The Theological Writings of Archbishop John and the Question of "Western Influence" in Orthodox Theology

This text has been transcribed from a cassette tape of
an informal talk given by Fr. Seraphim at the St. Herman
of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California, on the Sunday of
the Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils in July,
1976, in honor of the tenth anniversary of Archbishop
John’s repose. Fr. Seraphim later included some ideas
from this talk in his article “The Orthodox Theology
of Archbishop John Maximovitch, ” which was published
for the first time in the St. Herman Calendar for 1976,
and then as the introduction to The Orthodox Veneration of
the Mother of God by Archbishop John (since reprinted
under the title The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the
Birthgiver of God by St. John Maximovitch).

1. “Theology on high

Today we celebrated the feast of the Fathers of the
Ecumenical Councils, which occurs at this time every year
after the 16th of July. According to the service to them,
these Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils are the seven
pillars of wisdom upon which Christ our God has
established the Church. It is very important for us on
such a day to think about what theology is. First of all
we must be fully aware that theology is not just a matter
of some people who go to school, become very wise in
reading the Scriptures and writings of the Holy Fathers,
and then—either by themselves or coming together
with others—very nicely, logically think out what
they think the Church believes. That is all from the level
of human understanding. Theology is something higher.

A very renowned theologian of our Church today—of
the older generation which is now passing away, and whose
message we have to get if we are to remain
Orthodox—is Fr. Michael
Pomazansky in Jordanville. Being aware of all the
difficulties coming upon Orthodoxy now, of those people
who are actually falling into wrong teachings, and of all
these temptations which are in front of us, he said,
“We have security in one thing that is, the Divine
Services.” This is because the whole of our theology
is contained in the Divine Services, which were put
together by such great Fathers as St. John Damascene and
many others, already at this very time of the Ecumenical
Councils, when the whole dogmatic teaching of the Church
was established quite firmly. Thus, Fr. Michael writes to
us that the Divine Services are a security for us in case
people begin to get the wrong teaching. Also in the same
letter, he notes in particular the Kontakion to these very
Fathers. This Kontakion, which is repeated at other times
of the year when the Holy Fathers are celebrated, is as
follows:

The preaching of the Apostles and the doctrines of the
Fathers sealed the One Faith of the Church; and wearing
the garment of Truth woven from the theology on high, she
(the Church) rightly divides and glorifies the great
mystery of Godliness (piety).

We see here that theology is something like a garment
woven from on high: “A garment of Truth woven from
the theology on high.” This is obviously an idea of
theology quite remote from those simple courses in what is
called theology. Theology—the knowledge of God, the
science of God—is something which comes from on high
by Divine inspiration. When the Holy Fathers come together
in the Councils and the Holy Spirit is with them, those
things which they decry, define and decree are not simply
expressions of human wisdom, but are something which comes
from above.

2. The theology of Archbship John

We have in our times, very close to us, someone who is a
theologian precisely in this way: Archbishop John
Maximovitch, who by God’s grace was given to us in
these latter times. In him we find many, many things which
help us to remain true Orthodox Christians even in the
very difficult times ahead. We see in him a very holy man,
an ascetic with a rule of prayer and of helping others,
and of not even resting. This is extremely high and
inspiring; even though we ourselves do not do that, still
we see in this a very inspiring example of how a Holy
Father lives in our times. We continue to find many new
treasures in him, aspects which have not been discussed
too much before. And now we have come to the tenth
anniversary of his death, which we celebrated less than a
month ago. It also happens that this is the fiftieth
anniversary of his priesthood and his becoming a monk. So
it is very appropriate that we should now find another
treasure in him: the treasury of his theological writings,
which up to now have been very little known even in
Russian. We have managed to gather together some of his
writings, in fact quite a few; and we see that, indeed,
although he is not openly glorified for being a great
theologian, he is in fact a much greater theologian than
many people who are glorified as being theologians. But he
is a theologian precisely in the sense of the theology
from on high, and not just of school lessons or academics,
as we call them. From this we can find out something very
important about how to be and remain conscious, true
Orthodox Christians, and how to hand down the riches of
our Orthodox Tradition, which is threatening to evaporate
from the face of the earth.

