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would have seemed that no individual figure played a decisive role in the
formation of this theology, and one could be equally hard-pressed to locate any
school or other intellectual centre in the capital where the theological thought
was creatively elaborated. Though it seemed reasonable to assume that a
theological school for the training of higher ecclesiastical personnel was
connected with the patriarchate, sources about its character or the levels of
its teaching were wanting. A centre of theological learning was attested at the
famous monastery of the Akoimetai
(the “Non-Sleepers”), and others certainly existed elsewhere, but very little
was specifically known about them. Theologians, who were active during the fifth
and sixth centuries, often received their training in distant parts of the
empire, such as
Conservative in form and intent, Byzantine theology in the age of Justinian continually referred to tradition as its main source. In particular, the Christological debates of the period consisted chiefly of a battle between exegetes of Scripture about philosophical terms adopted by Christian theology in the third and fourth centuries and about patristic texts making use of these terms. Liturgical hymnology, which began to flourish at this time, incorporated the results of the controversies and often became a form of credal confession. The various elements of Byzantine theological traditionalism dominated in the fifth and sixth centuries, constituted the basis of further creativity in the later periods, and required very special attention.
“It is necessary for those who preside over the churches... to teach all the clergy and the people... collecting out of divine Scripture the thoughts and judgments of truth but not exceeding the limits now fixed, nor varying from the tradition of the God-fearing Fathers. But, if any issue arises concerning Scripture, it should not be interpreted other than as the luminaries and teachers of the Church have expounded it in their writings; let them [the bishops] become distinguished for their knowledge of patristic writings rather than for composing treatises out of their own heads.”
This text of Canon 19 of the Council in Trullo (692) reflects the traditionalist and conservative character of the Byzantine, approaches to theology and to exegesis in particular, and explains the presence in all monastic and private libraries of Byzantium, of innumerable copies of patristic catenae, and “chains” of authoritative interpretations of particular Biblical texts expressing or claiming to express the continuity of exegetical tradition.
Even though the consensus patrum reached by this method was in some instances partial and artificial, the standard Church teaching came to rely on it especially when it was sanctified by liturgical and hymnographical usage. The Bible was always understood not simply as a source of revealed doctrinal propositions or as a description of historical facts but as a witness to a living Truth, which had become dynamically present in the sacramental community of the New Testament Church. The veneration of the Virgin, Mother of God, for example, was associated once and for all with a typological interpretation of the Old Testament temple cult: the one who carried God in her womb was the true “temple,” the true “tabernacle,” the “candlestick,” and God’s final “abode.” Thus, a Byzantine, who on the eve of a Marian feast listened in church to a reading the Book of Proverbs about “Wisdom building her house” (Pr 9:1 ff.) naturally and almost exclusively, thought of the “Word becoming flesh” — i.e., finding His abode in the Virgin. The identification of the Old Testament Wisdom with the Johannine Logos had been taken for granted since the time of Origen, and no one would have thought of challenging it. As early as the fourth century, when much of the Arian debate centred on the famous text “The Lord created me at the beginning of his works” (Pr ), it was quite naturally interpreted by the Arians in favour of their position. Athanasius and other members of the Nicaean party declined to challenge the identification between Logos and Wisdom preferring to find references to other texts supporting the uncreated character of the Logos-Wisdom. No one questioned the established exegetical consensus on the identification itself.
of the accepted Byzantine exegetical method had its origin in Alexandrian
tradition and its allegorism.
But consonance with Hellenism was not the only element, which contributed to the widespread use of allegory in exegesis. The method provided an easy weapon against Gnosticism, the main challenge of Christianity in the second century. The major Gnostic systems — especially those of Valentinus and Marcion — opposed the Demiurge, the Yahweh of Judaism, to the true God manifested in the New Testament. Christian apologists used allegory to “redeem” the Old Testament and counteracted the Gnostic dualism with the idea that the Old and the New Testaments have the same “spiritual” meaning and reflect a continuous Revelation of the same true God.
Origen also made use of this concept of the “spiritual meaning” in his notion of Tradition. The Spirit, which had inspired the Biblical writers, was also present in the “spiritual men” of the Christian Church. The saint alone therefore could decipher the authentic meaning of Scripture.
The Scriptures [Origen writes] were composed through the Spirit of God, and they have not only that meaning which is obvious, but also another, which is hidden from the majority of readers. For the contents of Scripture are the outward forms of certain mysteries and the images of divine things. On this point, the entire Church is unanimous, that while the whole Law is spiritual, the inspired meaning is not recognized by all, but only by those who are gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the word of wisdom and knowledge.1
Although it raises the important problem of authority in exegesis, this passage certainly expresses a view largely taken for granted in Medieval Byzantine Christendom and explains the concern for a consensus patrum expressed in a formal way in the canon of the Council in Trullo quoted at the beginning of this section.
addition to Alexandrian allegorism, the Byzantine tradition of exegesis
incorporated the more sober influence of the
theological authority of the
The philosophical trends in post-Chalcedonian Byzantium were determined by three major factors: (1) the patristic tradition and its implications — the transfer, for example, of the Cappadocian Trinitarian terminology to the problem of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ, (2) the ever-reviving Origenism with its implied challenge to the Biblical doctrine of creation and to Biblical anthropology, and (3) the continuing influence of non-Christian Neo-Platonism upon intellectuals (Justinian’s closing of the University of Athens put a physical end to a centre of thought and learning only recently adorned by the last major figure of pagan Greek philosophy, Proclus, 410-485). In all three cases, the basic issue implied was the relation between ancient Greek thought and Christian Revelation.
Some modern historians continue to pass very divergent judgments on the philosophy of the Greek Fathers. In his well-known Histoire dc la philosophic, Emile Brehier writes, “In the first five centuries of Christianity, there was nothing that could properly be called Christian philosophy and would have implied a scale of intellectual values either original or different from that of the pagan thinkers.”3 According to Brehier, Christianity and Hellenic philosophy are not opposed to each other as two intellectual systems, for Christianity is based on revealed facts, not on philosophical ideas. The Greek Fathers, in accepting these facts, adopted everything in Greek philosophy, which was compatible with Christian Revelation. No new philosophy could result from such an artificial juxtaposition. A seemingly opposite view, more in line with the classical appraisal of Adolf Harnack, has been expressed by H. A. Wolfson whose book on The Philosophy of the Church Fathers presents the thought of the Fathers as “a recasting of Christian beliefs in the form of a philosophy, [which] thereby produc[ed] also a Christian version of Greek philosophy.”4 Finally, the monumental work of Claude Tresmontant La Metaphysique du Christianisme et la naissancc de la philosophic chretienne (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961) strongly maintains the historical existence of a Christian philosophy, which the Fathers consistently defended against the Hellenic synthesis. This philosophy implies basic affirmations on creation, on unity and multiplicity, on knowledge, freedom, and all other incompatible with Hellenism, and is fundamentally Biblical. “From the point of view of metaphysics,” he writes, “Christian orthodoxy is defined by its fidelity to the metaphysical principles found in Biblical theology.”5 Therefore, if the Greek Fathers were orthodox, they were not, properly speaking, “Greek.” Actually, in modern historical and theological writing, there is no term more ambiguous than “Hellenism.” Thus, Georges Florovsky makes a persistent plea for “Christian Hellenism” meaning by the term the tradition of the Eastern Fathers as opposed to Western Medieval thought,6 but he agrees fundamentally with Tresmontant on the total incompatibility between Greek philosophical thought and the Bible, especially on such basic issues as creation and freedom.7
Therefore, Tresmontant’s and Florovsky’s conclusions appear to be fundamentally correct, and the usual slogans and clichés, which too often serve to characterize patristic and Byzantine thought as exalted “Christian Hellenism,” or as the “Hellenization of Christianity,” or as Eastern “Platonism” as opposed to Western “Aristotelianism” should be avoided.
A more constructive method of approaching the issue and of establishing a balanced judgment consists in a preliminary distinction between the systems of ancient Greek philosophy — the Platonic, the Aristotelian, or the Neo-Platonic — and individual concepts or terms. The use of Greek concepts and terminology were unavoidable meanings of communication and a necessary step in making the Christian Gospel relevant to the world in which it appeared and in which it had to expand. But the Trinitarian terminology of the Cappadocian Fathers and its later application to Christology in the Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian periods clearly show that such concepts as ousia, hypostasis, or physis acquire an entirely new meaning when used out of the context of the Platonic or Aristotelian systems in which they are born. Three hypostases united in one “essence” (ousia) or two “natures” (physeis), united in one hypostasis cannot be a part of either the Platonic or Aristotelian systems of thought and imply new personalistic (and therefore non-Hellenic) metaphysical presuppositions. Still the Trinitarian and Christological synthesis of the Cappadocian Fathers would have dealt with a different set of problems and would have resulted in different concepts if the background of the Cappadocians and the audience to which they addressed themselves had not been Greek. Thus, Greek patristic thought remained open to Greek philosophical problematics but avoided being imprisoned in Hellenic philosophical systems. From Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century to Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth, the representatives of the Orthodox tradition all express their conviction that heresies are based upon the uncritical absorption of pagan Greek philosophy into Christian thought.
the major figures of early Christian literature, only Origen, Nemesius of Emesa,
and pseudo-Dionysius present systems of thought, which can truly be defined as
Christian versions of Greek philosophy. Others, including even such
system-builders as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, in spite of their
obvious philosophical mentality, stand too fundamentally in opposition to pagan
Hellenism on the basic issues of creation and freedom to qualify as Greek
philosophers. Origen and pseudo-Dionysius suffered quite a distinct posthumous
fate, which will be discussed later, but the influence of Nemesius and of his
Platonic anthropological “system” was so limited in
as most historians of Byzantine theology should admit, the problem of the
relationship between philosophy and the facts of Christian experience remains at
the centre of the theological thought of
Recent research has cast a completely new light on the history of
Origenism in the fifth and sixth centuries. The publication of the works of
Evagrius Ponticus has in particular clarified the issues, which divided rival
monastic parties in
While the Trinitarian problematics of Origen served as one of the starting points for the Arian controversies of the fourth century, his views on creation, the Fall, man, and God-man relations fascinated the first Greek intellectuals to the point of inducing them to join the monastic movement. In his system, monastic asceticism and spirituality find a justification, but contradict the basic presuppositions of Biblical Christianity. As a result, Origen and his disciple Evagrius were condemned in 400 by Theophilus of Alexandria and in 553 at Constantinople II. But even these condemnations did not preclude the lasting influence of their systems, which served as background for the integrated Christian philosophy of Maximus the Confessor. Origenism thus remained at the centre of the theological thought of post-Chalcedonian Eastern Christianity, and its influence on spirituality and theological terminology did not end with the condemnation of the Origenistic system in 553 but continued at least until the iconoclastic crisis of the eighth century.
