St. John the Theologian Orthodox Seminary
Your Eminence, Archbishop Leo, Venerable Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Students and Seminarians, Beloved in Christ:
It is a great joy for me to be with you today during my first official visit as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America to the Orthodox Church in Finland. It is also a great privilege to have the opportunity to speak on the topic of Orthodox theological education. This topic is very close to my heart. For over 40 years I have been directly involved in the life and work of St. Tikhon’s Seminary as professor and Rector. Since my election as Metropolitan I have also been ex-officio the president of our three seminaries in America.
For me theological education is fundamental for the ongoing development of the Church’s work throughout the world. Theological education is vital for the Church to engage, assess and transform the culture in which it sojourns. Hence, theological education is a concern not only for the Academies and seminaries but also for every faithful member of the local body of Christ. For it is in the local parish that theology finds its evangelical voice and vocation. Through the local parish Christ and the world encounter each other. And it is the local parish as a center of theological and spiritual activity that is responsible for continuing the ministry of our Lord here and now.
Given the relationship between theology and the Church’s missionary imperative, I want to focus our attention on three interconnected and therefore interdependent aspects of theological education within the context of the Academy and or Seminary. Each aspect is necessary for the formation of a comprehensive theological curriculum as well as the necessary formation of teacher and student. Each aspect has an impact on the quality of life generated within the local church and its ability to properly function within the world.
I. Theology and Life
The way theology is conveyed and studied cannot be separated from life. For many, including professional historians and theologians, the study of theology, particularly in the Academies and Universities, is often perceived and understood as the investigation of controversies and developments of Christian antiquity. Yet, for us, the study of antiquity is but the starting point for discerning the interaction between God and humanity which continues to this very moment. Texts, events and personalities witness to this interaction and require a response in the present.
Theological education is bound to life. It is necessary for life. It provides the means by which the relationship between God and humanity can be best articulated. Theological education, because it is nurtured and sustained by the Holy Spirit is life giving and life forming. For this reason it cannot be confined to the classroom. Here we can benefit by the wisdom of the venerable Father Georges Florovsky who, in an article on ecclesiology, stressed over fifty years ago that any discussion about the Church needs to move from the classroom and return back to the temple. We can use this advice as we discuss theological education and its spiritual and intellectual components since it is within the temple that theology is best expressed and manifested as the celebration of new and eternal life. When theological education becomes separated from the temple and therefore from the life of the local church it becomes an artifact that has the elusive past as its only point of reference.
In my experience as a seminary professor one of the most dangerous reductions of a theological education that I have witnessed has been its divorce from life. How easy it is to turn Orthodox theology into an academic discipline as well as an academic career without spiritual moorings. While our Academies and Seminaries must demand academic excellence, the curriculum they offer must be based on the spiritual life. There is the need to instill in the professors and students the fundamental idea that the study of Scripture, history, liturgy, patristics, and dogmatics cannot be separated from seeking after the “kingdom of heaven and its righteousness.” Academic excellence cannot be allowed to stand apart from acquiring the Holy Spirit. To understand theology or theological education as something parallel to the life in Christ inevitably creates a discipline which in turn manipulates the words proper to God into becoming a false theology. This false theology, resulting from an alien spirituality, abandons its evangelical thrust by replacing human salvation and transfiguration with the illusions of social and political utopias.
The spiritual and intellectual formation of the Orthodox theologian is grounded in the ascetical discipline of the Church. Asceticism seeks to counter a self centered and self-serving life with one that seeks to love and serve Christ and neighbor. The ascetic ordeal rooted in repentance, prayer, fasting and the reordering of the passions is best summed up by Saint John the Baptist: Christ “must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn.3:30). These words capture so well the life of the ascetic theologian. They express a way of life that ultimately allows the mind and heart to participate in the creative activity of the Holy Spirit. The outcome of this creativity is a living and true theology that can reach out and respond to the new questions and challenges of the twenty first century. Science, technology, globalization, national and world politics, the suffering and termination of the unprotected and innocent, human sexuality and the abuse of the environment are beckoning the Orthodox Church and therefore Orthodox theology to enter the fray of modernity.
II. Theology and Mission
I have already referred to the relationship of theology and its relation to evangelization. Here I want to develop this relationship by first stating that the missionary aspect of Orthodox theology continues to be undermined by ethnic chauvinism. Until it becomes clear to the Orthodox themselves that every local parish is by definition a missionary community and responsible for offering the Gospel to all people theology will remain separated from life.
