What is the Orthodox Faith?

Understanding Orthodoxy - Dr. Christopher Veniamin

Two talks by Dr. Christopher Veniamin, Professor of Patristics at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, delivered at the Annual Lenten Retreat of the Shenango Valley Orthodox Clergy Association. He spoke on “What is the Orthodox Faith?” and “The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation in St. Silouan and Elder Sophrony.”

April 2016

What is the Orthodox Faith?

Speaking at Grove City College, Dr. Veniamin addresses in 10 basic points the essence of Orthodox Christianity.

April 18, 2016 Length: 43:52





It’s a joy to be with you. What I would like to do today is to present to you a little bit of the lineage that Dr. Harvey just referred to in introducing me, and more specifically, because I know that we have a fairly mixed audience in terms of Christian denominations, I would like to address the question of “What is the Orthodox faith?” What is the Orthodox faith—I will try to present that to you in ten basic or central points or themes.

Someone called Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos)—a very Greek name, the name of a very famous bishop of the Church in Greece today—says that when he was working for the team of theologians who were preparing the critical edition of the works of St. Gregory Palamas, he was so struck by the theology that he began to ask himself, “Where can one find this theology today? Where is this theology being lived today? This must be a living theology.” I’m sure that many of you have had the same thought when reading the holy Scriptures or the life or the writings of an inspired saint of the early Church. This must be a living theology. Where can it be found today?

So, in 1976, Metr. Hierotheos went to Essex in England to visit Elder Sophrony, who was my own spiritual guide during my high school years. And that is where he also met Fr. Zacharias, a disciple of Elder Sophrony and our spiritual father today, who was then a monk, and Hierotheos was already a priest at the time. And it was at that time that I met Metr. Hierotheos, and it was at that time that the friendship of Hierotheos and Zacharias began, and ever since they continued to have a very close and strong ties. They are connected by the same theology; they are connected by the person of Elder Sophrony. And from that time forward, Metr. Hierotheos saw in Fr. Sophrony how the theology of St. Gregory Palamas and the work to which Dr. Harvey just referred is being reprinted, thankfully, 63 of St. Gregory Palamas’ homilies. Metr. Hierotheos saw in Fr. Sophrony how the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, how Christianity, is lived in practice.

Today I wish to speak to you about the empirical theology of the Orthodox Church as presented by a professor of mine, my professor of dogmatics in the University of Thessalonica, whose name is Fr. John Romanides. As we know, true theology is the life and the voice of Christianity. In reality, theology is the revelation of God to the saints. St. Gregory the Theologian, of the fourth century, gives the most clear definition of who is a theologian in the Church. Theologians, he says, are those who have reached the vision of God, having first cleansed their heart from the passions, or at least those who are being purified. This is a theology of experience.

In the Church, however, we also have academic theology as a science. Academic theologians study the work of the Fathers and the life of the Church, and this is important. We do not look down upon academic theology; in fact, we regard it as having great value, because it provides us with having all the valuable historical data concerning the life of the Church and her saints. Nevertheless, theology in reality is experience and the knowledge of God. Metr. Hierotheos points out that the same thing occurs with an artist. You have an artist who produces original works, that is, produces paintings, and then the scholars come and analyze his art.

Fr. John Romanides was a professor in the University of Thessalonica, an academic theology of considerable standing, but at the same time he spoke about empirical theology, living theology. Metr. Hierotheos never had him as a professor, but he became closely associated with him after Romanides retired. Let me give you just a brief bio of Romanides. Like myself, Fr. Romanides was born to refugee parents who fled Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in 1927. My father’s family left in 1922. His mother gave him the name John after St. John the Russian. She would pray regularly from three o’clock in the morning to the time she would go to work, and lived the last years of her life as a nun at a monastery where St. Paisios—another saint of our own times—was the spiritual father.

Fr. John moved to America with his parents when he was barely three months old. He was raised in Manhattan where he attended a Roman Catholic school. At high school, he was taught the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Later, after three years at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, he went to Yale for four years where he studied biblical criticism and various expressions of Protestant theology from some of the leading authorities in the United States at that time. Then he went to the University of Columbia in New York where he became acquainted with Fr. Georges Florovsky, probably the greatest academic theologian of the 20th century, who helped Fr. John view theology from a different perspective.

