History of Eastern Orthodox theology in the 20th century

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20th century Eastern Orthodox theology has been dominated by neo-Palamism, the revival of St. Palamas and hesychasm. John Behr characterizes Orthodox theology as having been "reborn in the twentieth century." [1] Norman Russell describes Orthodox theology as having been dominated by an "arid scholasticism" for several centuries after the fall of Constantinople. Russell describes the postwar re-engagement of modern Greek theologians with the Greek Fathers, which occurred with the help of diaspora theologians and Western patristic scholars. [2] A significant component of this re-engagement with the Greek Fathers has been a rediscovery of Palamas by Greek theologians; Palamas had previously been given less attention than the other Fathers. [3]

Eastern Orthodox theology Eastern Orthodox theological views

Eastern Orthodox theology is the theology particular to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is characterized by monotheistic Trinitarianism, belief in the Incarnation of the essentially divine Logos or only-begotten Son of God, a balancing of cataphatic theology with apophatic theology, a hermeneutic defined by a polyvalent Sacred Tradition, a concretely catholic ecclesiology, a robust theology of the person, and a principally recapitulative and therapeutic soteriology.

Palamism theological teachings of Gregory Palamas

Palamism or the Palamite theology comprises the teachings of Gregory Palamas (c.1296–1359), whose writings defended the Orthodox notion of Hesychasm against the attack of Barlaam. Followers of Palamas are sometimes referred to as Palamites.

Hesychasm Contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Based on Jesus's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray", hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.


According to Michael Angold, the "rediscovery of [Palamas'] writings by theologians of the last century has played a crucial role in the construction of present-day Orthodoxy. [4] Bishop Kallistos Ware has predicted that "the twentieth century will be remembered as the century of Palamas".

Michael Angold is Professor Emeritus of Byzantine History and Honorary Fellow in the University of Edinburgh.

Kallistos Ware English theologian

Kallistos Ware is an English bishop and theologian of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He has held since 1982 the titular Bishopric of Diokleia in Phrygia, later made a titular metropolitan bishopric in 2007, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Kallistos is one of the best-known contemporary Eastern Orthodox hierarchs and theologians. From 1966 to 2001, Metropolitan Kallistos was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford.

Russian émigré theologians

After the Russian Revolution, many Orthodox theologians fled Russia and founded centers of Orthodox theology in the West. The most notable of these were the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. [5] Daniel Payne asserts that, in the 1940s, "Russian émigré theologians rediscovered the ascetic-theology of St. Gregory Palamas." From this rediscovery, according to Payne, "Palamas' theology became the basis for an articulation of an Orthodox theological identity apart from Roman Catholic and Protestant influences. Florovsky and Lossky opposed the efforts of the Slavophile movement to identify a uniquely Russian approach to Orthodox theology. They advocated instead a return to the Greek fathers in what Florovsky called a "Neo-Patristic Synthesis". [6] Payne characterizes the work of Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky as having "set the course for Orthodox theology in the twentieth century." [7]

St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute seminary

The St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, France, is a private school of higher education in Orthodox theology, founded in 1925 in conformity with French legislation and the norms of European university education, accredited by the Académie de Paris. The mission of the St. Sergius Institute is to form educated priests and laypeople, intending to serve actively the Orthodox Church and representing it in the ecumenical dialogue, as well as in the religious and cultural life of their own country. It is under the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Exarchate in Western Europe, under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) is an Orthodox Christian seminary in Crestwood, Yonkers, New York, in the United States. Although it is under the omophorion of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America, it is a pan-Orthodox institution, providing theological education to students from different Orthodox jurisdictions worldwide.

Georges Vasilievich Florovsky was an Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, historian and ecumenist. Born in Odessa, in the Russian Empire, he spent his working life in Paris (1920–1949) and New York (1949–1979). With Sergei Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky, Justin Popović and Dumitru Stăniloae he was one of the more influential Orthodox Christian theologians of the mid-20th century. He was particularly concerned that modern Christian theology might receive inspiration from the lively intellectual debates of the patristic traditions of the undivided Church rather than from later Scholastic or Reformation categories of thought.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev identifies five main streams within the theology of the “Paris school”.

