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The Orthodox Ethos Podcast
Episode 17
June 11th, 2020

Our Spiritual and Ecclesiastical Crisis (3/3): An Interview with Professor Demetrios Tselengides

Today on The Orthodox Ethos Podcast:

Part Three of our three part Interview with the Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Demetrios Tselengides, in which he addresses: 

- The criterion of the heart and the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the discernment of sprits, 

- The interpenetration of dogma and life, and the unity of the Way, the Truth and the Life

- And, the move from repentance to confession in practice - that Christ, that is, Divine Communion, is Life

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01:02: Question #1: How can the faithful be so bold as to follow the Holy Fathers?

03:07: They all had the criterion of the heart

03:35: An example of the simple faithful following the Holy Fathers

06:40: Live according to His will and He will inform you

07:43: Question #2: What is the Presupposition for standing aright?

08:00: The Example of the First Oecumenical Council

00:09:51: Truth lived existentially brings spiritual understanding

10:20: Question #3: Is this a dogmatic issue? Is disobedience justified?

10:50: Alliloperichoresis: Dogma and Life are Inseparable

11:58: No event in the Church is unrelated to the Life and Truth of Christ

13:37: The So-called "Home Church"

14:35: Question #4: Is there such a thing as "Private Worship"?

15:02: Choosing between Life or death?

23:33: Question #4: Repentance leads to Confession of Faith

25:48: Question #5: What is there is no leadership or guides?


Biographical Details: 

Professor Tselengidis’ depth of knowledge, his education and studies, and his diligent research and labor have made him an internationally renowned academic theologian of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. His most important offering and characteristic, however, is his work’s fidelity to the Holy Tradition and the Deposit of the Holy Fathers, a faithfulness he acquired by following experiential theologians of our day, such as Saints Paisios of Mt. Athos and Ephraim of Katounakia. He considers himself a humble minister, always emphasizing the absolute interrelation of right doctrine with the right way of life, distancing himself from the creation of a sterile and cold academic discourse.   

He is the author countless articles and seven books on Dogmatic Theology, covering a wide range of topics, including the theology of the icon, grace and freedom, critical studies of the doctrine of salvation in Luther and the satisfaction of divine justice in Anslem of Canterbury, the Soteriology of Western Christianity, and the presuppositions and criteria of Orthodox Theology. Through his many lectures, articles, and appeals to the hierarchy on pressing ecclesiastical matters such as the Orthodox-Roman Catholic, and Orthodox-Anti-Chalcedonian Dialogues, the documents of the Cretan council, and the Ukrainian schism Professor Tselingides has given much courage and consolation to the faithful. 
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Part Three of our discussion.


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Fr. PAH: Someone might say all is well in theory, but in practice the newly enlightened one or a grandmother or a gentleman who does not know [the Faith] well, how can they assume this responsibility and the authority to say that I know the Holy tradition, I know the Faith and I will not follow the bishop, I will follow the Fathers.

Prof. D.T.: This is a good question! I have had the opportunity to have many discussions with people who did not have theological knowledge and were of a different educational level, from completely illiterate to educated with doctorates and university professors, I discovered a common denominator, a common basis: when these people, regardless of their educational level, took seriously the spiritual life, that is, it mattered to them to live according to God’s will and the life of the Church - at whatever time during the day, that is, throughout their life they showed interest - the following happened… [I should say that I have tested these things empirically, that is, that which, as a professor of Dogmatics, I knew based on the minutes of the Oecumenical Councils, I discussed all of those controversial points, which have to do with matters facing the Church, with the Saints of our age, who coincidentally were all unlettered, with only one who finished middle school, but all the others without schooling, I was delightfully amazed that they were perfectly harmonized with a teaching they didn’t know existed, or who said what. They didn’t know it, for a variety of reasons; some knew something, very little. But they had the criterion of the heart, of the nous, and God informed them as to what is right.

