Are You Smarter Than an M.Div.? Combating Heresy Through The Fathers & Self-Education
Updated: May 17
By Subdeacon Nektarios, M.A.
In our crazy modern world of so-called "internet Orthodoxy" we are often met with the reoccurring debates concerning various topics ranging from the reception of converts to praying with heretics who are outside of the Church and all of the other usual topics that ecumenists rage about from their innovationist corners of Orthodoxy. Invariably, we will be confronted by modernist clergy and laity who will use the ad hominem attack of, "you don't have a degree," or "you never went to seminary," or they will make sure that you know they have a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree; therefore, they must know more than you or that somehow that makes them more qualified to speak on a particular topic. We see this time and again especially coming from graduates of seminaries belonging to the Metropolia (OCA) which is ground zero for forming Orthodox Christians into storm troopers for the cause of the heretical ecumenist agenda.
Saint Vladimir Seminary Graduation with Orthodox and Monophysites 2022
Many of the laity will often be intimidated by online encounters with these M.Div. Ecumenists because they have been led to believe that someone with a college degree, particularly a Master of Divinity or other graduate-level degree is, or at least should be, considered an expert in a particular topic. Especially here in the United States where the hammer of indoctrination concerning the need to go to college to be knowledgeable is relentless. However, is that the case? Does a Master of Divinity degree, especially from the lower-tier seminaries such as those of the Metropolia make or break the theological knowledge of an Orthodox Christian? To begin to answer this question we can take a look at the academic catalogue of one of these seminaries to give the laity, who probably have never researched the topic, what the requirements are for a Master of Divinity.
As an example, we can use Saint Vladimir Seminary's 2021-2022 academic catalogue to see what a Master of Divinity degree is and what the requirements are for it. According to this school, the only requirement for admittance to the program is a bachelor's degree regardless of major, which is standard for most seminaries. The academic catalog states that the program learning outcomes for students are to:
- Read Scripture and the Church’s tradition with discernment in order to teach, preach, and minister according to the gospel;
- Think theologically and pastorally about the world and about their cultural context in order to address contemporary realities in a manner faithful to the Church’s tradition;
- Grow in faith, emotional maturity, and spiritual life in order to develop the capacities needed for pastoral leadership;
- Celebrate the offices of the Church with beauty and dignity in order to worship God rightly, forming a community in the faith and life of the Church; and
- Employ managerial skills and understand administrative procedures in order to lead a community in accordance with the commandments of Christ and the discipline of the Church, so that they might witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ .
As we can see these program learning outcomes are not extremely heavy and are oriented to teach seminarians how to function as a newly ordained priest. The majority of Master of Divinity programs are a three-year endeavour like a majority of graduate programs at any other university, which is not a long time to become a subject matter expert in any given topic. However, the focus of the Master of Divinity program is not oriented toward becoming an academic scholar. According to the program description on the official website of Saint Vladimir Seminary, they state that the "Master of Divinity [...] may be described in the most general terms as a graduate professional degree whose purpose is preparation for the ministries of the Church [and] is designed chiefly for qualified Orthodox [Monophysite and Nestorian] students who wish to prepare themselves for ordination to priestly ministry in the Orthodox Church .
Saint Vladimir Seminary Master of Divinity Academic Requirements
As we can see from the academic plan here, the majority of the coursework is entirely geared toward how to function practically as a parish priest. The majority of the coursework required is in liturgics, liturgical music, homiletics, and pastoral theology, which teaches them how to work with people from a pastoral perspective. There are thirty-one potential courses that a student will take and of that thirty-one, not even a handful of them are Church History, Dogmatics, or Canon Law; roughly around two to three each depending on the chosen electives of the student. The Master of Divinity program, as we can see here, is not oriented toward academic scholarship or to become a subject matter expert in Church History, Patristics, Canon Law, or Dogmatics. These programs are designed to create educated and functioning parish priests who can minister to the laity and serve the liturgies properly.
The Orthodox Christian faithful should not feel inadequate, intellectually inferior, or intimidated by those of us who have these degrees because it is not the degree that educates the individual. Education is gained through the constant effort of life-long learning and within Orthodoxy, this knowledge comes through participation in the divine services as much as possible. If an M.Div. discontinues educating himself of continual study and participating in the life of the Church as soon as he graduates, that newly obtained expensive piece of paper hanging on the wall collecting dust will do no good. Does that mean that all Master of Divinity programs are entirely worthless? Of course not. The most valuable Orthodox Christian Master of Divinity program in the United States is at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, which is co-located with Holy Trinity Monastery and is the only one I recommend. That is because the seminary's focus is not entirely on the education portion; but is a complete integration of the student into the monastic life of the Church and is comprised of constant participation in the daily cycle of services which, in reality, is the real education that comes out of that program and produces the most well-rounded and firmly grounded clergymen.
