Game over: At the roots of modernism

Translator’s Foreword

The origins of the spiritual decomposition of twentieth-century ‘Orthodox’ theology are to be found in the humanist philosophies of westernized Russians. The prime example of this is the semi-occultist philosophy of the alcoholic Soloviev at the end of the nineteenth century. This was based not on the Holy Fathers, but on German philosophy. However, in the emigration, spiritual decomposition reached a new stage, for there theology became a mere intellectual game.

We have been writing about the essentially psychological and sociological reasons for this spiritual decomposition for over a generation. Before us, theologians like Fr Michael Pomazansky did the same in the 1950s and 1960s. However, now the phenomenon has attracted attention in Russia - hence the present article. Indeed, the contemporary Russian religious commentator, Yury Maximov, has published several articles about that spiritual decomposition which, since the 1920s, has been observed among some ‘Orthodox’ intellectuals outside the Russian Church in the West.

This decomposition, Maximov suggests, is to be linked to the Neo-Origenism of the ‘Paris School’. This began in France with the fantastic Neo-Gnostic heresies of Fr Sergius Bulgakov and other non-Church philosophers like Berdiaiev and Frank. It was later continued by the generation of Paul Evdokimov, the semi-Catholic Olivier Clement and Fr Boris Bobrinskoi. This was clearly seen in the so-called ‘Orthodox’ catechism Dieu est Vivant, published in Paris in 1979 (translated by neo-renovationists in Russia in 1990), which abounds in modernist heresies, all inspired by Western humanism. Living outside Church Tradition and the Church canons, according to Western humanism, how could the authors write in any other way?

Already in the 1950s, this school of rationalism had spread its tentacles from Paris to New York, through the export of the late Frs Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff, where it was popularized in ‘cowboy’ form at St Vladimir’s Seminary. Later it went to Helsinki and, to a lesser extent, Prague and Warsaw. It later affected various modern Greek thinkers like Christos Yannaras and such writers as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamos.

At that time it also infected England through the arrival of various Russian émigrés from Paris, especially after the Second World War, for instance, Eugene Lampert. This in turn created, as Maximov says, in a very mitigated form, the ‘Oxford School’. Although now shaken by schism, in Oxford this philosophy affected even very cautious academics like Bp Kallistos Ware and Dr Sebastian Brock. At one time, it also affected the Oxford Syriac scholarship of the then Abbot (now Bishop) Hilarion Alfeev. This in turn was passed on, in a diluted form, to naïve converts from Anglicanism and propagandized in popular form in the Sourozh journal for nearly twenty-five years. This in turn contibuted to the Amphipolis schism of May 2006.

Even before the 1990s, this spiritual decomposition had entered Russia through the tragically murdered Uniatizer Fr Alexander Men. Today, it is represented there by the neo-renovationist, Fr George Kochetkov. It has been the aim of all these modernists to find justification for their apostasy in the most unlikely of places, their misread personal heroes, great saints like St Gregory of Nyssa, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Nilus (Kabasilas), Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and even St Silvanus the Athonite. (For instance, according to the monks I spoke to at St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Athos in 1979, who had known him, St Silvanus had, unsurprisingly, very different views to those attributed to him by his self-appointed modernist disciples).

Equally, they have wished to denigrate other great saints of the Church, such as St John Chrysostom (‘an anti-Semite’), St Cyril of Alexandria, the saint who wrote under the name of St Dionysius the Areopagite, St Maximus the Confessor, St Photius of Constantinople, St Gregory Palamas, St Mark of Ephesus, St John of Kronstadt and almost any holy monastic father. It has even led them to tamper with Orthodox liturgical texts for Holy Week and liturgical texts condemning the heresies of Origen, whenever they have translated those texts into modern European languages.

The Russian reader can find out more about this by turning to Maximov’s ‘The Holy Fathers and ‘Optimistic Theology’ at and Below we present a slightly abridged (without the first page, which concerns contemporary Russia) translation of Yury Maximov’s excellent article ‘Playing at Theology: Game Over’.


