An Assessment of Theological Issues Today
Savas Agourides , The Greek Orthodox Theological Review: 38/1-4,
1993 , p. 29 - 40 .
The subject of this introductory address in an "assessment of Theological Issues Today"; a broad subject that can be approached in various ways. Among several possibilities, I have decided to focus my remarks on the expression of certain critical and important theological issues facing our church today. It would not be wise to spend the limited time allotted to me saying something about everything, much less to offer proper tribute to the theological work that has been done in our church during the past generation. By saying this, it is not my intent to minimize or disregard the important conştributions of theologians to the theological task of our church. Rather, the vision of this conference is turned toward the future. It is turned toward the coming third millennium of Christianity's history in the sense that we are confronted with new and serious problems which do not allow for complacent evaluations concerning present achievements. It is for this reason I consider this address useful as a critical assessment of some of our theological situations and proşblems in order to examine our present condition of preparedness for the obligations of the forthcoming era.
For Orthodox theologians, the theological issues primarily referşred to can be classified into three groups: 1) issues related to the identity of Orthodox theology vis-a-vis contemporary Christian thinkşing, world-ideologies and religions; 2) issues related, to the special mission of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement of our times; and, 3) issues concerning the relationship between Church and society within our secularized technological world, around which the thematology of this conference is correctly centered.
Contemporary powerful states, our consumerist materialism, and nuclear power and the imminence of a world catastrophe, give priority to theological issues like war and peace, technology and the quality of life society (cosmos), and the kingdom of God .
Although a great number of subjects belong to each of the above three categories, my assessment, as stated earlier, will be limited to remarks on only some of these issues.
In the first fifty years, beginning with the First Congress of the Orthodox Theological Faculties in Athens (1936), Orthodox theology has been struggling to define its identity in the broader context and under difficult circumstances. During this foundation-shaking period, with conditions of suffering and ease, encouragement and threat, well-known centers of theological learning in Europe and America rendered noteworthy contributions in the redefinition and classification of the character of Eastern Orthodoxy within the wider Christian community vis-a-vis contemporary currents of thought. Accentuated especially in the confrontation of existentialism and socialism, science and materialistic ideologies, Orthodox theologians did their best as one would expect, to affirm the Orthodox faith as the most authoritative meaning of existence, as the substance of any true society, and as support of any search for truth aiming at the benefit of the human race. At the same time, however, they humbly accepted a large share of the responsibility for people turning away from the Church. Even though these theological accomplishments were a form of witness of Orthodoxy to the contemporary world, they failed to open any real dialogue with current theological thinking, nor with world ideologies on the level of a commonly accepted vocabulary. A real dialogue presupposes a deep spiritual awakening. It is understood, however, that the majority of Orthodox churches are accustomed to relying on state support for their very existence and perpetuation. Most, in fact, do not feel prepared to look at the world, in the context of their own resources, without visible or invisible meditation and protection of the state. Such an attitude, one which has existed for centuries, must be surmounted. The fight to overcome this barrier will be, in essence, that spiritual reawakening so necessary for a fruitful dialogue with the world. For theology, real dialogue presupposes a broad and deep understanding of the world. It is unthinkable for one to speak of the Christian faith intelligently today without being deeply aware of all the varieties of intellectual achievement which have occurred in thought, science, art, the social sciences, economics, and politics. Serious dialogue is a demanding task. It requires from the engaged theologian knowledge of what is really going on in the world today, what is happening. Neither naive apologetics nor ecclesiastical rhetoric can cover for the lack of this kind of deep knowledge of the world by the theologian.
