December 1, 2023

Fr. John Romanides as a Professor of Dogmatics at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston (1 of 8)

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Fr. John Romanides, before being chosen as Professor of Dogmatics at the Theological School of Thessaloniki, taught the course of Dogmatics at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston. In this text we will see what was the content of his teaching and how he trained the then young theologians of this Theological School.

1. His Teaching Method

Fr. John Romanides, after researching Dogmatics and patristic teaching, and heterodox sources, had come to the teaching of authentic Dogmatics at a young age. He wanted to define the difference between Western theology and Patristic Orthodox theology and then he wanted to give safe criteria for students to distinguish between Orthodox and Western theology.

First of all, in the letters he sent to Fr. George Florovsky, who was then teaching at Harvard Divinity School, we read some information about the way and method of his teaching. In a letter dated September 22, 1959, he writes about his teaching experiences:

"Last week we started classes at Brookline and I am teaching 9 hrs. I go M. W. F. from 9 1/2 to 12 1/2. So my hours are at least compact. The second and third year class of the theological division have had very bad training in what theology they've had and it will be difficult to undo their bad habits. The first yr. class I think will be all right since they are taking theological courses for the first time."

In a later letter of his on September 15, 1960, i.e. the following year, he writes to Fr. George Florovsky:

"At present I am debating whether I should go through with the 'St. Augustine and Augustinianism' question for the core or have it changed to Neo-platonism. The first would be worth the trouble but the latter would be more restricted chronologically and more important for the patristic Eastern tradition, especially my period for special concentration and thesis. On the other hand at the seminary this year I am teaching a course in 'History of Western Theology' from Augustine to Occam in the first semester and then on the Jansenist Controversy in the 2nd semester. So I will be doing careful reading in preparation for my lecture."

It seems clear that he was intensely concerned with the "History of Western Theology", since he was teaching students who were born and raised in America and knew this theology, so he wanted to give them the necessary criteria to distinguish Orthodox theology from Western theology.

Some of our theologians today criticize Fr. John Romanides that he limited himself to the texts of the Fathers of the Church, and indeed of the Hesychast Fathers and did not deal with Western theologians.

However, the opposite happened. Few knew Western theology (Roman Catholic/Protestant) as he knew it, because he studied it in their own Universities. Precisely because he knew Western theology very well, that is why he could speak about it, having, moreover, authentic criteria.

Later, after the great experience he acquired, he dealt with the theology of the Theoptic Fathers who express the empirical revelation, the basis of which is the participation in God's purifying, illuminating and deifying energy.

Regarding how he taught the course of Dogmatics at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston, we have a recorded testimony of a student of his, the Protopresbyter Fr. Stefanos Avramidis, which he expressed during the presentation of my two-volume work on Empirical Dogmatics which took place in Athens, at Gallery of the Book on January 19, 2011. There Fr. Stefanos Avramidis, among other things, said:

"Fr. John, however, opened our eyes and we understood that this ascetic way of life of our parents was intended to teach us selfless love, the love that does not seek one's own, and that this way of of life helped to achieve the purification of the passions. Consequently, the piety and reverence of our simple parents was in practice an Orthodox therapeutic education.

Fr. John gave us what we needed to understand that the dogmas of Orthodoxy express in the best - humanly possible - way the revelatory experience of the deified Fathers and Saints of the Church. The dogmas, however, are only guideposts. When each of us, if God grants it, lives their own Pentecost, that is, when the Holy Spirit guides them to all truth, then they understand that experience is superior to dogma and that God is neither a Trinity nor a Unity, but beyond a Trinity and a Unity. In his first lessons, he recommended us to read his thesis The Ancestral Sin, as an introduction to the patristic theology of the early Church and - don't think it strange - he made us study all the different philosophical systems, ancient and modern, with emphasis in the philosophical systems of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. Its purpose was to get to know the way of thinking of the Greeks and the mentality that prevailed at the time when the dogmas were formulated.

Thus we could understand why some heretics fell into heresy by trying to apply certain philosophical predicates of thought to the dogmas of the Church.

Then, in order to be able to understand scholastic theology, we had to know Aristotle's philosophy well, since the scholastics applied almost the entire philosophical system of Aristotle to their theology, identifying God with the first unmoved mover. The consequences are certainly known to us: the teaching about created grace, the identification of essence with energy, etc.

He then emphasized the difference between the patristic teaching on justification and justice and that of the scholastics. For the Fathers, justice = life-giving: 'I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly.' While for the scholastics justice was a judicial matter: the satisfaction of Divine Justice, the wrath of a cruel and impartial God, who demanded an infinite sacrifice to satisfy an offense against His infinite justice.

Fr. John emphasized all of this, because we were Orthodox, while in America we lived in a sea of Roman Catholics and Protestants, some of whom were aggressive in order to convert us to their error, and the teaching of Fr. John was almost always done in opposition to what our Latin and Protestant neighbors believed."

Afterwards, Fr. Stefanos Avramidis presented a summary of the way Fr. John Romanides taught. He said:

"To help us distinguish the Orthodox teaching from the illegitimate, he taught us the following theological principles that govern patristic, orthodox theology:

1st: the distinction between creator and created. Only God is the Creator, and therefore only God is immortal by nature. Everything else is created and, consequently, mortal. Even the soul, which is immortal not by nature but by grace.

2nd: the complete differentiation between creator and created, something that eliminates the analogia entis which is dear to Western theologians, and

3rd: the distinction between essence and energy.

Then we were taught the theology of St. Augustine, how it deviates from the Orthodox patristic teaching and how it shaped the various theological movements of the West.

Then followed the teaching on ascetic theology and man's journey from purification to theosis, with an emphasis on what Saints Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas mention in their writings, but also what we see in the Lives of the Saints.

Finally, he taught us about the Synods and about the Dogmatic and Symbolic Documents of the Orthodox Church.

Having Fr. John as a professor for four consecutive years - because studying at the Theological School in Boston lasted seven years - we became closely connected.

First of all my love for his lessons. Then there was the common descent. Third, we had a common Spiritual Father. As you know, Fr. John had Fr. George Florovsky as his Spiritual Father, teacher and mentor. I also had the special blessing of having Fr. George as a confessor, who was not only a distinguished theologian but also a saintly Cleric with a lot of humility, understanding (understanding not recognition) and above all a lot of love. I often visited Fr. George either at the Russian Church of the Holy Trinity in Boston or at his home near Harvard Square, in Cambridge."

It seems the inductive method was implemented by Fr. John Romanides in his course on Dogmatics. He gave his students clear interpretive keys, first to distinguish Orthodox theology from Western theology, then he introduced them to the ascetic teaching of the Fathers of the Church and then presented them with the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods, interpreting their Minutes.

This is a very important and educative method of teaching Dogmatics that took place in 1960, that is, 63 years ago, when all the Western theological movements were circulating in the Theological Schools, without authentic Orthodox criteria, which is praxis and theoria, i.e. the participation in the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God.


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