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Challenges of Renewal

and Reformation Facing the

Orthodox Church1
Pantelis Kalaitzidis

Dr Pantelis Kalaitzidis is Director of the Academy for Theological Studies, Volos, Greece.

The Orthodox Church claims faithfulness to apostolic and patristic tradition, positioning
itself in unbroken continuity with the early church, while allowing its theological thought
and mission in the world to be determined in large part by patristic theology. It is also
constantly aware that it preserves unchanged, in both letter and spirit, the tradition han-
ded down from the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium and the undivided
tradition of the Church Fathers. Yet, alongside this emphasis on tradition, the Orthodox
Church never forgets that it is the ‘‘Church of the Holy Spirit’’ – the church which, more
than any other, has maintained the proper place of the third person of the Trinity (with all
that this implies for ecclesiology, canonical structure and the issue of unity), and which
has been able to preserve the renewing breath of the Comforter and the charismatic
dimension of church life.

Both geographically and culturally, the Orthodox Church is chiefly to be found at the
border between West and East. The most reliable estimates number its adherents
between 180 and 200 million worldwide.2 The majority of these are still concentrated in
its traditional heartlands – the Middle East, the Balkans and South-Eastern and Eastern
Europe. Then there are others scattered across the Orthodox diaspora of North Amer-
ica (the United States and Canada), Australia and Central and Western Europe.
Alongside those from traditionally Orthodox family backgrounds, more and more con-
verts are joining the ranks, Westerners who have turned to Orthodoxy by their own

A version of this paper was presented in French to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s conference on Religions and Reform in
Jordan in 2007. This English version has been edited following translation.
It should be noted that many of the assessments made bundle together the adherents of the eastern Orthodox Church
(i.e. the Byzantine Church) and those of the so-called ‘‘oriental Orthodox’’ churches (formerly known as ‘‘Nestorian’’
or pre-Chalcedonian – Armenians, Copts etc.). This study and the figures offered above refer only to the eastern Orthodox
DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2009.00014.x
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Pantelis Kalaitzidis Challenges of Renewal and Reformation Facing the Orthodox Church

decision rather than by birth, or because of a particular national, cultural or other


Tradition, Renewal and Reformation

By counting among its emphases the notions of tradition and faithfulness to it, the
Orthodox Church lays claim to the catholicity and universality of Christian belief: it de-
fines itself as the church that preserves the fullness of Christian faith and truth. However,
this emphasis on tradition, coupled with a number of historical factors and its subjection
to five centuries of Turkish Ottoman rule, has meant that terms like reformation, revi-
sion, evolution and innovation have become taboo. Such terms are, if not quite
forbidden, then at least seen as problematic and foreign to Orthodox tradition and
spirituality – and this despite the fact that the Orthodox Church has been and still is
characterized by a strong pneumatology. Thus, just as some Protestant churches still
suffer from a certain level of fundamentalism regarding the Bible or biblical texts, the
Orthodox Church, for its part, often finds itself trapped and frozen in a ‘‘fundamental-
ism of tradition’’, which makes it hard for its pneumatology and its charismatic
dimension to be worked out in practice. This prevents it from being part of the modern
world and discourages it from displaying its creative gifts and strengths.

In contrast to today’s stubborn resistance to change, there is no shortage in Orthodox

history of moments of decisive change and development, or even the timely re-
interpretation and reformulation of ideas. These moments should be seen as the natural
result and even the inevitable corollary of pneumatology and a theology of the incarna-
tion; hence we should see them as part of the church’s constant Pentecost experience or,
indeed, as the consequence of its involvement in the world. Thus, we are quite rightly
reminded that the ‘‘Call for reform and renewal in the Church is always legitimate if we

For an overview of the Orthodox Church’s theology and spirituality and on the historical and sociological contexts that have
shaped it, cf. Ware, T. (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia) (1997) The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, London, Revised Edition;
Meyendorff, J. (1962) The Orthodox Church: Its past and its role in the world today, translated by John Chapin, Darton, Longman and
Todd, London; Clément, O. L’Église Orthodoxe (1961) (The Orthodox Church), no. 949 (2002) in Presses Universitaires de
France’s Que sais-je? (What do I know?) series (in French). PUF, Paris. Cf. idem, (1969) Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athénogoras
(Conversations with Patriarch Athenogoras) particularly ch. 2, Qu’est-ce que l’Église orthodoxe (What is the Orthodox Church?),
pp.18–30, Fayard, Paris (in French); idem (1996) La vérité vous rendra libre. Dialogues avec le Patriarche œcuménique Bartholomée Ier (The
truth will set you free. Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I), in particular pp.15–36, Jean-Claude Lattès/
DDB, Paris (in French).; Schmemann, A. (1977) The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, translated from the Russian by Lydia W
Kesich, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York; Špidlı́k, T. (1986–2005) The Spirituality of the Christian East: Vol I – Systematic
handbook and Vol II – Prayer, translated by Anthony P. Gythiel, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI. Cf. also Boulgakoff, Fr S.
(1980) L’orthodoxie: Essai sur la doctrine de l’Église (Orthodoxy: an essay on Church doctrine), translated from Russian to French (not
available in English) by C. Andronikoff, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, (first abridged French version: Alcan, Paris, 1932).

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believe that the Holy Spirit is perpetually at work in the Church’’.4 This is the vision that
gives the story of the church in the world its historical dimension and its eschatological

This view of pneumatology and eschatology – which is itself part of the broader per-
spective opened up to us by Christ’s incarnation and his joint divine-human nature –
means that there is indeed space for reformation within the Orthodox Church, and all
the more so once we see that this reformation has nothing to do with the heart of the
faith, with foundational tenets like our Trinitarian or Christological doctrines.5 Instead,
they refer to temporal problems, dealing primarily with practical, moral, canonical and
liturgical questions. It was the great Orthodox theologian and canon-law expert Father
Nikolai Afanasiev who said that the church canons were the temporal expressions of
eternal truths.6 In saying this, he was implying that, alongside the fundamental doctrines
– those immutable, eternal truths that neither time, nor era, nor social or cultural context
can bend or alter – there exist also the temporal expression and historical application of
these truths, and these are subject to changes, modifications and reforms.7 In other
words, reforms are often catalyzed by an attempt to formulate and reformulate the how of
truth, while keeping its core intact. They have to do with our understanding and inter-
pretation of that truth, with how we take the eternal, enhypostatic truth of Christianity
and embody and adapt it in a specific time and place, but do not meddle with the essence
of that truth. So, aside from the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity, which form the very
core of the faith of the church and can never be reformed, we believe that everything else
may – indeed, sometimes must – come up for discussion. In this regard, it is worth
noting that all the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided church in the first millennium
(at which the Christian faith was hammered out and the limits of catholic belief de-
termined – that is, the fullness of the faith, as opposed to mere partial acceptance of it,
which is heresy) ultimately dealt with essentially Trinitarian or Christological questions.
Applying this idea ecumenically, one could argue that, with the exception of the doctrines
of Christ and the Trinity, which make up the very cornerstone of Christian faith and
praxis, everything else may be discussed freely and even reformed, depending on the

Patsavos, L.J. (1995) Ecclesiastical Reform: At What Cost? The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 40, p.1.
We should take this opportunity to make it clear that Orthodox theology does not think of church doctrines or dogmas as mere
abstract concepts or self-evident theoretical principles, but rather as expressions of the experience and life of the church.
Therefore, when they are distorted by heretical teachings, it has repercussions and consequences, not at a theoretical level but at
the level of church and personal life. On this topic, cf. the clarifications provided in Yannaras, C. (1989) La foi vivante de l’Église.
Introduction à la théologie orthodoxe ( The living faith of the Church. Introduction to Orthodox theology), translated from Greek to
French by M. Stavrou, pp.33–38, Cerf, Paris, (not available in English).
Afanasiev, N. (1967) The Canons of the Church: Changeable or Unchangeable? St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 11, pp.61–62.
Afanasiev (1967) pp.61–62. Cf. also Patsavos (1995) pp.1–2, 4.

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exact situation (time, place, social changes, new philosophical trends etc.), because these
other things have to do with this world rather than the ‘‘heart’’ of the faith.

This understanding of reformation, and of what can be reformed, fundamentally pre-

supposes something that is not always found among Orthodox believers: an approach, at
once constructive and critical, of contextual theology. While it can sometimes go too far,
contextual theology highlights the close link between the text and its context, and re-
minds us that we cannot do theology in a purely intellectual or academic way, abstracted
from history and socio-cultural context, from pastoral needs and from the myriad dif-
ferent forms of human culture and theological expression.8 The understanding of
reformation outlined above also implies something else: an ‘‘Orthodox’’ version of the
principle of ‘‘Ecclesia reformata et simper reformanda’’. The motif of ‘‘constant reformation’’ of
the human and temporal aspects of the church – the principle of the church as ‘‘re-
formed, and always being reformed’’ – is usually attributed to Protestantism; indeed, the
eminent Orthodox historian and theologian John Meyendorff wrote that it ‘‘is obviously
a Protestant form of understanding Tradition’’.9 Nevertheless, he said, it can and must be
applied by Orthodox Christianity ‘‘to those elements which are only human, and there
are many of them in the historical Church.’’ Meyendorff continued, ‘‘Moreover that
which God gives to us, the divine presences of his fullness in us and among us, in the
sacraments and in the Truth preserved by the Holy Spirit in the Church, is above and
beyond any ‘reformation’.’’10 In Meyendorff ’s view, this goes to the heart of the differ-
ence between Protestant and Orthodox approaches to reformation. Protestantism thinks
of the church as a purely human institution while, for Orthodoxy, what makes the church
into the church is not just human; it is both divine and human. Furthermore, this divine/
human aspect is not merely some invisible abstraction: it can be seen within history, just
like the God-man himself, who was a visible, historical personality.11 Meyendorff be-

For a constructive and critical contextual theology approach by Orthodox theologians, cf. Nissiotis, N. (1976) Ecclesial Theology
in Context. In: Choan-Seng Song (ed.), Doing Theology Today, pp.101–124, Christian Literature Society, Madras; Clapsis, E. (2000)
The Challenge of Contextual Theologies. In: Orthodoxy in Conversation. Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements, pp.165–172, WCC
Publications/Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Geneva/Brookline, MA; Vassileiadis, P. (1994) Orthodox Christianity and Contextual
Theology. In: Lex Orandi, Studies in Liturgical Theology, pp.139–156, 1st ed., Thessaloniki (in Greek). Some interesting presentations
on the topic were given at the international symposium held in 1992 in Thessaloniki, Greece, by the University of Thessaloniki
School of Theology in conjunction with the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, on the role of Orthodox theology in the ecumenical
movement and dialogue between ‘‘classical’’ and ‘‘contextual’’ theology. The texts of the symposium speeches were published in
the Greek theological review Kath’ Odon, no. 4, January-April 1993 (in Greek), and a French-language report appeared in edition
no. 173 (December 1992) of the Service Orthodoxe de Presse (Orthodox Press Service, or SOP), p.7.
Meyendorff, J. (1966) The significance of the Reformation in the history of Christianity, p.133. Orthodoxy and Catholicity, Sheed and
Ward, Lanham, MD.
Meyendorff (1966) p.133.
Meyendorff (1966) p.133.