The first, associated with the names of Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern), Fr. Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, Archbishop Basil (Krivocheine) and Fr. John Meyendorff, was dedicated to the cause of “Patristic revival.”

The second stream, represented in particular by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, is rooted in the Russian religious renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; here, the influence of Eastern patristics was interwoven with German idealism and the religious views of Vladimir Soloviev stream.

The third prepared the ground for the “liturgical revival” in the Orthodox Church and is related to the names of Fr. Nicholas Afanassieff and Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Characteristic of the fourth stream was an interest in Russian history, literature, culture and spirituality; to this stream belong G. Fedotov, K. Mochulsky, I. Kontzevich, Fr. Sergius Tchetverikoff, A. Kartashev and N. Zernov, to name but a few.

The fifth stream developed the traditions of Russian religious philosophical thought and was represented by N. Lossky, S. Frank, L. Shestoff and Fr. Basil Zenkovsky.

One of the central figures of “Russian Paris” was Nicholas Berdyaev, who belonged to none of these... [8]

According to Michael Gibson, "Lossky’s paradigm pivots on a double-sided narrative that posits a theological failure of the West characterized as ‘rationalist’ and ‘philosophical,’ the antithesis of which is the unbroken Eastern theological tradition of pure apophaticism and mystico-ecclesial experience." [9]

Apophatic theology, also known as negative theology, is a form of theological thinking and religious practice which attempts to approach God, the Divine, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It forms a pair together with cataphatic theology, which approaches God or the Divine by affirmations or positive statements about what God is.

Vladimir Lossky

Vladimir Lossky's main theological concern was exegesis on mysticism in the Orthodox tradition. He stated in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church that the Orthodox maintained their mystical tenets while the West lost them after the East-West Schism. A loss of these tenets by the West was due to a misunderstanding of Greek terms such as ousia, hypostasis, theosis, and theoria. He cites much of the mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church as expressed in such works as the Philokalia, St John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent, and various others by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, StGregory of Nyssa, St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzus, and StGregory Palamas. Father Georges Florovsky termed V Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as a "neopatristic synthesis". [10]

Vladimir Lossky 20th-century Russian theologian and writer

Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky was an Eastern Orthodox theologian in exile from Russia. He emphasized theosis as the main principle of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Ousia philosophical and theological term, originally used in Ancient Greek philosophy

Ousia is a philosophical and theological term, originally used in Ancient Greek philosophy, and also in Christian theology. It was used by various Ancient Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, as a primary designation for philosophical concepts of essence or substance. In contemporary philosophy, it is analogous to English concepts of being and ontic. In Christian theology, the concept of θεία ουσία is one of the most important doctrinal concepts, central to the development of trinitarian doctrine.

<i>Philokalia</i> literary work

The Philokalia is "a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters" of the Eastern Orthodox Church mystical hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in "the practice of the contemplative life." The collection was compiled in the eighteenth century by Nicodemus the Hagiorite and Macarius of Corinth.

Lossky's main tenet of the Mystical Theology was to show through reference to the Greek Fathers works of the ancient Church that their theosis was above knowledge (gnosis). [10] This was further clarified in his work Vision of God (or theoria). In both works Lossky shows some of the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy i.e. Saint Dionysus the Areopagite's work and Plotinus and the tenets of Neoplatonism. Asserting that Eastern Orthodoxy and Neoplatonism, though they share common culture and concepts, are not the same thing and have very different understandings of God and ontology.

Lossky, like his close friend Father Georges Florovsky, was opposed to the sophiological theories of FatherSergei Bulgakov and Vladimir Soloviev. In the words of Lossky's own father N. O. Lossky, "One characteristic of his theology that should be underscored, is that he was not, and always refused to be, a direct descendant of the famous Russian "religious philosophy"1. The term Russian religious philosophy being Neoplatonic as such, having its origin in the works of the slavophile movement and its core concept of sobornost. Which was later used and developed by Vladimir Soloviev.