Origen was undoubtedly the most successful of the early apologists of Christianity. His system made the Christian religion acceptable to Neo-Platonists, but the acceptance of Christianity on Origenistic terms does not necessarily imply the rejection of the basic Neo-Platonic concepts of God and of the world. If the Cappadocian Fathers, for example, after reading Origen in their student years, were finally led to orthodox Christianity, others, such as their friend and contemporary Evagrius Ponticus, developed Origenism in a quite different direction.
In his famous De principiis, Origen first postulates creation as an eternal act of God. God has always been the all-powerful Creator, and “we cannot even call God almighty if there are none over whom He can exercise His power.” But since Origen is very careful to refute the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter, he maintains that the ever-existing created world is a world of “intellects,” not of matter. The basic Platonizing spiritualism implied here will always appeal to monastic circles looking for a metaphysical justification of asceticism. The next step in Origen’s thought is to consider that the “intellectual” world, which includes “all rational natures — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Angels, the Powers, the Dominions, and other Virtues as well as man himself in the dignity of his soul — are one unique substance.”10 A later patristic tradition will oppose to this idea the notion of the absolute transcendence of God expressed in apophatic theology; but for Origen, the monistic structure encompassing God and the “intellects” in one single substance is broken only by the Fall. Misusing their “freedom,” the intellects committed the sin of revolting against God. Some sinned heavily and became demons; others sinned less and became angels; others did still less and became archangels. Thus, each received a condition proportionate to its own sin. The remaining souls committed sins neither heavy enough to rank with the demons nor light enough to become angels, and so it was that God created the present world and link the soul with a body as a punishment.11 The present visible world, which includes man — understood as an intellect transformed through sin into a body — is the result of the Fall; man’s ultimate destiny is dematerialization and a return to a union with God’s substance.
Evagrius Ponticus significantly developed this Origenistic system by applying it to Christology. According to Evagrius, Jesus Christ was not the Logos taking flesh but only an “intellect” that had not committed the original sin and thus was not involved in the catastrophe of materialization. He assumed a body in order to show the way toward a restoration of man’s original union with God.12 Around this teaching of Evagrius’, serious conflicts, which lasted until the reign of Justinian, arose between feuding monastic parties. At the centre of these disturbances, which was the Lavra of St. Sabbas in Palestine, some monks claimed to be “equal to Christ” (isochristot) since in them through prayer and contemplation there is the original relationship with God, which also existed in Christ, had been restored. This extreme and obviously heretical form of Origenism was condemned first by imperial decree, then by the ecumenical council of 553. The writings of Origen and Evagrius were destroyed and preserved only partially in Latin or Syrian translations or protected by pseudonyms. Ancient Hellenism had to give way once again to the basic principles of Biblical Christianity.
The condemnation of Origen and Evagrius did not mean however the total disappearance of the Platonic world-view from Byzantine Christianity. The Hellenic concept of the world as “order” and “hierarchy,” the strict Platonic division between the “intelligible” and the “sensible” worlds, and the Neo-Platonic grouping of beings into “triads” reappear in the famous writings of a mysterious early-sixth-century author who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. The quasi-apostolic authority of this unknown author went unchallenged in both East and West throughout the Middle Ages.
Historians of Eastern Christian thought usually emphasize the role of Dionysius — together with that of Gregory of Nyssa and of Maximus the Confessor — in expounding apophatic theology. According to Vladimir Lossky, Dionysius, far from being “a Platonist with a tinge of Christianity,” is the very opposite: “a Christian thinker disguised as a Neo-Platonist, a theologian very much aware of his task, which was to conquer the ground held by Neo-Platonism by becoming a master of its philosophical method.”13 And, indeed, several elements of Dionysius’ thought appear as successful Christian counterparts both to Neo-Platonic and to Origenistic positions. Dionysius specifically rejects Origen’s notion of knowledge of God “by essence” since there cannot be “knowledge” of God, for knowledge can apply only to “beings,” and God is above being and superior to all opposition between being and non-being. With God, there can be a “union,” however: the supreme end of human existence; but this union is “ignorance” rather than knowledge for it presupposes detachment from all activity of the senses or of the intellect since the intellect is applicable only to created existence. God therefore is absolutely transcendent and above existence and — as long as one remains in the categories of existence — can be described only in negative terms.14 God does however make Himself known outside of His transcendent nature: “God is manifested by His ‘powers’ in all beings, is multiplied without abandoning His unity.” 15 Thus, the concepts of beauty, being, goodness, and the like reflect God but not His essence, only His “powers” and “energies,”16 which are not however a diminished form of deity or mere emanations but themselves fully God in whom created beings can participate in the proportion and analogy proper to each. Thus, the God of Dionysius is again the living God of the Bible and not the One of Plotinus; and in this respect, Dionysius will provide the basis for further positive developments of Christian thought.
One must remember however that Dionysius’ theology property — i.e. his doctrine of God and of the relationship between God and the world — is not wholly original (in fact, its essential elements appear in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers), and that, through his hierarchical view of the universe, Dionysius exercised a highly ambiguous influence, especially in the fields of ecclesiology and sacramental theology.
If for Origen, the hierarchy of created beings — angels, men, demons — are the result of the Fall, for Dionysius it is an immovable and divine order through which one reaches “assimilation and union with God.”17 The three “triads” — or nine orders — of the celestial hierarchy and the two “triads” of the ecclesiastical hierarchy are essentiality a system of mediations. Each order participates in God “according to its capacity,” but this participation is granted through the order immediately superior.18 The most obvious consequences of that system occur in the field of ecclesiology; for Dionysius, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which includes the triads “bishops (hierarchs)-priests-deacons” and “monks-laymen-catechumens (sinners),” is nothing but an earthly reflection of the celestial orders; each ecclesiastical order, therefore, is a personal state, not a function in the community. “A hierarch,” Dionysius writes, “is a deified and divine man, instructed in holy knowledge.”19 And since the hierarch is primarily a gnostic, an initiator there is fundamentally no difference between his role and that of a charismatic. The same applies of course to the other orders.20
And since Dionysius also holds very strictly to the Platonic divisions between the intellectual and material orders, the material being only a reflection and a symbol of the intellectual, his doctrine of the sacraments is both purely symbolic and individualistic; the function of the Eucharist, for example, is only to symbolize the union of the intellect with God and Christ.21
Our conclusion to these brief comments on Dionysius must be therefore that. In areas where he transcends Neo-Platonism — the area of the theologia — he is a real Christian without however being truly original; but that his doctrine of the hierarchies, even if it represents a genuine attempt to integrate the Neo-Platonic world-view into the Christian framework, is an obvious failure, the consequences of which have led to much confusion, especially in the fields of liturgy and of ecclesiological formulations. One wonders too if the Western Scholastic doctrine of the sacerdotal “character” and, to a lesser extent, the confusion, frequent in the Byzantine East, between the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and that of “holy men” do not go back ultimately to Dionysius.
appearance of the Dionysian writings coincides chronologically with a turning
point in the history of Christian liturgy. When Justinian closed the last pagan
temples and schools, Christianity became unquestionably the religion of the
masses of the empire. The Christian liturgy originally conceived as the cult of
small-persecuted communities now came to be celebrated in immense cathedrals —
such as the magnificent “
The writings of pseudo-Dionysius contributed to the same trend. The author’s ideas about God’s grace descending upon the lower ranks of the hierarchy through the personal mediation of the hierarchs did much to shape new Byzantine liturgical forms, which he considered only as symbols revealing the mysteries to the eyes of the faithful. Appearances and disappearances of the celebrant, veiling and unveiling of the elements, opening and closing of the doors, and various gestures connected with the sacraments often originated in the rigid system of the hierarchical activity as described by Dionysius and found ready acceptance in a Church otherwise concerned with preserving the mysterious character of the cult from profanation by the masses now filling the temples.
Fortunately, Dionysian theology has had practically no effect upon such
central texts as the baptismal prayer and the Eucharistic canons. It served
principally to develop and explain the extremely rich fringes with which
Another very important liturgical development of the fifth and sixth centuries was the large-scale adoption of hymnography of a Hellenistic nature. In the early Christian communities, the Church hymnal was comprised of the Psalter and some other poetic excerpts from Scripture with relatively few newer hymns. In the fifth and sixth centuries however with the insistence on more liturgical solemnity (often copied from court ceremonial) in the great urban churches and the unavoidable Hellenization of the Church, the influx of new poetry was inevitable.