Hieromonk John (center) with Carpatho-Russian students at the Bitol Seminary, 1931.
Hieromonk John (center) with Carpatho-Russian students at the Bitol Seminary, 1931.
As for his theological background,
Archbishop John, when he was in Serbia after he
finished law school, went to the regular theological
academy and got what we would call a doctor’s
degree in theology; that is, he went through all the
courses, and therefore he knows all about theological
questions, problems and so forth. In back of this,
however, there is something even more important for a
true theologian—and by a true theologian we
mean someone who truly speaks the words of God and
does not just repeat what he sees in books. Namely,
he was from a very pious family; he was himself
extremely devout in his childhood; he had experience
of Holy Russia before the Revolution; he went to
monasteries; he venerated the miracle-working icons;
he had veneration for the saints and holy men; he
read Lives of Saints; and he absorbed the whole
atmosphere in Russia, which was then still possible
for devout people. That is why later on he became
such a great theologian and such a holy man.

Besides this, we see one person who very much inspired
him, although not in the sense that we would nowadays say
“influenced” him (that is, we cannot say that
this person influenced this or that, but rather that he
inspired Archbishop John to be entirely in the Church and
to be a theologian). This person was Metropolitan
Anthony Khrapovitsky. He was the first head of the
Russian Church Abroad, a great hierarch in the last days
of the old Russia, and a very important historical figure
in our days, both then and now. He was noted for his
outspokenness, for being very bold, and for not being too
polite when it came to important things in the Church. He
was a very conscious fighter for all the best Orthodox
traditions. He emphasized constantly the need to go
“back to the Holy Fathers,” which of course
Archbishop John absorbed very thoroughly; and he also
talked about Orthodox theology as being very closely bound
up with spiritual and moral life, as opposed to simply
being learned in school and then repeated.

The writings of Metropolitan Anthony, however, are quite
different from those of Archbishop John, because
Metropolitan Anthony was very much involved with the
academic world. He was the head of several theological
academies, and he had to be constantly aware of the
problems of his time. He had to know what people like the
Tolstoyites were thinking—people who were trying to
undermine faith in God and the Church—and he was
constantly thinking about how to get across the message of
Orthodoxy to such people. He was constantly writing
arguments back and forth about Orthodox theology, being
himself very much bound up with the problems of presenting
Orthodoxy to people who were far away from it. Thus, we
find that his writings are actually much less inspiring
then those of Archbishop John, which we will talk about
now.

3. Balanced between extremes

The theological works of Archbishop John are quite a few
in number. We have not yet found them all because they are
not collected together in any one place. They are
contained in old magazines, usually church magazines which
had a very small circulation and have now been almost all
lost. Some are from the old church magazines of the
1920’s and ’30’s in Yugoslavia; others are
from his own little periodicals in China and America. We
found one long article just totally by chance—of
course, it was by God’s grace that we found it–which
was printed in Warsaw in 1930, and of which there are
probably very few copies left. Many of his writings are
very small articles—sermons which are very
deep—but he has several longer articles—20,
30, 40 pages—which are very important. He wrote
against the heresy of Bulgakov and Sophiology. He wrote
about the Mother of
God in a treatise which we are translating for a new
Orthodox Word. He also wrote about Holy Russia, the New
Martyrs, the Church as the Body of Christ, the meaning of
the Russian Diaspora (that is, the Russians in exile), the
Orthodox monarchy, and several other such topics.

From his theological writings, we see in Archbishop John
someone quite different from Metropolitan Anthony. The
chief characteristic we can point out in his theological
writings is freedom. He is entirely immersed in the
Orthodox Tradition, and he is himself a source of true
Orthodox theology. He has no kind of foreign influences or
any overemphasis on one part of Tradition because of some
controversy. This makes him especially valuable as an
authority on something which is very much discussed today
in the English language: the so-called Western influence
on Orthodox theology in the last seven hundred years. In
an article he wrote on iconography, for example, he
emphasizes the true Orthodox iconographic style, but at
the same time he is not too upset about Western-style
icons as long as they are within certain limits and have
been blessed to be in the Church.