Postwar Greek theologians

As the first generation of Russian emigre theologians died out, the torch was taken up by Greek theologians in the postwar period. Until the 1950s, Greek theology had tended towards a scholastic approach. David Ford characterizes it as "doctrinal 'capita' with patristic catenae added". The impact of Florovsky and Lossky began to spread beyond the Slavic Orthodoxy. [11]

According to Daniel Payne, "Romanides and Yannaras want(ed) to remove the Western and pagan elements from the Hellenic identity and replace it with the Orthodox identity rooted in Hesychast spirituality based on the teachings of Gregory Palamas." [7]

John Romanides developed a theology which was vehemently anti-Augustinian. His work had a significant influence on theological dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. [12]

Christos Yannaras argues that the introduction of Western Scholasticism into Orthodox theology inevitably led to the confusion present in the modern Hellenic identity. The adverse effects of this corruption of Greek Orthodox thought for the rise of Greek nationalism, the acceptance and formation of the modern Hellenic nation-state, and the establishment of the Church of Greece as an autocephalous national Church separate from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. [13]

John Zizioulas is arguably the most widely read Orthodox theologian in the West. [12]

Georges Florovsky

During the 1930s, Georges Florovsky undertook extensive researches in European libraries and wrote his most important works in the area of patristics as well as his magnum opus, Ways of Russian Theology . In this massive work, he questioned the Western influences of scholasticism, pietism, and idealism on Russian theology and called for a re-evaluation of Russian theology in the light of patristic writings. One of his most prominent critics was Nikolai Berdyaev, the religious philosopher and social critic.

John Meyendorff

John Meyendorff's doctoral dissertation on Palamas is considered to have transformed the opinion of the Western Church regarding Palamism. Before his study of Palamas, Palamism was considered to be a "curious and sui generis example of medieval Byzantium's intellectual decline". Meyendorff's landmark study of Palamas however, "set Palamas firmly within the context of Greek patristic thought and spirituality" with the result that Palamism is now generally understood to be "a faithful witness to the long-standing Eastern Christian emphasis on deification (theosis) as the purpose of the divine economy in Christ." [14]

Roman Catholic Jean-Yves Lacoste describes Meyendorff's characterization of Palamas' theology and the reception of Meyendorff's thesis by the Orthodox world of the latter half of the 20th century:

For J. Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas has perfected the patristic and concilar heritage, against the secularizing tide that heralds the Renaissance and the Reformation, by correcting its Platonizing excesses along biblical and personalist lines. Palamitism, which is impossible to compress into a system, is then viewed as the apophatic expression of a mystical existentialism. Accepted by the Orthodox world (with the exception of Romanides), this thesis justifies the Palamite character of contemporary research devoted to ontotheological criticism (Yannaras), to the metaphysics of the person (Clement), and to phenomenology of ecclesiality (Zizioulas) or of the Holy Spirit (Bobrinskoy). [15]

A number of notable Orthodox theologians such as John Romanides have criticized Meyendorff's understanding of Palamas as flawed. Romanides argued that Meyendorff's entire characterization of Palamas' teachings was erroneous, criticizing what he called Meyendorff's "imaginative theories concerning Palamite monistic prayer and anthropology, and Incarnational and sacramental heart mysticism."[ citation needed ] According to Duncan Reid, the theme of the debate between Meyendorff and Romanides centered on the relationship between nominalism and Palamite theology. [16] Romanides characterized Meyendorff as engaged in an "obsessed struggle to depict Palamas as an heroic Biblical theologian putting to the sword of Christological Correctives the last remnants of Greek Patristic Platonic Aphophaticism and its supposed linear descendants, the Byzantine Platonic-nominalistic humanists."[ citation needed ] Orthodox theologians such as John Romanides, Alexander Golitzin, and Andrew Louth have argued against Meyendorff's interpretation of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and have strenuously asserted the Orthodoxy of the Dionysian corpus. [17]

John Romanides

John Romanides contributed many speculations, some controversial, about the cultural and religious differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, and how these divergences have impacted the Church's development and influenced the Christian cultures of East and West. He was especially concerned about ways in which Western intellectual culture had, in his view, compromised Greek national identity.

