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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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Philosophy and Theology.

Into contemporary theological thought there has penetrated the view that Christian dogmatic

theology should be supplemented, made “fruitful,” enlightened by a philosophical foundation,

and that it should accept philosophical conceptions into itself.

“To justify the faith of our Fathers, to raise it to a new degree of rational awareness” — this

is the way V.S. Soloviev defines his aim in the first lines of one of his works, The History and

Future of Theocracy. In the aim thus formulated there would be nothing essentially worthy of

blame. However, one must be careful not to mix together two spheresdogmatic learning and

philosophy. Such a mixture is liable to lead one into confusion and to the eclipsing of their purpose,

their content, and their methods.

In the first centuries of Christianity the Church writers and Fathers of the Church responded

broadly to the philosophical ideas of their time, and they themselves used the concepts which had

been worked out by philosophy. Why? By this they threw out a bridge from Greek philosophy to

Christian philosophy. Christianity stepped forth as a world-view which was to replace the philosophical

views of the ancient world, as standing above them. Then, having become in the

fourth century the official religion of the state, it was called by the state itself to take the place of

all systems of world-views which had existed up to that time. This is the reason why, at the First

Ecumenical Council in the presence of the Emperor, there occurred a debate of the Christian

teachers of faith with a “philosopher.”

But there had to be not simply a substitution (of Christian philosophy for pagan). Christian

apologetics took upon itself the aim of taking possession of pagan philosophical thought and di-recting its concepts into the channel of Christianity. The ideas of Plato stood before Christian

writers as a preparatory stage in paganism for Divine Revelation. Apart from this, in the course

of things, Orthodoxy had to fight Arianism, not so much on the basis of Sacred Scripture as by

means of philosophy, since Arianism had taken from Greek philosophy its fundamental error

namely, the teaching of the Logos as an intermediary principle between God and the world,

standing below the Divinity itself. But even with all this, the general direction of the whole of

Patristic thought was to base all the truths of the Christian faith on the foundation of Divine

Revelation and not on rational, abstract deductions. St. Basil the Great, in his treatise, “What

Benefit Can Be Drawn from Pagan Works,” gives examples of how to use the instructive material

contained in these writings. With the universal spread of Christian conceptions, the interest

in Greek philosophy gradually died out in Patristic writings.

And this was natural. Theology and philosophy are distinguished first of all by their content.

The preaching of the Savior on earth declared to men not abstract ideas, but a new life for the

Kingdom of God; the preaching of the Apostles was the preaching of salvation in Christ. Therefore,

Christian dogmatic theology has as its chief object the thorough examination of the teaching

of salvation, its necessity, and the way to it. In its basic content, theology is soteriological (from

the Greek soteria, “salvation”). Questions of ontology (the nature of existence), of God in Himself,

of the essence of the world and the nature of man, are treated by dogmatic theology in a very

limited way. This is not only because they are given to us in sacred Scripture in such a limited

form (and, with regard to God, in a hidden form), but also for psychological reasons. Silence

concerning the inward in God is an expression of the living feeling of God's omnipresence, a reverence

before God, a fear of God. In the Old Testament this feeling led to a fear of even naming

the name of God. Only in the exaltation of reverent feeling is the thought of the Fathers of the

Church in some few moments raised up to beholding the life within God. The chief area of their

contemplation was the truth of the Holy Trinity revealed in the New Testament, and Orthodox

Christian theology as a whole has followed this path.

Philosophy goes on a different path. It is chiefly interested precisely in questions of ontology:

the essence of existence, the oneness of existence, the relation between the absolute principle

and the world and its concrete manifestations, and so forth. Philosophy by its nature comes

from skepsis, from doubt over what our conceptions tell us; and even when coming to faith in

God (in idealistic philosophy), it reasons about Godobjectively,” as of an object of cold knowledge,

an object which is subject to rational examination and definition, to an explanation of its

essence and of its relationship as absolute existence to the world of manifestations.

These two spheresdogmatic theology and philosophy —are likewise to be distinguished

by their methods and their sources.

The source of theologizing is Divine Revelation, which is contained in Sacred Scripture and

Sacred Tradition. The fundamental character of Sacred Scripture and Tradition depends on our

faith in their truth. Theology gathers and studies the material which is to be found in these

sources, systematizes this material, and divides it into appropriate categories, using in this work

the same means which the experimental sciences use.

Philosophy is rational and abstract. It proceeds not from faith, like theology, but seeks to

base itself either on the indisputable fundamental axioms of reason, deducing from them further

conclusions, or upon the facts of science or general human knowledge.

Therefore one can simply not say that philosophy is able to raise the religion of the Fathers

to the degree of knowledge.However, by the distinctions mentioned above, one should not deny entirely the cooperation

of these two spheres. Philosophy itself comes to the conclusion that there are boundaries which

human thought by its very nature is not capable of crossing. The very fact that the history of philosophy

for almost its whole duration has had two currentsidealistic and materialistic

shows that its systems depend upon a personal predisposition of mind and heart; in other words,

that they are based upon something which lies beyond the boundaries of proof. That which lies

beyond the boundaries of proof is the sphere of faith, a faith which can be negative and unreligious,

or positive and religious. For religious thought, what “is above” is the sphere of Divine

Revelation.

In this point there appears the possibility of a union of the two spheres of knowledge, theology

and philosophy. Thus is religious philosophy created; and in Christianity, this means Christian

philosophy.

But Christian religious philosophy has a difficult path: to bring together freedom of thought,

as a principle of philosophy, with faithfulness to the dogmas and the whole teaching of the

Church. “Go by the free way, wherever the free mind draws you,” says the duty of the thinker;

“be faithful to Divine Truth,” whispers to him the duty of the Christian. Therefore, one might always

expect that in practical realization the compilers the systems of Christian philosophy will be

forced to sacrifice, willingly or unwillingly, the principles of one sphere in favor of the other. The

Church consciousness welcomes sincere attempts at creating a harmonious, philosophical Christian

world view; but the Church views them as private, personal creations, and does not sanction

them with its authority. In any case, it is essential there be a precise distinction between dogmatic

theology and Christian philosophy, and every attempt to turn dogmatics into Christian philosophy

must be decisively rejected. (Probably the most successful attempt, from the Orthodox point of view, at the

creation of a true Christian philosophy in 19th-century Russia, is to be found in the philosophical essays of I.M.

Kireyevsky (+1856), a spiritual son of Elder Macarius of Optina who also helped the Elder in the Optina translations

of the works of the Holy Fathers. Unfortunately, Russian religious thought in the second half of the 19th century did

not follow his lead; if it had, Russian Orthodoxy might have been spared the neo-Gnostic speculations of Soloviev

and such followers of his as Bulgakov and Berdyaev, whose influence continues in "liberal" Orthodox circles even to

this day. Kireyevsky's philosophy might well be considered the Orthodox answer to these speculations. See Father

Alexey Young, A Man Is His Faith, London, 1980.)




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