Real dialogue also demands unreserved acceptance of scientific methodology by the people doing theology. Orthodoxy cannot really fulfill its present-day task without accepting, unhesitatingly, the results of the historic, critical study of the Bible, of the Fathers of the Church, or of church history. During the last fifty years, some of its centers of learning have taken courageous steps in the field of biblical studies. Some of its biblical scholars can be proud of what they have acşcomplished in this field. The historical critical method has been acşcepted and established by many Orthodox faculties as the proper method of approaching the sacred text. This method has been recognized on the basis of sound biblical and patristic traditions. Its aim is to discover theological meaning of the text in relation to the actual profound needs of the Church. However, in spite of all that has been said, biblical theologians have not been able to convince our colleagues and churches to make use of the best findings of modern biblical scholarship. Many Orthodox theologians, even some of our colleagues and church leaders, continue to speak of the Bible solely in terms of the patristic exegetical tradition of the middle ages, namely in a conformist, repetitive, imitative, dry formalistic exegetical way. The challenge of the late Fr. Georges Florovsky , of blessed memory, for a " neopatristic " use of the Fathers is still for most of us a voice in the wilderness. Our churches still cling to "old" medieval tradition as something sacrosanct; they refuse to look anew at the Bible, at their tradition, or at Orthodoxy's present historical reality.
With regard to patristic studies we have also witnessed, within certain Orthodox countries, considerable progress during the last fifty years. Not only has the publication of patristic texts been on the inşcrease, but the production of writings on various patristic subjects has also reached a high point . However, in spite of all these clear, progressive steps, we have not experienced a renewal of the patristic spiritual tradition. Interference of other motivations in the study of the texts, as well as a disregard for their historical contexts, accounts for but a few reasons explaining this phenomenon. The scientific reşquirement of studying the past in its historical context must be seriousşly taken into consideration insofar as the Bible, the Fathers, and the history of the Church are concerned. Otherwise, one's own intentions and ideas transform scientific work into a confirmation of what one actually presupposes and wishes, the result being an apology of the status quo.
I will give you an example which is quite amusing. In the Athens faculty of Theology some years ago we had to examine a series of doctoral theses on anthropological patristic subjects (for example, 'Man According to Saint Basil the Great," or "Man According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa," or "Man According to Saint Maximos the Confessor," etc.). In these academic works one found, with astonishşment, that the writers, though having worked separately, came at the end to the same findings and reached the same conclusions! A colleague of mine, joking about this situation, commented that this symşpathy of conclusions proves the unity of Orthodoxy! What had acştually happened? Each one of the candidates, in writing a doctoral thesis, began his work by reading the chapter on man in the dogmatic manuals of Androutsos or Trembelas . An outline of the subject was derived from this reading. Afterwards, they proceeded to study the patristic text, extracting from it those ideas and pericopes which corşresponded with their outline. It is no wonder that, in the end, all parşticipants arrived at the same ideas and results. The patristic texts, in their historical context, were not the real sources of this kind of study; they are, rather, supplementary material substantiating and extending the ideas already expounded by Androutsos or Trembelas . Examination of a subject within its historical context alone makes clear what the real issues are. Persons, ideas, and facts come out of this investigation alive and true; only as such, can they exercise corşrect influences in our similar questions or queries today.
Without being ungrateful for the patristic work undertaken in our generation, one would expect a more creative impulse to come out of those patristic studies. Failure is due, in my opinion, to the motivation by which we approach the traditional texts. The Fathers and their teaching are celebrated, by most of us, more as preservers and less as challengers of creative thinking. It is interesting to note that men like Chrysostom , Basil the Great, and Gregory the Theologian are considered by many present-day theologians as bulwarks of conşservatism. This approach to the past, outside of the historical conştext of each era, cannot become a springboard for new and creative theological thinking; rather, it serves to confirm and support the ideas and situations which we want to defend. We must, very happily, acknowledge that there are exceptions to this rule. But here we are not talking about exceptions; we are simply expressing an observaştion with respect to the way we Orthodox look at history. Moreover, this view of history is not limited to the past. Surely, as many will agree, there is, with us, an exaggerated sense of the importance of the past. Talking with theologians one sometimes senses that the Church is nothing more than a matter of the past, that there is no real present or future, and, in the final analysis, that the Church is nothing else but a mere reproduction of the past. There are, of course, some theologians who rightly believe that the present and the future of Christianity should be of the greatest priority for the Church today.
One needs an appreciation for the past, the locus of our roots, as well as a necessary interest in the present and future.
