The Theologian as a Guarantor of an Orthodox Education

23 June 2014

The debate about the character and role of the theologian* goes back to the early nineteenth century, when various groups with new theological and philosophical ideas and new pedagogical theories of Western provenance attempted to alter and change the course of our spiritual tradition.

In the works of these theologians and philosophers – such as Farmakidis, Anthrakitis, Doukas, Gazis and Kaïris, amongst others – a foreign influence may often be discerned in the form of pedagogical models that the authors sought to introduce almost unaltered into Greece.1 The authors themselves, as genuine exponents of the Protestant ideal in the sphere of education, had their attention focused on the State and not on the Church.

Today, in an educational system that still bears strong traces of the influence of this period, the pedagogical training and role of the theologian in secondary education is often divested of the authentic Orthodox teaching tradition, with the result that an academic and Western type of educational model now prevails in schools. This is the humanist model of education which is centred on man as an independent being and focuses merely on man’s moral elevation and improvement. The type of education provided today must be transformed into an Orthodox education and this will happen only when it breaks free from moralistic and pietistic admonitions or exhortations and is given the only framework suitable for it, a patristic framework.


Unfortunately, in moments of human weakness or even ignorance of the weighty legacy that they bear, today’s theologians are possessed by feelings of spiritual inferiority because of certain circles that view traditional Orthodox theological education as obscurantist, theocratic and altogether remote from the needs of modern man and particularly today’s youth. Yet have any of the conditions relating to man’s salvation changed? Why should we abolish or alter our patristic tradition? In what way is the traditional character of Orthodoxy ‘obscurantist’ and in what way is today’s so-called ‘theology’ enlightened?2

All of these tendencies developed within the context of the atheistic intratheological character of Western theology and are foreign to Orthodox theological thought.

Very often theologians or teachers of religious education in Greece tend to place less emphasis on Orthodox faith and Gospel teaching, adapting them to the demands of modern alienated man in the belief that they will become more modern, approachable, human and intimate, as well as being more realistic, effective and communicative and, above all, more ‘scientific’. When a theologian’s sense of mission weakens, he ends up trying to provide whatever captivates or impresses the modern world, and he may even become an illustrious figure in the sphere of philology, philosophy, history or sociology, but he will not be an Orthodox theologian.

There is no more tragic figure than the theologian who is not ontologically devoted to the subject that he teaches. All his labours and efforts are bound to fail. What is more, the activity of an indifferent or fearful or even atheistic theologian can be regarded as dangerous, since it obstructs the Church’s mission of salvation in the world.3

The theologian should act as a force of resistance against the utilitarian and humanist form of education introduced from the West, as a vehicle of a sound and correct form of teaching4, which is likely to displease his educational peers and to conflict with the desires5 of a large section of contemporary society, confirming St. Paul’s words: ‘For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths’ (2 Timothy 4: 3-4). However, it should be borne in mind that a wound will react to medicine and any abscess, if it is to be removed, requires a well sterilised scalpel. This, moreover, should be the role of education. A painless education is no education at all.

In our attempt to do this we should also regard ascetic practice, hardships and patience as an integral part of our lives, and arm ourselvcs with these things in order to achieve our mission.6

Such a struggle should only be undertaken by those who are determined and ready to do so, and not those who have been led into such an ‘adventure’ by the weaknesses of the higher education admission system or, in a few extreme cases, by serving the subversive and corruptive aims of the members of certain circles.

It could even be said that consciously choosing to work as a theologian constitutes a response to a divine calling.7 The possibility of God intervening in the life of an individual also exists in those cases where a person feels drawn to serve as a theologian.

I say this without wishing to boast or to convey the impression that theologians are especially favoured by God’s grace. A theologian is not simply someone who possesses theological knowledge or a philosophical turn of mind but someone who educates young people by imbuing them with the Orthodox ethos, a life of holiness. The theologian as a guarantor of an Orthodox education and the theologian as a teaching figure are two aspects of the same subject. A theologian is a guarantor of an Orthodox education only when he transmits an Orthodox ethos.

Educational psychology lends a special value to the intervention of the teacher in the spiritual edification of young people. Professor of Educational Psychology Christos Frangos points out that all of the studies carried out to date show us that the teaching act should be a form of life that feeds life.8 More specifically, in the case of an inspired theologian, the RE lesson represents a transfusion of his blood, a transfusion of life, and does not merely develop the moral character of his pupils but also plays a decisive role in developing their self-awareness. It is clear that it is inconceivable and impossible for a person to teach if that person has not already been schooled in the Orthodox tradition. And a schooling in the Orthodox tradition is not an intellectual act but an existential experience.

