Orthodox Thinkers

In a paper delivered in 2003, the patristic scholar, Andrew Louth, asks, “Is development of doctrine a valid category for Orthodox theology?” While allowing for the positive contribution that a historical-critical approach would make to the comprehension of the Church Fathers, Louth concludes, quite predictably, that any sense of “development” which suggests a primitive insufficiency or an inherent need for change is “not an acceptable category” (Orthodoxy & Western Culture, 61). He takes as his most obvious target the figure of John Henry Newman (1801–1890), the ardent advocate of the Roman Catholic admission of dogmatic development. In particular, Louth takes offence at Newman’s notion of organic growth that seems to suggest a essential maturing process. In the introduction to John Behr’s The Way to Nicea, Louth writes, “We can never pass beyond the apostolic confession of Christ. Rather the formation of Christian theology is the result of sustained, and prayerful, thinking and meditation by those who sought to grasp what is entailed by the Paschal mystery” (Way, 7). While new expressions may arise in particular historical circumstances, there can be, in Louth’s estimation, no new revelation and therefore no possibility of development, at least as he understands Newman’s concept of development.

Louth’s is a position echoed throughout the modern Orthodox academy. Yet, closer examination exposes many parallels between Newman and Louth that suggests a certain number of shared assumptions. Daniel Lattier, in his recent dissertation—a comparison of Newman and the Orthodox scholar, Georges Florovsky—finds a great deal of common ground between the Orthodox position and that of Newman. Newman’s position, Lattier summarizes, consists of 1) divine revelation has been given once and for all 2) it has been communicated through human media 3) the understanding of revelation grows, or develops, in human minds as time passes; and this development does not imply a substantial addition to revelation itself. Newman’s idea of development, therefore, does not presuppose an insufficiency in the Apostolic experience of the Resurrection. Indeed, in their respective understanding of revelation and tradition it would difficult to find a point of contention between Newman and Louth.

Nonetheless, there exists an even deeper layer in the bedrock of their shared approach. In Louth’s introduction, quoted above, he affirms the wholeness of the apostolic faith in the Risen Lord, but admits that this faith is thought and meditated upon by her theologians, the fruit of which is dogma, new expressions of the One Faith. Newman, by comparison, adopts Hegel’s empiricist schema of object–impression–idea to explain the process by which the Church incarnates the faith, once delivered to the apostles. In both Louth and Newman, divine revelation (the object) remains constant. Newman would go as far as to say that divine revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. Louth, in a similar manner, emphasizes Holy Scripture as the preeminent source of divine revelation. Newman’s use of the term impression, Lattier explains, signifies when “God reveals Himself through impressing an image of Himself upon the human person. God at first impressed Himself on men and women through historical facts and actions, and has done so since the apostolic age through the instrumentality of the Church” (Lattier, 20–21). It is significant that for Newman (and Louth) revelation takes the form of conceptual or factual impressions. Impressions give birth to ideas or to use Louth’s terminology, thinkers give birth to thoughts

It is precisely these ideas or thoughts, formed through the process of conceptual impression, that undergo a perpetual process of maturation. There is never a question in Newman of the development of the object, and to a lesser extent, the impression. In this point, Louth would be in complete agreement. The question is therefore, what term properly belongs to ideological maturation? Newman is comfortable with the nomenclature of dogmatic development. Louth would prefer the “process” of tradition as he does in his recent article in The Wheel (“Becoming Human,” 13/14). Be this as it may, it may be widely observed in Newman, Louth, and a great many modern Orthodox thinkers that a certain, stable “database” exists under various headings (object–impression, Tradition, the Patristic corpus, etc.) from which the theologian can elicit ideas. The question immediately arises as to the manner by which correct and incorrect ideas can be discerned. Newman and Louth answer this question quite differently.

For Newman, the process of dogmatic development is guided aright by means of the authority of the Church. In his mind, the Church, when encountering the conflicting ideas of Arianism and the Rule of Faith, for example, relied upon the authority vested in the Council for discernment. Later, this authority was solidified in the Roman pontiff, who preserved the Church from error in her ideological development. Louth, representing a large body of Orthodox thinkers from the 19th century onwards, would prefer to ascribe the Church’s dogmatic and ideological integrity to the concept of sobornost.

The concept of sobornost was first proposed in the 19th century by the slavophiles, Alexei Khomyakov and Ivan Kireyevsky, as a way of distinguishing the Russian pattern of thought from that of the West. In a theological context, sobornost was placed in opposition to the Roman Catholic understanding of tradition based on authority and the Protestant faith in the individual believer’s ability to interpret the Scriptures by means of personal inspiration. Sobornost describes a mystical, communal collective or synthesis. It is believed that sobornost is both the source and lens by which the believer (and theologian) discerns the content and the interpretation of Divine Revelation. Sobornost incorporates the Holy Scriptures and Holy Fathers, it is Tradition, but in the most living sense of the word. Sobornost is no mere curator of dusty artifacts, but rather the energetic and dynamic guide to unknown lands. Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), in his essay, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” excitedly beckons new explorers thus, “Dogmatic thought—with full faithfulness to Church tradition, but also with the total sincerity of a free quest—is called on critically to discern, to establish and internalize different aspects of already-existing dogmatic teachings, as well as to respond to contemporary problems” (in Tradition Alive, 79–80).