This influx met strong opposition in monastic circles, which considered it improper to replace Biblical texts of the liturgy with human poetic compositions, but the resistance was not a lasting one. In fact, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the monks took the lead in hymnographical creativity.
as early as the sixth century, the religious poetry of Romanos the Melody was
regarded as revolutionary in
in Emesus, Romanos came to
Romanos’ poetry generally relies on imagery and drama and contains little or no at all theology. The Christological debates of the period, for example, are not at all reflected in his kontakya. Written in simple popular Greek, they must have played a tremendous role in bringing the themes of Biblical history to the masses; they undoubtedly strengthened profoundly that understanding of Christianity centred on the liturgy, which became so characteristic of the Byzantines.
Some of Romanos’ kontakya remain in the liturgical books in an abridged form, and the pattern, which he established, was reproduced almost exactly in the famous Akathistos hymnos, one of the most popular pieces of Byzantine hymnography. Although, as we shall see later, subsequent hymnographical patterns formed in the monasteries were quite different from those of Romanos, the work of the great melody of the sixth century played a central role in shaping Byzantine Christianity as distinct from the Latin, the Syrian, the Egyptian, and the Armenian.
cultural framework of Byzantine theology after
1. Origen, De principiis, Praefatio 8; ed. B. Koetschau, GCS 22 (1913), 14.6-13; trans. G. W. Butterworth, On the First Principles (London: SPCK, 1936), p. 5.
2. John Chrysostom, De paenitentia, horn. 6, 4; PG 49:320.
3. fcmile Brehier, Histoire de la philosophic (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1931), II, 494.
4. H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), I, VI.
5. Claude Tresmontant, La Mέtaphysique du christianisme et la naissance de la philosophic chretienne (Paris: du Seuil, 1961), p. 23.
6. Georges Florovsky, “The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” Theology Today 7 (April 1950), 74-76.
7. Georges Florovsky, “The Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy,” Eastern Church Quarterly 8 (1949), 53-77.
8. See fctienne
Gilson, La philosophic an Moyen-Age (2nd ed.,
9. Origen, De principiis, I, 2, 10; ed. Koetschau, p. 42; trans. Butterworth, p. 23.
10. Quoted by Jerome in Ep. 124, ad Avit., 15.
11. See anathemas of the Council of Constantinople (553) as given in F. Dickamp, Die origenistischen Streitigt^eiten im sechsten Jahrhundert und das junjte allgemeine Concil (Munstcr, 1898), pp. 90-96.
12. The essential texts are found in A. Guillaumont, Les “Kephalaia Gnostica” d’tvagre le Pontique et I’histoire de I’origenisme chez les Grecs et les Syriens (Paris: du Seuil, 1962), esp. pp. 156-160.
13. Vladimir Lossky, Vision of God (London: Faith Press, 1963), pp. 99-100.
14. Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology, V; PG 3:1045p-1048A.
15. Lossky, Vision, p. 102.
16. See, chiefly, pseudo-Dionysius, On the Divine Names, II; PG 3:636ff.
17. Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Celestial Hierarchy, III, 2; PG 3:165λ.
18. See R. Roques, L’univers dionysien: Structure hierarchique du monde scion le pseudo-Denys (Paris: Aubier, 1954), p. 98ff.
19. Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, I, 3; PG 3:373c.
20. See the analysis of Roques, L’univers dionysien, pp. 172ff.
21. Ibid., pp. 267, 269.
Throughout the millennium
between the Council of Chalcedon and the fall of
Western Christological thought since the early Middle Ages has been dominated by the Anselmian idea of redemption through “satisfaction;” the idea that Jesus offered to the Father a perfect and sufficient sacrifice, propitiatory for the sins of mankind, has been at the centre of Christological speculation playing a prominent role in modern historical research on the patristic age. The result is that Christology has been conceived as a topic in itself, clearly distinct from pneumatology and anthropology. But if one keeps in mind the Greek patristic notion that the true nature of man means life in God realized once and for all through the Holy Spirit in the hypostatic union of the man Jesus with the Logos and made accessible to all men through the same Holy Spirit in the humanity of Christ and in His body, the Church, Christology acquires a new and universal dimension. It cannot be isolated any longer from either the doctrine of the Holy Spirit or the doctrine of man, and it becomes a key for the understanding of the Gospel as a whole.
issue of “participation in God’s life” and “deification” stands as a necessary
background to the clash between Alexandrian and Antiochian Christology in the
fifth century. When the great exegetes of Antioch — Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore
of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, and even Theodoret of Cyrus — emphasize the full
humanity of the historical Jesus, they understand this humanity not merely as
distinct from the divinity but as “autonomous” and personalized. If “deified,”
Jesus could no longer be truly man, he must simply be the son of Mary if he is
to be ignorant, to suffer, and to die. It is precisely this understanding of
humanity as autonomous, which has attracted the sympathies of modern Western
theologians toward the Antiochians, but which provoked the emergence of
Nestorianism and the clash with
Thus, the essential “good news” about the coming of new life — human because it is also divine — was expressed by Cyril of Alexandria and not by the more rational scheme defended by Nestorius. Cyril lacked the vocabulary however and the flexibility to satisfy those who feared the Monophysite temptation of seeing in Jesus a God who ceased to be also man. Cyril’s formula of “one nature [or hypostasis] incarnated” was still polemical in leaving the door open to the Orthodox distinction between the divine nature per se and the “divine nature incarnated” and therefore recognizing the reality of the “flesh;” it was anti-Nestorian not balanced formula and positive definition of who Christ is. The Chalcedonian definition of 451 — two natures united in one hypostasis yet retaining in full their respective characteristics — was therefore a necessary correction of Cyril’s vocabulary. Permanent credit should be given to the Antiochians — especially to Theodoret — and to Leo of Rome for having shown the necessity of this correction, without which Cyrillian Christology could easily be, and actually was, interpreted in a Monophysite sense by Eutyches and his followers.
But the Chalcedonian definition balanced and positive as it was lacked the soteriological charismatic impact, which had made the positions of Athanasius and Cyril such appealing. Political and ecclesiastical rivalries, personal ambitions, imperial pressures aimed at imposing Chalcedon by force, abusive interpretations of Cyril in the Monophysite sense as well as misinterpretations of the council by some Nestorianizing Antiochians who saw in it a disavowal of the great Cyril — all provoked the first major and lasting schism in Christendom.
Understandably, the Byzantine emperors tried to restore the religious unity of the empire. In the second half of the fifth century, they made several unhappy attempts to heal the schism by avoiding the issue. But the issue proved to be real, and the passions — high. Thus, Justinian I (527-565), the last great Roman emperor, after several attempts to achieve unity by imperial decree again turned to conciliar procedure.
In the age of Justinian, four major theological positions can be easily discerned:
Although most of the Monophysites were ready to anathematize Eutyches as well as the idea that Christ’s humanity was “confused” with His divinity, they held steadfastly to the theology and terminology of Cyril of Alexandria. Just as the “old Nicaeans” in the fourth century had refused to accept the formula of the three hypostasis introduced by the Cappadocian Fathers because Athanasius had not used it, so the leaders of fifth- and sixth-century Monophysitism — Dioscoros of Alexandria, Philoxenus of Mabbugh, and the great Sever us of Antioch — rejected the Council of Chalcedon and the Christological formula of “one hypostasis in two natures” because Cyril had never used it and because they interpreted it as a return to Nestorianism. The danger of Eutychianism that they claimed was not serious enough to justify the Chalcedonian departure from Cyril’s terminology. They objected most violently — and this objection may be the real serious difference between their Christology and Chalcedonian orthodoxy — to the idea that the two natures after the union “retain in full their proper characteristics.”
The strict Dyophysites were Chalcedonians, which still rigidly maintained the Antiochian Christology and objected to some of Cyril’s propositions such as the Theopaschite formula: “One of the Holy Trinity suffered in the flesh.” For them, the subject of suffering is Jesus, the son of Mary, not the divine Logos. But, one may ask, is there not then a duality of subjects in Christ? The existence of this party in the Chalcedonian camp and the influence exercised by its representatives — Theodoret of Cyrus until his death around year 466, Gennadios of Constantinople (458-471), his successor Macedonios (495-511), and others — provided the Monophysites with their main arguments for rejecting Chalcedon as a Nestorian council and as a disavowal of Cyril.
Cyrillian Chalcedonians, who were obviously the majority at the council itself,
never admitted that there was a contradiction between Cyril and
Origenists involved in violent controversies but influential at the court in the
beginning of Justinian’s reign offered their own solution based upon the quite
heretical Christology of Evagrius Ponticus. For them, Jesus is not the Logos but
an “intellect” not involved in the original Fall and thus united hypostatically
and essentially with the Logos. The writings of Leontius of Byzantium, the chief
representative of Origenist Christology in
Fifth Ecumenical Council (553)
convoked by Justinian in order to give formal ecclesiastical approval to his
attempts at making Chalcedon acceptable to the Monophysites was a triumph of
Cyrillian Chalcedonianism. It approved Justinian’s earlier posthumous
condemnation of the Three Chapters, and, though Theodore was personally
condemned as a heretic and the teacher of Nestorius, Ibas and Theodoret, whom
the Council of Chalcedon had officially accepted as orthodox, were spared as
persons; their writings directed against Cyril however fell under the anathemas
of 553. Thus, the authority of
Unfortunately, by 553, the schism was too deeply rooted in
The Council of 553 also adopted a series of anathemas against Origen and Evagrius Ponticus. The Gnostic’s Chapters of Evagrius helped greatly in understanding of the meaning of these decisions, which were directed not as it was previously thought against non-existent heresies attributed to Origen but against an active group of Evagrians closely connected with the Christological debates of the day. Despite these condemnations however some aspects of the thought of Origen, Evagrius, and Leontius of Byzantium continued to exercise an influence on the development of the theological thought and of spirituality.
