Orthodox Theological Method VII

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

Feminist Orthodoxy

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s work “has constantly involved constructive dialogue with Western theological trends… and has also been at the forefront of renewed thinking in the past twenty years on questions of gender.”1 She thought that grappling with the role of women in the church was key to the success or failure of the ecumenical movement and that Orthodoxy had an important role to play in reinterpreting the Tradition and exposing falsified dogma.

The customs I mentioned earlier are, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so forcefully said, “an insult to women.” They are customs that do not spring from the teachings of Christ but are leftover from the Old Testament, archaic beliefs. When confronted with these beliefs and practices, I have always been pulled in two directions: I have always been pulled in two directions: one is a longing to fight them in the name of the authentic Tradition which, as Vladimir Lossky said, is the ‘critical spirit of the Church.’ The other is just to give up, pretend to accept them in order not ‘to scandalise the weak ones.’ In doing this, however, I run the risk of scandalising other ‘weak ones’ who may draw back and run away from the Church as fast as they can.”2

In a text on the full value of womanhood, Behr-Sigel models the distinct Orthodox theological method by first locating the relevant Scripture – Genesis, chapter one – then reviewing the Church Fathers to examine how these texts might be understood. Has little ‘t’ tradition been mistaken? She asserts that though they concluded men and women are equal, they also concluded that women and men should hold different positions in the church. “How can this apparent inconsequence be explained?” Behr-Sigel asks.3 “The time seems to have come to undertake a serious theological examination and clarification of all these complex factors [that influenced the Church Father’s practice of a male clergy], and to do it in the spirit of the Fathers: e.g. not the spirit of a sclerosed conservatism, but the spirit of creative faithfulness, e.g. the dynamic authenticity of Tradition.”4

She goes on to make a careful distinction between what the Church Fathers said about Scripture, and what the Church Fathers said about their own context. The former Behr-Sigel takes as authoritative, the latter she takes with greater latitude: for it is not the Church Fathers on their own in which the Tradition resides, but the Church Father’s interpretation and application of Scripture in Sobornost. Behr-Sigel receives the biblical principles first observed by the early Church Fathers, that Scripture instructs us to believe men and women are equal in essence, in their humanity, and in their capacity for God. Then she asks: How does that now play out in our culture, as opposed to theirs? This opens up a new way of faithfulness to the Tradition.


Behr-Sigel fostered great hope that twentieth century Orthodox theology might provide a meeting place of East and West in a post-Enlightenment moment. She recalls that when first converted she and her friends “all hoped that Orthodoxy would open up and somehow become the matrix of a unified Christianity, faithful to tradition and at the same time open to the modern world.”5 For herself, she perceived that “I hesitated before making my decision. Finally, I decided I wasn’t giving up any of the positive aspects of Protestantism that I prized – like the respect for one’s freedom of conscience – but would gain roots in an extremely rich tradition, that of una sancta catholica apostolica, one holy catholic church.”6

The work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel demonstrates the unique contribution that Orthodox theology has to offer in the twentieth and twenty-first century theological debates. In a century where old borderlines eroded with the cultural and intellectual end of the Modern era, Orthodoxy has become a constructive critical voice for a Western hermeneutic. This influence is summarised by the unique understanding of Tradition as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. But underlying this beautiful simplicity lies a distinct intellectual heritage – non-dualistic, Trinitarian, spiritual and discerned through the practice of prayer and worship.

 1 Williams (2005) p.584

2 Behr-Sigel (1991) p.9

3 Behr-Sigel (1982) p.374

4 Behr-Sigel (1982) p.374-5

5 Behr-Sigel (1990) p.14

6 Behr-Sigel (1990) p.15

(if you want further reference details follow the links through the ‘writing’ page)

Orthodox Theological Method VI

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

Biblical Exegesis

In the Enlightenment era sources of authority have been dealt with as separate entities that butt up against each other vying for priority. Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience came most commonly to be viewed as distinct sources, with or without a hierarchy depending upon where one stood in the post-Reformation church. The non-dualistic dynamism of Orthodoxy does not conceive them to be in opposition. “Scripture must be interpreted by the Spirit and the Spirit is in the church, therefore, Scripture and Tradition work together, never separated or opposed to each other.”1 Scripture is clearly regarded as the supreme, divinely inspired source of revelation and maintains the kind of elevated position of the Word in Reformed traditions. However, “tradition becomes the initial and fundamental source of Christian theology – not in competition with Scripture, but as Scripture’s spiritual context.”2 Without the corporate discernment of Tradition, there would only be individual, subjective interpretations of Scripture. “Scripture is sufficient but tradition necessary to take it beyond the realm of the individual.”3

