Patrology is the Vital Life of the Church

One could say that patrology as a science of the Fathers and the very life of the Church are inseparably united. One cannot, like some of us sometimes do, separate the science of the Fathers from the living current of Church Tradition, as something differing in origin from this Tradition. Such an approach, in my opinion, is fatal for patrology.
admin | 26 August 2011

Interview with a Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy A. I. Sidorov

Aleksei Ivanovich Sidorov is a doctor of church history and a professor of the Moscow Theological Academy and the Sretensky Theological Seminary. Born in 1944, in 1975 he graduated from the historical faculty of Moscow State University in the department of the history of the ancient world, and completed the degree of aspirant from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of General History. A. I. Sidorov has published ten books, among which are The Works of St Maximus the Confessor: Theology and Ascetic Tracts; The Works of Abba Evagrius: Ascetic and Theological Tracts; Blessed Theodorit of Cyprus: History of the Lovers of God; Course of Patrology: The Emergence of Church Letters, and more than 100 scholarly articles.

The interview was conducted May 21, 2010 by Vyacheslav Golzow, a fourth-year seminarian at Sretensky Theological Seminary, Moscow, Russia

– Aleksei Ivanovich, please tell us what patrology is and when it arose.

– I wrote about this in my first (and so far only) volume of patrology. Patrology is the teaching about the Fathers which, however, is not limited only to the Holy Fathers; ecclesiastical writers must also fit into it. Without it patrology can not be complete. If we, for instance, do not study Clement of Alexandria, who was not a Church Father, but was a brilliant ecclesiastical writer and thinker, then we will not understand the formation of all patristic theology.

Strictly speaking, patrology, as a science, arose in recent times, but I don’t want to speak of it strictly in a scientific meaning, because its subject is the vital life of the Church, this is an authentic patristic Tradition, which lives in the Church and began immediately after the Apostles. Why do we study the apostolic fathers such as the Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer? Because he spoke and studied in the spirit of Tradition. One could say that patrology as a science of the Fathers and the very life of the Church are inseparably united. One cannot, like some of us sometimes do, separate the science of the Fathers from the living current of Church Tradition, as something differing in origin from this Tradition. Such an approach, in my opinion, is fatal for patrology.

– How does patrology differ from patristics?

– Previously it was considered that patristics studies only the teaching of the Fathers, but patrology includes in itself three main elements: the life of the Fathers, their works, and their theology. But at the present time these two understandings are practically mutually interchangeable. I prefer the word patrology, but this is just my personal opinion.

– Aleksei Ivanovich, which periods are defined in the study of patristic writing?

– I usually give this periodization at the very beginning of the introduction to patrology. I must warn that patrology does not have an upper limit, and therefore in theological school they have begun to study Russian and general Slavonic patrology. One could say that this “pushes” patrology’s upper limit, for our Orthodox Church is forever generating more and more Fathers. Soon, I think, “new Greek patrology” should be studied.

I myself study classical patrology, which takes up the enormous epoch from the end of the first century and ends in the Greek East with the fall of Byzantium. Within this enormous epoch exist more concrete periods, although this periodization cannot always be defined with exact borders. Traditionally one always defines the pre-Nicene period, and then the “golden age” of patristic writing. Several general tendencies emerge in the “golden age”: for example, the Cappadocian Fathers, the “new Alexandrians” (St Athanasius the Great and Cyrill of Alexandria), the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the Antiochian school, the Latin Fathers and ecclesiastical writers. Syrian patrology also appears: Aphraates, the Persian Sage, St Ephraim the Syrian. But after the “golden age” begins a period that is hard to fix – until the beginning of iconoclasm: it takes up two and a half centuries. Following them, that is after St John of Damascus, begins Byzantine patrology proper with its own distinguishing features, but it so far is less studied than the preceding periods.

– When did the subject “Patrology” appear among the disciplines taught in theological schools?

– In Russia, this course began in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its appearance, in my opinion, was wholly rightful. If one is to study the Tradition of the Church, how can one not study patrology in theological schools?

– How many classes of students-seminarians study patrology?

– In the seminary patrology is studied for three years.

– What guides you in the composition of a course?

