Orthodox Survival Course: Class 4

You can listen to a podcast of this class at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/survivalcourse-4_1

Class 4 – A.D. 313 – 1054, The Church of the Romans: Topic 2, Theology

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. – the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 10:32-33

As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers dogmatized, as the Oikoumene agreed, as Grace illumined, as the Truth revealed, as falsehood passed away, as Wisdom presented, as Christ awarded: Thus we declare, Thus we assert, Thus we proclaim Christ our true God and honor His saints…This is the Faith of the Apostles. This is the Faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the Orthodox.This is the Faith which has established the Oikoumene. – The Synodikon of Orthodoxy (A.D. 843)

The editor, however, ventures to call the attention of the reader to the fact that in this, as in every other of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the question the Fathers considered was not what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean, nor what they, from à priori arguments, thought would be consistent with the mind of God, but something entirely different, to wit, what they had received. They understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes. They recognized but one duty resting upon them in this respect–to hand down to other faithful men that good thing the Church had received according to the command of God. The first requirement was not learning, but honesty. The question they were called upon to answer was not, What do I think probable, or even certain, from Holy Scripture? but, What have I been taught, what has been intrusted to me to hand down to others? When the time came, in the Fourth Council, to examine the Tome of Pope St. Leo, the question was not whether it could be proved to the satisfaction of the assembled fathers from Holy Scripture, but whether it was the traditional faith of the Church. It was not the doctrine of Leo in the fifth century, but the doctrine of Peter in the first, and of the Church since then, that they desired to believe and to teach, and so, when they had studied the Tome, they cried out: “This is the faith of the Fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles!…Peter hath thus spoken by Leo! The Apostles thus taught!…” – Henry R. Percival, M.A., D.D, editor’s introduction to the Acts of the First Ecumenical Council, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,” Second Series, Volume XIV, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1892; Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1961).


  In our last class, we discussed the nature of genuine, undeceived spiritual life, as taught by the Orthodox Church. This week, we will try to summarize the fundamental characteristics of genuine, undeceived teaching, called, loosely speaking, “theology.” Strictly speaking, the word “theology” refers only to the teaching about God in Himself, the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. Over the centuries, however, the term, more loosely applied, has come to signify also all of the sacred truths about God’s acts ad extra, towards His creation, which the Holy Fathers call not “theology” but “economy.” For the sake of convenience, we will follow this less formal convention. But let us keep this distinction in mind.

Remember, in our course we are attempting to recapture and to interiorize the way that our Fathers in the Faith saw, or, rather, see, everything, to acquire their mindset, their phronema. This is not an idle academic exercise, not an “objective” examination of one view among many, but rather a process of conversion of mind, will, and feeling. We come to the Church not merely for information but for catechesis and metanoia, to become that new man that God wishes us to be. To acquire the “filter,” the “prism” through which to view history, the “meta-historical” outlook peculiar to the Church, we have to think as Her Saints and Fathers think, reason as they reason, and have the same instinctive responses they have. Our minds must be transformed.   

I. What true theology is not

To begin, we can examine what true theology is not, so as to illumine what it is. The only serious rival to Orthodox theology is the philosophia perennis, which counts among its various permutations the “high” or “classical” versions of the great world religions or philosophical systems, including Platonism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. It is a waste of our time, at this point in our course, to compare Orthodoxy to contemporary pseudo-philosophy and pop religion, which are simply incoherent, debased, immoral, and corrupt, and, for the most part, are merely fabricated – or at least funded – cynically by those who know better, simply to manipulate weaker people. We will examine these later on, toward the end of our course, when describing the present state of society.

The philosophia perennis is, simply put, what the greatest minds have taught about the meaning of it all, apart from revelation and grace. Of course, we know that even the best and highest of these insights are limited by the limitations of the human intellect, and, moreover, subject to demonic influence. Recall, however, that the entire human race, even outside the Church, still retains, to a greater or lesser extent, an ancestral memory of the true worship of God and the true life in Paradise, and that though man’s mind – perception, imagination, and, most important to note, reason – is fallen (contrary to Aquinas), it is not utterly corrupt or depraved (contrary to Calvin); it still apprehends fragments of truth accurately. The philosophia perennis is what the greatest minds have been able to construct from these fragments.

