Orthodox Theological Method II

Essay series, part II: What is distinctive about the way Orthodox theologians conceive of their task, with reference to the writing of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

Living Tradition

The Orthodox conception of Tradition needs to be carefully distinguished from small ‘t’ traditions. That is, it is not the particular expressions of church and theology located in a particular cohort of history but is the manifestation of Revelation in the church. “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”1 It is the Holy Spirit that brings what is revealed to life in each and every believer, hence there is no Revelation of truth without the Holy Spirit. Since the Church is, by definition, that group of people within whom the Holy Spirit dwells, the Church has an integral part to play in interpreting revealed truth. “It is almost true to say that the Holy Spirit, the Christian Church, and the Tradition are phrases which refer to the same reality and, in practice, mean the same.”2 Consensus is the guiding principle which is taken to be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work3 and henceforth the early ecumenical councils, where the church was still united in one entity, are given theological priority. This communal dimension of the christian church is now commonly referred to by Orthodox Theologians with A. Khomiakov’s term from the nineteenth century: ‘Sobornost.’4

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel stands with her friends Vladimir Lossky and John Meyendorff in the twentieth century Orthodox commitment to resourcement – a focus on the ‘living’ Tradition whilst returning to the original sources of the Tradition. Intelligent criticism engages the questions from the theologian’s contemporary context and sorts out the “mystery of Christ…[from]… the dross that too often conceals it”5

The task of Orthodox theological formation, it seems to me, is both ever the same and yet always new, always being renewed. It consists in the faithful transmission (an action not ‘rational’ but ‘intelligent’, in the sense of being the ‘Eucharist of the mind’), of the evangelical kerygma, of the original apostolic message. To be living, this transmission, this Tradition (giving the term its active meaning) must, in fidelity to the original and fundamental message, attempt to find answers to the new questions asked of the Church in its new circumstances. The Fathers of the Church did this in their day, in bringing the Gospel that had first been proclaimed in Aramaic to Galilean fishermen to the intellectual elite of the Graeco-Roman world.”6

Embracing this challenge, Behr-Sigel is hopeful that the unique contribution of Orthodox theology in the contemporary world might be, as French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement put it, “the overcoming of modernism from the inside.” They note a parallel between the ‘anguished self-questioning’ (Clement) and “the meaninglessness of life that undergird a seeming frenzy of living” (Behr-Sigel) with the redemptive discovery of the kenosis of a loving God 7.

Orthodoxy, with its central vision of the divine Logos, including within its radiance the humble humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, becomes erroneously associated with eastern Christians. Such a dichotomy seems to be superficial. It ignores the many riches of historical Orthodoxy and the interior balance of the ecclesial vision (in which Antioch counterbalanced Alexandria) contemplating Christ in the depths of his humanity just as in his divinity.”8

1 Lossky (1974) p.152

2 Binns (2002) p.61

3 Meyendorff (2003) p.88

4 Binns (2002) p.67

5 Behr-Sigel (2001a) p.17 

6 Behr-Sigel (2001a) p.13

7 Behr-Sigel (2001a) p.18

8 Behr-Sigel (2001b) p.29

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