The condemnation of Origenism in 553 was, therefore, a decisive step in Eastern Christian theology, which then committed itself to a Biblical view of creation, of an anthropocentric universe, of man as a coherent psychosomatic whole, of history as a linear orientation toward an ultimate eschaton, and of God as a personal and living being independent of all metaphysical necessity.
decision of 553 however did not close the Christological debate. Actually by
solving some issues, each doctrinal definition — at
Persian wars of Emperor Heraclius (610-641) again deeply involved the Byzantine
government in unionist policies with the Monophysites, especially with the
Armenians. Patriarch Sergius (610-638), Heraclius’ friend and theological
adviser, devised a formula of union, according to which the Monophysites would
accept the Chalcedonian formula of the “two natures” with the specification that
they were united into one “energy” and one will. The policy reached a measure of
success both in
Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662), the architect of this decision, dominates the period intellectually and, in many respects, may be regarded as the real Father of Byzantine theology; for in his system, one finds a Christian philosophical counterpart to Origen’s myth of creation and, as the real foundation of Christian spiritual life, a doctrine of “deification” based on Cyril’s soteriology and on Chalcedonian Christology.
Maximus never had or even tried to have the opportunity to compose an ordered analysis of his system. His writings include only a large collection of Ambigua, a most unsystematic compilation of commentaries on obscure passages from Gregory of Nazianzus or from pseudo-Dionysius, a collection of “Answers to Questions” by Thalassius, several series of Chapters (short sayings on spiritual or theological matters), and a few polemical treatises against the Monothelites. In these membra disjecta however one discovers a most coherent view of the Christian faith as a whole formed quite independently of the Monothelite controversy. His attitude against the Monothelites thus acquires even greater strength precisely because its roots go much deeper than the casual historical circumstances in which it had to be expressed and which led Maximus himself to torture and a martyr’s death.
In Origen’s, system immobility is one of the essential characteristics of true being; it belongs to God but also to creatures as long as they remain in conformity with God’s will. Diversity and movement come from the Fall. For Maximus however “movement,” or “action,” is a fundamental quality of nature. Each creature possesses its own meaning and purpose, which reflect the eternal and divine Logos “through whom all things were made.” The Logos of every creature is given to it not only as a static element but also as the eternal goal and purpose, which are called to achieve.
At this point, Maximus’ thought uses the Aristotelian concept of each nature’s having its own “energy” or existential manifestation. The Cappadocian Fathers had applied the same principle to their doctrine of the three hypostaseis in God. Gregory of Nyssa, in particular, had to defend himself against the accusation of tritheism; the three hypostaseis are not three Gods because they have one nature, as is evident from the fact that there is only one “energy” of God. Already then in Cappadocian view, the concept of “energy” is linked with that of nature. Maximus could therefore refer to tradition in opposing the Monothelite contention that “energy” reflects the one hypostasis, person, or actor; and therefore, Christ could have only one “energy.”
In Maximian thought, man occupies quite an exceptional position among the other creatures. He not only carries in himself a Logos; he is the image of the divine Logos, and the purpose of his nature is to acquire similitude with God. In creation as a whole, man’s role is to unify all things in God and thus to overcome the evil powers of separation, division, disintegration, and death. The “natural,” God-established “movement,” “energy,” or will of man is therefore directed toward communion with God, “deification,” not in isolation from the entire creation, but leading it back to its original state.
One could understand at this point why Maximus felt so strongly that both Monoenergism and Monotheletism betrayed the Chalcedonian affirmation that Christ was fully man. There cannot be a true humanity if there is no natural, authentic human will or “movement.”
But if the human will is nothing but a movement of nature, is there a place for human freedom? And how can the Fall and man’s revolt against God be explained? These questions to which Origen gave such great importance find in Maximus a new answer. Already in Gregory of Nyssa, true human freedom does not consist in autonomous human life but in the situation, which is truly natural to man’s communion with God. When man is isolated from God, he finds himself enslaved — to his passions, to himself, and ultimately to Satan. Therefore, for Maximus, when man follows his natural will, which presupposes life in God, God’s co-operation, and communion, he is truly free. But man also possesses another potential, determined not by his nature, but by each human person, or hypostasis, the freedom of choice, of revolt, of movement against nature, and therefore of self-destruction. This personal freedom was used by Adam and Eve after the Fall in separation from God and from true knowledge ¾ from all the assurance secured by “natural” existence. It implies hesitation, wandering, and suffering; this is the gnomic will (gnomĕ opinion), a function of the hypostatic or personal life, not of nature.
In Christ, human nature is united with the hypostasis of the Logos and while remaining fully itself is liberated from sin, the source of which is the gnomic will. Because it is “en-hypostasized” in Logos Himself, Christ’s humanity is perfect humanity. In the mysterious process, which started with His conception in the Virgin’s womb, Jesus passed through natural growth, ignorance, suffering, and even death — all of experiences of the fallen humanity, which He had come to save, and He fulfilled through the resurrection the ultimate human destiny. Christ could thus be truly the saviour of humanity because in Him there could never be any contradiction between natural will and gnomic will. Through the hypostatic union, His human will, precisely because it always conforms itself to the divine, also performs the “natural movement” of human nature.
The doctrine of “deification” in Maximus is based upon the fundamental patristic presupposition that communion with God does not diminish or destroy humanity but makes it fully human. In Christ the hypostatic union the communication of idioms (perichõresis tõn idiõmatõn). The characteristics of divinity and humanity express themselves “in communion with each other” (Chalcedonian definition), and human actions, “energies,” have God Himself as their personal agent. Therefore, it can be said that “God was born,” that Mary is the Theotokos, and that the “Logos was crucified” while birth and death remain purely human realities. But it can and must also be said that a man rose from the dead and sits at the right hand of the Father having acquired characteristics, which “naturally” belong to God alone: immortality and glory. Through Christ’s humanity deified according to its hypostatic union with the Logos, all members of the Body of Christ have access to “deification” by grace through the operation of the Spirit in Christ’s Church.
The essential elements of Maximian Christology provided the permanent terminological and philosophical framework for Byzantine thought and spirituality. They were adopted with the Trinitarian doctrine of the great Cappadocian Fathers together in the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith of John of Damascus (first half of the eighth century), which served as a standard doctrinal textbook in Byzantium. They also provided the most authoritative frame of reference in most of the doctrinal controversies, which arose in the East during the Middle Ages.
The following chapter, which is concerned with iconoclasm, will show that the Christological issue recurred indirectly in the eighth and ninth centuries. But even later, Christological debate was reopened quite specifically, especially in the Comnenian period, and conciliar decisions on the matter were included in the Synodikon.
Around 1087, a Constantinopolian monk named Nilus, who was involved in theological discussions with the Armenians, was condemned for holding that the humanity of Christ was united with God “by adoption” (thesei) only.2 The Monophysite Armenians were of course maintaining the concept of a union “by nature” (physei). In opposing them, Nilus had apparently weakened the Orthodox doctrine of “hypostatic” union to the point of making it sound Nestorian. In 1117, the Synod of Constantinople dealt with the similar case of Eustratius, Metropolitan of Nicaea, who like Nilus had engaged in polemics with Armenians and expressed orthodox Christology in terms very similar to those of Theodore of Mopsuestia. The humanity by Christ was assumed not only distinct from His divinity but found itself in a position of “servitude;” it was in a position of “worshipping God,” of being “purified,” and to it alone belongs the human title of high-priest, a term unsuitable to God. In condemning the opinions of Eustratius, the synod reiterated the decisions of the Fifth Council against the Christology of the Three Chapters.3
very Cyrillian conclusion of the council against Eustratius led to further
Christological debates, which this time centred on the meaning of the
Eucharistic sacrifice. The deacon Soterichos Panteugenos, Patriarch-Elect of
Antioch, affirmed that the sacrifice could not be offered to the Holy Trinity,
for this would imply that the one Christ performs two opposing actions, the
human action of offering and the divine action of receiving, and would mean a
Nestorian separation and personalizing of the two natures. Nicholas, Bishop of
Methone in the
“open meeting in the flesh” received further emphasis in 1170 in connection with
the condemnation of Constantine of Kerkyra and his supporter, John Eirenikos, as
crypto-Monophysites. Their point was to refuse to apply John (“My Father is greater than I”) to the
distinction between the divinity and the humanity of Christ. The text, they
said, concerned the hypostatic characteristics in the Holy Trinity, fatherhood
being by definition “greater” than sonship while the humanity of Christ, which
according to the Council of 553 is distinguishable from the divinity only “in
our mind,” is deified and wholly “one” with the divinity. It cannot therefore be
“smaller” than the divinity in any sense. By rejecting this view, the Council of
1170 reaffirmed once again the decisions of
very technical Christological discussions of the twelfth century, in fact,
reconsidered all the major issues, which had been debated in the fifth, sixth,
and seventh centuries. The
1. Quoted by J. Lebon, Le Monophysitisme severien, etude historique, litter are et theologique sur la resistance monophysite au Concile de Chalcedoine jusqu’a la constitution de I’Uglisc Jacobite (Louvain dissertation, 1909), pp. 445-446.