His theological works emphasize the empirical basis of theology called theoria , or vision of God, as the essence of Orthodox theology. He identified hesychasmas the core of Christian practice and studied extensively the works of 14th-century hesychast and theologian St. Gregory Palamas.

His research on dogmatic theology led him to examine the close links between doctrinal differences and historical developments. Thus, in his later years, he concentrated on historical research, mostly of the Middle Ages but also of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Romanides criticized Meyendorff's understanding of Palamas as flawed.[ citation needed ] Romanides described Myendorff as engaged in an "obsessed struggle to depict Palamas as an heroic Biblical theologian putting to the sword of Christological Correctives the last remnants of Greek Patristic Platonic Aphophaticism and its supposed linear descendants, the Byzantine Platonic-nominalistic humanists."[ citation needed ]

Christos Yannaras

The main volume of Yannaras' work represents a long course on study and research of the differences between the Greek and Western European philosophy and tradition. Differences that are not limited at the level of theory only, but also define a mode (praxis) of life.

Related Research Articles

Filioque is a Latin term added to the original Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and which has been the subject of great controversy between Eastern and Western Christianity. The Latin term Filioque describes the Holy Spirit as proceeding from both the Father and the Son,. In the Nicene Creed it is translated by the English phrase "and [from] the Son":

Gregory Palamas Monk and archbishop

Gregory Palamas was a prominent theologian and ecclesiastical figure of the late Byzantine period. A monk of Mount Athos and later archbishop of Thessaloniki, he is famous for his defense of hesychast spirituality, the uncreated character of the light of the Transfiguration, and the distinction between God's essence and energies. His teaching unfolded over the course of three major controversies, (1) with the Italo-Greek Barlaam between 1336 and 1341, (2) with the monk Gregory Akindynos between 1341 and 1347, and (3) with the philosopher Gregoras, from 1348 to 1355. His theological contributions are sometimes referred to as Palamism, and his followers as Palamites.

Barlaam of Seminara, c. 1290–1348, or Barlaam of Calabria was a southern Italian scholar and clergyman of the 14th century, as well as a Humanist, a philologist, and a theologian. When Gregory Palamas defended Hesychasm, Barlaam accused him of heresy. Three Orthodox synods ruled against him and in Palamas's favor.

John Savvas Romanides was an Orthodox Christian priest, author and professor who had a distinctive influence on post-war Greek Orthodox theology.

John Zizioulas Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon

John Zizioulas is the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon. He is one of the most influential Orthodox Christian theologians today.

John Meyendorff was a leading theologian of the Orthodox Church of America as well as a writer and teacher. He served as the dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in the United States until June 30, 1992.

Essence–energies distinction

The essence–energies distinction is an Eastern Orthodox theological concept that states that there is a distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God. It was formulated by Gregory Palamas of Thessaloniki (1296–1359), as part of his defense of the Athonite monastic practice of hesychasmos against the charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and theologian Barlaam of Calabria.

Christos Yannaras Greek philosopher

Christos Yannaras is a Greek philosopher, Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of more than 50 books which have been translated into many languages. He is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens.

Tabor Light theological doctrine

In Eastern Orthodox Christian theology, the Tabor Light is the light revealed on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Jesus, identified with the light seen by Paul at his conversion.

Neoplatonism and Christianity

Neoplatonism was a major influence on Christian theology throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the West. This was due to St. Augustine of Hippo, who was influenced by the early Neoplatonists Plotinus and Porphyry, as well as the works of the Christian writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who was influenced by later Neoplatonists, such as Proclus and Damascius.

Theological differences between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been in a state of official schism from one another since the East–West Schism of 1054. This schism was caused by historical and linguistic developments, and the ensuing theological differences between the Western and Eastern churches.

<i>Theosis</i> (Eastern Christian theology)

Theosis, or divinization, is a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God, as taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of catharsis and theoria. According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life. It is considered achievable only through a synergy between human activity and God's uncreated energies.

