Orthodox Fundamentalism? It conjures up sights of militants and extremists. Yet, we are told that Orthodoxy is not immune to this malady that shows its ugly face in every religion, even in atheism. Sometimes the stigma of fundamentalism is ascribed to theologians who faithfully follow the Fathers and abide by the Canons of the Church. A case in point is an article I would like to address.
What are the characteristics of an Orthodox fundamentalist?
- Typically, fundamentalists view the Bible, or any other book, as the literal word of God.1
- In its extreme form fundamentalism is fanaticism.
- Nearly all Old Calendarists are fundamentalists.
- Most fundamentalists are also fanatics.
- Separating from the Church on account of the change in the calendar is an extreme form of fundamentalism.
- Fundamentalists label the New Calendar Orthodox “modernists.”
- Fundamentalism is encountered mostly in monasteries, but it is most disturbing when it is encountered among the clergy and laity living in the world, who try to imitate the monastic lifestyle.
On January 29, 2015, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America posted an article on its blog2 by Prof. George Demacopoulos3 with the title “Orthodox Fundamentalism.” The article went viral and was also carried by the blog of the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle (2/4/15). As pointed out in his article, aspects of Orthodox fundamentalism abound around us – both in the old continent and in the new World – particularly manifested in biblical literalism and pietism. However, the author labels other legitimate and traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices as fundamentalist, calling them “slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions.”
Far from being “used in self-promotion”, as he says, we are all called to follow the teachings and the way of life of the God-bearing Fathers.
Demacopoulos inveighs against “so many [unnamed] Orthodox clerics and monks” who “have made public statements that reflect a fundamentalist approach to the Church Fathers,” called by him “extremists” and “radical opportunists.” Who are they? What statements have they made that deserve such epithets? It seems that their fault is that they adhere strictly to the teachings of the Fathers and the Canons of the Church. According to the author’s thinking we should classify the Fathers themselves as fundamentalist, among them St. Photios, St. Mark Evgenikos, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nikodemos, St. Nektarios and more recently St. Justin Popović and St. Paisios. Certainly in his list belong Protopresbyters George Metallinos, Theodoros Zeses, Vasileios Voloudakis, and Metropolitans Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Seraphim of Piraeus. Far from being fundamentalist, they express the correct faith, ethos and phronema of the Orthodox Church. The obvious question is, who are the author’s models among the Saints? Could he find even one that espoused what he does?
The Fathers were/are not the “intellectuals of their age,” as the author states, succeeded or rather superseded by the intellectuals of this New Age—presumably the academic scholars. The Fathers expressed their own experiences, having already reached theosis, which is the knowledge of God. These are the words of a contemporary Father, St. Paisios:
Theology is the word of God that is comprehended by pure, humble and spiritually reborn souls. It is not the beautiful words of the mind which are formed with philological artistry and which are expressed with the juridical or worldly spirit…Theology that is taught as a [worldly] science usually examines things historically and consequently understands things externally. Because patristic asceticism and inner experience are absent, this theology is full of doubts and questions. With his mind man is not able to comprehend the divine energies unless he first struggles ascetically to live these energies, so that the grace of God might work within him.
The Fathers do not disagree among themselves, as the author, following the “post-patristic” theologians, attempts to prove (needless to say, without succeeding), but expand, enrich, and deepen upon the teachings of the Fathers that preceded them, as they address, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, new problems that arise. They build upon each other the edifice of the Church. “To refuse to follow the Fathers, not holding their declaration of more authority than one’s own opinion, is conduct worthy of blame, as being brimful of self-sufficiency,” says a great Father of the Church.4 The Church calls the Fathers “the precise custodians of the Apostolic Traditions.”5
Fighting the Fathers
Theology is the word of God that is comprehended by pure, humble and spiritually reborn souls. It is not the beautiful words of the mind which are formed with philological artistry and which are expressed with the juridical or worldly spirit…
The progressive synchretist and ecumenist professors characterize the attachment to the patristic methodology of defending the Orthodox Faith and attacking and refuting the heresies as fundamentalist, they call the attachment to the Canons of the Church as legalism, the faithful adherence to the Christian ethics as pietism, and the checking of deviations from the pulpit as expressions of hate. This so-called post-patristic theology, far from being a continuation of the theology of the Fathers, constitutes a distortion of their teachings and a radical departure from their witness of the true faith in word and action. It constitutes a resurgence of the rationalist approach to the truth of Barlaamism condemned by the Palamite synods.6
The position taken in this article reflects the post-patristic and deconstructionist spirit that permeates the Theological Academy of Volos (which carried his article, translated by its director) with which the Center co-founded by the author collaborates, which vehemently fights against what was and the way it was “handed down” to us by the Fathers.
- What does Volos and its adherents have to say about the “fundamentalist” Creed and the “fundamentalist” Canons that the “fundamentalist” Fathers have passed on to us?
- What of our “fundamentalist” dogmas, our “fundamentalist” Divine Liturgy, our “fundamentalist” Bible, our “fundamentalist” hymnology, our “fundamentalist” mysteries (like baptism and communion), and our “fundamentalist” morality?
- Why reinterpret the Fathers and not reinterpret the antiquated “fundamentalist” faith of the “fundamentalist” Church founded by “fundamentalist” Christ?
- Why stick to an exclusivist (“fundamentalist”) religion?
- Why not start afresh with a contemporary expression of the faith? But…that’s what they propose! Unless they shout loud and clear the “fundamentalist” anathemas of the Church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy they have no place in Her.
Keeping the Fundamentals
In the end I would say that perhaps the Orthodox Church has remained “fundamentalist” in the original sense this word had when it was coined by Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Northern Baptist newspaper The Watchman-Examiner in 1920, who wrote, “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’”7
- As it is stated succinctly by Cecil McGarry, S.J., “Christian fundamentalism sees the Bible as an encoded message from God, inerrant, infallible, never to be questioned. Its only meaning is the literal meaning of the words. The Bible alone is sufficient and adequate to guide us in all the problems of life, especially religious ones. The only adequate response is absolute and unquestioning obedience to God who is the author of the Bible.” (“A Thin Line Between Fundamentalism and Fanaticism,” Social and Religious Concerns, Ch. 43: 325-335, p. 325.
- Prof. George Demacopoulos is Director and Co-Founder of Orthodox Christian Studies Center together with Prof. Aristotle Papanikolaou, with whom he teaches theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit School. He also happens to be an “Archon Didaskalos Tou Genous” of the Order of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
- None other than Saint Basil, Letters LII.1, NPNF-2, p. 155.
- Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, Doxastikon of Lite.
- See the letter of Metropolitan Pavlos of Glyfada to the Synod of Greece of Sept. 28, 2010 on “Contextual,” “Postpatristic” and other “Theological Quests” at the conference of the Theological Academy of Volos on the topic “Neo-Patristic Synthesis or Post-Patristic Theology. The Quest of Contextual Theology in Orthodoxy.” http://www.saintnicodemos.org/articles/postpatristictheology.php.
- Curtis Lee Laws, “Convention Side Lights,” The Watchman-Examiner, viii (July 1, 1920), 834.