Theological Education in the Twenty-First Century
Theological education really is at the heart of the Christian faith, going back to the mandate of Christ himself: “go, therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). When we hear this great commission, our attention is usually captured by the words go and baptize, although in Greek these are participles—going/baptizing. It is, however, the phrase “make disciples” that is in the imperative: this is what we are to do, with the going and baptizing being the concomitant activities. Moreover, the phrase “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε) is not simply a matter of making new followers: it is a matter of teaching, making students (μαθηταί), students of the Word. And this, furthermore, is not simply a matter of passing on information, making better educated Christians. The woman fleeing into the wilderness, described in the book of Revelation (12), is, according to Hippolytus, the Church, and her child is the Christ, “whom,” he says, “the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations” (AntiChrist 61: ὃν ἀεὶ τίκουσα ἡ ἐκκλησία διδάσκει πάντα τὰ ἔθνη). The Church gives birth to Christ in the act of teaching! Theological education has a high calling indeed!
Learning, then, it unfortunately has to be said, is essential for all Christians: we pray in the liturgy for “growth in life and faith and spiritual understanding.” And yet, we prefer to spend our time studying anything else—politics, sports, economics, etc.—and then wonder why our faith too often remains in a childish state. But that is [End Page 1] not my topic for today. Rather, my topic is more specifically the higher level of theological education, preparing those who would be teachers. For, as the Apostle said, for equipping the saints and building the body, God has given some to be apostles, other prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11–12): “pastors” and “teachers” go together as a single office, not distinct roles or even separate activities (something to which I will return). What then is involved in such theological education, the preparation of those called to be teachers/pastors? There are two main points I would like to make.
I: THE TASK OF THEOLOGY/THEOLOGY AS TASK
It has become ever more borne in upon me over the last decades, that the task of education is not to enable students to answers questions that arise today, but to be able to respond to those that will be raised in decades to come, as they mature over the decades, in their own vocation. If the questions that address us today are difficult, in ways unimaginable only a few years ago, they will assuredly be even more difficult as the world changes at an increasing rapid rate. There is, then, a prophetic element to theological education. But to accomplish this, we have to be very clear about what the task of theological education is. Simply put: it is not about conveying information, but rather forming theologians, ones who can speak in new and unforeseen contexts.
Theological education does, of course, involve learning a lot, and indeed all sort of disciplines. Some are more academic, such as the study of Scripture, the Fathers/Patristics, history, systematics, liturgy, canon law, iconology, and the languages needed for this. Others are more pastoral, dealing with issues in pastoral ministry, counseling in various matters, sickness, old age, death and bereavement, addiction and so on, often involving extensive field work. And others still more practical, such as rubrics, music, public speaking, and preaching. However, in a very real sense none of this is yet theology: each discipline can be, and is, taught by others, but not as theology. In fact, each of these disciplines—scriptural exegesis, patristics, liturgy, systematics, or dogmatics, and the others—have now become disciplines in their own right, resulting in the fragmentation of the singular discipline of theology. Borrowing from Edward Farley, one could say, in admittedly broad strokes, that for the first millennium and more, theology was pursued by the contemplative reading of Scripture in the context of the school of liturgy and in the tradition of the Fathers.1 But during the course of the second millennium, this paedeia fell apart in both East and West: the practice of sacra pagina became the discipline of sacra doctrina, in which passages of Scripture were accumulated in support of dogmatic points, points that then took on a life of their own, as building blocks for dogmatic theology, resulting in handbooks [End Page 2] of dogmatic or systematic theology, which in turn provided the categories used in the study of church history and the Fathers. And in this way, the study of Scripture began to proceed along other lines altogether, primarily, if not often exclusively, in a purely historically oriented manner. Similarly, liturgy is now primarily studied as the history of liturgical practice, rarely if ever exploring, for instance, the use of Scripture within hymnography as its own mode of scriptural exegesis.
