Contextual Theology: Part Four
By Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
We all need to accept the basic position that the Church is a living reality; that She is the Body of Christ and the community of theosis and, subsequently, that the Church gives birth to Fathers and not the Fathers who give birth to the Church. This means that every era is a patristic era, and that in every era there appear Fathers of the Church who are “living organisms”. However, these “living organisms” are not at all different to the preceding Fathers. Characteristically, when Saint John of Damascus – who lived in the 8th century – spoke of the Theotokos and repeated the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian:
“If one does not confess the holy Virgin as the Theotokos (God-bearer), he is without deification”,
“These are not my own words, but they also are my words; for I have received this inheritance from the theologically endowed theologian Father Gregory.”
In other words, Saint John of Damascus does not regard these words to be his, given that he had received them from Saint Gregory the Theologian who lived four centuries before him, but at the same time he also regards them as his own words, because they were an inheritance – a “most theological inheritance” – which he received “from a theological father” and verified. Those who desire to be theologians acknowledge the true theologians, accept their teaching, render them their own fathers, and they inherit – through spiritual birth – their words as well as their godly lifestyle.
It is in this manner that spiritual life is passed on from the past, during every era. Just as biological life is transferred from generation to generation from living – not dead – parents, thus likewise is the spiritual life within grace, the true theology, transferred by living – not dead – spiritual organisms. When referring to the illumination of the angelic hosts on high
“according to rank”
by God – that is,
“from the first legion to the second and then onto the next one and so on”
– Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that the same applies to the Saints also:
“Thus, those who are attached to the preceding saints who, from generation to generation had become saints by observing God’s commandments, similarly become illuminated.”
One becomes attached to the preceding Saints by observing God’s commandments and becoming illuminated like they did. In this manner an uninterrupted chain is formed and every link is attached to the others with faith, with works and with love.
With this patristic teaching, the following words of the Apostle Paul are interpreted:
“For even if you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, you do not have many fathers; in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you” (1 Cor.4:15).
There is a difference between teachers-in-Christ and fathers-in-Christ. Spiritual Fathers beget spiritual children through the Gospel, that is, through observance of Christ’s commandments, whereas educators simply teach.
Those living in the same tradition enforce the evangelical commandments in their lives; they struggle against their passions in order to attain the partaking of God; they also achieve communion with the other Saints who lived before them and who likewise belong to the same tradition. A characteristic quote by the Fathers who endorsed the “Hagiorite Tome” is the following:
“These things we have been taught by the Scriptures; these things we have received from our Fathers; these things we have learnt with our small experience.”
In the Biblical-Patristic tradition there is a difference between Prophets (God-seers or Theologians) and Speculators, analogous to the difference that exists between prophecy and speculation. The Prophet Elijah cries out:
“Behold, the Lord God Sabaoth takes away from Judea and from Jerusalem the powerful man and the powerful woman … and the prophet and the speculator” (Isaiah 3:1-2).
On interpreting this passage, Saint John the Chrysostom makes the distinction between speculator and prophet:
“Here, it seems to me that he (Isaiah) calls ‘speculator’ the one who, because of much prudence, as well as out of an experience of things, ponders about the things to come,”
whereas prophecy is the inspiration of the Prophets by the Holy Spirit:
“For speculation is another thing, and prophecy another; the latter utters things in the divine Spirit, contributing nothing of his own, while the former, taking causes from things already that have happened, and activating his own prudence, foresees many things of the future, as much as befits a prudent person to foresee.”
And he concludes:
“But there is much in between the one and the other, as much as is the difference between human prudence and divine grace.”
And in order to justify that distinction, he indicates the difference between King Solomon and the Prophet Elisha.
Christ had declared to His contemporaries:
“Did you not read what was told to you by God, Who said ‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:31-32).
For us Orthodox, God is not an abstract notion, nor is He an ideology; He is the one Who abides in living organisms – the Saints – according to the words of the liturgical prayer:
“God, the Holy One, Who abides in the saints…”,
and according to the hymn, “the God of our Fathers” (not of post-fathers); the God of living organisms who exist in every era.
According to Fr. Georges Florovsky, the Church is apostolic because it is Patristic. He writes: “The Church is indeed ‘apostolic’, but it is also ‘patristic’. Essentially, She is the ‘Church of the holy Fathers’. It is impossible to separate the two characterizations. It is because the Church is ‘patristic’ that She is truly also ‘apostolic’.”
He also points out that in our time, after so many studies,
“we are ready to admit the eternal prestige of the ‘Fathers’, as well as the fact that the Church is not ‘a museum of dead deposits, nor is She a research company”.
The deposits are living ones –
according to Saint Irenaeus. Faith is not an heirloom of the past, but rather ‘the sword of the Spirit’. He furthermore confesses that the interpretation of the Holy Bible is done by the theology that is expressed by the Saints of every era.
“The Scriptures are in need of interpretation. They are revealed in theology. And it is only possible through the bearer of the living experience of the Church.”
Thus, in order for us to be Orthodox and possess the certainty of our salvation, there is no need for any neopatristic, metapatristic and contextual theology. We need two things: First, to remain steadfast – as it is our duty – to the terminology of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils because that terminology constitutes a significant part of the Orthodox Tradition – the true and authentic consensus patrum – but also to remain firm in the revealed truth that was given to the Fathers.
Second, to seek “living organisms” who live within the “spirit of the Gospel” and the Ecumenical Councils – in other words, those who observe the Orthodox prerequisites of the dogmas, in order to guide us correctly in the observance of the dogma.
Unfortunately, those who speak of neopatristic, postpatristic and contextual theology have a problem with both of these prerequisites – that is, with the terms of the Ecumenical Councils and with the “living organisms” of ecclesiastical life.
This is the reason they are vexed by the theology that Fr. John Romanides expressed. It was because of this important teacher that the genuine Orthodox theology of the Ecumenical Councils with contemporary hesychastic tradition were linked; in other words, he linked theology with experience – the professorial chair with the hesychast retreat.
If theology is not expressed empirically it becomes speculation and it tires people, and if experience is not supported on the theology of the Ecumenical Councils it is merely a personal piety, which can possess “contextual” elements found in the other eastern traditions. Fr. John Romanides appears as a nuisance to the speculators, the philosophizing theologians, who are possessed by
– as Saint Gregory Palamas called it.
Furthermore, this is the reason that – in my opinion – certain contemporary, significant Hagiorite personages (such as the Elders Porphyrios, Paisios, Joseph the Hesychast, Sophrony Zacharov, etc.) are doubted by some; the life and the teaching of such “living organisms” of ecclesiastical living are a nuisance to contemporary syncretistic theology.
In one of my speeches presented in the past for the purpose of documenting the theoretical teaching of the Church, I made use of texts by Fr. Porphyrios – a sanctified Hieromonk of our own time. I felt remarkably surprised when Orthodox theologians and Clergymen who were present had disagreed with my reference to words by Fr. Porphyrios, because according to their views, the Orthodox faith was being “ideologized”.
My surprise was immense, because even in science, reference to people who produce an artistic or philosophical work is a token of its veracity, but according to certain contemporary theologians, a reference to people who live the true Orthodox theology is regarded as ideologizing! I have transcribed this entire discussion; if it is ever published the “deliberations of many hearts” will be revealed.
In conclusion, I believe that modern theology – which disengages itself from the Fathers and is expressed with sonorous terms, supposedly out of love for contemporary man – is dangerous for the Church and Her theology. It is truly a speculative method of theology – a populism that is practiced by “self-ordained theologians” on account of their incorrect interpretation of the term “royal priesthood”.