Theologies as Alternative Histories: John Romanides and Chrestos Yannaras

From the 1950s to the 1980s, there has been a revival of interest for Orthodox Christianity in Greece. The main authors associated with this revival are often referred to as “neo-Orthodox.” [1] Influenced by nineteenth and twentieth century Russian theology, these authors have dealt with central Christian dogmas concerning theology (the nature of God), and fundamental anthropology (human nature). They have, for the most part, put forward the idea of a sharp division between “Western Christianity,” that is, Christianity as it developed in Western Europe after the fall of Rome, and “eastern” Christianity, that is, Christianity as it developed in Byzantium and continues to exist in the contemporary Orthodox world. Of these authors, John Romanides (1927-2001) and Chrestos Yannaras (born 1935) figure prominently within Greek intellectual life. The reason for this prominence is that their writings expanded beyond strictly theological concerns to engage with questions such as the nature of modernity, the origins of modern secularism, and the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and such philosophical currents as existentialism and personalism, which were very important in post-World War II Europe. Most importantly, both Romanides and Yannaras have built upon their theological work to shed new light into modern Greek history and used their understanding of Orthodox civilization to engage in debates on the nature of modern Greek national identity, the relationship between ancient and modern Greece, and the continuity of the Greek nation. Their writings gradually reached the broader intellectual community, influenced such personalities as the political scientist Kostas Zouraris, the marxist historian Kostis Moschof, and the composer Dionysis Savvopoulos. Their work constitutes an excellent case-study of the ways in which theological discourse formed the basis of a historical poetics that led to a radical contestation of the dominant national narrative of modern Greece. [2] Their broader appeal in the 1980s and 1990s is also an excellent way to understand some of the issues that Greece faced at that time and, to a certain extent, is still facing today.

