Alexander Schmemann is a window into a theological world much different than typically encountered in American evangelical circles. With a faith firmly grounded in the Russian Orthodox theological tradition and speaking determinedly into late-modern Western life, Schmemann has intrigued many readers with his paeans to the sacramentality of creation and emphasis on liturgy. In this essay, I engage with Schmemann from the Reformed theological tradition. Such a project could take many forms, so it is helpful to be clear about the goal of such a study. I come to Schmemann as a Reformed theologian specializing in my tradition’s historical and dogmatic theology, and I am temperamentally less inclined towards his more intuitive and associative theological style. However, I encounter Schmemann neither as a fanboy nor a critic per se; I hope rather to offer a good faith account of what I find in Schmemann’s work that resonates particularly with the Reformed tradition and seems conducive to broader Christian faithfulness in late modernity. I do not claim any special expertise or academic knowledge of Schmemann, nor am I seeking to compare the Reformed tradition and Eastern Orthodoxy more broadly. Rather, I will engage Schmemann’s thought with theological hospitality as if reflecting on sitting at the feet of an elder theologian and seeing what one has learned, even if this was not necessarily what he or she sought to teach.
Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983) was one of the foremost twentieth century Eastern Orthodox theologians in the United States and a founding leader of the Orthodox Church in America. For over thirty years, Schmemann was professor and dean at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, which was the chief vector of Eastern Orthodox theology into the Anglophone world since WWII. Schmemann must be understood within the broader trends of mid-century Russian Orthodox theology that regrouped in Paris after the Russian Revolution around St. Sergius Orthodox Institute. The most influential strand of this movement attempted to reinvigorate the Orthodox tradition via a retrieval project of the Patristic inheritance. This situates him firmly within the Neo-Patristic revival of Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, and John Meyendorff, who sought to synthesize the mind of the Church Fathers to enliven the contemporary church — the most obvious fruit of this movement for those outside Orthodoxy has been the St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series. The Neo-Patristic movement is of a piece with the broader transconfessional ressourcement or retrieval movement(s) from the 1920s onward including the Catholic Novelle Theologie (e.g. De Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs van Balthasar) and Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy (e.g. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and T.F. Torrance). Thus Schmemann is a theologian looking to the past to equip the present church, which makes him a worthy conversation partner for evangelical retrieval theology today.
Schmemann’s niche in the Neo-Patristic revival was his focus on liturgy, seen most fully in his popular work For the Life of the World and major academic study Introduction to Liturgical Theology. His liturgical concentration connects him into another broad post-War project known as the Liturgical Movement in which thinkers across theological traditions attempted to ground theological understanding and ecumenical fellowship in liturgical studies rather than dogmatics or exegesis. As Schmemann notes, the purpose of this movement was “the genuine discovery of worship as the life of the Church.” Because of this, Schmemann’s theologizing most often takes the form of exegesis of and extrapolation from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy as a site and source of theology. Therefore, Schmemann reflects on tradition and the rule of prayer, the lex orandi, “to make the liturgical experience of the Church again one of the life-giving sources of the knowledge of God.” Schmemann aspired to speak the truth of Christ to a secular world through applying a synthesis of the Fathers and reflection on the Orthodox liturgy to reframe all of life towards God.
Schmemann’s theology envisions the Christian faith within a cosmic horizon with a mission stretching from creation to the new heavens and new earth. Creation is a sacrament of God’s presence, which is given ultimately as a gift to humanity, by which he makes himself known. “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation.” Humanity is construed fundamentally as priestly in nature, offering back all of the cosmos to the Creator as thanksgiving (Eucharist); thus, the human mission is fundamentally eucharistic. The fall and sin are, therefore, a rejection of both the sacramental nature of creation by substituting a dualism of secular/sacred or natural/supernatural for primeval wholeness and an arrogant abdication of humanity’s priestly role. “Sin is itself perceived here as a falling away of man, and in him all of creation, from this sacramentality, from the ‘paradise of delight,’ and into ‘this world,’ which lives no longer according to God, but according to itself and in itself and is therefore corrupt and mortal.”
Schmemann’s main framing for the rectification of this situation is Eucharistic, i.e. the fundamental thanksgiving-ness of the sacrament and the Christian life as a whole. Just as the creational nature of humanity is thanksgiving and the failure of thanksgiving is the essence of sin, Christ comes as the ultimate thanksgiving offering of man and creation. The liturgy and the Lord’s Supper reiterate this thanksgiving; the eschaton and the eschatological purpose of humanity is also a return to proper thanksgiving towards God. Thus, humanity’s failure to see and inhabit the sacramentality of life is rectified in the coming of Christ, the perfect priest of God who offers the cosmos back to God the Father. Christ offers a way of life through the church and sacraments, which he not only makes possible but also fulfills. As Schmemann notes in the purpose statement of his most famous work, For the Life of the World, “in Christ, life — life in all its totality — was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist.”
