I've previously offered two excerpts (one, two) from an interview with one of my living theological heroes, Professor A. I. Sidorov. I now offer the complete translation, in two parts, of a new interview with Dr Sidorov. My thanks go out to Natalia Mikhaylova for thoroughly vetting the translation, and to Isaac (Gerald) Herrin for proofing it. The interview was conducted May 21, 2010 by Vyacheslav Golzow, a fourth-year seminarian at Sretensky Theological Seminary.
Patrology is the Vital Life of the Church
Aleksei Ivanovich Sidorov is a doctor of church history and a professor of the Moscow Theological Academy and the Sretensky Theological Seminary. Born in 1944, in 1975 he graduated from the historical faculty of Moscow State University in the department of the history of the ancient world, and completed the degree of aspirant from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of General History. A. I. Sidorov has published ten books, among which are The Works of St Maximus the Confessor: Theology and Ascetic Tracts; The Works of Abba Evagrius: Ascetic and Theological Tracts; Blessed Theodorit of Cyprus: History of the Lovers of God; Course of Patrology: The Emergence of Church Letters, and more than 100 scholarly articles.
– Aleksei Ivanovich, please tell us what patrology is and when it arose.
– I wrote about this in my first (and so far only) volume of patrology. Patrology is the teaching about the Fathers which, however, is not limited only to the Holy Fathers; ecclesiastical writers must also fit into it. Without it patrology can not be complete. If we, for instance, do not study Clement of Alexandria, who was not a Church Father, but was a brilliant ecclesiastical writer and thinker, then we will not understand the formation of all patristic theology.
Strictly speaking, patrology, as a science, arose in recent times, but I don’t want to speak of it strictly in a scientific meaning, because its subject is the vital life of the Church, this is an authentic patristic Tradition, which lives in the Church and began immediately after the Apostles. Why do we study the apostolic fathers such as the Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer? Because he spoke and studied in the spirit of Tradition. One could say that patrology as a science of the Fathers and the very life of the Church are inseparably united. One cannot, like some of us sometimes do, separate the science of the Fathers from the living current of Church Tradition, as something differing in origin from this Tradition. Such an approach, in my opinion, is fatal for patrology.
– How does patrology differ from patristics?
– Previously it was considered that patristics studies only the teaching of the Fathers, but patrology includes in itself three main elements: the life of the Fathers, their works, and their theology. But at the present time these two understandings are practically mutually interchangeable. I prefer the word patrology, but this is just my personal opinion.
– Aleksei Ivanovich, which periods are defined in the study of patristic writing?
– I usually give this periodization at the very beginning of the introduction to patrology. I must warn that patrology does not have an upper limit, and therefore in theological school they have begun to study Russian and general Slavonic patrology. One could say that this “pushes” patrology’s upper limit, for our Orthodox Church is forever generating more and more Fathers. Soon, I think, “new Greek patrology” should be studied.
I myself study classical patrology, which takes up the enormous epoch from the end of the first century and ends in the Greek East with the fall of Byzantium. Within this enormous epoch exist more concrete periods, although this periodization cannot always be defined with exact borders. Traditionally one always defines the pre-Nicene period, and then the “golden age” of patristic writing. Several general tendencies emerge in the “golden age”: for example, the Cappadocian Fathers, the “new Alexandrians” (St Athanasius the Great and Cyrill of Alexandria), the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the Antiochian school, the Latin Fathers and ecclesiastical writers. Syrian patrology also appears: Aphraates, the Persian Sage, St Ephraim the Syrian. But after the “golden age” begins a period that is hard to fix – until the beginning of iconoclasm: it takes up two and a half centuries. Following them, that is after St John of Damascus, begins Byzantine patrology proper with its own distinguishing features, but it so far is less studied than the preceding periods.
– When did the subject “Patrology” appear among the disciplines taught in theological schools?
– In Russia, this course began in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its appearance, in my opinion, was wholly rightful. If one is to study the Tradition of the Church, how can one not study patrology in theological schools?
– How many classes of students-seminarians study patrology?