He wrote also about one question: “For What Did
Christ Pray in the Garden of Gethsemane?” Here we see
how he was very expert in handling a subject that at that
time was quite controversial. It had become controversial
because his teacher Metropolitan Anthony had, in opposing
what he called the scholastic interpretation of the
“payment made to an angry God,” gone himself a
little too far in the opposite direction, and therefore
had placed an overemphasis on the meaning of the prayer of
Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as though this
were the most important part of our redemption; and the
Cross was somehow underemphasized. This often happens when
one is involved in polemics, that is, with arguments with
other theologians. Some go overboard on one side a little
bit too much, and in counteracting that sometimes one goes
a little too far on the other side. Archbishop John,
however, had a very nice balance in this, which shows how
sound his outlook was and how he did not go to any kind of
extremes. He took the best part of Metropolitan
Anthony’s teaching on this subject—about the
compassionate love of Jesus Christ for all
mankind—and at the same time he corrected some of
the mistakes which Metropolitan Anthony had put into his
article. For example, Metropolitan Anthony said that it
was unworthy of us to think that Jesus Christ should be
afraid of His coming sufferings, whereas as a matter of
fact most of the Holy Fathers talk about precisely this
point: that this proves the human nature of Jesus Christ,
that He was afraid of the coming sufferings. So Archbishop
John corrected this and also gave the best part of
Metropolitan Anthony’s teaching on compassionate love.
People were talking back and forth, some defending one
point of view, some defending the other—and
Archbishop John discussed it without making any
controversy out of it at all. In fact, from reading his
article you could never guess that there was any kind of
controversy. This shows how very well balanced he was.

4. “Western influence”

Likewise there was this question of “Western
influence,” which Metropolitan Anthony also talked
about a great deal. It is very important for us to
understand exactly what this means, because it is true
that, for several hundred years in the Orthodox Church,
there were borrowings from the West, from Roman Catholics,
in theological writings. Some people talk a little too
much about Western influence; they go overboard and want
to throw out everything from the last seven hundred years.
Of course this is wrong. But in Archbishop John we notice
that, just as he was very balanced towards Metropolitan
Anthony when some people were protesting against his
teaching, he was also very balanced with regard to the
question of Western influence.

Once we ourselves asked Archbishop John about the question
of Metropolitan Anthony’s teaching, and he had a way
of moving his hand and saying, “It’s
unimportant.” That is, this teaching has very
important parts and if there are mistakes in it,
that’s secondary, that’s unimportant.

St. Peter Mogila
St. Peter Mogila
Archbishop John had the same
attitude with regard to someone else who is a great
figure in Orthodox theology: Metropolitan Peter
Mogila, who lived in the 17th century, the same time
as St. Job
of Pochaev, in the west of Russia. Metropolitan
Peter has been accused of being under great Western
influence; and some people even want to throw him out
completely, saying that he is not Orthodox.
Archbishop John, however, had very great reverence
towards him; and we can see in this attitude
something very important about the whole question of
Western influence.

The question of Western influence entered into the Church
after the Council of Florence in 1439. That was the time
when, for political reasons, the Byzantine theologians
went to the West and they capitulated; that is, they gave
in to the teaching of the Roman Catholics and accepted
certain things which were not Orthodox. They all signed
the Union with Rome—all except for the great
champion of Orthodoxy, St. Mark of Ephesus. After this
there was a very difficult time in the Church.

We are now studying these events from five hundred years
later. We can see that of course this false union was
rejected, and that the Orthodox Church did not accept it.
But at that time, and for quite a while
afterwards—over a hundred years—the question
of the Union of Florence was a very difficult one in the
Church. In Russia, as soon as Metropolitan Isidore came
back and said, “I signed the Union,” they kicked
him out. He came to church and the Tsar himself was there.
“You did what?!” the Tsar said. “You signed
the Union with Rome?”—and they put him in
prison and refused the Union absolutely. He had to go back
to the West, escaping through Poland, and finally he
became a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, an
apostate from Orthodoxy.