2. Anna Comnena,
Alexiad, X, 1; ed. B. Leib (
3. See P. Joannou, “Der Nominalismus und die menschliche Psychologic Christi: das Semeioma gegen Eustratios von Nikaia (1117),” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 47 (1954), 374-378.
4. Nicholas of
Methonc, Treatise Against Soterichos, ed. A. Demetrakopoulos, Bibliothekc
5. Fifth Anathema Against Soterichos in Synodifon ed. Gouillard, p. 75.
the long iconoclastic struggle, which recurred frequently in Byzantine theology, was intimately connected with the Christological issue, which had divided Eastern Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.
The emperors of the eighth and ninth centuries initiated and supported the iconoclastic movement; and from the start, issues of both a theological and a non-theological nature were inseparably involved in this imperial policy.
From contemporary sources and modern historical research, three elements within the movement seem to emerge:
a. A Problem of Religious Culture. From their pagan past, Greek-speaking Christians had inherited a taste for religious imagery. When the early Church condemned such art as idolatrous, the three-dimensional form practically disappeared, only to reappear in a new, Christian two-dimensional version. Other Eastern Christians, particularly the Syrians and the Armenians, were much less inclined by their cultural past to the use of images. It is significant, therefore, that the emperors who sponsored iconoclasm were of Armenian or Isaurian origins. Moreover, the non-Greek-speaking East was almost entirely Monophysite by the eighth century and, as we shall see, Monophysitism tacitly or explicitly provided the iconoclasts with the essence of their theological arguments.
Confrontation with Islam. After the Arab conquest of
c. The Heritage of Hellenic Spiritualism. The controversy begun by Emperors Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) seems to have been determined initially by the non-theological factors described above. But the iconoclasts easily found in the Greek Christian tradition itself new arguments indirectly connected with condemned Monophysitism or with foreign cultural influences. An iconoclastic trend of thought, which could be traced back to early Christianity, was later connected with Origenism. The early apologists of Christianity took the Old Testament prohibitions against any representation of God just as literally as the Jews had. But in their polemics against Christianity, Neo-Platonic writers minimized the importance of idols in Greek paganism and developed a relative doctrine of the image as a means of access to the divine prototype and not as a dwelling of the divine himself and used this argument to show the religious inferiority of Christianity. Porphyry, for example, writes,
If some Hellenes were light-headed enough to believe that the gods live inside idols, their thought remained much purer than that [of the Christians] who believed that the divinity entered the Virgin Mary’s womb, became a foetus, was engendered and wrapped in clothes and was full of blood, membranes, gall, and even viler things.1
Porphyry obviously understood that the belief in an historical incarnation of God was inconsistent with total iconoclasm, for an historical Christ was necessarily visible and depictable. And, indeed, Christian iconography began to flourish as early as the third century. In Origenistic circles however influenced as they were by Platonic spiritualism, which denied a matter of permanent God-created existence and for whom the only true reality was intellectual,” iconoclastic tendencies survived. When Constantia, sister of the Emperor Constantine, visited Jerusalem and requested an image of Christ from Eusebius of Caesarea, she received the answer that “the form a servant,” assumed by the Logos in Jesus Christ, was no longer in the realm of reality, and her concern for a material image of Jesus was unworthy of true religion; after His glorification, Christ could be contemplated only “in the mind.”2 There is an evidence that the theological advisers of Leo III, the first iconoclastic emperor, were also Origenists with views most certainly identical to those of Eusebius. Thus, a purely “Greek” iconoclasm, philosophically quite different from the Oriental and the Islamic ones, contributed to the success of the movement.
It seemed that no articulate theology of iconoclasm developed in a written form before the reign of Constantine V Copronymos (741-775). The emperor himself published theological treatises attacking the veneration of icons and gathered in Hieria a council claiming ecumenicity (754). The Acts of this assembly are preserved in the minutes of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, which formally rejected iconoclasm (787).
These arguments did not lack strength and must have impressed his contemporaries, but they failed to account for the Chalcedonian affirmation that “each nature preserved its own manner of being.” Obviously, even if they formally rejected Monophysitism, the iconoclasts supposed that the deification of Christ’s humanity suppressed its properly human individual character. They also seem to have ignored the true meaning of the hypostatic union, which implies a real distinction between nature and hypostasis. In being assumed by the hypostasis of the Logos, human nature does not merge with divinity; it retains its full identity.
Another aspect of the iconoclasts’ position was their notion of the image, which they always considered identical or “consubstantial” with the prototype. The consequence of this approach was that a material image could never achieve this identity and was always inadequate. The only true “image” of Christ, which they would admit, is the sacramental one of the Eucharist as the “image” and “symbol” of Christ — a notion, which was drawn from pseudo-Dionysius.4
discussion about images must have taken place in
In certain reproductions of venerable images, the precursor is pictured indicating the lamb with his ringer. This representation was adopted as a symbol of grace. It is a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ, our God, and shown to us according to the Law. Having thus welcomed these ancient figures and shadows as symbols of the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves as a fulfilment of this law. Therefore, in order to expose to the sight of all, at least with the help of painting, which is perfect, we decree that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in His human form but not in the form of the ancient lamb.5
Thus, the image of Christ already implied for the fathers of the Council in Trullo a confession of faith in the historical Incarnation, which could not be properly expressed in the symbolic figure of a lamb and needed an image of Jesus “in His human form.”
Before Leo HI had issued his formal decrees against the images, Germanus I (715-730), the Patriarch of Constantinople, used the same Christological argument against the incipient iconoclasm of the court:
In eternal memory of the life in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His passion, His saving death, and the redemption of the world, which results from them, we have received the tradition of representing Him in His human form — i.e., in His visible Theophany —, understanding that we exalt in this way the humiliation of God the Word.6
became the first witness of Orthodoxy against iconoclasm in
Living and writing in the relative security assured to the Christian
ghettos of the Middle East by the Arab conquerors, this humble monk of the
Monastery of St. Sabbas in Palestine succeeded by his three famous treatises for
the defence of the images in uniting Orthodox opinion in the Byzantine world.
His first treatise begins with the reaffirmation of the Christological argument:
“I represent God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as He has
become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood.”7 John’s
main emphasis is on the change, which occurred in the relationship between God
and the visible world when He became a
In former times, God without body or form could in no way be represented. But today since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God [to horaton tõu theõu]. I do not venerate any matter, but I venerate the creator of a matter, who became the matter for my sake, who assumed life in the flesh, and who through the matter accomplished my salvation.8
In addition to this central argument, John insists on secondary and less decisive issues. The Old Testament, for example, was not totally iconoclastic but used images, especially in temple worship, which Christians are entitled to interpret as pre-figurations of Christ. John also denounced the iconoclasts’ identification of the image with the prototype, the idea that an icon “is God.” On this point the Neo-Platonic and Origenist traditions, which were also used by the iconoclasts supported the side of the Orthodox, only the Son and the Spirit are “natural images” of the Father and therefore consubstantial with Him. But other images of God are essentially different from their model and therefore not “idols.”
This discussion on the nature of the image, which provided the basis for the very important definition of the cult of images, was adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. The image, icon, since it is distinct from the divine model, can be the object only of a relative veneration or honour, not of worship, which is reserved for God alone.9 This authoritative statement by an ecumenical council clearly excludes the worship of images often attributed to Byzantine Christianity.
The misunderstanding of this point is a very old one and partly the result of difficulties in translation. The Greek proskynests (“veneration”) was already translated as adoration in the Latin version of the Conciliar Acts used by Charlemagne in his famous Libri Carolini, which rejected the council. And later, even Thomas Aquinas — who, of course, accepted Nicaea II — admitted a “relative adoration” (latrid) of the images, a position, which gave the Greeks an opportunity of accusing the Latins of idolatry at the Council of Hagia Sophia in 1450.10
In spite of its very great terminological accuracy in describing the veneration of icons, Nicaea II did not elaborate on the technical points of Christology raised by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria. The task of refuting this council and of developing the rather general Christological affirmations of Germanus and John of Damascus belongs to the two major theological figures of the second iconoclastic period — the reigns of Leo V (813-820), Michael π (820-829), and Theophilus (829-842) — Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus.
Theodore the Studite (759-826) was one of the major reformers of the Eastern Christian monastic movement. In 798, he found himself at the head of the Constantinopolian monastery of Studios (the name of the founder), which by then had fallen into decay. Under Theodore’s leadership the community there rapidly grew to several hundred monks and became the main monastic centre of the capital. The Studite Rule (Hypotypõsis) in its final form is the work of Theodore’s disciples, but it applied his principles of monastic life and became the pattern for large cenobitic communities in the Byzantine and Slavic worlds. Theodore himself is the author of two collections of instructions addressed to his monks (the “small” and the “large” Catecheses) in which he develops his concept of monasticism based upon obedience to the abbot, liturgical life, constant work, and personal poverty. These principles were quite different from the eremitical, “hesychast,” tradition and derived from the rules of Pachomius and Basil. The influence of Theodore upon later developments of Byzantine Christianity is also expressed in his contribution to hymnography. Many of the ascetical parts of the Triodion (proper for Great Lent) and of the Parakletike, or Oktoechos (the book of the “eight tones”), are his work or the work of his immediate disciples. His role in conflicts between Church and state will be mentioned in the next chapter.
