By John Sanidopoulos
The term "theologoumenon", or its plural "theologoumena", is an ancient Greek word that means either "something that is theologized" or "that which is said about God or divine things", and in the scant use of the word from patristic writings, this is how it was understood. In theological literature today, the word "theologoumenon" takes on a different or added meaning, usually summarized as being an "individual theological opinion". But this is not how the term was ever meant to be used, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
First we should examine how the modern usage of the term arose in modern theological literature. Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) was a German Lutheran theologian and prominent church historian. In 1885 he published the first volume of his highly influential Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte or History of Dogma (in three volumes; English translation in seven volumes). In this work Harnack traced the rise of dogma, which he understood as the authoritative doctrinal system of the church and its development from the fourth century down to the Protestant Reformation. He considered that from its earliest origins, Christian faith and Greek philosophy were so closely intermingled that the resultant system included many beliefs and practices that were not authentically Christian. Therefore, Protestants are not only free, but bound, to criticize it; Protestantism could be understood as a rejection of this dogma and a return to the pure faith that characterized the original church. A term he often uses in this work is "theologoumenon", to express the non-dogmatic opinion or thought or concept of an individual.
Soon after the publication of Harnack's History of Dogma, the term "theologoumenon" made its appearance in Orthodox circles. Specifically it was in 1892. After the Old Catholic schism of 1871, several efforts were made to unite with the Anglicans and the Orthodox. Finally, a convention of Old Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox theologians took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. They agreed very readily on their denial of the Pope's Primacy, but the convention foundered on the subject of the Filioque. The Anglicans and Old Catholics stoutly maintained the Catholic doctrine. Finally the Orthodox agreed to let a special commission study the matter to find out if the Filioque doctrine really is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. The committee worked two months and concluded that it was indeed an essential doctrine of the faith. The Orthodox disagreed and viewed it as a heresy. One Orthodox member of the committee however took the middle ground on the issue, V.V. Bolotov. He said that the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father is indeed an essential doctrine of the faith, but the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son is a theologoumenon. Bolotov made this distinction in order to strip the Filioque of its church-splitting character, thus opening up a path for more substantial ecumenical dialogue that can lead to unity.
Vasily Vasilyevich Bolotov (1854-1900) was a Russian church historian who began studying at the Spiritual Academy of St. Petersburg in 1875. Because of his outstanding accomplishments he was appointed even before the end of his studies to the chair of early church history, becoming lecturer in 1879 and professor in 1885. He wrote two works addressing the issue of the Filioque, one titled On the Question of the Filioque and the other "Thesis on the Filioque". He, together with another Russian historian Aleksandr L. Katanski, defined a theologoumenon as follows:
But I may be asked what I mean by theologoumena. In essence it is also a theological opinion, but only the opinion of those who for every catholic are more than just theologians: they are the theological opinions of the holy fathers of the one undivided church; they are the opinions of those men, among whom are those who are fittingly called 'ecumenical doctors'. Theologoumena I rate highly, but I do not in any case exaggerate their significance, and I think that I 'quite sharply' distinguish them from dogmas. The content of a dogma is truth: the content of a theologoumenon is only what is probable. The realm of a dogma is necessaria, the realm of a theologoumenon is dubia: "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas!"
Therefore, according to Bolotov, a theologoumenon is not just any individual theological opinion from any theologian, but it is the theological opinion of a Church Father, and in ecumenical dialogue by a Church Father from the first thousand years of Christian history, who is universally acclaimed. It is not a truth of the Christian faith which is necessary to be believed by all Christians, but a probability that is not necessary to be believed by all.