– In the seminary patrology is studied for three years.
– What guides you in the composition of a course?
– Every course is always a creation. Before I used to think that it was enough to write a book and there you go, read! But, as it turns out, a book isn’t enough. It happens that students either don’t read the textbooks, or they cursorily glance at them, and therefore the material either doesn’t reach them or catches up with them only superficially. Besides, everything that’s written in books is received differently than the spoken word. Sometimes they say: “Why, in fact, are lectures necessary?” Once I, too, thought roughly the same way, and then I understood that the living word and books – these are entirely different things. In what the teacher gives, a given amount of informative material is always, naturally, present, but the point is not so much in information, as much as how the teacher choses the material and how he presents it. Here arises the creativity of teaching, which depends on his personal opinions, spiritual experience, and even cultural and aesthetic sympathies. It is very important to establish a living connection with the auditorium. Every course is unique and unrepeatable, and the teaching depends on how the material is received by the auditorium. To find a point of contact from the first lesson, as a rule, is difficult; but later the relationship between the teacher and students usually develops and the line of teaching to a given course arises. Of course, there is a specific syllabus, and the teacher is bound to follow them. But into this “matrix” one can put different structures, in which the pedagogical approach of every teacher arises. One should always remember one simple thing: a pedagog is not a computer who gives information – and study it. Every lecture is a “synergy” between the teacher and students. And the success of the teacher depends a great deal on the latter.
– How long have you studied the patristic heritage?
– From the time I entered the Church, for about thirty years.
– Aleksei Ivanovich, the readers of this website would like to know in more detail about your academic works.
– I now have ten books and more than 100 articles. The greatest number of them are translations and commentary. I opened this enormous stratum completely involuntarily, since I am not a philologist in the proper sense of this word. But the translation of the Holy Fathers immediately became for me not simply the main object of my scholarly interests, but began simultaneously with the process of churchification. Unfortunately, there never was enough, and there isn’t enough, time for these translations. I can say one thing: the most blessed state for me is when I am translating the Holy Fathers and more exactly – communing with them. They are, after all, alive and are my spiritual instructors.
– You know ancient Greek perfectly. Where did you study it? Could you ever have thought that you might use it for the translation of the Holy Fathers?
– To know ancient Greek perfectly is impossible, because it’s a dead language. Simply, the more one translates the better one gets at it; when one often works with the Greek text, one develops specific ways of working with the text. But I repeat yet again that I’m not a philologist, and there are gifted philologists who are much more professional than I am. For me philology was and remains a simple instrument. In my time I graduated from the Moscow State University, the department of the history of the ancient world and the department of ancient languages – the were always closely connected. An historian must know the language tools. But an historian cannot posses languages as well as a philologist does.
However I can not call myself an historian in the exact sense of this word. In my university years and after them I was always drawn to the study of ancient philosophy: Plato, Plotinus, and neo-Platonism. Before my coming to the Church I was actively involved with this, as well as with gnosticism. Naturally, in the Soviet period no one could teach me how to translate the Holy Fathers. Andrei Cheslavovich Kazarzhevsky, whose lectures I attended, taught a purely philological discipline: the language of the New Testament, and in his lectures strove to avoid “religious associations” (for which one could be simply thrown out of the university). I had to become an autodidact. I’m still studying, since every Holy Father, to whose work I turn, demands a constantly deepening “entry” into him. Normally I translate two or three texts, and every author becomes my teacher. I’m sixty-five years old and can honestly admit, without showing off, that up until now I’m constantly studying.
As far as patristic texts are concerned, they are practically untranslatable, inasmuch as, as a rule, one retells more or less adequately these texts. I am convinced that every translation is only a translation. It will never have the status of “first freshness” because of the transferral of its content through the means of another language. But such a conveyance requires the translator to understand the author and for me that’s fundamental. To understand not only with the intellect, with the mind, but more importantly with the heart. Therefore I am deeply certain that only a church person can translate the Holy Fathers. If he’s not a church person, he simply will not understand what’s being talked about, even if he is the most brilliant philologist.
