Chapter 5 – Theology as Ecclesial Service

Dogmas, the truths of the faith necessary for salvation (p. 59), must have their endless content continually disclosed. This process of disclosure is the task of theology (p. 79). Theological inquiry informs all aspects of church life, from preaching to pastoral care, to sanctification (ibid). It is shaped and inspired by the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.

Theology is tasked with the mission of taking dogmatic truths and conveying them in a way that aids the faithful in understanding the various aspects of the Christian faith. Therefore, it cannot remain stagnant or inflexible. While the dogmas themselves are true, timeless and unchanging, the theological interpretations of these truths need to be able to communicate with the time and place in which the interpretation occurs.

This is not to say that theology, thus understood, deviates from the dogmatic truths to which they point. Fr. Staniloae makes this clear in his discussion of the relationship between dogma and theologoumena. If theologoumena is to be understood as theological examinations which have not been adopted as official ecclesiastical formulations, then implied in this is an assertion that there are root-level agreements between theologoumena and the dogmas to which they refer. Otherwise, they are not even to be considered theologoumena. Moreover, they will simply become obsolete over time, because they do not reference the dogmatic truths of the Church, nor do they aid in the salvific work of the Church. Ultimately they will be abandoned (p. 83).

In the Orthodox context, “[t]heology is done in the Church through the personal thinking of her members (p. 85).” There is no separation between Church and theology as exists in the Catholic Church (ibid.). The inerrancy of the Church and its theological work is assured because the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and because the Church preserves the dogmas it was given through experience and represented in the synods of bishops (ibid.). “All members of the Church are part of this body and all do theology to a greater or lesser extent.”

While each member of the Church can theologize, the temptation towards individualism can be circumvented in a couple of ways. The first is that the individual works to make sure that the theology that is derived is in harmony with the teaching that has been received. Also, quoting Evagrios Pontos, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian (p. 86).”

Remembering that theology is the work of presenting dogmatic truths, it is important to emphasize that the theologian needs to be an active participant in the life of the Church. “The theologian will never know God [God from the experience of His saving activity among men]f he does not enter into a personal relationship with God and with the faithful through prayer (p. 87).

As time progresses, and as new problems arise, it is the task of theology to bring those issue to bear over and against the dogmatic truths of the faith. For while the truths are unchangeable, to present them in a way that is rigid and insensitive to the matters of the age would be both inadequate and damaging (p. 88). However, in bringing theology to bear on current events, three conditions should be held: 1) fidelity to the dogmas which are held and knowable through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church; 2) responsibility to the faithful who are contemporary to the theology being done and 3) openness to the eschatological future, the future of deification, that awaits the faithful. A theology that neglects the tradition of the past is damaging, just as is a theology that fails to be relevant to the challenges of the present, just as is a theology which fails to prepare the faithful for a future that is understood to be an eternity in the presence of God, out theosis.

All of these concerns should be held in balance, should be equally considered. An overemphasis on any one or two, to the detriment of those remaining, would produce a deficient theology which at best would be innocuous or irrelevant and ultimately cast aside, and at worst it would be destructive or even corrosive to the soul.

While theology is meant to take all of these aspects into account, it must be understood that it will never explain in toto the One to whom the dogmas of the faith refer. Theology does not supplant dogma. Neither does theology exhaust all of the dogmatic truths that concern God. This is the very basis for the emphasis on apophaticism that is central to Orthodox thought. Citing Lossky, the Church is not a school of philosophy debating abstract coincepts, it is “essentially a communion with the living God (p. 92; cf. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (London, 1957) p. 42).”

Theology thus continues to advance our understanding of God through its re-presenting of the dogmas of the faith. Remaining faithful to the teachings of the past, relevant to the concerns of the present, and humbly open to the challenges of the future, theology continues to nourish and sustain the faithful of the Church.

Staniloae concludes this chapter with yet another incisive comment from our father among the saints, Maximos: “Theology will be effective if it stands always before God and helps the faithful to do the same in their every act: to see God through the formulae of the past, to express him through the explanations of the present, to hope and to call for the advancement towards full union with him in the life to come (p. 93).

Forgive me.

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