In America, Fr. John observed, the Roman Catholics promoted the revival of the Scholastic theology of the 11th to the 13th century, while the Protestants were focusing mainly on the apostles and the holy Scriptures. Fr. John tried to identify the bridge that united holy Scripture with the Fathers of the Church, and he found that the apostolic Fathers, the immediate disciples of the apostles, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome, were those who continued the teaching of the apostles and that there was a great difference between them and both the Scholastics and the Reformers of the 16th century and later. Subsequently, he also studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, where he became even more closely associated with Fr. Georges Florovsky.

In 1954, he studied in Paris and also a little later in Munich, and in 1957 he submitted his thesis on the ancestral sin—not the original sin, but the ancestral sin—in the University of Athens, where it proved to be a landmark in Orthodox theological studies, changing the whole course of theological studies in Greece. Subsequently in 1957 to 1958, Fr. John came back to the United States to Harvard, where he once again connected with Fr. Georges Florovsky, and during his time there he conducted important research and also joined Fr. Georges teaching at Holy Cross until 1969, when he was elected Professor of Dogmatics and Symbolic Theology at the University of Thessalonica, and for a long time he also taught at the School of St. John Damascene, Balamand University, in Tripoli, Lebanon.

In addition to Fr. John’s remarkable academic career, his involvement in ecumenical dialogue of over 30 years has become almost legendary. All of this is to say just how influential Fr. John Romanides’ contribution has been in the Orthodox Christian world and beyond.

Metr. Vlachos relates how, when Fr. John Romanides was very close to his departure from this life, he went to visit him in the intensive care unit of the hospital where he was and asked him, “What do the doctors say about your health?” Characteristically, Fr. John replied, “I am not concerned about my health. I am concerned about theology.” He proceeded to suggest to Metr. Hierotheos how formal studies in theology could be made more patristic. As Metr. Vlachos explains these are just some observations about Fr. John’s life because they’re important for understanding this theology. Vlachos also points out that in the prologue to the first volume of his Dogmatics, Fr. John writes, among other things, the following.

Among the non-Greek dogmaticians, the greatest guide to patristic theology are the Russian Protopresbyter Professor Georges Florovsky and the ever-memorable Romanian Protopresbyter [Dumitru] Stăniloae.

Why? Because he understood that these two theologians make the connection between theology and experience and, of course, of prayer, because that is theology.

Fr. John was not able to finish his Dogmatics, so Metr. Hierotheos did what Romanides was hoping to do himself. That is, he produced the two volumes on empirical dogmatics, and following the tradition of Florovsky, Stăniloae, and Romanides, Metr. Hierotheos explains that the doctrines of the Church are medicine which help us to arrive at the experience of God. But just as coal cannot be of use unless it is lit by fire, so, too, dogma must be ignited by the flame of life. Dogmas without life are like black coals that have remained unlit.

Now let us turn to ten central points of Fr. John Romanides’ theology, which is the theology of the Fathers of the Church, bearing in mind that there is no other theology. Firstly, the God of the Church is the God of revelation. That is to say, God has revealed himself to the saints. This revelation is called theoria theoptia, which means contemplation, vision of God. The saints see God in light, just as the three disciples on Mount Tabor saw Christ in the light. Not only do they see the light, but they live in the light.

At that point, the one who is deified, o theoumenos, has no thoughts, but exists above thoughts and above the senses. Then he hears uncreated words and uncreated thoughts, just like St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:4, who heard unspeakable words. “Uncreated” means something which has no beginning and no end. The prophet or saint describes this experience by means of created words, concepts, images. In this way are the doctrines made in order, on the one hand, to guide the faithful, and on the other hand, to safeguard against false doctrines.

