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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Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers

The Great Laura of St. Savvas

Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?

In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.

The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.

The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.

Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.

St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.

Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.

Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.

The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.

The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.

However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.

The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.

For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:

Primary Sources

Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).

Cyril of Scythopolis. Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Trans. EM Price, introduction and notes by J Binns. Cistercian Publications.

Dorotheos of Gaza. Discourses and Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler. Cistercian.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibhead and Norman Russell. Classics of Western Spirituality: Paulist Press.

The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.

Secondary Sources

Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.

Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.

Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.

I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!