The conception of life in Christ is fundamentally shaped by the gratuity of God in creation and redemption as expressed in the biblical narrative from Adam to New Creation. The Church then lives out this narrative in the liturgy. The Church comes into being by the Eucharist, which is the center of her liturgy, issuing outward to joyous life with God amid the world that is being again the cosmos: “the Eucharist is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord. And, to enter into that joy, so as to be a witness to it in the world, is indeed the very calling of the Church, its essential leitourgia, the sacrament by which it ‘becomes what it is.’” Standing over and against this is “religion” and “secularism,” both of which deny the sacramental quality of the cosmos. Religion seeks to escape embodied existence to an ethereal life, while “secularism” denies humanity as a worshiping being. Schmemann then situations proper life in Christ against these two failures calling for a whole life lived in the sacramental presence of God, instantiated most fundamentally for him in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy — the Ordo — both as performed and as the performance overflows to shape all of life.
While the accent of Schmemann’s understanding of the faith may seem unfamiliar to Protestants there are many themes that resonate with the emphasis of the Reformed tradition and provide a goad for theological fruitfulness and active faithfulness. First, Schmemann consistently emphasizes the goodness of creation and the suitability of created humanity to know and serve God. Many Reformed theologians in the past generation have been actively concerned with avoiding a sacred/secular dualism that denigrates creational goodness. The emphasis on the goodness of Creation as a theater of God’s glory can be seen from the earliest articulations of the Reformed tradition. As Calvin argues, “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.” Humanity was created to know and see God and the physical creation was intended to be one means of this knowledge and communion with the Creator. Schmemann and Calvin would agree that while the intended purpose of creational splendor is the revelation of God; they would differ on the causes and extent of fallen humanity’s blindness to this revelation. Yet, even so, we can see a common understanding that Christian faith and life is at home in the very physical creation we inhabit.
This connects to a second shared theme between Schmemann and the Reformed tradition, that of the continuity of creation and redemption. Rather than seeing salvation in Christ as a removal from creational goodness and the original teleology of creation, Christ redeems and restores humanity to be the image of God in this place. This overturns an escapist soteriology that can be found in dispensationalism and much older evangelicalism. Also rejected is the worldly vision of salvation seen as securing the kingdom of God by human will in the present through social and political action, such as in the Social Gospel and Protestant liberalism, which elevated the natural over the supernatural end of humanity. In speaking of the connection between creation and Baptism Schmemann states, “Christ came not to replace ‘natural’ matter with some ‘supernatural’ and sacred matter, but to restore it and to fulfill it as the means of communion with God.” The creation is such that it is not a hindrance to God’s action or revelation of Himself. The problem in the world and ourselves is not our creatureliness, limitation, or finitude but sin. Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck expresses the same idea: “Grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin. Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin.”
This idea of grace restoring rather than replacing or overriding nature also helps one understand Schmemann’s emphasis on the sacramentality of creation. This terminology can rightly cause concern of a lurking panentheism, as if every aspect of creation simply becomes divine. However, this would be to give into a dichotomous and competitive model of God and matter that Schmemann and the Reformed tradition both reject. Matter can be a vehicle for God’s revelation and even presence while retaining its created integrity and God’s transcendence. Schmemann argues for this theme clearly in his case for the symbolic-yet-real nature of the sacrament. “A sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as ‘this world,’ will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transformation in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself.”
While the Reformed would restrict the language of “sacrament” proper to the covenant of grace in Christ and the direct institution by Christ there can be agreement on the acknowledgement that there is a meaningful continuity between the revelatory nature of creation and the sacrament. What is offered to the Church in the sacraments is not something that removes us from the creational and material world, but a communion and union with the ascended humanity of Christ, the very fount of redemption and the foretaste of renewed embodied existence.
The theological vision offered by Schmemann presents a strong call away from both secularism and a therapeutic understanding of the Church’s life in the world. Much like the Reformed Puritans and the Neo-Calvinist tradition, Schmemann calls for a whole-life devotion to Christ as the proper end of human existence. The essence of modern secularism, in Schmemann’s idiom, is humanity’s failure to see the world as the sacrament of God and to live life eucharistically. Modern secularism is fundamentally a “negation of worship,” a denial of humanity’s creaturely status, and an assertion of autonomous self-making: “the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.”