– What do you suggest: should a seminarian know ancient Greek in order to study patrology?
– It’s desirable, in any case. But, knowing the load of seminarians, I see in this a certain luxury. One needs to study Greek earlier. And what does it mean to study a language? Language is a labor, and therefore there is fruit to this labor, that is the knowledge of a new language, which is always valuable if it serves to glorify God, and not personal vainglory and pride.
In general, the more languages one knows, the more comprehensible one’s own language will become, inasmuch as in the study of a foreign language you begin to understand and value your own language. Therefore I have always supported the initiative for students of our theological schools to study ancient languages – Greek and Latin, but the real results of this study leave much to be desired.
However, the undoubted fact should be pointed out, that the deep study of foreign languages is not necessary for the majority of seminarians, for we aren’t a language college. What’s necessary here is a rational minimum, necessary for general growth. But I do think that it’s sensible to have small language groups (even one or two students) on every class for those wishing to study more deeply ancient and modern languages.
– What tendencies in the study of patrology exist in the West and in Russia? Are there methodological peculiarities?
– I’d put the question differently. The West is very different, and beyond this. It is undergoing a catastrophic de-Christianization. In the West there are Catholics and there are Protestants, and the Fathers of the Church are studied by both Catholics and Protestants. The Fathers are studied even by non-confessional people; that is, unbelievers. As in Russia, there are also philosophers who study the works of the Holy Fathers with a specific approach. But if we’re talking about patrology, then of course we in Russia are very much indebted to what goes on in the West. And I personally am grateful to Catholic scholars who publishes texts of the Holy Fathers, and we use their work. We also use the fruits of Protestant scholars, and their work in the study of, for example, Macarius of Egypt should be acknowledged.
But if we regard patrology (not patristics) as a fundamental discipline, then here church-ness is presupposed, and in my opinion it is the fundamental criterion in approaching patristic works. So, for example, St Gregory Palamas is studied in the West. Catholics approach him variously, in relation to their convictions and views, the swinging of which can be very significant: some scholars almost sympathize with him, and others consider him completely foreign to the Catholic tradition. But among us also his teaching is sometimes taken as a certain intellectual system, focusing attention on the importance of the distinction between essence and energy in God. But here one must understand that, no matter what problems could arise while studying the works of St Gregory Palamas, the most important postulate for us is the recognition that he is a Holy Father. This saint is an inseparable part of church Tradition, and he is higher than any scholar, who might find some flaw in his argument or some other imperfection. And he is above us on the strength of one fact, that he is a Holy Father.
If we start from the recognition of holiness at the study of the patristic heritage, then this is our main and distinguishing principle of an Orthodox approach to the patristic heritage. For Catholics, Gregory Palamas is one of the Byzantine writers; he is not a Holy Father and is not recognized as such by them, but for us he is one of the main links of the patristic Tradition. And when they talk about some sort of “Palamism,” I have always protested and am protesting, this inadequate term. Then let’s call the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor “Maximusism” and study him as “Maximusism.” When we do this, we remove a Holy Father from the context of the patristic Tradition. By the way, Vladyka Basil (Krivoshein), and Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky, and Fr Geroges Florovsky wrote about this. They all beautifully felt the living connection of St Gregory Palmas with the patristic Tradition.
– What, in your opinion, is the greatest difficulty in the study of the patristic heritage for contemporary seminarians? Are there works that are especially difficult to understand?
– You see, here one must understand and feel the context. Try simply to read a work, for example, St John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel according to Matthew. After a certain time almost every seminarian is going to get bored, and with the boredom come a tiredness: this is a different language, a different world and culture, and, consequently, the culture of the word is different. One must undertake an inner podvig in order that St John Chrysostom would become clear and understandable. This is what I call a kind of ascesis, that is, the overcoming of our sinful idleness, and people, as is known, don’t often want to overcome it and use force. Such an ascesis assumes, of course, that one lives all one’s life as the Fathers teach. Therefore here often arise problems.