Today’s topic is Theological Language, Ecumenical Dialogue, and Evangelism - Part 1.
There has been renewed discussion of late concerning participation of the various Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement. A document highly critical of this participation has recently come out of Greece, and Metropolitan Jonah has announced, in July, that the OCA would cease discussions with the Episcopal Church, USA, though he did indicate that the OCA would open discussions with one or more of the breakaway groups. In response, there have been several attempts to justify, or at least explain the rationale for continued Orthodox participation in the National and World Councils of Churches.
Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to be addressing this issue from a slightly different angle. From a philosophical point of view, I want to ask, “What is the nature of ecumenical dialogue? What are the conditions that make such dialogue possible? Is such dialogue even possible between groups as different at the Orthodox Churches and the mainline Protestant denominations that make up the bulk of the WCC and the NCC?”
Before we get to these questions, however, we must first address the topic of theological language, in general. Literally, theology means, “a word about God.” Of course, any idiot can spout off about God, and most do. But what I want to find out is, what makes some statements about God theology, in the Church’s sense of the term? This is an important question, because most people who participate in ecumenical dialogue think that they are discussing, and in some cases, even doing, theology. They are dead wrong about that, but we will get to that in the next podcast.
Today, let’s focus on the question, “What is theology?” Perhaps the best way to start is to point out some theologians and use them as an example. The problem is that most of the people we are wont to point to as theologians today are nothing of the sort. Neither Fathers Alexander Schmemann nor Georges Florovsky, Christos Yannaras, nor even my own didaskolos of blessed memory, Father John Meyendorff, were theologians in the strict sense of the word—brilliant, certainly; influential, without doubt; pious even, but not theologians.
In our tradition, only three people in the almost 2000-year-old history of the Church have ever been given the formal title, Theologian. St. John The Evangelist, St. Gregory of Nazianzis, and St. Simeon, The New Theologian. This does not mean that these were the only three theologians in history, but it does tell us something about the way the Church conceives of theology proper.
Before I develop this idea further, let me give an example of what theology is not. Theology is not the manipulation of statements about God. In our tradition, no statement about God is considered to be absolutely and unequivocally true, not even the statement, “God exists.” Words are created things, and can never adequately express the uncreated reality that is God. Therefore the idea that one can create a science of theology modeled after the use of geometric theorems, is a delusional fantasy of the most demonic sort. Unfortunately, for the most part, this is what has passed for theology in the West since the Middle Ages.
Revelation is understood to be the revelation of foundational axioms or theorems about God in propositional form, and theology is taken to be the systematic elucidation of those axioms. Are some men predestined to go to hell when they die? Study the text of the Bible exhaustively, arrive at the authentic revelation, and then apply the principles of deductive logic. Question answered.
Now let’s contrast this with the Orthodox view. What does John the Theologian have to tell us about the nature of theology? Well, he begins by telling us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He did not say, “In the beginning was the proposition,” but, “the Word.” Moreover, this Word is no ordinary human or created word, but the very self-expression of God, Himself—Light of light, very God of very God, to use the language of the Creed.
He goes on to tell us that this Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and that John, himself, had beheld His glory. Remember that John was one of the three disciples to witness the Transfiguration. In his first epistle, John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life, for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which is with the Father, and was manifested unto us. That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that you may also have fellowship with us, and truly, our fellowship is with the Father and with His son, Jesus Christ.”
Now that is the Orthodox definition of theology. St. John was a theologian because he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears and touched with his hands, the Word of life, and declared the same unto us, so that we, too, might share in this Trinitarian fellowship of love.
What I want to suggest today is that theology and prophecy are more or less identical, that in order to be a true theologian, one must, in fact, be a prophet. To grasp this, however, we must disabuse ourselves of some popular notions about prophecy and prophets. First of all, prophecy does not mean foretelling the future. Prophecy simply means to speak forth the words of God. To be sure, making a prediction about the future that fails to come true is a sign of a false prophet, but prophecy itself does not necessarily, or even primarily, involve statements about the future.
Second, prophecy is not some mechanical process akin to channeling a spirit. Many Protestants, consciously or unconsciously, work with what I call the Balaam’s ass model of prophecy. God picks someone out of a crowd, however, unworthy or ass-like, to be His messenger or channel. It is the message that is important, not the messenger.
However, prophecy cannot be separated from the prophet, because the revelation of God is not the revelation of a message or a proposition about God, but the revelation of God, Himself, first and foremost, to the prophet. That is why the prophet must be ready, or prepared, for the revelation. The first time Paul, before his conversion, met the risen Christ, he was blinded by the encounter. Only later was he taken into the third heaven to encounter what eye hath not seen.
Moreover, the very act of revelation, itself, becomes a model or paradigm for the spiritual struggle. Think of the great paradigmatic revelatory moments in the Bible, Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai, for example. Jews and Christians have both used this event as a means of describing the process of spiritual ascent toward God. I am thinking here, particularly, of Philo, and Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. Prophecy, or theology, like salvation, itself, is a synergistic event. That is, it is a meeting between God and man, a creative cooperation between the Divine energies and the human nous. It takes a prophet to prophesy, and a theologian to theologize.
True theology, then, is the Trinitarian self-revelation of God, Christ revealing the Father in the Holy Spirit, to a human person, the extent that the nous is purified, and the heart is cleansed, allowing for the vision of the eternal and uncreated glory of God.
One more thing is required, however. Not everyone who has such an experience of God becomes a prophet or a theologian. Prophecy is a particular charism, or gift, of the Holy Spirit. Think of the distinction St. Paul makes between speaking in tongues and prophecy. It is one thing to come to know Christ personally through the activity of grace and the cooperation of the human will. It is another thing to be able to express or proclaim that experience in such a way that it will have an edifying effect on others.
A prophet, or a theologian, as I am using the term, is someone who has not only had the grace-filled experience of Christ, but who has been given the charism of speaking forth, i.e., prophesying that experience with words that are, themselves, grace-filled, and life-changing for others.
I began by listing some folks who are not theologians. Let me conclude by giving an example of someone who was a theologian. I could list several recent examples: St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, St. Nikolai Vilemirovic, St. John Maximovitch, Elder Aimillianos of Simonos Petras. But let me focus on one in particular: Elder Sophrony Sakharov, the disciple of St. Silouan, and the founder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England. I believe that Sophrony was the greatest theologian of the 20th century, precisely because he took the experience he had with his elder, and in his own prayer life, and translated them in such a way that his words speak to contemporary man. His disciple, Archimandrite Zacharias, has spoken and written extensively about the spiritual power of the elder’s words. His words were, and remain, powerful, because they were born out his personal experience with Christ, and because they were imbued with the Holy Spirit, unto the edification of those who need to hear them.
One other comment before I wrap this up for today: Sophrony was a disciple of St. Silouan, and much of what he wrote was either about, or in some sense, a commentary on, St. Silouan’s life and teachings. You see, it takes a saint to truly understand a saint, and it takes a true theologian to understand another theologian, and to take his words and translate them for a new generation and a new people.
Next time we will see how this definition of theology affects our understanding of ecumenical dialogue and evangelism.
And now, may our great God and savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the blessed Elder Sophrony, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.