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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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New currents in Russian philosophico-theological thought
The question of dogmatic development.
The question of dogmatic development has long been a subject of discussion in theological
literature: Can one accept, from the Church's point of view, the idea of the development of dogmas?
In the majority of cases this is essentially a dispute over words; a difference occurs because
the word “development” is understood in different ways: Does one understand “development” as
the uncovering of something already given, or as a new revelation?
In general, the view of theological thought is this: the Church's consciousness from the
Apostles down to the end of the Church's life, being guided by the Holy Spirit, in its essence is
one and the same. Christian teaching and the scope of Divine Revelation are unchanging. The
Church's teaching of faith does not develop, and the Church's awareness of itself, with the course
of the centuries, does not become higher, deeper, and broader than it was among the Apostles.
There is nothing to add to the teaching of faith handed down by the Apostles. Although the
Church is always guided by the Holy Spirit, still we do not see in the history of the Church, and
we do not expect, new dogmatic revelations.
Such a view on the question of dogmatic development was present, in particular, in the Russian
theological thought of the 19th century. The seeming difference in the opinions of various
persons on this question was a matter of the circumstances under which it was discussed. In discussions
with Protestants it was natural to defend the right of the Church to “develop” dogmas,
meaning by this the right of Councils to establish and sanction dogmatic propositions. In discussions
with Roman Catholics, on the other hand, it was necessary to oppose the arbitrary dogmatic
innovations made by the Roman Church in modern times, and thus to oppose the principle of the
creation of new dogmas which have not been handed down by the ancient Church. In particular,
the Old Catholics nearer to Orthodoxy, with both sides rejecting the Vatican dogma of papal infallibility
— strengthened in Russian theological thought the conservative point of view on the
question of dogmatic development, the view which does not approve of the establishment of new
dogmatic definitions.In the 1880's we see a different approach to this question. V. S. Soloviev, who supported the
union of Orthodoxy with the Roman Church, desiring to justify the dogmatic development of the
Roman Church defended the idea of the development of the Church's dogmatic consciousness.
He argues thus: “The Body of Christ changes and is perfected” like every organism; the original
“basis” of faith is uncovered and clarified in the history of Christianity; “Orthodoxy stands not
merely by antiquity, but by the eternally living Spirit of God.”
Soloviev was inspired to defend the point of view of “development” not only by his sympathies
for the Roman church, but also by his own religious-philosophical outlook — his ideas on
Sophia, the wisdom of God, on God-manhood as a historical process, etc. Carried along by his
own metaphysical system, Soloviev in the 1890's began to put forth the teaching of the “eternal
feminine,” which, he says, “is not merely an inactive image in God's mind, but a living spiritual
being which possesses all the fullness of power and action. The whole process of the world and
history is the process of its realization and incarnation in a great multiplicity of forms and degrees...
The heavenly object of our love is only one, and it is always and for everyone one and the
same, the eternal Femininity of God.” (Soloviev's ideas might be superficially compared to the "women's
liberation" of today, whose latest attempt in religious circles has been to "desex" the Bible and remove all references
to the "masculine" nature of God. Today's movement, however, does not really touch on philosophy or theology,
remaining a movement primarily of social "liberation"; whereas Soloviev's thought is more serious, being a kind of
resurrection of ancient Gnostic philosophy. Both of them, however, are equally outlandish in the forms their ideas
take, and both are agreed in seeing a necessity to change traditional Christian dogmas and expressions.)
Thus, a whole series of new concepts began to enter Russian religious thought. These concepts
did not evoke any special resistance in Russian theological circles, since they were expressed
more as philosophy than as theology.
Soloviev by his literary works and speeches was able to inspire an interest in religious problems
among a wide circle of Russian educated society. However, this interest was joined to a deviation
from the authentic Orthodox way of thinking. This was expressed, for example, in the
Petersburg “religious-philosophical meetings” of 1901-1903. At these meetings, such questions
as the following were raised: “Can one consider the dogmatic teaching of the Church already
completed? Are we not to expect new revelations? In what way can a new religious creativity be
expressed in Christianity, and how can it be harmonized with Sacred Scripture and the Tradition
of the Church, with the decrees the Ecumenical Councils, and the teachings of the Holy Fathers?”
Especially symptomatic were the disputes concerning “dogmatic development.”
In Russian religious and social thought, at the beginning of the present century there appeared
an expectation of the awakening of a “new religious consciousness” on Orthodox soil.
