Modern Theological Developments

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Modern Theological Developments

Until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), Byzantium was the unquestioned intellectual centre of the Orthodox Church. Far from being monolithic, Byzantine theological thought was often polarized by a Humanistic trend, favouring the use of Greek philosophy in theological thinking, and the more austere and mystical theology of the monastic circles. The concern for preservation of Greek culture and for the the political salvation of the empire led several prominent Humanists to adopt a position favourable to union with the West. The most creative theologians (e.g., Symeon the New Theologian, died 1033; Gregory Palamas, died 1359; Nicholas Cabasilas, died c. 1390), however, were found rather in the monastic party that continued the tradition of patristic spirituality based upon the theology of deification.

The 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were the dark age of Orthodox theology. Neither in the Middle East nor in the Balkans nor in Russia was there any opportunity for independent theological creativity. Since no formal theological education was accessible, except in Western Roman Catholic or Protestant schools, the Orthodox tradition was preserved primarily through the liturgy, which retained all its richness and often served as a valid substitute for formal schooling. Most doctrinal statements of this period, issued by councils or by individual theologians, were polemical documents directed against Western missionaries.

After the reforms of Peter the Great (died 1725), a theological school system was organized in Russia. Shaped originally in accordance with Western Latin models and staffed with Jesuit-trained Ukrainian personnel, this system developed, in the 19th century, into a fully independent and powerful tool of theological education. The Russian theological efflorescence of the 19th and 20th centuries produced many scholars, especially in the historical field (e.g., Philaret Drozdov, died 1867; V.O. Klyuchevsky, died 1913; V.V. Bolotov, died 1900; E.E. Golubinsky, died 1912; N.N. Glubokovsky, died 1937). Independently of the official theological schools, a number of laymen with secular training developed theological and philosophical traditions of their own and exercised a great influence on modern Orthodox theology (e.g., A.S. Khomyakov, died 1860; V.S. Solovyev, died 1900; N. Berdyayev, died 1948), and some became priests (P. Florensky, died 1943; S. Bulgakov, died 1944). A large number of the Russian theological intelligentsia (e.g., S. Bulgakov, G. Florovsky) emigrated to western Europe after the Russian Revolution (1917) and played a leading role in the ecumenical movement.

With the independence of the Balkans, theological schools were also created in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Modern Greek scholars contributed to the publication of important Byzantine ecclesiastical texts and produced standard theological textbooks.

The Orthodox diaspora—the emigration from eastern Europe and the Middle East—in the 20th century has contributed to modern theological development through their establishment of theological centres in western Europe and America.

Orthodox theologians reacted negatively to the new dogmas proclaimed by Pope Pius IX: the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870). In connection with the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII (1950), the objections mainly concerned the presentation of such a tradition in the form of a dogma.

In contrast to the recent general trend of Western Christian thought toward social concerns, Orthodox theologians generally emphasize that the Christian faith is primarily a direct experience of the Kingdom of God, sacramentally present in the church. Without denying that Christians have a social responsibility to the world, they consider this responsibility as an outcome of the life in Christ. This traditional position accounts for the remarkable survival of the Orthodox Churches under the most contradictory and unfavourable of social conditions, but, to Western eyes, it often appears as a form of passive fatalism.


From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)

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