Nationalism and Religion in Greece

It is usual to think of nationalism as a “secular” form of consciousness. This is true for at least two reasons: first, because nationalism tends to emphasize this life, in contrast to a religious consciousness, which often sees this life as a preparation for a (far more important) afterlife, and second, because nationalism replaces the doctrine of divine sovereignty, i.e., the idea that sovereignty comes from God, with that of “popular sovereignty,” i.e., the idea that sovereignty derives from the people (Greenfield 1996).
The “secular” character of nationalism can be seen most clearly in the case of France, where the conflict between two opposing visions of sovereignty (divine sovereignty vs. popular sovereignty) took the form of a conflict between Church and State, which ended with their formal separation in 1905. It has even been argued that, for this reason, the spread of modern nationalism since the 16th century was one of the reasons (together with such factors as modernization, industrialization, and modern capitalism) for the secularization of the Western world (Eastwood and Prevelakis 2010). But while nationalism has arguably been a secularizing force in history, numerous cases point to an alliance between nationalism and religion. This happens in movements that identify the national community with a particular religion, as, for instance, in the case of Hinduism, religious Zionism, or Pakistani nationalism.
In these cases, there is typically a negotiation between the doctrines of divine and popular sovereignty. The result of this negotiation covers a wide spectrum defined by two extremes. In the first extreme, which is close to a traditional theocracy, sovereignty is thought to derive from God, through the people who exercise it. In the second extreme, which is a sub-category of “ethnic nationalism,” religion is seen as nothing but an ethnic characteristic of the national community; in this case, religious dogmas are treated superficially and are of little importance. This “ethnic” interpretation of religion can be observed in various ethnic conflicts throughout history, two of the most famous ones being the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which were said to be fought in the name of religion by atheists and agnostics, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, where a common joke has to do with an Irish atheist, who has to declare if he is a “protestant” or “catholic” atheist in order to have his side in the conflict determined.
In Greek national consciousness, nationalism and religion are inextricably intertwined. The origins of this connection are to be found in the Ottoman Empire, where religion was used as a demarcation between communities in the millet system. Thus, the nascent Greek nationalism naturally adopted religion as a national demarcation (Mavrogordatos 2003:128). This identification has been reproduced and reinforced in various historical instances. One of the clearest examples is 1922, when an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey followed the Greek defeat in Asia Minor (Clogg 2002:92-104). Then, religion (rather than language, geographical location, or self-definition) was used to decide who was Greek and who was Turk, signaling that religion was seen as the primary determinant of national identity.
As in most cases where nationalism and religion are intertwined, there is, throughout Greek history, an ambiguity as to the precise meaning of this interaction and the type (theocracy, ethnic nationalism, or something in between) to which it corresponds. For instance, when the Greek state was established, many elements seemed to point towards a theocratic model: most of the inhabitants had strong ties to the Church and a primarily religious (Christian Orthodox) identity; the first Greek Constitution was written in the name of the Holy Trinity; and citizenship was given to whoever was born inside the Greek territory and believed in Christ. On the other hand, religion was heavily controlled by the state. The Church of Greece, which was created in 1833, has always depended on the Greek state, both financially and administratively; in turn, the State would use it as an instrument to spread the values of Greek nationalism to the masses. [3]
The very establishment of the Church of Greece is a very interesting case study in this respect. Its creation as a separate entity from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and dependence on the modern Greek state was legitimized by appealing to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which, in Byzantine times, had never questioned its strong linkages to the Byzantine State (Mavrogordatos 2003:124). But this subjugation of the Church to the modern Greek state could also be interpreted as signaling the reinterpretation of Orthodox Christianity from a universal faith to a mere ethnic attribute of the Greek nation. It was this latter interpretation that prevailed in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which, for this reason, did not officially recognize the Church of Greece until 1850 and, in 1872, condemned religious nationalism under the name of “phyletism” (Kitromilides 1989:181-82).
The identification between religion and national identity in Greece did not always go unchallenged. Many of the first Greek nationalists were anti-clerical. They had studied in Europe, had been influenced by the Enlightenment, and would see themselves as the descendants of ancient Greek philosophers, who were greatly admired in Europe at the time; they also often considered the Orthodox Church as an obscurantist institution. At the same time, the Greek Patriarchate was not eager to adopt Greek nationalism; Patriarch Gregory V had even openly condemned the idea of a Greek Revolution (Kitromilides 1989:179).
In Greece, secular nationalists and Orthodox Christians typically have different historical and geographical referents. Greek secular nationalists looked at 5th century BCE Athens; Orthodox Christians looked at the Byzantine Empire, and saw Constantinople, rather than Athens, as their “true” capital. This tension between Athens and Constantinople can also be seen in Greek historiography. The first Greek historians of the modern era, inspired by the Enlightenment, admired ancient Greece, but paid little attention to Byzantium. [4] It was only later historians like Spyridon Zampelios (1787-1856) and Constantinos Paparrigopoulos (1815–1891) who, under the influence of German Romanticism, saw Byzantium in a positive light (Arabatzis 1998:18). These two authors were also instrumental in establishing the idea of one Greek nation across time (Ancient Greece, Byzantium, Ottoman Rum Millet, modern Greek state). [5]
This continuity of the Greek nation could, in turn, be interpreted in at least two ways: either as a biological continuity of the Greek people across time, or as the continuity of the Greek civilization throughout history. The first interpretation was seriously challenged by Jacob Philipp Falmereyer (1790-1861), who, in his writings, had put forward the idea that a significant part of the inhabitants of contemporary Greece are of Slavic descent. After the end of World War II, speaking of a biological continuity became politically incorrect, because of its association with racism. The second interpretation, that of a continuity of Greek civilization across time, had to provide a plausible hypothesis of a cultural continuity between Ancient Greece, Byzantium, and the modern Greek nation. These academic questions had, no doubt, political repercussions well into the 20th century. Did Greece belong to the “East” or to the “West,” and what are the political implications for Greece’s membership in NATO and the European Union? To what extent is the Greek state “secular,” and how is this secularity challenged by the absence of a formal separation between Church and State? How far back does the Greek nation go, and to what extent are Greeks entitled to consider Byzantium as a “Greek” state?
The originality of John Romanides and Christos Yannaras is that they tried to provide an answer to these questions, and a new approach to modern Greek history, based on theological discourse. Both of them are representative of the complex articulation between religious and national concerns in modern Greece. [6]

John Romanides: The Ancestral Sin

John Romanides was born in Piraeus in 1938 but immigrated with his family to the United States a few months later. He studied theology at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (where he would later serve as professor of Dogmatic Theology from 1956 to 1965). In 1957 he submitted to the University of Athens his doctoral dissertation, entitled The Ancestral Sin. The book attempts to uncover the views of the early Church fathers regarding the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences for humanity, views which Romanides contrasts with those of Western post-Augustinian, and later scholastic, theology. [7] According to Romanides, scholastic theologians think of Adam and Eve as being created immortal and their sin as the transgression of God’s rule. According to this view, God was offended by this transgression, and thus punished them with death (Romanides 1957:18, 23). Their sin was transmitted to the whole of humanity, which, as it was somehow contained in Adam and Eve, participated in their sin as well. Romanides argues that this view, which found its clearest formulation in Augustine, and which was subsequently adopted by scholastic theology, was totally absent from the Apostolic Church and from the writings of the early Church Fathers. According to the latter:

