Skip to content

Greatest Orthodox Theologian?

I’ve posted a fair number of favorite theologians lists.  However, one segment of the church that often gets neglected (for a variety of reasons) are the theologians of the Orthodox Churches.  But here let us up the ante a bit.  Who do people think the greatest modern Orthodox theologian was? 

For my money the most significant modern orthodox theologian would have to be Sergei Bulgakov.  My favorite to read on the other hand would be John Zizioulas.  The most promising Orthodox theologian writing today?  David Bentley Hart, of course.

And another question on Orthodox theologians: is there any such thing as a female theologian in the Orthodox tradition?  Not sure I’ve ever come across one.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Pretty much agree with you. Bulgakov and Florovsky are both tremendous, but DBH is certainly going to give both of them a run for their money as time passes.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  2. David Bentley Hary? Is that Hairy Mclary’s uncle? Sorry Halden, I couldn’t resist. You may want to correct this typo.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Blackhaw wrote:

    For me it has to be Florovsky. I really like many of thenm though. Pelikan, Lossky, McGuckin, Staniloae, Zizizolous, etc. Staniloae woudl be my choice for a systematic type guy although that is an oxymoron for Orthodox theologians.

    The best young theologian is J. Behr at St. Vladimir’s. His books are tremendous.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Zizioulas! However, in terms of promising Orthodox theologians, I have to add a plug for one of my professors here at St. Thomas, Paul Gavrilyuk.
    I’ve actually had the opportunity to be his research assistant this past year. D.B. Hart also used to hail from St. Thomas -apparently receiving mixed reviews as a prof.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  5. xristocharis wrote:

    How familiar are you with Frederica Matthews-Green, Halden? Over the years I’ve read some of her stuff that’s written for Beliefnet. She usually has some pretty insightful stuff to say from and Orthodox woman’s perspective.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Blackhaw wrote:

    Paul Gavrilyuk! Ahh. I really liked his book on the impassiblity of Christ. He is good.

    Zizizoulas is an odd bird for an Orthodox theologian. He seems to be on the other side of many of the debates comapred to Lossky, Behr, etc.

    I think D.B. Hart is the one with the small feud with Behr and some of the Fordham guys. I think they reviewed his book, The Beauty of the Infinite : The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, rather negatively. I think he is the one. does anyone know? He is very philosophical. Right? I went to a conference at Fordham this last year and I think he was the one that called Behr a “Neo-Arian.” It seemed at that conference many wanted to talk openly and often about the being of God while others believed it was inappropriate.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Pontificator wrote:

    My favorite is Alexander Schmemann. I think one could make an argument that he was the most influential Orthodox theologian of the second half of the 20th century, particularly in the Orthodox diaspora. He wrote beautifully, with a profound understanding of the faith as mediated through the liturgy. But, alas, he also contributed mightily to diaspora-Orthodoxy’s strong anti-Westernism. This anti-Westernism has helped Orthodox congregations to establish a defined identity over against _Western_ Christian denominations, but it has also had negative consequences for theological conversation.

    Zizioulas is my second favorite, but he is also the most open to conversation with Catholic theology, so perhaps he doesn’t count.

    David Hart is brilliant, but he has only written one substantive book. He needs to write more before he can be considered one of the best Orthodox theologians. One of his strengths is his appreciation of that wider Orthodox tradition that stands outside the fairly narrow Lossky-Florovsky-Schmemann circle.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Aric Clark wrote:

    I’m glad someone here mentioned Schmemann. Few theologians move me as much as his writings are able to.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Jean Meyendorff….then Schmemann….then Zizioulas….then Staniloae.

    I think if DB Hart is the face of the future of Orthodoxy, then something needs to change in Orthodoxy.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    You are going to have to defend your criticisms of Hart or I might challenge you to a duel. “He’s mean” is not a legitimate critique.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  11. DOB wrote:

    I have heard only second-hand about the work of Elisabeth Behr-Siegel, a French Orthodox theologian who was also an advocate for the ordination of women. Supposed to be quite interesting. I think Ellen Charry at Princeton is into her work…

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
  12. vassilip wrote:

    as a modern Father: fr.Sophrony Sakharov

    as an academic theologian: fr.G.Florovsky & fr.J.Romanides

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 5:05 am | Permalink
  13. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Hill, sorry if this sounds snippy, but I really don’t have to defend my criticisms of Hart…at least not here, on a blog. I have never been a defender of the “academic blog” thing (I say this, and yet I’ll participate in my first ever “blog conference” in September!). Please don’t take this the wrong way. It is just that I have often seen the worst kinds of mudslinging and just plain ‘ole electronic firsfights take place when either (a) one person demands detailed explanation that could only really receive such attention in a research paper, or (b) a defense is offered that is sloppier than it could be ensuing in all kinds of confusion and/or mudslinging/fistfights.