As you read books and articles by some contemporary writers or listen to talks and discussions at conferences, you sometimes get the impression that for some people theology has been turned into an intellectual game. Although they can play at it with serious faces, they can even devote their lives to it, it will still remain a game. And it will never be theology.

This is because they have missed the point. That which the Fathers spoke of: ‘He who prays is a theologian and he who is a theologian prays’. In other words, when theology exists when it feeds off the living experience of Divine communion, when it is rooted in the spiritual life of the Church, as expressed by the life of the theologian. Outside this communion, it is all deadwood. Theology for the sake of theology. Theology without God. It is never harmless, least of all for those who play at it.

As St Gregory the Theologian said: ‘I tell you that it is not at all for everyone to speak about the knowledge of God. It is not some easily accessible activity, it is not for the earthbound. I would even add that it is not possible to speak of the knowledge of God, not always, not with everybody, not about everything, you have to know when, who with and what about. Therefore, it is not accessible to everyone, but only to those who have tested themselves and spent their lives in contemplation and, above all, have cleansed their souls and bodies or, at least, are cleansing them. For, for the impure it is not safe to touch what is pure, just as it is not safe for someone with weak eyesight to look at a ray of sunlight’ (1).

Every word here contradicts the modernists ‘theology games’, which became so popular with certain Orthodox writers in the twentieth century, above all, among those who worked in the emigration. And this is not a coincidence, for the phenomenon in question began precisely in a West that had fallen away from Orthodoxy. It began there before it began in Russia, because, naturally, theological relativism had reached a much more critical phase in its development there.

The author of these lines recalls the shocking impression of direct contact with contemporary Catholic theology, at a mini-conference in Vienna in 2002.

Here is a comparison. Imagine an astronaut from Earth who lands on another planet, which is inhabited by a highly-developed civilization. He meets the local people and everyone shows him goodwill, the locals answer all the astronaut’s questions and are very interested in working together. Finally, one of the locals says: ‘Let me acquaint you with our customs and ways. We have monogamous marriage, we respect old people, censure theft and lieing and show special respect for strangers, we consider that their life is sacred. The other locals applaud and their leader congratulates him on his excellent speech. Then another speaker takes the floor. He says: ‘Allow me to add some details to the remarkable talk given by my colleague. Our marriages usually mean ten to twelve partners, the number varies because many men steal other men’s wives or buy them with money they have obtained from selling their parents into slavery. The ritual execution of strangers and trade in their body parts are also widespread’. The locals applaud again and their leader congratulates him on his excellent speech. Thereupon, the astronaut involuntarily experiences a twofold shock. First of all, because the locals directly contradict one another, but secondly because he realizes that both opinions are traditional in their society. And the locals see no contradiction in that.

Such was the amazement that I felt when I got to know contemporary Catholic theology. A speaker stood up and I, as an Orthodox, could subscribe to his every word. Then another one got up and said something so shocking that it was difficult to understand how a Christian could say such things. But both were applauded, both were praised, both were Catholic theologians, both views were acceptable.

Then there was another encounter at the Moscow ‘Eschatological’ Conference in 2005, where I heard an Australian Catholic priest speaking about ‘the forgotten Russian theologian Eugene Lampert’. The speaker was amazed and could not believe that he was quite unknown in Russia. From the extracts he quoted, I understood that Lampert belonged to the same modernistic trend as Florensky, Bulgakov, Evdokimov and others of that ilk (2)

I dared to respond to the speaker’s surprise. I said that a theologian or thinker who wishes to ‘review’ the Holy Scriptures and Sacred Tradition and who, on principle, prefers his own reflections to those in the Scriptures and the holy fathers, automatically puts himself outside the living spiritual tradition, which comes from the Scriptures through the holy fathers. And, consequently, those who are within that Tradition, that is inside the Church, will never fully accept modernists. Of course, the individual thoughts and observations of such people may be very interesting, well-expressed and true. But virtually everyone has well-expressed thoughts. Thus, in Confucius you can find things that are close to Christianity and an Orthodox might well quote Confucius in a book, but this does not mean that Confucius is therefore a Christian writer. The same can be said of modernists who ‘play at theology’.

