What is Orthodox Theology’s Task Today? Thoughts from Metropolitan John Zizioulas

A major conference on the future of Orthodox theology convened in June 2010 at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies. The conference’s theme, “Neo-Patristic Synthesis or Post-Patristic Theology: Can Orthodox Theology be Contextual?”, sparked no small degree of controversy.

Criticisms of the idea of “post-patristic” theology have resounded in Orthodox circles.

For example, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus organized a well attended event in February 2012 called “Patristic Theology and Post-Patristic Heresy.”

Overlooked in some of the criticisms has been the voice of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, who participated in the original conference but raised the following point:

If the ‘post-‘ means that we leave the Fathers behind and go beyond them to a theology without their direction, then the answer is an emphatic ‘no.’ Theology, without the Church Fathers as guides, ceases to be Orthodox theology. Ultimately, I think that the theme . . . presents a false dilemma. There is no need for us to go beyond the Fathers, but rather only to interpret them . . . Just as the Fathers themselves did not believe that they were going beyond the Holy Scriptures by introducing ‘ὁμοούσιος’, but rather only interpreting them. And just as Saint Maximos did not believe that he was going beyond the Council of Chalcedon when he insisted on the two wills of Christ (similar examples abound), so also we, by correctly interpreting the Fathers, even with terms or ideas they themselves did not employ, are not engaging in ‘post-patristic’ theology. I think that the neo-patristic synthesis is essentially nothing more than an attempt, based on the existing texts, to answer the question: What would the Fathers say if they lived in our time? The task is difficult, and, in the words of Fr. Florovsky, ‘bold and courageous,’ but who says that theology is easy? It is easy when we repeat like parrots what the Fathers said in their time. But, like any teacher, the Fathers dislike having their students parrot, but rather enjoy hearing them recount the lesson ‘in their own words.’ ‘Our own words’ are the questions posed by the culture to which we belong, and to these questions we must respond with the lessons of the Fathers. But this does not mean that we can replace them as our eternal teachers. It means that we must understand them more deeply, so that we can know what they would tell us today. This is the neo-patristic synthesis. And this, in essence, is Orthodox theology itself.

Even as he dismisses a “post-patristic” approach to Orthodox theology, Metropolitan John avoids reducing Orthodox theology to a mere repetition of past authorities, and he emphasizes that to follow the Fathers actually requires a creative engagement with new challenges posed by modern life.

What do you think of his approach?

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Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Development at OCN. He holds…
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