The second point: When God reveals himself as light, that light is a three-fold light. He is three lights. Once upon a time, the Apostle Philip asked Christ, “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” And Christ said, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” That is to say, the saints behold the three-fold light of the divinity. This does not mean that they behold the light outside of themselves, but they participate in God. That is to say, they participate in the glory of God, in the uncreated energy of God. They understand, however, and they experience the fact that they cannot see the Source from which the light comes. Therefore, they call that which they see “energy” and that which they cannot see “essence.” And they said that we participate in the energy of God, but we do not participate in the energy of God.

When we say that God has essence and energy, the Fathers do not understand this in a philosophical way, but they understood it by experience. This is an empirical event, not speculation.

The third point: The Holy Trinity appears in the Old Testament and not only in the New. All of the manifestations of God in the Old Testament are manifestations of the pre-incarnate Logos, who is also called the Angel of Great Counsel by the Prophet Isaiah. We have, therefore, the pre-incarnate Logos, who is referred to as Yahweh—he it is that is revealed. And there is God, who is called Elohim—who is hidden, concealed. And we also have the Spirit of the Lord. This is the three-fold light of the divinity: Elohim, Yahweh, the Spirit of the Lord. In the New Testament, Yahweh is made flesh, becomes man, and reveals to us his Father and the Holy Spirit.

The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that in the Old Testament we have the pre-incarnate Logos—manifestations of the pre-incarnate Logos—and in the New Testament we have manifestations of the incarnate Logos. In the New Testament we now know clearly the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through Christ we know the Father without seeing him. Fr. John Romanides used to say, “The saints see the light, the three-fold, divine light, through the light,” that is, through Christ. They see the light of the Father without seeing the Father, and they see it while they are in the light of the Holy Spirit. The phrase is: “Through the light, the light in the light.”

Point number four: That the Triune God created the world through the Logos, and man, his most perfect creature. God is uncreated. The world and man are created. Adam and Eve, after they were created, had a soul and body, but also the grace of God. They had personal communion with God. They spoke with God, which means they had communion and a relationship with God. They lived in the light of God. That is a natural man. That is to say, a natural man is one who has a body, a soul, and also the Holy Spirit.

Man is not comprised of three parts. He is comprised of two parts—body and soul—but the Holy Spirit exists in both his soul and his body. This is indeed the genuine man, created by God, who lives in the light. Fr. Romanides used to say that the Fathers, based on the experience they had themselves, interpreted how Adam lived in paradise. And truly St. John Chrysostom says that Adam and Eve in paradise lived as angels.

Point number five: That the fall of man is not simply a legal matter, not simply a case of disobeying a commandment, but the loss of the very experience of the glory of God. The apostles, and the Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, says, “All have sinned and have been deprived of the glory of God.” All have sinned and have been deprived of the glory of God. That is to say, the fall is the loss of the grace of God. This is spiritual death. That is to say, after the sin, the soul and the body remained—but they lost the Holy Spirit. That is what is meant by the ancestral sin: Spiritual death, which was followed by physical death, the death of the body.

The inheritance of the ancestral sin is not the inheritance of guilt, as St. Augustine used to say, but it is the corruption and death which entered into man, and it is this that is transmitted from generation to generation in the birth of newborn infants. The natural man had two energies in his soul: the one, his reason; the other, his mind, his nous. That is to say, rational energy and spiritual energy, respectively. By means of the spiritual energy he would see the glory of God in paradise, and by means of the rational energy man could write down, describe, his experience. After the fall, man’s spiritual energy was darkened, but not his rational energy, and he lost his communion with God, because the mind was darkened.

The prophets in the Old Testament strove, with the help of God, and their minds were illumined, but they were unable to overcome death, which is why they went down into Hades. The problem, therefore, is how to illumine the mind of man, which means the mind needs to be separated from our rational energy, because, as Fr. Romanides used to say, the fall is the identification of our rational energy with our spiritual energy. In other words, we don’t know any more. Most of us, we don’t realize that we have a spiritual energy, a power called the nous, which is the eye of the soul, and we confuse that with the brain.

The Prophet Moses went up to Mt. Sinai and saw with his nous, with his spiritual energy, the glory of God. And afterwards, with his reasoning power, he wrote down his experience. But he went down into Hades because he was unable to defeat death. The triumph over death came with the incarnation of God, with Christ.