– Every course is always a creation. Before I used to think that it was enough to write a book and there you go, read! But, as it turns out, a book isn’t enough. It happens that students either don’t read the textbooks, or they cursorily glance at them, and therefore the material either doesn’t reach them or catches up with them only superficially. Besides, everything that’s written in books is received differently than the spoken word. Sometimes they say: “Why, in fact, are lectures necessary?” Once I, too, thought roughly the same way, and then I understood that the living word and books – these are entirely different things. In what the teacher gives, a given amount of informative material is always, naturally, present, but the point is not so much in information, as much as how the teacher choses the material and how he presents it. Here arises the creativity of teaching, which depends on his personal opinions, spiritual experience, and even cultural and aesthetic sympathies. It is very important to establish a living connection with the auditorium. Every course is unique and unrepeatable, and the teaching depends on how the material is received by the auditorium. To find a point of contact from the first lesson, as a rule, is difficult; but later the relationship between the teacher and students usually develops and the line of teaching to a given course arises. Of course, there is a specific syllabus, and the teacher is bound to follow them. But into this “matrix” one can put different structures, in which the pedagogical approach of every teacher arises. One should always remember one simple thing: a pedagog is not a computer who gives information – and study it. Every lecture is a “synergy” between the teacher and students. And the success of the teacher depends a great deal on the latter.

– How long have you studied the patristic heritage?

– From the time I entered the Church, for about thirty years.

– Aleksei Ivanovich, the readers of this website would like to know in more detail about your academic works.

– I now have ten books and more than 100 articles. The greatest number of them are translations and commentary. I opened this enormous stratum completely involuntarily, since I am not a philologist in the proper sense of this word. But the translation of the Holy Fathers immediately became for me not simply the main object of my scholarly interests, but began simultaneously with the process of churchification. Unfortunately, there never was enough, and there isn’t enough, time for these translations. I can say one thing: the most blessed state for me is when I am translating the Holy Fathers and more exactly – communing with them. They are, after all, alive and are my spiritual instructors.

– You know ancient Greek perfectly. Where did you study it? Could you ever have thought that you might use it for the translation of the Holy Fathers?

– To know ancient Greek perfectly is impossible, because it’s a dead language. Simply, the more one translates the better one gets at it; when one often works with the Greek text, one develops specific ways of working with the text. But I repeat yet again that I’m not a philologist, and there are gifted philologists who are much more professional than I am. For me philology was and remains a simple instrument. In my time I graduated from the Moscow State University, the department of the history of the ancient world and the department of ancient languages – the were always closely connected. An historian must know the language tools. But an historian cannot posses languages as well as a philologist does.

However I can not call myself an historian in the exact sense of this word. In my university years and after them I was always drawn to the study of ancient philosophy: Plato, Plotinus, and neo-Platonism. Before my coming to the Church I was actively involved with this, as well as with gnosticism. Naturally, in the Soviet period no one could teach me how to translate the Holy Fathers. Andrei Cheslavovich Kazarzhevsky, whose lectures I attended, taught a purely philological discipline: the language of the New Testament, and in his lectures strove to avoid “religious associations” (for which one could be simply thrown out of the university). I had to become an autodidact. I’m still studying, since every Holy Father, to whose work I turn, demands a constantly deepening “entry” into him. Normally I translate two or three texts, and every author becomes my teacher. I’m sixty-five years old and can honestly admit, without showing off, that up until now I’m constantly studying.

As far as patristic texts are concerned, they are practically untranslatable, inasmuch as, as a rule, one retells more or less adequately these texts. I am convinced that every translation is only a translation. It will never have the status of “first freshness” because of the transferral of its content through the means of another language. But such a conveyance requires the translator to understand the author and for me that’s fundamental. To understand not only with the intellect, with the mind, but more importantly with the heart. Therefore I am deeply certain that only a church person can translate the Holy Fathers. If he’s not a church person, he simply will not understand what’s being talked about, even if he is the most brilliant philologist.

– What do you suggest: should a seminarian know ancient Greek in order to study patrology?

– It’s desirable, in any case. But, knowing the load of seminarians, I see in this a certain luxury. One needs to study Greek earlier. And what does it mean to study a language? Language is a labor, and therefore there is fruit to this labor, that is the knowledge of a new language, which is always valuable if it serves to glorify God, and not personal vainglory and pride.

In general, the more languages one knows, the more comprehensible one’s own language will become, inasmuch as in the study of a foreign language you begin to understand and value your own language. Therefore I have always supported the initiative for students of our theological schools to study ancient languages – Greek and Latin, but the real results of this study leave much to be desired.

However, the undoubted fact should be pointed out, that the deep study of foreign languages is not necessary for the majority of seminarians, for we aren’t a language college. What’s necessary here is a rational minimum, necessary for general growth. But I do think that it’s sensible to have small language groups (even one or two students) on every class for those wishing to study more deeply ancient and modern languages.