Now I should note that the last quote of Bolotov, "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas!" which is usually translated as, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty," is falsely attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, and I'm sure Bolotov used the quote thinking it was a quote of St. Augustine. In fact, this famous motto of Christian Irenics has a much later origin, and it should be known to understand the mentality behind the modern usage of the term "theologoumeon". The quote appears for the first time in Germany, in 1627 and 1628, among peaceful divines of the Lutheran and German Reformed churches, and it found a hearty welcome among moderate divines in England. The authorship has been traced to Rupertus Meldenius, an otherwise unknown divine, and author of a tract from 1627 in which the sentence first occurs. It probably appeared in 1627 at Francfort-on-the-Oder, which was at that time the seat of theological moderation. The author of this tract was a Lutheran, who was far from the idea of ecclesiastical union, but anxious for the peace of the church and zealous for practical scriptural piety in place of the dry and barren scholasticism of his time. He condemns the pharisaical hypocrisy, the philodoxia, philargia, and philoneikia of the theologians, and exhorts them first of all to humility and love. By too much controversy about the truth, we are in danger of losing the truth itself. "Many," he says, "contend for the corporal presence of Christ who have not Christ in their hearts." He dwells on the nature of God as love, and the prime duty of Christians to love one another, and comments on the seraphic chapter of Paul on charity (1 Cor. 13). He discusses the difference between necessaria and nonnecessaria. Necessary dogmas are, (1) articles of faith necessary to salvation; (2) articles derived from clear testimonies of the Bible; (3) articles decided by the whole church in a synod or symbol; (4) articles held by all orthodox divines as necessary. Not necessary, are dogmas (1) not contained in the Bible; (2) not belonging to the common inheritance of faith; (3) not unanimously taught by theologians; (4) left doubtful by grave divines; (5) not tending to piety, charity, and edification. He concludes with a defense of John Arnd (1555-1621), the famous author of "True Christianity," against the attacks of orthodox fanatics, and with a fervent and touching prayer to Christ to come to the rescue of his troubled church (Rev. 22: 17).
It should be further mentioned that Bolotov distinguished between dogma, theologoumenon, and private theological opinion. By making this three-fold distinction, he was thus distinguishing a theologoumenon from a private opinion. The Bulgarian theologian Stefan Zankow wrote as follows:
The general acceptance of this principle in the Orthodox Church is the result of the efforts of the great Russian Church historian, Bolotov. In his “theses” he set forth the following: First, “dogma” is the truth as determined by an Oecumenical Council. Second, “theologumenon” is the theological opinion of one or many of the holy fathers of the undivided Church. The content of the theologumena is probable truth: anyone may adhere to a given theologumenon until a competent church court has decided it to be faulty, just as on the other side no one can demand that a theologian should accept a theologumenon as his private opinion. Of course, the number of the fathers who accept a given viewpoint of this nature has no significance as to its validity; still, the greater the number who defend such a statement, the greater probability of its truth. Third, and last, comes private theological opinion. In comparison with a theologumenon, private opinion has no authority. Each one is free in his personal opinion, but limited by the requirement that private opinion shall not conflict with dogma. The dogmas are “necessaria,” the theologumena, “dubia”: “In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas.”
Bolotov's definition of theologoumenon is a bit nebulous when understood in the context to which it is applied. One could say that the word "theologoumenon" is at the heart of ecumenical dialogue. According to Metropolitan John Zizioulas, "If we opt for the model of a reconciled diversity of confessional Churches, our ecumenical dialogue should concentrate on the question of which of the Christian truths we can confess together and which we can keep as adiaphora or theologoumena on which we can differ while still being united. This has been more or less the prevailing method in ecumenical dialogue." But as the Metropolitan further noted, "This idea of Bolotov has not enjoyed universal acceptance by the Orthodox." The original application of the word "theologoumenon" is within the context of ecumenical dialogue, but when it is used among fellow Orthodox it tends to be abused and more of a cause for division rather than unity. For example, Bolotov applied it towards the issue of the Filioque, and over the decades many liberal-leaning Orthodox have followed his train of thought that the Filioque is a theologoumenon and therefore not to be a cause of division. This view certainly has its detractors, like Vladimir Lossky who built his thesis on the Filioque in opposition to Bolotov's view. Now if the Filioque is a theologoumenon in general, does that mean even different parishes of the Orthodox Church can insert the Filioque into the Creed at will, and simply say it is only a matter of opinion not to be divided over? Rather, the Church should have higher principles related to doctrine, otherwise while in the process of healing one schism many others will be created. Furthermore, Bolotov contradicts his own definition of a theologoumenon when he applies it to the Filioque, since the Filioque as used by the Franks and later adopted by the Papacy in the eleventh century was never a theological opinion by a universally acclaimed Church Father, nor did any Church Father consider it probable, instead it was universally condemned as a false teaching, and at the Eighth Ecumenical Synod of 879 it says that any addition to the Creed was to be condemned. Bolotov should not have considered the Filioque a theologoumenon, but a private opinion. When considering these things and the many issues the term theologoumenon brings up upon application, its nebulous character can easily be seen.