Point number six: Christ comes, assuming our mortal and corruptible body, in order to overcome death and also to overcome sin and the devil, and, consequently, to restore man to his state before the fall and to raise him even higher. Christ taught by means of parables, performed miracles, but he took some of his disciples up to Mt. Tabor and showed them his glory. He wanted to show them that they were to follow his teaching, put it into practice, in order to behold wonders, but most especially in order to see the glory of God. This is the deepest purpose of the spiritual life: for us to overcome spiritual death, that is to say, our separation from God, so that later we will overcome the death of the body.

Number seven: The work of salvation takes place in the Church. The Church existed in the Old Testament in the communion that the prophets had with the pre-incarnate Logos, the pre-incarnate Word, but it was a spiritual Church. After the Incarnation, the Church becomes enfleshed, that is to say, also physical. We become members of the body of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles received the Holy Spirit, and then the apostles learned all the Truth, because the Truth is not a thing, the Truth is not an idea: the Truth is a Person. Christ told them that he would send the Holy Spirit and that he would teach them all the truth. In other words, in the Holy Spirit, by the Holy Spirit, we see Christ. There is the truth. He is the Truth.

When the priest, during the Divine Liturgy, divides the host, meaning the consecrated bread, he says, “The Lamb of God is broken and yet not divided.” In the Church, by means of baptism and holy chrismation, man becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. “Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?” St. Paul says. What does “he becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit” mean? It means that in his being is activated his spiritual energy, and spiritual prayer in borne in him, unceasing prayer, prayer of the heart. Man’s body is a temple, and just as the temple in its innermost sanctuary has its altar, so, too, in the depths of the heart, by means of holy baptism and holy chrismation, a holy altar is formed. And within the heart takes place an unceasing Divine Liturgy, in which case man is restored to his former state in paradise and even much higher, for now the Divine Liturgy takes place within him, within his very body.

There is reasonable prayer, which takes place in the brain, and there is spiritual prayer, which takes place in the heart. Reaching that state constitutes the therapy of the human person. One must reach the stage in which one has inner prayer and love for God, passion for God. That is why many Fathers emphasize, as did Fr. John Romanides, that there are three stages in the spiritual life: the purification of the heart, the illumination of the mind, and deification (theosis). Just as we have in the church building the narthex, we have the purification of the heart. Then we have the nave, which is the illumination of the mind. And we have the holy altar, which is theosis.

Fr. John used to say, however, because he was an ascetic theologian, that the Church has two aspects, one positive and one negative. The positive aspect is Christology, that is to say, it tells us about Christ; while the negative aspect tells us about the devil and how to strive against the devil. The more one learns to fight against the devil, that is to say, the more one learns the negative aspect of the life of the Church, the more one comes to know the positive aspect of the Church which is Christ. That is why man must continually strive against the devil, for in this way he learns the love of Christ. It is very important for us to know that the grace of God and the light of God come into man via his heart, and through the heart a commingling takes place. The devil is outside man and wars against him from without. That is why we say that those who have been deified know the devil, that he is outside, by virtue of association with him.

We live in the Church in order to be healed, which means that we must pass through the states of servants, hired laborers, and reach the status of children of God. Fr. John Romanides used to say that heresy is the rejection of the methodology that allows us to arrive at the knowledge of God. That is to say, every discipline has its method, and if you do not follow the method you will not reach your objective. The method to which Fr. John referred is purification, illumination, theosis or deification. When this method is rejected, then we end up speculating about God, and when one speculates about God, logic and fantasy enter in and we end up in heresy. Fr. Romanides used to say that people become heretics when there are no prophets who can teach the method of the knowledge of God. Note, however, that he was well aware of the fact that no method or technique exists by which the mind may be reunited with the heart. Only by the Holy Spirit can the mind return to its natural place, which is in the heart, because the mind is a power of the heart. But more about that later if you wish.

