Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Against an Orthodox "fundamentalism"

That the Fathers disagreed is true. That a singular reading of a theologian of the Church outside of tradition is dangerous is also true. What I find to be too much of a reach, though, is a dire warning of "Orthodox fundamentalism." This is especially difficult to accept without even a single example of such theologoumena-turned-dogma 'in the wild' as it were.

(GOARCH via OCL) - One of the cornerstones of Orthodox Christianity is its reverence for the great Fathers of the Church who were not only exemplars of holiness but were also the greatest intellectuals of their age. The writings of men like St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Maximos the Confessor have been and will always remain essential guides to Orthodox Christian living and Orthodox Christian faith.

Thus it is alarming that so many Orthodox clerics and monks in recent years have made public statements that reflect a “fundamentalist” approach to the Church Fathers. And unless leaders of the Orthodox Church unite to repudiate this development, the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists.

Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them. Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching. For example, when the Theological Academy of Volos recently convened an international conference to examine the role of the Fathers in the modern Church, radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy.

The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters. That miscalculation, no doubt, is related to another equally flawed assumption that Orthodox theology has never changed—clearly it has or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.

The irony, as identified by recent scholarship on fundamentalism, is that while fundamentalists claim to protect the Orthodox Christian faith from the corruption of modernity, their vision of Orthodox Christianity is, itself, a very modern phenomenon. In other words, Orthodoxy never was what fundamentalists claim it to be.

Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision. St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit. And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community.

It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods. One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching. Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual. And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western. Each of these assertions is patently false for specific reasons, but they are all symptomatic of an ideological masquerade that purports to escape the modern world.
The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism. By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.

In an age when so many young people are opting out of religious affiliation altogether, the expansion of fundamentalist ideology into ordinary parishes is leading to a situation where our children are choosing between religious extremism or no religion at all.

It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion. The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world. Fundamentalist readings of both the Fathers and the Bible never lead to God—they only lead to idolatry.

George E. Demacopoulos
Professor of Historical Theology
Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center
Fordham University


  1. This article is filled with straw man arguments which the author proceeds to tear down. It is unfortunate that it was written by an Orthodox "professor of theology." Here is a wonderful response to the article:

    1. You beat me to it. I was going to post the link to Fr. John's excellent response.

  2. To the observation about straw man arguments let me add the author's preference for making process comments rather than substantive comments. He describes social dynamics instead of offering actual examples of what he does--and doesn't--mean by fundamentalism.

    This is rhetorical device borrowed from psychotherapy. In that context, describing people's behavior can often be very helpful in bring to light what is often the conflict between intention and action. In a therapeutic context and in the hands of a technically skilled and ethical therapist, this can serve to help a person changed fixed and unhealthy patterns of thought, speak and action. But make no mistake, the GOAL of process comments is to break down a person's self-image.

    Process comments create critical distance by fostering doubt of what was hitherto unquestioned. Applying process comments to the dogmatic or moral tradition of the Church will, I'm afraid, have the same consequence--it will foster disbelief, or at least mistrust, in the tradition.

    Make no mistake, there are those in the Church who would like to see us move away from the tradition of the Church in favor of the tradition of secularism and moral progressivism. No matter how well meaning the author, process comments like what we see in this (and other recent) blog posts are simply not in the service of the Gospel.

    Once again, an official website has been used to promote an message contrary to the faith.

  3. Like CS Lewis writes in Screwtape letters-- the idea is to have men running around with fire extinguishers in the midst of a flood. So in ages of spiritual coldness and laxity, many will be on the lookout for excessive zeal, etc. Keep deluded humanity on guard against the very opposite excess to which they are most prone.

  4. Glad you asked for examples of Orthodox fundamentalism "in the wild." Allow me to direct your attention to the so-called "Orthodox Christian Information Center" ( which has led many astray.

    For an eyewitness example, I have personally witnessed first-time inquirers kicked out of fully Americanized parishes because they were wearing shorts in summertime. That was obviously the last time they walked in those doors.

    For a more global example, how about all the dozens of Orthodox who like to rant about how "The Ecumenical Patriarch is not Orthodox"?

    This obviously goes right along with what the article says, thinking that monasticism is automatically the bastion of Orthodoxy...when in reality these people are following the deranged rantings of a couple monks who probably have a legitimate mental disorder.

    1. Ah, yes... those "other people", those "fundamentalist" people, "rant", while your voicing of your disapproval is just the right amount of righteous indignation mixed with an accurate assessment of the situation. No 'ranting' on your part, though. Definitely not.

    2. What specifically about the Orthodoxinfo site do you find to be "fundamentalist", and on what basis?

    3. Not sure what happened with the visitors who attended Liturgy in shorts but I'm sorry if they were treated rudely. That said, though it happened in a "fully Americanized" parish, I can tell you it could just as easily happened in a "full ethnic" parish.

      The flip side is the visitors should have dressed appropriately. Granted they probably did this innocently but it was at least a rude as they response you describe.

