Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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1. Introductory, basic characteristics of Western thought



1. Introductory, basic characteristics of Western thought

There are many who believe that we have been influenced by Western theology. Of course this is something that is easily verified - it has been verified - except that the problem per se begins afterwards, during our attempts to determine what that influence was, what it consists of, in what Western theology differs to Orthodox theology, and of course in what areas and to what extent that influence has reached.

Generally speaking, the distinction between East and West is something that was stressed in recent years, and chiefly by the Slavophiles in Russia.  Slavophiles are a group of theologians of the previous century in Russia (whose main representative was Alexei Khomiakov, a lay theologian), who had reacted chiefly against the innovations that Peter the Great had imposed in Russia, and who had oftentimes excessively stressed that the spirit of the West and the spirit of the East -as they had named it- differ greatly between them (and that this difference renders these two magnitudes irreconcilable). What they tried to show was that "Eastern" -which they related to "Orthodox" and to Orthodox Tradition and "Byzantium"- was far superior to "Western".

In other words, it was not an attempt to merely differentiate between these two mentalities, it was in fact a comparison, an evaluation of the two, a case of clear-cut apologetics in favour of Orthodoxy and opposed to the West.  This happened in Russia. We here in Greece never became aware of this movement. The group of Russian theologians who departed after the Communist revolution of 1917 - the exiled ones, who had gone to Paris mostly and had founded Saint Serge's - had carried with them all this Eastern theology (as it came to be called), which, now planted in the heart of the West, in Paris, gave rise to a contradiction with the West and brought to the fore certain elements that we in Greece had not noticed, because our theology here had basically followed those confessional dogmatics which had Western influences.  It had infiltrated academic theology through Zikos Rossis, Christos Androutsos and the like. The differences between Orthodoxy and the West in these dogmatics were objections related to Roman Catholics, based on arguments that we would take from the Protestants, and objections related to the Protestants based on arguments that were taken from the Roman Catholics. That was mostly how our theology evolved.

This dilemma (of "East" or "West") - this contradiction - was what we had not become aware of. In 1936, when the first meeting of the Orthodox schools of Theology was convened in Athens, this was the issue that was brought up, mainly because present at the meeting was Florovsky, and because the Russians had raised that question. Nowadays, everyone uses it - it is now a common term, ie, that "this is Western", "this is Orthodox"...  And while we use these terms, one discovers that oftentimes, we don't know what we mean by them.

What, then, is that which separates the "Western" from the "Eastern"? In this lesson, that is the question we shall try to shed some light on.

What are the characteristics of Western theology as opposed to those of Eastern theology? In order to find out, we need to go back to the roots of Western thought. Therefore, from one aspect, we need to do some historical work and go back to the Past.  With the help of the Past, we shall then take a look at the Present. By looking into the ecumenical movement, in which Western and Eastern Churches and theologians get together, we shall try to determine how those differences are set out, in what form, and, especially for Western theology which is of interest here, to find out if there are any changes in it today, as compared to the Past, or not.  These questions are most significant for our own self-awareness, and for our contemporary opus in regard to our relations with the heterodox churches.  At this point, we need to make an observation. Father Florovsky stressed something that we must not forget: that inside the ancient Church, there somehow existed a legitimate differentiation between the Western and the Eastern, the Hellenic approach, because to the ancient Church, that is what denotes the East. Furthermore, father Florovsky notes that in order to have the fullness of the Church, it is imperative that we have a coexistence of both these types of approach.

Having made that observation, we can now take a look at what the difference and the characteristics of Western theology are, and to what extent that theology can coexist and be connected within the catholicity of the Church, the way that father Florovsky wants it, with the Hellenic - the Eastern - theology, and from beyond which points the coexistence and composition of the two becomes impossible.

In very broad lines, the phenomenon of Western thought, Western theology, made its appearance very early in time.  Father John Romanides is inclined to see the beginning of these differentiations in the 9th to 10th centuries, with the appearance of the Franks; he is also inclined to name that entire era the "era of Romanity", in the sense of full unity of the Western and the Hellenic elements.  Hellenes are Romans; Romans are Hellenes, therefore we have no differences up until that time. The Franks are the ones who created the problems.

I believe that the differences began much earlier and are interwoven with what we could call "Roman mentality", which, despite the fact that - because of Byzantium - it is the continuation of the Roman Empire and partly of Roman civilization, and, despite the fact that the terms "Roman" and "Hellene" were recognized as equivalent meanings in Byzantium and later, nevertheless, Rome and especially the Latin-speaking Romans (ie, when Rome began to use the Latin tongue), had from the very beginning certain characteristics and certain stances towards matters, which differed greatly from the Hellenic stance.