– What tendencies in the study of patrology exist in the West and in Russia? Are there methodological peculiarities?

– I’d put the question differently. The West is very different, and beyond this. It is undergoing a catastrophic de-Christianization. In the West there are Catholics and there are Protestants, and the Fathers of the Church are studied by both Catholics and Protestants. The Fathers are studied even by non-confessional people; that is, unbelievers. As in Russia, there are also philosophers who study the works of the Holy Fathers with a specific approach. But if we’re talking about patrology, then of course we in Russia are very much indebted to what goes on in the West. And I personally am grateful to Catholic scholars who publishes texts of the Holy Fathers, and we use their work. We also use the fruits of Protestant scholars, and their work in the study of, for example, Macarius of Egypt should be acknowledged.

But if we regard patrology (not patristics) as a fundamental discipline, then here church-ness is presupposed, and in my opinion it is the fundamental criterion in approaching patristic works. So, for example, St Gregory Palamas is studied in the West. Catholics approach him variously, in relation to their convictions and views, the swinging of which can be very significant: some scholars almost sympathize with him, and others consider him completely foreign to the Catholic tradition. But among us also his teaching is sometimes taken as a certain intellectual system, focusing attention on the importance of the distinction between essence and energy in God. But here one must understand that, no matter what problems could arise while studying the works of St Gregory Palamas, the most important postulate for us is the recognition that he is a Holy Father. This saint is an inseparable part of church Tradition, and he is higher than any scholar, who might find some flaw in his argument or some other imperfection. And he is above us on the strength of one fact, that he is a Holy Father.

If we start from the recognition of holiness at the study of the patristic heritage, then this is our main and distinguishing principle of an Orthodox approach to the patristic heritage. For Catholics, Gregory Palamas is one of the Byzantine writers; he is not a Holy Father and is not recognized as such by them, but for us he is one of the main links of the patristic Tradition. And when they talk about some sort of “Palamism,” I have always protested and am protesting, this inadequate term. Then let’s call the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor “Maximusism” and study him as “Maximusism.” When we do this, we remove a Holy Father from the context of the patristic Tradition. By the way, Vladyka Basil (Krivoshein), and Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky, and Fr Geroges Florovsky wrote about this. They all beautifully felt the living connection of St Gregory Palmas with the patristic Tradition.

– What, in your opinion, is the greatest difficulty in the study of the patristic heritage for contemporary seminarians? Are there works that are especially difficult to understand?

– You see, here one must understand and feel the context. Try simply to read a work, for example, St John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel according to Matthew. After a certain time almost every seminarian is going to get bored, and with the boredom come a tiredness: this is a different language, a different world and culture, and, consequently, the culture of the word is different. One must undertake an inner podvig in order that St John Chrysostom would become clear and understandable. This is what I call a kind of ascesis, that is, the overcoming of our sinful idleness, and people, as is known, don’t often want to overcome it and use force. Such an ascesis assumes, of course, that one lives all one’s life as the Fathers teach. Therefore here often arise problems.

– Tell us, please, which works of the Fathers are closest to you?

– I can name St Athanasius: his On the Incarnation of the Word of God is not only a classic but is, in my view, a masterpiece. Or the Life of St Anthony by the same saint. In general, each Father has a work that is especially dear to me. Take St Maximus. Certain of his works made it into the Philokalia, that is, into an anthology of patristic ascesis, for example, his Chapters on Love, where the spiritual experience of this great ascetic and no less great Orthodox thinker is found in concentrated form. It also gives me real pleasure to read such crystal clear works as, for example, the Ancient Paterikon. But the problem for me is that I continually feel the absence in myself of an equal spiritual experience, which would allow me fully to accept the patristic work.

– Are the questions considered by the Holy Fathers of the epoch of earliest Christianity still relevant?

– And how! Even as a young man I came to the conclusion that the thoughts expressed by us and seeming to us fairly original, actually in principle already existed and were expressed early, only in different words. One can probably say that the number of authentic principle questions, as with their answers, are not very many. What are the main ones for an Orthodox person? The first and most important question is: how is one saved? And the Holy Fathers answered it, and their answers are as relevant for us, as they were relevant many centuries ago.

