A. I. Sidorov on Theology and Patristics

I think in general that the notion of theologian is a great title. It is no accident that in our Church it has been conferred to all of three saints. For me the true theologians are men of prayer, ascetics, elders, true monks. For they are not only the ideals of holiness, but also the exponents of authentic theology.
admin | 16 October 2010

Source: Ora et Labora



An excerpt from an interview given by Aleksei Ivanovich Sidorov to Hieromonk Adrian (Pashin) on March 30, 2009. Dr. Sidorov, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, is one of the leading patristic scholars in Russia.



Hieromonk Adrian: What, for you, is theology? How does it relate to science [scholarship]? May it be called a science?

A. I. Sidorov: Everyone knows the expression of Evagrius Ponticus: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Moreover, I always refer my students to the first “Theological Discourse” of St Gregory the Theologian, which is well known to all of us. I think in general that the notion of theologian is a great title. It is no accident that in our Church it has been conferred to all of three saints. For me the true theologians are men of prayer, ascetics, elders, true monks. For they are not only the ideals of holiness, but also the exponents of authentic theology. Therefore I, a layman, love monasticism, although I’ve seen plenty of “pseudo-monks.” When the question arose of which degree to confer me – doctor of theology or doctor of Church history -– I insisted that I be conferred the degree of doctor of Church history.

I recently spent time on Athos for the first time in my sixty-some years. There I met the now-persecuted superior of the Vatopedi Monastery, Archimandrite Ephraim. He astounded me with his remarkable gift of grace-filled prayer – a gift which illumined his entire personality. When we were parting, Fr Ephraim asked me: “And who are you?” I said that I teach patrology. Then he looked at me, smiling slightly, and said: “That means you’re a theologian.” “No, not at all,” I answered, “I’m not a theologian! Theologians are you who are living here.” With these words I expressed my sincere conviction. Therefore, to speak openly, everything in me protests when I hear trite words about theological science. They somehow turn it into small change. Yes, theology is a science. But remember, as we said earlier, that monasticism is the “science of sciences.” If we take the given expression in these terms, then we can also say about theology that it is the “science of sciences.” Of course, all of us who “study theology” must posses a certain proficiency, since these studies require certain essential skills. But far from all those who “study theology” are in fact theologians.

If we turn to patrology, then we can say in a certain defined sense that it is a science that stands on the junction of theology, Church history, apologetics, philosophy, and philology, not to mention other disciplines. But it cannot be reduced to any one of these. One can put forward one remarkable fact. In 2008 The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (a massive volume of over 1,000 pages) was released. Here it is established that in contemporary western scholarship (not only Protestant, but also Catholic) there exists the tendency to replace the term “patristics” with the notion of “early Christian studies.” At a meeting of the North American Patristics Society its president, [Charles] Kannengiesser (a well known Catholic scholar), even gave a paper entitled “Bye, Bye Patristics.” What is the meaning of this change of terminology? It’s fairly obvious. For many western scholars the term “patrology,” or “patristics,” has become odious, because it is very ecclesiastical and involves too much of an “orthodox” association. The expression “early Christian studies” allows a fairly free relationship with the “material.” Such a tendency strikes me as extraordinarily dangerous, for patrology could then be reduced to the level of a simple secular science.