The modern church has capitulated to this by attempting to establish its significance in the eyes of the world through those activities that are perceived as value-making by the market or media. Operating in the secular frame, churches can only strive to be of earthly good since there is no heavenly perspective available by which her works might be recognized. This tendency can clearly be seen in the trajectory of the mainline churches across the 20th century, for instance. Schmemann called such churchly projects “therapeutic” and occupied with “helping” rather than the Church’s cosmic thanksgiving/eucharistic task. The ecclesiastical existence of the Christian is not a utilitarian endeavor seeking to be a hedonic optimization operation. “For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth.”
Schmemann is intent to set the truth of Christianity, as it is found in Christ, as a new mode of life and power in the world. Life in Christ is not available for the manipulation of nor ends set by a human agenda, which by definition must be a fallen agenda. Christianity is not cope; it must never assist humanity to make peace with or come to terms with the fallen nature of the “old” world as apart from God. “Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men.’” The Gospel is not merely a more effective variant of human ideological schemes. It is not a more effective motivational mantra for the sake of societal peace and security to be taken off the shelf to tighten up civil society when needed. The message of the Church is nothing less than the fully orbed proclamation of the life, light, and love of Christ that established a new world of the Kingdom of God, which demands supremacy over all aspects of creaturely existence and every corner of the human soul.
This vision resonates well with the Puritans’ teleological doctrine of humanity to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” combined with the Kuyperian call to see every sphere of life as under the Lordship of Christ — “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Neither Schmemann nor the Reformed can be content with a compartmentalized Christianity that deals only with some Procrustean human religious need or a view that is ordered to the prosperity of a modern ideological project, nation-state, ethnos, or anything else that is less than Christ’s whole-creational restoration coursing through every sphere.
The alternative to a therapeutic church is fundamentally a missional Church, which is sent by another and for the glory of another. Well before the trendiness of missional talk Schmemann can assert: “The Church came into the world as mission … and cannot without betraying her nature, cease to be mission.” However, this mission is not of the Church’s own making nor a bid for relevance or acceptance. It is God who sends on mission in tune with the very nature and function of creation as sacrament, humanity as priestly, and Christ as head.
Even with these laudatory elements of Schmemann’s thought, there are several points of doctrine and method that are simply unbridgeable between him and Reformed thought, beyond even the standard confessional divergence between the traditions. The status and nature of liturgy stands as the most significant, given the focus of Schmemann’s work. Reformed theology cannot follow along the liturgical path paved by Schmemann, not only because of the Reformed regulative principle of worship, but also because of Schmemann’s own conception of his project. To claim simply that Schmemann shows us the importance of “liturgy” to form believers would, in fact, be a deep undermining of Schmemann’s theological point.
He is not interested in liturgy generically and pedagogically. For Schmemann, liturgy as theology cannot be expressed in a “generic” act of gathered worship but must find expression in the concrete liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Schmemann makes use of liturgical material and patterns not simply as illustrative of theological concepts, which would be expected given that they are constructed to be theologically meaningful, but as a particular source of theological knowledge in a manner analogous to Scripture. That is why Schmemann’s major works take on the shape that they do as explicit expositions and even exegesis of the Eastern Orthodox Ordo. The liturgical structuring is a material quality of his theology, not disposable packaging. This is clear even in Schmemann’s most popular and ecumenically intended work, For the Life of the World. “My only purpose in writing it was to outline — to students preparing themselves for a discussion of Christian mission — the Christian ‘world view,’ i.e., the approach to the world and to man’s life in it that stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church.” For Schmemann, the specific liturgical structure of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical order has a divine sanction and authority which makes it “one of the life-giving sources of the knowledge of God.” This cannot be attained by any simple attempt to appreciate “liturgy” in the abstract.
The liturgy as theologically authoritative in itself cannot be squared with the Protestant or Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura, and Schmemann would not be satisfied with simply a more robust liturgy in Protestant spaces — as much as it might be an improvement in many churches. The divergence of theological sources must be taken seriously, since it is something that Schmemann himself highlights as the distinguishing feature that separates his theology not only from the West — Roman Catholicism and Protestant alike — but also from Eastern Orthodox scholasticism, which is a bête noire running throughout his corpus. He argues that failure to exegete the liturgy along with the theology “has its roots in a deep transformation of theological vision, indeed of the entire theological ‘world view.’” This theological understanding of the liturgy is for Schmemann grounded in a particular historical and ontological account of the essence of the Eastern liturgy. As he states, “For it is precisely in and through her liturgy, that the Church is informed of her cosmic and eschatological vocation, receives the power to fulfill it and thus truly becomes ‘what she is’—the sacrament, in Christ, of the new creation; the sacrament, in Christ, of the Kingdom.”