Naturally, the Catholic did not understand me. He was offended and bubbled up. He called me an extremist. He said that I was depriving contemporary theologians of the right to express themselves, that the holy fathers responded to the challenges of their age and that now we have to respond to the challenges of our age, without looking back to them etc etc. At this, I pointed out that if we think of the holy fathers as ‘mere theologians’, in the contemporary sense of the word, then he was right. Then indeed it can be said, for example, that St Basil the Great was a theologian and I am a theologian. St Basil the Great said this and I say that. We are, well, equals. He makes a mistake, I correct him; he did not understand, but I do etc.

But if we believe that the holy fathers were not mere intellectuals from ancient times, but bearers of spiritual experience, holiness, which fed their theology, then we return to an authentic Christian hierarchy of values and we remember where we stand and where they stand. And perhaps we will remember that in ancient times there were also many religious writers, but by no means did they all become holy fathers and teachers in the Church.

Fortunately, we do have contemporary theologians, who have kept faith with the Patristic tradition, for example Vladimir Lossky, Fr George Florovsky, Fr Justin (Popovich) and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). Modernism is by no means the only path taken by contemporary theological writers. Unfortunately, however, at the present time, the modernists dominate.

If we look at the reasons for such a state of affairs, then we shall see that these new-fangled interpretations of the Scriptures, the ‘playful’ attitude towards the Tradition, all these people who say that ‘the fathers were stupid and did not understand, but we are clever and we do understand’, all these people who talk about ‘the historical context’, are in most cases just pursuing one very banal aim: that of adapting the Gospel and the Tradition to themselves - instead of adapting themselves to the Gospel and Sacred Tradition.

This is the great temptation for people of our age, with our pride, arrogance, sloth and search for comfort. And with our love of this world, not all of it of course, but of those chunks of it that are closest to us. And all of this with the slogan: we can serve two masters!

Remember Lot’s wife (Lk. 17, 32).

Remember Samson and Delilah. Samson was a judge in Israel, he honoured God, he had a gift from Him. And then he married Delilah. A heathen, a foreigner, who wanted to kill him, and he knew what she wanted and still did not give her up. He really did like her. And so it is with each of us Christians today, each one of us has a Delilah in his soul – an attachment to this world, which we know all about, which cannot be combined with our faith, but which we cannot give up. And so as not to have to give it up, we have invented all these new-fangled interpretations we have spoken of above, we play at theology, we create a ‘Christianity for ourselves’. And inasmuch as it is in reality impossible to serve two masters, we miss the point. Just like Samson who woke up from his sleep and said: I will go out as usual and be free. But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him (Judges 16, 20).

It is all well and good, if it ends up as it did with Samson, and through suffering we manage to leave Delilah and cleanse ourselves, painfully, from the vestiges of heathenism and the double faith and standards of our everyday life. If not, our whole life can go by in this virtual ‘Christianity’ and then we shall hear the words: ‘Truly, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity (Lk 13, 27).

Of course, it would be a mistake to explain the whole phenomenon of modernist theology by this alone. There is another reason for it. This is the attitude to theology, which considers it as a science, an attitude which the scholastics thought up long ago. For, as a contemporary scholar has pointed out, ‘science does not operate on the understanding that God exists’. And even if that does operate in modernist theology, then it is only as a concept or category, without the need for any living and direct communion with Him. And where there is ‘science’, there is a natural and pressing need for all sorts of theologizing, ‘to say something new in science’, to demonstrate ‘scientific originality’.

