The following are excerpts from The Patristic Heritage and Modernity by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who I just learned was born 2 days before me. Hat tip to A Vow of Conversation.
It starts comfortably enough.
No one will challenge the need for preserving the patristic heritage. The “protective” element is emphasized in the words of St Athanasius given above: the Fathers have preserved Holy Tradition for us. But have they preserved this treasure for it to wither away, like the talent buried in the ground, unearthed from time to time to establish whether it has corroded from so long a lack of use? Have the Fathers written books for us to keep on shelves, dusting them from time to time and ever so rarely consulting them for that obligatory quote?
If we concentrate only on the preservation and conservation of what has been accumulated by our Fathers before us, then things are quite simple. When, however, our vocation is to invest the talent of the patristic heritage, we find ourselves confronted by a tremendous task indeed, comprising not only the study of the works of the Fathers, but also their interpretation in the light of contemporary experience; it similarly requires an interpretation of our contemporary experience in the light of the teaching of the Fathers. This not only means studying the Fathers; the task before us is also to think patristically and to live patristically. For we will not be able to understand the fathers, if we have not shared their experience and endeavours, at least to a certain degree.
This task is tremendous and inspiring, yet at the same time quite hazardous. Just as no one who decides to invest his “talent” is warranted against bankruptcy, no theologian who approaches the appropriation of the patristic heritage in a creative way is preserved from error. The distance – in time, culture, and spirituality – between the fathers and us is too large, it seems too difficult to surmount the obstacles that confound our attempts to penetrate the mind of the fathers. Yet as long as we fail to surmount these obstacles, we cannot fulfil the mission entrusted to us by the modern age as members of the Orthodox church. This mission consists in the capacity not only to make our faith truly “patristic”, but also to express it in a language accessible to 21st century human beings.
[…] One may ask with bewilderment: If two fathers of the church express contradictory opinions, where, then, is truth to be found? I consider such a question to be an inadmissible simplification. There is one truth and, as Clement of Alexandria says, “The way of truth is one.” But into it, “as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides”. One and the same truth may be expressed differently by different Fathers, in different times, in different languages, in different contexts. Besides this, one and the same truth may have several aspects, each of which may be articulated, emphasized, developed or, on the contrary, left in obscurity. The truth has many facets, many shapes, and is dialectical. For instance, the thesis that sacraments administered by a priest who has been canonically ordained by a bishop are effective and salutary is true. But no less true is the antithesis, according to which the moral countenance of the priest should correspond with the prominence of his orders and the sacraments he administers. Between both affirmations there is quite a wide expanse, wherein a theological synthesis may be sought. All that falls within that expanse belongs to the consensus patrum; all that falls beyond is heresy. Donatism, which goes beyond the framework of the “consensus”, is a heresy, whereas the teaching of St Symeon the New Theologian on the “power to bind and to loose”, which remains within that expanse, is absolutely correct – even though it is distinct from opinions expressed by other Fathers who lived in other historical contexts, wrote in other languages and emphasized other aspects of the very same truth.
Then it starts to get scary.
[…]They [Catholic scholars mentioned before this part who have studied the East] have achieved a mighty, qualitative leap forward and succeeded in breaking down the wall between the Christian East and West, laying the foundations for a truly “catholic” theology (meaning a theology which, following Fr John Meyendorff, includes and organically assimilates the theological heritage of East and West in all its diversity). But another qualitative leap forward is needed in order to build the neo-patristic synthesis upon this foundation, a leap that we, who have entered the 21st century, must make.
It is necessary to find a new approach to the Fathers, once which would allow us to see the patristic heritage more comprehensively. I am deeply convinced that a fundamental and indispensable element of such a new approach should be the logically consistent use of a contextual method of patristic reading.
He subsequently outlines it in more detail. Then a friendly example,
Rarely did the East wonder about the reasons for the emergence of certain practices, or the development of certain dogmatic teachings, in the West. Rarely did anyone endeavour to look at the Latin tradition through the eyes of the Latins themselves. One of the exceptions was St Maximus the Confessor, who tried to discern the teaching about the filioque from as it were – the Western context. In his Letter to Marinus, St. Maximus likens the Western teaching on the procession of the Spirit “from the Father and the Son” to the Eastern teaching on the procession “from the Father through the Son”; he does not apply the Byzantine criterion to the Western teaching but merely compares both traditions and looks for similarities between them. Although St Maximus gives a far from exhaustive answer to this matter, which is treated with far more detail in the works of later Byzantine authors, the very fact of a Byzantine saint attempting to view Latin teaching through Latin eyes remains remarkable.
But then he seems to say it’s already been done, and that the historic Hebrew understanding, for instance, doesn’t need to be undertaken.