Of course, as the saying goes, “you can’t throw a kerchief over every mouth.” Secular scholarship, naturally, can study the works of the Holy Fathers and ecclesiastical writers within its sphere of activity. My university classmate Aleksandr Arnoldovich Stoliarov taught a class on patristics at the department of philology at Moscow State University, examining the works of the Fathers as landmarks of the history of philosophical thought. Right now at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Science there are several specialists in the study of patristics as a philosophical discipline. I once read a German scholar (if my memory serves, his surname was Langrebeck), who in one long article demonstrated the possibility of studying these works as objects of classical philology. I can say that before my “churching” I myself took such an approach. Now, it goes without saying, this seems to me not only a Procrustean bed, but also helplessly naпve. It’s as if a man tried to describe a meal in a restaurant based only on a menu. For patrology is a science of experience, as is theology in general. That spiritual experience which is a necessary condition (conditio sine qua non) of the study of patrology cannot be acquired outside the Orthodox Church and its Mysteries. Of course, knowledge and history, and philosophy, and philology are necessary for this. But, essentially, these are only instrumental for patrology, like a plane and smoothing-plane and the like for a carpenter. However, a carpenter is not a plane or a smoothing-plane. Therefore, philology, for instance, however respected and necessary for patrology that it may be, cannot replace the latter. In my opinion, “philological” patrology poses a serious risk – as does, for example, its “philosophication.” Someone who reads and studies the Holy Fathers is still not a patrologist, even if he knows Greek or Latin perfectly, or modern languages for that matter. He can study them as he would the works of Homer, Plato, or the neo-Platonists. A patrologist is someone who, in the first place, strives synergistically with the grace of God to transform himself, striving to live according to the image of the Holy Fathers. He cannot be a non-Church person or a “near-Church” person, and therefore it goes without saying that for him such writers as, for example, Barlaam or Akindynos, however talented they may appear to be at first glance, cannot be put on the same level as St Gregory Palamas. Only scholars who stand outside the Orthodox Church can suggest that these opponents of the saint are first-class thinkers and that he [St Gregory] is “mediocre” or only repeats the “patristic rudiments.” I cannot call such scholars patrologists. It follows from all the above that I’m deeply convinced that a deep “philologizing” or “philosophizing” of patrology is simply an attempt to “de-Church” it.

Sometimes students ask: “Well, then, Aleksei Ivanovich, but must one still study languages?” I tell them: “To whom are you saying this? Yes, of course, study, work hard!” One simply needs to remember clearly for what one is studying. The means can never turn into the end and, as was said earlier, one mustn’t put the cart in front of the horse. And one must remember that a philologist-classicist is not yet a patrologist.

Hieromonk Adrian: Such an approach became prevalent in the west even earlier in regard to Biblical studies.

A. I. Sidorov: That’s absolutely correct, although I’m not a specialist in Biblical studies. But I have simply come to observe that we sometimes have a certain spirit of provincialism: everything that goes on there is good. But that is far from the case. Yes, I’ve read and read western scholars, and I try in part to learn professional skills from them. I do not feel, however, that it’s necessary to imitate them. We have our own marvelous tradition, and it’s necessary to cultivate that in the first place. In particular, we had a good school of Russian Orthodox Biblical studies and, glory to God, the department of Biblical studies at the Moscow Theological Academy understands this and is renewing the previous tradition.

In the west an enormous number of books and articles is written about every ancient Christian author. One can dedicate one’s entire life to reading these works and never get around to the works of the Holy Fathers themselves. Here an enlightened minimum needs to be observed. There are fundamental works – these are desirable to know, but to have as one’s goal to “attain the unattainable” is silly. The young Orthodox scholar should not forget what seems like an elementary truth: life is short. From this perspective of the shortness of life one mustn’t lose sight of the main goal. For the Orthodox scholar, as for every Orthodox person, this goal is the salvation of the soul, and everyone strives towards this goal by his own path. But the Orthodox patrologist has one serious advantage: by the nature of his activity he is simply obligated to commune with the Holy Fathers. Here this fact has great significance: the patrologist’s goal should go beyond simply researching and studying patristic works and, ideally, to translating them. I can honestly admit that my greatest happiness in life is to work on translating the Holy Fathers. True, I have astonishingly little time for this: my teaching load is so heavy that not every young man would be able to endure it. If I’m sometimes able to find an hour or so for translation – these are the best hours of my life.

Here I’d like to call attention to the fact that translation is a work of extraordinary responsibility and, unfortunately, no single translator can avoid mistakes. Sometimes it happens that one understands the meaning not quite accurately, sometimes mistakes result from simple inattention, and sometimes there are purely accidental occurrences (for instance, there is a telephone call – and the “dialog” with the text is interrupted, and therefore its true vision slips away). It is essential to remember an elementary truth: only those who do nothing never make any mistakes. Recently a review appeared of a translation done by a young colleague of mine. I admit that it upset me very much. Any review presents a vision of both the positive and the negative points of a work. Here were found two serious and a few small mistakes, and put them into the focus – and there was not a word about the great work that had been accomplished and about the work’s virtues. Unfortunately this is very reminiscent of the genre of the yellow press. We often talk about love for one’s neighbor, but it often seems that these are just words. For such love is displayed not simply in helping an old lady to cross the street, but also in supporting one’s colleague. If one has to criticize, one needs to show patience and love, displaying a “spirit of meekness.” After all, we are Orthodox people, and one needs to pay attention to this fact (I say this to myself in the first place).

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