  • Adam and Eve were created “neither mortal nor immortal,” but with a propensity to either mortality or immortality, depending on whether they would incline towards mortal or immortal things (Romanides 1957:32, 127-28, 162).
  • Their purpose was the attainment of theosis ‘divinization’ (Romanides 1957:112), a communion with God which involved the whole person, and which led to, literally, becoming God. [8] For Augustine, on the contrary, the purpose of man’s life is some sort of eudaimonia ‘happiness’, acquired through the contemplation of God and achieved by means of one’s mind.
  • Their transgression meant their withdrawal from divine life, a withdrawal, which, in turn, corrupted their nature (Romanides 1957:34). Sin is thus seen less in juridical terms and rather understood as “the failure of man to attain to perfection and theosis ‘divinization’ because he fell into the hands of him who has the power of death” (Romanides 1957:34, 99, 112).
  • God was not angry or offended by this transgression. It was Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century “Western” theologian, who defended the view that God was offended by this transgression and demanded, for His appeasement, a sacrifice of equal magnitude, i.e. the death of Christ (Romanides 1957:18). None of these ideas can be found in the Greek Fathers, for whom God did not send his son to pay for humanity’s sins, but to restore humanity to its original purpose, namely a communion with God’s life. Salvation, for the Greek Fathers, is “the destruction of the power of Satan and the restoration of creation to its original destiny through the perfecting and theosis of man” (Romanides 1957:112).
  • God, as benevolent and loving, could not be the cause of death. Death was rather seen as the creation of Satan, “the primary cause of transgression, sin, and death” (Romanides 1957:79) and a consequence of man’s distancing from divine life—not as a divine punishment. God allowed it out of compassion, so that man does not become “immortal in sin,” but did not create it (Romanides 1957:32).
  • Humanity participated in the consequences of Adam’s sin, not the sin itself. It did, however inherit from Adam a corrupted and mortal nature, with a propensity towards sin (Romanides 1957:166-67). [9]
This difference has, according to Romanides, important moral implications. For instance, the early Church Fathers were not concerned with the question of evil (how can God be benevolent and cruel at the same time?) because God was not seen as the source of cruelty. It also lacked the fear of a punishing God: for instance, it did not interpret hell as a created fire by which God punishes the sinful but as the experience of God’s glory as torture by those who have missed the possibility of a communion with God (Romanides 1982:96).

From Theology to History: Romiosíni

In his second book, Romiosíni (Ρωμιοσύνη), Romanides connects the above theological analysis to a wider interpretation of Church history. [10] This book expands on the themes of the Ancestral Sin and offers a historical interpretation for the reasons why the heretical (“Western”) views came to prevail throughout the Middle Ages, and still today, even within the Orthodox Church. According to Romanides, the theology of the Apostolic Church, as presented in his first book, was common to both the Greek and the Latin Fathers of the first centuries after Christ. Because they wrote in the period of the Roman Empire, Romanides calls them “Roman” Fathers. It should be noted, however, that linguistic differences among “Greek” and “Latin” Church fathers were relatively insignificant, the content of their theologies being relatively similar.
Romanides argues that things began to change with Augustine, whose views on the ancestral sin were fundamentally different from those of the previous Church fathers. Augustine’s main mistake, according to Romanides, is the rejection of “deification” as a real possibility for humanity (Romanides 1982:39) and the subsequent belief that the primary means through which men can approach God is the use of reason (Romanides 1982:85). [11] Augustine therefore could not understand the ancestral sin as the failure to achieve deification; instead, he interpreted it as the transgression of divine rule.
According to Romanides, Augustine’s “heretical” theology became official in the West mainly for political reasons. After conquering the western part of the Roman Empire, the Franks and other Teutonic tribes managed to gain control over the Patriarchate of Rome and made Augustine’s theology its official theology (Romanides 1982:78). They would later claim that the Patriarchate of Rome (which was under their control) was the sole representative of true Christian faith. Politically, the same Franks, after subjugating the Romans, declared themselves the sole heirs of the Roman Empire and rejected the authority of its “legitimate” Emperor, whom they started to call “Greek” (Romanides 1982:193) by falsely equating the terms “Roman” and “Latin” (Romanides 1982 133) and by referring to the Eastern Roman Empire as Greek. Later “Western” historiography went even further and referred to that Empire as “Byzantium” and to its inhabitants as “Byzantines.” Romanides explains that these appellations, while official in history books, are contrary to the self-definition of the inhabitants of that region, who always thought of themselves as “Romans,” as well as to the way in which they were known to their neighbors: Romanides explains that the Ottomans would refer to the Christian population of the Roman Empire as “Rum”; and that, as late as the 1950s, many Greeks would refer to themselves as “Romií,” i.e., Romans (Romanides 1982:294).
Romanides builds on these ideas to argue that the creation of the modern Greek state was the work of the “Westerners” and the Russians, who wanted to prevent the recreation of the Roman Empire, and preferred to divide the region into smaller nation-states with parochial-national identities. For this reason, the modern Greek state would claim direct linkage to ancient Greece, rather than the civilization of Christian Rome (i.e. Byzantium). Its inhabitants were called ‘Greeks’ (“Graikoi,” according to the way in which ancient Hellas was known in the West), rather than “Romií.” Romanides writes:

