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Akribeia and Orthodoxy

In his contribution to a Byzantine studies symposium at the University of Durham from 2002, Sergei Averintsev offered a valuable description of one of the essential characteristics of Orthodoxy as it was understood by the Byzantines:

The Byzantine system of theological reflection has a certain keyword, which seems to be quite untranslatable in any other language, including–and this gives pause for thought–the languages of the Orthodox world, e.g., the Russian language….This word is akribeia: literally ‘exactitude’, ‘accuracy’, but also ‘scruplousness’, ‘conscientiousness’, etc. Now, all these diverging concepts as such are in themselves universally known to the most diverse cultures: first, the exactitude of reasoning; secondly, the formal accuracy of technical or ritual proceedings; thirdly, the scrupulousness of ethical and religious behavior.

What seems to be specific for the Byzantine akribeia is the factthat it unites all these semantic facets in a quite essential way, so that the correctness of the dogmatic concepts and of the ritual gestures appears somehow identical with the moral conscientiousness of one’s walking before God in truth.

When writing about Byzantine culture specifically and Orthodoxy more generally, authors sometimes emphasize the concept of oikonomia or accommodation when describing Byzantine and Orthodox practice. As Averintsev explains very well, it is akribeia that captures the way that Orthodox in Byzantium understood their Christian faith and how they related doctrine, liturgical life, spiritual practice, and morality to one another.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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