Scholasticism, as far as a proper orientation toward history is conşcerned, exercised a negative influence upon our theology. It resulted in an overemphasis of religious philosophy, apologetical metaphysics, and a vertical and rational schematization for the whole of our theology! History had no place in such a scholastic elaboration of theology. What can we find concerning history in the well-known dogmatic manuals of our predecessors? These manuals almost all end with a chapter on eschatology. Moreover, they address the issue without suspicion that the ideas of this last, supposedly unimportant chapter, should permeate the treatment of all the dogmatic subjects, the reason being that it gives the biblical/historical perspective within which all the dogmatic subjects must be understood.
It is true that our generation has condemned scholasticism as a method of doing theology. This condemnation, however, did not help Orthodox theologians approach history correctly. It did not always bring back the biblical/historical perspective, a right appreciation of past, present and future. The former place of scholasticism in our thinking has sometimes been replaced by a new brand of mysticism which is also non conducive to the appreciation of historical realities. Scholasticism as well as mysticism have not been very friendly to historical perspectives.
Everyone present knows, quite well, the importance of Christian eschatology not only for an understanding of early Christianity, but also for contemporary Christian theological thinking. It is appropriate to mention as prominent figures in this movement the names of Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth , Rudolph Bultmann , and Oscar Cullmann . By the end of the nineteenth century a renewal of theology started under the influence of Christian eschatology, thus giving prominence to the subject of God and time. At the beginning of this century an Atheşnian professor, Constantine Dyovouniotis , published a study, "The Middle State of the Souls" (1) . At the outset he attempts to justify the tact that the subject of eschatology was not among the concerns of Orthodox theologians. Furthermore, the fall of Constantinople and the ignorance which prevailed during the Ottoman period are offered as reasons for such an omission. However, beyond that, Dyovouniotis proceeds to some very important remarks. He writes, "Eschatology B not a part of theology, but the center, or rather the final target lf all its content (Phil 3.14), so that one could say that Christian theology is, as a whole, eschatology." He goes on to say, "Every doubtşful or erroneous development of eschatology cannot but exercise a disastrous influence on the whole dogmatic system of theology and lead it to the neglect of Christian life and to the uncertainty of all; belief, because without it we are not sure whether the salvation accomplished by Christ is real and perfect." Dyovouniotis ' remarks make clear the simple truth that before the coming of the great eschatological events ( parousia , resurrection, the last judgment), it is unthinkable to talk of any perfection of the soul beyond the world and history; any religio -philosophical system promoting this idea would deprive of any meaning the doctrines of the second coming, the resurşrection, and the last judgment.
What is alarming is that Dyovouniotis ' appeal found almost no response among most Orthodox theologians, who were for the most part still influenced by Eastern scholasticism. The idea of any eschatological perspective in theology sounded to some as something Protestant and to others as a theological peculiarity worthy of neglect.
Bringing us this issue years after Dyovouniotis , Professor John Karmiris wrote a historico-dogmatical study on the subject of Christ's descent to Hades from the perspective of Orthodox theology (2) . In this study, however, Karmiris deals not with the importance of eschatology for Orthodox theology; rather, he tries only to find the scriptural and patristic foundation for the doctrine of the descent of Christ to Hell. He also stresses the differences existing between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism concerning certain aspects of this doctrine.
A colleague, Nikos Mitsopoulos , as recently as 1972 in his book Man's Glory in Christ (3) , devotes one of his chapters to the subject. I am familiar with several theologians today, particularly biblical ones, who place eschatology in the proper perspective of their theological understanding of the Gospel. Unfortunately, I am afraid I am not mistaken when suggesting that they are still exceptions. For the most part, however, this theological perspective is not a common one with Orthodox theologians. It is true that this perspective, with real proşmise, was in existence during the Second Conference of the Orthodox Theological Faculties in Athens (1976). In this respect the document of the Third Preparatory Committee for the forthcoming Great and Holy Synod of Orthodoxy, which was published less than a year ago, was also a pleasant surprise. In this document due respect is rendered the eschatological dimension of the Church. Truly, we need to recover the eschatological perspective as completely normative in Orthodox thinking. In this way, moreover, we come to the right understanding of history; namely, the historical perspective of Chrisştianity, wherein not only the past, but also the present and future provide criteria for the process of Orthodoxy in the world. Historical perspective means what is really past, present, and future in the hope of the Christian. It means what happens at present in the Church with her spirituality and devotion. It means the direction in which the life of the Church moves.