      None of this, however, reflects anything near what can reasonably be described as "fundamentalism."

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  6. You wrote, "...the so-called "Orthodox Christian Information Center" ( which has led many astray."

    By "astray" I take it you mean toward the more strict Slavic manifestations of Holy Orthodoxy like ROCOR or the Serbian Church, rather than toward the Greek or Arab manifestations. I remind you that if you are a communicant of any canonical Orthodox jurisdiction, you are in communion with ROCOR and the Serbs.

    1. Not everybody in ROCOR gets all "beware the pan-heresy of smiling at Catholics" and "Old Calendar or Death." Some of us just happen to like Russian praxis. There is a lot to critique about the Orthodox Info site, but I think the biggest concern is its visibility on the World Wide Web (first page of most google searches on Orthodoxy)...people wanting to know more about Orthodox Christianity discover a very vocal minority that sees apostacy and universalism around every corner.

      The majority of our bishops have finally come to terms with the fact that the fundie minority and their opinions (rebaptism, Old Calendarism, isolationism, triumphalism, anti-Westernism, uncritical citation of patristic sources, etc.) are problems that global Orthodoxy has to SOLVE, rather than a legitimate perspective it has to consider. Our witness is at stake.

    2. On the contrary...I see websites such as as a legitimate witnesses to the Holy Orthodox faith. I did not know that it was a heresy to smile at Catholics??? In fact, when I read your posts, it seems that you may be representative of the so-called "fundie minority."

  7. It is possible both to be deeply concerned by this article and also to find some of the viewpoints of the Orthodox Christian Information Center to be rather skewed.

    The OCIC website does little credit to our faith. While I'm sure most of the information it offers is accurate and useful, its hyper-orthodox stance towards those outside the Orthodox Church can in fact it do damage. I speak from personal experience. When I was in the process of converting to Orthodoxy, and nearly turned off by that website and others like it. I don't know how to say this without sounding overly sensitive or namby-pamby, but honestly the reckless severity of some of its most uncharitable statements cut to my heart like a knife and wounded me in a way that was neither necessary nor spiritually wholesome. To be more explicit, it caused me to doubt all the wonderful things Christ had already done in my life and my heretofore relationship with Jesus -- a relationship which was real and which it would have been blasphemy for me to deny. Christ had been courting me and working in me all me life, even despite all the heresies that I ignorantly held and the sacraments that I lacked, and I cannot deny that He used the remnants of the orthodox faith that still persist in Protestantism to do so.

    Fortunately, the actual Orthodox people I knew had a much more eirenic and, frankly, better informed viewpoint, and I came to see that Orthodox Info is promulgating a particular strain of ecclesiology as though it were the consensus. I now know that the question of what to make of the existence other Christian churches is in fact more controversial than any other area of Orthodox theology. That's really a shame because the question is one of great practical import. It is not to be lightly tossed aside as merely a area of speculation for idle academics, nor should it be ignored as to contentious to discuss. It grieves me that I can give no clear and confident answer on this matter to my friends and family who are hurt by what they have heard that my church teaches. I can only hope that they do not stumble upon the OCIC website!

    Now, the article linked to above strikes me as veering much too far in the other direction. Mostly I'm alarmed by tone of its language, which smacks of that politically correct postmodern attitude that has served to emasculated so many Christian institutions today. If it spreads it may prove far more harmful than "Orthodox fundamentalism" (a foolish oxymoron) ever could be.

    1. The Orthodoxinfo site actually does not take a hard view of those outside of the Church. It takes a hard view against those who want to water down the faith to cozy up to those outside the Church... there's a big difference.

      See for example, this article: "Will the Heterodox be Saved?": there is nothing extreme about what it says there at all.

    2. Hmm...well, I like the particular article you linked to. It would seem to strike the right balance.

      What I find troublesome about the site is the overall preponderance of anti-ecumenist and anti-western material. If that is someone's first introduction to Orthodoxy I'm afraid it would give the impression that we're a bunch of defensive reactionaries with an inferiority complex.

      Also, there is that e-book they have on there, The Non-Orthodox, by Patrick Barnes. Perhaps the passage that bothered me most as a inquirer was this one about non-Orthodox Christians who undeniably love God:

      "Nevertheless—recognizing in them true feeling, piety, and love for God—, we can rightly thank God for their lives and work, not presuming to know how He will judge them. In such people it is obvious that God has found hearts that are open to Him.

      But Orthodox Christians should also say that this openness is in reality the reception of the external influence of God’s Grace (Divine Energies) upon their lives, which is not the same thing as the internal working of ecclesial Grace given only through Baptism....

      In other words, it could be said that non-Orthodox Christians such as we have listed— being deeply motivated by a love for God which arose from the external operation of divine Grace—“practiced by nature the demands of the law and did what was pleasing to God.”

      However, “[none] of them [found] themselves under the activity of the grace which is present in the Church..."