Fundamental assumptions of this perennial philosophy include these three “legs of the stool”: 1. All human beings have a religious instinct, which includes an instinctive yearning for ultimate meaning, for God in some sense, and for an ultimate, immortal meaning to their own lives, for some kind of overcoming of death. 2. Reality is knowable, and the human mind can know it. 3. This knowable reality and this capacity for knowing it are universally the same for all men. Thus the true philosophy is not only perennial but universal. This latter point is demonstrated by the appeal of the “classical” literature and art of all nations to members of all the other nations. What makes them “classical” is precisely that they reveal accurately and to a high degree what all men can agree to be True, Good, and Beautiful.

The perennialist approach includes also the assumption that all of the varied versions of perennialist thought have more or less equal validity; the difference in their levels of validity is a difference in degree not kind. None is radically or essentially “truer” than the others. Due to historical and cultural circumstances, the great minds of history have come up with varied versions of the perennial tradition, but these are accidental not essential. “Classical Christianity,” considered on this basis, has Jesus of Nazareth as its only or chief “avatar,” and, perhaps, will claim that He is the highest or best, incarnation of God or representative of God. But it cannot claim that He is the only and unique Incarnation of God. It can claim that its “Creation story” from Genesis is the best of various creation stories, but not the only true one. It can claim that its saints are the highest or best of saints, but not the only real saints. And so forth.

In the perennialist approach, history is necessarily cyclical, and the world has always been here and always will be here. The ascent to knowledge is the ascent to the undifferentiated One, as taught in Neo-Platonism or Brahmanism or medieval Western Christian mysticism, ultimate reality is strictly Monadic, and all distinctions, no matter how powerful, universal, and valid from a temporal point of view, are ultimately discovered to be relative and temporary, to be in fact human mental distinctions, including dialectically proposed relations of opposition, not absolute and eternal verities. The distinction between the I and Not-I is discovered to be an illusion, and salvation is absorption into the One.

Though all of this is incomparably better than modernism and post-modernism, it is still not the Truth. It is what man can perceive of truth apart from the real God telling him directly what the Truth really is.

II. What true theology is

Orthodox theology is revealed and empirical, confessional and martyric, pastoral and soteriological, traditional and non-dialectical. Its claim to be the only Truth is radical and absolute.

A. Revealed and empirical: The living and only God, the Holy Trinity, spoke to man and revealed Himself in theophanies in the Old Testament, and in His Incarnate Word in the New Testament. The saints experienced (thus had “empirical” knowledge of) the uncreated energies of God in these theophanies and this Incarnation and, guided by the Spirit of God, spoke and wrote of what they experienced.

B. Confessional and martyric: The saints confess the Faith. They are witnesses (martyrs) to a Truth they have already been given, accurately and completely, not thinkers trying to arrive at a truth they do not yet know.

C . Traditional and non-dialectical: The teachers of the Church are simply handing on that which they have received. “Handing over,” “handing on” is the literal meaning of παράδοσις, traditio. “Tradition” does not mean something old or something done out of habit. It certainly does not mean something that is merely reflexive or irrational or unconscious or believed in ignorance, lacking understanding. It means simply that which is handed on rather than something newly invented or something arrived at gradually through a creative process. The saints were given, handed, the whole Truth by God, and thus they did not have to arrive at it or grab it. It arrived on Its own and It grabbed them.

D. Radical and absolute: The Orthodox Faith claims to be the only absolute and ultimate truth, not one plausible variant articulation of truth relative to other plausible explanations. Jesus Christ is the only Incarnation of God, the Orthodox Faith is the only True Faith, the Orthodox Church is the only true Church, and salvation is not found outside the Church.

III. Theology and prayer

It is a patristic maxim that only those who believe the true theology can pray truly and only those who pray truly – that is, without deception – can theologize. Thus God made men saints by His grace and revealed to their pure minds and hearts His truth, and they pass on this truth to others, calling them to Faith and to the life of prayer. The confession of the True Faith ontologically changes man, and this New Man prays, constantly growing in the reception of the living Truth, of the living God, in the depths of his being, and, in the case of some men, also receives the charisma of articulating this living Truth to others, so that they can be saved and made holy.

Conclusion: This understanding of the nature and place of authentic theological articulation within the Church was common to the Church of the Greek East and the Latin West in the first millennium. We shall see later how the transformation in understanding the nature of theology, wrought by scholasticism, in tandem with the changing concepts of sanctity and spiritual method, divided the Latin West from Orthodoxy in the 11th to the 14th centuries, making the attempt at union in the 15th century a doomed effort.

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