Our thinking sometimes plays amusing games with the understanşding of time which we find in the New Testament. The approach to time by Hellenistic religious, philosophical, moralistic, and metaşphysical systems is well known; the result is on the one hand, the neglect of the eschatological teaching of the early Church, and, on the other, the dominance of a moralistic, philosophical, or mystical system of thought about immortality. This reduces the value of the Christian faith for the institution of the Church and history and reduces the idea of a final judgment, the general resurrection and parousia to mere metaphors. Plotinos identified time with the human soul. Are we, as Christians, allowed to do the same? What then would we make of the Church and of ourselves as the "people" of God; as God's kingdom, and as the city of God ? The consequences of overlooking the eschatological perspective influence not only spiritualişty and devotion, that is, the direction of Christian living; they also influence the right understanding of the sacraments. Outside of the biblical meaning of history and eschatology, the sacraments of the Church are understood as symbols and ethical metaphors, not as acts in the life of the people of God. Moreover, a mystical understanding of the sacraments creates of them a spiritual allegory without bearşing on the church's history as past, present and future. In theology, when we talk about the " eschatos ," we talk about time. Thus, when we push aside the " eschatos ," we overlook time and its meaning.
I have already stated that our theological generation has, finally, repudiated scholasticism and all varieties of fundamentalism. However, its excessive orientation toward the transcendental and an indifference for historical realities was reinforced by an awakening of a deep inşterest in Byzantine mysticism. Speaking on behalf of Greece , I would say that this movement started rather recently, in the decade of the 1950s. Moreover, it was originally intended as a reaction against dead theological scholasticism as well as a polemic against moralistic religious tendencies, modern iconography, and modern music in the Church. Chief advocate for this tendency was the periodical Kivotos .
At the outset it recovered Orthodox spirituality from superficial moralist and dry academic theologizing. The movement passed into a new phase with the publication of the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas . Most people thought of this new spiritual trend as a reacştion against an ongoing secularizing materialism and consumerism; it sounded like a solution to overcome the day's despair about man's existential problems as well as a way out of the problems on the inşternational political horizon. Soon, however, within theological circles, a kind of theological absolutism developed concerning Saint Gregory Palamas , who was thought of as a kind of perfect theological revelaştion; in comparison to which all previous and subsequent theological work in the Church was child talk. According to this view, great Fathers of the Church had given us only baby food; adult food was given to us by Gregory Palamas . Palamas was not, of course, responsible for this absolutizing of certain aspects of his thought; a rich thought of a very high level, conditioned tremendously by the social and political factors of his time.
We, here, are not expected to enter into either a presentation or evaluation of Saint Gregory's teaching. The modern mystical moveşment which evolved around his name is centered on his teaching, which was interpreted as being somehow against nature, reason, history and culture. I am aware that there are a variety of interpretaştions concerning this subject. My opinion, however, is that many conştemporary mystical theologians aligning themselves with the name of Saint Gregory Palamas , irrespective of whether they say it or not, interpret his teaching as being at odds with nature, reason, history, and culture. The mystical movement in Greece did not develop haphazardly. It emerged immediately after the Greek civil war; with the sentiment of anti-communism still in the air. At the same time, with the introduction of new technology in the country, Greece , durşing the 1960s, experienced an industrial revolution, urbanization, and an influx of western culture from Europe and America throughout the country. This phenomenon caused reaction even within secular Greek circles. It was the Greek Church, however, which became the protagonist in the movement against the westernization of the counştry, posing objections to the introduction of certain changes in the country's family laws on the grounds that the Greek people would thereby lose their identity.
We are all aware of the Greek Orthodox Church's attitude toward the Ecumenical Movement. I think I need say no more about the social and political milieu out of which the new mystical movement sprang forth. Today's danger from the West being cultural, and from the East political, there is some parallelism in the two dangers which Saint Gregory Palamas himself faced in his own time. Nor do I want to launch into a criticism of Palamism from the theological or historical point of view. I want, instead, only to state that some of the teachings of Palamas , as well as certain social and political circumstances in the decades of the 1960s, gave rise to a new mystical theological moveşment. Personally, I believe that this new mysticism, as far as Greece is concerned, has a negative impact on the problems facing our churches in these times; it is a retreat into an unrealistic, suprahistorical and individualistic position. Fortunately, the moveşment has an elitist character. Theologizing, of this sort, is limited to only some theologians and intellectuals; it lacks a wider influence upon the people.
