Today’s topic is Theological Language, Ecumenical Dialogue, and Evangelism, Part 2. Last time we said that a theologian is someone who has beheld the glory of God, not in a metaphorical way, but quite literally, as St. John the Theologian tells us in the beginning of his gospel, “And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
But we also said that not everyone who attains this spiritual vision becomes a theologian. Something else is needed, and that is the particular charism of being able to speak about this vision in a way that is edifying for others, in a way that helps lead others to the same kind of vision.
I suggested that the term, theologian, is more or less identical to the term, prophet. This being the case, then it is obvious that all theology begins as narrative. “I was on Patmos on the Lord’s day,” says St. John. Theology must begin as narrative, because revelation is an event. It is not, as we said last week, the revelation of an idea, or a set of propositions, but an encounter with the living God. Theology, then, begins as the story of this encounter.
But almost immediately the theologian’s ability to tell this story begins to let him down, and this has nothing to do with a lack of literary talent. It has to do with the nature of the encounter. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and it is also an indescribable thing.
It is at the very heart of the Christian faith that in Christ, the transcendent becomes imminent. The uncircumscribable becomes circumscribed. The unknowable becomes known. But this does not mean that the Christ experience can be described simply in the language of ordinary everyday experience.
Perhaps it will help if we consider iconography for a moment. As we know, the iconographer does not try to provide a photorealistic picture of a saint or biblical event. Rather, the goal is to capture something of the spiritual significance of the person or event depicted. To do this, the iconographer has to break many of the rules of classical art, such as those governing perspective.
The difference between theology and ordinary descriptive narrative is precisely that between an icon and a photorealistic portrait. In order to convey the true significance of the event, the theologian first reaches for metaphors and similes. “Like unto” is a phrase that recurs frequently in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is not a bird, but in the narrative of the baptism of Christ, He is represented as a dove. Similarly, on Pentecost, the Spirit appears “like tongues of fire.” Next comes symbolism. St. John’s revelation on Patmos is absolutely full of symbolic images, as are the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel.
Revelation is an event so pregnant with meaning—it is after all the revelation of God, Himself—that normal, photorealistic description, if I may mix my own metaphors here, simply cannot handle the task, so a rich system of symbolism is created. And of course, a corresponding system of visible symbols exists within our iconographic tradition, as well.
In addition to metaphor and symbolism, the theologian eventually has recourse to what we might simply term, “the miraculous.” By this I mean that things that are so out of the ordinary that they appear to violate the very laws of nature. I do not want to get into a discussion of miracles at this point. Perhaps we will do that in a later podcast. But I want to underscore the literary, or rhetorical purpose of the miraculous in a theological narrative. This element is essential, because revelation, by definition, is a breaking into, of this world, by God. “When God so wills, the order of nature is overthrown,” we sing in one of our hymns.
The presence of the miraculous in these narratives—think of the burning bush, or of Christ glowing with an unearthly light on Mt. Tabor—is to remind us that God radically transcends His creation, that God is not the sort of thing that we can classify or put under a microscope. To be sure, theology begins—it must begin—as narrative, as story. But it is not the same kind of narrative that we use to describe a science experiment. This being the case, theology finds its most natural and fruitful expression in poetry and hymnography. It is no accident that of the three persons the Church formally calls theologians, the latter two, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Symeon, were poets. Indeed, many of the Church’s greatest theologians were poets and hymnographers, and this is true, even of 20th century theologians. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, and St. Nikolai Velimirovich both wrote poetry. And St. Nectarios of Aegina wrote hymns. We all know, of course, the beautiful Agni Parthene. Theology begins as narrative, but it is fulfilled in doxology—hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
If all of this is the case, then how do we account for the sort of things that we call theology today? Our shelves are filled with books on the Trinity, on the work of the Spirit, on soteriology, etc. Where did all of these books come from? The answer is simple. What we typically call theology today, really pseudo-theology, is the product of non-theologians musing about the spiritual experiences of others, and trying to understand those experiences through the use of their own discursive reason, rather than by imitating the theologian’s way of life. You see, it is much easier to sit in one’s armchair and think about what St. John says about Christ, than it is to pray, and fast, and take up one’s cross, so that one may experience His glory for oneself.
In the best of situations, such musings are a colossal waste of time, and a great distraction from the one thing needful. In the time it takes you to read a book on theology, you could have done dozens of ropes, or read the gospels, or helped out at a soup kitchen, or simply worked in your own garden. Oh, I know, we could say the same thing about just about any endeavor, but here is the difference: If you waste time by watching TV, or bowling, or even playing solitaire, at least you aren’t kidding yourself that you are doing theology or something spiritual. When, however, non-theologians read the vain musings of other non-theologians, they get puffed up, to use a biblical expression, and vainly imagine themselves as theologians of a sort. Thus, at best, such armchair theologizing is a waste of time. At worst, it leads to heresy.
Basically, heresy comes in two flavors. There are enthusiast heretics—people who become deluded into thinking they have a special relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Montanists, some Gnostics, and many of today’s Charismatics fall into that category. Most heresy, however, begins not with delusions of grandeur, but with armchair theologizing. You see, when non-theologians begin to muse about theology, it is almost inevitable that they will try to make sense of it. That is, they will begin to apply the logic of the created world. This is exactly what got Sabellius and Arias and Nestorius and Eutyches and all of those folks into trouble.
The Trinity does not make sense. It is, as Vladimir Lossky famously put it, a cross for human ways of thought. It makes much more sense to think of one God playing three different roles, as Sabellius suggested. Or to simply demote the Son and the Spirit to created beings, as Arias did. A crucified God makes no sense, either. It is much more sensible to say, as Nestorius and his followers were wont, that the Word is the Lord of glory, but the man was crucified. Certainly, that does make much more sense. But it also destroys the narrative of the cross, and alters the very nature of the Christian religion.
At this point, the Church’s official response to such heresy is helpful. If we look at the actual conciliar decrees, we find that specific heresies were condemned, but they were not replaced with alternative theories or explanations. The definition of Chalcedon does not present a theology of the hypostastic union. In fact, it doesn’t even use that phrase. All it does is tell us how not to think of the Incarnation. The reason for this is important. The Church does not want us theologizing in the manner of philosophers or heretics, but as our hymns tell us, in the manner of fishermen. That is, as the apostles did.
I am going to pick up right here next time. What Chalcedon did and did not say, is of both historical and ecumenical importance, of course, and that will be a good place to start thinking about the relationship of theology to ecumenical dialogue today.
Until then, may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercession of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, and through the power of His precious and life-giving cross, His exaltation we celebrate this day, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.