    I do have a lengthy criticism of Hart. It is possible I could send you the paper by email, but I certainly don’t want to share it publicly, and I am also a little tentative because I have been working on revising it — something that is still far from complete for me. Let me say for now a couple of things: on the Orthodox comment…all I meant was that DB Hart, a convert (I believe from Anglicanism — his brother is still an Anglican priest), does theology very much in a “Western” mode (including his primary sources)…and I don’t think this makes him more “ecumenical,” I think it simply means he has “departed” from the East at certain points (and here whether a convert can be said to have significantly “departed” is somewhat strange to ask). I also think that his use of analogy — which is kind of the sub-plot of his book Beauty — is all mixed up…he has no real hamartiology, blah, blah. I don’t want to get into the significant points here.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Sorry Dave, I was being somewhat facetious. It is somewhat rare to see a critique of Hart with substance. He tends to speak plainly about what he thinks is wrong (granted a lot of modern theology would fall into this category for him) and much of what one finds is simply hurt feelings. I’m glad to hear that isn’t the case. I’m completely sympathetic to your concerns about blogs. I still think The Beauty of the Infinite is one of the best books of theology written in quite some time. You may disagree, but I think I am in good company in my opinion. Hart may not be the most “representative” Orthodox theologian writing today (whatever that might mean) but where he doesn’t quite toe the party line, I find him to be refreshing (as a Catholic), especially in his rather frank assessments of East/West ecumenism. Interesting tidbit: you are correct that one of his brothers (Robert, I believe is his name) is an Anglican priest. The crazy thing is that he has another brother who is a Catholic priest (Addison, I think)! Pretty wild family.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    To add one more thing, I think Hart’s ability to do theology in a “western mode” is in fact a strength, particularly as an Orthodox theologian. He is far more fair-minded in his dealings with the west than many high profile Orthodox theologians, who have frankly been somewhat juvenile in their approaches to certain “western” theologies. Recent eastern theology’s greatest weakness is it’s tendency to partisanship, and there isn’t a hint of this in Hart’s writing at all. I think there is a tendency in the east to refuse to acknowledge that any good theology could have taken place in the west since 1000 (that’s an overgeneralization, but you get my point), but Hart is clearly free from this bias.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  16. Without a doubt, Father Georges Florovsky. Runners up: Vladimir Lossky and Father Kiprian Kern. I do like Father John Meyendorff. I find the work of the Father Sergius Bulgakov, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, and this David Bentley Hart rather inconsequential.

    As for Orthodox scholars writing today, perhaps Bishop Atanasije Jevtić. I also find the work of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Father Alexander Golitzin and Jean-Claude Larchet to be quite solvent.

    (This is restricted, of course, to those writers who have had at least some of their work appear in English. Many others haven’t.)

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  17. John McGuckin, Kallistos Ware, and Alexander Schmemann. Then again, thats about all I’ve read as well. Hopefully I’ll remedy that soon.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    Golitzin is awesome. I’m shamelessly linking again to his incredible essay on Dionysius the Areopagite:

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  19. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Also, how ’bout Nicholas Afanasiev?

    Thanks Hill

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  20. Dave> Yes, I thought about mentioning Father Nicholas Afanasieff, but in the end decided against it for whatever reason. Anyway, I do wish more of his writings were available in English! He and (the early) Father John Romanides have much to contribute to a truly contemporary patristic understanding of ecclesiology.

    Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  21. Richard H wrote:

    I’ve just encountered Paul Gavrilyuk, in a couple of essays in the new collection from Eerdmans on Canonical Theism. I found his writing extremely clear and easy to read, leaving me hungry for more. While highly subjective, I like that in a theologian.

    Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  22. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Richard, yeah he’s great. The canonical theism volume is really good. I was lucky enough to do one last read through looking for any errors, etc., before it hit the press. Right now Gavrilyuk is hard at work researching the concept of the “spiritual senses” in the patristics. Keep in eye out for him.

    Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  23. Pontificator wrote:

    Yesterday I came across this citation from David Hart, in defense of his “Orthodoxy”:

    “I do, I confess, take exception to the claim [by Fr John McGuckin] that [my] book [The Beauty of the Infinite] ‘is not Orthodox theology’. Of course it is. Admittedly it does not much resemble the sort of ‘neo-Palamite’, ‘neo-patristic’ books which have dominated Eastern theology since the middle of the last century, when the great ressourcements movement that has done so much to define modern Orthodoxy was inaugurated. But Orthodox theology has taken many forms over the centuries – mystical, scholastic, mystagogical, idealist, neo-patristic, even ‘Sophiological’ – all of which have been perfectly legitimate expressions of the Eastern Church’s mind. And frankly, I think that the theological idiom to which Orthodox theology has been confined for the last fifty years or so has largely exhausted itself and has become tediously repetitive. It has also, to a very great extent, done much to distort the Orthodox understanding of the traditions of both East and West.”

    – David Bentley Hart, Scottish Journal of Theology, 60(1): 95-101 (2007).

    Friday, April 11, 2008 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  24. Olivier Clément. If you want someone who can write about what he believes without demanding contradistinction, this is a man for you. After a while, one grows tired of “unlike in the west…” , “the problem in the west is…” or “the west has lost…”.

    Olivier Clément seems to understand you can pet the dog without kicking the cat.