With this fragmentation of the discipline of theology into numerous discrete fields, those charged with theological education have focused on the curriculum as a means of setting these different disciplines, each with their own demands, alongside one another into a manageable package, while the coherence of theological education, as teaching theology, is rarely addressed. This has the effect, however, of reducing the teaching of theology to the imparting of certain bits of information or, as is increasingly the case, certain skills (leadership, financial, people-management, etc.). Information and skills are, of course important, and the curriculum is likewise and always in need of revision. But to understand theological education we must go further and deeper, and be clear about the nature of theology itself. Theology is not simply a matter of handing down information, a static set of propositions, as if teachers of theology were simply UPS delivery persons, handing over a package without having contributed anything to that package themselves. That is simply false and misunderstands the nature of theology.
It is false, as even a simple reflection on the past century shows. Over the course of the twentieth century, Orthodoxy underwent a renaissance in many ways: liturgical (revival of eucharistic participation), spiritual (the revival of interest in the Jesus Prayer), iconography (the rediscovery of more ancient styles of iconography), and especially theology and its teaching. Although the roots of this renaissance lie earlier—in the Kollyvades movement on Mt. Athos and Paisius Velichkovsky in Moldavia in the eighteenth century, and the Optina Fathers in Russia in the nineteenth century, and the Moscow Council of 1917/18—the context for this flowering of this renaissance in the twentieth century was largely the West. It was here, in the West, that émigré theologians felt free to shake off the shackles of what Fr. Georges Florovsky famously described as the “Western Captivity” of Orthodox theology, that is, what was a very scholastic form of theology and its teaching in the preceding centuries in the East. It was, he said, borrowing from Spengler, a pseudomorphosis of its true nature, into an alien form. But now, in the West, liberated from the Western Captivity, Florovsky and others entered upon a vigorous and highly productive new era of the rediscovery of Orthodox theology’s true roots, done largely by returning to the Fathers (as many other in the West were also doing), and carried out in new institutional contexts, most notably St. Sergius’ Institute in Paris, and then St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York and Holy Cross in Brookline [Massachusetts].
The style of Orthodoxy theology developed in this way became all but ubiquitous in the latter part of the twentieth century, so much so, that it is simply assumed to be the Orthodox tradition of theology. But, given the disjunction between this renewed vision of theology and the previous centuries—a disjunction inscribed in [End Page 3] the very proclamation of its renaissance—theologians knew that they could not simply claim that all they were doing was handing down untouched what had been handed down to them! And so they insisted that, in the characteristically elegant words of Metropolitan Kallistos, tradition is not simply repetition but a “creative fidelity,”2 words that thereafter, however, were merely, and frequently, repeated, and which have more recently morphed, as George Demacopoulos has pointed out, into the odd (and untraditional—sectarian even—phrase!) “traditional orthodoxy.”3
To say then that teachers simply hand down, without any contribution, what they have received is simply false. It is also, as I said, fundamentally misguided in regard to the nature of the discipline of theology. Reflecting a little more on the renewed form of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century will take us further into understanding the discipline. The fruit of the return to the Fathers in the past century was most often expressed in terms of a “neo-patristic synthesis,” drawing together various elements of the Fathers into a synthesis presenting the Orthodox dogmatic or systematic theology. This was done primarily from the perspective of the end, or the high point, of patristic theology, with the figure of St. Gregory Palamas. And so the neo-patristic synthesis regularly took the form of a “neo-Palamism,” for which we now have the wonderful new study by Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age:4 neo because Palamas himself was not taught in Orthodox ecclesiastical institutions in the preceding centuries; in many ways, in fact, this “neo-Palamism” stood alongside the “neo-Thomism,” as a means of self-differentiation in the common task, engaged in by both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, of returning to the Fathers. One could perhaps also consider the striving for a neo-patristic synthesis as a historically situated example of modernity’s desire for a “systematic” theology, for such systematization is not characteristic of the first millennium, it is a modern phenomenon.
