Contextual Theology: Part One

By Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos

As one studies the texts of the Holy Bible and the Fathers, one realizes that the basis of Orthodox theology is God’s revelation – as given to the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers – throughout the ages.

Characteristic of this is the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“Having spoken in many aspects and many ways in the past to the fathers and the prophets, in these last days God spoke to us through the Son”

(Hebrews 1:1).

Thus, it is the Saints who are the divinely-inspired theologians, who formulate their experience in terms, in order to safeguard it from heresy and distortion. Therefore, the terms-dogmas are an important element of our tradition and no one can tamper with them without losing their path towards salvation.

An important phrase of the Hesychast Synod of the fourteenth century – as expressed in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy – is that our course is

“according to the divinely-inspired theologies of the saints, and the pious conscience of the Church”.

The Saints do not express their own theology; they only formulate according to their own particular gifts the revelation that they personally experienced in the Holy Spirit. Not only can there not be an Orthodox theology outside of this perspective; in fact, the very foundation of salvation would be seriously imperiled.

When interpreting what the Apostle Paul had said about his being swept up into Paradise where he

“heard ineffable words, which are not befitting a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:1-4),

Saint Symeon the New Theologian said that those words were the illuminations of God’s uncreated glory, and that they were referred to as “ineffable” because they could not be expressed perfectly by those receiving the experience of that revelation, as it is something beyond the measure of human nature and power.

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Fr. John Romanides, when speaking about this subject, says that a revelation is given to Saints with ineffable words, and the Saints express it, as far as they are able, with created words, meanings and images, in order to teach other people so that they might walk the path of their salvation.

It becomes obvious that God’s revelation is conveyed with the terms of each era, by the bearers of that Revelation – the true theologians – according to the definition provided by Saint Gregory the Theologian, that:

“It is not for everyone to philosophize about God,… it is not for everyone, because it is for those who have been tested and who have lived in theoria, and before this have at least purified both soul and body or are undergoing purification….”

These theologians – the deified – are acquainted with God through experience; they recognize and respect all the preceding “God-seers” and they accept the terms that they had used.

Consequently, those who can – if necessary – make certain external changes are the true empirical theologians, who have the same tradition as the preceding Fathers. The rest of us owe obedience to those “initiated through experience” and are to be guided by them.

In the “Hagiorite Tome”, which is the work of Saint Gregory Palamas, there is mention that the dogmas are familiar to “those who have become initiated by experience”, who have forsaken money, the fame that people seek and the bad pleasures of the body, all for the sake of the evangelical life. They have confirmed this forsaking with their submission to those who have progressed to the measure of Christ, and, after having lived in sacred hesychasm with prayer, have become united with God in a mystical union with Him, and have thus become “initiated in things beyond the mind”.

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These are the true theologians of the Church, who possess the potential to formulate theology. Apart from them, there are also those who become joined to the aforementioned,

“through modesty and faith and caring towards them”.

There is no other way to theologize in the Orthodox Church, because outside of this theology, there only exists speculation, the chanting of slogans and secularism. Saint Gregory the Theologian, when observing

“the tongue-wagging and the current wise men and the self-ordained theologians”

who are satisfied only with the desire to be wise, says:

“I desire the highest philosophy and seek the ultimate standard – according to Jeremiah – and wish to be only on my own.”

Indeed, we are nowadays overcome with sorrow, because our era is filled with “self-ordained theologians” who teach Clerics and laity and create confusion among the people.

These introductory words are deemed necessary for a better understanding of what follows.

Part Two will be published tomorrow.

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