Orthodox Theology in Comparison to the Academic Disciplines

Orthodox Theology in Comparison to the Academic Disciplines

By Andrew Youssef

It has become a popular sentiment in our era to regard theology as a type of academic discipline that differs from any other primarily with mere respect to the subject matter of its intellectual content. The type of theology being conceived in this regard, is that which is taught in academic institutions under the guidance of those who have attained a level of professionalism that supposedly qualifies them as theologians, and who are in turn hence capable of elevating their students to such lofty positions also. As far as Orthodoxy is concerned, however, nothing could be further from the Truth—and here I refer to the Person of Truth, the etymological referent of Theology, He who is Theos and Logos—the Word who is God.

The comparative confusion between theology and the genre of academic discipline, undoubtedly exists by virtue of a misinterpretation of the function and purpose of a certain commonality, viz., scholarship—the interaction between rationale and language, in the pursuit of knowledge. That such is certainly not per se opposed to authentic theology, is implied by Clement of Alexandria, who, in the second century, responds to critics of his scholarly methods—those who, thinking themselves to be faithful, believed “that one ought to have nothing to do either with philosophy or with dialectic or even to apply oneself to the study of the universe. They advocate faith pure and simple, as if they were to refuse to labor on a vine and wanted immediately to pick the grapes.”1

At this point, however, we must introduce the first fundamental difference we impinge on when undergoing a comparative analysis between theology and other subjects of scholarship. This difference is epistemological, and relates to the fact that theological truths are not—precisely because they cannot be—arrived at merely through human faculties and academic instruments and methods. Theology is primarily a gift from above rather than an achievement from below. It is God’s graciously endowed revelation to man as expressed through His creation ex nihilo, His providence, and in its most ultimate and intimate form, the Incarnation of His Son. It thus follows that even a parallel between theology and philosophy, which loosely holds according to their mutual concern for matters pertaining to God, quickly crumbles insofar as “[t]heology starts from a fact: revelation,”2 whereas philosophy generally begins with ideas and hypotheses, and then delves into speculative theories.

There consequently arises a methodological difference between the theological pursuit and that of the sciences; theology must have “prayer as its incentive power,”3 for it is through prayer that man enters into communion with God, Who, being the only stable and infallible source of Truth, must be the foundation of all theological pursuits. Thus, whilst defending the integrity of scholarship, Clement of Alexandria nevertheless stressed that “the man of knowledge prays continually in his mind as he is joined to God by love.”4 This further stands theology apart from the sciences in comparison, insofar as spirituality is intrinsic to the former, whilst being independent to the latter. The intrinsic character of spirituality to theology is further reinforced by Evagrius’s maxim that, “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian,” as well as Gregory the Theologian’s criterion that only those who are “past masters of contemplation”5 are fit to theologise. This uniquely theological methodology may be classified as apophatic, for it is in the silence of contemplation in which revelation is received, that theological truth is present in all its fullness.6

In contrast to the sciences, the illuminating force of human thought is not that of the Enlightenment or the Renaissance, or any other such “false lights” which are themselves but products of human thought, but rather Christ the True Light. Our entire mode of thought is thus distinguished from that of the sciences; as Vladimir Lossky states, “[i]t is a matter of the internal reconstruction of our faculties of knowing”7 through the conditioning presence of the Holy Spirit, for authentic theological thought “does not include, does not seize, but finds itself included and seized, mortified and vivified by contemplative faith.”8 Nevertheless, regardless of the futility of the philosophical method in directing one towards true knowledge of God, the “God of the philosophers takes His place in the reality of the living God.”9

In this context, and in contrast to the pursuit of the sciences whereupon a sense of self-pride and arrogant ambition often potentially follows academic advancement and intellectual progression, our theological pursuit, as one contingent upon the gratuitous grace of God, is one that is undertaken within a context of humility—a humility which addresses Christ in fear and trembling, praying, “may the light of your countenance be signed upon us.”

Given the distinct primary spiritual dimension of theology—scholarship being but a mere instrument of its articulation and expression—in contrast to the sciences, it follows that theology’s accessibility is not limited to persons on account of their academic credentials, professional expertise, or intellectual prestige, as is the case with other subjects of scholarship. Theology is, in the words of His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos, “not the work or privilege of the few, the elect or dedicated ones but the breath of the entire body of the Church.”10 The way in which those who are not able to understand theology as it is systematically exposited, and hence its linguistic intricacies, line of logic, presuppositions, and corollaries, contribute to the work of theology, is, according to His Eminence’s analogy, in the same manner that, in a battle, “the entire army takes part in the fight, and each person contributes from his position towards the final outcome, without everyone knowing the strategic plan that imposes the commands of the officers to the soldiers.”11

Here we arrive at another comparative wedge between theology and the sciences, as we consider their over-arching goal. According to His Eminence, there are two fundamental ends to the theologising mission of the Church: “the glory of God and the Salvation of the world.”12 This stands in stark contrast to the typical scientific pursuit, which, as implied by the etymology of the Greek term for science, episteme (which is comprised of the Greek preposition for “upon”—epi, and the Greek verb for “to stand”—h’is-he-mi), is stand upon—in the sense of mastering or acquiring a complete grasp of—its object; an implication impossible to impute upon theology for three fundamental reasons.

