On Eastern Orthodox Polemics

David Bentley Hart

yelling1“The most damaging consequence, however, of [Eastern] Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century pilgrimage ad fontes-and this is no small irony, given the ecumenical possibilities that opened up all along the way – has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic. Or, rather, an increase in the confidence with which such polemic is uttered. Nor is this only a problem fur ecumenism: the anti-Western passion (or, frankly, paranoia) of Lossky and his followers has on occasion led to rather severe distortions of Eastern theology. More to the point here, though, it has made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology (which are so very necessary) apparently almost impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine – which, quite apart from the harm they do to the collective acuity of Orthodox Christians, can become a source of considerable embarrassment when they fall into the hands of Western scholars who actually know something of the figures that Orthodox scholars choose to calumniate. When one repairs to modern Orthodox texts, one is almost certain to encounter some wild mischaracterization of one or another Western author; and four figures enjoy a special eminence in Orthodox polemics: Augustine, Anseln, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.”

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“As for the current [Eastern] Orthodox animus towards Augustine, it comes principally from the early and mid twentieth century, when Vladimir Lossky and others were seeking to define (and sustain) [Eastern] Orthodoxy in the wake of the Russian revolution. A retreat to the fathers, of course, was necessary, but also (they believed) an effort to differentiate [Eastern] Orthodoxy from Western Christianity as strikingly as possible-and who is more definitive of Western theology than Augustine? At the time, I should add, the Western ignorance of Eastern tradition, and of the Eastern fathers, was well-nigh encyclopaedic, and so it is not hard to understand the vigor of the Russian apologists. But the effects have been disastrous in the long run, not only for the Orthodox understanding of the West, but for the [Eastern] Orthodox understanding of Orthodoxy. It will take time to undo the damage.”

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