or even better to say, as the infinite source of life.
The Ecumenical Councils protected the mystery of our salvation, according to which the infinite source of life was made accessible to us, to the extent that the human person became accessible to us as our neighbor. The Councils drew a line between the pantheistic hellenism under the guise of gnosis, and God as Person in communion, and thereby have confirmed the eternal value of man as Person.
The Councils withstood the rationalist temptation to void of meaning the mystery of salvation and thereby to make illusory salvation itself by turning God into an essence (ousia) submitted to rational laws and by foreseeing the disappearance of man in that essence. It is only the person that can escape rationalism and remain an inexhaustible mystery, and at the same time to be nearest to any person in the way God is nearest to us and at the same time an inexhaustible mystery.
A current objection to Orthodoxy is that, like Western Christianity, it accommodated itself to medieval Renaissance and also Byzantine mentality and buried the living kernel of the Christian mystery under a heap of formalist and aristocratic splendor which no longer corresponds to our time.
We do not deny that Orthodoxy experienced a Byzantine influence. But this influence did not touch upon the essence of Christian mystery.
What has been considered to be a Byzantine heritage in the life of the Eastern Orthodox Church is, particularly, the multitude of symbols expressing both the Christian faith and its being as lived in worship, in art, and in life. But the Byzantine impact and influence could only foster the development of a symbolism inherent in the expression of Christian mystery.
The intellectual definitions and the doctrinal expositions whereby the West has tried (and still tries) to replace the exposition of mystery by way of symbols have their point of origin in the conviction that this mystery can be expressed exactly in human words.
In reality this mystery is narrowed down or even diluted wherever one wishes to encapsulate it in the strict meaning of words and intellectual definitions. The paradoxical and apophatic fullness of the mystery of salvation is more exactly rendered by symbols.
To speak of the Cross and Resurrection in a general way, to contemplate them in icons, to express them in symbolic and liturgical gestures suggests in a more realistic and existential way the mystery of salvation than does the satisfaction theory of Anselm or the penal theory of the Protestants who are able to express but one aspect of the incomprehensible mystery of salvation.
If Orthodoxy needs to accommodate itself to the needs of contemporary man, it cannot consist in a total reduction of the symbolic expression. It can only consist in a simplification of this expression in order to see straight away the great symbols of the Christian mystery which correspond to the great, simple, permanent, evidences and spiritual necessities of man.
Namely: God near to us as human person; resurrection through the Cross; glory through humility; power to restrain oneself, and patience; freedom through grace; the value of this life through faith in the hereafter; individuality through communion; development of one’s own personality through self-denial, and so on.