In numerous letters to contemporaries, in his three Antirrhetics against the iconoclasts, and in several minor treatises on the subject, Theodore actively participated in the defence of images.
As we have seen, the principal argument of the Orthodox against the iconoclasts was the reality of Christ’s manhood; the debate thus gave Byzantine theologians an opportunity to reaffirm the Antiochian contribution to Chalcedonian Christology, and signalled a welcome return to the historical facts of the New Testament. From the age of Justinian, the humanity of Christ had often been expressed in terms of “human nature” assumed as one whole by the New Adam. Obviously, this platonizing view of humanity in general was insufficient to justify an image of Jesus Christ as a concrete, historical, human individual. The fear of Nestorianism prevented many Byzantine theologians from seeing a man in Christ, for “a man” implying individual human consciousness seemed for them to mean a separate human hypostasis. In Theodore’s anti-iconoclastic writings, this difficulty is overcome by a partial return to Aristotelian categories.
Christ was certainly not a mere man; neither it is orthodox to say that He assumed an individual among men [ton tina anthrõpõn] but the whole, the totality of the nature. It must be said however that this total nature was contemplated in an individual manner — [for how otherwise could it have been seen?] — in a way which made it visible and describable, which allowed it to eat and drink...11
Humanity for Theodore “exists only in Peter and Paul,” i.e., in concrete human beings, and Jesus was such a being. Otherwise, Thomas’ experience of placing his finger into Jesus’ wounds would have been impossible.12 The iconoclasts claimed that Christ in virtue of the union between divinity and humanity was indescribable; and therefore, that no image of Him was possible. But for Theodore, “an indescribable Christ would be an incorporeal Christ… Isaiah [8:3] described him as a male being, and only the forms of the body can make man and woman distinct one from another.”13
A firm stand on Christ’s individuality as on a man’s one again raised the issue of the hypostatic union; for in Chalcedonian Christology, the unique hypostasis or person of Christ is that of the Logos. Obviously then, the notion of hypostasis cannot be identified with either the divine or the human characteristics; neither can it be identical with the idea of human consciousness. The hypostasis is the ultimate source of individual, personal existence, which in Christ is both divine and human.
For Theodore, an image can be the image of an hypostasis only, for the image of a nature is inconceivable.14 On the icons of Christ, the only proper inscription is the personal God, “He who is" — the Greek equivalent of the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh) of the Old Testament, never such impersonal terms as “divinity” or “kingship,” which belong to the Trinity as such and thus cannot be represented.15 This principle, rigidly followed in classical Byzantine iconography, shows that the icon of Christ is for Theodore not only an image of “the man Jesus” but also of the incarnate Logos. The meaning of the Christian Gospel lies precisely in the fact that the Logos assumed all the characteristics of a man including describability, and His icon is a permanent witness of this fact.
The humanity of Christ, which makes the icons possible, is a “new humanity” having been fully restored to communion with God, deified in virtue of the communication of idioms, and bearing fully again the image of God. This fact is to be reflected in iconography as in a form of art: the artist thus receives a quasi-sacramental function. Theodore compares the Christian artist to God Himself making the man in His own image: “The fact that God made man in His image and likeness showed that iconography was a divine action.”16 At the beginning, God created man in His image. By making an icon of Christ, the iconographer also makes an “image of God,” for what the deified humanity of Jesus truly is.
By position, temperament, and style, Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople (806-815), was the opposite of Theodore. He belonged to the series of Byzantine patriarchs between Tarasius and Photius who were elevated to the supreme ecclesiastical position after a successful civil career. As patriarch, he followed a policy of oikonomia and suspended the canonical penalties previously imposed upon the priest Joseph who had performed the “adulterous” marriage of Constantine VI. This action brought him into violent conflict with Theodore and the monastic zealots. Later deposed by Leo V (in 815) for his defence of icons, he died in 828 after having composed a Refutation of the iconoclastic council of 815, three Antirrhetics, one Long Apology, and an interesting treatise Against Eusebius and Epiphanius, the main patristic references of the iconoclasts.
Nicephorus’ thought is altogether directed against the Origenist notion found in Eusebius’ letter to Constantia that deification of humanity implies dematerialization and absorption into a purely intellectual mode of existence. The patriarch constantly insists on the New Testament evidence that Jesus experienced weariness, hunger, and thirst like any other man.17 In dealing with the issue of Jesus’ ignorance, Nicephorus also tries to reconcile the relevant scriptural passages with the doctrine of the hypostatic union in a way, which was for different reasons not common in Eastern theology. In Evagrian Origenism, ignorance was considered as coextensive with ― if not identical to ― sinfulness. The original state of the created intellects before the Fall was that of divine gnosis. Jesus was precisely the non-fallen intellect and therefore eminently and necessarily preserved the “knowledge of God” and of course any other form of inferior gnosis. The authors of the age of Justinian, followed by both Maximus and John of Damascus, denied any ignorance in Christ by virtue of the hypostatic union; but probably also under the influence of a latent Evagrianism, they interpreted the Gospel passages speaking of ignorance on the part of Jesus as examples of his oikonomia ― pastoral desire ― to be seen as a mere man and not as expressions of His real ignorance. Nicephorus stands in opposition to that tradition on this point although he admits that the hypostatic union could suppress all human ignorance in Jesus; but by virtue of the communication of idioms, the divine knowledge being communicated to the human nature. He maintains that divine economy in fact required that Christ assume all aspects of human existence, including ignorance: “He willingly acted, desired, was ignorant and suffered as a man.”18 In becoming incarnate, the Logos assumed not an abstract, ideal humanity, but the concrete humanity, which existed in history after the Fall, in order to save it. “He did not possess a flesh other than our own, that, which fell as a consequence of sins; He did not transform it [in assuming it]... He was made of the same nature as we but without sin; and through that nature, He condemned sin and death.”19
This fullness of humanity implied, of course, describability; for if Christ was indescribable, His Mother with whom He shared the same human nature would have been considered as indescribable as well. “Too much honour given to the Mother,” Nicephorus writes, “amounts to dishonour her, for one would have to attribute to her incorruptibility, immortality, and impassibility if what by nature belongs to the Logos must also by grace be attributed to her who gave Him birth.”20
The same logic applies to the Eucharist, which, as we have seen, the iconoclasts considered only as the admissible image or symbol of Christ. For Nicephorus and the other Orthodox defenders of images, this concept was unacceptable because they understood the Eucharist as the very reality of the Body and Blood of Christ and precisely not as an “image,” for an image is made to be seen while the Eucharist remains fundamentally food to be eaten. By being, it assumed into Christ the Eucharistic elements did not lose their connection with this world just as the Virgin Mary did not cease to be part of humanity by becoming the Mother of God. “We confess,” writes Nicephorus, “that by the priest’s invocation by the coming of the Most Holy Spirit the Body and Blood of Christ are mystically and invisibly made present...;” and they are saving food for us “not because the Body ceases to be a body, but because it remains so and is preserved as body.”21
Nicephorus’ insistence upon the authenticity of Christ’s humanity at
times leads him away from classical Cyrillian Christology. He evades
Theopaschism by refusing to admit either that “the Logos suffered the passion or
that the flesh produced miracles... One must attribute to each nature what is
proper to it,”22 and minimizes the value of the communication of
idioms, which, according to him, manipulates “words.”23 Obviously,
Theodore the Studite was more immune to the risk of Nestorian-izing than
Nicephorus was. In any case, the necessity of reaffirming the humanity of Christ
and thus of defending His describability led Byzantine theologians to a revival
of elements of the Antiochian tradition and thus to a proof of their
iconoclastic controversy had a lasting influence upon the intellectual life of
the time of the Persian wars of Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century,
However, even if this orientation eastward was not in itself an
b. Whatever role was played in the Orthodox victory over the iconoclasts by high ecclesiastical dignitaries and such theologians as Patriarch Nicephorus, the real credit belonged to the Byzantine monks who resisted the emperors in overwhelming numbers. The emperors, especially Leo III and Constantine V, expressed more clearly than any of their predecessors a claim to caesaropapism. Thus, the iconoclastic controversy was largely a confrontation between the state and a non-conformist, staunchly independent monasticism, which assumed the prophetic role of standing for the independence of the Gospel from the “world.” The fact that this role was assumed by the monks and not by the highest canonical authority of the Church underlines the fact that the issue was the defence not of the Church as an institution but of the Christian faith as the way to eternal salvation.
The monks, of course, took their role very seriously and preserved even after their victory a peculiar sense of responsibility for the faith, as we saw it in the case of Theodore the Studite. Theologically, they maintained a tradition of faithfulness to the past as well as a sense of the existential relevance of theology as such. Their role in later-Byzantine theological development remained decisive for centuries.
c. The theological issue between the Orthodox and the iconoclasts was fundamentally concerned with the icon of Christ, for belief in the divinity of Christ implied a stand on the crucial point of God’s essential indescribability and on the Incarnation, which made Him visible. Thus, the icon of Christ is the icon far from excellence and implies a confession of faith in the Incarnation.
