Worth Revisiting One Year Later: What Is Orthodox Theology?


What is Orthodox Theology?

“What almost always passes for ‘Orthodox theology’ among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian.

The Orthodox Church is an ancient castle, as it were, of which only two or three rooms have been much in use since about 1920. These two or three rooms were furnished by the Russian émigrés in Paris between the two World Wars. This furniture is heavily neo-Palamite and anti-Scholastic. It relies heavily on the Cappadocians, Maximus, and Gregory Palamas (who are good folks, or course). Anything that does not fit comfortably into that model is dismissed as “Western” and even non-Orthodox.

Consequently, one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted.

Now I submit that any ‘Orthodox’ theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.

Likewise, this popular neo-Palamite brand of Orthodoxy, though it quotes Damascene when it is convenient, never really engages Damascene’s manifestly ‘Scholastic’ approach to theology.

Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East.

There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo’s distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine.

Augustine tends to be classified as a ‘Scholastic,’ which he most certainly was not.

But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks.

In fact, however, Augustine and the Scholastics represent only other rooms in the larger castle.

For this reason I urge you, as you can, to read in the Orthodox sources that tend to get skipped in what currently passes for ‘Orthodoxy.’ For my part, I believe the Russian émigré theology from Paris, which seems profoundly reactionary and anti-Western, is an inadequate instrument for the evangelization of this country and the world. I say this while gladly recognizing my own debt to Russian émigré theology.”

Father Patrick Henry Reardon (All Saints’ Orthodox Church, Chicago), an excerpt from an e-mail to an inquirer that’s been making the rounds in the Orthodox and Catholic blogospheres


I do, I confess, take exception to the claim [by Fr John

McGuckin] that [my] book [The Beauty of the Infinite] ‘is not Orthodox theology’. Of course it is. Admittedly it does not much resemble the sort of ‘neo-Palamite’, ‘neo-patristic’ books which have dominated Eastern theology since the middle of the last century, when the great ressourcements movement that has done so much to define modern Orthodoxy was inaugurated. But Orthodox theology has taken many forms over the centuries – mystical, scholastic, mystagogical, idealist, neo-patristic, even ‘Sophiological’ – all of which have been perfectly legitimate expressions of the Eastern Church’s mind. And frankly, I think that the theological idiom to which Orthodox theology has been confined for the last fifty years or so has largely exhausted itself and has become tediously repetitive. It has also, to a very great extent, done much to distort the Orthodox understanding of the traditions of both East and West.

David Bentley Hart, Scottish Journal of Theology, 60(1): 95-101 (2007).

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3 Responses to Worth Revisiting One Year Later: What Is Orthodox Theology?

  1. Fr. J. says:

    Thanks, Simple, for the reminder. Orthodox-Catholic dialogue online has not been the same since Eirenikon left the scene. He brought to the fore much of what is otherwise lacking: an embrace of the whole of Eastern tradition. Such an embrace draws East and West together as it recognizes the the constant borrowing back and forth throughout our histories rather than relying on hackneyed juxtapositions.

  2. Joel says:

    I find it hard to summarize Orthodox Christianity in anything less than a thick book, but from what I have seen and read (which by no means even approaches a wholistic picture)much of the polimic stems not from theology but from affective responses to real or imagined offenses between the Catholics and Orthodox. One thing that we might have lost sight of, especially in America, is that a large Orthodox Church remained under Muslim rule for almost five hundred years. The Ottoman Turks showed favor towards bishops and clergy that openly disparaged the West. That was because the Byzantine Empire was no longer a threat but Western Europe was and it was cheifly a matter of survival for the Eastern denominations of Christianity to rail against the Catholics. Even as late as the 1400′s there were attempts at reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople, but now the picture looks increadible dim. That plays a major part of things IMO.

    Of course I think the best appraoch towards theology of any type is an intellectual approach, completely devoid of emotional attachment and I think the writings of the saints (and doctors for that matter) back up that position.

  3. diane says:

    OK, dumb question: Who is the priest in the colorful chasuble with all the funny pictures on it?

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