But in Orthodoxy we cannot say anything new, because we already hold all the fullness of truth, handed down to us by our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, through the apostles and their disciples, the holy fathers. As St Vincent of Lerins, quoting St Stephen of Rome, put it: ‘Let nothing new be introduced among us, except that which has been handed down to us’. That holy and wise man understood that the rule of piety is to admit only everything that has been accepted by the Fathers in faith, so that it may be sealed in faith by their sons; that our duty is not to take religion wherever we want to go, but to follow it wherever it leads us; and that it does not become Christian modesty and dignity to hand down to posterity what we have invented, but to guard that which we have received from our ancestors. This is because, ‘in the Church it has always been the custom that the more godly someone is, the more he takes a stand against novelties’, and because we Orthodox Christians, according to the commandment of our fathers, are called on ‘to crush before the authority of hallowed antiquity the audacity of unbecoming novelties and every vain delusion’ (3).

Indeed, St Vincent’s whole book is devoted to exposing the fact that a passion for novelty means turning away from ancient and ineluctable truth. A turning away which can be dressed up in any old ‘scientific’ clothes. For instance, let us look at ‘the historical context’.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong in trying to recreate the conditions of the period and conditions in which one or another holy or patristic writing was composed, as long as the aim is to explain the meaning of the writing more clearly. In interpreting the Scriptures, sometimes the holy fathers also had recourse to this method. But only as an extra, not as an essential.

The danger comes when virtually the whole meaning, sense and relevance of a writing is reduced to its historical context. In such a way, through ‘the historical context’, the authority of Scripture and Tradition is simply levelled down. As they say, just because it is written down, it does not mean that I have to act in that way, the holy father only said that, because he had this or that attitude to the Emperor of the time. And it does not say that because I have to believe it, but because that particular spiritual writer belonged to such and such a school and was under the influence of such and such a philosophy etc etc.

In all of this, what is overlooked is that the possibility of recreating the historical context of one work or another is extremely restricted. The number of facts is too limited, and to connect them together and, above all, to deduce the supposed influence of those facts on the way of thought of one holy father or another is almost completely arbitrary.

This leads to a situation where we are in fact free to reconstruct and, above all, interpret any historical context, as it suits us best. This is in order to provide us with any convenient reinterpretation of any inconvenient phrase or thought, or for us to lose any sense at all, except the historical. Thanks to this, everything becomes uncertain, arbitrary, unclear, everything loses its authority and relevance, as it is reinterpreted, it is distorted. From the light of truth we head for the murky quagmire of ‘points of view’, so that the Holy Scriptures and Tradition themselves become ‘anthologies of historical opinions’, at best suitable only as pegs on which to hang our own thoughts.

Obviously, such an attitude is only possible, if we deny the truth that all the saints lived in God and, consequently, had the same faith, faith as the gift of God, as a sacred treasure and, at the same time, a standard, ideal, image and path. And if we follow that path, then we too can partake together with them of the spiritual treasure of saving faith, whereas, if we renounce that path, then we will fall into spiritual perdition.

In defending ‘the freedom for independent theological creativity’, in reality modernists are defending their exceptionally egotistic and passionate wilfulness. It was long ago pointed out that those who set themselves up as bearers of libertarian views in reality turn out to be much more enslaved to a multitude of personal complexes and conventions than others.

To follow in the footsteps of the Holy Fathers, voluntarily, reverently and obediently, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, delivers us from that enslavement. It gives us an authentic spiritual freedom in the truth, according to the words of our Lord: Know the truth and the truth shall make you free (Jn. 8, 32).


1. Quoted in Abbot Hilarion (Alfeev). The Life and Teaching of St Gregory the Theologian, Moscow 1998 (in Russian).

2. When I met ‘Zhenia’ in the late 70s, he was living in sin with a young woman half his age, with the ‘blessing’ of a certain Russian bishop, whom we shall not name here (Translator’s note).

3. St Vincent of Lerins. Memorable Notes. Peregrina, Moscow 1999, p. 14 (in Russian).