Georges Florovsky on the Christian view of History

Fr Georges Florovsky (d. 1979) has the following to say on the meaning of history:

Even in the history of the Church ‘the hand of Providence’ is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy — a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. (Quoted in Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers, 91; italics original)

This resonates with St Augustine in City of God and clashes with Orosius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But I believe it is the right approach, speaking as a Christian and as a historian.



Christology: Life and dogma

Council of Chalcedon

Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, Volume 2, Part One:

The formula and teaching of Chalcedon absorbed the attention of the old imperial Church, whether we look at Emperors, Popes, bishops, the monks or the theologians, or finally the mass of Church people. Yet, both before and after the Council [of 451], there was a life inspired by faith in Christ which neither needed the formula of Chalcedon for its existence, nor was directly enriched by it. This was because the Church possessed and lived the content or the matter of this teaching, namely, faith in the one Christ, true God and true man, even though it was not expressed in more advanced philosophical terms. Such faith drew its vitality from a picture of Christ which could not be fully comprehended in the formula of 451 about the person of Christ. This is shown by the fact that the content, though not the formula, of Chalcedonian faith was actually the common property of the opposed parties in the post-Chalcedonian era. (p. 4)

This sort of statement is always of interest to me. The idea is that in the proclamation, the kerygma, and the living of the Christian faith, there is a latent, inherent orthodoxy that does not always find expression in the conciliar and dogmatic formulae, and it can be found in the lived faith of the Church before any council has drawn up any document.

It is related to the argument that I’ve heard from numerous Eastern Orthodox sources, such as Andrew Louth, that the church’s prayer life and liturgical encounter with the mystery of God was ultimately Trinitarian from the outset, and what was lacking was the formal articulation of Trinity in dogma. I’m willing to accept this thesis; I am interested in seeing it proven in scholarship, however. Any suggestions?

Back to Christology. Is Grillmeier correct? I suspect that is the point of the book I am about to read. So I’ll see. But Paul Parvis, when I took his Byzantine Theology course in Edinburgh, argues that people don’t fight over nothing. So pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces, despite Grillmeier or Lebon or other modern(ist) readers, actually did disagree, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would disagree with the late Pope Shenouda III, if they ever crossed dogmatic swords of monothelitism (Shenouda was a clear-cut monothelite).

So my questions, as I start thinking more theologically than whatever it is I’ve been recently are:

  • Did the Mia/Monophysites and Chalcedonians actually agree? Is there harmony between Severus of Antioch and Leo the Great?
  • Is the lived faith of the church implicitly Trinitarian and Chalcedonian, even if it does not always articulate said faith in the same way? What is the scholarship on this question?

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth

Introducing Eastern Orthodox TheologyIntroducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of many introductory books to Eastern Orthodoxy written for a non-academic audience by an academic. Louth demonstrates a certain awareness of various trends within theology and scholarship, but these arguments and debates are not his main focus. This is not defence for the Eastern Orthodox way of being Christian, but an invitation to explore the tradition with him.

Louth’s starting point is prayer. Or, rather, the true mysterion of God. Confronted with this incomprehensible reality, we cannot but enter the task of theology through prayer. Rather than structuring the book around, say, the articles of the Creed or a systematic approach as in western theology or along the historical road of Eastern Orthodoxy (citing the title of a book by Schmemann), it always in and through the experience of God in the Church that this book moves. His most cited texts are liturgical, followed by St Maximos the Confessor and St John of Damascus (on whom he has written a book and some of whose works he has translated).

Of course, Louth engages with other texts and writers from the Didache to Bulgakov. Louth is comfortably aware of his own Orthodox world beyond the 20th-century patristic revival, which is refreshing. 19th-century Russian theology, such as Sophiology, is worthy of awareness.

Anyway, the book is a very good introduction; I list the chapter title at the end of this review. His approach to Christ and Christology I appreciate, as someone who studies the history of Christology from an academic perspective but who is also a Christian. Chapters that I hope challenge many modern(ist) Christians are those about creation and about matter in the divine economy. These resonated with some of my other recent reading, such as Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry about how the created order images forth God, about how we can encounter Him in sign and symbol.

It is worth noting, finally, that although the Most Holy Theotokos and the saints and icons are important in Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly in the daily round of liturgy, front and centre in this book is the Most Holy Trinity, the fact of the Incarnation, the Person and action of Jesus Christ. These are the heart of Orthodoxy, and if we fail to grasp the particular manner of engagement with God in Christ that the Orthodox present but somehow look only to icons, saints, and incense, we’ll miss what the icons, saints, and incense are really about.

Thinking and doing, being and praying: where do we start?
Who is God? The doctrine of the Holy Trinity
The doctrine of creation
Who is Christ?
Sin, death, and repentance
Being human — being in the image of God
Sacraments and icons: the place of matter in the divine economy
Time and the liturgy
Where are we going? The last things and eternal life

It concludes with a guide to further reading

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Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

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The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.


Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.