Paradoxically, the external enemies of Romanity (“Romiosíni,” “Ρωμιοσύνη”) found in Greece a naive collaborator, the neo-Greek spirit, which was servile to the Franks (“Φραγκιάν”). This spirit, unfortunately, prevailed after 1821; imbued with the Eurofrankish and Russian bias characteristic of those times, and with contempt for medieval Romanity, and out of a dedication to the European conception of ancient Greeks, and creating among the Romií a Teutonic-type racism with the thought that they are the descendants of only the ancient Greeks, it preached to the Romií of Greece that they should not be called Hellenes and Romans, but only Hellenes and Greeks (Romanides 1982:23)
The above quote is interesting in many respects. First, Romanides condemns the very creation of the modern Greek state, which he sees as a protectorate of foreign powers, as well as extremely limited compared to the Roman Empire, the true home of the “Hellenes and Romans.” Second, he finds a way to maintain the unity of the Greek nation throughout history while condemning racist theories of biological descent, for which he blames, once more, the Russians and the Europeans. Most importantly, Romanides puts together the “Franks” and the Russians—and holds them both responsible for the destruction of the Helleno-Roman nation; he thus makes it clear that he does not see modern Russia as continuing the “Roman” spirit.
Though it is very difficult to distinguish between Romanides’s theological positions and his historical analysis, one could argue that, as he moves from his first book, The Ancestral Sin, to his second one, Romiosíni, theological differences become less important in themselves; they are interpreted as mainly tools used by the Franks to establish their domination over the Romans. In the end, Romanides views Church history as an “ethnic” struggle between the Romans and their Frankish conquerors. The questionable nature of his historical speculations, his intensely polemical writing style, as well as some allegations about his political engagements, [12] contributed to discrediting Romanides’s writings in the eyes of the broader public. His theological work, however, along with its resultant historical views, influenced many Greek intellectuals.

