Getting to Know Professor Peter Bouteneff


Dr Peter Bouteneff, longtime Professor of Systematic Theology at St Vladimir’s Seminary, has touched thousands across the American Orthodox world and beyond through his books, podcasts, and work in the sacred arts. Dr Bouteneff connects with his audience in a personable, down-to-earth manner, consciously seeking to engage listeners and readers in thoughtful conversation.

Dr Bouteneff lives just minutes on foot from campus, with his wife Patricia and their two cats. His son, Michael, works in theater production and is a touring musician (a heavy-metal drummer), and his daughter, Elizabeth, lives and works in South Korea.

How would you describe your background in the Orthodox Church and with St Vladimir’s Seminary? What or who do you feel shaped and formed you along the way?

I have been shaped and formed by some really remarkable people. There were always people in my life who were deeply involved in the Church, intelligent, thinking people, immersed in the arts and culture. My closest family and the people around them were of that world of Russians exiled to Paris – so, Fr Schmemann, Fr Meyendorff, Sophie Koulomzin, Nicholas Arseniev, and later, people like Fr Thomas Hopko. So Christ and the Church were natural subjects for me, nothing artificial, nothing “churchy” in the negative, sticky sense of that word. These people were so level-headed about their identity: loving the best of Russia but with a critical distance, loving Orthodoxy but without an “Orthodox agenda” as such. Because their priority was genuine Christian life. Orthodoxy was simply the natural outflow of that— especially through the Liturgy.

Peter student
Dr Bouteneff during his student days, 1987-1990

I grew up not far from the seminary but went on to live in many far-flung places. College and conservatory in New England, then working in Japan, travels in the Far East, a month on Mount Athos, some weeks at Fr. Sophrony’s monastery in the UK. Before all my travels, I had no idea that theology would be an attractive pursuit, but as I was heading back to the States I suddenly knew I was headed for St Vladimir’s Seminary. I didn’t know where it would lead; I just knew I wanted to get closer to the Church. Where it did lead, to my continued surprise, was further study in theology! So, to Oxford to learn from Metr. Kallistos Ware – where I also met my future wife, Patricia. Then five years of ecumenical work in Geneva, and, well, back to St Vladimir’s Seminary. I arrived here in the year 2000, and I’ve been here ever since.

In Iasi, Romania, with his doctoral supervisor Met. Kallistos Ware, of blessed memory, January 2019

Say something about your teaching at St Vladimir’s Seminary, in “dogmatic”—or is it “systematic” theology?

Yes, when I arrived here we were calling it “Dogmatic,” but—at some point–we started using the term “Systematic Theology,” which is simply the method by which we teach the dogmas: systematically—topic by topic—like St John of Damascus and others did. Because that’s kind of how we human beings process things: you can’t say everything at once. So you consider, in turn, God, His Son, His Spirit, the Church, the Human Person, redemption, etc. And of course, all those subjects are interrelated, and more importantly they all have their center in the person of Jesus Christ. But anyway these are still “Dogmatic Theology” courses.

You know, having spoken so wistfully of my early mentors, I’ll say that the most challenging aspect of my teaching early on was trying to follow my predecessor Fr Thomas Hopko. Fr Tom had a massive influence on my thinking, maybe more than anyone I studied with—and that says a lot! Anyone who has heard him speak knows what a hugely compelling, informed, and charismatic teacher he was. How on earth do you fill those shoes? It took me years to realize that, well, you don’t.

So I began gradually finding my identity, my role, and my voice. That said, I don’t feel I have a special distinctive “Bouteneff” theology. Because who would need that? I strive to be faithful to the Church’s teachings and its life. And of course, I am speaking from my studies, my experience, and my genuine faith convictions. So it sounds like “me” because it is honestly me. But I’m not planting a flag or building a brand.

The books you’ve written have been on such a variety of subjects…

Yes! One of my favorite aspects of my vocation, and St. Vladimir’s specifically, is that I’ve been given the freedom to pursue my interests, whatever they are. As a result, I’ve scarcely written two books on the same theme. They all followed my interests at the time. 