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lieved that a fundamental theological distinction lay behind this difference in approaches
to reformation that can be traced back to the predominance of Augustinianism
throughout the West (particularly in Catholicism, but also in Protestantism). Augusti-
nianism argued that God could be thought of only in terms of his essence, and thus
prevented any understanding or acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of human deification
and real human participation in the life of God (through the divine energies). This led
Protestantism to deny any intrinsic communion between God and man in the church,
and hence to reject the veneration of the saints and sacramental realism.12

A Brief History: reinterpretation, reformulation and reformation in the

Orthodox Church

After these clarifications concerning a theology of reformation, let us look more closely
at those periods of change and evolution, those moments of reinterpretation and re-
formulation, which, ultimately, are only the natural outcome of a theology of incarnation
and the pneumatological dimension of church life. What follows is a very brief summary
of some of the great moments in this process of evolution and reformulation that
marked the emergence of Eastern Christianity.13 Although each of these was only a re-
interpretation or reformulation of prior revelation or existing tradition, they were all
effectively little ‘‘revolutions’’ or ‘‘reformations’’ in their time.

 The opening up of the early church to the nations and, in particular, to the world of
Greek culture, as indicated by the Johannine writings, the theology of St Paul or the
decisions of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem in AD 48, which did away with any
Jewish requirements (cultural or religious) for Gentiles joining the church; this
meeting is, moreover, considered to have been the first Church Council.

Meyendorff (1966) pp.121–122. Cf. pp.113–119 for the larger questions of divine transcendence, created and uncreated grace
and the possibility of knowing God and participating in the divine life according to Protestant tradition, to its mediaeval/
scholastic background and to Orthodox tradition; cf. also pp.119–120 for interesting keys to interpreting ‘‘the historical
imperviousness of the Orthodox world to the great movement of the Reformation’’. For his part, Yves Congar, the great Catholic
theologian, in his classic work (1968) Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Église (Right and wrong reform in the Church) Cerf, Paris, 2nd
edition, with revisions and corrections pp.414–418 (in French), distinguishes between ‘‘life’’ and ‘‘structure’’, saying that only the
first of these may undergo reformation, and then expresses grave reservations concerning the principle of ‘‘constant
reformation’’, which, in his eyes, has evolved into a sort of mysticism in certain Protestant circles. Fr Congar holds that the
Barthian dialectic, which creates a church constantly preoccupied with self-accusation and self-denial, emptying itself of all value
in order to ensure that all glory goes only to God, and the general principle of ‘‘the Church always being reformed and always
needing reformation’’ have very little in common with either the spirit of the Apostolic communities or with Luther’s own deep
instinct that, once reforms were instituted and the church purified, no further reforms would be needed, as long as these were
held on to as the expression of the restored Apostolic church.
The broader stages of this rise are summarized in Clement, O. (1964) L’essor du Christianisme oriental (The emergence of Eastern
Christianity). PUF, Paris (in French).

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 The meeting between – or synthesis of – Christianity and Hellenism, when the

Christian faith with its claims to universality came to be formulated and expressed in
categories of thought borrowed from classical Greek philosophy, and when Chris-
tian theology – whose philosophical presuppositions had at first been incompatible
with those of classical thought – sought to give answers to questions that came from
the Greek, rather than the Christian, mind.14

 The similar process leading from biblical theology, with its roots in Semitic and
more particularly Hebrew thought, to patristic theology, which drew not only from
Jewish thought and the word of the gospel but also from Greek philosophy and
culture. Patristic theology began as an exegetical form of theology, based on the
interpretation of the scriptures, while also seeking to meet the challenges brought
and questions posed by pagan philosophers and by Greek thought in general. Over
time, however, it changed considerably in the way the holy texts were interpreted:
indeed, in some ways, it represented a first attempt at demythologization (particu-
larly in the writings of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa).15 It is important to note that,
when the Church Fathers interpreted the Bible, they would aim to draw out the
spirit of the biblical texts rather than poring over each individual word. They did not
hesitate to make use of all the interpretive and exegetical methods available in their
day and all their knowledge of philosophy and other disciplines, of which many of
them had been students for many years. Indeed, such was the level of evolution in
patristic thought that some theologians and religious historians – even those be-
longing to the more conservative
,0 or ‘‘traditional’’ stream – have happily talked in
terms of its ‘‘growth’’ (a u xZsiB) by comparison with biblical or early-church
thought; they are always careful to point out, however, that ‘‘growth’’, in this sense,
does not imply some kind of improvement on, maturation of or progression in the
revealed faith, but merely a greater fullness of spiritual life given in Christ and
through the Holy Spirit, and an enriching of the doctrines of church life.16

The question of the relationship between Christianity and Hellenism has long been of great interest and has sparked some heated
debates. Of the vast range of literature available, see in particular: Zizioulas, J. (2003) (now Metropolitan of Pergamon) Hellenism
and Christianity. The meeting of two worlds, Apostoliki Diakonia, Athens, (in Greek), which is a reworking of his long article published
in the History of the Greek Nation, vol. VI, 1977, Athens, pp.519–559 (in Greek); Pelikan, J. (1993) Christianity and Culture. The
Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism, Yale University Press, New Haven/London; M. Narcy and
E. Rebillard (eds), (2004) Hellénisme et Christianisme (Hellenism and Christianity) Presses Universitaires de Septentrion, Villeneuve
d’Ascq (in French).
For more on the beginnings of demythologization in patristic Greek thought, cf. Skaltas, G. (2009) The Demythologization of the
Scriptures in Origen and Bultmann. Historical research on early Christian thought, contemporary theology and philosophical tradition. Indiktos,
Athens (in Greek, currently in press).
Cf. Papadopoulos, S. (1975) Fathers of the Church, Growth of the Church, Holy Spirit. Patristic Study, Athens (in Greek).

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 While it may seem like a paradox, within their own context, the theology of the early
church and, to an extent, that of the patristic period represent a kind of prototype
‘‘modernity’’ for their time, and prefigured certain elements of the modern Western
world. The truth is that we very easily forget that the radical breaks with tradition
effected within the Christian communities give primitive Christianity the appearance of
an early version of ‘‘modernity’’, though, for various reasons that cannot be discussed
here, its work of liberation never reached completion or fulfilment: to put personal
experience and union with God in the place of abstract metaphysics; to achieve sexual
and racial equality and take the first steps towards the liberation of women; to overturn
all forms of injustice and division eschatologically, in Christ; to reject the divinity of
Caesar and the mystique of power and liberate the individual from religious subjection
to the city, the State or any deified power; to free human beings from another form of
subservience, the biological – to race, patriarchal family structure and tribe; to affirm
the utter uniqueness and immeasurable value of every human being; to emancipate
them from servitude to the letter of the law; to begin the journey to liberation with
regard to those aspects of human biology that were mysterious and unexplained at that
time; to strip away the magical power and mystique of nature, and so on.17

 The development of the liturgy, which grew from the shared meals and simple eu-
charistic prayer of the first centuries of Christianity into a whole series of offices and
rites. This evolution continued until around the beginning of the sixteenth century and
was in part characterized by the transition from the parochial to the monastic liturgical
tradition. Yet it mostly managed to preserve the communal and eschatological character
of worship and the vision of the eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of the church – the
founding sacrament of the Christian community, in which the whole praying commu-
nity is given a part to play in the transfiguration of the world and of history, through this
foretaste of the eschaton and anticipation of God’s eschatological kingdom.18

For a more in-depth analysis of this idea, cf. Kalaitzidis, P. (2007) Orthodox Christianity and Modernity. Prolegomena, pp.74–85, 94–97.
Academy of Theological Studies/Inditkos, Athens, (in Greek).
On the history, evolution and theological and symbolic content of liturgical life, cf. Dix, G. (1975) The Shape of Liturgy, A&C Black,
London; Taft, R. (1980–81) The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Structure and Interpretation on the Eve of
Iconoclasm, pp.45–75. In: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34–35; Idem (1992) The Byzantine Rite: a short history, Liturgical Press,
Collegeville, MN; Schmemann, A. (1986) Introduction to Liturgical Theology, revised edition, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,
Crestwood, NY; Schultz, H.J. (1986) The Byzantine Liturgy: Symbolic Structure and Faith Expression, translated by M. J. O’Connell,
Pueblo Publishing, New York; Wybrew, H. (1990) The Orthodox Liturgy. The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite,
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY; Paprocki, H. (1993) Le mystère de l’Eucharistie. Genèse et interpretation de la liturgie
eucharistique byzantine (The Mystery of the Eucharist. Origin and interpretation of the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy), translated
from Polish into French by Françoise Lhoest, Cerf, Paris, but unavailable in English; Meyendorff, J. (1979).Byzantine Theology:
historical trends and doctrinal themes. Fordham University Press, New York.

