THEOLOGY WITHIN THE ORTHODOX SACRED TRADITION

by Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh

 

The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers
have strengthened the unity of the faith in the church;
Thus, she (the Church), in wearing the tunic of Truth
which is woven with the Theology from above,
teaches aright and glorifies the great Mystery of piety (Orthodoxy)
(Kondakion of the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council).

 

This kondakion summarizes the content of the celebration of the feast of the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon in 451.1 It is a witness to the age- old posture of our church regarding the place and importance of theology in Tradition and in the life of the Church. The service of which this troparion is part is attributed to Philotheos, Patriarch of Constantinople from 1354 to 1355 and again from 1364 to 1375. Let us make a brief commentary on the texts of this kondakion in order to be able to appreciate its teaching, since no other text is as expressive and as complete regarding the place that "theology" has within the context of our Tradition-which is the life of our church in God's Holy Spirit.

 

Dogma and Preaching

"The preaching of the apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers have strengthened the unity of faith in the Church," the kondakion says. It is significant that it speaks of preaching and not teaching. The Gospel of salvation, which is the teaching of Christ and later the apostles, has always been delivered within a liturgical context as "preaching." The liturgy of the Church has always been the proper place where the Word of God and the preaching of the apostles has been handed down through the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and their "episcopal council," the "precious presbytery." It is these people who are entrusted with the responsibility of preaching and "teaching aright the word of truth" in a liturgical context.

It is this faith, preached by the apostles and the dogmas enunciated by the Fathers of the Church, which strengthens the one Christian Faith established in the Church by Christ Himself. Dogmas normally, and in the narrow sense, are decrees, official proclamations of the Christian faith made by the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. They are the work of the Fathers who comprised the Councils. In this specific case, they are the work of the 630 holy Fathers who gathered at Chalcedon to defend the teaching of the "two natures, wills, and energies" (human and divine) in the one person (hypostasis) of the Word of God who became flesh, Christ the Savior.

However, dogmas here can also be taken in a broader sense to mean official teachings found in the writings of the Fathers, which proclaim the faith of the Church. Either in the narrow·, or in the broader sense, these dogmas always have a liturgical connotation, for they directly refer to the Creed of the Church pronounced in a liturgical context, mostly baptismal and eucharistic.

In the words of the kondakion, the Church wears the "tunic of Truth," which is woven with the "Theology from above." Being "the pillar and ground of truth" (1 Timothy 3:1 5), the Church proclaims the truth of God faithfully This, then, is the Orthodox understanding of the Church as infallible: not "unerring," but rather "faithful." The main function of the bishops is to proclaim and "teach aright the word of truth' (Divine Liturgy).

 

Theology from Above

The text continues, this "tunic of Truth" worn by the Church is "woven with the Theology from above." In other words, the "Theology from above," which is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, is the ornament of the Church. The Spirit of God inspires the preachers and teachers of the Word of truth, so that they may express, "strengthen," and emphasize the one Truth of the "Good News," the Gospel of Christ entrusted to the (Church, equipping us to accomplish our mission of saving human souls.

"Theology from above" is the work of the Holy Spirit. This work is dynamic and continuous. The Spirit not only inspired the twelve Apostles and the authors of the Holy Scripture to record the revealed word of God; the Spirit continues to inspire today's apostles-the preachers, teachers, Fathers, bishops and priests of the Church-to correctly understand, keep, and proclaim the "word of truth" This "Theology from above" is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It greatly enhances the life of the Church because it is a dynamic process of the preservation and growth of the truth of God the life of the Church, life in the Holy Spirit. Christian Orthodox theologians refer to this as Sacred Tradition.

 

The Divine Presence

The troparion continues, in wearing the "tunic of Truth" woven with the "Theology from above" (that is, God-inspired theology), the Church "teaches aright and glorifies the great Mystery of piety" Piety is the traditional word for "correctness of faith and practice," that is, Orthodoxy. The "pious people" referred to in the Liturgy are those who believe in the Truth according to the Orthodox way handed down to the Church. As for the "great Mystery of piety," which the church teaches correctly and glorifies, this "Mystery" is nothing other than the "Mystery of Christ," hidden from the ages and the angels and, according to Saint Paul's teaching, only revealed in these last days (see Ephesians 1:9-10; 3:9-12; and Colossians 1:26-27). It is this "great Mystery of piety" that the great Councils of the Church defended against all heresies, falsification of this Mystery by "heretics" who chose, and continue to choose, their own opinions and teachings against the official and perennial teaching of the Church.

In the Orthodox traditional understanding, theology-the component of the "tunic of Truth" worn by the Church-is always "Theology from above." It is "word about God" which, according to Plato of Moscow, "comes from God." Like prophecy, it is pronounced "in the presence of God," and it is always offered "to the glory of God." In other words, theology is nor just scholastic speculation and a "manipulation of concepts and ideas."