    Friday, April 11, 2008 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  25. Now after having posted the above, it occurs to me that I haven’t gotten to Clément’s tome on the papacy just yet. After I do, I could have some egg on my face with what I above asserted! I just don’t know as yet!

    Friday, April 11, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  26. “How familiar are you with Frederica Matthews-Green, Halden? Over the years I’ve read some of her stuff that’s written for Beliefnet. She usually has some pretty insightful stuff to say from and Orthodox woman’s perspective.”

    From the perspective of the Ortho-convert-contradistinctionist par excellance!

    Frederica “Braveheart-Warrior-Religion” Mathews-Green? No thanks. Keep her and Rod “The-Insta-Ortho-Expert-Before-My-Chrism-Oils-Dry” Dreher.

    Triumphal anger and enthusiasm is good for choir preaching – to the angry and enthusiastic…. After that? I get embarassed for them both.

    Friday, April 11, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  27. Sarah A. Wagner-Wassen wrote:

    I went to a conference at Fordham this last year and I think he was the one that called Behr a “Neo-Arian.”

    I believe the quote was (though I am paraphrasing out of my rusty memory): Traditionally some would characterize people as being semi-Arian or semi-Sabellian, or whatever. I am not going to do that. Rather, I will go the other way and simply call you semi-Orthodox.

    Maybe others who were there with better memories can fix it, but I believe that was the general train of thought.

    I don’t know if it is fair to classify Frederica as a theologian. She’s a religious writer. And she’s a pretty good writer. But I don’t think even she is under the delusion that she is a theologian in the strict professional sense of the term.

    If we are looking for a female I would posit Sister Nonna Verna Harrison. She’s a patristics scholar, not a theologian per se I suppose, but she is very smart.

    Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 5:22 am | Permalink
  28. Shawn L wrote:

    I’m not sure if Hart has really been embraced by the Orthodox community. The only people I’ve heard calling his theology ‘Orthodox’ are, well, David Bentley Hart, and non-Orthodox people.

    My vote for two outstanding modern Orthodox theologians are Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev, and Olivier Clement and I’ll throw in Michael Pomazansky for kicks.

    Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  29. Brandon Gallaher wrote:

    The most influential Orthodox theologian, author of the reigning syle of Patristically based engagement (as different as John Behr and Zizioulas), of the 20th century is without a doubt Florovsky and he is the one most Orthodox would say is their ‘greatest theologian.’ He after all taught and formed the thought of Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, John Romanides and John Zizioulas amongst others. Bulgakov, however, is the theologian who most resembles a western systematic theologian and the number and breadth of his (still largely untranslated) works rivals Barth, Rahner and Balthasar. He is a significant social thinker (he taught and wrote on law, economics and political theory before his exile) and so in some ways goes beyond his western counterparts. Thus by this western paradigm, Bulgakov clearly is the most important and I suppose the ‘greatest’ (but what does this mean?). Hart is certainly one of the most creative “young” Orthodox theologians but his major work Beauty of the Infinite appears to me to be heavily dependent (albeit at time critical) on Balthasar (and even B’s reading of Gregory Nyss and Maximus—Hart is a Gregory scholar) and in general his work (beyond book blurbs and prefaces) shows little direct and sustained engagement with either the neo-patristic synthesis school or the writings of important minority reports such as Solov’ev, Bulgakov, and, more importantly, Afanasiev whose thought was co-opted by Zizioulas (and Schmemann) into the neo-patristic project. Perhaps this is why Hart is interesting to read as he shows the future of Orthodox theology where theologians trained outside the various seminaries and even the traditions of modern Orthodox theology can join the Church and contribute new modes of thinking to its life and thought.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  30. Mary wrote:

    Personally, my favorite ‘modern’ Orthodox Theologians would have to be Fr. John Behr- a living light :) Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. John Romanides.

    Monday, December 22, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Andrew wrote:

    For me it’s a toss up between Fr. John Behr and Fr. John Meyendorff.

    Monday, December 22, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  32. Micheas wrote:

    This is the first time I have ever written on a blog, in fact I am still not sure what a blog is…
    I am working on a paper on differing trends in contemporary Orthodox Ecclesiology and came across this site and really enjoyed hearing people’s different opinions. I am a bit surprised that no one has mentioned Panagiotis Nellas who I consider one of the most insightful theologians of the last 100 years. Another name I was sure someone would have mentioned was Justin Popovitch. However, I must say that there are few in the history of the Church who have spoken with the depth and clarity of Archimandrite Aimilianos who gets my vote (however much it is worth). I would also be interested in hearing more about this David Bentley Hart, I am a recent graduate of Holy Cross and I don’t recall ever hearing his name mentioned. This could very well be because I was napping or my mind was wondering, both of which were sadly all to common. O Theos mazi sas!

    Monday, January 5, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  33. Shawn L wrote:

    I’ve recently been enjoying the works of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, though I’m not sure he would accept the title of “theologian.” He stresses that the Orthodox Church only considers those people who have had their hearts purified, have been illuminated by the Spirit, and via asceticism and the sacraments, have actually come to see God, are properly theologians. Academic theology is of a completely different order, and not theology properly so called. If I’m not mistaken, I think John Romanides would have agreed.

    Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site