St. Mark of Ephesus, on the other hand, rejected the
Union, first in the West and then in Greece; and when he
came back he gathered around him people who were also
against the Union. Then, only fifteen years after the
Council of Florence, by God’s judgment—very
likely for the very reason that the Union had been
accepted—Constantinople fell. After that there was a
Patriarch Gennadius, a disciple of St. Mark of Ephesus,
who rejected the Union; but there was still a great deal
of confusion in the Greek Church for some time. There is a
whole book on the subject by Timothy Ware (Fr. Kallistos),
called Eustratios Argenti (Oxford, 1964), which
discusses the attitude of the Greeks towards Rome in these
very centuries after 1450. We see that there was a great
deal of confusion in Greece as to whether the Catholics
were part of the Church or not. Many times the Orthodox
bishops would call in Franciscans and Jesuits to teach in
their churches. Roman Catholics and Orthodox even had
services in the same churches, although, in many places in
Greece, they did have the altar in a separate place.
Evidently they did not quite know whether or not they had
accepted the Union. There were many who were fervently
against it, but others said, “Well, we signed the
papers; everybody signed, the Patriarch signed, the
Emperor signed. Aren’t we obliged?

“In Greece this problem was a lot worse than in
Russia, but the same kind of thing happened in Russia
also. In the western part of Russia the Latin missionaries
came in and tried to seduce the people into becoming Roman
Catholics. This was where the problem of the Western
influence started in Russia.

This had already been going on for a hundred years or
more, when, at the end of the 16th century, the Latins
made another union, this time in the western part of
Russia: the Brest-Litovsk Union, which St. Job of Pochaev
was fighting against. Clearly, they were proceeding to
take over the whole East. They were using the confusion of
the people in Greece as to whether they were in union or
not—they were using this as a chance to install
their own missionaries, to settle their own bishops in the
Greek cities, and then to actually take over the whole
East, beginning with Greece and going to Russia.

This was a very critical time for Orthodoxy. The great
Fathers knew that the Catholics had gone off in their
doctrine and had fallen away from the Church, and yet
there was this propaganda to be part of the Latin Church,
as though the Pope were still the chief among the bishops.
At the same time in the West there was occurring what we
today call the “Renaissance”: a whole movement
of learning which of course to a large extent was a
revival of ancient pagan ideas. The whole meaning of
Renaissance can probably be summed up as a continuation of
the Scholastic movement earlier in the West. That is, it
was characterized by an increase of worldly wisdom, of
something which is not necessary for the salvation of the
soul. This was when science—learning about
nature—began to have the importance it has today,
when language was first studied, when translations were
made, and when ancient Greek and Latin classics were
revived from oblivion, having been very little studied in
the earlier centuries after the fall of Greece and Rome.
The level of learning increased: people became more aware
of world history, of science, and of worldly wisdom in
general.

In itself this worldly wisdom is of no importance; but
once one enters into it, one acquires a certain attitude
of mind. This attitude is not in itself hostile to
salvation, but one has to understand it properly in order
to find out how one can save one’s soul if one has it.
As a matter of fact, in the 20th century this movement of
Western learning has now invaded the entire world.
Everyone who comes to Orthodoxy today, with the possible
exception of some tribes of Africans in Uganda and Kenya
and so forth, is involved with this very question of
knowing how to save your soul once you have become
worldly-wise and sophisticated, knowing about world
history, science, etc.

5. Giving answer for our faith

In both Russia and Greece in the 17th century, Orthodox
education was on a very simple level. At that time there
were people like Metropolitan Peter Mogila who saw that,
in this so-called wisdom—this knowledge, this
“college level education”—coming from the
West, there was a very great danger for Orthodoxy’
because the ordinary Orthodox people were very simple.

St. Peter the Apostle tells us in his Epistle that we must
be ready to have an answer for those who ask us about the
Faith. It so happens, however, that the simple person who
believes Orthodoxy the way it has been handed down to him
is not very able to have an answer when he has a very sly
and sophisticated person coming to him and asking him all
kinds of questions about the Faith—and not
necessarily with bad intentions, either.

We even had an example in our little talk yesterday. We
read in the Lives of Saints that a dragon came and began
tempting the Saint, like St. Marina and St. John the
Much-Suffering. What are we to think of this? You read
this text to people who live here in Platina or San
Francisco or anywhere in the modern world, who are not
totally raised in the spirit of Orthodox piety, and they
will tend to laugh at you. You try to give an explanation:
“Well, there really were dragons,” and they say,
“Oh, don’t fool us, you’re making up things.
This is superstition. You mean you really still believe
that?” What do you answer them? Or if any of your
children read at home the life of a saint and then go to
school and talk about it, the people there will laugh them
to death. “You mean you read these silly
stories?” they will say. “Dragons occurring with
big smoke?” In the Lives of Saints, the hair of St.
Marina and the beard of St. John the Much-Suffering are
actually singed by the dragon with fire coming out of his
mouth. How are you to understand that? St. Marina was in
prison; how did the dragon get by the guard, how did he
get through the locked door? What’s going on? Is there
such a thing as a dragon in the first place? If you are
very simple in your faith, you will say, Well, I believe
it because that’s what the Holy Fathers handed down to
me.” And they will say, “Oh yes, but you have to
gather the writings of the Holy Fathers and correct them
and throw out things like that.” And in fact, if you
look at the Roman Catholic Church today, you see that they
do exactly that. They think that St. Nicholas or St.
George do not even exist; they throw them out because they
say this is superstition.

