By Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, from his book "Empirical Dogmatics," edited for length and clarity.
Orthodox tradition differs immensely from non-Orthodox and other religious traditions. In this article we will examine this issue by taking examples from two sciences: astronomy and medicine.
First of all, it should be stressed once more that the Church’s tradition is the experience of the God-seeing saints, Prophets, Apostles and Fathers. They lived this experience by the revelation of God and conveyed it to their spiritual children, and it is recorded in their writings. Thus three factors are very closely linked: the saints who behold God; their illuminated nous, by means of which they share in the experience of revelation; and their writings, in which the experience is recorded in created words and concepts. The basic elements of the tradition are the glorified saints(glorified=theosis), who are the bearers of the tradition.
The Fathers of our Fathers in the Old Testament, the Prophets, had theosis without the human nature of Christ. Afterwards, the Apostles also had theosis, with the human nature of Christ. After Pentecost we have another kind of theosis with the experiences that they have after their initial theosis, because the same experience of Pentecost continues within the Church and has not come to an end. Given that the experience of Pentecost has not come to an end, the bishops, who have this experience, are led to the same experience and know what they are talking about.
Because of the continuity of this tradition, the Orthodox patristic tradition resembles modern biology, chemistry, astronomy and medical science. In this way, the tradition of the Church is continued empirically. What is this parallel experience? The fact that cures continue and people are cured. People continue to learn the truth from astronomy, medical science, and biology; similarly, in Orthodoxy, from the experience of purification, the experience of illumination, which is the cure of the human personality, and the experience of glorification (theosis), which is the telescope and microscope of Orthodox theology. This is why we believe that we are on the right path and are still within the tradition.
Those who behold God are like scientific astronomers, who examine the star-filled sky and discover stars that are invisible to the naked eye by using telescopes. Whatever they see they record in their writings. The saints do the same.
We find this holy tradition dotted here and there throughout the writings of the Fathers, but mainly in the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian, all his disciples and among those referred to as hesychasts. What is this tradition? It is extremely simple, as simple as can be. It is divine vision of the uncreated energy of God and guiding people on the basis of this experience. The vision of the inexpressible reality takes place by means of a special organ, the nous, which is illumined by the Holy Spirit. Those who behold God are in the state of illumination. They reach the state of glorification, participate in the Light and see the Light. In Your light we shall see light. On this point, they resemble astronomers who see stars that are invisible to the naked eye by using special instruments called telescopes. Also, anyone who wishes to confirm the observations of astronomers has to use the same instruments. This means that any Christian who wishes to verify the experience of the God-seeing saints has to acquire an illuminated nous.
When there are doubts concerning astronomical writings, we take telescopes and by means of telescopes we confirm the correct interpretation of the books concerning astronomy. One looks, another looks, a third one looks and so it goes on. And all those who check with telescopes, radio telescopes etc., say, "Ah! That is what those notes mean. Did you see it when you looked through the telescope? That is the explanation." And the correct interpretation continues down through the years, because there are people who see and know how to use telescopes and radio telescopes and the equipment with which they measure distance analogous with the speed of light—spectrographs, spectrograms—they even know how to measure material composition, they can even measure speed with them.
Astronomers, through the ages, are thus closely linked with telescopes and writings. In the same way, doctors are closely associated with equipment and operating rooms and with curing people. If, however, astronomers lose their telescopes and start to imagine stars or to speculate about them, they become astrologers. The same can happen to doctors, who, if they lose their equipment, become charlatans... In other words, if astronomers lose their telescopes and no longer know how to handle the various pieces of astronomical equipment, they are reduced to being astrologers instead of astronomers. Given that they have become astrologers, and the others have become sham doctors and pseudo-biologists and so on, are those who are no longer able to handle the scientific equipment of Orthodox theology astronomer-theologians or astrologer-theologians? In other words, true theologians are those who see God, who are like astronomers.
When, however, without their nous being illuminated, Orthodox theologians theologize by using speculation and their imagination instead, they turn into speculative thinkers and scholastics.