Rather than “synthesis,” a better word, I would suggest, to adapt an image of St. Irenaeus, is symphony. To use technical language, a symphony is synchronically and diachronically polyphonous, that is, it is comprised of different voices at any one moment and throughout time, each lending themselves to the melody being played, with different timbres and tonalities, inflections and themes, and each in turn being shaped by the symphony. Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, have different voices, despite being brothers and despite our predilection for speaking of “Cappadocian” theology as if it were a monolithic whole. Neither are St. Irenaeus in the second century and St. Maximus in the seventh identical; although there are strikingly similar themes, they are played out with very different vocabularies and philosophical frameworks. Yet, all these figures were each part of the same [End Page 4] symphony, with all the diachronic and synchronic diversity that this entails. A symphony does not reduce each voice to a monotony, nor to a consensus (as the lowest common denominator): each voice in its full particularity contributes to the polyphonous nature of the symphony. Speaking theologically, moreover, this symphony is not, therefore, constructed by any individual voice, or all the voices together, but is governed by its own rhythm and rules, so that, to use Irenaeus’ words, it is God who “harmonizes the human race to the symphony of salvation.”5
Reading the Fathers “symphonically” in this way, then, attunes us to the melody that is theology. But rehearsing the symphony, as it has been played to this date, is not yet, however, to do theology. If one wants to take part in a symphony one must read the score of the earlier movements, especially the earliest where the symphony is first given shape; but theology proper begins only when, having read attentively through the score of earlier movements, we take our own part in the ongoing symphony. We don’t read the earlier score simply to stockpile quotations to buttress what we think we already know; rather, we rehearse the symphony so that we ourselves can be harmonized into the symphony, and so take our own part today, to sing in that symphony with new voices, with themes and movements that might well be different than what went before, yet part of the same symphony—for we must sing in the present, addressing the concerns of the present and using the language of the present, if we are going to have anything to say and any hope of being heard.
A further question then arises (perhaps the response to this will be the movement of the symphony of theology in the twenty-first century): how we are able to hear the diverse voices of the Fathers as a symphony, rather than a cacophony? This question takes us deeper into the issue I raised before: that of the coherence of the discipline of theology as theology. To keep with the theme of symphony, I would suggest that this is possible (perhaps only possible?) if we return to the idea of the “canon” as it was expressed in the early centuries. According to Clement of Alexandria: “The ecclesiastical canon is the harmony and symphony of the law and the prophets in covenant delivered at the coming of the Lord.”6 The canon, the guiding rule, for theology is this symphony and harmony of the law and the prophets (what we now call, misleadingly, the “Old Testament”) delivered in the coming of Christ. This is exemplified by Christ himself, on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), when he opens the Scriptures to show how Moses and all the prophets spoke of how the Christ had to suffer to enter into his glory, and was then known in the breaking of the bread, only to disappear from sight (for we are now his Body). These two points—the opening of the Scriptures, so showing how they speak about the crucified and risen Christ, and the breaking of the bread—are, importantly, the only two elements for which the apostle Paul uses the technical and authorizing formula: I delivered (or “traditioned”) to you what I received (1 Cor. 11:23 and 15:3-5)—this is what is “traditioned” by the heavenly apostle, and it is given as an ongoing task. scriptural exegesis and liturgy form a common [End Page 5] unity, regulated by the same canon, guiding the contemplative reading of Scripture in the school of liturgy, which is then reflected upon, articulated, in different ways in different epochs. The Apostle, although not using the word canon, points to the same demand, when he urges Timothy to “hold on to the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). Too often today, however, theology has become the patter of familiar words!