We need a proper understanding of history, one which cannot be realized by either setting aside the eschatological element in our theological tradition, or by adopting the various forms of supraşhistorical mysticism. The importance of eschatology in history verşsus suprahistorical mysticism for Orthodox theological thinking toşday is a matter which I am sure will come up again and again in the discussions of this conference, interested as it is to see how Orthodoxy leaves the second and enters the third millennium.
At the outset of this introductory address a second group of theological issues was mentioned, those referring to the Orthodox Church's specific role within the Ecumenical Movement. All those who have expressed ideas regarding this matter address the ways in which Orthodoxy would benefit other partners in the Ecumenical Movement. Eastern Orthodoxy is considered, in this respect, a witness and an invitation to embrace the old, undivided Church of the first millenium of the Christian era. This has been rightly understood as a return of all Christians to the common roots of our faith. Androutsos himself, like many theologians in the East and West, understood the role of Orthodoxy as a mediatory and conciliatory body between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Within this picture, Orthodoxy is presented as something perfected, without need of change. Later, a modified proposal became necessary: the entrance of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement. This modification was conceived as a renewal of all the churches, including the Orthodox, in the Holy spirit . Moreover, it offered as a starting point the unity of the churches, in love, as was the case in the early centuries. Orthodoxy, however, in order to play any such protagonist role, must feel sure ░t itself and secure about the experiences of the Roman Catholics and Protestants. What we have observed thus far, however, is that the stance of Orthodoxy within the Ecumenical Movement is, from beginning to end, completely defensive. At this point it would be helpful to recall my aforementioned remarks on the need of the Orşthodox seriously to recover historical thinking. Without a spiritual and theological renewal, Orthodoxy will be unable to effectively conştribute anything to herself or to the churches of other denominations. Only a spirit of sincerity, humility, and love can break the ice of cenşturies. Superficial and naive pretensions of superiority have, to date, been proven ineffective.
Moreover, Orthodoxy in facing other Christians must on the one hand clarify the meaning of conciliarity and episcopacy, and, on the other, the meaning of the priesthood of the laity. It was the previous generation of our theologians, including several bishops, who began the struggle to change the image of the bishop/despot which was a remnant of the past political and historical conditions of the Orthodox people. This effort was to change that image to that of the true bishop. In today's era of secularism, all the more, the image of the bishop/despot is quite obsolete. This matter should be studied on the basis of the Church's historical tradition, the Bible, and contemporary requirements. Because the office of the bishop has had a history in the Church, its history must be studied carefully. The same is true with the conciliar structure of the Church a wide and significant proşblem of which, I am sure, those involved with the preparation of the great synod will tell us more. It was only a few months ago that a Roman Catholic synod of bishops, meeting in Rome was preparing to discuss problems facing the priesthood today; a committee had been appointed to invite fifty priests as representatives of the group concerned! I am afraid we are far behind the Roman Catholics in the application of conciliarity . With us such a meeting should be representative of the whole body of the Church (on all important church matters), with a structure guaranteeing fellowship of the whole pleroma of the church body. In certain Orthodox areas exaggerated views on the importance of the person of the bishop have reached an apogee. Some people speak of a theology of the bishop which is nothing else than the theology of the Church; bishop and Church have come to mean something identical. These theories become typical within certain national churches where the bishops form a special authoritarian group. In periods of crisis, these isolated authoritarian groups develop the most peculiar theories about themselves. They usually command a monopoly of power which transforms the rest of the people and clergy into passive and neutral spectators in the Church's life. Thus, the Church becomes the business of the bishops, to the exclusion of everyone else.