From the Orthodox theological point of view it can be stated that the doctrine of the Filioque is unacceptable, although as expressed by Augustine, it is capable of an Orthodox interpretation. According to the Orthodox understanding the Son cannot be considered a cause or co-cause of the existence of the Holy Spirit. In spite of this we find in certain Fathers, for example St. Maximus the Confessor (7th cent.), as explained by Anastasius the Librarian (9th cent.), the opinion that the Filioque, as used in early Latin theology, can be understood in an Orthodox way. According to this interpretation a distinction should be made between two senses of procession, one by which the Father causes the existence of the Spirit and the other by which the Spirit shines forth from the Father and the Son. This second sense of procession must be clearly differentiated from the later Western use of the Filioque which observed no such distinction but rather confused 'cause of existence' with 'communication of essence'. In this acceptable Orthodox sense the Filioque can be defined as a theologoumenon, because it has patristic precedence. But to call the Filioque a heresy also has patristic precedence, therefore if one can call the Filioque a theologoumenon, one can also call the belief that the Filioque is a heresy a theologoumenon as well. It's only logical and fair, and it really doesn't solve anything. Fr. John Romanides similarly explained:
It is now clear, though, that Anglicans are working in concert with the WCC to get the Filioque removed from the Creed on the one hand and to reduce the whole question to the level of a so-called theologoumenon, or as they understand the term, permissible opinion. Regarding this point the Orthodox mentioned that there is an Orthodox Filioque in the West wherein procession has two meanings as explained by Maximus the Confessor and Anastasius the Librarian and repeated by St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox at Florence. When procession means manner of existence, the Holy Spirit has only the Father as cause, and when it means mission then procession is a common and identical energy of the Holy Trinity. The whole question resolves itself into the axiom that what is common is common to the three Persons, and what is individual or hypostatic or personal property is incommunicable and belongs to one Person alone. This position, which was the basis of the Roman papacy's participation in the condemnation of the Filioque as heresy at the Photian Synod of 879, can hardly be considered a theologoumenon... Both Anglicans and Protestants have nothing to lose and much to gain from demoting the Filioque from a dogma to a theologoumenon since their acceptance of Ecumenical Synods barely reaches as far as the Fourth. With one shot they take care of both the Orthodox and the Latins.
Elsewhere Fr. Romanides wrote:
Not one West Roman Father ever said that the Son is either "cause" or "co-cause" of the Holy Spirit. This appears in Latin polemics and was promulgated as dogma at the Council of Florence. This Filoque is a heresy, both as a theologoumenon and as a dogma. The Uniates accept this Filioque as a condition of being united to the Latin Papacy... Neither Mark [of Ephesus] nor any of the others [at the Council of Florence] proposed a theologoumenon as "the" dogma of union, nor a kind of Filioque buried in a book. They had proposed the old West Roman Orthodox Filioque defended by such Popes as Leo III which is an integral part of the Orthodox tradition... It is Augustine's Filioque alone which can be considered a theologoumenon, but an orthodox one, because of the confused manner in which he managed to adjust his already published works to conditions described in paragraphs 9-11. Augustine identified both generation and procession with the receipt of essence from the Father (De Trinitate XV, 26.47), which simply means he did not fully understand the imperial instructions he was trying to comply with. Given his own meaning of these terms he is perfectly correct.
Regarding Bolotov's placement of the Filioque as a theologoumenon, Fr. Romanides says:
Bolotov holds that "the" Filioque may be held in the West as a theologoumenon, without specifying which of the three filioques. It seems to be assumed that this is valid for all of them. But this is not what Bolotov says. He defines a theologoumenon as a private opinion of a great ecumenical doctor of the undivided Church. This cannot, therefore, be extended to the Franks who added the Filioque to the Creed and thereafter, because of national pride, were forced, together with the other Latins, to develop such theological justifications that led to their heretical Filioque. These Latins are neither Fathers nor ecumenical doctors of the undivided Church. Even de-dogmatized and theologoumenized their Filioque is a heresy, because a rejection of the Cappadocian formulation incorporated into the Creed of 381 and so accepted by Augustine and all Roman Churches, east and west. They violated the experience of glorification of which commonality and individuality in the Holy Trinity is an experiential and not a speculative expression. Also the West Roman Orthodox Filioque is such an expression and not the private opinion of either Maximus the Confessor or Anastasius the Librarian. They both report it as the official position of the Roman papacy and of all Orthodox Churches in the west.