Christos Yannaras: The Critique of Western Essentialism

Christos Yannaras is arguably the most creative of Neo-Orthodox theologians. While he shares many of Romanides’s theological views, he is primarily interested in the theological differences between East and West that Romanides points out, rather than in the alleged ethnic struggle between Romans and Franks; Yannaras argues that these differences have a philosophical and civilizational meaning that goes beyond theology.
Yannaras was born in 1935. At a very young age, he joined the brotherhood Zoe, a very important Christian group formed in 1907 on the model of pietism fraternities. Yannaras was uncomfortable in this environment. He felt that, under the rigidity of its ideas, it missed the essence of Christianity. For this reason, he decided to broaden his horizons by studying theology at the University of Athens. [13] Later, he went to Paris to pursue doctoral studies in theology and philosophy. There, he became very interested in Heidegger and his critique of Western metaphysics. He discovered existentialism (through J. P. Sartre and A. Camus), from which he took the idea that human freedom is irreducible to a human “essence” and that freedom (freedom to choose, to transcend one’s nature, to shape oneself through one’s actions) is what defines humanity. He also discovered personalism through Emmanuel Mounier and Nikolai Berdyaev; from it he took the idea that one could find in early Patristics a philosophy of personhood that stresses human dignity without falling into the traps of either Western (bourgeois) individualism or communist totalitarianism, two systems which, according to Yannaras, failed to adequately respect human freedom (Yannaras 1998). At the same time, Yannaras got acquainted with neo-Patristics (Florovsky), Catholic scholars of the early Church (Urs von Balthazar, Jean Danielou), and the Orthodox theologians of the Russian diaspora (Vladimir Lossky, Alexander Schmemann). Of these, the most important influence was most probably Vladimir Lossky, a Russian theologian who, in 1944, published The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a book that would become a reference among Orthodox theologians and would also shape the way in which non-Orthodox understand Orthodox Christianity. [14]
Yannaras has published more than 35 books, seven of which have been translated into English. He has also published in theological journals, periodicals, and daily Greek newspapers. His writings cover questions of philosophy, theology, history, and contemporary politics. An extensive analysis of all this work is beyond the limits of my discussion here, which is mostly based on three of Yannaras’s publications: his article “The Consequences of an Erroneous Trinitology for the Modern World” (1982), the theological summary of his thoughts in his book Freedom of Morality (1984), and his book on the intellectual and theological history of modern Greece entitled Orthodoxy and the West (2007).
Following Vladimir Lossky, Yannaras argues that the separation between the Eastern and the Western Church, which became official with the schism of 1054, was the result of a civilizational divide that had already started in the fourth through sixth century trinitarian debates. In a nutshell, these debates aimed at formulating the proper way to make sense of the Holy Trinity, while also explaining the fact that God is one and exists as three, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lossky suggested that the Greek Fathers placed more emphasis on the personal aspect of the Trinity, whereas the Latin Fathers stressed the idea of a divine essence (Lossky 1976:57-58). [15] According to this view, the Latin theologians would start from the principle of divine unity, which they saw in the common divine essence, and then proceed to deduce the three persons as following logically from the necessity of that divine essence. The Greeks, on the contrary, would start from the three persons (or hypostases, ‘substances’), and move up to the principle of unity, which they would locate in one of these persons, namely the person of the Father. [16]
Yannaras sees in the Trinitarian essentialism of the West the origins of modern secularism. He argues that the primacy of the divine essence is at the roots of Western secularism, while the Orthodox East has rather focused on the personal aspect of God. This is because Western essentialism reduces God into an abstraction, while Eastern personalism focuses on the immediate experience of a personal God whose mode of existence is freedom. [17] For Yannaras, as for Lossky, there is also a difference in the way a human person is understood: while the Latins would define humanity by appealing to human nature and emphasize the elements of rationality and individual boundaries (Lossky 1974:111-23), the Greeks would, on the contrary, stress “the irreducibility of man to his nature” (Lossky 1974:120). Yannaras understands the “Greek” view in light of Sartre’s idea that in humans, “existence precedes essence”; but rather than concluding, like Sartre, that men shape themselves through their actions, Yannaras stresses that humans are bound to always transcend their “essence” by relating with others. Yannaras interprets sin as, precisely, the failure to do so and the retreat into the comfort of one’s given “nature,” including one’s character, beliefs, and professions (Yannaras 1984:21, 181). [18]

Orthodoxy and the West: Reconstructing “Hellenic Self-Identity”

