Review: Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, part 1

Christ in Christian TraditionChrist in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first part of the second ‘volume’ of Grillmeier’s magisterial history of Christology. The first volume takes the reader up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This part of volume 2 takes you from Chalcedon to around 532. This volume is largely devoted to the history of the unfolding post-Chalcedonian controversy — the perception, reception, and rejection of the council and its two-natures formula.

A few moments and figures get detailed analysis of their Christology, but nothing as in-depth as vol. 1. I think that the really in-depth studies of figures such as Severus of Antioch are in part 2 of volume 2.

The sweep is grand, and Grillmeier brings up some important points for the period that I think we often overlook. One point is the way the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno was itself largely unknown in the West and interpreted in two different ways in the East, right up to the end of the reign of Anastasius — that is, those who think that abandoning this document spelled the end of any hope of eastern reconciliation have grossly overestimated its ability to hold pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces together. They were already moving apart in the East, especially since many anti-Chalcedonians such Philoxenus of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch rejected the ‘Henotikon’, anyway.

I say this not to read Grillmeier’s book as teleological — that Chalcedon ‘had to’ triumph in the end. But it is a major corrective to ongoing treatments of the material that seem to think that a Miaphysite triumph would not have spelled schism and disaster as much as the Chalcedonian triumph did. People were using the same words in different ways with no interest or, at times, ability, to realise this fact. This can only lead to ruin, especially when you throw Latin into the Greek controversies, let alone the bulky Syriac-speaking population of the dioecesis of Oriens.

Anyway, that is the sort of historical treatment we find. Grillmeier wants to get beyond emperors this and popes that to the documents that reveal to us the ideas of the wider association of bishops, monks, and clergy. Thus, he uses Emperor Leo I’s Codex Encyclius as a means to discern how eastern bishops in 458 perceived the council of seven years earlier.

Grillmeier also corrects over-reading Emperor Anastasius as a Miaphysite. It becomes clear from the documents under discussion — often quoted at length, often paraphrased — that his support for the ‘Henotikon’ was not tied to any support of the more extreme Severan agenda. Indeed, the emperors emerge as a particular kind of force in geo-ecclesiology in this book — before Justinian, they do not enforce their own views, but use documents drafted by bishops to attempt to find some kind of compromise (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Basiliscus, the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno), or gain the opinions of bishops on fractious issues (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Leo I), or councils (Marcian at CP, several local councils of Anastasius, early councils of Justinian, a planned council by Vitalian [who never became emperor]). They seek unity and see themselves as arbiters of unity within the imperial church, working alongside the bishops who are the ones who set the correct interpretation of the faith.

They are often compromisers as a result. A figure like Anastasius cannot afford to be unshakeable in doctrine the way Athanasius, Ambrose, Leo, or Cyril was. Too much is at stake. For him, it is not doctrinal purity but unity of the imperial church that matters; the content of doctrine is set by the specialists. He simply seeks the best specialists and tries to enforce their judgement.

This book also sees that the watchword for orthodoxy in the West was always and ever Chalcedon — not that no Latin ever wrote anything interesting in Christology in these years. Indeed, there is much of interest here still from the later years of Leo and especially the interpretation of Leo by Gelasius I. But anyone or anything that implies either a rejection of Chalcedon or fellowship with those who reject the council is immediately anathema to the Latins. This is to be kept in mind for the sequel to the events discussed here.

Finally, Grillmeier shows himself a man of his times, with the buoyant atmosphere of ecumenism in the 1980s. He often talks about the relevance of the different measures to find or enforce unity, or statements drawn up, to the modern situation of ecumenical dialogue. Alas, the great ecumenical experiment has petered out, by the ongoing liberalisation of the Protestant mainline and the ongoing support of every ancient ecclesial communion for its own heritage — I am thinking here of the statements made by Pope Shenouda III in favour of monenergism that remind us that, whatever the joint statements on Christology say re Chalcedon, the disputes of the seventh century live on in the twenty-first.

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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?