Modern Orthodox Thinkers

From the Philokalia to the Present

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Andrew Louth
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , September
     383 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This brilliant book by an acclaimed scholar and theologian is a revised version of public lectures given by the author over the course of several years at the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Studies. Father Andrew Louth unfolds the story of Orthodox theology presenting “a history of Orthodox thinkers, rather than a history of Orthodox thought” (xiii). The Philokalia is a collection of Byzantine ascetic and mystical texts from the fourth to the fourteenth century. Its publication in 1782 in Venice and later appropriation in different cultures not only sets the time frame of the work, but also gives the author a constant point of reference, providing him with a guiding principle and approach to modern Orthodox theology through personal religious engagement and prayer. It can be said that while Louth is narrating the story about modern Orthodox theologians in his book, he is at the same time—less evidently perhaps—expounding his own theology. This is reflected in the very selection of personalities and themes as well as in his deeply personal interpretations and critical engagements with them.

The book is divided into twenty-one chapters dedicated to one, two, or sometimes a small group of thinkers. At first Louth presents the publication of the Philokalia as the recovery of a spiritual and theological tradition characterized by a return to the Fathers and an emphasis on inner prayer and the role of spiritual fatherhood. In this context he looks at such nineteenth-century Russian figures as Khomiakov, Kireevsky, and Solov’ev. Fathers Florensky and Bulgakov represent the so-called sophiological strand in the twentieth century. One has to mention Louth’s innovative approach to Bulgakov as a liturgical theologian. It is remarkable that he sets his overall reflections on Bulgakov against similar concerns expressed in Western theology by Barth, Rahner, and von Balthasar. The Western context is demonstrated and discussed in relation to many other Orthodox thinkers. Along with the theologians traditionally associated with the Paris School of Russian theology—Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Lossky, Fr George Florovsky, and Paul Evdokimov—Louth analyzes the less-frequently discussed St. Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris and Mirrha Lot-Borodin. Louth then turns to the thought of Dumitru Staniloae and St Justin (Popovic) who were vastly influential in their homelands, Romania and Serbia. In the following chapters the author demonstrates how theological ideas inspired by the Philokalia were spreading in the United States through the writings and activity of Fathers Alexandr Shmemann and John Meyendorff; in Greece through Father John Romanides, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Stelios Ramfos, Dimitris Koutroubis, and Christos Yannaras; in France through Olivier Clement and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; and in Britain and the English-speaking world through Philip Sherrard, Fr Sophrony Sakharov, Mother Thekla Sharf, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Most of the thinkers considered in the book were clergy, but there are quite a few laymen and women as well. However, in the penultimate chapter on theology in Russia under communism we do not find any women. Here one could have mentioned such prominent figures as Fr Bulgakov’s spiritual daughter Mother Elena (Kazmirchak-Polonskaya) (1902-1992), as well as Orthodox philosophers Tatiana Goricheva (born 1947), famous for her correspondence with Heidegger, and the very influential thinker and prolific writer Piama Gaidenko (born 1934).

Louth writes about these Orthodox thinkers while engaging with their thought, linking them to problems of our times. This makes the book deeply theological and thought-provoking. The strong personal stance of Modern Orthodox Thinkers is manifested among other things in the short biographical sketches of the theologians. This creates the feeling of multiple personal encounters.

It is challenging to embrace a vast amount of historical material such as this, and some minor inaccuracies have crept in. Two of them can be mentioned here. First, Louth writes that, having submitted his Master’s thesis in theology, Florensky “in May 1914 received the degree. It was a revised version of this thesis that was published later that year as The Pillar and Ground of the Truth” (29). In fact, however, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth had been published before Florensky defended his thesis at the Moscow Theological Academy. In order to receive the degree, Florensky had to omit part of his publication dedicated to the idea of Sophia. The situation was particularly ambiguous because public discussion had already started before the thesis defense. Another query might be raised regarding the election of the Russian Patriarch at the Moscow Synod of 1917/18 (Chapter 10). It is stated that Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky “received the largest number of the votes in the final ballot for the new patriarch at the 1917/18 synod, though in the end the bishops’ choice went to Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow” (144). It was not, in fact, the bishops’ choice that went to Metropolitan Tikhon, but the lot drawn by the saintly blind elder Aleksii of Zosimova Pustyn in front of the Vladimirskaya ikon of the Mother of God in the presence of the delegates of the synod.

Overall, the book is extremely relevant and its appearance is most timely. It makes a precious contribution to the current reassessment of the so called “common narrative” of Orthodox theology in the twentieth century opposing the two main strands: the sophiological and the neo- patristic. Louth’s analysis demonstrates the presence of a variety of theological currents in the thought of modern Orthodox thinkers in all their complexity and interconnection.

The book is highly recommended as a beautiful introduction to the world of modern Orthodox theology, as well as a rewarding and thought-provoking reading for experts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tikhon Vasilyev is a graduate student in the Theology Department at University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Louth is professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University, England, and visiting professor of Eastern Orthodox theology at the Amsterdam Centre of Eastern Orthodox Theology (ACEOT), in the Faculty of Theology, the Free University, Amsterdam. He is also a priest of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh (Moscow Patriarchate), serving the parish in Durham. His recent publications include Introducing Eastern Orthodox TheologyGreek East and Latin West, AD 681-1071Maximus the Confessor and The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition.



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