Blessed feast of Theophany! The winter light of the Nativity and Theophany of our Lord warms our souls, inflames our hearts, and enlivens our minds. For it is truly in the light given by the Light that we are able to behold the truth of not only our lives but the entire universe!
The Fathers of the Church did not shy away from the claim of the Gospel that the meaning of all things is found in the pearl of great price, Jesus Christ. They proclaimed, led, and defended the teachings of our Lord to a caustic or apathetic world. They were unaware that religious statements should be removed from the “realm of reasonable discourse.”1 Instead, they engaged deeply with the world’s skepticism and opposition. In fact, the first few centuries of Christianity were witness to a great effort on the part of the Fathers to articulate the truth of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. As Fr. Matthew Baker argues “Christianity entered the Greco-Roman world as a religion of the incarnate Logos – word or reason – of God. With such a message and with the growth of conversions from the educated Hellenized culture, Christian theologians were compelled early on to reflect upon the “ways of knowing” – that is, questions of epistemology.” 2
The work they did on these questions of epistemology was varied. St. Justin Martyr defended the antiquity and authority of Moses. Tertullian probed the very relationship between human reason and divine revelation. St. Ireneaus grounded the tradition in the first principles of the Faith. Clement of Alexandria combed through the various Greek philosophical schools plundering their “Egyptian gold” for what he thought might help better elucidate the Gospel. “The mainstream of the Church almost from the beginning…resolved upon the presentation of Christianity as a rational faith, a “religion of the Logos.”3
The apologetic work of the first three centuries was never put aside by the Fathers. I am especially mindful of this as January in the Orthodox Church is a month full of celebrations of the ecumenical teachers of the Orthodox Church. We who embrace their inheritance and live off of their bounty need to especially hear this searching word to modern Orthodox believers from Fr. Georges Florovsky.
“We praise the Three Hierarchs, who were above all ecumenical teachers, the teachers of the right faith, but we are strangely indifferent to their perennial contribution to the life of the Church: namely – their teaching, their theology, their interpretation of the Christian truth ‘in the words of reason.’ And do we not need, as a matter of first priority, for our intellect to be illuminated by the ‘Light of Reason’ in the present days of intellectual confusion?”4
Florovsky’s attention to the “Light of Reason” emanating from Sts. Basil, Gregory, and John and which specifically shone through the “rays of their divine doctrines” may strike many modern Anglophone Orthodoxy as a little off. Anyone who was introduced to Orthodoxy in the English speaking world will note many occurrences in the literature of Orthodox of the past few decades where reason is seemingly denigrated and piety and asceticism is highly lauded. Hesychasm is praised and “scholasticism” is summarily taken to the shed out back. Reason is seemingly pitted against piety and asceticism. This degradation of reason is done, albeit in differing ways, in popular literature as much as it is in academic theological literature. Many are left wondering where reason figures in modern Orthodox theology and life. This is especially pressing as the intensity of the debates around religion and morality in the public square continue to grow in severity. Why? Because amongst the vast majority of our literati the third theme of the Hartford Appeal is considered an obvious fact.
Theme 3: Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.
Religion is also a set of symbols and even of human projections. We repudiate the assumption that it is nothing but that. What is here at stake is nothing less than the reality of God: We did not invent God; God invented us.
If religion is the domain of the private then it has no weight in the public sphere. If religion language is tantamount to fantasy then it should not have any bearing on our contemporary moral quandaries. If religious language is just human experience and just a set of symbols then it is ultimately irrational and unfit for anything but individual recreation. Thankfully for us we are not condemned to silence. Rather, we turn to the example of those who filled all of creation with streams of heavenly knowledge. Who when they were pressed about the rationality or coherence of the Christian faith applied themselves to the Logos of all things in order to speak and reason in accordance with Him.
While this issue was first really underlined for me by the work of the late Fr. Matthew Baker, whose essay “Logike Latreia and the Mind of Christ: Thoughts on Apollinarianism in Worship”5 is essential reading for this topic, I am especially heartened by the publication by the International Orthodox Theological Association entitled “Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”.6 The introductory essay alone, written by Dr. David Bradshaw, is worth the investment!
In this book from IOTA we get a broad exploration of Orthodoxy’s historic exercise and use of reason in the articulation of natural theology. What is natural theology? Natural theology is a traditional discourse used by the Church Fathers to argue for the existence of God via philosophical reasoning, reasoning which is available to theist and atheist. This was the work St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. John of Damascus were doing in their time. Beyond just apologetic value there is the simple need to bring reason to bear on a plethora of things related to the faith. We must apply ourselves to this in order to bolster and clarify the faith for the faithful. This will also make the claims and witness of the faith coherent and therefore plausible and even attractive to those outside of Christ.
From where I sit, especially as a pastor, the need for a serious dive into this work and a re-calibration of the role of reason in our theology is essential. The challenges before us will absolutely require fidelity to the ascetical life of the Church. But it also requires fidelity to the reasonableness of the faith as explicated for us by the great ecumenical teachers of the Church. We need a renaissance of hearts and minds being transformed by the gospel of Christ. Articulate voices that can answer the challenging questions of our current milieu. This is especially important as the coherence of the moral dimension of the Gospel is steadily being lost in the assault of contemporary ideologies.
- See Theme 2 of the Hartford Appeal from our last post
- Fr. Matthew Baker, ”Faith Seeking Understanding: Patristic and Early Christian Touchstones: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian” in Faith Seeking Understanding: The Theological Witness of Fr Matthew Baker (SVS Press, 2021).
- Baker, “Faith Seeking Understanding”
- “A Criticism of the Lack of Concern for Doctrine Amongst Russian Orthodox Believers” in Florovsky, Georges, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach. Vol. XIII of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky found in Fr. Matthew Baker’s Faith Seeking Understanding, 42
- Collected in Faith Seeking Understanding
- Be sure to watch the interviews archived on the IOTA page dedicated to this book!