The Ecumenical Patriarch on the Eastern Fathers and Theology

(This is Neil.) Last year I posted a short summary of and excerpts from an essay by the Orthodox priest and ecumenist Nicholas Lossky on the “patristic approach to theology.” The Church Fathers, according to Lossky, were practical and experiential, drawn less to speculation than the concrete reality of life in Christ. They taught that a person is a “being-in-communion,” since true personhood is modeled by the Persons of the Trinity, and, thus, no person is saved alone. And they held that believers, through participation in God, are “called to become by grace what Christ is by nature.”

Last month, speaking at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke on “Theology, Liturgy and Silence.” The Ecumenical Patriarch’s lecture is subtitled “Fundamental Insights from the Eastern Fathers for the Modern World,” and can also serve as a short introduction to the “patristic approach to theology.” Incidentally, the Ecumenical Patriarch has just come out with a book, which I, in my sloth, haven’t yet finished, but which is helpfully summarized by Henry Karlson here.

Patriarch Bartholomew wishes to make three points in his lecture:

First, the Patriarch wishes to suggest that theology must have breadth. Theology cannot be reduced to “a structured system of truths” or “a sterile study of doctrinal formulations,” but must concern itself with the expansive vision of an entire “world transfigured in and filled with the presence of God.” Rather than being defensive or simply preservative – a matter of “refining concepts or resolving controversies” – theology must be dynamic, striving for “a continual transcendence of limitations” to grasp the “potential communion between God and humanity.”

This means that theology is not the esoteric subject of theologians and bishops. It must involve laypeople. The Ecumenical Patriarch recalls St Gregory of Nyssa’s accounts of fifth century discussions about Christology in the marketplaces and squares of Constantinople with “old clothesmen and food sellers.” It must also build bridges with others. Theology “demands an open –indeed, we might add, ecumenical – worldview, whereby we are called to perceive the profound mystery in all people and in all things.”

Second, theology must be rooted in the liturgy. The Patriarch suggests the East retained the liturgy as an authoritative criterion, “whereas the gradual development in the West of a juridical source of authority led to an understanding of liturgical rites more as external signs.” In any case, the Church should see the “liturgical tradition [as] an inviolable element of its life.” This involves readings, hymns, prayers, and services, but also the shared experience of the “common cup of communion.”

Theology nourished by the “common cup of communion” is exemplified by the Eastern Fathers, themselves Eucharistic presiders at local communities. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon writes about the patristic era:

The bishops of this period, pastoral theologians such as St Ignatius of Antioch and above all St Irenaeus and later St Athanasius, approached the being of God through the experience of the ecclesial community, of ecclesial being … [The] Eucharistic experience of the Church guided the Fathers in working out their doctrine of the being of God.

To Patriarch Bartholomew, this sense of ecclesial community, “ecclesial being,” means that theology should never occur in isolation – whether the isolation of an individual from his or her local church, of East from West, or of a fearful Church from “interfaith openness and dialogue within the wider global reality.”

Third, Patriarch Bartholomew says that theology must be apophatic, meaning that it must “affirm the absolute transcendence of God, while at the same time underlining His divine immanence.” Theology must avoid “intellectual idolatry,” confessing the “inadequacy of the human intellect and human language,” and search for God in personal encounter. Theology ultimately does not rest in “doctrines and definitions” but “a personal and loving relationship with God in the communion of prayer” (as Lossky also reminded us in his short essay).

As Evagrius of Pontus said, “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, then you are a theologian.” This is a call to humility. Because we approach God in stillness, without our fragile concepts and chatter, we always give the final word to God. Even though, the Patriarch reminds us, we are limited and broken, God will not abandon us and the Holy Spirit will “guide us to the fullness of truth” (Jn 16:13).

Please let me know what you think …

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to The Ecumenical Patriarch on the Eastern Fathers and Theology

  1. Dear Neil:

    Taking things from last to first, which is how I usually do them, I shall certainly let you know what I think. As is your wont, you have greatly enriched me, first, by introducing me to the Pontifical Oriental Institute website. You have given me great riches with that one kindness alone; further, you have done me great service by introducing me to the lecture of His All-Holiness, Patriarch Bartholemew; finally, you have done great service in summarizing that lecture for the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with the ethos of the East. Thank you for this good work, and for your kindness in doing it.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard,

    Thank you for your kind comment. As always, it means a great deal to me.

    If I may ask, have you read the Ecumenical Patriarch’s book, Encountering the Mystery? If so, I would be grateful to hear your response to it.


  3. Dear Neil:

    Alas, I have not had the pleasure of reading His All-Holiness’ book. That requires money which, at present, I do not have. I shall be attempting to get it via the Los Angeles Public Library system, but knowing the present tendency towards “separation of church and state, at all costs”, I fear that the probabilities will be morbidly obese. In other words: “Fat chance.”

    Nonetheless, on the basis of your recommendation, I will do all I can to secure a copy.

    Very truly yours,

    Bernard Brandt

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