The Triads of Gregory Palamas are a set of nine treatises entitled "Triads For The Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude" written by Gregory Palamas in response to attacks made by Barlaam. The treatises are called "Triads" because they were organized as three sets of three treatises.

History of Eastern Orthodox theology

The history of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology begins with the life of Jesus and the forming of the Christian Church. Major events include the Chalcedonian schism with the Oriental Orthodox miaphysites, the Iconoclast controversy, the Photian schism, the Great Schism between East and West, and the Hesychast controversy. The period after the Second World War saw a re-engagement with the Greek, and more recently Syriac, Fathers that included a rediscovery of the theological works of St. Gregory Palamas, which has resulted in a renewal of Orthodox theology in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Hesychast controversy

The Hesychast controversy was a theological dispute in the Byzantine Empire during the 14th century between supporters and opponents of Gregory Palamas. While not a primary driver of the Byzantine Civil War, it influenced and was influenced by the political forces in play during that war. The dispute concluded with the victory of the Palamists and the inclusion of Palamite doctrine as part of the dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the canonization of Palamas.


  1. Kallistos (Bishop of Diokleia), John Behr, Andrew Louth, Dimitri E. Conomos (2003). Abba: the tradition of Orthodoxy in the West : festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. p. 159.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  2. Russell, Norman. "Modern Greek Theologians and the Greek Fathers" (PDF). Philosophy and Theology . 18 (1): 77. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-07. Retrieved 2012-07-27.
  3. Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Bishop Auxentios of Photiki, and Archimandrite Akakios. Contemporary Traditionalist Orthodox Thought (PDF). Etna, California: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. ...Saint Gregory is not well known to the common pious, and his study by theologians is scant compared to the tomes that have been dedicated to the other Fathers. In Greece, it was not until the recent past that anyone showed any critical attention toward a collection of the Saint's writings. And, greatly owing to his rejection by the West and the proverbial "Western captivity" of many Orthodox theologians, some Greek theologians have only a rudimentary familiarity with Saint Gregory and his importance to Orthodox thought. (Happily, the state of Palamite studies in the Slavic traditions is better developed and more profound.)CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  4. Angold, Michael (2006). Eastern Christianity. Cambridge University Press. p. 101.
  5. Rahner, Karl (1975). Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum mundi. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 380.
  6. Hastings, Adrian; Mason, Alistair; Pyper, Hugh S. (2000). The Oxford companion to Christian thought. Oxford University Press US. p. 185.
  7. 1 2 Payne, Daniel. The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Greek Orthodox Thought
  8. "Orthodox Theology on the Threshold of the 21st Century". Archived from the original on 2010-09-14. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  9. Gibson, Michael. Either/Or: The Question of Identity and Eastern Orthodoxy in the Thought of Christos Yannaras.
  10. 1 2 History of Russian Philosophy By N.O. Lossky section on V. Lossky
  11. https://books.google.com/books?id=4Kmk2snBFcMC&pg=PA510&lpg=PA510&dq=first+generation+emigre+Greek+challenge+theologian&source=bl&ots=2iztpe1xjT&sig=Aaba0DuC2ZwvzSRSmsYyW-2PcrQ&hl=en&ei=kMArTa-5Bo2asAOJ46n3BQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false .External link in |title= (help)
  12. 1 2 Ford, David; Muers, Rachel (2005). The modern theologians: an introduction to Christian theology since 1918. iley-Blackwell. p. 584.
  13. Yannaras, Christos (2006). Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
  14. Carey, Patrick W.; Lienhard, Joseph T. (2000). Biographical dictionary of Christian theologians. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 362.
  15. Lacoste, Jean-Yves (2005). Encyclopedia of Christian Theology. CRC Press. p. 661.
  16. Reid, Duncan (1997). nergies of the spirit: trinitarian models in Eastern Orthodox and Western theology. Oxford University Press US. p. 97.
  17. "The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, V". 2008-04-01. Retrieved 2011-01-06.