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 Canonical reforms, particularly those introduced by the Quinisext Council (the

‘‘Council in Trullo’’) in 691–692. While they respected the distinction made above
between eternal truths, on the one hand, and the way they are expressed within time
and history, on the other, these reforms significantly modified not only the church’s
canon law system but also its ecclesiological structure and liturgical order.19 The
canon reforms introduced by the Council in Trullo, it should be noted, were an
attempt to adapt the church’s theological teaching to the realities of history, which
had changed since the days of the early church. This reformational work bears wit-
ness to the creativity of the Council, which went so far as to review and even replace
certain canon or conciliar decrees.20 [In an age of conciliar decline, such as ours, the
problem that arises is that we can lose sight of the dialectic of eternal truths on the
one hand and the temporal and historical expressions of those truths on the other,
and put the law of custom in its place as our ultimate standard of truth.21 This
tendency is best typified by the example of compulsory celibacy for bishops, which
was introduced by canon 12 of the Council in Trullo. Almost everyone now re-
cognizes that this reform, which is now nearly 1300 years old, has engendered
serious problems and led the church down a dead end. Nevertheless, the Orthodox
Church’s long-running conciliar decline combines with the pre-eminence of the
principle of habit over the principle of truth to prevent any serious discussion and
any decision to return to the tradition and order of the early church.]22

 The translation of the biblical and liturgical texts into local languages. This began in
the early centuries of Christianity and was part of Byzantine mission work from its
inception. It was coupled with the rejection of any doctrine of ‘‘sacred languages’’,
for the incarnation of Christ has sanctified all human work, all places, all languages
and all cultures (this was realized many centuries before the Protestant Reformation
and even longer before Vatican II).

 Examples from after the early church era, such as the birth of monasticism (which
began as an attempt to bring back the eschatological dimension of the Christian
For a theological evaluation of this Council with particular regard to the possibility of reform, cf. the special edition of The Greek
Orthodox Review, 40/1995, no. 1–2, which includes the bulk of the presentations given at the international conference: The Council
in Trullo: Basis for Ecclesiastical Reform? A Conference Commemorating the 1300th Anniversary of the Penthekte Ecumenical
Council in Trullo, held by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Boston in 1992.
Cf. Patsavos (1995), pp. 2–3.
Cf. Patsavos (1995), p.3.
For the discussion of this issue among contemporary Orthodox theologians, cf. e.g. L’Hullier, P. (1991) Episcopal Celibacy in the
Orthodox Tradition. St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 35, pp.271–300; idem (1995) Mandatory Celibacy as a Requirement for
Episcopacy. The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 40, pp.213–219; Boumis, P. (1995) The Possibility of Married Bishops Today.
The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 40, pp.221–246.

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faith and was nothing other than a protest against the compromises made by the
institutional church with the world and earthly power) and that of the veneration of
icons (which relies on a theology of incarnation, overturning the aniconic Semitic
form of worship). It is interesting to note that monasticism and the veneration of
icons have in time become defining – indeed, essential – expressions of Orthodox
spirituality and piety.23

We can, of course, debate and disagree on the soundness, value and significance of these
changes and developments and their faithfulness to apostolic tradition. What is beyond
question, however, is that these changes and developments are part of the history of our
church – a church that wears its faithfulness to apostolic tradition on its sleeve and has
made that tradition the defining, if not the supreme standard in its theology and church
life. We could have mentioned many more examples, and could also have touched on
practical and moral questions, such as divorce, which began to be accepted fairly early on
in the Orthodox Church. However, the few we have mentioned here serve only to re-
mind us that the ideas of reformation and revision – in their broader senses – are hardly
foreign to the tradition of the Eastern Church.

Reformation and Returning to our Roots

Highly relevant to our theme is the paradox to be found at the heart of any attempt at or
process of reformation: every reformation seeks its legitimacy and legitimization by
harking back to the roots, to a primitive, essential authenticity. Both Luther and Calvin,
for instance, called for a return to the authenticity of early Christian life and to the sim-
plicity of the gospel, as opposed to the abuses and excesses of the medieval papacy. For
his part, Adolf von Harnack consistently emphasized a return to an authentically biblical
– or, more precisely, Semitic – spirit, calling for an end to what he saw as the digression of
the ‘‘Hellenization of Christianity’’ begun by the ‘‘Platonizing’’ Church Fathers, the
Councils and the systematization of doctrines.24 However, the fact is that, while a re-
formation may seek to return to basics and appeal to the first Christian communities and

For a detailed discussion of this idea, cf. Kalaitzidis (2007) pp.166–169.
Cf., in particular, von Harnack, A. (1900) Das Wesen des Christentums. J.C. Hinrichs, Leipzig. English translation: What is Christianity?
translated by T. B. Saunders with an Introduction by R. Bultmann, (1957) Harper, New York, in particular pp.217–245. The
position he opposed – that of the Christianization of Hellenism (‘‘Christian Hellenism’’) – was held by the great Russian
Orthodox theologian Fr G. Florovsky. Cf. in particular his articles (1976) Revelation, Philosophy and Theology. In: Creation and
Redemption, The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, III, pp. 31–36, Nordland Publishers, Belmont, MA; (1975) The Ways of Russian
Theology. In: Aspects of Church History, Collected Works, IV, pp.194–199. Cf. also the analysis by Williams, G.H. (1965) Georges
Vasilievich Florovsky: His American Career (1948–1965). In: The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 11, pp.30, 37, 54. For a well
considered criticism of Harnack’s views, cf. Matsoukas, N. (1969) Origin and nature of Orthodox doctrine, pp.35 et seq. (in Greek).
Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, Thessaloniki.

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the truth of the original text, it cannot separate the essence of these communities or texts
from their history and socio-cultural life, or from history itself, for no text exists outside
of its own history and that of its interpretations. A return to the roots is not simply a
backward step; it does not mean resistance to change or living in the past. Rather, it seeks
a critical appropriation of the original message, a deep, intuitive understanding of the
fundamental, holy text. Moreover, any reform requires a redefinition of the past, a critical
re-evaluation of history and tradition; it therefore involves a dynamic analysis and inter-
pretation of the past. In this way, the return to the roots can in fact be seen as a dynamic,
creative process, asking questions of an authentic past to build a future in which continuity
and renewal combine and complement one another.

It is thus clear that the work of reformation is in fact closely linked to hermeneutics and
the theory of interpretation, to critical study and historical research and to the processes
used to interpret the sacred texts. These so-called modern methods can be of huge help
to theology. They can clear the ground of obstacles, laying down in their place the pre-
paratory, non-theological foundations that must precede any attempt at doing theology.
The historical clarifications they provide can aid theology in its duties of self-criticism
and self-correction; they can help it to take a good look in the mirror of history and
socio-cultural reality, and shake off its fantasies, false beliefs and naı̈ve, simplistic or
unhistorical ideas about its past and its present. It is true that the discipline of herme-
neutics has flourished particularly well in Protestant soil, and Protestants have shown a
preference for biblical and historical studies and research. Nevertheless, we must not
forget that patristic theology, which is fundamentally an exegetical theology, has much in
common with any attempt at forming a Christian hermeneutic. Orthodox fundamen-
talists and traditionalists in our day, out of ‘‘faithfulness’’ to patristic theology
systematically shun the use of contemporary hermeneutical methods to interpret the
biblical texts, opposing a more historical and critical approach to the texts of scripture
and the events of church history, yet, in so doing, they place themselves utterly at odds
with one of its fundamental elements – namely, that of constant, enriching dialogue with
the philosophical ideas and hermeneutical methods of the day. Meanwhile, their ap-
proach to patristic theology – which was an exegetical, historical theology par excellence –
is unhistorical and treats it almost as some hallowed legend.

Any work of reformation must include the work of translating the original text – re-
forming the language of scripture and liturgy. There can be no reformation process
without a work of translation or, more precisely, every reformation process starts with
and implies a work of translation. Calvin found this in translating the Bible and the
Institutes of the Christian Religion from Latin to French. As we have already briefly noted,
the Orthodox tradition had the same experience many years earlier (though the focus in

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this case was not on reform) when the biblical and liturgical texts were translated and
adapted for peoples newly converted to Christianity. It is a universal truth, the best
example being the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius. These
two brothers from Thessaloniki, as we all know, did more than a mere translation: to
achieve that goal, they invented the Slavonic alphabet and the written Slavonic language
itself. In its day, the decision sparked profound disagreement and major conflict be-
tween the Eastern and Western Churches – between Constantinople and Rome, as the
latter had a doctrine of ‘‘sacred languages’’ (Hebrew, Greek, Latin), which would not
allow it to countenance the use of another language in worship and the preaching of
God’s word.

While the question of reformation is not a primary consideration for the Orthodox
Church, it should not be taken to be completely absent: there is some evidence for its
presence, at least implicitly. Yet it should be pointed out that Orthodox tradition never
calls the various possible instances of reinterpretation, rewording and evolutionary
change by those names. They do happen, but under the flag of faithfulness to prior tra-
dition and the Fathers. This was certainly true in the case of Pseudo-Dionysus the
Areopagite who, even as he set out a major alteration of theological perspective and
language, claimed not to speak or write, anything ‘‘beyond
, those things divinely revealed
to us in the sacred Oracles’’ (ek t on ier on logion).25 St John of Damascus, mean-

while, was careful to affirm that ‘‘he said nothing of himself, but uncovered that passed
down by the tradition of scripture and the Fathers’’.26

However, the acknowledgment that reformation in Orthodox Christianity is hardly ever

defined or prioritized under that name and is often passed over in silence leads us to ask
two further questions: (a) what is the theological thinking that underpins this reformative
process within Orthodox Christianity? and (b) why, when such a process exists as part of
Orthodox tradition, is Orthodoxy today so hostile to the whole idea of reform, pre-
ferring to drop anchor in the past rather than catch the wind of renewal?

The Theological Foundations of Reformation

Aside from the theology of the Incarnation and the historical dimension of church
life, discussed above, it seems to us that the theological framework underlying and un-
derpinning this whole series of changes and developments, both small and great, is an
eschatological vision of the church, and more particularly an eschatological and in some

Pseudo-Dionysus, The Divine Names, Ch 1, section 1.
Kotter, B. (1969) St John of Damascus, Dialectica, pp.53 and 55. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin & New York.

