Orthodox Theological Method III

Essay series, part III: What is distinctive about the way that Orthodox Theologians conceive of their task, with reference to the work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

Worship and Spirituality

Meyendorff argued that “it is probably impossible to fully grasp what Eastern Christians have understood by theology without giving full credit to such sayings as the celebrated utterance of Evagrios of Pontus, a major leader of Egyptian monasticism in the fourth century: ‘If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian’.”1 In the early church, “’liturgy,’ in the wide and comprehensive sense of the word, was the first and initial layer in the tradition of the church, and the argument from the lex orandi (rule of worship) was persistently used in discussion already by the end of the second century.”2

The Russian Primary Chronicle contains a story describing the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev in the tenth century. Truth was discovered in the exquisite beauty of the Orthodox liturgy in which heaven seemed to have descended to earth. Truth is a divinely beautiful and mystical experience. “The Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a liturgical approach, which understands doctrine in the context of divine worship… right belief and right worship are inseparable.”3 At times this becomes a conservative impulse in the church, such as in the Old Calendarists movement in Russia.4 However, the role of liturgy is not so much about conserving doctrine and the ancient dogma, as it is about bringing that theology to life. It is ‘sacramental theology’ in the broadest sense where liturgy is seen to be the transmitter of divine grace.5 Praying the dogma through the liturgy draws the theologian into a relationship with that which is beyond belief – the transcendent beauty and holiness of God. The goal dominates, and the goal is union with God. “As human beings we each have this one, unique calling, to achieve theosis”6

Behr-Sigel’s locates her own turn towards Orthodoxy with a liturgical experience. Using the same conversion words of Prince Vladimir: she says “I no longer knew if I was in heaven or on earth.”7 In her study on Orthodox spirituality she concludes that “it is impossible to separate spirituality from the content of the faith.”8 She goes on to identify “six basic and essential elements, six great currents, that appear successfully, meet, mix together, and perpetuate themselves in the vast river that is the spiritual tradition of the Church:

  • the scriptural element which constitutes the foundation
  • the primitive Christian element
  • the Hellenistic intellectual element
  • the primitive monastic element
  • the liturgical element
  • the contemplative element, contemplative in the technical meaning of the word, that is hesychastic and philokalic.”9

It is a spirituality which reflects a different theological journey through the centuries than the Western Churches have trod and directs our attention to another important distinction of Orthodoxy Theology: it’s undergirding hermeneutic and epistemology.

1 Meyendorff (2003) p.84

2 Florovsky (2003) p.108

3 Ware (2003) p.14

4 Binns (2002) p.85

5 Karmiris (2003) p.21

6 Stavvropoulos (2003) p.184

7 Lossky (2010) p.18

8 Behr-Sigel (1992) p.1

9 Behr-Sigel (1992) p.7

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