Patristics as Orthodox self-identity
Whether by coincidence or as a trend, in recent times Orthodox patristic studies have shown an increased interest in the nature of patristics – as such, as well as in the question of how it should unfold in the future. The conference organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in June 2010 on the topic “Neopatristic synthesis or postpatristic theology: can theology be contextual?” was indicative in this sense. It resonated widely in the Orthodox world and started discussions – sometimes heated ones – on Patristicism, Neopatristicism, Post-Neopatristicism and Postpatristicism. These discussions have become particularly heated in Greece, where many – from metropolitans to lay bloggers – have begun to express their views on the role of fathers in the life of the Church today. Although some of the participants in the discussions ended up condemning “post-patristics” and even the “neo-patristic synthesis”, these discussions showed that patristics continues to be relevant to the Orthodox and that they are deeply concerned about its future.
In other words, the relationship between the Orthodox and the Fathers is complex and multifaceted. All Orthodox, without exception, treat the fathers as an essential identity of their faith. Among the theological disciplines, patristics is their favorite. At the same time, few of the Orthodox really read the Fathers. Wherein what most of these few prefer are moral lessons or entertaining stories of the apophthegm type. Some use the Fathers for ideological purposes or for what has been called “patristic fundamentalism.” And only a small group of Orthodox read the Fathers to know their theology. Finally, a very microscopic group of Orthodox are those who study the Fathers in the appropriate academic way. All this directs our attention to the question of the method of reading the Fathers.
The method in patristics
The question of method should be seen as one of the key questions in patristics. Can we even speak of a method that would be applicable to patristics? Is there a specific method for studying the Fathers of the Church? Most modern Greek theologians will say that the method as such is inapplicable to theology in general and to patristics in particular. This is how they are taught in Greek universities. In Greek theological faculties there is a tradition of speaking with suspicion of method in theology. This suspicion seems to have been brought in by those Greek theologians who had been trained in Germany, and who were probably crowded there with methods. Returning to Greece, they simply discarded the methods on the grounds that in theology the method could replace theology itself. It may be so. It is also possible that a methodless approach to theology becomes itself a kind of method, which is not useful for theology. A theology without method is rather an illusion that can make theology vulnerable to abuse and unsystematic speculation. It can open the way for theology to become an ideology. That is why the method is applicable to theology, as well as, in particular, to patristics.
Neopatristic synthesis is one possible method for the study of the Fathers. This method gained striking popularity among Orthodox scholars. It gained the upper hand over another method, called by the Metropolitan of Diocleia Callistos “Russian religious renaissance”. One of the fathers of the “neopatristic synthesis” was Prot. George Florovski. He coined the term itself and brought it into circulation. At the same time, he does not offer any clear and comprehensive definition of the Neopatristic synthesis. What’s more: there is no definition on which the signatories to this method can unanimously agree. The hermeneutical key to it is its very name: “neopatristic synthesis.” The peculiar slogan associated with it reads: “Back to the fathers!”.
The neopatristic synthesis and personalism
It seems that a minimalist definition of the neopatristic synthesis contributed to this method gaining the consent of researchers. This definition proves comprehensive enough to satisfy researchers of different schools and persuasions. Because of this, I would also correct my own attitude towards the neopatristic synthesis as a method. It is more of a successful formula or even a charm than a method in the proper sense of the word. As such, it covers multiple methods and directions. In this sense, the neopatristic synthesis is similar to personalism. Indeed, personalism became extremely popular among Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century. It is characterized by the following distinctive features:
– was proclaimed traditional, and yet it is not;
– was used to identify what is truly Orthodox – compared to “Western”;
– was a broadly interpretable concept that covered multiple strands of thought.
The same distinctive features are found in the concept of neopatristic synthesis:
– was perceived as traditional, although it is not, because it was “neo-” and it was “synthesis”;
– claimed to be an example of liberation from the “Western captivity” of Orthodox theology;
– allows for many, many interpretations, and can cover a vast number of ideas, methods and concepts.