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sense ‘‘futurist’’ understanding of tradition. This seemingly contradictory, paradoxical

concept of tradition sees that tradition as determined and conditioned chiefly by the
future rather than by the past. It sees it as originating in and deriving from God’s escha-
tological kingdom – the kingdom that is to come – and as coming from the future back
into the present and the past, rather than vice versa, from the past through the present to
the future. To our minds, this understanding must lie at the heart of any discussion or
initiative of reformation or renewal, not just within Orthodoxy but in all the different
Christian traditions.

The eschatological understanding of tradition27 seems equivalent to the biblical defini-

tion of faith given by the biblical writer to the Hebrews: ‘‘Now, faith is the assurance of
things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’’28 It is also analogous to the escha-
tological or ‘‘futurist’’ memory experienced and repeated in the eucharistic anaphora of
the Orthodox divine liturgy:

Remembering, therefore, this command of the Saviour and all that came to pass for our sake, the
cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the
right hand of the Father and the second, glorious coming . . .

For the divine liturgy as a whole, as taught by the Corpus Areopagiticum attributed to St
Maximus the Confessor (but in fact written by John of Scythopolis), represents not some
eternal or heavenly archetypes, nor some kind of ideal reality, but the future eschatolo-
gical kingdom itself. It is a reality that proceeds from the future, in which, according to
‘‘St Maximus’’, the truth of things and their symbols is to be found.29

Just as the first things are given their meaning by the last, and the study of origins
by the study of the end times, so church Tradition is given form and meaning
by the Kingdom of God, that source and root of life and truth, which will be fulfilled
and fully revealed at the last day – not from all its human traditions, customs, habits,
prior structures and forms and so on.30 (Those traditions retain undeniable elements,

Cf. Kalaitzidis (2007) p.164.
Heb. 11:1; cf. Rom. 8:24. Cf. also the broader line of thought traced by Heb. 11 as a whole.
Maximus the Confessor (John of Scythopolis) De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, PG 4, 137D. For the attribution of this passage to John of
Scythopolis, cf. Rorem, P. & Lamoreaux, J.C. (1998), John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus: Annotating the Areopagite, p.174.
Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York. For the eschatological interpretation of this passage, cf. Zizoulas,
John (Metropolitan of Pergamon) (1994) The Eucharist and the Kingdom of God, I, Souroz, no.58, pp.5–7; idem (2006)
Symbolism and Realism in Orthodox Worship, translated by Elisabeth Theokritoff. In: Synaxis: An anthology of the most significant
Orthodox Theology in Greece appearing in the journal SunaxZ from 1982 to 2002, vol. I: Anthropology–Environment–Creation, p.256.
Alexander Press, Montreal.
Cf. Kalaitzidis (2007) p.166.

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or at least vestiges, of ecclesiality and holiness, but they are indelibly stamped
with fallenness and failure, compromise with the spirit of the world or with social
conformism.) From this viewpoint, the future is not the effect but the cause of the

For the reason that the world was created is the eschatological Christ, the union of the created with the
uncreated at the eschaton. According to St Maximus the Confessor, the church experiences this reality
in the eucharist: here, what will be at the end becomes real now; the future becomes the cause of
the present. In the eucharist we travel backwards through time – from the future to the present and
the past.31

This paradoxical but entirely ecclesial vision of Tradition is illustrated, as previously

mentioned, by the later examples (that is, later than the early church) of the birth of
monasticism and the veneration of icons, which have, in time, become defining and even
essential expressions of Orthodox spirituality and piety. At its heart, monasticism seeks
to remember the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith, and is quite simply a
protest against the institutional church’s compromise with the world and earthly power;
the veneration of icons, meanwhile, relies on Incarnation theology, overturning the ani-
conic Semitic form of worship. Yet for the early church in the first centuries of
Christianity, these two fundamental, defining features of Orthodox identity and spiri-
tuality represented a new Tradition, emanating from the future.32 Indeed, to quote the
lovely words of the late Nikos Nissiotis,

Nor is Orthodox Tradition . . . a history, but rather a witness. It does not lie in the completed,
perfected works of previous centuries, but in a call to complete that work in the future [ . . . ]
Tradition, understood thus, is ‘‘innovation’’, the new thing, brought into the world to make all
things new, once and for all, with Christ, and then on, forever, with the Holy Spirit through the

From this point of view, then, Tradition is no dead letter, nor a nostalgic reiteration or
uncritical acceptance of the past, but instead represents constant creativity in the Holy
Spirit, and an openness to the future and the anticipated new world of the Kingdom of
God. As we are forcefully reminded by that other great Orthodox theologian of the
twentieth century, Vladimir Lossky:

Zizioulas, John (Metropolitan of Pergamon) (2003) The Church and the Eschaton. In: P. Kalaitzidis (ed.), Church and Eschatology,
p.42 (in Greek). Academy of Theological Studies/ed. Kastaniotis, Athens.
For an expansion of this idea, Kalaitzidis (2007) pp.166–169.
Nissiotis, N. (2001) Tradition and Renewal. The problem of the future cultural relations between Orthodoxy and Hellenism. In
the collection of his articles, Orthodoxy, Tradition, Renewal, pp.93–94 (in Greek). Analogion/Evthyni, Athens.

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. . . if Tradition is a faculty of judging in the light of the Holy Spirit, it obliges those who wish to
know the Truth in the Tradition to make incessant efforts: one does not remain in the Tradition
by a certain historical inertia, by keeping as a ‘‘tradition received from the Fathers’’ all that which,
by force of habit, flatters a certain devout sensibility. On the contrary, it is by substituting this
sort of ‘‘traditions’’ for the Tradition of the Holy Spirit living in the Church that one runs
the most risk of finding oneself finally outside the Body of Christ. It must not be thought
that the conservative attitude alone is salutary, nor that heretics are always ‘‘innovators’’ [ . . . ]
Not only the Scriptures, but also the oral traditions received from the apostles have been con-
served only by virtue of the Tradition – the Light which reveals their true meaning and their
significance, essential for the Church. Here more than elsewhere Tradition exercises its critical
action, showing above all its negative and exclusive aspect: it rejects the ‘‘godless and silly myths’’
(1 Tim 4:7 [RSV]) piously received by all those whose ‘‘traditionalism’’ consists in accepting
with unlimited credulity all that is insinuated into the life of the Church to remain there by force
of habit.34

Lossky does not hesitate to maintain that ‘‘Tradition represents the critical spirit
of the Church’’, while adding that ‘‘contrary to the ‘critical spirit’ of human science,
the critical judgment of the Church is made acute by the Holy Spirit.’’35 From this per-
spective, our view of the past becomes dynamic instead of static, not only more creative
but also more spiritual. We understand that, far from being determined or controlled
by the past, the future calls us to a reinterpretation of that past, creatively transforming
and reclaiming it by giving it a future – for the past’s own future can be hidden within
it, unfulfilled.36

It is our view that, without this theological vision, tradition becomes identified with
the past and with a stubborn refusal to accept change. The eminent Orthodox
theologian and historian, the late Fr John Meyendorff, put it bluntly but rightly when he
wrote that ‘‘without eschatology, tradition looks only to the past . . . prepare for it.’’37
Without that eschatological openness and that ‘‘futurist’’ understanding of tradition,
then, any serious discussion regarding renewal and reformation is impossible.
For if tradition is something that emanates only from the past, if its only reference points
are those bequeathed and handed down to us, then any change, modification or
reform is perforce a betrayal of the original, authentic truth. Conversely, if tradition
comes to us from the future – the future of God’s Kingdom, of the eschatological
Lossky, V. (1975) In the Image and Likeness of God, pp.155–157. Mowbrays, London.
Lossky (1975) p.154.
Cf. Kearney, R. (2007) Interreligious Discourse: Hermeneutics and fundamentalism. In: E. Clapsis (ed.), Violence and Christian
Spirituality. An ecumenical conversation, pp.53–54. World Council of Churches Publications/Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Geneva/
Brookline, MA. Cf. also Ricœur, P. (1996) Reflections on a new Ethos for Europe. In: R. Kearney (ed.) P. Ricœur, p.8. Sage,
Meyendorff, J. (1982) Does Christian Tradition Have a Future? St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 23, p.141.

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Christ himself – then anything is possible, everything is open, and nothing is set
in stone. The only unalterables are those things that make up the centre of gravity
of the Christian faith – the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity (which, incidentally,
were the great questions debated by the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided
church in the first millennium): we may revise or adapt the precise language in which
we speak of these depending on time, place or cultural context, but we cannot revisit
their foundations or their doctrinal content.38

This theology of renewal is tightly bound to the dialectic of history and eschatology,
between the world and the Kingdom of God, between the ‘‘already’’ and the ‘‘not yet’’,
between what has been done and what must yet be fulfilled and achieved (through our
prayers and our efforts, our working and also our fighting – in a word, through our
synergy) in the coming Kingdom, and the constant tension that exists between these
poles. The church is on its way to the Kingdom of God, and, while it is not to be
identified with the world and with history, neither can it be ignorant or dismissive of the
world and of history. In the same way, while the church is not to be defined by or
subsumed into any attempt at reformation or renewal, neither can it live and fulfil its
mission in the world and in history without change, renewal and even reformation. The
church itself, icon of the Trinity and symbol of the Kingdom of God, is not of
the world,39 for its roots are buried deep in the pre-eternal will and plan of God.
Nevertheless, it is in the world; it lives and moves in the world, and its very existence
is justified only in terms of its mission, its witness and its offering ‘‘for the life of
the world’’.40

Is Orthodox Christianity Resistant to Reformation? The Weight of


So, over time, some of the eschatological dimension and identity of the church
was gradually forgotten. As a result of this, and also for historical reasons chiefly
to do with the tragic end of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox world, whose destiny
was tightly bound with that of the Empire, turned off the road of constant renewal –

For a discussion of eschatology in contemporary Orthodox theology, cf. the jointly authored work P. Kalaitzidis (ed.) (2003)
Church and Eschatology. Academy of Theological Studies/ed., Kastaniotis, Athens; and the very thorough overview by Vlantis, G.
(2007) In Erwartung des künftigen Äons. Aspekte orthodoxer Eschatologie (In anticipation of the coming age. Aspects of
Orthodox eschatology). Ökumenische Rundschau (Ecumenical Review), 56, pp.170–182 (in German).
Cf. John 18:36.
Cf. John 6:51.