But we must also accept the fact that not all teachings of the Church Fathers are dogmas, and the word theologoumenon is a convenient way theologians differentiate between something all Orthodox must believe from what is acceptable though not necessary. A teaching does not become necessary to be believed unless a synod of bishops gathers and says it is, then it is accepted by the ecclesiastical community, and finally it then takes on a doxological character when it becomes part of the worship of the church community and it is sealed with an "Amen". In this context the term theologoumenon can be applied, as long as it is not abused. As mentioned above, this term becomes abused when it makes light of false teachings and it encompasses personal opinions. This is why it is considered a liberal term by most conservative-minded Orthodox, and why it is often avoided.
There are many historical examples of how the concept of a theologoumenon can be abused. One example comes from the life of St. Maximus the Confessor. The emperor of that time forbade the discussion of Christ's wills and energies, considering it what we would call today a theologoumenon. Most theologians at the time were content with this. St. Maximus thought differently, understanding that the teachings of the Church were definitive on the matter, and that the doctrine of one will and one energy in Christ must be condemned as heretical. And for his stance, he suffered, thus receiving the title of "Confessor". Today the Church universally acknowledges and praises the stance of St. Maximus, although in his day he was seen to be a fanatic.
A more modern case of abuse is set forward by Fr. Aidan Nichols: "Occasionally, an Orthodox writer will go further and rejoice in the predominance of theologoumena over dogmas in Orthodoxy, as did the Russian priest-theologian S. B. Bulgakov. For Bulgakov, freedom is the nerve of theology, and diversity and multiplicity in theological expression constitutes Orthodoxy's beauty and power. Yet this point of view cannot be sundered from its context in Bulgakov's own controversial theological career, in which his personal development of the idea of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, as found in Scripture, the Fathers, and the Byzantine-Slav liturgy and its accompanying iconography, brought down on his head the condemnation of the Moscow Patriarchate as unwarranted innovation, and the sharp criticism of a number of his fellow-theologians as opening the door to a second Gnostic invasion of the Church."
To avoid abusing the concept of a theologoumenon, it would seem that we almost need a synod to proclaim how we should apply it to each and every issue. Sometimes one man's theologoumenon is another man's dogma, and one man's heresy is another man's theologoumenon. In the end we just end up where we started - debating subjects we disagree on. And sometimes there is nothing wrong with a little debating. Though I'm also not willing to completely let go of the concept of a theologoumenon, because the opposite abuse can happen where a theological opinion of a Church Father can become unnecessarily dogmatized. In the end I believe Fr. George Florovsky clarifies things. He wrote, "No 'theologoumenon' can claim more than 'probability,' and no 'theologoumenon' should be accepted if it has been clearly disavowed by an authoritative or 'dogmatic' pronouncement of the Church."
Therefore a clearer definition of the term theologoumenon, which may not solve all the issues but will at least clarify things a bit, is in order: A theologoumenon is the belief or explication of one or more Fathers upon a spiritual or theological matter which is not clearly articulated in the Scriptures or formulated in Church dogma. It is a respected belief not contrary to Church dogma and usually accepted, but not one that everyone must subscribe to in order to be saved. The Church dogmatizes with reluctance, and only when the Faith itself is in danger; for the mystery of God and of His creation and economy cannot be circumscribed and defined in words, but only indicated; the dogma transcends its expression. A theologoumenon deals with spiritual verities of which the expression or explanation is not clearly defined and fixed because they are not yet fully revealed or are beyond our capacity, e.g., the state of the souls of the dead, and the life of the Kingdom. In a different capacity are “theological opinions" (theologikai gnomai), which are human attempts to find answers in the Scriptures and the Fathers for certain questions which are debatable and subject to theological inquiry.