In other words, if we want to understand the coherence of theology as theology, we don’t start at the end (or with what we think of as a high point, such as Palamas, as he came to be read and valued in the last century), but rather we must, as Polycarp put it, “return to the Word delivered in the beginning,”7 and so learn to speak the language of theology. For, as Rowan Williams reminds us, “Theology . . . is perennially tempted to be seduced by the prospect of bypassing the question of how it learns its own language.”8 It should also be noted that when the appeal to the “canon” was first made in early Christianity, it was not as a set of informational propositions that must simply be maintained, repeated, without our rearticulation in our own context. The word canon rather means a guideline, a straight line. As Aristotle already pointed out, unless we have a straight line, we cannot determine what is straight and what is crooked. The point of a canon (and later the creeds) is not to curtail thought—to mark out what is untouchable dogma, and what is heresy, and perhaps leaving a grey area for thinking or speculation (the so-called theologoumena). No, the point of a canon is not to stymie or delimit thinking, but to make thinking possible! Without a canon, a rule or a regula—without a straight line—we would not be able to think at all. Each area of thought needs its own canon, its guideline, regulating its discourse, and, as I’ve suggested, for Christian theology this is the opening of the Scriptures in the light of Christ’s Passion and the breaking of bread in and through which we become his Body. The point of the canon, once again, is not to stymie thought or reflection, but to make it possible, and not simply as a possible enterprise which we might or might not take up, but one which we must take up as a task—the task of theology: we must be ready to give a good account of our hope to all who ask, as the apostle Peter demands of us (1 Pet. 3:15). It is for this freedom that we have been set free (Gal. 5:15), to be able to respond to our own situation as part of the ongoing symphony of theology.
It is sometimes suggested that responding to, or even listening to, questions raised today is dangerous, and that dialogue contaminates and leads to distortion. Well, it is not as dangerous as stopping thinking, that for which the canon is there to make possible! Nor is it as dangerous as letting our own psychological baggage define what we think the symphony to be. There is a definite ascetic dimension of theology, as there is in any academic disciple, allowing our own presuppositions to be brought to light and exposed for what they are: we are to be harmonized into the symphony, so as to be able to sing in the present, rather than redefine that symphony according to our own psychological baggage, our own bruises or fears (as too often happens).
If we start from this idea of canon, guiding the formation of theological discourse, then we can then see the modern fragmentation of theology into a number [End Page 6] of discrete fields, that I mentioned earlier, not as a cause for lament, but as an opportunity for being enriched, for it has resulted in a phenomenal amount of scholarship expended in each field, erudite volumes produced, and a depth of knowledge attained. And in this way—through disciplined, rigorous, academic study, to the highest level that we are capable of—the spell of a monotonous harmonization of history in a fixed “synthesis,” constructed from our own place in history, is broken, and we can begin to hear again each historical witness faithfully, and so be more fully harmonized into that symphony.
What we have before us, then, or rather behind us, is a history of concrete, historically situated Christians, bearing witness to, and embodying, their faith in Christ until he comes again, a witness now embodied in texts and available to us as texts, understood in context of liturgy. As such the site of the theologian is both undoubtedly historical/hermeneutical and inescapably exegetical: standing between the definitive act of God in Christ and his return, patiently and dialogically learning to hear the Word of God, to encounter the risen Christ, in the opening of the Scripture and the breaking of the bread in a history of witnesses to this encounter and a tradition of such practices, and in so doing, become harmonized to the symphony they have sung, to be able to sing our own part today.
II: THEOLOGY AS TRANSFORMATIVE VISION
The second main point I would like to make is that the task of theology is transformation: transforming our vision so that we ourselves might be transformed. Teaching theology is not simply a matter of handing down informational propositions, but the task of transforming our vision so as to see everything in the light of Christ. Take, for example, the figure of the martyr Blandina, put to death in the arena in the late second century: she was a young female slave, the weakest of the weak in the ancient world, but therefore also the supreme vessel of the power of God, for his strength, as Christ tells Paul, is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Writing about her trials, Irenaeus reports how the guards, after assailing her for days, admitted that they were defeated, while she remained steadfast. Then finally, she was hung upon a stake, offered as food for the wild beasts. St. Irenaeus continues:
She, by being seen hanging in the form of a cross, by her vigorous prayer, caused great zeal in the contestants, as, in their struggle, they beheld with their outward eyes, through the sister, him who was crucified for them, so that he might persuade those who believe in him that everyone who suffers for the glory of Christ has for ever communion with the living God.9 [End Page 7]
Not only is she the supreme vessel of the power of God, but now, in her departure, she embodies Christ himself. But note, it is only those contestants in the arena alongside her who are able to look upon her and see the Him who was crucified for them, not those in seats of the amphitheater, who would only have seen a young girl butchered for their amusement: we must be in the arena, not onlookers in the stands. To be more accurate, however, it is the author of the letter, St. Irenaeus, with his theological vision—grounded in the canon, the opening of the Scriptures in the light of Christ to see Christ, and so understand the whole economy of God from beginning to end, from Adam to Christ, from male and female to a living human being in the stature of Christ—who is able to look at this scene of brutality and carnage and see the very embodiment of Christ himself in Blandina, and by doing he so enable us now to see her today as the embodiment of Christ, something we likely would not have seen had we been there on the day. He has given us a verbal icon of the martyr, not simply a photograph.