Neither personalism nor the neopatristic synthesis is associated with any specific teaching. Both were intended to be exhaustive. Both work more as beacons than thought systems or beliefs. Finally, both imitate things that are dear to individual groups and their followers. Thus, Orthodox traditionalists see in personalism an “ancient personalistic concept of personality”. Liberal humanists, on the other hand, see in it a satisfactory anthropocentrism. So is the Neopatristic synthesis. Traditionalists see there fidelity to the Tradition of the Fathers, while liberals prefer the words “neo” and “synthesis.”
Personalism is dialectical. On the one hand, by identifying the person with the hypostases, it claims to be traditional and patristic. On the other hand, as a result, it unfolds around modern ideas about human personality. The same dialectic is the formula of the neopatristic synthesis. On the one hand, it includes a basic identifier that no Orthodox, whether conservative or liberal, can deny – the Fathers of the Church. On the other hand, adding to “synthesis” the prefix “neo-“, the neopatristic synthesis leaves ample room for interpretations, inclusions and further developments. It is clear that methodologically the neopatristic synthesis arises from the same intellectual climate from which personalism arises. Both show striking similarities.
However, there are also some important differences between them. Personalism seems more capable of making connections between traditional theology and modern thought. In practice, it is a mixture of broader philosophical insights and traditional theological axioms. Personalism is an extrovert. Contrary to it, the neopatristic synthesis is introverted. He does not go too far beyond patristic texts and contexts, he does not show openness to the world of modern ideas, he does not open himself to the world – as such. Which is not to say that it wasn’t originally intended to be more open. At least that’s what the word “synthesis” in his formula suggests. If this is so, then it simply has not been able to become as open as its brother, personalism, has managed to become.
The dialectic of neopatristic synthesis and the Russian religious renaissance
As already mentioned above, the neopatristic synthesis is a movement that developed in parallel with the Russian religious renaissance. To put it more precisely, these two movements were antagonistic. Fr. Georgi Florovski, for example, as is well known, was a staunch opponent of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov – one of the key figures of the Russian religious renaissance. Fr. Florovsky develops many of the ideas of Fr. Bulgakov – including those who were associated with the neopatristic synthesis – contrary to the thinking of Fr. Sergius.
The use of the Church Fathers was not a specific distinguishing feature of the Neopatristic synthesis alone. Proponents of the Russian religious renaissance, including Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, also actively use the fathers. Therefore, the distinction between the two currents – the neo-patristic synthesis and the Russian religious renaissance – lies not in the acceptance or non-acceptance of the Fathers. It’s somewhere else.
A common distinguishing feature of those associated with the Russian religious renaissance is their philosophical training. This is the distinguishing feature that probably determines their method in theology. At the same time, the majority of those we refer to the neopatristic synthesis received their training in the field of history. Father himself. Florovsky was a historian who widely applied the methods of historical research in his patristic studies. Of course, this is not the historical positivism of the nineteenth century. Florovsky developed a different type of historicism, which he applied to patristics. This type of historicism should be studied more thoroughly. This is synthetic historicism of the type that was being developed around the same time by historians such as Arnold Toynbee and Lev Gumilyov. The Neopatristic synthesis of Fr. Georgi Florovski contains a new synthesis of historicism and theology. Roughly speaking, the difference between these two methods – the Russian religious renaissance and the neopatristic synthesis – is largely determined by two different paradigms of thought: philosophical and historical. Of course, this is not the only difference between the two methods. However, it is one of the key differences between them.
The relationship between the Russian religious renaissance and the neopatristic synthesis is dialectical. In this dialectical process, the Russian religious renaissance is something of a thesis. The neopatristic synthesis is an antithesis. And indeed, it is noted that Fr. Florovsky built his method largely on the denial of the approaches of Fr. Bulgakov. He was in a constant internal dialogue or, to put it even more precisely, a dispute with Fr. Bulgakov. At the same time, the neopatristic synthesis itself plays, at least in part, the role of synthesis in the dialectical process that was initiated by the Russian religious renaissance. Indeed, it includes quite a few philosophical elements that were dear to the Russian religious renaissance. For example, in deconstructing the “mind of the fathers” Fr. Florovsky relied heavily on intuition. In this he seems to have benefited from the intuitionism of Nikolay Lossky, the father of another important figure of the neopatristic synthesis – Vladimir Lossky.