The first is that such would be tantamount to stripping God of His majestic transcendence in deeming Him capable of being grasped by the human mind, which in effect is tantamount to deeming God to not be God, according to the maxim of Evagrius of Pontus: “If God could be grasped by man, he would not be god.”13

The second reason is that God is not in the first place an object who is a priori defined by a presupposed nature and method of research, but rather, as implied earlier by the brief comments pertaining to God being the foundation of the theological pursuit, God “is the subject that prejudges absolutely and defines the nature and method of research.”14

Thirdly, the motivating force corresponding to the etymologically implied end-goal of any particular episteme (science), viz. curiosity to discover the unknown X, conflicts with that which seeks the glory of God and the salvation of the world, viz., nostalgia. Nostalgia is the long-suffering desire to journey home to our origin and stability, who far from being the unknown X, is He who is but hidden “in the measure that we cannot know Him,” yet surely known through that which He has revealed.15

Additionally, given that our eschatological perfection—unto which the theologising Church bears the duty of sanctifying the world—lies in our roots, theology bears the element of Tradition, which, in contrast to the tradition of the sciences, serves the principal aim of salvation as opposed to progress.

There is yet another category of scholarship that, in light of everything that has been said of theology thus far (in particular, the understanding that rationalism is not the “true light”), may generally be regarded as comparatively alike to theology—Christian existentialism. However, there are two essential differences which must be accounted for. The first is that the existentialist approach “seems to set aside the redemptive work of Jesus Christ,”16 and the second, which flows from the first, is that it admits the notions of freedom and responsibility to an absolute degree to man.17 According to authentic theology, the redemptive work of Christ is a necessary presupposition for theologising, and so simply cannot be set aside. “[T]he Incarnation,” says Vladimir Lossky, “reveals and it constitutes revelation itself. To think theological is not to think of this revelation, but to think by means of it.”18 The Incarnation restored the accessibility of the knowledge of God to man, which had been lost by virtue of the corruption of his faculties of knowing according to the ancestral sin, through the “renewal of human nature which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection. This renewal was also a renewal of human reason and of the human spirit. That meant again the renewal of man’s vision.”19

Flowing from the salvific goal of theology is its qualification as a pastoral service, as opposed to the other subjects of scholarship which generally involve a mere educational service. After receiving spiritual knowledge through the purity of prayer in the state of silence, the theologian’s duty is to break out of silence and articulate and express the revealed truths. This kataphatic aspect of theology, nevertheless differs from that of the other sciences, according to its being contingent upon the presupposition of the Incarnation, which in turn broke the silence of the Father, for “[s]ince the Word has incarnated Himself, the Word can be thought.” Consequently, theology’s mission is defined by another unique element, doxology, which itself is “inextricably bound to worship.”20

Though, in comparison to the sciences, the essence of theology, as living experience of the mystery of the sacred truths of the Trinity translated, not only into dogmatic formulations, but even the cough of an old lady expressing the human dependency upon the grace of God, transcends, it would be to defy its doxological and soteriological function, were it to snobbishly ignore the other sciences suffering from the poverty of secular methodology and a false over-emphasis on rationalism. If theology is truly to “address the needs of the time,” it must recognise the potential for the other sciences to “shape the present and form the future,”21 in their ability to “influence people in the way they think about themselves, about the world they live in, and about the meaning and purpose of their existence.”22 Theology must bend down from its heights, and interact with the other sciences by bringing “the insights of her theological tradition into all manner and level of discussions that deal with the nature, meaning, the purpose and the future of human life and of all existence.”23 As much as the Church is able to theologise in the present, according to grace of God who endows man with nobility to co-work with Him, we must be reminded of the final transcendental element of theology distinguishing it from all academic disciplines: its eschatological element. The present language of the sciences will not remain for eternity, yet theology not only penetrates time as the language of the eighth day, but furthermore finds its completion and fullest expression there.

1Stromata 1:9:43:1

2Vladimir Lossky, “Faith and Theology,” in Introduction to Theology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1986), 18.

3Archbishop Stylianos, “Theology and Life,” in Voice of Orthodoxy, 7 (1986): 58.

4Quoted in Eric Francis Osborn, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43.

5Five Theological Orations, trans. Frederick Williams (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2002).

6Georges Florovsky, “Revelation, Philosophy and Theology,” in Creation and Redemption, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company, 1976), 30.

7Vladimir Lossky, “Faith and Theology,” in Introduction to Theology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1986), 17.

8Lossky, op. cit., 14.

9ibid., 20.

10Archbishop Stylianos, op. cit.

11op. cit., 70.

12ibid., 58.

13Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2003), 11.

14Archbishop Stylianos, “Lecture notes (unpublished) for Introduction to Theology,” in Introduction to Theology Course Guide, 3.


16Stanley Harakas, “Doing Theology Today,” in Pro Ecclesia, 6 (2002): 450.

17Archbishop Stylianos, op. cit., 4.

18op. cit., 18.

19Florovsky, op. cit., 28.

20Alkiviades Calivas, “Theology and Theologians: An Orthodox Perspective,” in Theological Literacy for the Twenty-First Century. ed. Rodney Peterson (Michigan: William B. Eerdemans Publishing Company, 2002), 26.

21ibid., 35

22ibid., 37

23ibid., 36