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The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

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Published by: ikonographics on Apr 29, 2010
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10/26/2011

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The time had come in the history of Byzantium when both Church and state took the past
into account — when this past had changed from something recent and familiar into antiquity,
had become hallowed by age, and had developed psychologically into a sort of eternal ideal —
not so much an inspiration to future creativity as a demand that the Church should constantly re-
turn to it and submit to it. With the silent consent of Church and state, a sort of psychological
full-stop was now placed at the end of the account, and the total summed up. Each new reference
to theological themes and each posing of new questions now had to be referred to the past. The
tradition of the holy Fathers, confirmation by their authority even if only outwardly by means of
references and quotations — sometimes even torn out of context — became a kind of guarantee
of reliability. In the work of the last great Father of the Church, St. John of Damascus, we perce-
ive this concern to refer everything to the past and to the Fathers — to rely on a consensus pa-
trum. “His De Fide Orthodoxa has remained the summation of Greek theology, to which nothing
was added and in which little change was made in subsequent centuries,” writes one historian.
Later Byzantium tacitly acknowledged that the catholic truth of the Church had been formulated,
once and for all, by the ancient Fathers and the seven ecumenical councils. Even new misunders-
tandings, new false doctrines or questions, must be answered from the same storehouse; in the
treasure chests of the writings of the Fathers must be sought the answers to all questions.
This backward-looking tendency was fundamental to the stream of Byzantine religious
thought which may be labeled “official” or “school” theology. Its basic assignment was to prove
that everything had been decided, and that reference to the past was the sole guarantee of Ortho-
doxy. But there is no reason to minimize the significance or contributions of this official theolo-
gy; it bore witness to the undoubtedly high level of Byzantine ecclesiastical culture, to spiritual
and intellectual interests that had never been extinguished, and to the constant concern for en-
lightenment, schools, and books that made medieval Byzantium the cultural center of the world
— to which we are indebted for the transmission of all ancient Christian tradition.
The beginning of this official current of Byzantine theology may be attributed to the cul-
tural renaissance that occurred in the second half of the tenth century and was centered in the
university in Constantinople. From this circle of scholars and theologians, assembled by Caesar
Bardas, came the “father of Byzantine theology,” the Patriarch Photius. He combined genuine
theological talent, shown in his polemic against the Western doctrine of the Holy Spirit, with the
academicism that was typical of his followers. His knowledge, was universal and legendary, and
he created a whole galaxy of scholars and theologians; from among his associates came St. Con-
stantine the Philosopher, brother of Methodius, the apostle to the Slavs. His Amphilochia was a
typical example of theological writing, entirely based on patristic quotations.
In the tenth century, under the emperors Leo the Wise and Constantine Porphyrogenitus,
the palace at Constantinople was a center of intense intellectual activity, but the dominant inter-
ests were antiquarian, archeological, and bibliographical. “In this period we know of no authori-
tative name nor any original composition,” writes an historian of the reign of Leo the Wise. From
the point of view of transmitting tradition and culture, the contributions were enormous, but from
the creative point of view they were weak.

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