With Boldness and Without Condemnation- By: Fr. John Behr

Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary

Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir

At the center of the Divine Liturgy, before we approach the cup to taste and see that the Lord is good, receiving his body and blood – becoming his body – we entreat God that we may dare, with boldness and without condemnation, call upon God as Father and say the prayer given to us by the Lord himself. To be able to call on God, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of heaven and earth, as “Father” is central to our identity as Christians: converted by the good news, putting on the identity of Christ by taking up the cross and being born again, receiving the Spirit of the Father through Christ – we are in this way able to call God our own Father – abba even – so transcending the boundaries our familial and social ties to become members of the household of God.

It is not surprising that the prayer which is said with this transcendent boldness was reserved, in the early centuries, for those who had committed themselves to Christ, revealed only in the last stages of catechism when it was handed down, traditioned, together with the rule of faith, as a “concise statement of the Gospel” (Tertullian). If this prayer expresses our identity as Christians, then so too does the boldness that we are granted; and it is a boldness not only to approach God in this manner, but one that extends to our whole bearing as Christians.

The word that is used in this entreaty, parrhesia expresses not just daring or temerity, but confidence and frankness, a freedom of approach granted by God towards himself, and in turn the right and the duty to speak the truth, with all the risks and dangers that this will entail in worldly terms. It is manifest in the way that the prophets stood before God and spoke to the religious and earthly leaders. It is granted to the martyrs as they made their confession, in word and blood, before God and the earthly rulers. It is also manifest in the way in which the apologists, such as St Justin the Philosopher, could approach the world, for instance, seeing Christ at work in the peace established by the Roman Emperors, and even seeing the form of the cross in the banners held high by the army, or claiming that “whatever things were rightly said among all people, are the property of us Christians” (2Apol 13.4). Such boldness is also manifest in the way in which a bishop, such as St John Chrysostom, could address a harsh word to the imperial family, when they tried to manipulate the teaching and order of their church to suit their own desires. And it is also manifest in the way that a simple monk, such as St Maximus, could stand before both imperial and ecclesiastical authorities, refusing to be in communion with the archbishop of Constantinople for his betrayal of the true faith.

Each of these examples of boldness were “without condemnation” by God, if not by men. They are remembered, indeed, as great saints, inspired by a God-given boldness which sustained them through all the trials, torture and, in some cases death, that they suffered at the hands of men. One further aspect of the words “without condemnation” is exemplified in St Maximus; when asked whether by refusing communion with the see of Constantinople he thought that he alone would be saved and all others lost, St Maximus answered: “The three young men who did not adore the idol when all others adored it, did not condemn anyone … Thus it is with me as well; may God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I alone am saved” (Trial 6). Rather than indignation and condemnation (as is all too common today), a godly parrhesia requires soberness, the acceptance of the hardship and tribulation that will come to those who speak God’s truth, and from which it is spoken, and a reluctance to condemn anyone. Such is the character of Christian existence in this world.

Such boldness, I would suggest, is also something that has characterized St Vladimir’s Seminary from the beginning. It is already manifest in the report by Metropolitan Leontius, then Fr Leonid Turkevich, Dean of the Seminary in Tenafly NJ, to Metropolitan Platon, regarding theological education in America (SVTQ 9.2 [1965]). In a visionary manner, with a truly prophetic boldness, Met Leonty outlined the needs and character of theological formation in the new world, a world in which “the American Orthodox Church [would be] as the avant-garde of Orthodoxy in general and the theological school of the local Church [would be] as a serious avant-post of Orthodoxy” (p.61). To carry out this high role, Met Leontius insisted, it was necessary that there be, in America, theological scholarship of the highest level; a priest serving in this country, he asserted, “does not have the right to refuse a decent, basic answer about the significance, aims and problems of the Church, as well as about the true relationship of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodoxy” (p.62). Without this “serious theological foundation,” he commented, our work “will always be likened to a sectarian game” (ibid). With even greater insight, Met Leontius further insisted that such education would have to transcend the opposition between pastoral and academic, practical and scholarly, uniting both of these necessary activities to provide an “apostolic type” of formation (p.65). If there is a spiritual charter of our work at St Vladimir’s Seminary, it is these bold words of Met Leontius of blessed memory.