[COMMENT BY O.O.D.E.: We believe there is no substantial antithesis between what the ever-memorable professor fr.John Romanides maintains, and what the Reverend Metropolitan of Pergamus, fr. John says. They in fact seem to supplement each other:  For as long as Rome had held on to her Romaic-Hellenistic character, she did not present any signs of having lost her Romaic theological orientation.  Not only that, but Rome actually proved to be an "Orthodox Fortress" against heresies.   Her full Latinization was the first part of her decline, which however was completed by the Frankish/barbarian influence - a drama that was completed in the 9th-10th century, with the catalytic presence of the Franks.  The first "tremors" were indeed felt earlier, but the Frankish earthquake was the event that essentially demolished the edifice.]

Danielu wrote a very important book on the principles of Western theology, where he pinpoints certain characteristics of this (clearly Western) Romaic thought, which are different to the Hellenic one.  One characteristic is that a western Roman always puts practical usefulness first, in every matter that might preoccupy him. A classic example to illuminate this is the following:  We have a table in front of us. The fact alone that this table exists will immediately raise questions to a thinking person; he will not bypass it that readily. If that thinker is a Hellene, the problem that the table will pose for him will be: "I wonder what the nature of this table is? What is it that makes it what it is?" This is the famous ontological query of the ancient Hellenes.  The ancient Hellene found himself standing in awe before Nature, which is why he posed such a question. This world around him that dazzled him: how is it explained? What is its principle? What is its meaning? So he sought from within and behind perceptible beings the reason (the "logos") of those beings.  He placed the reason/logos of beings behind those beings, within the beings themselves, and thus worked his way to the meaning of essence and of nature.  Subsequently, for a Hellene, the enquiry pertaining to this table would be: What is the essence, the nature of the table?

In order to comprehend the differences between civilizations - before we get to the Western one - we shall take a look at the Jewish way of thinking (which we can find mainly in the Holy Bible), which is also entirely different.  If a Jew observes the table, he will not seek the reason/logos of the being in the essence or the nature of the table; instead,  the question he will pose -and the issue that will preoccupy him- will be "Who created this table?" "Every house is built by someone, therefore the one who manufactured everything is God" and it cannot be otherwise.  This is a purely Jewish conclusion - and it is a prerequisite. There cannot be a house that was not manufactured by someone.  Thus, that which interests a Jew is "who made it?" Therefore on the question regarding the world, which is the question from which every thinking person begins, the Jew will presuppose a creator - a God - who made it.  The Hellene will seek, within the beings and behind them - within the very principle of beings, whether in the idea or the essence - to find the reason ("logos") for the existence of the table. To the Jew, the reason for existence of the table is is found in the one who made it.  These are the things that shape all of civilization: a different civilization, a different philosophy.

There is also a third category: the one we could call "the Westerner's" - the Roman's (but not the "Rhomios" in the sense of the Hellene with his stance towards beings).  The Roman (the Westerner) would not have been preoccupied with who made the table, or what the reason behind the being is - ie, what the nature of the table is.  What would preoccupy him, is the basic usefulness of the table.  To him, the essence, the ontological aspect, is that it is an object, which we can sit by, to eat or write.  In other words, if a being does not have any practical significance, it will not preoccupy - it will not interest the Westerner.  He will not even bother with the issue of "being".

These three placements clearly exist in the roots of our civilization. And it is from these that many things can be explained in the Anglo-Saxon world; for example, the mentality behind: "Of what use is this? - It serves no purpose, so why should we bother with something that is not useful?"

To the question whether this affects Theology, the answer is Yes, immensely.  Even God Himself is approached with the question if He is useful to us or not. A prayer that brings no results - whether in my soul or in my life - is meaningless. What is important, therefore, is the quest for practical consequences.

Tertullian himself infiltrated the West in general - albeit North African - and if one were to study him, one would definitely discern certain characteristic of the West in him.

The first characteristic is the intense interest in morality, in praxis.  When something is not expressed with praxis, it is as though it doesn't exist.  With someone like a Platonic philosopher, who just sits and observes the movements of the stars and who sees God behind the harmony of the cosmos and in his view of all things, well, this kind of view is not one that stirs the Western man; it does not provide him with the meaning of Theology. The meaning of Theology is found in how religion can be translated into praxis - into morality.