The neopatristic synthesis was only partly a synthesis in the dialectical development of patristics. It remained rather as an antithesis of the Russian religious renaissance. The question is therefore whether there is any approach at all that could be considered synthetic for the pair “Russian religious renaissance – neopatristic synthesis”? Should such a synthesis be a continuation of the Neopatristic synthesis? Or should we consider the deployment of a new synthetic approach that would be detached from the neopatristic synthesis? Is there really a need to go beyond the neopatristic synthesis? In fact, these questions have a bearing on the very future of patristic studies.
The Future of Patristic Studies
If the neopatristic synthesis is not to be replaced by an entirely new approach, it should be further developed. What would be the principles upon which the neopatristic or new synthesis might unfold? If we follow the concept of identifying the various bases behind theological methods, we should bear in mind that for many of the modern Orthodox theologians and patristics, the basis of their training is in the exact sciences – mainly in mathematics and in physics. And science has its own thought matrix. This matrix seems universally applicable in other fields as well. In our time, it plays the role that philosophy played in Antiquity. But philosophy no longer plays this role. Today it is played by science, and scientific approaches are fully applicable to the humanities, social sciences, and even theology. Today, men of the exact sciences easily gain fame in the field of theology as well. There are not many theologians who come from philosophy or other humanities. Thus, the matrix of scientific thinking – this new “meta-physics” – will also determine the further development of theology and patristic studies. It is “meta-physics” in several respects.
First of all, it is metaphysical because it works with problems that are not physical. Secondly, it is also literally metaphysical – for many theologians, their theological works follow their studies in the field of physics.
As soon as the matrix of the exact sciences has entered into theological thinking, patristics has wider opportunities to interact with these sciences. It can and should contribute to the dialogue that goes beyond the religion-science opposition. This will open up patristics, make them more extroverted. More generally, patristic studies will become more interdisciplinary. They definitely feel the need for interactions with other disciplines, including ethics, social sciences, philosophy, exact sciences, etc.
An interaction with the theories of analytic philosophy and modern language would be of particular interest for the future of patristic studies. The importance of these theories is conditioned by the increasing trans-cultural interactions in which theology is also involved. These interactions prompt us to look for ways to translate traditional theologies to different contemporary contexts, among them African, Asian, etc. When we talk about translating theology to different contexts, we should undoubtedly also assume a deconstruction of the traditional languages of theology expressing and reconstructing theological meanings in the new languages. These languages are not just linguistic phenomena. They are also predominantly cultural and contextual phenomena. They include a complexity of personal thinking, expression and understanding of the other.
In order to “deconstruct” the language of the Fathers in order to convey their message to other contexts, we must distinguish the truth the Fathers contemplated from the language they used to express that truth. The concept of the consent of the fathers (consensus patrum) would be useful in such a distinction, but it should also be fundamentally renewed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Vasily V. Bolotov (1954-1900) introduced the idea of consensus patrum as a tool to facilitate rapprochement with Anglicans and Old Catholics. In Bolotov’s understanding, fathers’ consent can be calculated as an arithmetic mean. In its original conception it was something static, too algebraic. I doubt it can be used in the same way today. The thought of the Fathers of the Church cannot be reduced to some arithmetical “average”. It is too dynamic, too complex. To describe this complexity, we need at least the tools of higher mathematics.
