One of the cornerstones of Orthodox Christianity is its reverence for the great Fathers of the Church who were not only exemplars of holiness but were also the greatest intellectuals of their age. The writings of men like St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Maximos the Confessor have been and will always remain essential guides to Orthodox Christian living and Orthodox Christian faith.
Thus it is alarming that so many Orthodox clerics and monks in recent years have made public statements that reflect a “fundamentalist” approach to the Church Fathers. And unless leaders of the Orthodox Church unite to repudiate this development, the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists.
Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them. Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching. For example, when the Theological Academy of Volos recently convened an international conference to examine the role of the Fathers in the modern Church, radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy.
The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters. That miscalculation, no doubt, is related to another equally flawed assumption that Orthodox theology has never changed—clearly it has or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.
The irony, as identified by recent scholarship on fundamentalism, is that while fundamentalists claim to protect the Orthodox Christian faith from the corruption of modernity, their vision of Orthodox Christianity is, itself, a very modern phenomenon. In other words, Orthodoxy never was what fundamentalists claim it to be.
Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision. St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit. And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community.
It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods. One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching. Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual. And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western. Each of these assertions is patently false for specific reasons, but they are all symptomatic of an ideological masquerade that purports to escape the modern world.
The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism. By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.
In an age when so many young people are opting out of religious affiliation altogether, the expansion of fundamentalist ideology into ordinary parishes is leading to a situation where our children are choosing between religious extremism or no religion at all.
It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion. The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world. Fundamentalist readings of both the Fathers and the Bible never lead to God—they only lead to idolatry.
George E. Demacopoulos
Professor of Historical Theology
Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center
Dr. George Demacopoulos , I’m reading St. John of Kronstadt and wondering if you would consider this saint an “Orthodox Fundamentalist”?
“When you doubt in the truth of any person or any event described in Holy Scripture, then remember that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,’ as the Apostle says, and is therefore true, and does not contain any imaginary persons, fables, and tales, although it includes parables which everyone can see are not true narratives but are written in figurative language. The whole of the Word of God is single, entire, indivisible truth; and if you admit that any narrative, sentence, or word is untrue, then you sin against the truth of the whole of Holy Scripture and its primordial Truth, which is God Himself. ‘I am the truth,” said the Lord; ‘Thy word is truth,’ said Jesus Christ to God the Father. Thus, consider the whole of the Holy Scripture as truth; everything that is said in it has either taken place or takes place.” ~ St. John of Kronstadt
This, I take it, is the fundamentalism to which you refer?
Actually, the cogent, timely and thorough repudiation of an Orthodox fundamentalism by Dr. Demacopoulos does not refer to interpretations of Holy Scripture directly, but a particular reading of patristic authorities (which biblical fundamentalists would not generally accept), the “Church Fathers” to which he refers explicitly throughout his essay. Certainly the Fathers of the Church were, above all, interpreters of Holy Scripture, but their methodology and hermeneutical principles (how they interpreted) did differ. Theologically, patristic writers also differed and sometimes disagreed. This is because they did, in fact, agree on the authority of Holy Scripture but recognized that the Church must convey the truth of the Word of God in every generation and place, ensuring that the “Good News” is actually understood by contemporary persons in a manner befitting their own time and place. This does not mean altering Scripture to “fit” with the times; rather, it means to alter the language and means by which we address each time and place to communicate, accurately, the truth.
What Dr. Demacopoulos does not say explicitly is that many, if not most of the “fundamentalists” to which he refers seem to suggest that the theological, pastoral and liturgical traditions of the Church cannot deviate from those solidified by the late Byzantine era or as practiced by certain monastic communities. Such a rigid view is easily demonstrated to be inconsistent with the history of the ancient Church.
It’s important to emphasise that this sort of approach is not limited to converts. There are people born in the Church who make the same mistakes. And neither is it exclusive to ultra-nationalists, either. Anyone who is Orthodox is capable of falling into the trap of fundamentalism.
I wish to seek clarification of your statement: “One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.”
While this is no longer true, it was very true in the days of the iconoclasts. So while you are correct in that you use the word, ‘always,’ as a dinstiquisher, you are incorrect if you allow for the periods when it was true. In the context of your article, it appears that you seek to question the role of monastics at ALL times in Church history, and thus the confusion. For you, yourself, mentioned the contribution St. John of Damascus, who was a monk, while disparaging the role of monasteries (?!)
If you wish to say that modern Orthodox liaty should not be held accountable to the rules of monastics… say it. You won’t get any disagreement from me, and hopefully a great deal more clarity among other readers.