Orthodox Theology and Medical Science

Thank you for the invitation to take part in the 15th Panhellenic Congress of Nuclear Medicine with a paper on Orthodox theology and medical science.

This subject is timely, because in our day various views are expressed about the relationship and difference between theology and science, and we attempt to find the boundaries between them and to achieve good collaboration between them, because we are concerned with the whole human being.

I think that on this subject, too, the findings of contemporary systems theory apply, according to which there are three regulating factors: firstly, there must be boundaries between the systems; secondly, each system must be well organised; and thirdly, communication bridges must be put in place between the different systems. Consequently, the boundaries, the good organisation of each system, and the communication between them are what determine the relationship between Orthodox theology and science.

I shall divide my subject into two parts. The first is ‘Western Theology and Science’, and the second is ‘The Relationship between Orthodox Theology and Science’. This distinction is made because the theology that developed in the West during the second millennium is different from the Orthodox theology that develops in ‘the Orthodox East’. This distinction must be stressed, lest these theologies be confused, and lest the mistakes of one be attributed to the other.

1. Western Theology and Science

In Europe from the 11th century onwards a change began in theology: ‘scholastic’ theology began to evolve, reaching its height in the 13th century.
The characteristic feature of this theology that was cultivated in the West is primarily that it relied exclusively on reason and the rational faculty. We are not against reason, but we are against rationalism; nor are we against the rational faculty, but we are against being controlled by it. Reasoning was used as the single methodology both for relations with God and for relations with the world. In other words, they apply the same method when they communicate with the material world and when they investigate God. The rational faculty is central in both cases.

To analyse this slightly more, I could say that the theologians of that period relied on the metaphysical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and used it to interpret everything. By ‘metaphysical’ we mean that God is beyond nature, and that there is unity between metaphysical things and natural things.

Plato asserted that all created things are copies of the world of ideas, which is inside the Supreme Being. He clearly writes that the reason why a human being is able to construct a table is that the human soul, which was in the world of ideas before it was enclosed in the body, was acquainted with the idea of the table, so the human being constructs it.

Aristotle formulated this theory of his teacher, Plato, differently. According to Aristotle, the Supreme Being is the first unmoved mover of everything. Matter is without form, but it is receptive to being perfected, so that “from potentiality it is brought to actuality”, and this comes about through movement.

On the basis of these principles of metaphysical philosophy a particular worldview took shape, according to which the entire universe and human beings were interpreted. This eternal Being relates to the beings that exist in the world; it directs them, regulates them and determines them.

The 13th century scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas, relying on these principles, created a philosophical-theological system, by which he devised proofs for the existence of God. For instance, the ontological proof of God is based on the fact that within the human soul, which pre-existed in the world of ideas, the memory of God exists, and therefore the human being believes in God. Also, the cosmological proof for God’s existence is that all beings are copies of the ideas, or were made by the unmoving Being and have a purpose and destiny.

In Europe from time to time there were reactions against the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, and various theological and philosophical currents emerged, such as Nominalism in the 14th century, Humanism and the Renaissance in the 15th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I shall dwell briefly on the trend of the Enlightenment, which, for various reasons, demolished the worldview of metaphysics and scholasticism. The Enlightenment denied that a mechanistic relationship exists between the God of metaphysics and the world. It denied that all beings are copies of the ideas that are in the Supreme Being, which is not proved by observation or by experiment, and it denied that all beings are immutable since they are copies of the ideas in the Supreme Being. And since this Supreme Being cannot proved by observation or experiment, the Enlightenment rejected the God of scholastic metaphysics. Thus the sciences developed, independently of the philosophy and theology of the West; in other words, the scientists rejected metaphysics.

As a result, a conflict arose between metaphysical theology and science. On the one hand, the scientists denied the views of metaphysical theology, and, on the other, the metaphysical theologians, thinking that God was being called into question by the new sciences, reacted against the views and discoveries of the scientists of that time. Consequently, terrible events took place in Western Europe, such as the Holy Inquisition and its sentences. This conflict continues until now, in a different way, when some people refuse vaccinations or something else in the name of faith.