When an Orthodox theologian does theology, they consistently start with the relevant Scripture then go the Church Fathers for the first interpretation of what those texts means. But this in essence is a drive towards personalism and Sobornost. “Theology, therefore, is not simply a science, using Scripture as initial data; it also presupposes living in communion with God and people, in Christ and the Spirit, within the community of the church. Biblical theology is of course, the best theology, but being truly biblical implies living communion in Christ, without which the Bible is a dead letter.”4

Behr-Sigel argued that the competition for ‘authority’ between Scripture and Tradition is misplaced, because the theological exercise is personal, not abstract. Note again the Trinitarian dynamic in the way theological authorities are conceived:

For the Christian, supreme authority belongs to God revealed in his Son on whom the Spirit of the Father rests: one God in three persons, whose being, whose common nature, is love. All authority in the Church comes from him and is exercised in his name: in the name of God transcendent who speaks to humans, who reveals himself to them and gives them his gifts, the gift of his own life: a treasure that we have, as the apostle Paul writes, ‘in earthen vessels’ (2 Cor 4:7). It is in this tension between the divine and human aspects of the authority with which some people are invested in the Church that we find, at one and the same time, the nobility and difficulty of its exercise.”5

1 Florovsky (2003) p.113

2 Meyendorff (2003) p.82

3 Florovsky (2003) p.98

4 Meyendorff (2003) p.82

5 Behr-Sigel (2001c) p.87

(if you want full referencing details follow the links to the essay via the ‘writing’ page)

Orthodox Theological Method V

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

Trinitarian Pneumatology

The distinctive Greek philosophical heritage is enshrined in Orthodox conceptions of Trinity which refuse to dissolve the person of the Holy Spirit into a definition shaped by logical foundationalism. We have already identified that the very task of theology is conceived by Orthodoxy as an exercise in spiritual discernment. As Behr-Sigel says, “we must listen to the Spirit of God and try and find the real meaning of the ecclesial Tradition”1 The work of the Spirit is integral to theology only in so far as theology is the work of Revelation of the Triune God. Vladimir Lossky explains, “theology will be faithful to tradition insofar as its technical terms – ousia, hypostasis, consubstantiality, relations of origins, causality, monarchy – serve to present more and more clearly the initial mystery of God the Trinity without obscuring it with trinitarian deductions derived from another starting point.”2

This pattern of community, personalism and mystery in theology flow outward from it’s Trinitarian core to dominate the Orthodox theological agenda. For example, Behr-Sigel’s vision for an inclusive church is “in the mind of our God, One in three persons: a community, or rather a communion of persons in his likeness, men and women ineffably different but equal in dignity, free and responsible, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”3 In other words, distinction within the Trinity cannot be forced to their extremes – we must stay in the apophatic realm lest our arrogance results in heresy for claiming too much. Analogously, we must hold lightly to distinctions between gender, lest we lose the primary emphasis on all humanity created in the image and returning to the Triune God.

1 Behr-Sigel (1991a) p.18

2 Lossky (2003) p.175

3 Behr-Sigel (2008) p.7

(if you want the full referencing details follow the links through the ‘writing’ page)

Orthodox Theological Method IV

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

Philosophical heritage

Credal debates of the fourth and fifth century, continuing until the final schism between East and West in the eleventh, reveal diverging streams of philosophical conceptions of truth and knowing, anthropology and metaphysics. A tendency towards dualistic and concrete definitions has predominated in the West whereas a more mystical metaphysic has influenced the East. Hence, “Orthodox theology does not fit in the category of liberalism or conservatism as developed in Western Christendom.”1 Lossky argues that “the very principle of relations of opposition is unacceptable to Orthodox theology.”2 Which means in practice that apophatic theology is normative, but methods vary.3