I will give you a typical example of people who were not saints. He was simply a member of the Church. This example, of course, is not the only one, but it is characteristic. And, since we are speaking for the most part to those on the American continent, I was in America and at Divine Liturgy which was celebrated on Sunday and there was a visiting bishop who liturgized and gave the homily, who was from another country, of the wider American continent, and not the specific local bishop from that Archdiocese.

When we came out after the service, I was asked by a simple, faithful person, how did you find the sermon? I didn’t answer. Again, how did it seem to you? And, I said, why do you ask? Well, there was something I didn’t like in the homily. I said, sermons are neither to be liked nor not to be liked but if they are saying correct things or wrong things. What do you want to say? He said, while my heart was rejoicing in what I was hearing, at some point he said something and I immediately felt troubled and wondered if what he said was correct. I asked, what does that mean and in what were you troubled? What happened? Did you understand? No. I felt that my heart pushed it away, didn’t accept it. In other words, there was a reaction and I was troubled afterwards: why is it that my heart didn’t accept it? If you know why, explain it to me. This reaction made an impression on me.

Of course, it was true that the homily was correct - except at that point, which was wrong, and it was a theological error, a serious one, which impacts on the spiritual life. I explained what was wrong in the sermon, As soon as I said this it was accepted and it was accepted immediately without any difficulty whatsoever. Nor was it asked who was I to question correctness of his position. I was impressed by the fact that while he did not know why - he did not have any opinion on the manner nor had heard anything about it - the heart of this man did not accept it and then he humbly went to ask someone else. As soon he received the answer to his question, he accepted it with pleasure and happily because it harmonizes with everything else.

Therefore, I want to say, and I will analyze it a bit, that, when we live according to his will, God does not leave us uniformed, even when we least expect it. When a problem arises we will understand what is right and what is not. If we still do not fully understand what is right because we have not yet cleansed our spiritual senses well, then God will still give us the minimum which will tell us that there is a problem here. We will ask Him and since we are humble and want to know, we will learn [the truth]. Once again the criterion will be our heart and those things which follow: peace of thoughts and the joy which springs forth. On the contrary, when something is wrong, it creates internal turmoil. In other words, this is how we will understand what is right and what is erroneous.

[06:41] Fr. PAH: So, in order for one to stand aright concerning the Faith it is not an issue of mental understanding or education but the level of spiritual cleansing or purity. The presupposition is purification.

Prof. D.T.: Exactly.

Look, in order to see this, let’s take the first Ecumenical Council, that is so characteristic and is very clear. There we see Saint Nicholas intervening and slaping Arius, in spite of the law, thus expressing his indignation against his blasphemy against Christ, that he is not God. An illiterate man comes and the other bishops try to restrain him from speaking - that is, St Spyridon who was just a simple shepherd. What will he say? He takes a terra cotta tile out of his pocket in order to speak in a demonstrative way about the Holy Trinity with an example so understandable; it was not a matter, of course, of the abstract process of the mind, but rather God put it into practice right there - water, mud and the flame. And, yet, we see that the figure of Saint Athanasius dominates in the Council, even though he was still a deacon, representing his bishop. We see that there is the literary, theological putting forth of the Truth and the simple presentation. Yet, these are two sides of the same reality. Both the one and the other said the same thing. In the final analysis, it does not matter if one articulates the Truth with a rich and impressive philosophical and cultural presentation. What matters is whether you articulate the truth, or if within it there are lies.

[08:50] Fr. P.AH.: Because all the Saints lived the Truth existentially, as a person.

Prof. D.T.: Yes. Exactly. They are informed directly. In other words, directly from the Holy Spirit, from the kingdom of God which is within them.

[09:06] Fr. P.A.H.: Now the question arises, what happens if the topic is not clearly dogmatic. You say that the issue of the veneration of the Holy Icons, of the holy relics of the Saints, of Holy Communion, whether they doubt Holy Communion…

[09:22] Prof. D.T.: It is a matter of faithlessness.