The second element, which is related to the first and may well spring from within it, is the immense interest in History.  The Westerner seeks his own roots, in order to locate the presence of God within History. At this point, at least in Tertullian's time, we can actually see a relationship to Hebrew thought, because Hebrew thought also looks for God within History - in His works throughout History.  There are many who assert that Tertullian is deeply influenced by the powerful presence of the Judean Christian Communities in Northern Africa at the time.  Regardless, History always takes on a special meaning in the hands of the Westerners. History is the space in which not God's acts per se, but rather the praxes of mankind are what determine the course of events. Thus, therefore, a special kind of preoccupation (as in the case of morality) is created, in respect to man's actions in History.  Instead, therefore, of observing Nature in order to find God, he observes human works.

The third element which is again linked to the aforementioned, is the significance placed by the Westerner on institutions. Everyone knows how the Romans had fervently cultivated organization and institutions. The science of Law is one of their creations. The Roman State placed a special significance on institutions and essentially depended on them. No other peoples had ever made such great achievements in the organizing of the State, like the the Romans had.  And why exactly was that?  Because they were interested in practical efficiency. And in order to have practical efficiency, you must utilize people within institutions that will determine the functionality of each individual, but also of all the people together.  You cannot leave the individual to do what he wants, to think whatever he wants, to be satisfied with philosophizing on his own. There must be an organizing of society, and this organizing of society was cultivated extensively by the Romans, even more than the Hellenes.  In the 5th century, the Roman State - that amazing edifice, that organized whole - began to show the first cracks and later on it collapsed.  At the same time, its institutions collapsed, which had until then provided a sense of safety and security to the people. It is not an easy thing, imagining what it is like for institutions to collapse. Just imagine if today, Parliament here were to collapse, or the University - everything that gives us a sense of security for tomorrow.  Everything is dependent on the functioning of the institutions. If those institutions begin to collapse for one reason or another, then we have a collapse, not only of civilization, but also of the individual, especially when he hinges his sense of security on those institutions.

Thus, in the 5th century, the institutions break down. Normally, the West should have collapsed, both as thought as well as theology. But at that point in time, the West is saved by a major personage, who is regarded as its father: Augustine.  And how does he save it? In the following manner: By introducing a new element, which in essence is also Western but had not yet been highlighted by anyone before him. What was that element?  Augustine turned the collapsing Western man towards the self - towards the depths of a person's own self.  Augustine was the first one in History to introduce introspection - the notion that there is a world inside us, an "I' that is worth studying and depending on.  When everything around us is collapsing, we can always depend on that world that exists inside us. Augustine led the Westerner to that introspection.  He is the first to write Confessions. And Augustine's Confessions are descriptions of his own personal experiences - something that had never been done in the East.  In recent years (as we are now influenced by the West and the worst form of influence is unfortunately pietism, which has very subtly managed to disfigure us), we too have begun to notice the appearance of descriptions of spiritual and inner life. This is an element which had never appeared, throughout the age-old history of Orthodoxy.  It hadn't appeared, even in ancient, classical Hellenism.  Classical Hellenism did not turn inwardly; rather, it tended to immediately shed light on matters and was desirous of bringing out the history of the cosmos into the light. Augustine is the one who made the big turnabout, which is the root of Western civilization. I will briefly outline some of its predominant characteristics.

First of all, the development of Psychology. The development of Psychology, which is the West's greatest achievement and reaching its apex with Freud, is precisely the evolution of introspection, which allows man to perceive even the darkest backdrops of his being: the pre-conscious, the un-conscious.  Who can ignore Psychology nowadays? Psychology wouldn't exist, if it weren't for Augustine.

Another very characteristic achievement - likewise a creation of Western thought in our civilization - is Romanticism.  Romanticism is not the thing we so naively call "romanticism" in our day and age. That has nothing to do with the spirit of Romanticism.  The spirit of Romanticism is far deeper than what they imagine, like for example when they say "he is romantic". It has nothing to do with that notion.  The essence of Romanticism is the juxtaposing of the human self opposite Nature.  The pondering is attributed to our perception of Nature - ie,  either it is larger than us and is beyond us and therefore we are obliged to be in awe of it, or, that we as individuals can elevate ourselves above Nature.  This quest for the individual's disengagement from nature is an extremely central issue in the whole of Western culture and it can be traced back to the same principles: back to Augustine. Even Existentialism, one of the predominant philosophies, begins from the issue of juxtaposing the individual's freedom opposite the necessity called Nature, which of course essentially leads to nihilism - and more so, if it is an atheistic existentialism.  But no-one can deny that this kind of pondering is extremely important, because it has to do with a person's freedom, and Nature always constrains Man's freedom.  Consequently, all of this pondering goes back to - it has its roots in - that discovery that we could call the "I" of Augustine; it is observed even in the great statures of the West like Pascal, who was also nothing more than an expression of that spirit.  This is where a thinker - who ponders about limitations and potentials, with the infinite and the finite element of the human essence - can reach, and where he will stumble.  And this, is within the cultural framework.