The language of the Fathers of the Church
The distinction between language and meaning in the thought of the Fathers of the Church can help us to further develop the idea of synthesis proposed by Fr. George Florovski. Can the language of the fathers be used to express ideas that have come into theology from outside? It is certainly possible and it is something that has already been achieved. An eloquent example of this is the aforementioned personalism, which was a set of new ideas expressed in quasi-patristic language. Can the success of personalism be repeated (now, of course, without the pretense that it will be a traditional patristic doctrine)? This is possible and even necessary in order to secure the vital link between the sphere of patristic thought and the sphere of modern thought. Modern ideas, clothed in the traditional patristic language, enrich Orthodox theology. In the past, this sometimes looked like smuggling. Now we can freely explore and accept in Orthodox theology ideas coming from outside, making them comprehensible and digestible in our context, renewing them through the language of traditional patristics.
The opposite approach is also possible – when we derive the ideas of the fathers and then dress them up in various new languages. It is imperative that we transfer these ideas to different contexts that are not related to the patristic one. An example would be China. It would be a fascinating task to clothe the ideas of the Fathers in the language of, for example, traditional Chinese philosophy. The ideas of the Church Fathers can and should be translated to many different contexts. This task and others like it take patristic studies far beyond the neopatristic synthesis and even beyond patristics itself.
The complexity of the patriarchal voices
In the future, theology and patristic studies will have to contain within themselves a complexity not only of the languages in which the Fathers of the Church will be able to be re-articulated. Future patristics will also need to take seriously the thinking of the fathers and their writings. Today it is clear that the fathers did not speak in unison – of the type that Byzantine music presents us. In fact, their voices sound polyphonic. Sometimes they don’t necessarily sound in agreement. Dissonances similar to those found in Monteverdi, or even in Scriabin and Stravinsky, can also be found in the writings of the Fathers. Which does not weaken the harmony and aesthetics in the works of the Holy Fathers, but only hints at the existence of this harmony and aesthetics on different levels. Or, to use another analogy, classical patristic studies present the Church Fathers in a style of academic art, preserving such proportions and perspective that the figures are arranged in harmony and Raphaelite order. Modern scholarship realizes that fathers can also be depicted in a Pre-Raphaelite or Impressionist manner. One might even insist that the criteria of modern art also apply to the fathers. Thus, the Fathers of the Church present a kind of aesthetics that is sometimes not obvious and does not bring immediate visual satisfaction. Sometimes we have to look carefully through the dots and lines to see the meaning and beauty to which the Fathers testify and which they want to share with us.
Author: Cyril (Hovorun), archim. “Patristics after Neo-Patristics” – In: A Celebration of Living Theology: A Festschrift in Honor of Andrew Louth, ed. by Justin A. Mihoc & Leonard Aldea, London – New Delhi – New York – Sydney: “Bloomsbury” 2014, p. 205-213 (trans. notes).
 On 15.2.2012, the Piraeus Mitr. Seraphim of the Greek Church organized a one-day conference on the topic of “Patrist Theology and Post-Patrist Heresy” (Πατερική Θεολογία και μεταπατερική ερείσει). At this conference, another Greek hierarch – the Navpaktish miter. Hierotei (Vlachos) – delivered a report that was subsequently widely circulated in the Greek media. In this report he said: “Thus I believe that the terms neo-patristic and post-patristic were born out of this spirit. At first the first term appeared – neopatristics, expressing the idea that the texts of the fathers should not simply be repeated. That what is to be established and transmitted to our age is their spirit. Which means that what needs to be explored is how the fathers would talk about contemporary issues. Regardless of the good will of some [who have proposed this approach], it is extremely dangerous because as a result it undermines the whole of patristic theology… Then the term post-patristic theology came into being. “Post-patristic” theology means that we no longer need the fathers, since they lived in other eras, solved other problems, faced other ontological and cosmological questions, had “an entirely different perception of the world.” That is why they cannot help us in our time… Such views are like a mine laid in the foundations of Orthodox theology”.
This text has been published on numerous blogs. Here is one of them: https://paterikakeimena.blogspot.com/2011/01/blog-post_5419.html (accessed 6/23/2012).
There is one particular blog in the Greek blogosphere that is dedicated specifically to post-patristic theology – https://metapaterikiairesi.wordpress.com (accessed 6/22/2012).