Influenced by Western models and ways of "theologizing" very much in the line of Western scholastic theology, some of our own Orthodox theologians, especially those trained in the West, are responsible for what Father George Florovsky calls a "Western captivity" Unlike this kind of theology, which is dry, rationalistic, and out-of touch with the spiritual life of the theologian and the prayer life of the Church, traditional Orthodox theology is always a theology "from the heart of the Church" in Father Florovsky's words, that is, a theology which is experiential, liturgical, and doxological.

The word of God, revealed to humankind in various ways and, finally, through God's Incarnate Logos ("Word"; see Hebrews 1: 1 and following), always "depends on God" for clarity, interpretation, and forcefulness. It is always a "creative word" which never returns to God empty. It always achieves the result for which it is spoken; it always produces faith as a response, so that salvation may be gained through faith. The ultimate purpose of God's word addressed to humankind is salvation. As word about God's word, the same is true of theology.

In light of Orthodox Christian theology, a theologian is a person who has the experience of God's salvation in Christ. Such a person speaks about God on the basis of his or her experience of God in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. The ascetical Fathers correctly speak of the theologian as someone who "suffers the things divine" before being able to share and communicate this experience through words. In other words, a theologian is someone who has a "mystical experience" of God and the divine realities, a person of prayer who lives the life of divine grace.

As Vladimir Lossky so correctly said, there is a reason why only three people deserve the name of "Theologian" in the Tradition of the Christian Church: Saint John the Theologian, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint Symeon the New Theologian. All these three "'Theologians" are well known for their Theology which is the result of a profound faith and a mystical experience of God, an intense life of prayer, and a profound spirituality.

As for anyone else who claims to do "theology," that is, "word about God," his or her correct name would be that of a "theologizer," someone who attempts to speak about God from some experience of God in his prayer life, even if in an imperfect and inadequate way.

Our words are always inadequate in expressing God's mystery in general, and our experience of God's mystery in particular. Concepts and ideas always fall short of expressing the mystery of God, lest we pretend to comprehend and capture God's "essence" ("inner-reality"), which is beyond our reach and understanding.2 This is a constant teaching in the theological tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is called the apophatic theology of the Eastern Fathers.3 What counts when speaking about God is not how much we can understand of His Mystery and how much we can say; what counts is the mystical experience itself as we encounter God beyond concepts and ideas. Such experience cannot be fully conceptualized. However, something has to be said about our mystical experience of God in God's communion and Presence, as God communicates Himself to us in His "energies." That "something" is our share in "theologizing," and our poor way of speaking about God's Mystery, always inadequate and always imperfect.

Our Orthodox Christian tradition, our Fathers and teachers in the faith agree that a true theologian is a person who is always overwhelmed by the divine Presence of God in his life. It is the divine Presence that he tries not to "conceptualize," but to "describe." It is the Presence, and that of the divine realities, that the theologian tries to express in his inadequate words, not for his own glorification and satisfaction, but for the satisfaction and salvation of God's holy people and for the greater glory of God's holy name. A true theologian is a person of deep faith, a servant of God and instrument of God's peace who leads God's people to abundant life in Christ, the life of God's holy kingdom. A theologian is a person who joins in the awesome task of the Church and the sacred Christian theological tradition to "teach aright and glorify" through spoken and written word "the great Mystery of piety," the mystery of human salvation in the only Savior, Jesus the Christ.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us repeat: A true theologian is a person of prayer who "suffers the things divine" and who lives a life in communion with God-in short, a "saint." Only saints can express their experience of God in God's communion, thus speaking of God "from God" Himself. This is how Sacred Tradition understands true theology and theologizing. Theology is never separated from the "great Mystery of piety" that it serves. Ultimately theology serves the mystery of salvation in Christ. This why true theology is preferably "kerygmatic," offered in a liturgical context, and, according to Plato of Moscow, "doxological." Consequently true theology, a "Theology from above," the gift of God and only in a subordinate way the "work" of a true theologian, is that "teaching aright and glorification" of the "great mystery of piety" It is a theology that adorns the "tunic of truth" worn by the Church and that strengthens the unity of its faith through proclamation, in today's terms, of the "preaching of the apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers," as the liturgical text says. In my estimation, the Sacred Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church has no choice but to continue to be committed to this understanding of "theology."

NOTES

1. kondakion is a liturgical poem that summarizes the meaning of a Liturgical feast. It is to be found after the sixth Ode of the Matins' Canon. During the major feasts, this Kondakion is the last troparion to be chanted following the Small Entrance in the Divine Liturgy.

2. In Saint Basil's words to Amphilochios of Ikonium, it is only "the energies of God that descend toward us, while His essence" always "remains unreachable."

3. According to this Theology, one enunciates negative, instead of making positive statements about what God is. What this Theology implies is that our intellect is unable of comprehending the "essence" of God, thus, unable to conceptualize God.

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