During the years 100 to 600, most theologians were bishops; from 600 to 1500 in the West, they were monks; since 1500, they have been university professors.1
The theologian’s vocation has evolved significantly in the history of the Christian Church, and this progression reflects a shift in epistemology. A significant difference developed between Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) Christianity.
Among Byzantine Christians, it was commonly affirmed that the part of the theologian was to pray, not to explain; put another way, he should remain silent in contemplation of God and his ways rather than open his lips and speak error.
This highlights a notable difference between what was to develop in the Christian West and what was to be found in the Christian East. Along with the later medieval Western European renewal of government, the Christianization of its inhabitants and the call to erect a God-glorifying civilization, there arose a determination to develop an educational system that would serve God’s glory and that civilization. The monastic variety of education, which had continued in the centuries since the fall of Rome, could not well serve the needs of the new civilization. About the time that the needs for education were becoming evident—during the eleventh century—the works of Aristotle became much more widely known in the Christian West. . . . The initial hesitation among Western Christian scholars about relying on the works of a pagan for instruction was answered by respected Christian theologians, and the resultant enthusiasm for Aristotle’s works knew few limits over the next four centuries. . . . Western confidence in the ability of the Christian mind to explain truth and account for the ways of God with humanity came to recognize almost no bounds. The difference in perspective and expectation between the Western Christian attitude toward human reason and that which marked Eastern Christianity can hardly be overstated.
However, the Eastern Christian attitude toward reason did not preclude the development of considerable doctrinal sophistication; during the Byzantine period, Eastern Christianity benefited from the insightful teaching of many gifted theologians. However, in Byzantium, speaking of God—what ‘theology’ means—could only arise out of intimate communion with him, a communion nurtured in meditation rather than intellection. . . .
Eastern Christianity refused to follow pagan Greek thought in its fixation on definitions and static categories of analysis. Instead, Eastern Orthodoxy stressed that everything was created by God for development and could not be understood or spoken of correctly apart from that dynamic process.2
This epistemological shift from an emphasis on a mystical encounter with God through prayer and meditation to ‘knowing’ God primarily through intellection had a profound impact on the development of the notion of the ‘secular’ worldview in the West. The elevation of human reason set the stage for the eventual (nonsensical) distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, and now the secular worldview is seeking transcendence—a holy nihilism.
Can secular theologians offer us anything that is truly meta-secular? Perhaps we must look to Eastern monastics and Western mystics once again. We must return to ancient wisdom:
If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.3
1 Jaroslav Pelikan. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 5.
2 James R. Payton, Jr. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 30-31.
3 Evagrius Ponticus. Treatise on Prayer (Περὶ προσευχῆς ἢ Λόγος εἰς ρνγʹ κεφαλαῖα διειλημμένος), 61.