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a process that had borne witness to the breath of the Spirit and the practical
outworking of a theology of the incarnation. Caught for years between Roman
hostility, Protestant missionary zeal and the aggression and rage of the conquering
Muslim world – especially the Ottoman Turks – Orthodoxy gradually began to bar-
ricade itself in, ossifying and fighting to survive and conserve its faith and tradition.
Following the end of the Byzantine world (which, in a way, was the end of the world
for Orthodox believers!) in the fifteenth century, the most urgent priority for Ortho-
doxy was not development, renewal or reformation but simply to survive and
maintain historical continuity; furthermore, it had to find a way to resist the siren
calls of Uniatism and prevent the forced conversion of its members to Catholicism
and especially to Islam: for Islam, by the fifteenth century, was already the major
power in the East.

However, we cannot discuss the challenge of reformation in Orthodox Christianity

without dealing with the great religious Reformation that turned the West upside
down in the sixteenth century, or with the Enlightenment and Western modernity,
two eras of absolutely seismic importance. To avoid these massive upheavals would
be to sidestep the debate, to take the sharp edge off pressing real-world problems, and to
deny the true nature of the decisively important religious crisis facing Orthodoxy today.
Orthodoxy actually came into contact with the various streams of the Protestant
Reformation quite early, nor did it avoid contact with or even influence by the Enlight-
enment – even though a real encounter between Orthodoxy and modernity has yet to
be achieved (as we shall see later). Indeed, despite their reservations and hesitations,
Orthodox believers at first saw the Reformation as ‘‘a great movement of liberation
from false categories imprisoning the Christian gospel’’.41 They viewed it with interest
and sympathy, initially because they shared its hostility to Catholicism, but also because
they believed there could be several areas of common ground between the
Reformers&apos teaching and the concerns of Orthodoxy. For their part, the Protes-
tants very quickly sought contact and conversation with Orthodox believers and
the Eastern Church itself, recognizing in it both a resistance to the excesses and distor-
tions of the papacy and a non-Roman version of Christianity. Philipp Melanchthon
had the Augsburg Confession translated and sent to the Patriarch of Constantinople,
Jeremiah II, seeking dialogue with the Eastern Church, which the Reformers believed to
be an integral part of the universal church. Nor was Melanchthon reluctant to display his
respect for patristic theology (particularly that of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory
and Theodoret). In his wake, the theologians of Tübingen continued to try to hold
theological dialogue, but it ultimately proved abortive: historical circumstances and

Meyendorff (1966) p.121.

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differing theological priorities prevented this early conversation from reaching a positive
outcome.42 The distance and the distinctions between the Reformation and Orthodoxy
grew wider still following other events that were to prove even more destructive, in-
cluding in particular the activity of the pro-Calvinist Patriarch of Constantinople Kyrillos
Loukaris (1572–1638)43 and Protestant missionaries sent to the Christian East to spread
their homogenous brand of Protestantism throughout the world, chiefly through edu-
cation and through the foreign policy of the great powers such as Britain and the United
States.44 These historical factors led the Orthodox Church to distance itself even further
from the idea of reformation, and thereby from renewal and engagement with history
and society. Meanwhile, the same factors led Protestantism to distance itself significantly
from the idea of tradition, patristic theology, sacramental realism and a theology (mark-
edly different from that of the Roman Church) of participation in the divine energies and
the deification of human beings.

The attitude of the Catholic Church towards the idea of reformation has fairly obviously
been one of reservation and even hostility. After all, the Reformation of the sixteenth
century radically called into question its very canonical, ecclesiological and theological
foundations, and conflicts and wars between Catholics and Protestants ravaged Europe
for centuries after. It was therefore only natural that the Orthodox Church would end up
also adopting a reserved and suspicious attitude to the notion of reformation. This atti-
tude was not only motivated by fear of finding itself in a similar situation, but was also the
result of bad experiences with doctrinal ‘‘novelties’’ introduced by the ancient heresies

On this early dialogue between Protestant and Orthodox believers, cf. apart from the Meyendorff article cited above (pp.121–
125), the following historical studies: Karmiris, I. (1937) Orthodoxy and Protestantism, vol. I, Athens, (in Greek); Runciman,
S. (1958) The Great Church in Captivity, especially pp.238–258, Cambridge University Press; Wendebourg, D. (1986) Reformation und
Orthodoxie. Der ökumenische Briefwechsel zwischen der Leitung der Württembergischen Kirche und Patriarch Jeremias II von Konstantinopel in der
Jahren 1573–1581 (Reformation and Orthodoxy. The ecumenical correspondence between the leadership of the Württemberg
Church and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople in the years 1573–1581), Göttingen (in German); Podskalsky, G. (1988)
Griechische Theologie in der Zeit der Türkenherrschaft (1453–1821). Die Orthodoxie im Spannungsfeld der nachreformatorischen Konfessionen des
Westens (Greek theology in the time of Turkish rule (1453–1821). Orthodoxy in tension with post-Reformation Western
confessions), pp.102–117, Beck-Verlag, Munich; Matsoukas, N. (2005) Protestantism, pp.79–86, Pournaras, Thessaloniki (in
Greek); idem (2007) The Ecumenical Movement. History and theology, pp.123–129 et passim, Pournaras, Thessaloniki, (in Greek);
Kitromilides, P.M. (2006) Orthodoxy and the West: Reformation to Enlightenment. In: M. Angold, (ed.) The Cambridge History of
Christianity, vol. 5: Eastern Christianity, pp.188–191, Cambridge University Press. Cf. Yannaras, C. (2007) Orthodoxy and the West:
Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, translated from the Greek by P. Chamberas and N. Russell, pp. 711 et seq., Holy Cross
Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA.
Cf. the preceding note for the literature on Kyrillos Loukaris.
Cf. Metallinos, G. (2006) The West according to the East. The transfusive role of the Western missionaries in the Greek State,
translated by P. A. Chamberas, edited by L. Sherrard, Synaxis: An anthology of the most significant Orthodox theology in Greece appearing in
the journal Su naxZ from 1982 to 2002, vol. III: Ecclesiology and Pastoral Care, pp.43–76, Alexander Press, Montreal; Smyrnaios, A.L.
0 0
(2006) Meteoric Zeal [ Mete oroB ZZloB]. Protestant undergraduate teaching and modern Greek education in the nineteenth century, Ed.
Psiphida, Athens, (in Greek).

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(regarding Trinitarian and Christological doctrine) and, more recently, by the Western
Church (the Filioque clause, the primacy of Rome, compulsory celibacy for clergy, pur-
gatory, the Azymite controversy [the use of unleavened bread in the eucharist] etc.).
Because of this negative experience of Roman doctrinal and canonical ‘‘novelties’’, and
especially the methods used by the medieval West to force them onto the Christian East
(the Crusades and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the forcible ‘‘union’’ of the
Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439, Uniatism and so on), Orthodoxy came to define
itself by its resistance to change and faithfulness to the letter of doctrine or familiar
wordings. This defensive attitude was ultimately only entrenched further by missions –
some Catholic, but most Protestant – to Orthodox lands such as Greece, Asia Minor and
the Near and Middle East. These happily used all means available (chiefly education and
political protection) to achieve their evangelistic aims, which were always at the expense
of the local Orthodox communities (they could hardly try to convert the Muslims!).

Yet this faithfulness to the letter of Orthodox tradition, where the letter of doctrine received
more attention than its spirit, and whose interpretation was moreover conditioned by Wes-
tern preconceptions (Catholic and Protestant) of the nature of Christianity and the church –
was all, truth be told, a long way from patristic Greek theology, and in fact ran contrary to its
spirit and its principles. At the first Congress of Orthodox Theology, held in Athens in
1936, Fr Georges Florovsky, possibly the greatest Orthodox theologian of the twentieth
century, spoke out in favour of the liberation of Orthodox theology from its ‘‘Babylonian
captivity’’ to Western theology by the now well-known ‘‘return to the Fathers’’.45 His idea
has since been taken up, first by a number of theologians of the Russian diaspora and, more
recently, by the current renaissance in Greek theology.46 It has become a commonplace
twentieth century Orthodox theology and, for many, its first and most important task, to the
extent that this idea of ‘‘returning to the Fathers’’ and de-westernizing Orthodox theology
has all but eclipsed any other theological concerns and questions. This makes any relation-
ship with the West – and certainly any ‘‘influence’’ from it, though that is inevitable –
problematic, if not suspect, even though that was never Florovsky’s intention or desire.

Cf. his speech at that Congress: Florovsky, G. (1939) Westliche Einflüsse in der russischen Theologie. In: H. S. Alivisatos (ed.),
Minutes of the First Congress of Orthodox Theology at Athens, 29 November-6 December 1936, pp. 212–231, Pyrsos, Athens, (an English
translation is contained in his Collected Works, IV, (1975) Nordland, Belmont, MA, pp.157–182). In it, he frequently uses the term
‘‘pseudomorphosis’’ to describe this process of the Westernization of Russian theology. Cf. also his now classic work (first
published in Russian in 1937, and in America, with amendments, in 1979, the year of his death) (1979) Ways of Russian Theology,
translated by Robert L. Nichols, Nordland, Belmont, MA. For a critical discussion of his idea, cf. Wendebourg, D. (1997)
‘Pseudomorphosis’: A Theological Judgement as an Axiom for Research in the History of the Church and Theology. The Greek
Orthodox Theological Review, 42, pp.321–342.
The best representative of Greek theology is Christos Yannaras. Cf. his papers: (1971) Theology in Greece Today, Istina, 16,
pp.131–150; (1971) Orthodoxy and the West, Istina, 16, pp.151–167; and, more recently, (2007) Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-
Identity in the Modern Age, translated from the Greek by P. Chamberas and N. Russell. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA.