Like Lossky and Romanides, Yannaras saw a sharp distinction between the civilizations of “Orthodoxy” and “the West.” Like Lossky, he saw the West as individualistic, rationalistic, and essentialist. Like Romanides, he resented the legalism of the West, which opposed an existentialist system of ethics focusing on human relations. For Yannaras, these two critiques are actually linked. A theology which sees the relation between God and men as primarily mediated by reason would also tend to interpret sin in moralistic terms and develop a rational understanding of sin as the transgression of a rule. On the contrary, a theology which views divine (and subsequently human) persons as primarily relational beings would tend to interpret sin as a relational failure.
In his historical treatise entitled Orthodoxy and the West, Yannaras attempts to show that the Greek world has been alienated from its original way of life (centered on human relations) and led to adopt the legalistic and rationalistic ideas of the West. This happened, according to Yannaras a) with the translation of the writings of Thomas Aquinas—the most rationalistic of all Western theologians—into Greek b) politically, with the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed the Byzantine Empire c) with the adoption of Western theological manuals by the Orthodox Church during the Ottoman period and d) with the creation of the modern Greek state by the European powers and the substitution of the traditional ecclesiastical culture with the rational, Western institutions characteristic of modern nation-states.
Published in 1992, Yannaras’s book follows a strict chronological order. He sees the beginnings of modern (i.e. alienated) Hellenism in “1354, when Demetrios Kydones … translated into Greek the Summa contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas,” an event that signaled “a new historical period in which the Greeks gradually transferred the focus of their attention from their own tradition and their own civilization to another vision and another ideal” (2007:3). Yannaras follows “the first Greek Unionists” (Ch. 5, 45–50), the Scholastics (Ch. 6, 51–58) and other Western attempts to westernize the Orthodox world in the 17th century. He notices the gradual introduction of Western ideas within the Orthodox Church, despite regular resistance from theological movements such as Palamism, but also from various movements of popular resistance to westernization (Ch. 11, 111–137).
For Yannaras, “Greek independence from the Turks … was the result of the living Christian faith of the people and was achieved, to a large extent, by the clergy” (1992:157). However, “from the start, the Greek state modeled its social and political institutions on the West” (1992:158). The state was economically and politically subordinated to the European powers: the education system was established on the model of German Universities” (1992:160), and “neo-classicism became obligatory for Orthodox church architecture” (1992:167). The autocephalous Church was made dependent on the secular state, on the model of Bavaria (1992:171). There was resistance from the monasteries, which were under attack, and often closed down (Ch. 15, 169–192). Theological schools and para-ecclesiastical organizations completed the “westernization” of popular religious tradition. Yannaras thus interprets modern Greek history as a struggle between authentic Orthodoxy, found mostly in monasteries, local tradition, and popular faith, and the “West,” represented by the state institutions, para-ecclesiastical organizations, as well as the Church of Greece. Further, Yannaras’s only hope for the preservation of modern Greek identity is the Orthodox revival that, as he claims, started taking place in the 1960s.
Yannaras’s accounts of medieval Christianity lack Romanides’s polemical tone but have striking similarities in content. [19] For instance, Yannaras explains the “legalism” of the West by the fact that the Western Church had to rule over illiterate populations who lacked the political refinement of their Roman counterparts and were therefore in need of top-down rules of conduct. [20] Yannaras also agrees with Romanides that “a national form of Christianity assisted the Franks’ political ambitions, especially after 800, when Charles the Great (Charlemagne) became king” and that, in this goal, “Augustine’s theology was decisive.” Like Romanides, Yannaras argues that while, at first, the Church rejected the innovations of the Franks, “from 1009, the Franks controlled the succession to the papal throne and Latin Orthodoxy dropped its resistance” (Yannaras 2007:16–18).
While placing emphasis on the religious tradition of Greece, Yannaras, like Romanides, [21] refers to ancient Greece with praise, stressing the continuity between ancient Hellenism and authentic Orthodoxy. He writes that ancient Greek philosophy was closer to the initial Christian (and later, Orthodox) worldview than the tradition of Western Enlightenment (itself, a by-product of Western Christianity), would have us believe. Yannaras often quotes Heraclitus’s writing that “only in communion are we in the truth,” [22] and argues that, in ancient Greece, as in authentic Orthodoxy, truth was always associated with a collective (and for that reason relational) validation. Following Heidegger, he opposes this conception to the scholastic definition of truth as “adequatio intellectus rei”, i.e. a conformity between the intellect and the things, which Yannaras sees as one more illustration of Western rationalism.
Pushing Romanides’s arguments one step further, Yannaras defines Hellenism as a way of life, the philosophical foundations of which are the primacy of the category of “relation” and the condemnation of individualism as both an epistemological and moral fallacy. According to Yannaras, this way of life started with ancient Greek philosophy, found its apogee in Christianity, and has been preserved, to a certain extent, in the current Greek Orthodox tradition. The history of modern Greece is, to a large extent, the history of a systematic attack against this way of life by Western individualism.


