By Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
I have had the extraordinary honor to get to know him after he received his pension from the university, and especially during his stay in Athens. We had been talking almost daily on various matters involving the Church and Theology. He also used to send me some of his work and would explain over the phone his views. He would do the same thing with professor Fr. George Metallinos and the theologian Athanasios Sakarellos. He had also asked me to register him in the hieratical lists of my Diocese, without of course receiving any remuneration, because he had only wanted to belong to an ecclesiastical body. This eventually took place after he supplied to me his certificate of leave from the Holy Archdiocese of America, as I had asked him to. Therefore, I am his last Bishop.
I did get acquainted with his personality and his theological views. I was once very impressed when I had visited him at the intensive care unit in the hospital. He had been connected to various tubes and I had asked him how he was. He paid no attention to my question but started referring to various issues about the Church and Theology. This shows how important ecclesiastical theology was to him so that he had been ignoring his ill health, even the possibility of his death. Theology was his entire life, even to his last breath.
From all that which I have ever written about Fr. Romanides and what will later be published, I would like to mention two ‘phases’ of his theological thought process, if one may speak about the existence of such phases.
It refers to the first phase of his theological creation, which centers on his treatise on “The Ancestral Sin”. The second phase refers to the neptic-hesychastic teachings of the Apostles, especially that of Saint Paul. Naturally, as one may suspect, I will not deal with history here, but mainly with theology, even though he regarded these two faculties as interchangeable.
“The Ancestral Sin”
He dealt with this issue because of the surrounding environment in the States and his quest for an ecclesiastical theology on the creation of the world and the fall of man. It is well known that Fr. John grew up in the States and studied in Catholic and Protestant schools. He was very versatile with their theology, like that of Thomas Aquinas and of other crucial Protestant theologians. The Protestants were denying the patristic tradition and were only studying the Scriptures, while the Catholic theologians were relying on Thomas Aquinas – who had been interpreting Augustine – and other scholastic theologians. This contradiction between the two Christian traditions intrigued Fr. John to look into the so-called Apostolic Fathers – those who succeeded the Apostles but preceded the great Fathers of the fourth century.
This was a most clever move, since he had recognized that the Apostolic Fathers were the connecting link between the Apostles and the great Fathers of the Church. This link was unbreakable. It is through the Apostolic Fathers that the teachings of the Apostles have been conveyed to future generations.
When we are talking about the Apostolic Fathers we refer to Saint Clement of Rome, the authors of the works “The Shepherd of Hermas” and the “Epistle of Barnabas”, Saint Ignatius the God-Bearer, Saint Polycarp of Smyrna and Papias of Hieropolis. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon and Hyppolytos of Rome are connected with the above mentioned Fathers.
Therefore, he had studied extensively the Apostolic Fathers in the ‘spirit’ of the teaching of the Apostles, and compared them on the one hand with the Orthodox Fathers and on the other with the Western Scholastic and Reformation theologians. The whole progress of his theological thought is revealed in the subtitle of his thesis which had the theme of “The Ancestral Sin”.
In a handwritten notebook, which I possess and in which he was making notes while he was studying for the issue before formally expressing his views in his well-known thesis, there is the following title and subtitle: “The Ancestral Sin: The Cosmological and Anthropological Preconditions of the Fall in the Early Church, Compared with the Preconditions Set By Later Greek Patristic Theology and Western Scholastic Theology, Especially That of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas”.
This is the first draft of this work. In this notebook he cited paragraphs from the New Testament, which he had distinguished by theme, showing that he had obviously read the entire New Testament as part of this study as well as the patristic works of the Apostolic Fathers and the Fathers of the fourth century: namely Saint Athanasios, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom and others, as well as Saint Dionysius the Aeropagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor, etc.
In his typed thesis, which again came into my possession, there are also handwritten corrections and interventions with several additions to the first draft, as well as notes in the margins, etc. Obviously this constitutes the first draft; he has given the title and the subtitle to this one as: “The Ancestral Sin: The Cosmological and Anthropological Preconditions of the Fall From the Time of the New Testament Up To the Period of Saint Irenaeus”. In a handwritten note however, he altered the title to: “Contributions to the Teachings on the Ancestral Sin: The Preconditions for the Teachings of the Early Church Up To the Time of Saint Irenaeus in Comparison with the Orthodox and Western Teachings Up To That of Thomas Aquinas”.