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The famous ‘‘return to the Fathers’’ principle has often been understood in such a way
as actually to encourage a retreat into a fundamentalist interpretation of tradition, in that
it has often contributed to the denigration of everything to do with the West, and
especially Western modernity. Under these circumstances, it has thus obviously
been difficult, if not impossible, for serious discussion regarding the need for revisions
and even reforms to be held in Orthodox circles. Indeed, Fr Florovsky’s famous
‘‘return to the Fathers’’ has been understood and interpreted, and his theory of
‘‘Christian Hellenism’’ taken up and expanded in such a way, at once scholarly and de-
fensive, as ultimately to entrench the belief in always looking to the past, to the Fathers,
rather than looking with the Fathers towards the future (which is what we think and
believe we see in Fr Florovsky’s writings). Not only this, but it has left Orthodox
theology tongue-tied and at a loss before the challenges of the modern, contemporary
world. Orthodox believers are content to rest on their strong sense of tradition and their
faithfulness to that tradition, knowing that their church, more than any other, has pre-
served the fullness of the tradition, theology and spiritual heritage of the undivided
church of the first millennium. Yet this knowledge leads Orthodoxy to see the role of
theology in the world today – aside from the defence against heresy of all kinds – as
consisting solely in a return to the roots, in reiterating and encapsulating the words of
the Fathers, who experienced the Divine for themselves, and the wisdom of a glorious,
pious past stored in the deposit of the faith that is Tradition. In taking this attitude, it
leaves the door open to a kind of monophysism sui generis. It leads to an under-
estimation, an under-appreciation and even an elimination of the human logos; yet it was
this humanity that Christ Jesus took on in full in his incarnation, and which was deified
at his Ascension, when the Lord of Glory sat down at the right hand of the Father.
There is a paradox to be seen here: in Orthodox Christianity, the notions of reforma-
tion, revision and renewal are hardly ever defined or emphasized, and are often quietly
ignored in favour of staying close to the roots and being faithful to tradition. Meanwhile,
by contrast, Protestantism has made these concepts its keystone, elevating them to the
level of truths uncovered and rediscovered, but has done so in the name of the very
same ideal – a return to the roots – and through an appeal to the authenticity and sim-
plicity of Christianity’s distant past.

The Orthodox Encounter with the Contemporary World in the Twentieth


Nevertheless, throughout the twentieth century, and even earlier (broadly speaking, since
the ‘‘Orthodox’’ peoples were freed from Ottoman occupation), Orthodox Christianity
has taken steps to encounter and dialogue with the modern, contemporary world. Here
are a few examples, by way of illustration:

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 Russian religious literature and philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century and
in the first half of the twentieth: Kireevsky, Khomyakov, Bukharev, Dostoevsky,
Solovev, Rozanov, Berdyaev, Chestov, Fr Paul Florensky etc.47

 The theological and ecclesiological renewal brought about by the Council of Moscow
(1917–18). Twelve years in preparation, the Council was the first for 200 years. It was
called by the Russian Church on the eve of the October Revolution and represented
the high point of an extraordinary theological renewal, leaving a permanent mark on
the history of that church, even though it did not see its work completed during the
difficult Soviet period. Guided by the Russian ideal of sobornost (‘‘conciliarism’’), the
Council brought together not just bishops, but also priests and laymen. While it re-
peatedly referred back to the Church Fathers, the Council included intense debate
concerning the workings of the church and its mission in the world. It promoted a
whole package of reforms and attitude changes, in particular towards lay participa-
tion in liturgical life and the administration of the Patriarchate (which had just been
re-established), relations between Church and State, the renewal of parish life, the
position of women in the church, unity among Christians etc.48

 The renewal of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century, and in particular that of the
Russian diaspora after 1920, and that of Greek theology since the 1960s, in which these
streams have begun to free themselves from the influence of scholasticism and discover
the spirit of the Greek Fathers. They have entered into constructive dialogue with Wes-
tern thought, seeking to answer the questions that this thought asks of the Orthodox
consciousness (Georges Florovsky, Sergey Bulgakov, V. Lossky, P. Evdokimov, Fr
Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, N. Nissiotis, Metropolitan of Pergamon John
Zizioulas, C. Yannaras etc.). To these two branches of contemporary Orthodox theology
(the Russian and the Greek) we must also add Olivier Clément. Brought up in a socialist,
atheist French family, Clément converted to Orthodoxy through meeting with Russian
theologian Vladimir Lossky and a number of Athonite monks. Throughout the second

Fr Alexander Schmemann’s work, (1977) Ultimate Questions: An anthology of modern Russian religious thought, Mowbrays, London/
Oxford, provides an excellent overview. Cf. also Valadier, P. (2000) Modern Russian Theology. Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov. Orthodox
Theology in a New Key, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. With particular respect to Bukharev, cf. the insightful study by Behr-Sigel,
Elisabeth (1977) Alexandre Boukharev. Un théologien de l’Église orthodoxe russe en dialogue avec le monde moderne. Introduction et lettres à
Valérien et Alexandra Lavrski (Alexander Bukharev. A Russian Orthodox theologian in dialogue with the modern world.
Introduction and letters to Valerian and Aleksandra Lavrski), preface by Olivier Clément, Beauchesne, Paris (in French).
For more detailed information on the Council of Moscow, cf. the recent works: Destivelle, H. (2006) Le concile de Moscou (1917–
1918). La creation des institutions conciliaires de l’Église orthodoxe russe (The Council of Moscow (1917–1918). The creation of the
conciliar institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church), Cerf, Paris, (in French); A. Mainardi (ed.) (2004) Il Concilio de Mosca del
1917–1918. Atti dell’XI Convegno ecumenico internazionale di spiritualità orthodossa sezione russa, Bose, 18–20 settembre 2003 (The Council
of Moscow, 1917–1918. Minutes of the 11th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality, Russian Session,
Bose, 18–20 September 2003), Editioni Qiqajon, Comunità di Bose.

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half of the twentieth century, he embodied a form of Orthodox theology that was more
open to the West and to the various streams of modern and contemporary thought than
any other, and which constituted what one might even call ‘‘Western Orthodoxy’’.49

 A eucharistic ecclesiology that emphasizes the theology of the local church and the
ecclesiology of communion.

 The involvement of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement from its
very inception, thanks to the efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Con-
stantinople since 1920, and particularly its involvement in the World Council of
Churches (founded in 1948) and in the efforts made by various parties to achieve
mutual recognition, reconciliation and unity among Christians – efforts whose ulti-
mate, overarching aim is to re-establish full communion between all Christians in all
the divided churches.50

 The preparations for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church which,
for the first time in 12 centuries, is to bring together all the Orthodox Churches
under a conciliar procedure. The initiative for calling the Council, which is to debate
the major canonical and ecclesiological issues facing Orthodoxy today, comes from
the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is also responsible for its
coordination, while the secretariat preparing the Council has its headquarters at
Chambésy near Geneva. Preconciliar procedure is not yet complete, however.
Characteristically, the Orthodox Church is avoiding referring to the general Council

Alongside Felmy, K.C. (1990) Die orthodoxe Theologie der Gegenwärt: eine Einführung (Orthodox theology today: an introduction),
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, (in German), and the brief summary by Williams, R. (2005) Eastern Orthodox
Theology. In: D. Ford, R. Muers (eds) The Modern Theologians: An introduction to Christian theology since 1918, pp.572–588, Blackwell,
Malden, MA/Oxford, we are not aware of any comprehensive study of twentieth century Orthodox theology. We therefore
merely refer the reader to some of the streams of current Orthodox thought. Thus, on the theology of the Russian diaspora, cf.
Kniazeff, A. (1974) L’Institut Saint Serge. De l’Académie d’autrefois au rayonnement d’aujourd’hui (The Institute of Saint Serge. From the
Academy then to its influence now), Beauchesne, Paris (in French); Valadier, P. (2000) Modern Russian Theology. Bukharev, Soloviev,
Bulgakov. Orthodox Theology in a New Key, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. On the theology of the 1960s generation in Greece, cf. the
minutes of the May 2005 colloquium on 1960s theology held by the Academy for Theological Studies at Volos, Greece (in Greek,
currently in press at ed. Indiktos, Athens). On modern Greek theology as a whole, cf. the broader work by Spiteris, Y. (1992) La
teologica ortodossa neo greca (The new Greek Orthodox theology) Édizioni Dehoniane, Bologna, (in Italian), which includes a critical
introduction to some of the Greek theologians and the streams of thought of the 1960s (P. Nellas, J. Romanidis, C. Yannaras, N.
Nissiotis, J. Zizioulas and the School of Theology at the University of Thessaloniki).
On the history of the ecumenical movement, cf. (2004) A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 1 (1517–1948, ed. R. Rose and S.
C. Neill), vol. 2 (1948–1968, ed. H. C. Fey), vol. 3 (1968–2000, ed. J. Briggs, M. A. Oduyoye and G. Tsetsis), WCC Publications,
Geneva. On the specific question of the Orthodox Church’s participation in the ecumenical movement, cf. Tsetsis, G. (1988) The
Contribution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the creation of the World Council of Churches, ed. Tertios, Katerini (in Greek); A. Basdekis
(ed.) (2006) Orthodoxe Kirche und die ökumenische Bewegung. Dokumente, Erklärungen, Berichte, 1900–2006 (The Orthodox Church and
the ecumenical movement. Papers, declarations and reports) Verlag Otto Lembeck/Verlag Bonifatius, Frankfurt a. M./
Paderborn (in German).