2. Relationship between Orthodox Theology and Science

The theology that developed and continues to prevail in the Orthodox Church has a different starting-point from Western scholastic theology, and for that reason we have never had conflicts between theology and science, nor a Holy Inquisition. In Orthodox theology we do not believe in the distinction between natural and metaphysical, but in the distinction between created and uncreated. Also, we do not believe that beings are copies of the ideas that are in the Supreme Being, but that God’s creative energy is in all beings.

We should look at this in the light of two basic principles of Orthodox theology, which define the relationship of God with the world, and the relationship of human beings with God and the world.

The first basic principle of Orthodox theology is that there is not one single methodological principle for knowing God and the world, as scholastic theology teaches, but there is a twofold methodology. Instead of the rational faculty being the organ that studies the world and at the same time understands God, a distinction is made between the nous and the rational faculty. This means that human beings relate to God through their nous, and through their rational faculty they investigate creation. This is the twofold methodology.

St Gregory Palamas, for example, adopted Aristotle’s view that the human soul has nous and sense perception. Through the nous human beings have communication with God, and through sense perception they have communication with creation. Between these two energies of nous and sense perception, there are another three energies: imagination, opinion and mind. These three powers are connected with sense perception. Imagination, opinion and mind originate from sense perception, whereas the nous is a faculty of the soul that is complete in itself. For this reason, we say that the method by which the visible world is investigated (the senses, imagination, opinion, mind) is different from the method by which human beings communicate with God (the nous).

This has important consequences, because theology does not conflict with science, as the two operate on different levels. Theologian-saints participate with their pure nous in God’s energies, and scientists study beings and the creation through sense perception and reason. In this way, no conflict arises between faith and science.

Theologians may, of course, also get involved in science and the subjects that it studies – the creation – provided they are also scientists. And scientists may get involved in theology, provided they are also theologians. This means that theologians do not get involved in science on account of their theology, nor do scientists get involved in theology on account of their science.

When I speak about theology, I am not referring to theologians who study theology and must necessarily take an interest in the science relevant to their discipline, such as the philological treatment of texts, the study of religions, the analysis of ecclesiastical arts, the investigation of sociological principles, and so on. Rather, I am referring to theologian-saints who, by means of a particular method of purification, illumination and deification, acquire experience of God.

Theology is the formulation of empirical knowledge of God, and more specifically, of participation in God’s uncreated energies. As a result, the theologian sees and knows by experience God’s creative energy within creation, which the God-seeing Fathers of the Church describe as ‘the inner principles (logoi) of beings’. This is the way in which theologian-saints know that God is the Creator of the world and creation, and sustains creation, but also the way in which they participate in the deifying energy of God as uncreated Light. This knowledge is not the outcome of intellectual, philosophical or scientific study.

We see this in St Basil the Great, who studied all the sciences of his era – astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and so on – but who also, using another method, acquired experience of God. Thus he distinguished between the method for acquiring knowledge of visible things and the method for acquiring knowledge of God. In his homilies on The Six Days of the Creation, he interpreted the creation of the world using, up to a point, the prevailing knowledge of his era. But he had his own empirical knowledge of God, without any conflict arising between theology and science.

This is an impressive example and model that shows how there can be collaboration between theology and science.

The second basic principle of Orthodox theology is that it is not metaphysics but spiritual medicine. The Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital, the priest-theologian is a spiritual physician, Christ Himself is the physician of souls, and when the soul’s wounds are cured, this often has therapeutic consequences for the body and well. Theology is spiritual medical science. When someone is freed from anxiety and anguish, this also has repercussions for the body.

Throughout Holy Scripture, the liturgical texts and patristic teaching abundant use is made of medical subject-matter. Τhis shows that the Orthodox Church is akin to medical science and not philosophy.

For example, Canon 102 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council (691-692) calls sin a “disease”, an “illness”, and an “ulcer of the soul.” Dealing with sin is described as “treatment appropriate to the illness.” The manner in which sins are treated is characterised as “medicine”. The clergy are referred to as physicians who practise “the science of spiritual medicine”, the aim of which is “health.”

It is in this perspective that we speak about collaboration between the clergy and doctors. The clergy treat people’s spiritual diseases, and when there are bodily illnesses, these are dealt with by doctors who treat the body. And if the doctor treating someone’s bodily organism see inner insecurities of the soul, the doctor refers the patient to the priest, who knows the method of spiritual therapy.