The iconoclasts however objected on theological grounds not only to this icon but also to the use of any religious pictures, except the cross because, as their Council of 754 proclaims, they opposed “all paganism.” Any veneration of images was equated with idolatry. If the goal pursued by Constantine V to “purify” Byzantine Christianity, not only of the image cult, but also of monasticism, had been achieved, the entire character of Eastern Christian piety and its ethos would have evolved differently. The victory of Orthodoxy meant, for example, that religious faith could be expressed not only in propositions, in books, or in personal experience, but also through man’s power over matter, through aesthetic experience, and through gestures and bodily attitudes before holy images. All these implied a philosophy of religion and an anthropology; worship, the liturgy, religious consciousness involved the whole man, without despising any functions of the soul or of the body, and without leaving any of them to the realm of the secular.
d. Of all the cultural families of Christianity — the Latin, the Syrian, the Egyptian, or the Armenian, the Byzantine was the only one in which art became inseparable from theology. The debates of the eighth and ninth centuries have shown that in the light of the Incarnation art could not retain a “neutral” function, that it could and even must express the faith. Thus, through their style, through symbolic compositions, through the elaborate artistic programs covering the walls of Byzantine churches, and through the permanent system, which presided over the composition of the Byzantine iconostasis, icons became an expression and a source of divine knowledge. The good news about God’s becoming man and about the presence among men of a glorified and deified humanity first in Christ but also through Him and the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary and in the saints — all this “adornment of the Church” was expressed in Byzantine Christian art. Eugene Trubetskoi, a Russian philosopher of the early-twentieth century, called this expression “contemplation in colors.”25
1. Porphyry, Against the Christians, fragment 77; ed. A. Harnack, AbhBerlAk (1916), 93.
2. Text of
Eusebius’ letter in Nicephorus, Contra Eusebium, ed. J. B. Pitra, Spicilegium
Solesmense (Paris, 1852; repr.
3. Mansi, XIII, 252AB, 256AB.
4. Ibid., 261p-264c. See pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, PG 3:124A.
5. Mansi, XI, 977-980.
6. Germanus I, De haeresibuf et synodis; PG 98:80A.
7. John of
8. lbid.; PG 94:1245A.
9. Mansi, XIII, 377D.
10. Ibid., XXXII, 103.
11. Theodore the Studite, Antirrhetic 1; PG 99:332o-333A.
12.., III; PG 99:396c-397A.
13. Ibid., 409c.
14. Ibid., 405A.
15. Theodore the Studite, Letter to Naucratius, II, 67; PG 99:1296AB; see also Antirrh., III; PG 99:420o.
16. Antirrh., III; PG 99:420A.
17. Nicephorus, Antirrh., I; PG 100:272B.
18. Ibid., 328BD.
19. Nicephorus, Contra Eusebium, ed. Pitra, I, 401.
20. Antirrh., PG 100:268B.
21. Ibid., 440, 447.
22. Ibid., 252B.
23. Ibid., 317B.
24. John of
Trubetskoi, Umozrenie ν Kraskakh (
In 843, the byzantine church celebrated the “triumph of orthodoxy” over iconoclasm, a triumph that was interpreted as a victory over all the heresies, which until that time had divided Christendom. The document composed for the occasion, the famous Synodikon, commemorates the champions of the true faith, condemns the heretics, and implicitly presupposes that Byzantine society had reached an internal stability, which would never allow further division. In fact, new conflicts and crises did occur, and the Synodikon would have to be expanded. But the tendency to freeze history for considering their empire and Church as expressing the eternal and unchangeable form of God’s revelation would be a permanent and mythological feature of Byzantine civilization even if though it was constantly challenged by historical realities. In the ninth century itself, Byzantine society was, in fact, a divided society — divided politically, intellectually, and theologically.
During the entire iconoclastic period,
Hellenic character of Byzantine civilization brought into theology the perennial
problem of the relationship between the ancient Greek “mind” and the Christian
Gospel. Although the issue was implicit in much of the theological literature in
the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, it had not been raised explicitly
since the closing of the pagan universities by Justinian. In the ninth century
following the intellectual renewal, which had taken place under Theophilus
(829-842), the last iconoclastic emperor, Byzantine scholars undertook more
vigorously the study of ancient pagan authors. The
This polarity between the humanists and the monks not only appeared on the intellectual level; it manifested itself in ecclesiastical politics. The monks consistently opposed the ecclesiastical “realists” who were ready to practice toleration toward former iconoclasts and imperial sinners and toward unavoidable political compromises and, at a later period, state-sponsored doctrinal compromises with the Latin West. Conflicts of this sort occurred when Patriarchs Tarasius (784-806) and Methodius I (843-847) accepted into the episcopate former supporters of official iconoclasm, when the same Tarasius and Nicephorus I (806-815) condoned the remarriage of Emperor Constantine VI, who had divorced his first wife, and when in 857 Patriarch Ignatius was forced to resign and replaced by Photius. These conflicts, though not formally theological, involved the issue of the Christian witness in the world and, as such, greatly influenced Byzantine ecclesiology and social ethics.
Theodore was in the ninth century both the model and the ideologist of the rigorist monastic party which played a decisive role in the entire life of Byzantine Christendom.
In the preceding chapter, Theodore’s contribution to the theology of images as an aspect of Chalcedonian Christological orthodoxy was discussed. His impact on the history of monasticism is equally important. Severely challenged by iconoclastic persecutions, Byzantine monasticism had acquired the prestige of martyrdom, and its authority in Orthodox circles was often greater than that of the compromise-minded hierarchy. Under Theodore’s leadership it became an organized and articulate bulwark of canonical and moral rigorism.
For Theodore, monastic life was, in fact, synonymous with authentic Christianity:
Certain people ask, whence did the tradition of renouncing the world and of becoming monks arise? But their question is the same as asking, whence was the tradition of becoming Christians? For the One who first laid down the apostolic tradition, six mysteries also were ordained: first ― illumination, second ― the assembly or communion, third ― the perfection of the chrism, fourth ― the perfection of priesthood, fifth ― the monastic perfection, and sixth ― the service for those who fall asleep in holiness.1
This passage is
important not only because monasticism is counted among the sacraments of the
Church — in a list strikingly different from the post-Tridentine “seven
sacraments” — but also, and chiefly, because the monastic state is considered
one of the essential forms of Christian perfection and witness. Through
detachment, through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and through a
life projected into the already-given reality of the
Theodore and his disciples, “otherworldliness” never meant that Christian action
was not needed in the world. Quite to the contrary. The monks practised and
preached active involvement in the affairs of the city so that it might conform
itself as far as possible to the rigorous criteria of the
Theodore was certainly not an innovator in his attitude toward the state;
for his was the attitude of Athanasius, of John Chrysostom, of Maximus the
Confessor, and of John of Damascus, and it would be that of a large segment of
Byzantine churchmen in later centuries; it merely illustrates the fact that
Byzantine society was far from having found the “harmony” between the two powers
about which Justinian spoke in his Novella 6. The action and witness of the
monks was always present in
Theodore’s ideology and commitments normally led him away from the
Constantinian parallelism between the political structure of the empire and the
structure of the Church, a parallelism endorsed in
The ancient monastic opposition to secular philosophy does not appear in Theodore’s writings. Theodore himself seemed even to have liked exercises in dialectics as his early correspondence with John the Grammarian, a humanist and later an iconoclastic patriarch, showed. But the anti-humanist tendency would clearly appear among his immediate disciples, the anti-Photians of the ninth century.
The dominant figure in Byzantine religious and social and political life in the ninth century, Photius, is also the father of what is generally called Byzantine “humanism.” In his famous Library, an original and tremendously important compilation of literary criticism, he covers Christian writers of the early centuries as well as a number of secular authors; similarly in his Responses to Amphilochius, a collection of theological and philosophical essays, he displays a wide secular knowledge and an extensive training in patristic theology.
In all his writings, Photius remains essentially a university professor. In philosophy, his main interests are logic and dialectics; hence, there is his very clear predisposition to Aristotle rather than to Plato. In theology, he remains faithful to the positions and problematics of the early councils and Fathers. His love for ancient philosophy does not lead him to any tolerance toward a man like Origen whose condemnation by the Fifth Council he accepts without reservation,7 or like Clement of Alexandria in whose main writing the Hypotyposeis Photius found the “impious myths” of Platonism.8
extensive erudition often provides us with detailed critical analysis of and
exact quotations from authors about whom we should know nothing without his
notes. The Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries in
particular attracted Photius’ attention. Despite his predilection for Antiochian
exegesis and for theologians of the Antiochian school,9 he remains
rigorously faithful to the Cyrillian exegesis of the Council of Chalcedon, which
On other theological issues, Photius remains in very formal agreement with traditional patristic and conciliar positions. But he does not seem to accept fully or to understand the implications of the absolute apophaticism of a Gregory of Nyssa, and his doctrine of God in relation to creation seems to approach the Latin Scholastic concept of the actus furus.11 But careful analysis of Photius’ thought would be required to assert his exact position on this point. In any case, his authority was invoked by the Byzantine anti-Palamites of the fourteenth century against the real distinction between essence and “energy” in God maintained by Palamas and endorsed by the councils of the period.12 In addition, his devotion to secular learning and his liberal use of oikonomia made him during and after his lifetime rather unpopular in monastic circles.