Therefore, with the coming of Western learning, there is a
danger that Orthodoxy will be so simple and primitive that
it will not know how to answer for itself. It will thus be
only a small island of people who simply say, “I
believe because that’s the way it has been handed
down”; and people who have had a Western education
will not be able to believe. We see, then, that there is a
need to understand what this question of Western learning
is all about, so that we can answer them on their own
arguments and tell them exactly what is going on.

The incorrupt relics of St. John Maximovitch
The incorrupt relics of St. John Maximovitch

As a matter of fact, we do have arguments. There are those
who have read the Lives of the Saints and believe them
because the Holy Fathers have handed them down, and who at
the same time have gone through college and understand
what goes on in the Western mind. Actually, as we have
said, everyone who is Orthodox today has a Western mind.
It is obvious that there is no one left, except maybe a
few simple villagers somewhere, who have a simple
mentality. Most Orthodox people today—whether in
Greece, in the Soviet Union, in all those countries behind
the Iron Curtain, or in the Near East—have now been
infected by this Western learning, and therefore we must
have an answer on this level.

This is precisely what happened in Russia. There were very
far-sighted people like Metropolitan Peter Mogila who saw
that we cannot answer them unless we first learn what they
know. When he became Metropolitan of Kiev, he saw that in
Kiev there were very simple schools—Slavonic Greek
schools—which were teaching simply the Tradition as
it had been handed down, without being able to answer the
questions of people who were learned in the Western
sciences. Therefore he said that we must have a Latin
school. People suddenly became horrified and said,
“This is foreign, this is outside of our
Tradition.” And his answer was: “No, we must
learn what they know so we can answer them.” Thus he
deliberately installed a Latin school, and for a century
or more theological learning in Russia was largely in the
Latin language, with all the books in Latin. Of course
there are dangers here. You have to be able to distinguish
what is real Orthodoxy and where the Latins have stuck in
their own teaching. At that time it was not quite as bad
as it is today, because today the Latins have gone
completely off, whereas then they still preserved quite a
bit of what was before the Schism. Therefore a person who
has prudence and discernment can read these texts and find
out where they are right or they are wrong and use them
properly.

There were some cases in which Metropolitan Peter used
phrases which came straight from the Latins and were not
in the earlier Fathers. In cases like this, however, one
does not have to become too upset. It so happens that the
Orthodox Tradition is the Tradition of Truth, and
therefore this Tradition itself corrects error whenever a
statement becomes a little too much, a little off the
mark. The Catechism of Metropolitan Peter Mogila, for
example, was later corrected by a Greek theologian. After
that it was corrected even more in Russia by Metropolitan
Platon, and finally by Metropolitan
Philaret of Moscow, the great hierarch who was
actually the leading one who abolished the teaching of
theology in Latin. Metropolitan Philaret lived at the
beginning of the 19th century, already two centuries
later. By that time, Western learning had already been
assimilated, and thus it was no longer necessary to have
everything in Latin. The Russians had their own Russian
books, the level of education had risen very much, and
people who were going to the Orthodox seminaries and
theological academies knew just as must about all this
Western learning as did people in the West. Therefore the
time had come when Orthodox Christians in Russia could
stop learning things in Latin and begin to learn them in
Russian.

This, then, was the great function of Metropolitan
Philaret of Moscow: to say, “The time has passed for
us to depend so much upon Western learning in Western
language. Let us now have it all in our language, and make
sure we purify it of anything that is not quite
right.” In this process, certain words—which in
themselves were not particularly bad but which were not
precise according to the Patristic vocabulary—were
thrown out.