Salvation has come “from the Jews” and has been propagated in the world in Greek idiom. Indeed, to be Christian means to be Greek, since our basic authority is forever a Greek book, the New Testament. The Christian message has been forever formulated in Greek categories. This was in no sense a blunt reception of Hellenism as such, but a dissection of Hellenism. The old had to die, but the new was still Greek — the Christian Hellenism of our dogmatics, from the New Testament to St Gregory Palamas, nay, to our own time. I am personally resolved to defend this thesis, and on two different fronts: against the belated revival of Hebraism and against all attempts to reformulate dogmas in categories of modern philosophies, whether German, Danish or French (Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin)…
I believe that Florovsky, had he lived to the end of the 20th century, would have lost the war he wished to unleash, at least on the “first front”. In the first half of the 20th century the revival of what Florovsky calls “Hebraism” — the revival of interest for the Semitic tradition (in its Jewish, Aramaic, Syriac or Arabic form) — was only beginning to gain momentum. Florovsky could not have anticipated that in the late 20th century a whole corpus of writings by St Isaac the Syrian would be discovered, which was significantly to enrich our understanding of this great Syriac writer-mystic of the 7th century. Florovsky could not have known many of the many Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian writings that were to be published in the monumental series Corpus Christianorum Orientalium (currently counting over 500 volumes), which fundamentally reversed the then-dominant understanding of the patristic heritage as the sum of the Patrologia Graeca and the Patrologia Latina. Only towards the end of the 20th century did it become obvious that besides these traditions there existed a Patrologia Orientalis as well, the thriving world of “Oriental” theological traditions, deeply authentic in form and content; it became clear that Christianity cannot be reduced to either Byzantinism or Greece.
And about modern philosophies, he’s saying they don’t need to influence or promote a reformulation of dogma. That’s assuring. But what role should they play?
As for Florovsky’s “second front”, although it is indeed dangerous to attempt to “reformulate” dogmas in the categories of contemporary philosophical tendencies, some of these trends — first of all Heidegger’s and Kierkegaard’s existentialism mentioned by Florovsky — by themselves indicate the departure of Western thought from Renaissance anthropocentrism and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, thus clearing the way for a return to the truly Christian catholic theological tradition. As did ancient philosophy at the times of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, existentialist philosophy may serve — and for many has already served — as a “pedagogue” towards Christ. Existentialism can be ecclesialized in the way that ancient philosophy was ecclesialized by the Greek Fathers in the 3rd and 4rth centuries. Moreover the conceptual language of existentialism, which doubtless is closer to persons today than that of the ancient philosophy employed by the Greek Fathers, may be used, if not for the formation of a “neo-patristic synthesis”, then at least for the interpretation of its main elements in the language of our contemporaries. Finally we can not ignore the fact that the theology of the Fathers is, as Florovsky has worded it so well, itself “existential” in essence, in opposition to all “essential” theologies not founded upon a real experience of communion with God.
Next he tackles Catholic mysticism, including the following:
The opinion of St Ignatius Brianchaninov that all works by Catholic mystics after the great schism have been written in a state of spiritual “drunkenness” and delusion is well known. Since Bishop Ignatius has been canonized, some value his opinion as “patristic”. Yet we also know a different approach by other — equally canonized — church writers with a somewhat less cautious and categorical attitude towards Catholic spirituality. Some Orthodox Fathers are known for the direct influence Catholic spirituality exercised upon them. St Dimitri of Rostov was under this influence for his entire life: his homilies as well as other works, including the Reading Compendium of Saint’s lives, based primarily on Latin sources, have a distinctly “Westernizing” character; St Dimitri’s library held books by Bonaventure, Thomas a Kempis, Peter Canisius and other Catholic authors, and in his spirituality such elements as the devotion of the passions of Christ, the five wounds of Christ and the heart of Christ may be traced. The influence of Catholic spirituality on St Tikhon of Zadonskcan equally be sensed.
How can such different approaches towards Catholic spirituality and mysticism between St Ignatius on the one side, and St Dimitri of Rostov and St Tikhon of Zadonsk on the other, be explained? It seems to me that much is accounted for by the differences between the contexts in which each of them live[d].
He goes on to explain. This is the most fearsome part:
The inevitable influence of the Catholic spirituality which St Dimitri and St Tikhon experienced in the 18th century did not, however, undermine their deep rootedness in the Orthodox tradition.
Then after you’re all tense about it he says,
Please do not attempt to find in my words any effort to “justify” Catholic mysticism. I am by no means an “Eastern admirer of Western spirituality” and have no personal sympathy whatsoever for Catholic mysticism, since I have been raised on totally different examples: the writings of the Fathers of the Eastern church, in particular Greek and Syriac. I have not mentioned Catholic mysticism in order to debate its content, but to present and illustrate a method that, in my view, should be applied to any phenomena whatsoever, be in within or without the framework of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
I like Metropolitan Hilarion’s Contextual approach and appreciate his detailed explanation of it here. I have been trying to do similar things (in my own limited way, etc.) on this blog and hope that the Metropolitan’s explanations help guide and explain to others this dangerous, but I believe necessary task. Necessary especially to those with a western heritage. It is interesting that Russia ended up studying western sources a lot. Nevertheless, understanding others is a worthy endeavor. Being surgical about it is the difficult part.