For twenty-three years as a Protestant, theology was basically an exercise in abstract doctrinal formulation. One was correct in theology if one assented to a pre-determined set of doctrinal bullet points. In this light, theology is about opinions. Surely, educated opinions, but opinions nonetheless.
During the last few years of my journey as a Protestant, I took this practice to its most logical conclusion. Burned too many times by embracing doctrines, ideas and opinions simply because I was told they were true and I must embrace them, I set about constructing my own theological system. Drawing heavily upon NT Wright and other theologians that I respected, I built a theological construct with which I could live.
One of the first things I realized on my way to becoming an Orthodox Christian is that theology is not viewed as matter of opinion in Orthodoxy. Nor is it about formulating an abstract religious belief system. In Orthodoxy, theology is life. As a Protestant, a theologian was one who usually had acquired the appropriate academic training. However, as an Orthodox, a theologian was one who had developed purity in prayer. In fact, there is an Orthodox adage, “The one who has purity in prayer is a true theologian, and the one who is a true theologian has purity in prayer.”
Frankly, that leaves me out. I spent too much time and money pursuing the academic side of theology and too little time praying. Obviously, this was a disappointing epiphany. But when I think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad theology in the Orthodox Church isn’t left in the hands of people like me — men and women who have spent more time with their head in books rather than before icons in prayer.
A new post by Fr Stephen Freeman makes this crystal clear. In it he says:
Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.
Orthodox theology is a verbal representation of Christ. This is HUGE! This removes theology from the realm of academics, theory, and opinions and places it in its rightful place within the obedient life of the Church. And this truth requires a significant transformation within me so that I learn to yield my opinions to the teaching of the Church and embrace the representation of Christ that is revealed within that teaching.
3 thoughts on “A New View on Theology”
I have to say Orthodoxy is full of opinions, Toll Houses for instance, the distinction perhaps is that in Orthodoxy we call them pious opinions. The saints East and West had disagreements. I find great strength in knowing that the saints were not infallible and that they didn’t always agree. In my time in Orthodoxy I have found that depending on the jurisdiction I can find a variety of opinions, the Greeks for instance lean heavily on works being essential to salvation where ROCOR and the OCA seem to heavily balance faith and works. Depending on whether it is a convert or cradle parish the Antiochians can go either way. While ROCOR and Antiochians call Roman Catholics heretics the Greeks conduct joint services. At first I was disheartend to learn that Orthodoxy is not remarkable in its divisions, disagreements and disunity. We are part of the same fallen race as the protestant, the muslim, the atheist. It is by the grace of God I am Orthodox, and when my opinions are contrary to the faith it is Christ that perfects me.
Thank you for sharing, David. I appreciate the distinction of pious opinions. And your reminder that Christ perfects us is timely.
A reminder I think we all need often!!