Judging from these collected factors, the chasm between Louth’s denouncement of doctrinal development and Newman’s avowal seems rather shallow, if non-existent. Indeed, while certain significant differences can be observed upon the surface, the approach of Newman, Louth, and the vast majority of modern Orthodox scholarship is a variation of degrees, not of substance. Fundamentally, their approach is the same: theological activity is understood as the interaction of mental impression and idea.

Theological Dialectic as a means of Dogmatic Development

The process by which ideas are nurtured and brought to maturity has become nearly universal in modern academia. An examination of Louth’s Origin of Christian Mysticism or Behr’s The Way to Nicaea, reveals a motif found repeated throughout the chorus of contemporary scholarship related to Orthodox theology. Despite the wide spectrum of conclusions, there is a certain uniformity of approach between traditionalists and progressives, and, one could add, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. This shared approach can best be understood under the term: theological dialectic. 

Dialectic is a method quite familiar to the broader academic community in which intellectual data from varying, often opposing, sources are compiled and surveyed, compared and contrasted, to form a synthesis that is believed to further the comprehension within that subject’s community of thought. We have encountered this method only in the last section. Louth (thesis) is compared and contrasted to Newman (antithesis), certain parallels are highlighted, divergences remarked upon, and a synthesis reached: Newman and Louth are observed to have more in common than originally supposed. It is a method repeated ad nauseam in academic essays and dissertations.

Historicity is key: the interaction of thoughts (or thinkers, in Louth’s approach) are observed chronologically, one thinker shaping the thought of another, one idea is studied in its relationship of influence to another idea. Thus, in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Hegel is seen to influence Vladimir Solov’ev, Solov’ev to affect Pavel Florensky, Bulgakov to shape Sophrony; thesis—antithesis, all coming together in the work of the historian–theologian in a perpetually developing synthesis. We must allow that the work of theological dialectic is not meant to take place in a vacuum. Sergei Bulgakov affirmed, “the deepest organs of the theologian’s inspiration must be nourished from the altar” (“Dogma” in Tradition Alive, 69). John Zizoulas (1931–), in his introduction to Being as Communion, likewise emphasizes that the “ecclesial experience of the Fathers played a decisive role” in their concept of God as a community of Being (Communion, 16). Nevertheless, it makes little difference whether one’s source is ecclesial experience, the Holy Altar, Scripture or Tradition, whether guided by sobornost, papal infallibility, or gender politics, the product is always an idea, an idea that is made to interact with other ideas, coming together (sobornost) in an ever-evolving synthesis.

It should come as little surprise that our modern Orthodox thinkers are thrilled to entertain the latest ideas being churned out by the academic and political bubble-machines. Bulgakov’s earlier mentioned summons to “respond to contemporary problems” has met with many a willing trailblazer among ambitious, young scholars. There has been a veritable stampede to apply “Orthodox” ideas to contemporary problems. Thus, we have Eugene Clay’s “Transhumanism and the Orthodox Christian Tradition, John Chryssavgis’ “An Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview,” Giacomo Sanfilippo’s “Sexuality and Gender: An Orthodox Way of Approach” and Melina Konstantinidou’s, “[T]he (Im)migration Issue. An Orthodox Approach.” Only this week, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press published Demetrios Harper’s An Analogy of Love, which predictably compares the ethical approach of St. Maximus (580–662) to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), seeking to establish a “Christian approach to morality.”

In Louth’s 2018 article for The Wheel, he argues that the process of tradition is unavoidable in a changing world, “which only means that we need to rethink what is the heart of what we believe in changed circumstances” (“Becoming Human,” The Wheel, 13/14). Rethinking, it would seem, is the formation of new impressions from the encounter between divine revelation and modern circumstances, giving birth to new ideas about, among other things Louth mentions in the article, same-sex relationships. In a striking reversal, while outwardly repudiating the notion of dogmatic development, Louth’s approach in both theory and practice would allow for greater “development” than Newman’s! In his willingness to enter into a “dialogue” (i.e. dialectic) with contemporary “discoveries” regarding sex and gender, he is joined by none other than the great theologian, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), whose preface to the 2018 Spring/Summer issue of The Wheel applauded efforts to “initiate discussion” regarding same-sex unions.

We might be tempted to ponder how such illustrious representatives of modern Orthodox thought could entertain such a “discussion.” Possibly, we might attribute such action to a dismissal of Scripture, Tradition, and Faith and beg these figures to “return to the Fathers.” However, such a trajectory as they seem to be making is not the result of ignorance! Far from it! Rather, it is because for Newman, Bulgakov, Louth, Ware, and their innumerable colleagues, the theologian is a craftsman of the impression–idea, a highly-educated, creative individual whose erudition has allowed for the accumulation of these impression–ideas and whose task is the application or development of ideas by means of the dialectic model of thesis–antithesis–synthesis, or in modern jargon, Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

This is Part III of a series: Confession as Theological Event. For Part II, click Here

Next up: A Critique of the Idea

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