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as ‘‘ecumenical’’, precisely because of the continuing separation of West and East in


 The renewal brought about by the Mouvement de la Jeunesse Orthodoxe (Youth Ortho-
dox Movement) of the Patriarchate of Antioch (which covers Lebanon, Syria and
the Middle East), which has worked to revitalize and reinterpret the past in a way
that bears fruit today, and has played a crucial role in reawakening the church. ‘‘It is
‘a prophetic movement, situated not on the margins but at the very heart of the
Church’; it ‘brings a sharp doctrinal sense through its biblical grounding and lit-
urgical vision’; rooted in the real world and the sacrament of brotherly love, the
MJO has sown the seeds of renewal in every other [Christian] community.’’52 It
should also be remembered that the MJO, being established in 1942, was the first
movement in that particular part of the world (that is, Lebanon) to work towards
deeper faith, repentance, renewal of the church and reconciliation.53

 The theology of the person and relational ontology. These are ideas developed
chiefly by two great Greek theologians, Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas
and Christos Yannaras, and represent perhaps the most original synthesis of ideas in
contemporary Orthodox theology. They are an attempt to begin an innovative,
fruitful dialogue between Greek patristic thought (particularly the consequences of
patristic thought for the ontological issue) and contemporary Western philosophies
(particularly phenomenology and philosophies of existence) and, in so doing, to
make the person (as clearly distinct from both the individual and the collective) a
category in its own right, and a fundamental ontological and theological concept.54

Information on the history of and challenges facing this Council can be found at the official website of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate of Constantinople at Chambésy, Geneva ( in French and Greek.
Rizk, R. (1989) Orthodox believers in the Lebanon crisis. Interview for the Service Orthodoxe de Presse (Orthodox Press Service, or
SOP), no. 139, June, p.22. Cf. also Khodr, Geroge, Metropolitan of Byblos and Batroun (Mount Lebanon) (1997) Et si je disais les
chemins d’enfance (And if I recounted the paths of childhood), translated from Arabic to French by R. and G. Rizk, Le sel de la
terre/Cerf, Paris, pp.6–7, 71 et seq.
Rizk, (1989) p.22.
There have been a number of books on Yannaras’ thought, and still more on Zizioulas’ theology (especially his eucharistic
ecclesiology). Here, we refer the reader to only a small selection: Stöckl, Kristina (2007) Community after Totalitarianism. The Eastern
Orthodox Intellectual Tradition and the Philosophical Discourse of Political Modernity, doctoral thesis, European University Institute,
Department of Political and Social Sciences, Florence, in particular pp.103–107 and 124–132 (the most recent study of Yannaras);
e ; , 0
Agoras, K. (1992) Personne et liberté ou ‘‘être comme communion’’: ‘‘einai oB koinonia’’ dans l’œuvre de Jean Zizioulas (Person and
e; , 0
freedom or ‘being as communion’: ‘einai oB koinon ia’ in the work of John Zizioulas), doctoral thesis, University of Paris-
Sorbonne (Paris IV)/Institut Catholique de Paris, (a paper focusing specifically on the theology of the person which, as well as
making a detailed study of the concept of the ‘‘person’’ in Zizoulas’ work, also compares it with the concept as used by Yannaras
and the Metropolitan of Pergamon); D. H. Knight (ed.) (2007) The Theology of John Zizioulas. Personhood and the Church, Ashgate,
Aldershot, (the most recent [joint] work on Zizioulas).

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 The work of liturgical renewal and translation of the liturgical texts – especially that
of the Divine Liturgy attributed to St John Chrysostom – carried out by the great
twentieth century Serbian theologian and divine Fr. Justin Popovic and his followers.

 The liturgical renaissance movement and the work of the special Synodal Commit-
tee of the Church of Greece – a church otherwise noted for its conservatism and its
tendency to religious nationalism – which, to encourage that liturgical renaissance,
holds annual colloquia and meetings on liturgy, publishes papers and works in many
different ways to promote lay involvement in liturgical life.55

There are as many of these examples of encounter and dialogue between the Orthodox
Church and the modern world with all its challenges as there are reinterpretations and re-
expressions of existing tradition, and just as many small-scale reforms – such as the
rather more practical reform which, since the 1920s, has led to the adoption of the
Gregorian calendar by most of the Orthodox churches (the Churches of Constantinople,
Alexandria, Antioch, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech
Republic and Slovakia, Finland and Estonia).56

The Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

After these examples of encounter and dialogue between Orthodoxy and the modern,
contemporary world in the twentieth century, it is time to take a very brief look at some
of the challenges facing the Orthodox Church today.

 To set in place some canonical organization on the local church principle (i.e. one
bishop per city) for the diaspora; this will require an end to religious nationalism
(currently the dominant force) and an ethnocentric understanding of Christianity.

 Extending and deepening the liturgical renaissance movement, bringing God’s peo-
ple – particularly the lay community – back into active participation in the eucharistic
celebration. As this movement develops greater depth, and as theological education

The topics discussed at these colloquia include the eucharist, baptism, the liturgical renaissance movement, marriage, the
sacrament of holy orders, the place of the Bible in Orthodox liturgical life etc. For the vision and the theological basis of the
liturgical renaissance movement, cf. Vassiliadis, P. (2005) Lex Orandi. Liturgical Theology and Liturgical Renaissance, second edition,
with revisions and corrections, Indiktos, Athens, (in Greek).
On the other hand, with the exception of the diaspora in Europe, America and Australia, the Orthodox churches have not had the
courage to reform clerical dress and return to the ancient system (which remained in force in Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans,
and in the Middle East, until as recently as the nineteenth century), under which there was hardly any difference in the appearance of
the clergy and the lay community. Cf. Papaevangelou, P.S. (1965) The Development of the Outward Appearance of Eastern Christian Clergy,
Particularly the Greek Clergy, doctoral thesis, School of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki (in Greek).

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is revived, these will lead lay people into taking an active part in the life of the church.
Not only that, but, even more importantly, they will lead to the reestablishment of
eucharistic communities and to the authentic, real-world expression of the vision of
the church as the body of Christ, the communion of the Holy Spirit.
 To do its evangelism and mission in the world not by seeking to reconquer or
dominate it but in service to the world, in a spirit of love and charity, as dialogue with
the world, reflecting the endless dialogue between the Triune God and creation, as a
witness before the eyes of the world to announce the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
 To accept political liberalism, the principles of democracy and human rights, with
no more equivocation.
 To engage in anthropological reflection and develop an anthropology that is com-
patible not just with church doctrine but also with the great scientific discoveries
and insights attained over the last century, particularly in biology, biotechnology and
genetic engineering – advances that must never be allowed to lose respect for the
inalienable value of the human person, and which confront us with ethical chal-
lenges and dilemmas never seen before.
 To welcome difference and diversity in the church and in theology (yet without
losing our unity), affirm cultural and religious pluralism in society and adopt the
positive approaches of multiculturalism and interculturalism.
 To continue and deepen ecumenical dialogue, play an active part in inter-religious
dialogue and learn tolerance and coexistence with those who are ‘‘other’’, who are
nevertheless made in the image of the One who is the ultimate ‘‘Other’’.
 To discuss in greater depth the relationship, and the possibility of dialogue, between
Orthodox theology (chiefly patristic and ‘‘classical’’ theology) and the challenges laid
down by contextual theologies (both ‘‘modern’’ and ‘‘postmodern’’), and, in general,
to establish a new and critical approach to the relationship of the church and its
theology to other cultures.
 The role of women in the life of the church, the rehabilitation of the body, physi-
cality and sexuality and of a concept of sexuality that is spiritual rather than purely

With respect to the challenges facing the Orthodox Church today, the reader will benefit from consulting the theological thoughts
of M. Stavrou in: (2006) Quels défis pour l’Église à l’aube du troisième millénaire? (What are the challenges facing the Church at
the dawn of the third millennium?) in the journal Contacts, no. 213, pp.38–79 (in French).

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 Above all – and this is the most urgent challenge or task for the Orthodox Church
today – to engage in critical dialogue with modernity and postmodernity. The Or-
thodox Church and its theology can no longer ignore modernity and act as if it were
living in traditional or pre-modern societies. To persist in this line would be to deny
the very essence of incarnation theology, for it is in this historical, social and cultural
context of modernity and postmodernity that the church is called to fulfil its mis-
sion, and that it is once again called to embody the truth of Christianity about God,
the world and humankind.

Orthodox Christianity and Modernity

Today we live in a completely postmodern world, and yet Orthodox Christianity

still has not come to terms with modernity. It is this lack of resolution that forms
the most serious issue with respect to ‘‘reformation’’, and therefore on this will be the
focus for the rest of this paper.58 It is interesting to note that, despite their significant
differences, Orthodox Christianity and Islam are today faced with the same crucial
dilemma: ‘‘globalization or fundamentalism?’’ And yet the reality is that neither of these
great spiritual traditions (albeit for different reasons in each case) has yet managed
to resolve its relationship with modernity – even as they each stand before this new
dilemma. (We should not forget that the same approach characterized the rise and the
beliefs of Christian fundamentalism in Europe and, particularly, the United States: there,
fundamentalism grew out of the interaction, and then conflict, between conservative
American Protestant groups with emerging modernity in the latter decades of the nine-
teenth century.)

Throughout its recent history, Orthodox Christianity (with the possible exception of the
Orthodox diaspora) seems to have been scared of modernity, and has never yet engaged
in serious dialogue with it. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has never really engaged in
an encounter or critical dialogue with modernity. The only exceptions are the (forced)
encounter implemented by Peter the Great in Russia, or the encounter that took place
within the Greek Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nine-

Here, we will chiefly be returning to the themes set out in our earlier work: (2004) Orthodox Christianity and Islam. From
modernity to globalization, Introduction to the joint work. In: P. Kalaitzidis and N. Ntontos (eds), Islam and Fundamentalism –
Orthodox Christianity and Globalization, Indiktos, Athens, pp.9–29, and especially pp.14–17, 22–23 (in Greek); (2007) Orthodox
Christian Tradition and Islam, from modernity to globalization, a presentation given at the Mediterranean Cultural Workshop
organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Euromed Non-Governmental Platform, Paris, 13–
15 September 2006, and published in Atelier culturel ‘‘Dialogue des peuples et des cultures’’. Actes de la Conférence de Paris du 13 au 15
septembre 2006 (Cultural Workshop ‘‘Dialogue among peoples and cultures’’. Minutes of the Paris Conference of 13–15 September
2006), vol. II, Paris, pp.51–56 (in French); (2007) Orthodox Christianity and Modernity. Prolegomena. Indiktos, Athens (in Greek).