When the astronomer, who has turned into an astrologer because he does not have the right equipment but uses speculation, takes part in a conference of astronomers, his participation in the conference does not in itself convert him into a scientific astronomer. If astronomers forget about astronomical equipment and simply preserve the books about astronomy and misinterpretations begin, will they interpret the books about astronomy correctly, because they have gathered at a conference? Will the conference produce correct astronomy? Will it upgrade astrology to astronomy? Is it the conference that will achieve this? Or will it be a conference of astrologers?
The same can be observed with respect to doctors who are unable to use their instruments and equipment or operating-rooms in order to treat the sick. They are unable to cure people, and cannot be regarded as doctors merely because they attend medical congresses. Doctors have inherited the equipment of medical science, all the tools for surgical operations, from the past. We have X-ray equipment, hospitals, operating rooms, and so on. What if the doctors who know how to use all this equipment disappeared, and untrained folks who dabbled in practical medicine came in from the villages? And if the state made these untrained folks responsible for the universities and they taught the students and ended up being accepted by medical science, then they would start to be dangerous.
Let us suppose that doctors have reached the point of no longer knowing how to use these tools, but use them at random. If the radiologist graduated from the University of Thessaloniki in 1870, that radiologist does not know how to read X-rays; he thus makes bad diagnoses, the surgeon performs bad surgical operations, and so on. So instead of people being cured, 90% die and 10% are cured. Concurrently, let us suppose that in America, France, England, Switzerland and Germany, doctors attend medical schools equipped with the latest scientific knowledge. As such, 60% are cured within those geographical regions, whereby in Greece only 10% are cured. Well, if the Greek doctors have a conference will the success rate increase to 90% or 100%? What is the use of a conference of doctors who do not know medical science? What good does it do?
By analogy, the same happens with bishops who do not have the suitable equipment, an illuminated nous, when they participate in a council. They cannot be real theologians and they are unable to know the tradition. They are not illuminated simply because they take part in a council. Illumination comes first, it is the absolute prerequisite.
Let us raise a similar hypothesis. There is a bishop who has received his theological diploma, but would never have received it except that his Metropolitan continuously phoned up all his professors, whereas he deserved no passing grades at all. If he, together with seventy such bishops, gathers in a conference of bishops called a council, will they make correct decisions? Will the Holy Spirit descend upon them? Or is this a parallel situation with the aforementioned situations in all the sciences of astronomy and medicine? The hypothesis thus takes a rather apparent validity. Perhaps this reveals upon the reader a rather shocking situation in our days. The intent of my article is not to shock its readers; however, as a researcher and historian, when I undertake historical research that leads me into certain discoveries, I am obliged to inform you of the truth, irrespective of its "shock value."
From this point of view, if Orthodox bishops, who are disciples of those theologians who are not followers of the patristic tradition, ever gather in a council, will the fact that they are meeting together in a conference make them Fathers of the Church? And if we call the conference an Ecumenical Council, can it ever reach a correct decision?
Only if they copy holy Scripture and the patristic texts to the letter, without adding a word of their own, only then is there any hope of them reaching an Orthodox decision, only then. If, however, they add words that are not in holy Scripture and the patristic tradition, it is almost certain that they will produce a decision that is dogmatically incorrect. It is almost certain. Guaranteed!
Scientific astronomers have criteria in order to verify their conclusions. Of course there are books, but there are also telescopes that confirm their observations. The astrologers, who rely on speculation and imagination, have no criteria to separate which group of astrologers are genuine and which are not.
If there is a group of astrologers, do they have the right to denounce another group of astrologers? Can one group say, "We are better astrologers than the others," and the other group say, "We are better than you," and even a third one say, "No, we are better than both of you," and so on. Furthermore, can these group of astrologers "scientifically" argue among themselves? With what criteria?
This exact phenomenon happens in Orthodox theology as well. The God-seeing saints, like scientific astronomers, have secure criteria and, like true doctors, they have successes, because they use suitable instruments and are part of the Orthodox tradition. Heretics, by contrast, resemble astrologers who do not have secure criteria, as each one uses his own speculation, and they do not achieve any success, except by coincidence.