It’s sometimes said that the Fathers did not always raise, for example, the question of social service. But what is social service? This is an expression of our faith, for faith without works is dead. Therefore social service remains one of the tertiary moments of the main question: how is one saved? If you try to realize this salvation, helping people, looking after the sick or going to a prison, then in this way you are striving towards the goal of Christian life. And here it behoves us to remember that the acquisition of this goal is not possible without placing priority of the inner over the external. And the internal is prayerful podvig, spiritual progress, and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Without these social service and other external activities are unthinkable. This is an axiom of Orthodox life.

– Why do clergy now appeal to the authority of Fathers of the twentieth century, and not to the ancient Fathers?

– That’s far from the case. I often hear how priests in their sermons appeal to Fathers of the distant ecclesiastical past. And how could it be without this? After all, the Church lives in eternity. And St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and St John of Kronstadt are, along with St Maximus the Confessor, our contemporaries. Contemporaries not in the sense that they live at the same time as us, but in that they live in eternity, to which we seek constantly to commune with. It’s possible that contemporary priests appeal more often to the spiritual writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century because the Fathers of these times speak a language more understandable for us. However, I repeat that I’ve met many priests who continually cite St John Chrysostom, and St Basil the Great, and so forth. Therefore I wouldn’t say that they appeal only to Fathers of the twentieth century.

– Students write term paper and dissertations in patrology. Do the seminarians make reach conclusions which can be called essential and interesting?

– Of course they do. There are a number of works which become for the seminarians themselves essential and interesting, because such strata of seeing the world immediately open to them, about which they either thought superficially or not completely in that light. There are, of course, empty papers, but there are very serious works.

– It’s well known that patrology is also part of the academic syllabus in the theological academy. How, in principle, do the seminary and academy courses differ?

– I happen to teach both in seminary and in the academy, for which reason I have chosen the following principle: in the academy we cover that patristic heritage which was not covered in seminary. But, unfortunately, one specific point arises: people come to the academy from different seminaries, where patrology is taught differently. Although there is basic course, much depends on local resources, teachers, and the like. Sometimes that which is taught in the Moscow or Sretensky Seminaries is unknown in other places. Therefore a very difficult problem faces a teacher in the academy: is it worth it or not to cover material which in principle should have been covered in the seminary.

In my opinion, in the academy there should be a specialized class which would cover certain defined material of a specific period, such as, for example, the growth of monastic writing of the “golden age,” or ecclesiastical writers of the sixth century, where these periods are studied more carefully an deeply. In the academy there should be specialization. But now the level of preparation of students from various seminaries is different, and this causes difficulties. Therefore the teacher has to all the time manoeuvre between a specialized course and general themes. So I’ll read you a lecture, for instance, about St Dionysius of Alexandria, and it happens that students from some provincial seminary won’t have heard of him. So one’s obliged to repeat oneself.

Moreover, it’s often forgotten that the preparation of lectures is a very laborious process, taking up several years – and all the more so for specialized courses. We evaluate the work of a teacher according to an entirely primitive schema: according to lecture hours; but these hours represent just the tip of an enormous iceberg of the work of a teacher. By the way, I may say that I always strive beforehand to repeat and renew even a course I have been teaching for several years – and this always takes a defined amount of time.

– Is patrology taught in secular institutions?

– As far as I know, in secular institutions patristics are taught as the history of Christian writing or as a part of philosophy.

– Are students offered today quality textbooks of patrology?

– There are plenty of textbooks. Fr John Meyendorff’s Introduction to Patristic Theology is well known. Not long ago appeared among us the book of Rassaphore-monk Vsevolod (Philipev), The Way of the Holy Fathers: Patrology. The books of Konstantin Efimovich Skurat are very valuable. A more fundamental textbook is N. I. Sagrada’s Lectures in Patrology. But there is a great failure from the point of view of textbooks in church writing and theology for the period after the “golden age” in Byzantium. Here one needs to prepare a special course (or, better, courses.)

– You often warn seminarians about the use of improperly translated patristic texts. Whose translations do you consider successful and adequate?

– As I understand it, the question is about contemporary translators? Again I repeat that any translation is just a translation. Every translator, consciously or unconsciously, makes mistakes. There are no translators who never make mistakes, and this is connected with many purely subjective things.

Undoubtedly, there are good translators. Among us I can name Alesksei Georgievich Dunaev who, as a philologist, translates very well. In particular, the newly discovered works of St Mavarius of Egpyt are translated not at all badly. But, unfortunately, his perspective on the patristic heritage is deeply, in my mind, incorrect. And here arises the question: what is a good translation?