It is in this transformation of vision that resides the pastoral dimension and power of theology. When we speak of pastoral theology, we cannot allow it to be reduced to that which is taught by those in the field of, say, social work, any more than we can allow more abstract aspects of theology, such as systematics, to avoid its pastoral dimension—that would take us back to the problem of fragmentation. Rather, the pastoral dimension of theology, as a unified discipline, lies in opening our minds, in the light of Christ, to a full theological vision and so be able to communicate that transformed and transforming vision to others. What we see, when we look with a theologically shaped vision, is expressed best by Paul in his letter to the Romans (8:19–24):
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
The chaos, suffering, pain, decay, and death, which fill the world in which we live, in fact, in the light of Christ, turn out to be birth-pangs of creation, laboring in travail, giving birth to the children of God.
And this, in turn, offers a more expansive vision of the Church and the task of evangelism. As Irenaeus continues his account of Blandina, he describes how she, and a young man called Attulus, were finally put to death. In his words:
Through their continued life the dead were made alive, and the martyrs showed favor to those who had failed to witness. And there was great joy for the Virgin [End Page 8] Mother in receiving back alive those who she had miscarried as dead. For through them the majority of those who had denied were again brought to birth and again conceived and again brought to life and learned to confess; and now living and strengthened, they went to the judgment seat.10
The Church is the Mother of martyrs, those who, through their witness, become living human beings.
This maternal dimension of the Church, such a pervasive feature of early Christian theology, is, however, something that is strikingly absent from modern ecclesiology. Over the past century, ecclesiology has primarily been seen in terms of the Eucharist—where the Eucharist is, there is the Church—one of the fruits of the twentieth-century renaissance of theology. But this eucharistic ecclesiology has, I would argue, subtly morphed into an episcopal ecclesiology: evidence for this is the way in which the words of St. Ignatius are frequently misquoted: “Where the bishop is there is the Catholic Church.” What he in fact says is: “where the bishop is let the people be present, just as where Christ is there is the Catholic Church.”11 In so morphing, our ecclesiological questions have come in turn to focus ever more on territory and hierarchy, and evangelism is similarly understood as a kind of religious or cultural imperialism, extending the borders of our institutions and increasing our membership.
To return to the text with which I began, if our task is Christ’s injunction to “make students,” with “going” and “baptizing” being the concomitant activities, and if teaching theology, as I have tried to outline in this talk, is the task of transforming our vision to the point where we can see, with Paul, the whole of creation as groaning in travail, giving birth to the children of God, living human beings who in their witness/martyria embody or incarnate Christ, so that the Church is, as Hippolytus put it, always giving birth to Christ, then we will have a much more expansive vision of the Church, and a much higher understanding of the task of theology.
III: CONTEXT: INSTITUTIONS
A third point I would like to briefly touch upon is institutional context. I mentioned earlier that the renaissance of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century was bound up with the founding of new educational institutions, some seventy years ago or so. These were the primary institutions within which Orthodox theologians, almost exclusively, worked and taught in the past century. Over the last decades, however, there has come to be an increasing number of Orthodox theologians (and Orthodox scholars in other related disciplines) working in the universities and colleges, in [End Page 9] academia more generally, and, indeed, Orthodox centers established, most notably of course the Center here at Fordham University.