I remember, from my student years a very lively theological discusşsion concerning the priesthood of the laity. It failed to bring any results because of a conflict between the Church hierarchy and the counştry's religious organizations. The problem, though seriously proşpounded, was tactfully bypassed. It is, however, in this way that we reached, unprepared, the present crisis between the Church and the government in Greece . Many crises could have found a positive resoluştion if there were a theological understanding of the potential of the lay people in the Church as active members of the body of Christ, as active members in the Spirit, and not as passive spectators of the hierarchical operations. Without a renewed theology of the laity Orşthodoxy will be unable to offer any service either to Roman Catholics or Protestants.
Orthodox and non-Orthodox recognize the contribution of the Orşthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement. There has been, however, an expectation that Orthodoxy can offer much more to the Ecumenical Movement by merely being herself, that is to say, by presenting herself in a clearer manner as the fellowship and the freedom of the Spirit. Facing the third millennium with its new horizons and problems, the Ecumenical Movement can find its hope only in the power and the freedom of the Spirit of God.
There remain one or two comments on the third group of theological issues: "On Church and Society" and "Within a Secularşized, Technological World."
In today's world there exists a strong expectancy and demand by millions of people that now is the time in which Christianity must act for the salvation of the human race. This sentiment has been exşpressed by many intellectuals in a variety of ways. This demand is articulated on the one extreme by radical thinkers like Erich Fromm and on the other by conservative thinkers and politicians like the Greek Panayiotis Kanellopoulos , in his book, Christianity and Our Times (4) . I refer especially to Kanellopoulos because he is a conservative, yet at the same time a spokesman of the Western world and culture. His vision of the West today, however, is like that of ancient Rome at the time of its decline, the period when Christianity began its historical march. Characteristics in both cases include, on the one hand, the danger of the barbarians knocking on the doors of the empire, and on the other hand, the spiritual vacuum in the soul of the late Roman and contemporary Western society. He finds in East and West the same indifference and ignorance of spiritual foundations or all reality. Further, he views a renewed Christianity as the only Power that can perhaps supply this reference in both East and West, thus, leading both to a reconciliation and human society into a new historical unity of culture. This means that the nature of the existing dialogue needs not only strengthening, but also a new quality. It should be noted that the conciliatory role of the churches in today's world affairs is expressed, by millions of people throughout the world, in relation to the nuclear war threatening humanity with extinction. We cannot set our hopes on the equilibrium of nuclear weapons between East and West. The churches, as so many people demand today, must take an initiative as one Christian front; they must take a leadership position in the support of peace and justice, with sincerity and fidelity to the Gospel. Such a posture, according to the belief of the masses, is the only way for humanity to escape the present impasse. At times, one senses that now is a very critical time for the testing of Chrisştianity itself: the future of our religion may stand or fall with certain decisions necessarily taken at this moment, the result being whether humanity is to face either extinction or a new era. If other factors are to help humanity to overcome today's impasse, it will be these factors which assume world leadership in the third millennium. The situation is urgent. Convening an ecumenical council of all Chrisştian churches on peace and justice is a priority. An all-Christian crusade against nuclear tests and the stockpiling of weapons, parşticularly nuclear and chemical weapons, should begin immediately. The demand for the destruction of nuclear warheads, throughout the world, is also the Church's task at this moment; I would say, preşeminently, it is the Church's task today. The saving and conciliatory work of the Church, for the survival of human life and moral values will, in this respect, render its greatest service to humanity, and will give Christianity a new confidence in looking towards the future, toward the third millenium .
(1) Ἡ ýŢˇš ŕß˘▄ˇ˘ßˇÚ˛ ˘ῶÝ °§¸ῶÝ ( Athens , 1904).
(2) Ἡ ňἰ˛ Ἅń´§ ŕ▄Ŕ´ń´˛ ˘´ῦ Î˝Úˇ˘´ῦ ἐţ ἐŘ°ň¨˛ Ὀ˝Ŕ´ńŘţ´§ ( Athens , 1939).
(3) Ἡ ἐÝ Î˝Úˇ˘ῷ ńŘţß ˘´ῦ ἀÝŔ˝■´§ ( Athens , 1972).
(4) Ὁ Î˝Úˇ˘ÚßÝÚˇýŘ˛ ŕß▀ ἡ ἐ´¸Ů ýß˛ ( Athens , 1984).