The problem of education is a purely ontological matter, one concerning human life and death. The first move in this educational process is made not by man but by Christ Himself.9 This is why we understand the theologian to be primarily a vehicle of this Christ-centred education or, in other words, a vehicle of the Orthodox ethos, and to a lesser extent a source of knowledge and information. Consequently, as a vehicle of the Orthodox ethos, the theologian or RE teacher is also a guarantor of an Orthodox education in the place where he works.

Moreover, the teaching activities of the Lord Himself were a form of life and His life is a source of nourishment for our own.10 The message that we need to imitate Christ in order to enjoy the life-giving benefits of Christian teaching occurs frequently in the Bible. St. Paul teaches and by the example of his own life urges us to ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11: 1).

Our patristic tradition also contains and expresses such a notion. St. Isaac of Nineveh, with his clarity of thought achieved through ascetic practice and spiritual vigilance, points out that, just as a picture of water cannot quench thirst, neither can a teacher instil virtue in others if he does not possess it himself.11

Father Justin Popovich says that the lives of the saints are simply the life of our Saviour Jesus Christ repeated in the life of each individual saint in a slightly different way. The most precious form of life is that of Christ extended through the lives of the saints, the life of the Word made Flesh, the Theanthropos Christ, who became man precisely for this reason: to give us and impart to us as a man His divine life, in order to sanctify and immortalise and eternalise our human life on earth through His life as God.12

Consequently, only when words are accompanied by actions, when faith is lived and when the Christ taught in the classroom shines in the face and life of the theologian will pupils be convinced, inspired and properly instructed.

In this connection I will risk drawing the ‘blasphemous conclusion’ – and I hope I will not be misunderstood for doing so – that the theologian should be a type13 and image of Christ in the day-to-day life of the school.14

Young people, too, want their teacher to be a model of Christian living and, despite the fact that, as was mentioned earlier, the special character of his mission initially seems strange to them, they understand it and secretly hope that he will prove to be worthy of it. This relationship of repulsion and attraction ought to be understood in the light of the position of modern man. When a theologian fails to radiate the grace and redemptive joy of the truths that he teaches, he disappoints his pupils and this has negative consequences for they will form the impression that the things their teacher is teaching them are unrealistic and impossible to apply.15

Concentrating on tradition and faithfully applying the word of the Gospels does not deprive the theologian of the right to be modern and to communicate with young people. A modern teacher is one who has answers and can suggest solutions or ways out of contemporary problems, while an old-fashioned one is one who creates such problems or cannot solve them. A modern and realistic teacher is one who can clearly see the value and aim of life and the meaning and position of human existence, and puts forward the demand that it should be redefined.

Today the valuable mission of the theologian has acquired special significance due to the fact that the age in which we live is characterised by a lack of goals and a loss of the meaning of life. In an extremely utilitarian world16, in which everything is judged and determined by the economic factor, the Orthodox theologian, as a vehicle of the Orthodox ethos and a guarantor of Orthodox education works on behalf of man’s salvation. He moulds the ‘new man’, the man created ‘in the likeness of God’. He fashions the ‘sublime change’. He creates saints, the perfect type of man, the ‘godlike’ and ‘Christified’ man, the transformed and redeemed man, the ‘earthly angel and heavenly man’.17

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, it should be emphasised that schools are not called upon, nor are they able, to replace the work of the Church. Schools do not save; only the Church saves. Schools can provide the ‘whys’ of faith but the ‘hows’ of salvation are provided by a church education. The theologian can genuinely provide the ‘whys’ in his teaching and talk about the ‘hows’ from his own personal experience. The Church should not lose the opportunity that it has to provide an Orthodox education through the theologians that belong to and form an organic part of it. If he wants to retain his title as a guarantor of an Orthodox education, the theologian should teach and educate his pupils with a Christocentric and Church-centred approach, for the meaning of a God-based education can be summed up in these two terms. It is the duty and obligation of the theologian to act as a link between the parish and the school. He should act as an extension of the parish in the school and of the school in the parish. Consequently, the theologian should act as a magnet drawing young people to the Body of the Church and its mystical life, and as a witness to the Divine Revelation.18

This witness should involve providing the pupils with an authentic picture of Jesus Christ19, and the figure of Christ should be both the starting-point and central reference point in the reality of the teaching experience.