Some have cast this in oppositional terms: that Orthodox scholars working in the broader academy are, somehow, working outside the bounds of the Church, engaged more freely in what some call speculative theology, as opposed to the seminaries, which, as ecclesial institutions, are bound more to churchly theology. But this really is a false opposition, and one which in fact betrays vision of those who founded the Orthodox theological schools in the West. What could be called the founding charter of these schools is found in the report for the Church in Russia on theological education in America, written in 1913 by then Fr. Leonty Turkevich (at that time the dean of the school in Tenafly NJ; later the Metropolitan of the Metropolia and the Dean/Rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary).12 Rather than the division of theological education as had been the case in Russia, between the seminaries, which were focused on preparing country parish priests, and the academies, where higher education was given to those who were preparing to become leaders in the ecclesial administration, Leonty outlined, with a truly prophetic voice, what should be the characteristics of theological education in the New World, a world in which, as he put it: ‘The American Orthodox Church [would be] the avant-garde of Orthodoxy in general and the theological school of the local Church [would be] a serious avant-post of Orthodoxy”.13 To carry out this high role, he insisted, it is necessary that there be, in America, theological scholarship of the highest level, because, as he put it, a priest serving in this country “does not have the right to refuse a decent basic answer about the significance, aims, and problems of the Church as well as the true relationship of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodoxy.”14 Without this “serious theological foundation,” our work, he continued, “will always be likened to a sectarian game.”15 And with even greater insight, he insisted that such education would have to transcend the opposition between pastoral and academic, practical and scholarly, uniting both of these necessary activities to provide what he called an “apostolic type” of formation.16
Having reflected further this evening on the nature and task of theology, we can perhaps have a fuller understanding of the kind of formation, and ministry, that he was talking about. To reduce theological education to anything less is to betray its high calling, and to fall into sectarianism. That Orthodox theology is being taught outside the seminaries, in universities and colleges, sometimes with their own centers, is not a cause for concern or castigation, but for rejoicing; it is evidence of its vitality. That Orthodoxy theologians are willing to tackle contemporary concerns and issues, with the creative fidelity that Metropolitan Kallistos wrote of, not as repetition, but as a new stage in the symphony of theology should be celebrated, using the [End Page 10] words of the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer: “with boldness and without condemnation’ (though there is too often too much of the latter!). What kind of institutions there will be for teaching theology in the future remains to be seen: institutions come and go, as history teaches us, especially when they betray their mission and identity, what will not disappear, however, is the tradition, the symphony, of theology. [End Page 11]
This essay was originally delivered as the 2020 Orthodoxy in America Lecture hosted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University. My thanks to President McShane and to Professors George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, and all those involved with the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, for the invitation, and to Anne Glynn-Mackoul for her very kind and touching words of introduction. It is an especially welcome opportunity for me at this time, as it gives me an occasion to reflect on my work over the past quarter of a century, at a moment of transition to a different context.
1. E. Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994).
2. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (London: Penguin, 1993), 198 (this comment was already in the first edition in 1963).
3. George Demacopoulos, ‘“Traditional Orthodoxy’ as a Postcolonial Movement,” Journal of Religion 97.4 (2017): 475–99.
4. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
5. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, 4.14.2.
6. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 22.214.171.124.
7. St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Letter to the Philippians, 7.
8. Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 131.
9. “The Letter of the Christians of Vienne and Lyons to Those in Asia and Phrygia,” probably written by St. Irenaeus, is preserved in Eusbius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.1, here 5.1.41.
10. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.1.46.
11. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8. It is not good to miss out the people and Christ!
12. Leonty Turkevich, “Theological Education in America,” SVTQ n.s. 9.2 (1965), 59–67.
13. Ibid., 61.
14. Ibid., 62.
16. Ibid., 65.