Because theology seeks to proclaim the Gospel in time and space it has by its very nature a missionary and evangelical quality. This means that Orthodox theology cannot be the possession of a particular people. It is universal in scope offering the saving and transforming power of Christ’s Gospel to all nations. Our history teaches us that as the Church sojourned in time and space it used the culture of empires and nations to articulate a living theology. This is certainly the method employed by the Church Fathers. Knowing the language, art, philosophy, science and politics of their time, they were able to convey the Gospel to people of varying intellectual and social backgrounds. They were able to proclaim Christ who is the “same yesterday, today and for ever” (Heb.13:8) using the cultural tools that were at their disposal.
Today Orthodox schools of higher learning, especially our Academies and Seminaries, are to promote and develop the patristic method of using the culture for the proclamation of the Gospel. Because they knew their culture well, the Fathers were able to interact with its prevailing ethos. They were able to draw the knowledge of their surroundings into a vibrant ascetical spirituality which enabled them to communicate the Gospel freely and openly.
A theology separated from the culture is ultimately a theology separated from the people. To respond to the culture, especially the challenges posed by the rapid development of science and technology, theology is compelled to creatively interact with its environment so as not to fall into a cultural vacuum. The voice of the Gospel and therefore the voice of Orthodox theology will be heard only when the theologian truly knows his audience.
While the missionary thrust of theology is directed towards the world, there is the ongoing need to educate the faithful. Sermons, bible studies, church school curricula and publications need to raise the level of awareness—need to open the minds and hearts of all the faithful. Theological education has the task of instilling in those who would preach and teach the desire to challenge and elevate the minds and hearts of the faithful regardless of social and educational backgrounds. Too often theology among the Orthodox is relegated to the ivory tower while what is offered the faithful is of the lowest common denominator. Here we need to remember that Holy Scripture and the subsequent writings of the Fathers were written for the edification of the faithful. The high theological caliber of Saint John’s Gospel, Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans and the treatise “On the Incarnation” by Saint Athanasius were and are for the building up of the local Church and not for the scientific analysis of academicians.
Saint Philaret Drozdov of Moscow reminded his flock that every Christian has the duty to learn. Those who preach, teach and write theology are challenged to stimulate all the baptized to know their faith well. Saint Innocent Veniaminov, first ruling bishop in North America and later Metropolitan of Moscow emphasized that “it is the binding duty of every Christian, when he reaches maturity, to know his faith thoroughly; because anyone who does not have a solid knowledge of his faith is cold and indifferent to it and frequently falls either into superstition or unbelief” (Indication of the Way into the Heavenly Kingdom). This great missionary bishop helps us to see that theology belongs to every one who is a Christian. And therefore it is up to those who have the gift of a formal theological education to cultivate interest and enthusiasm among those seeking Christ; “For God… desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1Tim.2:4).
III. Theology and Pastoral Care
The last part of this address will focus on the relationship between theology and the parish priest. My emphasis on the parish pastor should be understood as a beginning place to foster an ongoing discussion of theology and all the healing ministries of the Church. Throughout this presentation I have made it clear that theology belongs to the faithful. Yet, because it is the parish priest who potentially has the most access and influence when it comes to teaching the local church I limit my comments to his vocation.
By virtue of his place within the Eucharistic community, the pastor is compelled to share the theology of the Church with his flock. Because the pastor lives and works within a specific community he cannot—must not—confine theology to his archives or to his desk. The pastor theologian is to convey to the community of faithful that theology leads one to God’s kingdom. The pastor theologian is to be perceived as a servant who, like the Lord himself, takes on the struggles and burdens of those in his care. In his Great Catechism, Saint Theodore the Studite refers to the heavy responsibility he carries due to those in his care. “For your salvation I have to deliver my frail soul, even shed my blood. According to the words of the Lord, this is the special function of the good and true shepherd. Struggles arise from this, and sadness and anxieties, preoccupation, sleeplessness and despondency.”
These difficult words of the Studite remind us that the pastor is to love and serve the other as he seeks to heal and save the other. In the realm of pastoral care theology offers comfort and hope. Theology brings the dead to life and prepares the living for death. Theology draws the wounded back to the context of the Church’s worship where, in the context of the Divine Liturgy, every one and every thing acquires its proper identity in relationship to the Triune God. In the context of the Eucharistic celebration we are “endowed” here and now “with the kingdom which is to come” (Chrysostom Liturgy).
So long as theology is experienced and taught as that which brings us into the Church—into the saving and transfiguring life in Christ—the missionary mandate will not be ignored or compromised. So long as theology is received as a gift that draws us into the ascetical arena it will continue to build up and fortify the body of Christ. Finally, so long as theology is accepted with thanks and in a spirit of humility the divine uncreated light of the Godhead will continue to transform and deify the human person and his surroundings.