Today, we have a situation in which Orthodoxy, having gone
through this Western learning, is able to answer people
from the West on their own grounds. That is, we are just
as sophisticated as they are; we are just as aware of
modern science and modern learning; and we will not be in
the position of the simple villager who simply does not
know what to say when someone starts criticizing dragons.

On the contrary, now a person who reads stories about
dragons will be very good about finding out the Patristic
teaching on this: how it is that a devil who is immaterial
can singe a beard. We know that, according to St. Macarius
the Great and other Fathers, the devil is not entirely
immaterial. Only God is immaterial; and the devils and
angels have actual bodies, although they are much more
refined than our bodies. That, of course, was the case
with those dragons which tortured St. Marina and St. John
the Much-Suffering. They were not beasts, but were demons
who took forms in order to frighten ascetics. We know this
for various reasons, especially because when the Saint
made the sign of the Cross or prayed, the dragon
disappeared. It is obvious that this was an apparition of
the demons.

There are other cases, such as the dragon of St. George,
in which it looks like a real dragon was involved, some
kind of real beast. Such beasts have existed; in fact
there are records of them. Even recently—thirty
years ago in Monterey—one was dragged up on the
beach: a very unusual beast resembling what we would call
a “sea monster.” This, then, is a different
matter, when there are actual beasts which do not
disappear when you make the sign of the Cross and when you
actually drag their bodies through the streets as St.
George did.

Of course, there are many other respects in which we must
know how to interpret what has been handed down by the
Holy Fathers. By knowing what is thought by sophisticated
people in the West, we can do this. This was the actual
position of Metropolitan Peter Mogila, who, in spite of
some expressions which later on were corrected and not
accepted, is on the whole a very great Father. He handed
Orthodoxy down to us, and helped Orthodoxy to defend
itself against heretics who were trying to take away our
Orthodoxy from us and place it entirely under the
influence of the Latin West and worldly wisdom. It is
owing to someone like Metropolitan Peter Mogila that we
are today able to fight against these Westerners on their
own grounds.

6. Foreign sources for the salvation of
souls

Likewise, we see this question of so-called Western
influence in a number of books which were adapted by
Eastern Fathers, Greek and Russian, from Western sources.
For example, already 150 years after Peter Mogila, we have
in Greece the great Father, St.
Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, who took several books
straight from the West, especially one called Unseen
Warfare. Some people still criticize this and say,
“Why do you have to take books from the West when we
have our own books from the East?” We have to
understand, then, the meaning of this. It is a little bit
different from the question of Peter Mogila, because St.
Nikodemos was taking something directly for spiritual
purposes. The reason for this was that St. Nikodemos was
mostly concerned with how to present the Orthodox
Tradition and Orthodox spirituality to people who had
already gone away from the ancient tradition of piety.
They were already losing the savor of Orthodoxy. To a
person who is not very aware of Orthodox spiritual
language or spiritual life, you cannot simply give The
Ladder of St. John. We know people who pick it up, read it
and say, “Oh, that’s for monks. That’s too
advanced. I can’t understand that.” Therefore,
there must be for them something more on their level, more
“ABC.” They have already been corrupted by
Western learning, and so you have to give them something a
little more primitive. Thus, St. Nikodemos took from the
West precisely such a book as Unseen Warfare, which on the
whole is not a bad book, and he corrected it further,
throwing out anything that was Latin and introducing
things which were Orthodox. Later on, Bishop Theophan the
Recluse in Russia did even more to present this book as an
excellent book of spiritual guidance, especially on the
more primitive level. This kind of book did not appear in
ancient times because the people of ancient times were not
corrupted like we are today. A book like Unseen Warfare is
a book for us today who are corrupted. We have to get back
to our sources, and this book helps us precisely to get
back to them. This, then, helps to give a more balanced
picture to the whole question of Western influences.

A similar case occurred when St. Macarius of Corinth, a
friend of St. Nikodemos, wrote a book on frequent
Communion. At that time, both in Greece and in Russia, the
custom had been introduced through carelessness in
spiritual life of receiving Communion very infrequently,
that is, once a year or some other such minimum. Of
course, this was not very good; it was a minimum of
spiritual life. We know that all our Holy Fathers at all
times have encouraged the reception of Holy Communion more
frequently than that. This does not necessarily mean all
the time or every day, but more frequently than once a
year. In fact, although it depends upon each spiritual
father how often one is blessed to receive Holy Communion,
it is certainly true that any Driest nowadays who is
concerned about encouraging spiritual life will encourage
people to receive Communion on all the Great Feasts and
several times during the fasts, that is, quite frequently.