Point number eight: That the eschatological life is not the life after the second coming of Christ, but it is the life in Christ. Some say that we shall live the eschaton following the second coming of Christ—and this is wrong. In the Book of Revelation it says that Christ is the first and the last. With the incarnation of Christ, therefore, the eschaton enters history. In this way, the kingdom of God enters the world and history, and men are able to participate in the kingdom of God.

When the saints see God (theoptia), they live the eschaton (the kingdom of God). They see it now, in this very life. This is called the first resurrection. And the second resurrection will be after the resurrection of the body, after the coming of Christ. The saints see the light through deification (theosis). This is what we sing at the Great Doxology, sung at the end of Matins: “In thy light shall we see light.” We live, that is, in the light of the Holy Spirit: in purification and illumination, and we see the light.

Point number nine: Paradise and hell exist from the perspective of man, but not from the perspective of God. God did not create paradise and hell. God is light and illumines the whole universe. Created light has two characteristics. It both illumines and burns. Some are illumined and some are burnt by it. God is the uncreated light. Some participate in the light, and some are burnt by it because they are not ready to accept the light. If one does not have the eyes to see the light, then one is burnt by it. Fr. Romanides used to say that when Christ would speak of hell, he would sometimes refer to it as darkness and sometimes as fire. But wherever there is fire there is no darkness, and wherever there is darkness there is no fire, which means that hell is neither darkness nor fire as we understand darkness and fire.

God loves all men, even sinners, and he sends them his grace. Those that have been cured in this life and have acquired unselfish love will see the light. Those that have not been cured will not see the light, but they will experience the light of God as fire. That is why the fire of hell is uncreated, not created. This is very beautifully depicted in iconography. From the throne of God, the light emanates and illuminates the saints, and from the throne of God comes the river of fire which engulfs sinners, which means that the river of fire is uncreated. That is why in the Church we strive so that when we see God—because all of us shall see God, both sinners and righteous—God will be for us light and not hell.

This takes place in holy Communion. Those who prepare as is meet feel the light, and those who do not prepare and receive unworthily are condemned. The saints in the kingdom of God will not exist in a static state, as Plato used to say about happiness and also St. Augustine, but they will be in a constant state of progression or growth, rather, there will be a continuous movement, while sinners, those who have not repented, will experience a certain hardening, and they will not experience this growth.

My tenth and final point: Fr. Romanides used to say that Christ, by his incarnation, became man and entered history. The Church lives within history and sanctifies it. History will never end, but it will be transfigured. There are some who say that after the second coming history will come to an end, but Fr. Romanides used to say that this is a mistake because then, after the second coming, history will exist in paradise, but it will assume a different character: it will be transformed. The saints had this experience, and they used their environment to express it, either in words or in iconography or in poetry. They took elements from Hebrew thought, Greek thought, and from Roman culture, but only in an effort to express revelation and not in order to create a theology. That is why the Church produces culture but is not herself culture. The purpose of the Church is to guide man towards uncreated words and uncreated thoughts, but her experience is expressed in terms of created elements taken from the environment.

In the first millennium there was one unified tradition in both East and West with certain minor differences, but gradually there developed in the West Scholastic theology which gave preeminence not to the mind but to reason. They rejected the method of the knowledge of God, which is purification, illumination, theosis. They rejected Orthodox hesychasm and confined themselves to logical speculation about God. Thereafter the Reformers appeared and rejected Scholastic theology and arrived at a certain moralism. So we have on the one side the Scholasticism of the Roman Catholics and on the other side the moralizing of Protestantism. The Orthodox tradition is inextricably intertwined with the tradition of prayer and stillness, which is the “method” by which we may come to the knowledge of God.

Fr. Sophrony used to say that if we pay careful attention to the holy Scriptures we will notice that every manifestation of God, every theophany, is preceded by prayer and stillness. Hesychia, therefore, prayer and stillness, is the prerequisite for man’s encounter with God.

I realize that it’s impossible to cover such a vast array of themes and topics in sufficient detail in such a short space of time and without raising many, many questions, but it is my hope that, by highlighting the points above, we might be challenged to look a little closer at the fundamentals of Christianity, from a fresh and hopefully practical perspective. Thank you for your charity. [Applause]

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