So, Sweeter Than Honey was a kind of first overview of how we do theology. Then I got really interested in how different people read Genesis 1-3, historically, allegorically, etc., and thought to ask, well, how did the early Fathers read those chapters? So I wrote the Beginnings book. Then of course came my fascination with the great composer Arvo Pärt, and the Out of Silence came as a result.

With Arvo Pärt, in Estonia, with an icon presented to him by the seminary, June 2015

And from that came the Institute of Sacred Arts, yes?

Most definitely. You know that my first education was in music – specifically in jazz bass and ethnomusicology. And I still play out regularly. I brought my love of music to the Church - singing in and directing church choirs - but with the Institute of Sacred Arts, it all comes together: music, iconography, architecture, hymnography, with theology and especially with the Liturgy. So our Institute has been producing books, courses, events, and my podcast “Luminous” where I talk to all these amazing people…

Dr Bouteneff and Dr Lingas
With Dr Alexander Lingas at the Cappella Romana concert co-hosted by ISA in March 2023

Back to books, what about How to Be a Sinner?

Well, that’s another book that arose out of my own peculiar interests and curiosity. I was always perplexed by how the “sinner” language, and even the “sinner” identity, worked in the spiritual life. And it turned out that a lot of people shared that perplexity because I think it’s been my most-read book. I certainly get a lot of invitations to give talks about it.

The book I’ve just finished writing is called Jesus for Introverts. That one came out of my own experience as an introvert finding his way through the spiritual life and social life. It’s written in the same style as How to Be a Sinner, where I’m basically sharing insights from my experience, through my reading of the Tradition. And I’m writing as unpretentiously and unsentimentally as I can, as if to a friend. In all these projects, basically, I’m writing books that I’d be interested in reading, books that I need to read! And I figure if I do, then maybe someone else does too…

What do you enjoy about teaching?

Well, that’s easy: it’s the students. In my 23 years of teaching, at the beginning of every year without exception, I am blown away to see this roomful of people who have embarked on this adventure, this risk, for the sake of Christ and the Church. Often they’ve left behind a career, a house, and maybe family, they’ve sacrificed their financial security, and they’ve entrusted it all to God’s hands. And they’re sitting there waiting for us to say something, to speak of things that matter. They trust us to be reliable vehicles for Orthodox Christian teaching. It’s so humbling—talk about entrusting yourself to God’s hands—I do it before every single lecture. And then it becomes so invigorating. You watch connections being made. You get great questions, super-interesting new insights from students. Lately, I’ve begun, once in a while, to actually tell them, in the classroom, that I respect and love them. And I hope that doesn’t feel too weird for them… I figure it’s kind of like a parent’s right, to make your kids squirm once in a while – I mean, I graduated seminary long before most of these folks were even born…

Dr B article last photo

You’re going on sabbatical this year! Do you have a project?

Yes! First, a shout-out to Prof. Alex Tudorie, our Academic Dean. He has been a wonderfully supportive and effective faculty leader, and I have him especially to thank for the sabbatical this year. But I did promise him that I’d produce a book, and it’s on another subject I care very deeply about, namely, the theological reconciliation between Eastern and Oriental Churches. I was first “caught” by that issue during my stint at the World Council of Churches, where the two families have a common “Orthodox” voice. And then here at St. Vladimir’s, where we are so amazingly blessed to have students from Eastern Orthodox churches as well as from the Indian, Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and sometimes also Ethiopian and Eritrean churches. Even as we feel the pain of being out of sacramental communion with each other, we are constantly experiencing the communion of our history, faith, and worship. Living, studying, and praying side-by-side in our community is a powerful witness of that unbroken connection. So in my book, I’ll be revisiting the early history as well as the modern dialogues. And I hope that this will help build further confidence in the possibility of our restored sacramental communion.

Anything else you’d like to add?

To close, I think the Seminary is in an exceptionally good place right now. The faculty—my goodness! Brilliant, thinking, prayerful people, who love the Church and love our students. (My only wish would be for women on our full-time faculty, but hopefully, that will come!) The staff too are a fabulous team to work with: super-competent and fun. And Fr Chad leads it all with wisdom, and with more balance than most people are aware of. And God keeps sending us students! I’m full of gratitude for all of it.