It so happened that this whole idea of frequent Communion
arose in the West. In 1640 or so, a man in France named
Ardenon wrote a book called On Frequent communion, which
sets forth the writings of Holy Fathers on the subject. On
the whole it is not a bad book. Perhaps there are some
things in it which are purely Catholic spirituality, but
there are quite a few chapters which are purely quotes
from Holy Fathers about receiving Holy Communion.

Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), a loyal spiritual child of St. John
Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), a loyal spiritual child of St. John
At about the same time in Spain,
someone named Miguel De Molinos also wrote about
frequent Communion. It is very likely, although we
cannot prove it right now, that St. Macarius read one
or both of these books, and that he even translated
whole chapters from them for his own book. We do not
need to get upset that he may have been taking a
Western spiritual practice, however, if we realize
that St. Macarius was adapting from the West
something which can be important for us in our
corrupted state; therefore there is nothing wrong
with it at all. In fact, this is what we may call a
true theological wisdom: when one is not afraid of
something foreign just because it is foreign. One can
take something foreign, having a higher wisdom which
the Church gives, and adapt for one’s own what is
useful and throw out what is not useful.

This kind of theological wisdom is precisely what we find
in Archbishop John. Archbishop John did not have any great
prejudice against Western sources. He was in the full
Tradition of Orthodoxy, and in the full Tradition of those
who adapted from wherever they could find sources for
spiritual profit. Therefore, he equally venerated
Metropolitan Peter Mogila and Metropolitan Anthony
Khrapovitsky. If these two hierarchs seem to contradict
each other on some points, higher theological wisdom can
find out where they are actually in a deeper agreement;
and one does not need to be upset by these lesser
differences, about whether one is pro-West or anti-West.
In the end, one becomes in some respects pro-West.
Archbishop John, in fact, in his article on iconography
says that, during those centuries when the Western
influence was coming to the East, there were many respects
in which it was bad, but many respects in which it was a
good thing. This, of course, comes from the idea of
learning in order to know what is going on in the West, in
order to combat Western ideas on their own level, and even
of adapting some spiritual books for the use of Orthodoxy.
Let us remember once more that we today are in a situation
where everyone who is Orthodox is totally immersed in this
Western world, this Western understanding; and therefore
we had better know how to take wisdom from it, what to
accept and what to reject.

The gesture that Archbishop John made with his
hands—as if to say “it’s
unimportant”—may be applied, for example, to
Metropolitan Peter Mogila’s use of the word
“transubstantiation.” It so happens that this
word is bound up with Thomas Aquinas’ theology about
substance and accidents and so forth. We do not accept
that teaching, it is too philosophical for us; and
therefore we do not need to use that word. You can use the
word without having to accept the whole philosophy of
Thomas Aquinas; but it is better to use other words, maybe
words such as transformation or transelementation, etc.
Nevertheless, we do not have to get upset over the use of
that word: we can use whatever promotes piety in these
Western sources, and not get upset about it.

7. Above the level of fighting

The important thing we learn from the writings of
Archbishop John is: stand above the level of fighting in
theology. If you take up any writing of Archbishop John,
whether a sermon or a long article, you see that there is
absolutely no controversy. Even when he is
“fighting” someone like Bulgakov, and has to
show where he is quoting the Fathers wrongly and where his
teaching is not Orthodox—even there you do not get
the impression that he is fighting, like our academic
theologians. On the contrary, he is very calm. There is a
certain teaching of the Fathers—he presents it; and
where Bulgakov goes off, he shows it: “This is not
right, here he quoted wrong.”

Bulgakov was noted as being the most Patristic of all
these actual heretics of the Paris school, as one who was
constantly quoting the Fathers. Most people do not know
the Fathers too well, and therefore they are very
impressed when, for example, Bulgakov quotes a doctrine on
the Mother of God. Bulgakov does not quite say what the
Latins say—that there is an immaculate
conception—but he says that the Mother of God is
without sin. According to Orthodox Tradition, we do not
say the Mother of God is without sin. We say that she did
not fall into sin, but that she had original sin,
ancestral sin, and also that she had sinfulness in her
mind. There is no doubt she was subject to the same sins
in general that all flesh is subject to, except for our
Lord Jesus Christ; but she did not fall into sin.
Bulgakov, however, did not understand such a distinction
when he talked about the sinlessness of the Mother of God;
and he quoted fifty texts from the Divine Services and
from the writings of Holy Fathers about this question of
the sinlessness of the Mother of God.