Translation is either the clear transfer of the original from a purely philological point of view, or instead it’s a vision of deep layers. I often deal with old translations, and I like them more than some new translations, although they don’t lack their own mistakes. But in them is the culture of translation, closely related not only with the culture of the language, but also with the culture of a Church worldview and outlook. A patristic text – these are texts of Homer or Shakespeare, which, by the way, has been repeatedly translated, and each translator translated them in his own way. Church translations are that which lives and works in the catholic consciousness of the Church. Old translations of the Holy Fathers differ from new ones in that in them is present a deep ecclesiastical culture. On the level of this culture, today’s generation of translators can not be compared with them. Personally, I am already thirty years in the Church and feel with every fiber of my soul just how long and difficult is the process of absorbing an ecclesiastical language and ecclesiastical way of life. In the old translations there are mistakes, are errors, but they bear within themselves a remarkable ecclesiastical elegance. It seems to me that contemporary translations sometimes suffer superficiality, a planeness, and do not raise the spiritual depths of the original

– Aleksei Ivanovich, what plans do you have for the future? Is there a translation of a patristic work that you would like to accomplish?

– Plans for the future – well, that’s as the Lord will give, I have practically finished the Question and Answers to Thalassius of St Maximos the Confessor, and I would like to publish the full text of this translation, the first part of which appeared almost twenty years ago. Now I’ll be working on it. And further I have plans to publish the works of St Theoleptus of Philadelphia, the translation of which is also nearing to an end. I hope, with God’s help, to finish it. I hope that God will give me time and strength for this, for usually there’s not enough of them. And I would still like to translate more!

– And what is the interest of these translations upon which you’re working?

The Question and Answers to Thalassius by St Maximus the Confessor is interesting in that, in the given work, there is a sort of “masterpiece” of patristic theology and asceticism. This is a living synthesis of spiritual experience and elevated divine contemplation. Therefore one must go deeply into the difficult thought of the father, in his difficult language – here, by the way, is where my commentaries are born. Because sometimes it’s unclear to me what this Father is saying. I try to explain the places that are incomprehensible to me, to find patristic parallels. That’s how the commentaries arise, which, so I hope, may be useful to others and especially to thoughtful readers. I am consequently translating very slowly. Problems also arise when, understanding the Greek text, I’m unable to put them into Russian. Therefore it becomes necessary to divide phrases and invent some sort of insertions so that it will sound adequate in Russian. But the work by itself is definitely one of the heights of patristic thought.

St Theoleptos is interesting in that he was the teacher of St Gregory Palamas and an outstanding Hesychast, who is known to us only by one incorrect translation of one work in the Philokalia. In the twentieth century new manuscripts were found, including more than twenty works by the saint. We began the translation of these works with my former student – now he’s already Fr Alexander Przhegorlinsky. We had wanted to publish them quickly, but it turned out that the finalization of the translations took up much time, which, as always there isn’t enough of.

St Theoleptos of Philadelphia is a unique author. He demonstrates that hesychasm is not so much an argument about essence and energy in God, as it is a unique spiritual experience, gained by many generations of Orthodox monks. Saint Theoliptos was not touched by these disputes, but his work shows the deep foundation of all of hesychasm as a predominantly inner activity. Without St Theoleptos the entire tradition of Orthodox spirituality in its best expression is incomprehensible.

Besides the above, I am also interested in studying St Anastasius of Sinai, several translations of whose works have already published. Right now I am working on his remarkable work under the title Questions and Answers. There are many plans, and which of them will come to fruition – God alone knows.

– What store of knowledge should a seminarian have who has completed a course of patrology?

–It’s desirable, of course, to have as great amount of baggage as possible, but dragging large baggage is often heavy. When you get on a plane, one can take only a certain number of pounds to avoid overloading. In the same way, the baggage of a seminarian must include a given amount of knowledge. I would like that they would have at least an approximate knowledge of who a certain Father was, and when he lived.

For example, at the Liturgy we are constantly commemorating the great universal teachers. But who was St Basil the Great? He was, after all, a living man, who lived a short but rich and vivid life, wrote works, many of them of a surprising freshness of a grace-filled mind, in which is reflected his unique spiritual visage. And this visage differed from the visage of his friend, St Gregory the Theologian. And seminarians, in my opinion, should save in their souls the spiritual visage of one or another Father of the Church, which is like an “icon” inside our souls.

In conclusion I’d like to express the wish that seminarians read both the Holy Fathers and works about the Holy Fathers. Without such reading it is not possible to attain the full of spiritual experience and knowledge.

Source: Ora et Labora

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A. I. Sidorov on Theology and Patristics

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