The idea began to be expressed that theology should not fear new revelations, that dogmatics
should use a more broadly rational basis, that it cannot entirely ignore the personal prophetic inspiration
of the present day, that there should be a broadening of the circle of fundamental dogmatic
problems, so that dogmatics itself might present a complete philosophical-theological
world-view. The eccentric ideas expressed by Soloviev received further development and
changes, and the first place among them was given to the problem of sophiology. The most outstanding
representatives of the new current were Priest Paul Florensky (The Pillar and Foundation
of the Church and other works) and Sergei N. Bulgakov, who was later an Archpriest (his
later sophiological writings include The Unsetting Light, The Unburnt Bush, Person and Personality,
The Friend of the Bridegroom, The Lamb of God, The Comforter, and The Revelation of
John).In connection with these questions it is natural for us to ask: Does dogmatic theology, in its
usual form, satisfy the need of the Christian to have a whole world outlook? Does not dogmatics,
if it refuses to acknowledge the principle of development, remain a lifeless collection of separate
With all assurance one must say that the sphere of revealed truths which enter into the accepted
systems of dogmatic theology gives every opportunity for the formation of an exalted and
at the same time clear and simple world-view. Dogmatic theology, built on the foundation of firm
dogmatic truths, speaks of a Personal God Who is inexpressibly near to us, Who does not need
intermediaries between Himself and the creation: it speaks of God in the Holy Trinity “Who is
above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:6), of God Who loves His creation, Who is a
lover of mankind and condescending to our infirmities, but does not deprive His creatures of
freedom; it speaks of man and of mankind, of his high purpose and exalted spiritual possibilities,
and at the same time of his sad moral level at the present time, of his fall; it presents ways and
means for the return to the lost paradise, revealed by the Incarnation and the death on the Cross
of the Son of God, and the way to acquire the eternal blessed life. All these are vitally necessary
truths. Here faith and love, knowledge and its application in action, are inseparable.
Dogmatic theology does not pretend to satisfy on all points the curiosity of the human mind.
There is no doubt that to our spiritual gaze Divine revelation has revealed only a small part of the
knowledge of God and of the spiritual world. We see, in the Apostle's words, “through a glass
darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). An innumerable number of God's mysteries remain closed for us.
But one must state that the attempts to broaden the boundaries of theology, whether on a
mystical or on a rational foundation, which have appeared both in ancient and modern times, do
not lead to a more complete knowledge of God and the world. These systems lead into the thickets
of refined mental speculations and place the mind before new difficulties. The chief thing,
however, is this: nebulous opinions about the inner life in God, such as are to be seen in certain
theologians who have entered the path of philosophizing in theology, do not harmonize with the
immediate feeling of reverence, with the awareness and feeling of God's closeness and sanctity,
and indeed, they stifle this feeling.
However, by these considerations we do not at all deny every kind of development in the
sphere of dogma. What, then, is subject to development in dogmatics?
The history of the Church shows that the quantity of dogmas, in the narrow sense of the
word has gradually increased. It is not that dogmas have developed, but that the sphere of dogma
in the history of the Church has broadened until it has come to its own limit, given by Sacred
Scripture. In other words, the increase has been in the quantity of the truths of faith that have received
a precise formulation at the Ecumenical Councils, or in general have been confirmed by
Ecumenical Councils. The work of the Church in this direction has consisted in the precise definition
of dogmatic statements, in their clarification, in showing their basis in the word of God, in
finding their confirmation in Church Tradition, in declaring them obligatory for all the faithful. In
this work of the Church the scope of dogmatic truths always remains in essence one and the
same; but in view of the irruption of unorthodox opinions and teachings, the Church sanctions
some dogmatic statements which are Orthodox and rejects others which are heretical. One cannot
deny that thanks to such dogmatic definitions the content of faith has become more clear in the
awareness of the people of the Church and in the Church hierarchy itself.
Further, theological learning itself is subject to development. Dogmatic theology can use
various methods; it can be supplemented by material for further study; it can make a greater orlesser use of the facts of exegesis (the interpretation of the text of Sacred Scripture), of Biblical
philology, of Church history, of Patristic writings, and likewise of rational concepts; it can respond
more fully or more timidly to heresies, false teachings and various currents of contemporary
religious thought. But theological learning (as opposed to theology proper) is an outward
subject in relation to the spiritual life of the Church. It only studies the work of the Church and
its dogmatic and other decrees. Dogmatic theology as a branch of learning can develop, but it
cannot develop and perfect the teaching of the Church. (One may see an approximate analogy of
this in the study of any writer: Pushkinology, for example, can grow, but from this the sum of the
thoughts and images placed into his work by the poet himself is not increased.) The flowering or
decline of theological learning can coincide or fail to coincide with the general level, with the
rise or decline of spiritual life in the Church at one or another historical period. The development
of theological learning can be impeded without loss to the essence of spiritual life. Theological
learning is not called to guide the Church in its entirety; it is proper for it to seek out and to keep
strictly to the guidance of the Church's consciousness.
It is given to us to know what is necessary for the good of our souls. The knowledge of God,
of Divine life and Divine Providence, is given to men in the degree to which it has an immediate
moral application in life. The Apostle teaches us this when he writes: “According as His divine
power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness ... giving all diligence,
add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance
patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly
kindness charity” (2 Peter 1:3-7). For the Christian the most essential thing is moral perfection.
Everything else which has been given to him by the word of God and the church is a means to
this fundamental aim.