by Metropolitan Hierotheus (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos
Since theology is the voice and faith of the Church, it follows that what has been said about the Church so far applies to theology too. We will attempt to discuss this particular subject a little more in order to see the way orthodox theology is secularized in more detail.
Theology is the logos of God (theo-logia in Greek). It is assumed that someone who talks about God must know God. In the Orthodox Church we say that the knowledge of God is not intellectual but spiritual, that is, it is connected to man’s communion with God. In St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching, the vision of the uncreated Light is closely connected to man’s divinization, to man’s communion with God and the knowledge of God.
That is why theology is identical to the vision of God and the theologian is identical to the God-seer. Someone who talks about God, even reflectively can be called theologian, and this is why the Fathers attribute the term theologian to the philosophers too. Eventually, though, from an Orthodox standpoint a theologian is someone who witnessed the glory of God or, at least, accepts the experience of those who reached divinization.
In this sense, theologians are the God-seers, those who achieved divinization and received the Revelation of God. St. Paul is one such theologian. He went up to the third heaven and on several occasions he describes and reveals his apocalyptic experiences. This occurs to such an extent that St. John Chrysostom, talking about St. Paul and about the fact that in his Epistles there are greater mysteries than in the Gospels, argues that “Christ declared more important and unspoken things through St. Paul than through Himself”.
St. Paul, as he himself says in third person, was captured
“up to the third heaven” (2 Corinth. 12,2).
At this point I would like to remind us of St. Maximus the Confessor’s interpretation, according to which the three heavens are in reality the three stages of spiritual life. The first heaven is the end of practical philosophy, which is the purification of the heart, the expulsion of all thoughts from the heart.
The second heaven is the natural theoria, that is, the knowledge of the inner essences of beings; when man through God’s Grace becomes worthy of knowing the inner essences of beings; to have ceaseless inner prayer.
The third heaven is theoria, theology, through which, and by divine Grace and the capture of the nous, one reaches, as is possible, the knowledge of God’s mysteries and knows all the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. This is
“the ignorance superior to knowledge”,
according to a characteristic saying by St. Isaac the Syrian. This ignorance, relative to human knowledge, is the true knowledge of God. Therefore, theology is the third heaven which is a fruit, an outcome of the purification of the heart and the illumination of the nous.
All these are related to another teaching by St. Maximus the Confessor. According to it, all that is seen needs to be crucified and all the thoughts to be buried, and then the logos rises within ourselves, man ascends to theoria and becomes a true theologian. This means that orthodox theology is closely tied to orthodox ascesis, it cannot be conceived of outside orthodox ascesis.
On discussing true theology, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the holy Nicetas Stathatos’ discourse on the interpretation of Paradise. An integral member of the Orthodox Tradition, hosios Nicetas analyses thoroughly how the Paradise created by God in Eden is
“the great field of practical philosophy”.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is natural theoria, while the tree of life is mystical theology. When man’s nous is purified, he can approach the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and from there acquire the gift of theology. This is the path followed by all the holy Fathers, and this is why they proved to be unmistakable theologians in Church and real Shepherds of the people of God. On the contrary, the heretics tried and still try to make theology in other ways, with impure heart and reflection, not through practical philosophy, natural theoria and mystical theology. For this reason they failed and were expelled from the Church of Christ.
When theology is not a part of this framework, as presented by all the holy Fathers, then it is not orthodox but secular. This secular theology is encountered in the West, for there they analyze and interpret the Holy Scripture through their own human and impure intellect, outside the correct prerequisites presented by the holy Fathers. Unfortunately, in some cases this has affected our own place, too.
A typical example of secular theology, functioning outside the traditional patristic framework, is the so-called scholastic theology, which was developed in the West between the 11th and the 15th centuries. It was termed scholastic from the various schools cultivating it. Its main feature was that it relied a lot on philosophy particularly that of Aristotle, and it attempted to rationally explain everything related to God.
Scholastic theology tried to rationally comprehend God’s Revelation and to harmonize theology and philosophy. It is characteristic that Anselm of Canterbury used to say:
“I believe in order to comprehend”.
The scholastics started by a priori accepting God and then tried to prove His existence by rational arguments and logical categories. In the Orthodox Church, as expressed by the holy Fathers, we state that faith is God’s Revelation to man. We accept faith from hearsay not to comprehend it later, but to purify the heart, achieve faith through theoria, and experience Revelation. Scholastic theology, on the other hand, accepted something a priori and then struggled to comprehend it by rational arguments.