This bold vision came to fruition in 1938, with the opening of St Vladimir’s Seminary as a graduate school of theology in NY, and our sister school, St Tikhon’s, in PA. From the very beginning, SVS was committed both to serving all the Orthodox Churches in this country, so acting as an agent for unity, and also to academic excellence, which was rewarded in 1948, when it was granted the status of an Academy by the Synod, and a Provisional Charter, followed by an Absolute Charter (1953), by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. It was, again, with boldness that the Metropolitan and Trustees, moved the Seminary from its apartments on the upper west side to its present location here in Yonkers; and this boldness has continued more recently by building this fine library and administration building and then the lakeside married student apartments.

This mission of the school could only succeed, as it has done, with these bold initiatives being accompanied by theologians willing to address the Church and the world in an equally bold manner. The Deans and faculty of St Vladimir’s have indeed stood at the avant-garde of Orthodox theology as Met Leonty desired. Continuing the best traditions of theological scholarship from nineteenth-century Russia, émigré theologians continued the “return to the Fathers” in the West, especially at St Sergius Institute in Paris, and so learnt to articulate Orthodox theology from the ground up, free from the pseudomorphosis of an earlier school-book approach. Fr Georges Florovsky and later Fr John Meyendorff wrote and spoke eloquently of this reappropriation of the patristic heritage, insisting both that behind the patristic mind must lie a scriptural mind and that theology must always address the existential issues of the day. Through their labors, we have come to see that the authentic Orthodox tradition is never merely repetition, but a creative fidelity. Likewise Fr Alexander Schmemann worked tirelessly to reinvigorate the liturgical life of the Church, to rouse the spiritual life of the faithful from the all-pervasive influence of secularism, and to resolve the canonical crisis of the Church in this country. Numerous others also labored tirelessly in this work: common to them all was the conviction that in order to manifest the Church of Christ here and now, we must boldly draw from the tradition, exercising, to the fullest measure that we are able, our hearts and minds with a godly zeal for the truth. As we look back on the last century it is hard to overstate the impact that such boldness has had on the life of the Church and the expression of her theology. It is an awe-inspiring legacy; we have moved far, and there can be no going back, nor can we stand still – we must, as pilgrims in the world, always continue moving on.

And so it is, again with boldness, that last November the president and trustees took an unprecedented step in appointing two leaders of the seminary to fulfill the position previously held by one person. St Vladimir’s Seminary has grown now to such an extent that such a move is necessary if all aspects of Seminary life are to excel: more energy and attention can now be given to the full scope of what it means to be a residential, academic community, from the liturgical life centered in the chapel to care for the physical fabric of the campus, from the smooth running of the academic programs to the cultivation of true community of students, staff and faculty, and from maintaining St Vladimir’s place as a beacon of Orthodox theological scholarship to the ever-present needs to raise funds for its mission. This necessary step is also, in turn, a mark of the greatness of our former deans – Frs Thomas Hopko and John Erickson – who worked tirelessly and selflessly in all these areas – and behind them, with patience, sacrifice and support, their wives Anne and Helen.

It is also with boldness that this semester our faculty have begun not a revised, but a completely new M.Div. curriculum. This is the result of many years of their work – consulting with hierarchs, alumni (and current students), and theological and educational leaders – and countless hours of painstaking labor by our new associate dean for academic affairs, Dr John Barnet. This new semester began with a new daily and weekly schedule – a new focused setting for academic programs in the mornings, and a new place for liturgical practice in the afternoons; a new programs of events on Fridays; a new internship program for the third year; and integrating seminars each semester, bringing the whole package together to bear upon the continuous formation of our students. Also being offered for the first time this year is a three-year program for the spouses of our students, preparing them spiritually and intellectually for their life ahead. In the months and years to come, we will be announcing a number of new programs and activities, and other exciting developments.

It is, therefore, with boldness that we step out firmly into this new century. Yet real work, as ever, still lies ahead: the task faced by our predecessors –speaking God’s truth in their own context, and conveying this in the formation of those who were entrusted to them – continues today. The same task, yet a vastly different landscape – intellectually, culturally, spiritually and ecclesially. These changes are manifest, analyzed and described in many different ways:

The melting pot of cultures and races that was twentieth-century American society has become a multicultural coexistence of diverse cultural communities, each connected with parallel communities throughout an ever-shrinking world; the rise of Islam in the West, and the decline of Christianity in the West: such socio-geographic changes have made the questions not only about diaspora and the quest for ecclesial unity, but also the very place of Christianity and its witness, much more complex, in ways that could not even have been imagined a few decades ago.