Through the legacy of Sergei Bulgakov at St Sergius Theological School in Paris where she studied and worked, Behr-Sigel entered into the debates about the place of wisdom, ‘Sophia’, and the divine feminine. Vladimir Soloviev developed these interests most fully in nineteenth century Russia. He observed a parallel between sophia and theosis – the process of being and becoming one, an integration of the present empirical universe with that mystery which is beyond it.4 Behr-Sigel neither embraces the divine feminine fully, as Bulgakov did, nor rejected the bulk of it, as did Lossky and Meyendorff. Rather, she takes a more integrative path alongside the Orthodox Tradition of theotokos which results in a unique approach to the feminine in religious philosophy. Rather than an object of veneration, Mary’s status as the mother of the Christ directs the Christian away from herself towards the Trinitarian God and she becomes instead a model of the faithful’s right response to God. She herself is not the divine feminine, yet she opens the way for it. Mary is “the image and personification of the Spirit-bearing Church, the womb of the new humanity.”5

1 Meyendorff (2003) p.93

2 Lossky (2003b) p.169

3 Lossky (2003a)

4 Williams (2005) p.573

5 Behr-Sigel (1991b) p.204

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

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

Orthodox Theological Method I

Yep, here’s another essay series: What is distinctive about the way Orthodox theologians conceive of their task, with reference to the writing of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.  When it comes to grappling with some of the shortcomings of late Enlightenment theology, contemporary Orthodox Theology tremendously exciting, because it’s tracked a different geographical-political-theological-historical-sociological-etc. pathway to Western theological traditions.  A great conversation partner for twentieth century continental philosophy!

Anyway, here’s part I -the introduction – that’ll give you an idea of whether or not you want to read the rest!  The whole essay is linked on the ‘writing’ page and if you want full reference details you can get them there.  The icons in this series are from a contemporary Serbian iconographer called Nebojsa Djukic: waysha.com.  Enjoy.

Orthodox Theology is a unique voice in twentieth and twenty-first century global theology. In simplistic terms, it is the conception of Tradition which accounts for their distinct perspective, however there are several key elements contained within this which delineate the task of theology. The Orthodox concept of Tradition demonstrates a preference for locating the task of theology within the tasks of worship and spirituality. It also expresses a non-dualistic hermeneutic unfamiliar to Western approaches to theology and there is an integrated Trinitarian Pneumatology flowing out of that. Practically speaking, this works its way out in a distinct style of biblical exegesis, drawing consistently on the wisdom of the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils.

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel illustrates the genius that this distinctive theological approach brings to theology in the current global context. She embodied the challenges of the last century: Jewish by virtue of her mother’s religion; baptised Lutheran; lived through both world wars in Europe; bilingual French and German; the first woman to study theology at Strasbourg University; a pastor during the war; and exposed to the whirlwind of Parisian intellectualism. She was involved in ecumenism since her student days with the Student Christian Movement and converted to Orthodoxy by the inspiration of notable friends recently arrived from Russia.

‘Doctrine: Believing in Orthodox Churches’ by John Binns

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Final post in this series of assignment reading.

Binns, John, ‘Doctrine: Believing in the Orthodox Churches.’ In An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches. (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2002) pp. 61-96

The Binns article draws back a little to map the development of Orthodox Theology across the centuries. In so doing he demonstrates the unique way in which Orthodoxy prioritorises Tradition – the practice, worship, wisdom and fellowship of the Church in corporate discernment of 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” (p.61). In the nineteenth century this is expressed by Khomiakov in the Russian term Sobornost, and, as illustrated above, sums up the impenetratable connection between theology and the Tradition. “True authority lies in the whole body of the Church bound together in love, rather than in the hiercharcy of the bishops or the teaching of the Scripture” (p.67). Hence, the ecumenical councils of the church become a model for doing theology, the guidance of the saints, particularly the Church Fathers, indispensible and the maintenance of historical continuity in the liturgy essential. Over the years of the Ottomon Empire leadership of the Orthodox Theological Tradition gradually moved to Russia. In the twentieth century both Soviet Socialism and Russian Orthodox Theology have been profoundly influencial on world religion (p.86). “If Marxism had its roots in Christianity, then much modern Orthodox theology has its historical roots in Marxism” (p.87). Theologians exiled in the West have provided a unique opportunity for a new ecumenism engaging with innovations of twentieth century Continental philosophy, particularly so in the city of Paris. Binns summarizes the contemporary Orthodox focus as the presentation of the Church Fathers in order to interpret their present context (p.92) which again betrays the centrality of Tradition in Orthodox theology and the integration of theology and church practice, especially liturgy and prayer.  