While a Reformed thinker could likely assent to this statement in a carefully nuanced sense, the meaning of each part and the conception of the whole would be so distinctive that Schmemann would see not a respectful appropriation but a bastardization of his thought. A clear example of this divergence can be seen in one of Schmemann’s most emphatic repudiations of secularism’s weakening of contemporary liturgy even in the Orthodox Church. Schmemann denounces practices that not only fail to connect one to “God, man, and the world, uniting them in one consistent world view[sic], but on the contrary, abolish all ‘communications’ and correspondences” between them.” Such false ideas and practices are “incompatibl[e] with the true spirit and meaning of the leitourgia,” and are “truly a matter of life and death.” What is his main example of such a dire and condemnatory belief and practice? “In fact one of [secularism’s] very sources” is the misunderstanding of the liturgy of blessing holy water. I highlight this to show that in encountering Schmemann he must be understood on his own terms and not simply recast into an image that is most convenient. Taking what seems helpful or useful from Schmemann must only be done while acknowledging the displacement of these ideas into a different theological system. There can be no Protestant appropriation of Schmemann’s thought without acknowledging that he would reject such a project as, at the end of the day, impossible. Such acknowledgment is a proper rendering of honor to Schmemann and fulfillment of the Ninth Commandment.
In reflection on the publication of the Schmemann journals in 2001, Richard John Neuhaus recalled him as “a great spirit; he lived robustly; he had a confident but not corrosive disdain for the banalities of fashionable thought.” Reading Schmemann today is to encounter this robust thinker from beyond the horizon of the normal evangelical discourse on theology, mission, and life together as a Church. The “confident disdain” for ideas that Schmemann finds unacceptable is bracing, even when my own tradition is in the dock. Schmemann ought to encourage us all to rise about the “banalities of fashionable thought” and think and live as a thanksgiving offering to God.
- For this story see Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). ↑
- Paul L. Gavrilyuk, “Varieties of Neopatristics: Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, and Alexander Schmemann,” in The Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought, ed. Caryl Emerson, George Pattison, and Randall A. Poole (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 528–42. ↑
- See Gabriel Flynn and P. D Murray, eds., Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). ↑
- This movement can be seen throughout the evangelical world today. See for instance Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019). For the methodology and rationale of retrieval see John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 583–99. ↑
- Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, trans. Ashleigh E. Moorehouse, 3rd edition (Yonkers, N.Y: St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1966), 14. ↑
- Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 23. ↑
- Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Classics (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2018), 21. ↑
- Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, trans. Paul Kachur, First edition. (Crestwood, N.Y: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 34. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 28. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 34. ↑
- See for instance, Surprised by Hope, Middleton etc. ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.5.1. ↑
- Schmemann would likely not have appreciated his similarity to Calvin. “”Christianity … has lost its eschatological dimension, has turned toward the world as law, judgment, redemption, recompense, as a religion of the future life; finally forbade joy and condemned happiness. There is no distinction here between Rome and Calvin.” David W. Fagerberg, “The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 53, no. 2–3 (2009): 196–97. quoting Schmemann, Journals, 291. ↑
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 577. For this theme developed in Bavinck see Jan Veenhof, Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck, trans. Albert M. Wolters (Sioux City, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006). Available here. ↑
- Schmemann, The Eucharist, 33. ↑
- “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him.” WCF 27.1 ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 140. ↑
- For a discussion of this see George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, 1st edition (New York: Basic Books, 2014). ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 120. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 120. ↑
- Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q 1. ↑
- Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Anthology, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. ↑
- Schmemann, The Eucharist, 87. ↑
- For an accessible overview of some of these distinctions see Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective, Revised edition (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2010). ↑
- Schmemann is not just James K.A. Smith with smells and bells. ↑
- For Schmemann’s identification of this Ordo see Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 33–40. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 13. ↑
- Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 23. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 164. ↑
- Schmemann, “Liturgy and Theology/׳ in Liturgy and Tradition, 57. Cited in Victoria Lebzyak, “Perceiving the Divine: Alexander Schmemann and the Sacramental Affordances of the Liturgy,” Modern Theology 34, no. 4 (2018): 529, https://doi.org/10.1111/moth.12434. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 156. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 155–56. ↑
- Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 156–57. ↑
- Richard John Neuhaus, “Alexander Schmemann: A Man in Full,” First Things, January 2001. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/01/alexander-schmemann-a-man-in-full ↑