The economical impact of globalization, along with a whole host of other factors, have effectively made the rich richer and the poor poorer; we have become a consumer society where every delicacy or specialty from all over the world is almost instantly available to us, through the dazzling array of opportunities provided by a metropolis like New York, or to the privileged anywhere, through the even more bewildering array provided by the web; yet at the same time others have no food or water, adequate clothing or housing; our consumption is consuming us, and directly or indirectly harming others (St John Chrysostom would surely have had some harsh words to say to us).

We are also now all feeling the effects of our consumption on the environment; in a manner that only a few took seriously only a few decades ago. Questions of climate change and the sustainability of our affluent life-styles are ones we cannot afford to ignore any longer; it can no longer be dismissed as a politically driven agenda, it is a question of human existence and responsibility in this gift of God’s creation. (Fr Chad will speak about the “greening” of SVS Seminary tomorrow?)

The “culture wars” which have been waged in American society and politics with increasing intensity over recent years have migrated into Church life with a most inappropriate ferocity: too many discussions take place in a heated atmosphere abounding with polemical epithets and caricatures of others. The profound reflection which was given in the last century into discerning the authentic meaning of “tradition” – remaining faithful to the Gospel in an ever-changing cultural context as we await our Lord and Savior – is too often eclipsed by adherence to the cultural context itself, substituting the symbol for the thing symbolized: as if the truth of the Gospel were directly equated with any number of culturally situation expressions.

One final effect of all these transitions should also be noted, and that is the one often described as the end of modernity and the dawn of post-modernity: in this world of increasing globalization, the shrinking of the world so that all cultures, all knowledge, all values come to be mixed up together, all the shared great and universal truths that marked civilized modern countries as enlightened, are now under challenge. Many would claim that there is no objective truth; no certain single narrative of history, or a meta-narrative of progress and enlightenment; and so no way out of a relativist position, in which my truth is fine for me, and yours for you; that, as all truth is subjective and therefore relative, we cannot impose our own set of values and beliefs on others. The world in which we knew that God was in the heavens and reason ruled over the earth (and, one might add, religion assigned a particularly demarcated place – fulfilling certain rights and duties on Sundays, and, for the particularly pious, on other days as well) – this has now been deconstructed, a remnant of the unenlightened dark ages. And, not surprisingly, this leaves many feeling distinctly uncomfortable, adding fuel to the culture-war polemics and importing them into the church.

Such are some aspects of the world in which we find ourselves in today; there are many others, and many other ways of analyzing them – which itself bears witness to the complexity of our situation.

Our first task, clearly, is to acknowledge the complexity of our contemporary context. The great Orthodox cultures of the past, whilst undergoing continual change, projected an image of stability, eternity and immobility: the way things are, is the way they always have been and will continue to be so. Our liturgical taste of the heavenly kingdom is so palpable and tangible, that we tend to be oblivious to our contemporary reality until moments of great crisis occur, and then we too often react by clinging ever more trenchantly to that which is familiar, rather than imitating the faith of Abraham following the Word of God into foreign territory. The fathers warned about the dangers of delusion, not only with regard to our own passions, but also with respect to not discerning properly the times in which we live. I had the occasion to be in London a couple of times this past summer. In the underground system there (the subway), whenever the train stops at a station a voice sounds out saying: “Mind the Gap!” These are words, I suggest, that we should take to heart: mind the gap between the world we imagine we live in, in which our own problems loom largest, and the world in which we do live, with all the complex problems mentioned earlier, in which we all have a part; mind the gap between the way we speak about the Church, the one holy, catholic and apostolic reality which we know and in which we live, and the pitiful way that we all-too-often appear to others, between the way in which we theorize about the Church and her unity, and the ways in which we are in fact the one, united Church today, despite all our failings and disunity; and perhaps most importantly, mind the gap when we claim to speak of truth, the gap between the truth himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, and whatever other criteria we may be employing to determine what is true, between theology as “the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1.13) and theology as the patter of familiar words.