      None of that is intended be offensive of course, but given that the external influence of God's grace is available, so to speak, to all men, and indeed to all creation, it is no great compliment to say that Protestants or Catholics may experience such grace. The book implies that a non-Orthodox Christian can enjoy no more closeness to Christ than a righteous pagan or Muslim may do. That is what is what offended me, and I still find the idea absurd based on my experiences prior to becoming Orthodox.

      The point upon which the whole book is predicated is this: that baptisms outside the Orthodox Church are graceless and false. I know many Orthodox believe this, but I know that many (most?) do not. Until that question is settled (yes, I know, both sides think it's already settled) it will continue to be rather awkward whenever non-Orthodox Christians ask what our Church teaches about itself and about its relationship to Christians outside its canonical boundaries. How can we be sure that we are avoiding the Skylla wrongful offense without running into of Charybdis of misleading affirmation?

      The issue in question here is one that has caused me no small amount of anguish over the last several years. Apart from that fact, I can claim no right to speak on the matter. So if I am off track, please correct me. But I would ask that any correction should also explain wherein I am right so that I can see precisely where the error (if there is any) lies.

    3. Unfortunately, the Ecumenists make getting an education on that subject necessary.

    4. But surely the subject is unavoidable where so many Orthodox Christians find ourselves in communities where we must live and work side by side with godly Christians of other varieties. Pluralism has made it necessary. (I mean pluralism as a fact, not as an ideology.)

    5. Fr. John, are there Orthodox ecumenists who need an education from the Orthodox Info site? Who are they? I hope you don't mean Met. Zizioulas or Pat. Bartholemew?

    6. I said that the faithful need to be educated on Ecumenism, because of the ecumenical atrocities the Ecumenists engage in. See:

  8. My experience is very much in contrast to Jeremy's. During my conversion process, I relied on the Orthodoxinfo website to help me by providing accurate information about the Holy Orthodox faith without compromise. Thank God for that site!

  9. Though it is undeniably here to stay, part of the problem in either direction here (whether we are inclined toward emphasizing commonalities with other Christian traditions or toward emphasizing differences from other Christian traditions, and this may go either way with any one of us depending on the context) is learning about "Orthodoxy" from the Internet! All written content, whether the above-posted article by Dr. Demacapoulis, the response by Fr. John Whiteford, or any post at Orthodoxinfo or another website has context that cannot be adequately supplied by the Internet format at all (even if comments are allowed and there is a discussion forum). Ultimately, it seems to me the only format that can really serve is some sort of live exchange between those on all sides of an issue in contention and in the context of knowing each other personally, being able to consider each others' background experiences, etc., in a much more whole-life way and in a spirit of true humility and love. Ideally, this would take place on the level of the local Orthodox community and/or faithful.

    I find it instructive that an Orthodox Saint (who ministered in the U.S.), and who could certainly not be mistaken as an "ecumenist" could, nevertheless, express confidence with regard to the heterodox that, "The Lord, 'Who will have all men to be saved' (I Tim. 2:4) and 'Who enlightens every man born into the world' (Jn. 1.43), undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation In His own way." We do not have to affirm teaching that is not fully orthodox in heterodox traditions to be able to affirm such a confidence. Yet, it seems there are some reticent in the face of these kinds of conversations to (overtly) place such confidence in the Lord's ability and mercy to save those sincerely pursuing Christ in other traditions (even if they never in this life find their way into the Orthodox fold). The result of an indiscriminate repeating of certain expressions of Orthodox teaching and dogma in the context of inquiries about the Orthodox attitude toward other Christians is that brethren like Jeremy, who comments above, are unnecessarily scandalized and wounded on the way. To his credit, he still wanted to became Orthodox. Many similarly scandalized could just as easily as a result of such indiscriminate exposure completely misconstrue the nature of "Orthodoxy" and become closed to future opportunities to explore Orthodox faith. My own experience has many parallels to Jeremy's, though with regard to Orthodoxinfo, my assessment falls somewhere in between Mikail's and Jeremy's, and it was helpful for me to hear a caution from the Priest who received me into the Church (without my having to ask) that he found Orthodoxinfo was "too strident" for him to recommend it for inquirers.

    It would, obviously, also be helpful if there was a God-given unity (not necessarily uniformity, but agreement on what are acceptable parameters) in doctrinal expression and praxis across jurisdictions, dioceses, and parishes, not to mention real spiritual maturity and discernment on the part of long-time Orthodox clergy and members. Toward that end, we pray for a Spirit-directed outcome of the upcoming (Lord willing) Pan-Orthodox Council and for each other.

    In view of the reality that many inquirers will want to use the Internet to learn about Orthodox faith, it would be good to look for ways and opportunities to steer them to websites for which content their owners/web masters have their bishop's and/or priest's oversight and blessing. It also seems preferable in this regard to steer inquirers to actual official jurisdictional websites, rather than private, unsupervised blogs (unless such can be recommended by Orthodox who know both the inquirer and the blog).