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teenth centuries, when Greece was under Ottoman rule. The instigators and most
notable representatives of the latter movement were often Orthodox priests or monks,
who were, indeed, remarkably open to some ‘‘new’’ ideas, as well as to the scientific
progress associated with modernity (Eugene Bulgaris, Nikephoros Theotikis,
Joseph Moisiodax and others, for instance). However, today it seems that neither
dialogue nor, it follows, any synthesis between Orthodox Christianity and modernity
are on the agenda. Not that the representatives of Orthodoxy and theology are the
only ones avoiding the conversation. Indeed, in Greece today we can see intellectuals
claiming to represent modernity who, for their part, seem ignorant of Orthodox tradition
and of its truths, which are at once the deepest and the most authentic. It remains
to be seen whether this mutual ignorance and mistrust are the result of some deep-
rooted, fundamental incompatibility between the two worlds – Orthodox Christianity
and modernity – or whether, on the contrary, they are the outcome of historical

In fact, and chiefly for historical reasons, Orthodoxy was not involved from the inside in
the creation of the modern world. Nor did it experience the Renaissance, the Reforma-
tion and Counter-Reformation, religious wars, the French Revolution, the industrial
revolution, the emergence of the ‘‘subject’’ and the rise of the individual, human rights
and the secular nation state. This is why everything that is believed to typify modernity
seems to have remained essentially foreign to Orthodox Christianity, which continues to
have a reticent attitude towards modernity. Many believe that this explains the serious
difficulty it has in communicating with the modern world.

We live in an age marked on the one hand by an upsurge in ethnic and religious conflicts,
the temptation to fundamentalism and to a retreat into traditionalism, and on the other
by a globalization of values, cosmopolitanism and the transition from modernity to
postmodernity. In these circumstances, the most important question for Orthodoxy to
ask itself can be summed up as follows: has Orthodox Christianity got stuck in premodernity?
Or, to put it another way, can Orthodox theology take root only in traditional or tradi-
tionalist environments? Are the forms and images of rural society – from which it derives
its liturgical symbolism, the rhetorical models used in its preaching, its church adminis-
tration structures and, most importantly, its established perspectives on the relationship
between the secular and the sacred, religion and politics, church and society – the only
ones it can use? Has the Orthodox Church recognized the achievements of modernity
and their consequences for religion and society, or does it feel a certain nostalgia for the
old structures and organizational forms of its glorious past (Byzantium in particular)? Do
we Orthodox believers still feel the tempting pull of that logical furrow first ploughed by
fundamentalism – to revert to premodernity, rejecting modernity’s gains and thinking of

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postmodernity only in terms of the church’s chance to get its own back at modernity and
secularization? To do this would be to follow in the footsteps of the Roman Catholic
Church, which at first rejected modernity – though it ultimately accepted the reality of the
new situation and chose rather to dialogue with modernity, coming to terms with it
through a dialectical process.59

However, in fact, the challenges of globalization and the extraordinary mix of peoples,
cultures and religions living together in our multicultural societies make it imperative for
the Orthodox Church and Orthodox theology to face the question of religious otherness
and the relationship to those who are ‘‘other’’, who are made in the image of the One
who is the ultimate ‘‘Other’’. Diversity of various forms (of ethnicity, race, culture, re-
ligion, ideology, social status, age etc.) has become part and parcel of the lives of
individuals and societies, and this has led to a loss of a homogenous social or religious
space and to seismic transformation in traditional, inward-looking societies, including
many so-called ‘‘Orthodox’’ societies. Economic growth, the computer revolution, rapid
geopolitical change and the resulting movement of peoples have led to massive demo-
graphic change and the mixing of different peoples and cultures, making the need for
religious coexistence and intercultural dialogue urgent and topical. Furthermore, in to-
day’s ‘‘liquid’’ or ‘‘fluid’’ modernity – to quote Zigmund Bauman60 – we are witnessing a
transition from a concept of identity as something compact and unique, to a paradigm of
multiple, diverse identities. In addition, modern societies are supposed to be ‘‘open so-
cieties’’, able to respect all forms of difference through the equal rights for all granted
by the institutional framework of democracy. In that kind of society, any claim to cultural
exclusivity or historical privileges is easily misinterpreted and misunderstood and can
very often lead to futile conflicts.

It is in this context that Orthodox Christianity must establish and develop a theology
of otherness and identity. In the beautiful words of the Metropolitan of Pergamon,
John Zizioulas, from a broader pneumatological and eschatological point of view,

The questions raised above with regard to the Orthodox Church and modernity were discussed, considered and researched as part of
the programme at the Academy for Theological Studies of the Metropolis of Demetrias (Volos, Greece) in the 2001–2002
academic year. The conference texts and presentations were compiled and published by Indiktos, Athens, in 2007 (in Greek). In
addition, the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand in the Lebanon organized an international
symposium on ‘‘Thinking Modernity: Towards a Reconfiguration of the Relationship between Orthodox Theology and Modern
Culture’’ on 3–5 December 2007, in conjunction with the Chair of Orthodox Theology at the Centre for Religious Studies of the
University of Münster in Germany.
Cf. inter alia Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Polity Press/Blackwell, Cambridge/Malden. Cf. also Papathanasiou, A.N. (2007)
Christian Anthropology for a Culture of Peace: Considering the Church in Mission and Dialogue Today. In: E. Clapsis (ed.),
Violence and Christian Spirituality. An Ecumenical Conversation, pp.87–90. World Council of Churches Publications/Holy Cross
Orthodox Press, Geneva/Brookline, MA.

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identity includes otherness, for ‘‘otherness is part of what makes unity’’, and ‘‘otherness,
far from being a threat to unity, is its condition sine qua non’’, and because ‘‘otherness
is part of what makes unity, not its result’’.61 The Orthodox Church faces many
temptations: fundamentalist self-absorption, traditionalism, a refusal to accept moder-
nity and the existence of multicultural societies, the rejection of dialogue and of
the ‘‘other’’, religious nationalism and a nationalistic or even tribal understanding of the
gospel message. With a watchful theological conscience, it must consistently reject
and overcome them all.

The most urgent tasks for the Orthodox Church today, then, are: to weed out these
temptations; to commit at last to serious – albeit long overdue – dialogue with moder-
nity; to play a constructive, creative role in postmodernity; and to unequivocally accept
pluralism and the liberation of modern societies from religious authority. This is the work
that must be achieved – the sine qua non – before any discussion or action of renewal or
reformation may be taken.

By Way of Conclusion

For decades, perhaps even centuries, the world of traditional Orthodoxy has been stuck,
held back by resistance to change and by idolizing its past glories. Without even knowing
it, it has turned its back on the dynamic theology of the Greek Fathers, and lives more in
the past than the present or the future. It conceives of history more in terms of faits
accomplis, where every event is a continuation of the past, than as a dynamic reality, always
open to the unexpected and to God’s freely given love. Furthermore, for chiefly historical
and – to a degree – ecclesiological reasons, Orthodox Christianity is often identified with
the peoples and nations that follow it; yet will never free itself of its old demons of tri-
balism and religious nationalism as long as it still feeds on the outdated paradigm of East
versus West62 (though this is far less true of the diaspora) and on both cultural and
theological anti-Westernism.63 It is still frightened by the concepts of renewal, evolution

Zizioulas, John (Metropolitan of Pergamon) (2002) Communion et altérité (Communion and otherness) in the journal Contacts,
no. 166, p.113 (in French). Cf. also his latest book, (2006) Communion and Otherness. Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. T&T
Clark, London. On the issue of pluralism in contemporary Orthodox theological thinking, cf. also E. Clapsis (ed.) (2004) The
Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic world. An Ecumenical Conversation. WCC Publications/Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Geneva/
Brookline, MA; Papathanasiou (2007) pp.90–97; Yangazoglou, S. (2006) The person and otherness. A paper towards a theology
of otherness, in the journal Indiktos, no. 21, pp.87–125 (in Greek).
Cf. Petrou, I. (2001) ‘The contemporary world’ in place of the ‘East-West’ paradigm, in the review Analogion, no. 1, pp.69–79
(in Greek).
Cf. our own contribution to the colloquium on 1960s theology held in May 2005 at the Academy for Theological Studies in Volos,
Greece: Uncovering theological Hellenicity and anti-Westernism in the theologians of the 1960s generation (in Greek, currently in
press at Indiktos, Athens).

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and reformation, and seems unable to take part in any serious hermeneutical debate. But
if it continues to refuse to think about and discuss reforms and changes, and closes its
eyes to developments in society and to the radical and sometimes violent changes which
are affecting its own flock, which is the very body of Christ, then the great reformation, if
it does come, will come like an explosion, like an avalanche, shaking every part of the
Orthodox world and damaging the structure and constitution of the church body. If the
Orthodox Church insists on renouncing all change and reform, often in the name of
preserving its unity and stability, then that church may one day come crashing to the
ground. Even at the level of church praxis, in the way that believers give practical ex-
pression to ascetic, ethical, theological and ecclesiological values in liturgical and spiritual
life, there are certain cases in which pastoral revisions and adaptations are clearly needed,
and others where we must return to the primary sense, the original, authentic under-
standing, of many Orthodox practices (the prayer of the heart, prayer in community,
fasting, the sacrament of penance, confession and spiritual direction, the pre-eminence
of monastic practices and spirituality, admission to holy orders and the diaconate, which
are currently reserved for men alone, and so on). These things must not be determined
by habit but always judged by the final, ultimate measure – truth.64 Furthermore, they
must always be used to build up the body of Christ and help it to participate in the
eucharist, rather than to exclude it.

Raymond Rizk, the former secretary of the youth movement of the Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate of Antioch, recently had this to say to his church:

Instead of wasting our time criticizing each other, let us all, clergy and lay, join together, under the
watchful eye of our bishops, in the great work of reformation that is so overdue in the Church of
Antioch. The days are evil, and time is not on our side. God is knocking at our doors – the doors to
our hearts and the doors of our churches. Will we answer him? If, and only if, we can do this, then we
will have been his witnesses.65

May he be heard, by his own church and by all the local Orthodox churches! As for us,
our only wish is that, alongside words such as ‘‘renewal’’ and ‘‘renaissance’’, which are yet
considered a legitimate part of Orthodox theological and church vocabulary, the word
‘‘reformation’’ might also find its rightful place in a church which defines itself not simply
as a church of tradition, but also as the church of the Holy Spirit.

Cf. the famous quotation from Cyprian of Carthage: ‘‘The Lord said, ‘I am Truth,’ not, ‘I am Custom’.’’ Sententiae episcoporum no.
87, c. 30.
Rizk, R. (2006) A testimony concerning the Youth Orthodox Movement today. An Nour (journal of the MJO of the Patriarchate
of Antioch) no. 2, p.82 (in Arabic).

164 & 2009 World Council of Churches