SCRIPTURE AND DISSENT: ENGAGING WITH THE NEO-PATRISTIC PARADIGM OF MODERN ORTHODOX THEOLOGY by Phil Dorroll

Dr. Dorroll’s article launches our new Academic Papers series. It first appeared in 2013 in the International Journal of Orthodox Theology.
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Dr. Phil Dorroll

This article discusses the legacy of the Neo-Patristic paradigm in American Orthodox theology by examining the recent work of three contemporary American Orthodox theologians: John Behr, Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, and Theodore Stylianopoulos. It begins by first outlining the main conceptual bases of the Neo-Patristic paradigm as established by Georges Florovsky and others, and then discusses some important recent criticisms of this dominant theological mode in contemporary Orthodoxy. The article also explores how categories of identity and authenticity are used theologically in Neo-Patristic projects, and situates these efforts in the context of a broader critique of Enlightenment reason. The article argues that recent works in American Orthodox theology, such as that of Behr, Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, and Stylianopoulos, exhibit a complex engagement with the Neo-Patristic paradigm, and subtly reformulate or even challenge certain of its bases (such as the use of categories of identity and authenticity) by appealing to certain theologies of Scripture. These engagements constitute an important effort to engage with the contemporary foundations of Orthodox theology in America, and reveal specific ways in which these Neo-Patristic foundations are being re-interpreted in a contemporary context.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that the “Neo-Patristic Synthesis” forcefully propagated by Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) and his contemporaries constituted the overriding intellectual paradigm of 20th century Eastern Orthodox theology. Florovsky’s life reflects the intellectual journey of the Orthodox Church in the 20th century as a whole: born in Odessa under the Russian Empire, he spent much of his life away from Russia due to persecution, war, and revolution. His career included teaching and research positions at nearly every major Orthodox theological center in the modern West, including the Institute of St. Sergius in Paris from 1926 to 1941, where he authored his most influential works, including his history of Russian theology and his study of the Greek patristic and early Byzantine Church Fathers. His dogmatic condemnation of the theology of the Russian priest Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, who was at the time the highly respected and beloved spiritual leader of the Institute of St. Sergius, made his continued presence in Paris untenable, and he left Europe in 1948 for the United States to take a position at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, then as now the flagship seminary of the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America. He became dean of the seminary in 1951 but was expelled from his post in 1955 due to conflicts with the students and the administration. Until the end of his life in 1979 he held positions at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, Harvard, and Princeton.

Florovsky’s life as a perpetual emigrant, having set the agenda for his own work, exemplified the experience of Orthodox theology in the East European context for nearly the entirety of the 20th century, forced as it was to take root and flourish outside its “native soil” due to the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent rise of East European Communism. Indeed, the experience of exile, encounter, and persistent or perceived otherness resonates throughout the theological categories of modern Orthodox theological reflection. Once an exiled church, then a diasporic church in the “West,” the modern Orthodox confessional community has made conceptualizations and considerations of identity, and therefore authenticity, central to its theological concerns.

Drawing on the important critiques of this school by Pantelis Kalaitzidis and others, this study will attempt to understand the role of considerations of identity as a theological category, and perhaps even theological method, in this tradition. In order to focus the analysis, this paper will discuss specifically how this Neo-Patristic paradigm is being engaged by contemporary American Orthodox theologians. The understanding of Scripture in these interventions will form a point of comparison between the Neo-Patristic reflection of the 20th century and the emerging Orthodox voices of theology in America in the 21st century. This analysis will therefore attempt to understand how this paradigm is being engaged or even challenged by the work of American Orthodox theologians in the 21st century.

Florovsky argued that Christian theology found its most authentic expression and embodiment in the thought of the Greek patristic age, which he felt was brought to its culmination in the dogmatic theology of Gregory Palamas (1296-1359).Theology, and Orthodox theology in particular, needs therefore to return to these authentic roots to ground any further consideration of theological method. Through his study of these figures, Florovsky elaborated certain key theological distinctions that would remain normative for Orthodox theologians that came after him in the latter half of the 20th century, both in the West and the East.

According to Florovsky, “There are two aspects of religious knowledge: Revelation and Experience.” In the most basic sense, revelation is constituted by the actual historical events narrated by Christian Scripture: “The Gospel is history. Historic events are the source and the basis of all Christian faith and hope. The basis of the New Testament is facts, events, deeds—not only teaching, commandments or words.” Experience is foundational for religious knowledge because it is the proper mode of the understanding of (religious) Truth: “Dogma is the testimony of thought about what has been seen and revealed, about what has been contemplated in the experience of faith—and this testimony is expressed in concepts and definitions.” Religious truth is discursively expressed it terms of human doctrines and the concepts that structure them, but insofar as religious truth refers to the ineffable it cannot be confined by human mental formulations and is experienced through the grace of the divine itself. As perpetual witness to an eternally true experience, then, “Dogmas do not develop; they are unchanging and inviolable, even in their external aspect—their wording.”

This is the logic underpinning Florovsky’s absolute prioritization of the doctrinal language and thought of the Greek fathers: their dogmatic formulations are irrevocable precisely because of their status as witness to unchangeable truth. The ineffability of their referent somehow grounds their theoretical and even linguistic permanency. How then can certain dogmatic formulations be rendered definite? And if truth is inadequately approached through them in rational terms, how can truth be approached? The answer to both questions lies in the Church: the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church guarantees the infallibility of the doctrinal decisions of the fathers and the councils, and it is only through our participation in the life of the Church that truth can be fully accessed. 

Continue reading at academia.edu, where there is an option to download the PDF.

Phil Dorroll holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University in Atlanta. He is assistant professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg SC and an Orthodox Christian. His work focuses on Sunni Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish, and the history of interactions between Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

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