[09:23] Fr. P.A.H.: …whether the holy lavida (or spoon) can transmit sickness.

[09:24] Prof. D.T.: These are blasphemous thoughts.

[09:26] Fr. P.A.H.: What happens when there is no clarity as to whether or not something is a dogmatic matter? What happens with obedience in this case? Here we are saying it is a dogmatic issue, but what if they say that they are closing the churches for the good of the faithful, as a matter of health. Is this still a dogmatic issue?

[09:46] Prof. D.T.: Look, all of these aspects have such an alliloperichoresis, an interpenetration, that, the Saints, such as St. Basil the Great, would say that what you said, dividing it as you did, can only be done as a notion; that is, only in thought can dogma be separated from life. It is a theoretical question and it does not have topos, it has no place. But, I will provide you with a theologically and biblically based explanation for I have said.

Christ said, “I am the truth,” “I am the life” and “I am the way.” These three have great importance. In order to approach the truth, it is not a matter pertaining to the dianoia, the rational intellect. It must be Christ as the way, as the method, which will take us to The Truth, which is not separated dichotomously from Life.

There is no event in the Church, as you say, here, in practice, the churches being open or closed, and that it has nothing to do with the life of Christ - because this is the Life of the Church - and with the Truth of Christ. And this is the case for a very simple reason. When they say that that the churches are to be closed, this means that there won’t be any Mysteries. If, however, you take the Mysteries out of the Church, there is no Church, because “the Church is known in the Mysteries” (St. Nicholas Cabasilas). In other words, it is apparent, revealed in this way. When the believer does not go to commune, to partake of Life, he will die spiritually.

Thus, it is a dogmatic matter because he does not believe that it is the Body and Blood, as Christ Himself said, that if you do not eat me and do not drink me, you will not have life in yourself. Pay attention to this: Life is He Himself. So our life - whichever life of ours, whether related to the closing or opening of the Church - is this Life, of Christ. Yes, but the life of Christ is a matter of His Truth. In other words, dogma and life are the two sides of the same coin.

Here allow me to take advantage of this opportunity to see the synamphortero, the two together, that you can speak of them academically as being separate for purely methodological reasons, but it is not permissible to see them dichotomously, that is, as divided, otherwise then we go to Nestorianism. Christ is the Theanthropos - God and man. You can not say that I commune spiritually with Christ, staying at home, in the so-called, erroneously referred to, “home church.” Because the home church - and let’s clarify that, too - was with the presence of the President of the Eucharistic Synaxis. It was a residence, and not a Temple, but it was worship, it was the mysteries of the Church, the synaxis - the Eucharistic Synaxis. Today, they have connected the way of life, the prayer life in the house, in other words, the private prayer, because it was done in the house, and they said let’s make this a “home church.” But, this is our problem, that they do not let us have the Church, because the Church, of course, means the mysteriological showing forth, revelation in the Mysteries. You understand the contradictions and the tricks. Either we do not understand what we say or we understand, and we say it with ill-intent, deceptively.

[13:30] Fr. P.A.H.: Do we accept the idea, as they said the day before yesterday, that they opened the Churches for “private worship”? What is that? Where did they find this idea?

Prof. D.T.: It saddens me that they allow such phrases to be used. Private worship does not exist. Worship is always common in the Temple.

