What is Orthodox Theology?
April 9, 2008 by eirenikon
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 Damascenes 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 Leos 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 JohnMcGuckin] 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).