In the final version which was published by Pournaras Publications, the title and the subtitle of his thesis have been designated as: “The Ancestral Sin: Contributions to the Research on the Preconditions of the Teachings on the Ancestral Sin in the Early Church Up To Saint Irenaeus in Comparison With the Comprehensive Direction of Orthodox and Western Theology Up To That of Thomas Aquinas”.
It is clearly obvious from the changes which the author had made to the subtitle that he was trying to express in the best possible way the difference between the teachings of the Fathers of the Church and the views of Scholastic theologians on the issue of the ancestral sin. He was always relying on the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers up to Saint Irenaeus as the basis for his theological thinking.
Therefore, this first phase of the research by Fr. John Romanides relies on the Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church in contrast with the works by Augustine and Scholastic theologians. This attempt shows a serious researcher and a scholar who is interested at this stage to perceive the ‘spirit’ of the views of the Church Fathers and, in my opinion, to prove that the Orthodox Church is the “Historic Church” which has preserved Apostolic tradition as it passed with authenticity from the Apostles to the Apostolic Fathers and from them onto the later Fathers. The Catholics and Protestants not only have misinterpreted these teachings, but they have also significantly changed them.
His Neptic-Hesychastic Teaching
After this basic research, Fr. Romanides proceeded deeper into the issue which relates to the cosmological and anthropological preconditions of the ancestral sin, in order to examine the consequences of man’s fall, which are the darkening of his nous and his withdrawal from God’s Light. He also went on to examine the way in which man returns to God, resumes communion with Him and participates in Him. That is, how man is able to reach illumination and deification through purification. He was immensely supported in this second phase of his creative work by certain interpretations of some parts of the New Testament, especially by the interpretations of Saint Paul’s teachings.
As one may determine from his studies into “The Ancestral Sin”, as found in his notebook, he had assembled all the passages of the New Testament which refer to the Devil, to the creating energy of God, to man’s sin, to spiritual death, to the meaning of the heart as ‘nous’, to divine justice, to the “freedom from death and corruption”, to the “self-preservation instinct”, and to Christ’s crucifixion, etc.
One may discern by studying these pericopes, especially those of Saint Paul’s, that Fr. John had been collecting all the passages of the New Testament which refer to the neptic-hesychastic life of man as a precondition for his salvation. This work is the groundwork of his intention to support the view that the neptic-hesychastic tradition was indeed the way the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers lived. This study of the New Testament helped him later on to support his views against the Protestants when he had been appointed as Greece’s representative at their joint discussions.
Several times he told me that the Protestants are denying the teachings of the Fathers, cannot comprehend the conceptions of personhood, hypostasis, the essence or the energy of God. They regard these as examples of the influence of Greek philosophy which has corrupted apostolic tradition. He also mentioned to me that the prominent Protestant theologian Harnack was convinced that Orthodoxy is an idolatrous form of Christianity. Thus, when the Protestants were listening to Orthodox theologians using terms familiar within Greek philosophy, they would become upset, would not understand anything, and they would reject the entire teaching. Therefore, it was not easy for an Orthodox theologian to use terms used in patristic theology, because the Protestants could not understand such terminology.
This would make Fr. John to constantly use passages from the New Testament in his dialogues with the Protestants, especially passages from Saint Paul, in order to put them on the spot.
In his discussions with the Jews he would also expand on passages from the Old Testament regarding the revelation of the bodiless Word, of the Great Angel of Yahweh, in relation to patristic tradition, and this would amaze them. Fr. John would of course never give arbitrary interpretations to Saint Paul’s passages, but had always in mind the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and of the great Fathers of the Church. Usually he would not refer to any specific passages. This means that he comprehended the ‘spirit’ of the Fathers, but he would more often use passages from the Apostles. Thus, he used Apostolic terminology on matters of spiritual life, as for example on issues regarding the heart, the nous, glorification, perfection, etc.
Because I knew him personally and I studied his works diligently and got acquainted with his verbal prose, I believe that he was not arbitrarily interpreting passages from the New Testament and especially of Saint Paul’s, but was relying on two important exegetical keys, two basic traditions.