It should be noted that a certain dualism, as opposed to monism, developed in the West, which asserts that there are two principles, spirit and matter, the imaginary and the real, and holds that religion is concerned with the spirit, and medical science with the body. This dualism created many problems for people, and for this reason psychology and psychiatry developed, in order to fill this void. In the Orthodox Church, however, this is not the case. On the one hand, the human being is regarded as a unity, and there is a special method, known as sacred hesychasm, the theology of spiritual vigilance, which is the intermediary between soul and body. On the other hand, there is close collaboration between the clergy and doctors.

Sacred hesychasm and the sacramental life of the Church constitute the therapeutic method of the Orthodox Church, which aims to restore the natural function of the human being as a whole, both soul and body.

I referred earlier to the existence of the nous, which is a faculty of the soul different from the rational faculty. This faculty is the eye of the soul through which human beings can communicate with God. With the departure from God, this faculty was darkened and identified with the rational faculty and the senses. The restoration of this noetic faculty by means of the abovementioned therapeutic method, which was delivered to human beings by Christ Himself, and has been preserved and, as it were, ‘tested’ for centuries now, re-establishes communication between human beings and God. Once this is achieved, it also restores healthy communication with other people and with creation.

A medical scientist with an electronic microscope sees cells and the subcellular world. And a theologian-saint with the nous, the eye of the soul, beholds God and the illness of the human soul.

In this context, I have published books on “Orthodox psychotherapy”. I introduced this term, which was accepted by the American Psychological Association, and they included an analysis of my work in the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity. I have also published a book in Greek on Bioethics and Biotheology. At the same time, in my teaching I follow Professor John Romanides, who used to say that Orthodox theology does not belong to the theoretical branches of learning (philosophy), but among the positive sciences (mathematics, medicine).

To be specific, Fr John Romanides said that, from the methodological point of view, Orthodox theology is connected with the positive sciences and not with philosophy, and if Christianity had appeared in our era, we would have understood it, from a methodological viewpoint, as spiritual psychiatry. In physics we have observation and experiment, practice and theory, and it is the same in theology. There is practice, in the form of keeping God’s commandments, and theory, as the vision of God. Doctors are concerned with the body, and diagnose and treat bodily illnesses, and in the same way Orthodox physicians diagnose and treat illnesses of the soul, the nous and the passions. Orthodox theology is not an abstract and speculative science, just as medical science concerned with the body is not an abstract and speculative science; they cannot observe illnesses of the body and soul and philosophise, but they treat people. For example, I cannot imagine a doctor who would talk about philosophy to a patient who was in pain. Likewise, I cannot conceive of a member of the clergy who would philosophise to someone whose soul was in pain.

This is what I teach, and this attracted the interest of the Faculty of Medicine of the School of Health Sciences of the University of Ioannina, and they awarded me the degree of Honorary Doctor of the School.

Before I finish, I should like to refer to something that Francis Collins writes in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, about the day when he, together with Venter and President Clinton, announced the mapping of the human genome.

On that day the American President Clinton said: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.” (Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Free Press, New York 2006, pp. 2-3).

Also, Francis Collins refers in the third part of the book to four options that exist today regarding the relationship between faith and science. The first option is “when science trumps faith”; the second, “when faith trumps science”; the third, “when science needs divine help”, when they are absolutely identified with one another; and the fourth, “science and faith in harmony”. I try to belong to this fourth option, avoiding conflict between faith and science, as unfortunately arises in one section of believers and of scientists.

At the end of his book, Francis Collins, having described how, from being an agnostic, he became a believer when he saw the inner world of the cell, writes:

“It is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit. The war was never really necessary. Like so many earthly wars, this one has been initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished. Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible…Abandon the battlements. Our hopes, joys, and the future of our world depend on it.” (Language of God, pp. 233-234).

Thank you for your attention.


Since 1982 the nuns of the Birth of the Theotokos Monastery have been publishing the books of Metropolitan Hierotheos, the founder and spiritual father of the community, and distributing them throughout the world.


active³ 5.5 · IPS κατασκευή E-shop · Disclaimer