From true success, you can see that something is working correctly. Every science ought to have an aim, and whenever it successfully achieves its aim, it is a proper science which has judgment and knows what it is talking about.
I pose the question: Is theology the only science in which anyone can pick up a book by Bultmann and Cullmann ("contemporary" protestant theologians, Ed.) and say whatever he likes without any check? Should there not be some control in theological matters? Should anyone be able to say whatever he or she likes? I am suggesting that there must be some sort of check. Should such controls not exist, Christianity then, becomes as any other religion, where everyone believes according to his or her imagination.
If there is to be a scientific check on Orthodox theology, as there is in other positive sciences, the details should be described and put into practice, so that there will be sound foundations for the Orthodox tradition, as part of today’s world. If such foundations do not exist, and the assertions of the Orthodox cannot be checked, then it is imagination. Because when someone cannot get through the test, there is no tangible sign, nothing to show that the teaching of the Orthodox Church is correct. In such a case, what is the difference between Orthodox theology and the other religions in the world? Just as an Orthodox Christian thinks that he has the right to deny the authenticity of the various religions, in the same way, the other religions have the right to do the same from a scientific point of view.
The teaching of the Church is true, because it is successful, since it leads people to glorification and sanctity, and the confirmation of this experience is the sacred relics. This is where the value of the Orthodox tradition lies. If there is no scientific means of checking the teachings of the Orthodox Church, then one wonders how Orthodox theology differs from other religions. What is the difference? When correct methodology does not exist and speculation prevails instead, and when correct theology does not exist, therapeutic results are not achieved.
The value of the Orthodox tradition lies in the fact that it sanctifies man by uniting him with the God-man Christ, using Orthodox methodology. The Papal Christians recommend their followers to do good works in order to see God and be saved, so they have rejected the neptic-hesychastic tradition. The Protestants feel regenerated by God, so they do not have a therapeutic method. The Orthodox know that they need to be cured starting in this life by the grace of God and with their own corroboration, so that they may encounter God in a state of being cured, and this encounter may be Paradise for them, not Hell. This is what being cured means. In the Orthodox Church man reaches glorification and his body becomes a sacred relic, something that is not observed in other Confessions and religions. This confirms the truth of the Orthodox faith.
Every science is indeed judged by the end result, not just by the means. Suppose that a doctor begins to carry out a first-of-a-kind surgical operation that cures a patient, and then repeats the same method again, several times, with equal success. Other doctors, who could have once been critical of his technique, when confronted with repeated successes, alter their personal views. After all, if this new method was not a good one, how would it achieve so many successes?
In the Orthodox tradition those who see God—the Prophets, Apostles and saints—are closely associated with each other through their illuminated nous and their divinely inspired writings; and that is why people are cured. There are successful cures, people continue to be purified and sanctified, to reach illumination and glorification. Concurrently (and throughout the ages) the interpretation of divinely inspired writings requires divinely inspired commentators, who have the same illuminated nous and the same tradition as the divinely inspired writers of holy Scripture and the patristic books.
In the Orthodox Church we have both God-seeing saints, whose nous is illumined, and writings, so that holy Scripture is closely linked with holy Tradition. When the "astronomers" (God-seers) and the "telescopes" (illuminated nous and glorification—theosis) are lost, the writings are also misinterpreted. Then the astronomers turn into astrologers who speculate, and their conference becomes a conference of astrologers instead of astronomers...
The conclusion is that revelation is the manifestation of the Word to human beings, unincarnate in the Old Testament, incarnate in the New Testament. The Prophets, Apostles and saints are bearers of the revelation, the empirical theologians who behold God. The books of the Old and New Testaments, together with the writings of the Fathers, the dogmas and the whole life of the Church, are the living monuments of the revelation. Purification, illumination and glorification—theosis are the essence of the Orthodox tradition, which leads man to glorification, to participation in the mystery of Pentecost.