One such tradition was the teachings of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, on whom he was very versatile, had studied his teachings from the original, and was linking them to those of Saint Paul’s.
I have also studied diligently and have deciphered all the works by Saint Symeon. I have come to accept this connection in the works of Fr. John.
He would several times admit this openly. At other times this connection was evident. In the future, I will try to do this myself. To try, that is, to link Fr. John’s interpretation of Apostolic passages with the teachings of Saint Symeon the New Theologian.
The second tradition with which he used to interpret Saint Paul’s epistles was the living testimony of the hesychasts of Holy Mount Athos, with whom he had been discussing issues pertaining to the purification of the heart, to the illumination of the nous, to the Lord’s Prayer [the so-called ‘Jesus Prayer’] and to contemplation, that is, the vision of the Uncreated Light.
He had also been impressed by the book “The Way Of A Pilgrim”, by the writings of Saint Silouan the Athonite and of course by the works of the Fathers in the “Philokalia”. Thus, Fr. John’s neptic-hesychastic teachings are inexorably connected to those of Saint Paul, Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the modern hesychasts whom he had directly or indirectly met. In my opinion, he also relied on his own personal experience, but I am not certain what level did he reach. The truth is that one cannot insist on certain issues unless he has personal experience.
One blessed experienced Spiritual Father told me that he was impressed by Fr John’s insistence on certain issues and that this prompted him to pay special attention to them as well.
We must add to this the teachings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, which he had distinguished from the Neoplatonic tradition with strong arguments; the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas whom he had meticulously studied and whose teachings he was regarding as the essence of the hesychastic tradition of the Church; and the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers. He boasted about the latter since they had the same origins [in Cappadocia].
His insistence on the neptic-hesychastic tradition was based on the fact that this way of life was the one espoused by the Prophets, the Apostles and the Saints as it is demonstrated in the Scriptures and in the whole tradition of the Church: the Holy Canons, the Hymns, the patristic works. He believed that this was particularly demonstrated in the discussion between Saint Gregory Palamas and Barlaam and later on in the discussion between Saint Gregory, Akindinos and Gregoras.
Fr. John attached a great significance and importance to the neptic tradition because this is the place where one may find not just the dogmas of the Church but also the differences between Orthodox Tradition and that of the Catholics and Protestants. He pin-pointed this difference in the terms “the analogy of being” (analogia entis) and “the analogy of faith” (analogia fidei) which has to do with the different ways one comprehends God’s revelation. The analogy of being refers to the fact that there is a relation between the created and the uncreated being; that God created the world from archetypes and that man’s salvation rests on the return of his soul to the uncreated world of ideas. This is the area of classical metaphysics which Franco-Latin theology was influenced from. According to this theory one can perceive the essence of God if he perceives the essence of created beings, using human rationality. This was the view expressed by Barlaam and that’s why Saint Gregory Palamas objected to this, the so-called “scholastic analogy”.
The analogy of faith refers to the relationship between man and God through faith, as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This tradition says that God is not revealed by philosophical concepts but through the Holy Scriptures, which is the word of God. Thus, when one studies the Scriptures one comes to the knowledge of God and into communion with Him, since God’s revelation has been given in the Holy Scriptures.
Fr. John was insisting that these two traditions (analogia entis – analogia fidei) describe western Christianity and are foreign to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.
The Orthodox Church says that if one is to meet God he has to rely on his personal participation with the uncreated purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God, which is experienced in the Church, by the Holy Mysteries and through personal struggle (asceticism). Personal struggle is the neptic-hesychastic tradition, which is the pre-condition for the comprehension of dogmas and the path in which man meets with God.
Thus, knowledge of God is not related to philosophy, nor to just reading the Holy Scriptures, which is nevertheless important because it gives an account of the experience of deification, but it is connected with the experienced neptic-hesychastic tradition and by living a full life in the Church.
Fr. John was describing this neptic tradition as ‘therapeutic’. We come to meet this term in all the writings of the Fathers. It is only through purification and illumination that man can reach deification and communion with God and regain his health.
“she is the only example of a truly healthy soul”.
