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Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalists" by George Demacopoulos

Dr. George Demacopoulos of Fordham University recently posted an article entitled "Orthodox
Fundamentalists," on the Greek Archdiocese's website. There are a number of problems with it
that I think need to be pointed out.
To begin with, he doesn't really explain what he means by the term "Fundamentalist". The term,
as it was originally coined, referred to those conservative Protestants that, in response to
modernist tendencies, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, posited that there were
five fundamental (one might even say "minimal") beliefs that Christians had to adhere to:
1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth
The term "Fundamentalist" was later (beginning in 1979, around the time of the Iran hostage
crisis) applied to radical Moslems, and then later to just about any conservative expression of any
religion. I don't think this broadening of the meaning of the term was an accidental move. It was
an attempt to associate conservative Christians, like Jerry Falwell and his group "The Moral
Majority" with the likes of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden, and this was done for
domestic political purposes. The term has thus really ceased to have much meaning, aside from
those who wish to use it as a synonym for "stupid," and that seems to be the primary level of
meaning with which Dr. Demacopoulos is using the term.
Dr. Demacopoulos makes a loose connection with the original meaning of the term when he
says: "Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological
teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according
to them." The only problem with this statement is that he provides no examples, and the
statement is simply not true. If we take, for example, the Greek Old Calendarists, which would
be among the most likely candidates to fall into the category that Dr. Demacopoulos is speaking
of, you could say that the Calendar issue is used by them as a litmus test issue, but it is hardly the

case that they would argue that one needed to only be on the Old Calendar to satisfy their
definition of fidelity to Orthodoxy. In fact, the fault the Greek Old Calendarists have, is not that
they have a minimalist understanding of Orthodoxy, but that they are maximalists who take some
issues which should not be matters over which one should be willing to break communion over,
too far. Even among the Old Calendarists themselves they have further divided over many issues.
So in fact, their tendency is exactly the opposite of Protestant Fundamentalists, who really were
focusing on the minimum one had to believe. And it is actually the Orthodox modernists who
typically try to reduce the "essentials" of the Orthodox Faith to the lowest common denominator,
and so they are far closer to being fundamentalists in the original sense of the term.
Dr. Demacopoulos then asserts: "The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in
the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters." This
lazy straw man caricature is not what one would expect of professor of theology at a respected
university. If that is the key intellectual error, I would like to find one example of a person who
actually fits that description. I doubt that even the slug-nuttiest Old Calendarist that one might
find would argue that "the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters."
We are then told that "Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions,
or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox
teaching." I would be curious to know why St. Mark of Ephesus would not be considered an
"Orthodox Fundamentalist," because he broke communion with those who failed to meet what
St. Mark considered to be the standard for Orthodox teaching. Probably, the answer we would
get is that St. Mark was not a intellectual troglodyte, but regardless, there obviously are
boundaries that can be crossed that warrant such an action, and so the issue is not whether
someone is a fundamentalist because they believe there are such boundaries, but rather the merits
of the specific issues at stake... which we are not provided with in this article.
He then goes on to provide examples that knock down the straw man he has set up:
"Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most
influential saints of the Church disagreed with one anotherat times quite bitterly. St. Peter and
St. Paul were at odds over circumcision. St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over
the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit. And St. John Damascene, who lived in a
monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him
in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community."
Here again, we find careless overstatements. Where do we find St. Peter and St. Paul disagreeing
over circumcision? We find them in very clear agreement on that issue in Acts 15. Most likely,
he has in mind Galatians chapter 2, but the disagreement was not over circumcision... it was over
St. Peter's hypocrisy while around those "of the circumcision" -- there is no indication that they
had a substantive disagreement on the issue. They had a disagreement over St. Peter's behavior
and inconsistency, and St. Paul called him on it, to his face, and in the presence of all (Galatians
2:11,14). There is also no indication in the text, nor in Church Tradition that this was a matter of
ongoing disagreement or division between these two saints. This was rather an example of even a
great saint being capable of falling into temporary error.

