What follows is my translation of an excerpt from a remarkable interview given by Aleksei Ivanovich Sidorov to Hieromonk Adrian (Pashin) on March 30, 2009. Dr. Sidorov, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, is one of the leading patristic scholars in Russia.
Hieromonk Adrian: What, for you, is theology? How does it relate to science [scholarship]? May it be called a science?
A. I. Sidorov: Everyone knows the expression of Evagrius Ponticus: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian." Moreover, I always refer my students to the first “Theological Discourse” of St Gregory the Theologian, which is well known to all of us. I think in general that the notion of theologian is a great title. It is no accident that in our Church it has been conferred to all of three saints. For me the true theologians are men of prayer, ascetics, elders, true monks. For they are not only the ideals of holiness, but also the exponents of authentic theology. Therefore I, a layman, love monasticism, although I’ve seen plenty of “pseudo-monks.” When the question arose of which degree to confer me – doctor of theology or doctor of Church history -– I insisted that I be conferred the degree of doctor of Church history.
I recently spent time on Athos for the first time in my sixty-some years. There I met the now-persecuted superior of the Vatopedi Monastery, Archimandrite Ephraim. He astounded me with his remarkable gift of grace-filled prayer – a gift which illumined his entire personality. When we were parting, Fr Ephraim asked me: “And who are you?” I said that I teach patrology. Then he looked at me, smiling slightly, and said: “That means you’re a theologian.” “No, not at all,” I answered, “I’m not a theologian! Theologians are you who are living here.” With these words I expressed my sincere conviction. Therefore, to speak openly, everything in me protests when I hear trite words about theological science. They somehow turn it into small change. Yes, theology is a science. But remember, as we said earlier, that monasticism is the “science of sciences.” If we take the given expression in these terms, then we can also say about theology that it is the “science of sciences.” Of course, all of us who “study theology” must posses a certain proficiency, since these studies require certain essential skills. But far from all those who “study theology” are in fact theologians.
If we turn to patrology, then we can say in a certain defined sense that it is a science that stands on the junction of theology, Church history, apologetics, philosophy, and philology, not to mention other disciplines. But it cannot be reduced to any one of these. One can put forward one remarkable fact. In 2008 The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (a massive volume of over 1,000 pages) was released. Here it is established that in contemporary western scholarship (not only Protestant, but also Catholic) there exists the tendency to replace the term “patristics” with the notion of “early Christian studies.” At a meeting of the North American Patristics Society its president, [Charles] Kannengiesser (a well known Catholic scholar), even gave a paper entitled “Bye, Bye Patristics.” What is the meaning of this change of terminology? It’s fairly obvious. For many western scholars the term “patrology,” or “patristics,” has become odious, because it is very ecclesiastical and involves too much of an “orthodox” association. The expression “early Christian studies” allows a fairly free relationship with the “material.” Such a tendency strikes me as extraordinarily dangerous, for patrology could then be reduced to the level of a simple secular science.
Of course, as the saying goes, “you can’t throw a kerchief over every mouth.” Secular scholarship, naturally, can study the works of the Holy Fathers and ecclesiastical writers within its sphere of activity. My university classmate Aleksandr Arnoldovich Stoliarov taught a class on patristics at the department of philology at Moscow State University, examining the works of the Fathers as landmarks of the history of philosophical thought. Right now at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Science there are several specialists in the study of patristics as a philosophical discipline. I once read a German scholar (if my memory serves, his surname was Langrebeck), who in one long article demonstrated the possibility of studying these works as objects of classical philology. I can say that before my “churching” I myself took such an approach. Now, it goes without saying, this seems to me not only a Procrustean bed, but also helplessly naïve. It’s as if a man tried to describe a meal in a restaurant based only on a menu. For patrology is a science of experience, as is theology in general. That spiritual experience which is a necessary condition (conditio sine qua non) of the study of patrology cannot be acquired outside the Orthodox Church and its Mysteries. Of course, knowledge and history, and philosophy, and philology are necessary for this. But, essentially, these are only instrumental for patrology, like a plane and smoothing-plane and the like for a carpenter. However, a carpenter is not a plane or a smoothing-plane. Therefore, philology, for instance, however respected and necessary for patrology that it may be, cannot replace the latter. In my opinion, “philological” patrology poses a serious risk – as does, for example, its “philosophication.” Someone who reads and studies the Holy Fathers is still not a patrologist, even if he knows Greek or Latin perfectly, or modern languages for that matter. He can study them as he would the works of Homer, Plato, or the neo-Platonists. A patrologist is someone who, in the first place, strives synergistically with the grace of God to transform himself, striving to live according to the image of the Holy Fathers. He cannot be a non-Church person or a “near-Church” person, and therefore it goes without saying that for him such writers as, for example, Barlaam or Akindynos, however talented they may appear to be at first glance, cannot be put on the same level as St Gregory Palamas. Only scholars who stand outside the Orthodox Church can suggest that these opponents of the saint are first-class thinkers and that he [St Gregory] is “mediocre” or only repeats the “patristic rudiments.” I cannot call such scholars patrologists. It follows from all the above that I’m deeply convinced that a deep “philologizing” or “philosophizing” of patrology is simply an attempt to “de-Church” it.
Sometimes students ask: “Well, then, Aleksei Ivanovich, but must one still study languages?” I tell them: “To whom are you saying this? Yes, of course, study, work hard!” One simply needs to remember clearly for what one is studying. The means can never turn into the end and, as was said earlier, one mustn't put the cart in front of the horse. And one must remember that a philologist-classicist is not yet a patrologist.I'd suggest reading On Theologians by St John of Shanghai and San Francisco as a good companion piece.