July 2017 | Extra Works

What is Theology? | By Kallistos Ware

An Excerpt from “What is Theology?” Kallistos Ware. The Cambridge Orthodox Forum. March 2012.

Now when I am working at my desk, I have always two books within easy reach. The first is the Holy Bible. The second is The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which I usually have in two editions – the fourth and the sixth edition. So I looked to these volumes for help in answer to the question “What is theology?” I got no help at all from the Bible, because the word theology never occurs in Holy Scripture. It is not a Biblical term.

However, The Concise Oxford Dictionary was more helpful. The fourth edition defines theology curtly as, “science of religion.” The sixth edition is more expansive. It says, “study of all system of religion; rational analysis of a religious faith.” I wasn’t very satisfied with these two rather dry definitions.

And so I turned to a contemporary Greek theologian and religious philosopher, Christos Yannaras. He provides a rather more exciting definition of theology. He says:

In the Orthodox Church and Tradition, Theology has a very different meaning from the one we give it today. It is a gift from God, a fruit of the interior purity of the Christian’s spiritual life. Theology is identified with the vision of God; with the immediate vision of the personal God; with the personal experience of the Transfiguration of creation by uncreated grace. In this way, Theology is not a theory of the world, a metaphysical system, but an expression of the formulation of the Church’s experience; not an intellectual discipline, but an experiential participation; a communion.

So let us contrast these two definitions. The Concise Oxford Dictionary uses as its keywords: science, system, and rational analysis. On the other hand, Yannaras has as his key terms: gift, grace, personal experience, participation, communion, interior purity, transfiguration, and vision of God. These are two very different approaches.

In the first case, if we follow The Concise Oxford Dictionary, we will see theology as an academic discipline; something taught in universities; something examined; something which will award people first, second, and third class degrees; something taught in the lecture hall of a university faculty; scholastic, if we would like to use that word.

Yannaras disputes this approach to theology, which he calls, “the approach of academic scientism.” And he wishes to see an essential link between theology and prayer; between doctrine and the spiritual life. And he sees theology not as a matter of detached study, but as involving personal experience.

Perhaps, there is truth in both approaches. Perhaps, we should combine them. God has given us a reasoning brain. Muddled thinking is not one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so we should be systematic and rational in our work. We should try to express our ideas with the utmost clarity. I think it was Wittgenstein who said, “Everything can be said at all can be said clearly.”

On the other hand, surely Yannaras is right. Theology is not a science exactly on a level with say geology or zoology. I will come back to that later. Theology involves a personal involvement, such as you might not need in other disciplines. So yes, systematic rational analysis, but something much more than that – personal experience.

Developing Yannaras’ approach, let me call to mind a famous aphorism by the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus or Evagrius Ponticus he might be called. …“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” That is a very different definition from The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Now in this connection, St. Gregory Palamas of the 14th Century distinguishes three kinds of theologians. First he says, there are the saints. They are those who possess personal experience; who have themselves beheld the divine light, and these are the true theologians. Secondly, there are those who lack such personal experience but who trust the saints and learn from them. And they too may be good theologians, albeit on a lower level. Thirdly, there are those who lack personal experience and who do not trust the saints, and they are bad theologians.

I find this threefold distinction reassuring. But while I make no claim to be in the first category of theologians, I hope that by the Divine Mercy, I may find a place in the second category among those who trust the saints. Now, let’s think a little more about what Evagrius and Palamas are asserting here. Let me quote a few other statements from modern Orthodox theologians, which develop Yannaras’ approach.

Here for example is what is said by another Greek theologian, Constantine Scouteris who died recently. And he’s describing what it is to be a theologian. “The whole person, living out the mystery of the new creation – educated, that is to say, ‘through healthy dogmas’ and ‘purified’ – becomes an unceasing hymn and continual praise of God.”

So there you see, theology involves living out the mystery of the new creation; being purified; becoming a hymn in praise of God. Theology is not just something that we do, but on this approach, it’s something that we are. You may recall the words said shortly before his death by the composer Vaughn Williams. He was asked what he thought it would be like in Heaven. And he replied, “Music. Music. Only in Heaven we shan’t write and perform music, we are ourselves will be the music.” Well, you could apply that to theology.

Here is testimony of someone I shall have a lot to say about today, Archpriest George Florovsky who died in 1979. … “One cannot separate spirituality and theology. Theology can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the exercise of virtue.” So it is a question of how you pray and how you live. And he goes on to quote St. John Climacus from the 7th Century. “The climax of purity is the beginning of theology.”

For more on this topic, you can find the complete lecture at: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/cambridge/what_is_theology
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