Now, should we wish to apply all the above to Theology, we would see that they beget some very interesting consequences.  We mentioned that the characteristic of a Westerner was his preoccupation with praxis, with experience, and with efficiency in praxis.  This led theology in the West to an over-stressing of morality. The question: "What does Man contribute towards his salvation? Something, or nothing?" created a serious problem in the West. (It had preoccupied the West but didn't preoccupy the East specifically, even though there was communion during that era, ie, the problem of Pelagianism and its juxtaposition to Augustine.)  Do the works of Man create presuppositions for salvation or not?  This was a problem that continued to torment the West; it even reached the time of the Reformation with the characteristic stance taken by Luther who is Augustinian and according to whom works do not provide salvation.  This was a clear-cut antithesis to Pelagianism.  But the strange thing here is that if this question is posed to an Orthodox, to a Hellene, he will be puzzled.  He will not be able to reply. Why? Because the problem itself is foreign to him.  What does that mean? That we Orthodox can assert that works are irrelevant to our salvation? That would be incorrect.  On the other hand, can we say that our works do secure salvation for us? That would also be incorrect.  But, by being under the pressure of Western pondering on this point, we have also developed in recent years a very dangerous situation, because when we say that Salvation is a synergy of God and Man, our entire ascetic tradition is overturned, inasmuch as it claims that "Man is not saved by his works. Only the Grace of God saves."  However, on the other hand, if this is interpreted in a Lutheran or Augustinian way by denying synergy, it would be like saying thereafter that no matter what one does, it will be of no significance, and therefore, ascesis is meaningless.  To us, ascesis is that bizarre thing that - albeit meaningful - does not render salvation dependent on it.  So, how can this be expressed in a form that would provide a reply to the Westerner's pondering? It cannot.  Because he has molded that pondering on the basis of the question that points to what we mentioned earlier: "What does Man contribute towards salvation?"  He wants to determine what Man's contribution is precisely. If he does not get an answer to that question, he cannot feel satisfied. He wants to see Man's praxis, and will have his attention focused on the functionality of moral praxes. This is a fundamental chapter of this type of influence.

If we now take a look at the other characteristic that we mentioned, about institutions - about the significance that they place on institutions - the huge dilemma of Western theology that continues even to this day, is whether an intrinsic authority does or doesn't exist - a salvific authority,  within the institutions of the Church and the sacraments. Because that is also where the issue with the Reformists - with the Reformation - was judged - and once again with Luther, because with Calvin we have another situation on this point. Anyway, the intrinsic authorities of the institutions there were overthrown. This is of great importance.  Even the infallibility of the Pope, which was defined by a special clause in the 12th century, is precisely the culmination of this Western perception, i.e., that an institution contains an authority within itself and does not obtain it from anyone else.  Once he is Pope, then he is the authority; once he is a bishop, he contains the institution within himself. Even the sacraments are words of Christ that transform bread and wine into Body and Blood. These institutive words, by which Christ establishes the Sacrament, intrinsically contain salvific power - the power of transformation.  Then along comes the antithesis in Western Man (it is the dilemma we mentioned previously) who asks: "How is that possible? For that salvific power to exist, the institution is not sufficient, because it must also involve the faith of the individual."  So now, Protestants are constantly fighting with the Roman Catholics as to whether faith is necessary, and what faith does in the sacraments. then we Orthodox come along and we feel cornered, because what can we tell them?  That the problem which was created, we solved by essentially accepting a Western position? So? If its interpretation were tackled Orthodoxically, would it be alright?  The renowned principle of "ex opero operato"....  We have, in other words, accepted that the sacraments (regardless of the worthiness or unworthiness of the officiator) contain the salvific power within them. The Protestant did not accept this, as it is a purely Roman Catholic position; however, we did accept it, because the opposite is worse for us; that is, to assert that it IS dependent on the worthiness of the officiator.

Despite all this, an Orthodox interpretation is required here. For a Westerner, the question whether the institution per se has ontological content is a question that no-one can extract from his mind. We cannot have a Westerner and not have that question.


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Transcript by: T. B.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 5-12-2009.

Last update: 10-12-2009.