I want to clarify the matter of our approaching, or not approaching, Holy Communion, since the governing authority wants to have the churches closed. We need to understand that it is a matter for the believers, of our choosing between life and death. If we say, let the Churches be closed, we are consciously choosing death, spiritual death. Why? Because when Christ said to his disciples, and more broadly to those who were present there, for this discourse: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Then the Evangelist says that when they heard this teaching it seemed harsh, and they said: “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” Then they took steps back and, as the Evangelist notes, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more,” which means that the wider circle of his listeners separated from Him, and suddenly, as it appears from the description, the disciples were left alone with Christ. Christ did not try to mollify them, or to tell them a little bit at a time, to humor them, and eventually they will understand. Rather, I would say, He put it bluntly, right in front of them, and he told them - pay close attention to the expression - “Do you also want to go away?” He doesn’t say, “it would be good if you remained, so as to have life.” Rather, He provoked their freedom: “Do you also want to go away?” Which means that the one who, according to St. John the Chrysostom, is revealed as the Greatest Lover of Salvation, being God became man only for one reason, to save sinful man, turns and says to his chosen ones, perhaps you also want to leave? Leave, if you want. The Apostle Peter then answers, full of the Holy Spirit: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Therefore, by that which he said it is clear he understood something, that is, he was receiving through the words, through the word of Christ, the content of life - not, of course, that which he will receive on Pentecost, but definitely some doses of this life and he knew what he was saying.

What do I want to say, in order to apply this experience of His disciples to our current situation? Today, they always tell us that for our own good - the evil one, as you know, presents himself as the compassionate one, even better than God! So that we don’t get sick, for our own good, better not to go [to Church], just for a short time. Then he will tell us, you see, you were away for so long and you were fine, were you not? In other words, it is as if he was telling you that you were dead, so just remain dead. Because, if we were alive, if, that is, we live God - the spiritual life about which we discussed earlier - we understand what we are missing. Sure, for a time we are patient, but after a certain point, after, as we said, 40 days dysfunctionality begins to appear, because we have no life. Our batteries are empty and we must recharge them! It is a matter of life or death. Observe how a person is after 40 days of not eating. This person starts getting sick and, if he doesn’t get nutrition, he will die. This will also happen with the faithful, if they don’t commune. This is no small matter!

That is why we move now from repentance to confession [of faith]. This is what we have to say - this is confession! Which means what exactly? For us, our presence in the temple is not a matter of custom or ritual or an external matter [alone], but is a matter of life and death. We must come together, commune in the Mysteries, not [simply] at some point, but as the Church calls for in the Divine Liturgy, to commune in order to have life. This is the first and foremost confession, as the bishop-celebrant confesses, and says there at the Holy Table, repeating the words of Christ: “This is my Body, This is my Blood.” And then everything he says, the prayers, and so on, these confess, and from the point of view of God’s people, that this is life, the content of life.

This, in my understanding, with particular regard to this current historical moment, is “the confession of the thing, in practice, that is, no longer only with regard to names. This is also a confession, that Christ is God. Saying this one confesses. But here it is par excellence a confession in practice. For, that which we believe, in other words, we say to others, living as we do in a democracy, such as it is. We can still say this; we are not overtly under persecution. The governing powers themselves say as much, that we are not persecuting anyone. They say it is on account of health measures that we are ruling out certain things. And we will respond saying, thank you for the concerns of our hygiene, thank you for your sensitivity. Thank you for all you do, if you do it for the good. We, however, do not want to be in good health, so to speak, or if we are sick to become well, but to become good - and good is God alone, as He Himself said (kalos and agathos), and man becomes kalos [good] when he obtains his kallos [beauty], which is His Divinity.

This is what we want as a confession of faith, what we want as Truth. This is what we want to have as Life, and we want to acquire it because this is the commmission we have when since we received our identity, which is called “Orthodox faithful,” reborn on another level, as the Evangelist John says, that we are not the result of the flesh, of the desire of man and woman, but we are born of the Spirit. In other words, what the State needs to know from us is that we are etero genos anthropoi, people of another birth, because we were born of the Holy Spirit and therefore we must commune in the Spirit from which we were born. This is exactly the Spirit we receive in the Body. For, what is the Body of Christ? It is His human nature, His sinless human nature. Yes, but, we also have the human nature. Are we are saved by it? No. The sinlessness of human nature - let’s say that this could keep you from sin. But what is at stake and what we seek is not sinlessness but the content of life, that is, of the divinity. That which we receive first and foremost is the divinity. This is why we commune of the Body and the Blood. That life which Christ tells us that we will have, or, not have, is the divinity. Hence, with the State not knowing all of this - and that is why we must confess it - we will tell them that, because we were born of the divinity, we live with the divinity. You may not you believe it, but this is our identity and based on the constitution of all the countries that we know, religious freedom is guaranteed. This is the most basic point of man’s freedom in the context of religious life.