To discern the times and acknowledge our situation requires courage – boldness again. But if this is indeed the reality of our context, there is nothing to fear: fear comes about when we perceive only the crises, confusion and chaos, not understanding that this is the arena in which God works, strength being made perfect in weakness, light shining in darkness, life coming about through death. As Rufus Flügge put it, “Im chaos gibt est möglichkeiten” – “in chaos there is possibility”! The intellectual chaos of post-modernity, I would suggest, in fact provides us with an occasion for deepening our faith and being clearer about how it is that we make our confession as Christians. If we are unsettled because it seems that post-modernism has dissolved all the great truths, we need to ask what were these truths and on what were they based? And we will find, I would argue, that what has been dismantled is not so much the Christian faith, and its basis in the apostolic preaching, but rather the wholesale confidence of the Enlightenment and modernity in human reason and the scientific method – a belief that all knowledge is within the grasp of human reason, a confidence that contrasted itself with the earlier pre-critical, pre-modern outlook of the so-called Dark Ages. The question, ultimately, is what is our first principle, our starting point, the cornerstone upon which everything depends?

The Fathers, following the Greek Philosophers, knew very well that every system of knowledge depends on a first principle, a starting point for thought, which is accepted by faith, for any attempt to prove it can only be done by recourse to other principles, leading to an infinite regress. For Christians, the only starting point is, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ, not judged to be true by some other criterion, but the Truth himself. In today’s world (where there are many different figures of Christ presented), and most appropriately as we today celebrate the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, we also need to be more explicit: the Christ with whom we are concerned is specifically the crucified and exalted Lord, known to us, following the apostles and with the guidance of the Spirit, through the opening of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread – the continual meditation on the words of life and participation in the school of liturgy.

Responding to our contemporary situation by being clearer about our first principle, we will also be able to work towards the reintegration of the discipline of theology and theological education. Over the last centuries, the study of theology has become increasingly fragmented into a number of different areas of specialization, each with its own, usually historically-oriented concerns and methods, each increasingly isolated from the others, with no clear indication for students either of their interconnectedness or their importance. The formative process of integration is left to students outside the classroom, and they soon discover, especially when they begin their ministry, the dispensability of the academic subjects they studied. Attempts to remedy this plight by trying to translate academic theory into pastoral applications or by emphasizing the supposedly “pastoral” side of priestly formation, mistakes the symptom for the cause, setting up a false dichotomy between theory and practice, academic study and priestly formation, with the one to be endured in the classroom and then left behind, and the other to be acquired in spite of the academic study of theology. What is needed, rather, is a renewed sense of how each area of study is properly theological, belonging together in the unified discipline of theology – theology not simply as information about the past, but as the transforming Word of God today.

If we are to be able to offer a good account of our faith, as directed by the apostle, then this must continue to be done with the highest level of scholarship. Only by knowing not only the Scriptures themselves, but also what others are saying about Scripture, will we be able to appreciate any insights they offer and be able to speak to them in turn. Only by knowing not only the Typikon but also how and why it has come to be as we have it, will we be able to ensure that the continuity of our worship lies not merely in the outward forms but in the one that we encounter there. Only by thinking through what the Fathers have written and the Councils decreed, with all the insights offered by modern scholarship, can we not simply repeat what was said, but speak as they did. Only if we are clear about how theology, with all its different fields, is not simply words about God, but the Word of God addressed to us and through us today, can we overcome the false dichotomies that abound and provide a properly integrated theological education for our students.

This requires boldness; it requires the boldness of openness as exemplified by an apologist such as St Justin the Philosopher, mentioned earlier; and it also requires the boldness of the martyrs, for even if we do not suffer persecution for this vision as they did, it certainly entails taking up the cross and dying to our own agendas. And, as with the example of St Maximus mentioned earlier, it can only be accomplished without condemnation of others. To live up to the bold vision of Met Leontius requires that we, both teachers and students, “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4.15), without resorting to polemical caricatures or ad hominem attacks, speaking instead courteously and soberly about the content of the matter in hand, willing to examine each and every issue openly and fully, to receive criticism gladly, becoming ever wiser (Prov 9.8-9), and to change our minds when intellectual and spiritual honesty compels. Such a community of students of theology is what St Vladimir’s has been and is called to be. The task remains ahead, the work is still to be done. May God grant that we make take this road with boldness and without condemnation.


Inaugural Address as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary: Sep. 14th, 2007.
By: Fr. John Behr

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1 Response to “With Boldness and Without Condemnation- By: Fr. John Behr”


  1. 1 Ioann October 13, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    “Avante Garde” is surely just an euphemism for “Renovationism.”

    Old news.

    Bad news for the OCA.


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