More dancing around the library!  Let’s distinguish between big T Tradition and little t tradition – the former is that category of theological authority that has something to do with the Church’s interpretation of truth across the centuries.  Little t tradition are the little groups and discourses of church practices and beliefs that are somehow distinctive – i.e. the protestant tradition, the pentecostal tradition, the Orthodox tradition.

Orthodox theology assumes that big T Tradition is indispensable to right interpretation of truth.  That’s because the Holy Spirit is the teacher of all truth and the Holy Spirit resides in the Church, therefore, where the universal Church agrees on an interpretation of Scripture – it must be true!  Love it!!!

Rowan Williams on Orthodox Theology

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Oh how I love Rowan Williams!!!!

Williams, Rowan, ‘Eastern Orthodox Theology.’ In David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 (third edition) pp.572-587 (Massachussets; Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

Williams is an easy introduction to Orthodox Theology for Western thinkers – drawing our attention to some key differences at the outset – the more balanced approach to dualism, a stronger link to mystical traditions and a non-Enlightenment engagement with twentieth century Continental philosophy. It is accidentally convenient for Western thinkers that “for most of the twentieth century, the story of Orthodox theology is the story of Russian theology” – making the fruitful reconnection of Western and Eastern Christianity much simpler to pursue. Russian Orthodox theology in the twentieth century can be understood through it’s engagement with Soloviev’s theology of sophia in the century before. Soloviev developed sophia as a cosmology of the Eternal Feminine, Divine Wisdom, that which is uncreated and absolute breaking through to material reality in an act of reintegration in the cosmos, through the incarnation of sophia in the Divine Word. Bulgakov develops Soloviev’s cosmology with a careful description of Christ as uncreated sophia in his divine nature, created sophia in his human nature. Because they are perfected together, Christ leads the way for the church who is “sophia in the process of becoming” (p.576). Lossky was very critical of Bulgakov and saw his furthering of Soloviev as contrary to his own concern for “an ‘authentic,’ patristically based Orthodoxy” (p.578). Mediating between a “Catholic essentialism and Protestant existentialism” (p.580) Lossky embraced an apophatic approach to theology which located the task of theology in that ambiguous realm between divine mystery and human intelligence. This is the place of the Trinity and leads us into God’s complex relationality. “It is from the divine paradigm of the divine hypostases that we come to grasp our own vocation to personal being” (p.579). Unsurprisingly then, Lossky outlines an ecclesiology in a sobornost that binds together both “the institutional and the charismatic…as inseparably as the Word and the Spirit in the Trinity” (p.580). Florovsky also pursued the Patristics synthesis and was unwavering in his commitment to the Hellenism of the Church Fathers. Christianity cannot escape it’s historical particularity, of which the Hellenistic context for the earliest Tradition of the Church is primary, because all reality is grounded in historical acts. Further, Florovsky is critical of any theology that is not grounded in the historical Jesus. The eucharist becomes foundational for sobernost through it’s historical continuity. Contemporary Orthodox scholarship covers a breadth of fresh theological insights as East meets West in various combinations.  

I’m not ashamed to say that I danced around the top floor of the Dalton McCaughey Library whilst reading some of this stuff (there was no-one else around!!).  How exciting to read a critique of Enlightenment hermeneutics from those who have not had to endure the Enlightenment!  Of course, the same goes the other way – it’s easy for me to embrace Orthodox Theology when I only read about it in books! I’m sure the reality is as marred with sin as my own Western Protestant tradition!

However, I can see why Rowan Williams has integrated much of this hermeneutic.  The Orthodox tradition never lost the capacity to keep two poles of belief in tension, to believe two things can be true at the same time without competition.  The West lost that capacity in the late middle ages and the Reformation did nothing to address it.  I think it’s about ‘definitions’.  When we try and define things too tightly we confine them, and their meaning gets distorted.  Hmm… something coming to mind about wineskins…