Both theologians and priests should work harmoniously together towards this end under the spiritual and pastoral guidance of the local bishop. The theologian should not forget that in order to play an effective role in the pluralistic work environment of the school he needs to motivate and inspire pupils to participate in worship and the mystical life of the Church, to become an organic member of the Church and contribute to society. However, in order to inspire his pupils the theologian needs to have already formed a deep pedagogical relationship, a mystical relationship, with them. The soul of the relationship between a theologian and his pupils is the relationship with the soul. The pedagogical soul of this relationship rests on the authentic unselfish type of love found in the Gospels, which forms the heart of Christian and patristic teaching, and on the Orthodox ethos which springs from this. Love draws us towards other people and without this impulse no relationships can be formed. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that is born in the heart of a person who has struggled long and hard to live a Christian life. True pedagogical love sprouts up in soil that has been ploughed deeply by ascetic practice and fertilised by the tortured conscience of an educator whose flesh bears numerous stigmata of death but who never ceases to look forward to and place his hope in the redemptive act of the Resurrection.20

In order to possess an all-embracing love the theologian should have a fully integrated personality and possess all the characteristics of spiritual maturity. He should show discernment and place special value on the uniqueness of the human soul. Indeed, the logic of this wondrous reality belongs to the sphere of the mystical life, as does in many cases its interpretation.21 The love that should distinguish the theologian creates genuine and sincere relationships. The theologian should never enter into a pedagogical relationship with a biased attitude or a desire to maintain a neutral stance; he should enter into it with a positive attitude towards the other person. It should be pointed out here that having a positive predisposition towards one’s pupils and accepting them does not mean that one accepts or approves of their erroneous ideas.

It is obvious that theologians are not metaphysical beings – and I would not wish to present them as such – but a tragic presence in the educational sphere. They are the womb in which man may be reborn or refashioned in the likeness of Christ – a rebirth or refashioning that requires pain and tears. Theologians do not teach but suffer like women in labour who endure great pain to bring a new individual into the world, as St. Paul himself would have described it.

We ought to accept the fact that theologians are in a constant and tragic struggle with God, men and themselves. Through this struggle they are either vindicated or meet with total failure. Let us pray that, through the grace of the Holy Trinity and the prayers of our Holy Fathers, at the end of our careers, or rather our lives, we may be able to repeat St. Paul’s words: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4: 7).


In this article the term ‘theologian’ (Gk. theologos) refers more specifically to a teacher of religious education in modern Greek secondary schools (usually a graduate in theology).


1. N. Markantonis, Didaktiki ton theologikon mathimaton (The didactics of theology lessons), Athens 1988, p. 8.

2. K. Giokarinis, ‘Oi prooptikes tou mathimatos ton thriskeftikon’ (The prospects of the RE lesson), Koinonia, No. 2, 1993, p. 191.

3. Paper delivered by Father George Metallinos at the theological seminar held at the Ziridis Educational Foundation on 4-5 March 1994.

4. 2 Timothy 3: 3.

5. 2 Timothy 3: 4.

6. 2 Timothy 4: 5-6.

7. S. Koulomzin, To Orthodoxo bioma kai ta paidia mas (The Orthodox experience and our children), Athens 1989, p. 159.

8. C. Frangos, Psychopaidagogiki (Educational Psychology), Athens 1984, p. 112.

9. J. Panagopoulos, ‘To ithos tis kata Christon paideias’ (The ethos of a Christ-centred education), Koinonia, No. 4, 1990, p. 483.

10. A. Zefkilis, I epoptikotita tis parabolikis didaskalias tou Iisou (The communicative power of Jesus’ parabolic teaching), Athens 1990, p. 8.

11. Abba Isaak tou Syrou. Psegmata chrysou apo tous askitikous logous tou (Abba Isaac the Syrian: pearls of wisdom from his ascetic discourses), Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Aigio, 1990, p. 5.

12. Monk Moses, Eirini ton areton kai tarachi ton pathon (The peace of the virtues and turmoil of the passions), p. 101.

13. 1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews 8: 5; John Chrysostom, PG 62.273.

14. J. Kongoulis, O theologos kathigitis kai i epistimoniki kai psychopaidagogiki tou katartisi (The RE teacher and his scientific and educational psychological training), Thessaloniki 1993, pp. 21-22.

15. John Chrysostom, PG 62.273.

16. C. Delikonstantis, ‘Synchroni paidagogiki kai paideia Orthodoxias’ (Contemporary pedagogics and Orthodox education) in I Orthodoxia os protasi zois (Orthodoxy as a life proposition). Athens 1993, p. 248.

17. M. Michailidis, ‘Christianiki pisti kai agogi’ (Christian faith and education), Koinonia, No. 3, 1984, p. 408.

18. Father George Florovsky, Themata orthodoxou theologias (Issues of Orthodox Theology), Athens 1989, p. 51.

19. C. Grigoriadis, I theologiki kai anthropologiki theorisi tis agogis (The theological and anthropological view of education), Athens 1975, p. 37.

20. A. Kosmopoulos, ‘I didaktiki prosfora (i didaskalia tou mathimatos ton thriskeftikon) os schesi (ekklisiastiki kai latreftiki) tis iparxis’ (The teacher’s contribution [the teaching of RE] as an [ecclesiastical and devotional] existential relationship), Koinonia, No. 1, 1985, p. 49.

21. Ibid.