Archbishop John, being a very competent theologian,
examined all these fifty texts, and he showed that not a
single one of them says what Bulgakov claims it says.
Either Bulgakov was taking a text out of context and the
rest of the passage from the Holy Father says exactly the
opposite, or else he was making it say more than it was
supposed to say. In general, Bulgakov simply did not
understand how to read the Holy Fathers, and he was trying
to force them to say what he wanted them to say.
Archbishop John had to show that in every case it was not
true-that these Holy Fathers did not say what Bulgakov
thought they were saying.

Here we see the great freedom of Archbishop John’s
theological works: how he was above petty fighting. Some
people who go to academic schools are very fond of
“proving” that someone else is way off and thus
“triumphing.” It’s like undergraduate
fighting. Archbishop John was above that, showing calmly
and clearly what is the true teaching of the Church, and
not getting excited over small points. This freedom of his
theological spirit is very important for us.

There is an interesting story, which we heard from a
priest in San Francisco, which shows how free Archbishop
John was in his theological spirit, how he was above small
details; how, even when it came to small details which in
themselves were very good, still he was above them.

The story occurred one year in Shanghai, when the Russian
school and catechism was finished for the year. In such
Orthodox Russian schools, they had the custom of oral
examinations. Instead of just writing down the answers to
questions, the students had to stand up and give an oral
reply, which showed the teacher how well they were able to
express themselves, how polite they were, how proper, and
so forth. Also, the examiner—who is usually the head
of the school (in this case Archbishop John)—would
see how well the teacher had been teaching the students.
At this particular oral examination, one girl got up and
was reciting the part about the Old Testament from the
catechism. There was a part where it said, “Recite
the major prophets and the minor prophets of the Old
Testament.” We know, of course, that for practical
purposes in these modern catechisms the prophets are
divided up into those who wrote lone books with important
prophecies in them, and those who wrote very small books
in which the prophecies are not quite so striking. It is
an obvious distinction, and it is an aid to learning. You
can memorize the names better if you learn that there are
twelve minor prophets, and so forth. With God, though,
this is obviously not so important. Thus, as the girl
began reciting the names of the twelve Minor Prophets,
quite properly just as she had memorized them, all of a
sudden Archbishop John says, “There’s no such
thing as a minor prophet!” Of course the poor girl
was excited and the teacher was insulted because he had
taught them all about the Minor Prophets and the Major
Prophets.

Why did Archbishop John say such a thing, why did he deny
what everyone had been learning? It was because he was
thinking first of all how it is with God. With God, of
course there are no minor prophets. Anyone who is a
prophet sees the future; he is obviously a divine person,
a saint. It is true that there are some who prophesied
less and some who prophesied more, but with God they are
all great, they are all major.

This story shows that Vladyka John was above putting
things into categories—although of course he
accepted the fact that you learn who are minor and who are
major. And it again shows his balance, his sobriety, and
his freedom—and the fact that for him the teaching
of the Church was first of all what we read in the
Kontakion to the Holy Fathers: something “woven from
the theology on high.” It comes from God; there is a
different flavor to it; it is not simply what you read in
books. What you read in books helps you; it is good to
learn it. But we must remember that above that is theology
which comes from on high, from God.

This is what makes Archbishop John so inspiring for us
today, and actually an example for us not to get involved
with small points, with small controversies, but to
remember that theology is something which comes from
above, from God. He himself, being present every day at
the Divine Services, used above all this source when
giving theology. Probably more than any other theologian
of modern times, he quotes the services of the Church,
because for him theology was not a matter of just reading
books and writing things out, but was first of all a
matter of absorbing the teaching of the Church in the
services. And that is why the attitude of controversy, of
polemics, is absent in his works, even when he is proving
what is right and what is wrong.

Originally published in The Orthodox Word,
No. 175-176, 1994, pp. 142-158

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