Saint Vladimir Seminary Master of Divinity Academic Requirements
That brings us to the question: are you smarter than an M.Div.? Can you be more educated than a graduate with a Master of Divinity even though you do not have one yourself? The obvious answer is yes. Historically speaking, the origins of modern day seminaries come from the Papist Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) and are not necessarily part of the Orthodox Tradition to begin with . So how do we combat heresy through the Church Fathers and autodidacticism (self-education)? The answer is we have to look to the example of the saints. The majority of our contemporary elders and saints were never educated within these institutional seminaries or at any university. If we look at our most revered contemporaries such as Saint Joseph the Hesychast, Saint Paisios of Mount Athos, Geronda Ephraim of Arizona, or any others who were in the synodia of Saint Joseph, they were all lacking in their formal education. If we turn to Romania and look to Elder Cleopa, we find the exact same thing. However, these Saints and Holy Elders were theological champions of Orthodoxy who could theologize and express dogmatic theology with every word that came out of their mouths without effort.
Most of these Holy Fathers never received any Master of Divinity or higher theological degree but were the true Masters of Theology by how they lived their lives, experientially within Holy Orthodoxy. They were constantly immersed in the lives and teachings of the saints and the holy canons, constantly reading the texts of the Church and, most importantly, they were constant participants in the liturgical life of the Church and communing of the Holy Mysteries. They were not reinventors of the theological wheel at some "educational institution" trying to come up with progressive theology to match our modern times; they were faithful students who sat at the feet of the Holy Fathers who came before them and who embodied the true meaning of the question, "Do you understand what you are reading? How can I, except some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31, NKJV).
So how do we combat heresy through them? The answer is clear. We need to live as much as possible as they did. We need to take the faith as seriously as they did. These Holy Elders were constantly educating themselves through reading the various texts of the Church and living those texts out in the liturgical life of Church. The problem we are running into today within Orthodoxy in the United States is primarily a problem of education. Orthodox Christians do not want to take the time to learn Orthodoxy. Additionally, we are faced with the problem of constantly being bombarded with external influences, work, school, children's extracurricular activities, time constraints due to sitting in horrible city traffic and other burdens of modern city living. However, that is our struggle. We have to continue to fight through these obstacles on a daily basis and make a daily effort read the lives of the saints, to read the history of the Church, to watch educational documentaries, or even to listen to valuable audio materials while going about our daily tasks, if that is feasible.
The reason that this educational aspect of Orthodox learning is so vital to the combating of heresy is that those who are pushing this agenda of false unions with the Latins and the promulgation of syncretistic ecumenism are highly educated themselves. For example, Patriarch Bartholomew, "from 1963-68, [...] pursued postgraduate studies, on scholarship from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of the Gregorian University in Rome. He received his doctorate in Canon Law having submitted his dissertation: "Concerning the Codification of the Sacred Canons and Canonical Regulations in the Orthodox Church." He pursued further studies at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland and the University of Munich, specializing in ecclesiastical law," yet he continues his ecumenistic agenda, violating the canons regularly and unimpeded even with these academic credentials . These types of clergymen (of which there are many) are counting on you being an ignorant, uneducated laity who will leave it to them to "educate" you so that they can get their heretical agenda through the cracks without the slightest problem, this is because the laity are blind to the fact that this is happening. Unfortunately, many of the laity have never been catechized and educated thoroughly enough and have never developed their internal alarm system so that when they hear something problematic or heretical it would immediately stand out as problematic.
This is where we must make the change and give effort to educate ourselves continually by following the example of the Holy Fathers so that when we hear heresy taught within the boundaries of the Church, we can recognize it and combat it. That may seem like an intimidating task in which many people do not even know where to begin. However, what you can do, for example, is look at the curriculum of a true Orthodox seminary such as Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York. View what their course work looks like and immerse yourself in books in the same order that are presented there. To learn dogmatics you can read the text Dogmatic Theology by Fr Michael Pomazansky. To dive in and study true Orthodox Christian Ecclesiology, you can watch Father Peter Heers' ten-part series on Orthodox Ecclesiology on YouTube or to listen to an Orthodox Catechism course you can download Father Josiah Trenham's sixteen lectures at Patristic Nectar Publications which is invaluable and can be listened to while you are on the move. Moreover, if you are not inclined as an autodidactic learner and want a more formal educational program but do not prefer or are unable to attend seminary, you can also explore educational options such as the Holy Trinity Seminary's Online Education Program for the laity and catechumens or their online Certificate in Theological Studies.
No matter which path we choose, we must finally realize that the time for sitting idle has come to an end. The battle against heresy is an ideological war for the souls of the faithful and to win this battle you must be properly prepared. Our Father among the saints, Saint John Chrysostom, the Golden-Mouthed Patriarch of Constantinople, says that "the soul of the person who reads and studies the Scriptures is like a tree rooted in a spring. Constantly watered by the Holy Spirit." Additionally, Saint Evagrios the Solitary teaches us that, "if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." As we simultaneously devote effort to study and prayer, and participate experientially in the divine services of the Church, like the tree we will be rooted in Holy Orthodoxy and also become true theologians of the Church, maintaining its teachings and traditions in purity.