The two phases of his theological beliefs (the ancestral sin and the neptic tradition of the Church) are not independent from each other, but they are closely connected: the latter phase is a continuation of the former.
Some people believe that Fr. John began as an excellent hopeful theologian, with an important contribution to theology, but he lost his bearings on the way and did not facilitate the theological renaissance of the country. I think that those who interpret Fr. John’s work in this way do him injustice. The same injustice is done by those who believe that he was influenced by either the Protestants or the Origenists.
Fr. John was an intelligent man with an inquisitive mind. He remained steadfast to Orthodox Tradition and was expressing the authentic experience of the Church.
Of course he was versatile with the theological views of his time and was expressing the authentic view. Some of his linguistic expressions cannot by themselves attribute to him an influence from other beliefs. Besides, Saint Basil and Saint Gregory the Theologian studied Origen, they accumulated some of his ideas and created the so-called “Philokalia”, but are not regarded as Origenists. (Here we are not talking about the much later “Philokalia” compiled by the Saints Makarios Notaras and Nikodemos the Hagiorite.)
As a human Fr. John may have made some mistakes in his life, for example in his expressions and the explanations he gave to his theology, but he was a great theologian and a teacher who helped to rejuvenate the hesychastic tradition of recent years. It is not right for him to be dismissed or misinterpreted by people who select some of his wording, without comprehending it and without understanding the whole ‘spirit’ of his teaching.
A great teacher is only interpreted by a great disciple or reader and not by people who inadvertently express their critical mindset.
I consider very important the testimony and confession offered by Fr. George Metallinos, the renowned theologian of our times; the intelligent and charismatic and tireless researcher. According to him, when as a postgraduate student in Cologne in Germany in 1973, he came across a typed manuscript of Fr. John’s “Dogmatics”, he regarded it as a “gift of God’s grace”. He writes:
“I threw aside all the German-Catholic and Protestant manuals and systematic theological works (I have had enough of those!), and I began hungrily to study the true patristic dogmatics of the Greco-American priest and professor, whom I had not yet had the blessing to meet”.
Later on he writes that after studying this work he “recognized that this unknown to me Fr. Romanides had become my most important teacher in dogmatic theology, but also in ecclesiastical history… so that I could be described as and feel like being his disciple. I am especially happy when I am being ‘accused’ of clearly exhibiting his influence on me”.
In his speech at Fr. Romanides’ funeral he stresses:
“We must designate the period ‘before’ Romanides and ‘after’ Romanides. His work is regarded as instructive and as the task of a writer with a fighting spirit. He has really severed our theology from our Scholastic past, which has so far been acting as the Babylonian captivity of our theology”.
As I have already mentioned, Fr. George Metallinos is a leading teacher of theology, a highly valued researcher and a scholar; a cleric with Orthodox views, but mostly he is an authentic and untainted man without inner complexes. That is the reason why he does not detest anyone, but recognizes the work of the pioneers in theology, like Fr. John.
For this reason, in my opinion, his confession/testimony is vital and substantial, and therefore it cannot be dismissed.
Finally, whoever wants to get acquainted with Fr. John’s teachings must distinguish the two phases in his teachings. Namely, his book on the ancestral sin, which was based on the Apostles and the Apostolic Fathers, as well as what he had written and verbally supported regarding the neptic-hesychastic tradition, which he was examining through Saint Paul’s epistles in relation with the teachings of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Saint Gregory Palamas, the Cappadocian Fathers, and the hesychasts whom he had personally met.
The Church is the Body of Christ. Just as each material body keeps the nutrient it needs to feed its parts and discards the rest, the same way the Church safeguards authentic teachings and discards all the poisonous and indigestible concepts which rely on philosophical thinking and ‘theological’ fantasies.
I believe that the Church will safeguard the ‘spirit’ of Fr. John’s teachings just because it is in harmony with the Apostolic and Patristic tradition, which constitutes the deeper ‘spirit’ of Orthodox teaching. This teaching leads man to theosis and salvation.
Fr. John Romanides’ teaching is not “a sophisticated myth” (2 Peter 1:16). But it is the path which leads to Mount Tabor and the experience of Christ. That is the reason why it is authentic and comforting to the soul.
Source: Translated by Olga Konnaris-Kokkinos and Edited by John Sanidopoulos