Yannaras and Romanides’s theological works thus serve as the means to solve multiple tensions within modern Greek historiographical discourse. They use Orthodox exegesis to draw conclusions about modern Greek history, and vice versa. Their historical poetics offer an alternative reading to Greek “national” historiography and a “solution” to the problem of Greek continuity, by advocating for the fundamental unity of ancient Greek and Byzantine civilizations, without having to establish some kind of biological descent. For Yannaras, who is the most creative in this respect, this unity stems from a major philosophical agreement: the primacy of the category of “relation” over that of “substance.” This primacy, according to Yannaras, can be seen in metaphysics (through the understanding of reality as fundamentally relational), in politics (through the primacy of human relations over individualism), and in epistemology (through a “relational” approach to truth).
This unity allows for a re-appropriation of ancient Greece by modern day Greeks, who are seen by Yannaras as the successors of the ancient Greek philosophers, since the fundamental intuition of these philosophers (namely the primacy of the category of relation) is, according to Yannaras, more present in contemporary Greek folk culture (through Orthodox Christianity) than in Western universities. Neo-Orthodoxy has therefore a clear anti-elitist dimension. Moreover, by attributing a precise philosophical message to this unity, Yannaras was able to put Greece at the center of the world’s intellectual debates. Its civilizational message is presented as the transcendence of both capitalism and socialism (both interpreted as by-products of the metaphysical presuppositions of the “West”) [23] and the only way to a more humane type of society.
Romanides’s and Yannaras’s discourse became particularly appealing in the 1980s and 1990s, for many reasons and to multiple audiences. Greece had been a member of the NATO alliance for a long time and had recently entered the European Union. Neo-orthodoxy allowed the Greek intellectual and political elites to see their country enter the European Union as a central civilizational entity and not as a “poor relation,” while it gave the average Greek citizen a confidence boost and a sense of national pride. In addition, Yannaras’s discourse gave members of the Greek intellectual left a way to reject the liberal-capitalistic West without embracing communist totalitarianism. Finally, it gave the Greek Church a newly found meaning by interpreting its dogmas as reflections of a crucial philosophical message.
It can be said that both Yannaras and Romanides interweave theological doctrine and historiographical critique. Their arguments dared to reverse Greece’s dominant historical narrative and to provide a re-appropriation of ancient Greek history at the time when Greece was gradually entering into Western institutions (NATO, EU) as an equal partner. Their theological investigations and their historical poetics are two sides of the same coin, one reinforcing the other and serving as building blocks for the redefinition of Greek national identity.