Scholastic theology attained its peak with Thomas Aquinas, who is considered a saint by the Latin Church. He claimed that Christian truths are divided into natural and supernatural. Natural truths, such as the truth of God’s existence, can be proved philosophically; supernatural truths, such as the trinity of God, the incarnation of the Logos, the resurrection of bodies, cannot be proved philosophically but can be shown to be not irrational. Scholasticism tightly connected theology with philosophy, and in particular metaphysics; as a result, faith was adulterated, and scholastic theology itself was completely discredited when the model of metaphysics prevailing in the West collapsed. Scholasticism should not be acquitted of the tragedy of the West regarding faith in our days. The holy Fathers teach that there is no distinction between natural and metaphysical — only between created and uncreated. The holy Fathers never accepted Aristotle’s metaphysics. But this is beyond our present topic and I am not going to develop it any further.
Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages considered scholastic theology to be a development and surpassing of Patristic theology. Frankish teaching on the superiority of scholastic over Patristic theology originates from this point. Thus, scholastics, who deal with reason, consider themselves superior to the holy Fathers of the Church, and also consider human knowledge, a product of reason, higher than Revelation and experience.
It is from this angle that we should view the conflict between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam. Barlaam was essentially a scholastic theologian who attempted to bring scholastic theology to the Orthodox East. His views were of the scholastic theology which in reality constitutes a secular theology. Barlaam believed that we cannot exactly know what the Holy Spirit is, thus ending in agnosticism; that ancient Greek philosophers were above the Prophets and the Apostles, since reason is higher than the Apostles’ theoria; that the Light of the Transfiguration is something which is done and undone; that the hesychastic way of life, that is, the purification of the heart and the ceaseless noetic prayer are not necessary, etc. St. Gregory Palamas foresaw this danger to Orthodoxy and with the power and energy of the Holy Spirit, in addition to the experience he personally had obtained as bearer and continuator of the holy Fathers; he confronted this grave danger and preserved the unadulterated Orthodox faith and Orthodox Tradition.
Unfortunately, Barlaamism, which is an expression of scholastic theology in the West and definitely constitutes secular theology, has infiltrated the orthodox East in other ways. We observe that scholasticism, Barlaamism, permeates manifestations of modern church and theological life. Of course, in recent years there is an effort to cleanse our theology from its Babylonian captivity in Western scholasticism; there is a great effort to break the orthodox theology’s encirclement by the prison of scholastic theology. But we must simultaneously move on to experiencing orthodox theology. Orthodox theology is not an intellectual knowledge but rather an experience, life, and is closely connected to the so-called hesychasm.
Secular theology, which is a function of scholasticism, manifests itself in several ways today, too. I would like to point out a few.
One is the way we base the entire mode of theology on reason and thought. We think about the orthodox faith, we rationalize about the truths of faith or we simply form a history of theology. We have almost reached the point of viewing theology as a philosophy about God, ignoring the whole therapeutic method of our Church.
Another way of experiencing Barlaamism and scholasticism is the fact that we have limited theology to esthetics. We have made it esthetics. We might write several books and undertake long analyses on orthodox art, study the schools of iconography, accept the great value of Byzantine art, while simultaneously treating with contempt and overlooking ascesis, the hesychastic method which is the foundation of every orthodox art. Purification, illumination, and divinization is the basis of all the Orthodox Church’s arts and acts and mysteries.
Another way is that we seek the rebirth of the Church liturgical life without simultaneously discovering and living the ascetic life of the Church. We discuss the continual communion of the Sacraments without simultaneously relating this effort to the stages of spiritual perfection, which are purification, illumination, and divinization. We undertake great efforts so that people comprehend logically the Divine Liturgy, without making a parallel effort to experience the spirit of Orthodox Worship. We seek to abolish the iconostasis so that laymen can see the goings-on, without asking for the reason the Church instituted the iconostasis and the secret reading of prayers. These are not independent of the secularization of ecclesiastical theology. St. Maximus the Confessor’s teaching and historical research are very revealing on this point. The catechumens cannot pray with the same prayers as the baptized and vice versa. And if we study the teaching of St. Simeon the New Theologian on who the catechumens really are, we will be able to understand why the Church has instituted the iconostasis and the secret reading of prayers.
Overall, when our theology is not tied to the so-called hesychastic life, when it is not ascetic, then it is secular, it is scholastic theology, and it is Barlaamist theology — even if we seem to be fighting western theology and struggle to be orthodox.