It is also clearly excessive to claim that St. John of Damascus "abandoned the hymnographical
tradition that preceded him". What was the hymnographical tradition that preceded him? The
way older aspects of the services have generally ended up being sidelined was not usually by
them being replaced by new hymns, but rather by being supplemented with newer hymns, and
then as time went on, some of the older texts were generally omitted. If you take the introduction
of the texts we use now for the canons at Matins, these hymns were originally sung with the
Biblical Odes, which were the older texts that preceded the composition of those hymns. Only as
time went by did the practice develop of generally omitting the odes, and retaining the troparia
that were composed to be sung with them (though the older practice is still followed to some
extent on the weekdays of Great Lent). So to suggest that St. John tossed out all that preceded
him is simply contrary to fact.
Also, there is a wee difference when a holy man, such as St. John of Damascus, introduces some
new liturgical practice, than when a committee of cigar smoking "theologians" does so. For
example, the Greek practice of saying "With the fear of God and with faith and love, draw near"
is clearly a change from the original form of "With the fear of God and with faith, draw near".
But it was, I believe, introduced by the Kollyvades Fathers. I was told by someone who is a good
source on the matter that St. John of Shanghai also followed this practice. I am inclined to bow to
the wisdom of these saints, but think it is right to be skeptical of changes that are introduced by
someone who may be very intelligent, but who is not in the same league as these saints.
We find even further hyperbole when Dr. Demacopoulos asserts: "It is important to understand
that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with
additional falsehoods. One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic
community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching. Another insists that the Fathers
were anti-intellectual. And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers
necessitates that one resist all things Western."
While it is true that monastic communities have generally been bulwarks of Orthodoxy, I don't
know of anyone who would say that this has always and invariably been so. I doubt a single
example could be produced of anyone who would seriously argue that the Fathers were antiintellectuals. And the closest example of one who argues that the teachings of the Fathers
necessitates that one "resist all things Western" would be Fr. John Romanides, and his admirers...
but not even they would make such a sweeping statement as is made here, and I don't think Fr.
John Romanides was an anti-intellectual.
And when Dr. Demacopoulos makes the assertion that "By repurposing the tradition as a political
weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their
religious leaders", it would be helpful if he would provide some examples and name some names
so that we would have some idea of who and what he is referring to.
Furthermore, I am not so sure that "The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soulwrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world." If that were the case, I am not
sure how they would be any different than Lao Tzu, Gautama Buddha, Socrates, or Muhammad.
Their significance is in how they explained, articulated, passed on, and earnestly contended for
"the Faith once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). They were not just smart men who were

earnest, but holy men who received the Faith of the Apostles, and passed it on without alteration
-- and in doing so, in the face of new challenges to that Faith, enriched the Church with their
words, their faithful lives, and their examples. We understand the Faith better because of them,
but we do not now have a new faith or a different faith.
And he closes with this call to action: "It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to
proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish
adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion." But I don't see how
Orthodox hierarchs or lay leaders can answer his call, even if they were inclined to do so,
because Dr. Demacopoulos gives us no indication exactly who or what he is talking about.
If someone can be pointed to that is fairly described by the descriptions found in this article, I
would certainly think such a person was worthy of criticism. But let's talk specifics, rather than
tossing around meaningless terms that would have us believe that there is real line of
philosophical agreement between the average conservative Evangelical Protestant, some
unspecified group of Orthodox Christians, and Jihadist terrorists that are beheading and stoning
those they disagree with.
Update: Someone referred me to the conference that Dr. Demacopoulos was apparently referring
to. There was a conference (entitled "Patristic Theology and Post-Patristic Heresy") held in
Piraeus, Greece, on February 15, 2012, which was at least in large part in response to the Volos
conference he mentioned. Among its speakers were Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Professor
Emeritus of Athens University, and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). Are these really the
"Orthodox fundamentalists" who claim that the Fathers were anti-intellectual, and agreed on all
points of theology and ethics? You can read their papers, among others, in a pdf format, by
clicking here and clicking here.