[22:35] Fr. P.A.H.: Can we can talk about true repentance, return and communion with God without having communion in practice, in the Divine Eucharist; that is, to confess and re-enter our churches? Is our repentance fulfilled if we do not return to our churches?

Prof. D.T.: First of all, repentance is the beginning (when on the outside, and call to mind the prodigal son), it is in the middle, and at the end, as the Saints tell us. In other words, it is lifelong. In order to properly enter into communion, repentance is a necessity. Repentance, however, as a decision does not suffice in order to have life, for the prodigal son also repented, but if he did not leave the pigs and go through the process of his journey, he would not have had the opportunity to live this life he wanted, at the table of his father.

So to answer your question: repentance accompanies us throughout our lives. However, we will not remain here, saying, “we are repenting, therefore all is well. We will lay claim to this as a matter of existence, with all of the legitimate means, of course. When we say we insist on this, it is not in a worldly way. Within the constitutional framework, within the framework of religious freedom, we will ask for it. (I am talking about the State at the moment because that’s where it starts and then it comes to us by way of the leadership of the Church.) If they respect it, fine; we will go to the churches. If the State does not respect it for its own reasons, and we have clarified the matter, it will be clear that we are under persecution. The Church has been under persecution, but it was not extinguished. Not only did it not decrease, it increased much more numerically and most especially shined and was made brilliant.

[24:56] Fr. P.A.H.: Now the question: if there is no church leadership in this endeavor, and there are no guides, what happens?

Prof. D.T.: Look, the Church will never be found without a guide because Christ said I am the way. So, when He is the way (Odos), He is also the guide (odygos). He says I lead to God the Father; he has said it explicitly.

That which often appears to us is the temptation of “numbers”. We do not see that which is not included among the numbers on the account. This does not occur [only] when one is [spiritually] darkened. If God does not reveal the content of people’s hearts, he will not recognize it. And I will give you a very typical example from God Himself which confirms this. Only after the Prophet Elijah slaughtered the priests of Baal did he realize that Jezebel was dangerous, for she had decided to kill him. He was then afraid and took to the hills. God asked him, where are you going? I am afraid that Jezebel will kill me. Why? Well, all of your altars have been destroyed and I was left alone, indeed, all alone; I confess you, I worship you, and then God said to him, Who told you that you are alone? I have 7000 who did not bow their knees to Baal. Regarding these people God does not give us other clarifications, because their faith and worship to the true God was not revealed, for whatever reason; this does not matter to us now. What is important is that they exist, that which we do not see. Of course, Elijah remained faithful even by himself. Yet, when he slaughtered so many priests he was not afraid, because God gave him the power, but when he thought he was alone, that was when he feared Jezebel.

This is of greatest importance, because when the Kingdom of God is energized within us, we rejoice and do not fear death, because we taste - or, more accurately, we have a foretaste of eternal life in the activated Kingdom of God within us. Our problem lies therein. Our problem is in our heart, then it is in our nous, and then it goes to the brain. If it goes through the brain, there it is that logic dominates - for the good of one, for the good of the other, we have to balance things out, be wise people, care for our family’s needs, and our children and we have the property, which we must not lose. All of this and so on, and the compromises begin, which, in the final analysis, cancel out the faith and the life.

Fr. P.A.H.: Rationalism.

Prof. D.T.: Yes, rationalism.

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