The Influence of V. V. Bolotov on Orthodox Theology

A very important text for the development of Eastern Orthodox theology in the nineteenth century is Professor V. V. Bolotov’s theses on Filioque. These theses were anonymously published in German translation in the context of the negotiation between the Old Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches after the First Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. They were later published in Russian under his name.

Bolotov’s essay influenced, on the one hand, Eastern Orthodox dogmatic theology with its clear reflection on doctrinal authority in dogmatic theology through the distinction between dogma, theologoumenon, and private theological opinion.

On the other hand, Bolotov’s theses were also ecumenically influential since he argued that the schism between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was not caused by the Filioque but by the ecclesiological claims by the Roman papacy. Bolotov argued that the status of dogma could not be ascribed to the Filioque, but that it was a theologoumenon of some church fathers and, therefore, acceptable as a theologoumenon in Orthodox theology.

Georges Florovsky wrote as follows about Bolotov’s theses:

The most important contribution to the discussions [between Old Catholics and Eastern Orthodox] was an essay by Professor V. V. Bolotov, of the Academy of St Petersburg, Thesen über das “Filioque”. Bolotov suggested a strict distinction between (1) dogmas, (2) theologoumena, and (3) theological opinions. He defined a theologoumenon as a theological opinion held by those ancient teachers who had recognized authority in the undivided Church and are regarded Doctors of the Church. All theologoumena should be regarded as permissible, so long as no binding dogmatic authority is claimed for them. Consequently, the Filioque, for which the authority of St. Augustine can be quoted, is a permissible theological opinion, provided it is not regarded as expressing a doctrine which must be believed as a necessary article of the Faith. On the other hand, Bolotov contended that the Filioque was not the main reason for the split between the East and the West. He concluded that the Filioque, as a private theological opinion, should not be regarded as an impedimentum dirimens to the restoration of intercommunion between the Orthodox and the Old Catholic Churches. It should be added that the clause was omitted by the Old Catholics in Holland and Switzerland, and put in parentheses in the liturgical books in Germany and Austria, to be ultimately omitted also. That is to say that it was excluded from the formal profession of the Faith.

(“The Orthodox Churches and the Ecumenical Movement Prior to 1910” in A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 1: 1517-1948, edited by R. Rouse and S. C. Neill, 3d ed. London, 1986, pp. 208-209.)

The Bulgarian theologian Stefan Zankow wrote as follows about Bolotov’s influence on Orthodox dogmatic theology:

The normal method of adding to the dogmas accepted by the Orthodox Church would be through decisions of the whole Church (oecumenical). The small number might easily have been increased by such practical and, so to speak, illegal means as elevating certain theses of tradition to the positions of dogmatic tenets of the Church. That this has not been the case is explained by the viewpoint, quite generally accepted in modern times, that strict lines must be drawn between “dogma,” “theologumenon,” and mere theological “opinion.” According to this view, “dogma” is the true doctrine fixed by an Oecumenical Council and accepted by the whole Church: only a thesis so determined has the obligatory character of a dogma. The faith of the Orthodox Church is thus objectively and formally expressed in revelation and in dogma, and the theological exposition of that faith must hold itself strictly to these. This faith is the only objectively true and generally obligatory element in the Church. Besides these, there must be considered the “theologumena” of the Church Fathers and the propositions of orthodox theological science.

The general acceptance of this principle in the Orthodox Church is the result of the efforts of the great Russian Church historian, Bolotov. In his “theses” he set forth the following: First, “dogma” is the truth as determined by an Oecumenical Council. Second, “theologumenon” is the theological opinion of one or many of the holy fathers of the undivided Church. The content of the theologumena is probable truth: anyone may adhere to a given theologumenon until a competent church court has decided it to be faulty, just as on the other side no one can demand that a theologian should accept a theologumenon as his private opinion. Of course, the number of the fathers who accept a given viewpoint of this nature has no significance as to its validity; still, the greater the number who defend such a statement, the greater probability of its truth. Third, and last, comes private theological opinion. In comparison with a theologumenon, private opinion has no authority. Each one is free in his personal opinion, but limited by the requirement that private opinion shall not conflict with dogma. The dogmas are “necessaria,” the theologumena, “dubia”: “In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas.”

(The Eastern Orthodox Church, London, 1929, pp. 39-40.)

The German version of Bolotov’s theses are available online here. The Russian version published in several parts is available here.

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