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Romanides, J.S. 1955-1956. “Original Sin According to St Paul.” St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 4:5–28.
Romanides, J.S. 1957. The Ancestral Sin: A Comparative Study of the Sin of our Ancestors Adam and Eve. Athens.
Romanides, J.S. 1981. Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine: An Interplay Between Theology and Society. Brookline.
Romanides, J.S. 1982. Romanity (Ρομιωσύνη, Ρωμανία Ρουμελη), 2nd ed. Athens.
Spiteris, Y. 1992. La teologia ortodossa neo-greca. Bologna.
Stavrakakis, Y. 2003. “Religion and Politics: On the ‘Politicization’ of Greek Church Discourse.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21:151–183.
Weaver, D. 1985. “The Exegesis of Romans 5:12 Among the Greek Fathers and its Implication for the Doctrine of Original Sin: The 5th-12th Centuries, Part II.” Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 29:133–159, 231–257.
Yannaras, C. 1975. “The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and its Importance for Theology.” Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 19:232–245.
Yannaras, C. 1982. “Consequences of an Erroneous Trinitology in the Modern World.” In La signification et l’actualité du IIème Concile Oecuménique pour le monde chrétien d’aujourd’hui 497–502. Geneva.
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[ back ] 1. For an overview of the main ideas associated with neo-Orthodoxy, see Makrides 1998.
[ back ] 2. For a definition of historical poetics, see the introduction to this volume.
[ back ] 3. This conversion of the Greek Church to Greek nationalism led it, for instance, to be very vocal about the need to maintain religious affiliation mentioned in Greek national identity cards in the 1990s or to have a strong foreign policy, especially under Archbishop Christodoulos in the 1990s. For an overview of the interplay between religion and politics in Greece during the 1990s, see Stavrakakis 2003.
[ back ] 4. See Athanassopoulos 2008:18, “The hostile stance towards Byzantium, exemplified by Koraes, continued during the first decades of the existence of the Modern Greek state, from 1860–1930.”
[ back ] 5. This does not mean that secularists necessarily dismiss Byzantium, or that religious Greeks will look primarily at Constantinople. One can be a secular Greek nationalist and still refer to Byzantium, seen as a glorious Greek Empire. One can be very religious but think that it is the Church of Athens, protected and supported by the independent Greek State, rather than the Patriarchate of Constantinople, under Turkish control, which represents the true faith. But it is certainly true that the degree to which one sees religion as an important element of Greek national identity is often linked to one’s general evaluation of Byzantium.
[ back ] 6. For a recent overview of both Romanides and Yannaras’s politics, in light of their theology, see Payne 2011.
[ back ] 7. A vital component of Christian theology, the idea of the “ancestral sin” has played a dominant role in traditional Christian social life, see J. Campbell 1975. The exact content of this idea in Orthodox theology became a matter of intense debate after the publication of John Romanides’s book, and led to numerous philological studies, in Greece and abroad, see Weaver 1985 and de Halleux 1984.
[ back ] 8. This possibility for man to become God did not involve any kind of pantheism, according to Romanides, because the Church would distinguish between God’s essence, which is inscrutable and incommunicable, and God’s energies, which are the ways in which God exists (Romanides 1957:111). For this distinction, Romanides relies on the work of 14th century theologian Gregory Palamas, who compared God’s essence to the essence of the sun and God’s energies to the rays of the sun. The rays are the sun itself but are different from its core. They are the ways in which the sun exists outside of itself.
[ back ] 9. According to John Meyendorf, who follows Romanides, the idea of a transmission of Adam and Eve’s sin to the whole of humanity comes from Augustine’s misinterpretation of Romans 5:12. The Greek passage reads as follows: Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἐνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον· (“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people ἐφ’ ᾧ all sinned.”) The Latin Church Fathers interpreted ἐφ’ ᾧ either as ‘in whom’, and deduced that humanity as a whole had sinned in Adam, or as ‘because’, and drew the same conclusion, namely that humanity as a whole sinned, the reason being that it was somehow contained in Adam and shared his sin. The Greek Fathers, on the contrary, interpreted ἐφ’ ᾧ as ‘because of which’, and attached it to ‘death’ (θάνατος). Based on this interpretation, they argued that humanity sinned because it inherited Adam’s mortality and explained this by the idea that mortality (through the existential anxiety that it brings with it) led them to further sins. Meyendorf 1979:144. For a detailed analysis of this question, see also Weaver 1985 passim.
[ back ] 10. For a presentation of the same ideas in the English language, see also Romanides 1980.
[ back ] 11. As a result, for Romanides, the Augustinian tradition “uses the categories of philosophy to understand the essence of God.” 1992:39.
[ back ] 12. Yannis Spiteris wrote that John Romanides “was entangled in the fascist right during the time of the Colonels.” 1967-74, in Spiteris 1992:283. This view has been challenged by F. Metallinos, who points out that Romanides might even have been a victim of the junta, following anonymous accusations that he was a communist. Metallinos 1985. Romanides did, however, appear as a candidate of an extreme right-wing party of anti-junta Royalists in the elections of 1974.
[ back ] 13. This story is very well developed in Yannaras 1981.
[ back ] 14. Lossky’s ideas are, to a large extent, also the source of inspiration of Romanides’s writings. But whereas Romanides would emphasize the Augustinian doctrine of the original sin and its subsequent use by the Franks for political reasons, Lossky would rather stress differences between Orthodox and “Western” understandings of the Holy Trinity. Like Romanides, Lossky sees a relatively sharp distinction between the civilizations of “Orthodoxy” and the “West.”
[ back ] 15. Before Lossky, this view was first articulated by the Jesuit theologian Theodore de Régnon in the 19th century, himself influenced by the 17th Jesuit theologian Denis Pétau. For a comprehensive account of this issue, see Régnon 1898, as well as the overview of the reception of Régnon’s ideas by Lossky then Yannaras in Halleux 1994 passim.
[ back ] 16. For an overview of this position, see also Zizoulas 1985:27-49.
[ back ] 17. See John Zizioulas, who argues that focusing on the personal basis of divine being means that God exists out of free will: “God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through ‘being’ His free will to exist.” Zizioulas 1985:41.
[ back ] 18. Among human relations, Yannaras places particular emphasis on sexual love, which he calls “the ecstatic power in existence, the potentiality for self-transcendence and loving communion.” Yannaras 1984:186.
[ back ] 19. Yannaras praises Romanides’s Ancestral Sin for reestablishing the authentic Orthodox tradition against the legalistic framework of Western theology but criticizes his later works and their “emphasis on intrigues and conspiracies.” 2007:275–77.
[ back ] 20. Yannaras’s critique is often quite radical: “the God of Augustine, of Anselm, and of Nicodemos, the terrorist God of sadistic demands for justice, is of no concern to man … He must be set aside and put out of mind.” 2007:206. He argues that these demands for justice are the true source of our modern idea of “rights,” which he criticizes as “pre-political achievements. ” 2004:88.
[ back ] 21. For this reason, Romanides writes that “the Ancient Romans had become themselves Greeks as regards their language, their education and their civilization before they conquered Greece.” 1982:39.
[ back ] 22. Heraclitus, Frag. Diels-Kranz I, 29-30, 148, quoted in Yannaras 1988:65.
[ back ] 23. “Socialism and liberalism … were (and are) two sides of the same coin: the naturalism of the Enlightenment, the view of man as res cogitans (Descartes), as animale rationale (Aquinas).” Yannaras 2002.