In one aspect, Photius obviously dominated his contemporaries and the Middle Ages as a whole: his sense of history, of historical development, and of tradition. This sense is apparent in every codex (chapter) of the Library. Thus in analyzing the book of a priest Theodore, who defended the authenticity of the Dionysian writings, Photius carefully lists the arguments against authenticity and concludes with the simple statement that the author “tries to refute these objections and affirms that in his opinion the book of the great Dionysius is genuine.”13 Even if, on other occasions, Photius takes Dionysian authenticity for granted, the passage just cited clearly shows Photius’ intellectual honesty in acknowledging the impossibility of explaining the way in which Dionysius can foretell “traditions, which grew old only gradually in the Church and took a long time to develop.”14
This acknowledgement of the development of tradition and also of a possible and legitimate variety in ecclesiastical practices and rules plays a significant role in Photius’ attitude toward Pope Nicholas I and toward the Church of Rome. Accused by the pope of having been elevated from the lay state to the patriarchate in six days, a practice forbidden in Western tradition but never formally opposed in the East, Photius writes, “Everyone must preserve what is defined by common ecumenical decisions, but a particular opinion of a Church Father or a definition issued by a local council can be followed by some and ignored by others...” He then refers to such issues as shaving, fasting on Saturdays, and a celibate priesthood and continues: “When faith remains inviolate, the common and catholic decisions are also safe. A sensible man respects the practices and laws of others; he considers that it is neither wrong to observe nor illegal to violate them.”15
Photius’ concern for the “common faith” and “ecumenical decisions” is illustrated in the Filioque issue. Since modern historical research had clearly shown that he was not systematically anti-Latin, his position in the dispute can be explained only by the fact that he took the theological issue itself seriously. Not only he did place the main emphasis on the Filioque in his encyclical of 866, but even after ecclesiastical peace restored with Pope John VIII in 879-880 and after his retirement from the patriarchate, Photius still devoted many of his last days to writing the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, the first detailed Greek refutation of the Latin interpolation of Filioque into the Creed.
As the Mystagogy clearly showed, Photius was equally concerned with this unilateral interpolation into a text, which had won universal approval, and with the content of the interpolation itself. He made no distinction between the canonical and theological aspects of the issue and referred to the popes, especially to Leo III and to John VIII, who had opposed the interpolation, as opponents of the doctrine of the “double procession.”
The Mystagogy makes clear the basic Byzantine objection to the Latin doctrine of the Trinity: it understands God as a single and philosophically simple essence in which personal or hypostatic existence is reduced to the concept of mutual relations between the three Persons. If the idea of consubstantiality requires that the Father and the Son together are the one origin of the Spirit, essence in God necessarily precedes His personal existence as three hypostases. For Photius however “the Father is the origin [of the Son and of the Holy Spirit] not by nature but in virtue of His hypostatic character.”16 To confuse the hypostatic characters of the Father and the Son by attributing to them the procession of the Spirit is to fall into Sabellianism, a modalist heresy of the third century, or rather into semi-Sabellianism; for Sabellius confused the three Persons into one, while the Latins limited themselves to the Father and the Son, but then fell into the danger of excluding the Spirit from the Godhead altogether.17
Thus, Photius clearly demonstrates that behind the dispute on the Filioque two concepts of the Trinity lie: the Greek personalistic concept, which considers the personal revelation of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as the starting point of Trinitarian theology, and the Latin, Augustinian approach to God as a simple essence within which a Trinity of persons can be understood only in terms of internal relations.
In opposing the Latin view of the Trinity, Photius does not deny sending of the Spirit through the Son to the world in the “economy” of salvation as the link between the deified humanity of Jesus and the entire body of the Church and of creation.18
After the age of Photius, Byzantine intellectuals found a freer and fuller access to the sources of ancient Greek philosophy. With Michael Psellos, we discover a personality who is, to a large extent, the product of this early-Medieval Byzantine renaissance. Psellos’ contribution to theology is actually very limited and only indirect. Since in the accepted Byzantine world-view, religion and philosophy are in fact inseparable, he can and must be mentioned as a major phenomenon in the history of Byzantine Christianity.
“I want you to know,” he writes, “that Hellenic wisdom, while it fails to render glory to the divine and is not unfailing in theology, knows nature as the Creator made it.”19 This acknowledgment of the ancients’ competence in understanding nature implies a basis for natural theology, a knowledge of the Creator through the creatures. Elements of this approach existed of course among the Apologists of the second and third centuries and were developed by Origen and by the Cappadocian Fathers. But, first and foremost, responsible churchmen, they emphasized the religious gap between Christianity and ancient Hellenism. For them, Hellenic wisdom was a tool for apologetics, not an end in itself. Occasionally, Psellos himself recognizes this incompatibility; for example, he refutes Plato’s concept of a world of ideas subsistent in themselves and not only in the divine intellect.20 But these reservations come to his mind from explicit and formal definitions of the Church, rather than from any deep conviction. He certainly expresses the true state of his mind more accurately when he writes, “To be born to knowledge I am satisfied with the throes of Plato and Aristotle: they give me birth and form me.”21
In fact, the rather formal theological conservatism, which prevailed in official circles of the Church, made possible in men like Psellos the resurgence of a Neo-Platonism approximately identical to what it had been in the sixth century. In him and his contemporaries, there was, in fact, very little true encounter between theology and philosophy. Psellos certainly remained a Christian; but if there is any emotional thrust to his thought, it consists in finding agreement between, not opposition to, Platonism and Christianity; and it is of little concern to him if the agreement is artificial. Psellos is quite happy, for example, to discover the Trinity as well as the Biblical world of angels and saints in Homer.22
This example of formal and artificial adaptation of Hellenism by the Gospel shows the limitations of what has been called Byzantine humanism. It obviously lacked the living stamina, which made Western Scholasticism possible after the rediscovery of Aristotle or the Italian Renaissance after the decline of Medieval civilization. Even if he knew Plato and Aristotle better than anyone in the West ever did, Psellos remained a Medieval Byzantine — i.e., a man was committed to tradition and loyal, at least formally, to the rigid norms of official theology. He was not a great theologian, and his loyalty to official theology prevented him from becoming a really great philosopher. Fundamentally, his thought remains eclectic. The principles of Neo-Platonism — fidelity to Aristotle in logic and natural philosophy coupled with Platonic metaphysics — were precisely appropriate to his frame of mind. “As far as I am concerned,” he confesses, “I collect the virtue and the potential of everyone; my reasoning is varied and is a melding of every single idea into one. And I myself am one out of many. If one reads my books, he discovers that they are many out of one.”23
No brilliancy of expression, no exquisite sophistication of style was sufficient to transform this eclecticism into an original and creative system of philosophy. Real creativity and living thought continued in the circles which Psellos considered infested with unhealthy and irrational mysticism. It is doubtful however whether Psellos at any time even met or read the most authentic representatives of monastic spirituality, his contemporaries, such as Symeon the New Theologian. If he had, they would have been unlikely to understand each other at all.
disciple of Psellos’ and his successor as hypatos tõn philosophõn, i.e., as head
of the university, John Italos (“the Italian,” probably an Italo-Greek) was
formally brought to trial on charges of heresy and condemned for his exaggerated
use of ancient philosophy in general and, in particular, for holding Platonic
views on the origin and nature of the world. The importance of his two
successive trials is emphasized by the fact that for the first time since 843
new extensive doctrinal paragraphs were added to the Synodikon to be read yearly on the
Sunday of Orthodoxy. By condemning Italos, the
The published writings of John Italos do not contain all the teachings of which he was accused, but it could not be excluded a priori that he actually held them in his oral teaching. In any case, the decisions of the synod concerning in him have an importance beyond his personality as a position taken officially by the Church.
In the eleven anathemas referring to the case of Italos in the Synodikon, the first ten were purely doctrinal and were issued in 1076-1077; the final one is a formal personal condemnation published in 1082.24 The doctrinal position taken by the synod concerns two major issues:
Ancient Greek philosophers were the first heresiarches; in other words, all the
major Christian heresies resulted from their influence; and, therefore, the
seven councils by condemning the heretics also implicitly condemned the
philosophers (Anath. 5). Actually after Tertullian, patristic literature
frequently ascribed to philosophy the responsibility for all heresies. The
position of the synod therefore was not entirely new, but its restatement in the
eleventh century was of very great importance for Medieval
2) The anathemas condemn a series of Platonizing positions attributed to Italos and almost identical with the Origenistic theses rejected by Justinian and the Council of 553: pre-existence and the transmigration of souls, denial of bodily resurrection, eternity of matter, self-subsistent world of ideas, and so forth.
Even after the condemnation of Italos, learned Byzantines continued, of course, to read, to copy, and to study ancient Greek authors, but any attempt to follow the ancients’ “foolish opinions” was now automatically a crime against the true faith. No doubt, the decisions of 1076-1077, while clearly encouraging the traditional monastic abhorrence of “Hellenism,” constituted a serious new handicap for the development of humanism.
in its language and culture,
1. Theodore the Studite, Ep. II, 165 (to Gregory); PG 99:1524B.
2. Theodore the Studite, Ep. I, 36 (to Euprepianus); PG 99:1032CD.
3. Theodore the Studite, Ep. II, 12; PG 99:1152\C.
4. See, for
example, S. Salaville, “La primaute de Saint Pierre et du pape d’apres Saint
Thdodore Studite (759-826),” tchos d’Orient 17 (1914), 23-42; and A. Marin,
Saint Theodore (Paris: Lecoffre, 1906), p. 1, who calls Theodore “the last
Catholic of Byzantium.” Similarly, in his letter to Leo Sacellarius (PG
99:1417c) he wrote: “And who are their [the Apostles’] successors? — he who
occupies the throne of
5. Theodore the Studite, Ep. II, 63 (to Naucratius); PG 99:1281B.
6. Theodore the Studite, Ep. II, 15; PG 99:116AB.
7. Photius, Library, codex 8, 18, etc.
8. Ibid., codex 109.
9. See the long article on Diodore of Tarsus, Library, codex 223, and his appreciation of Theodoret of Cyrus, ibid., codex 46.
10. See codices on Eulogius of Alexandria, 182, 208, 225-227, which, in fact, arc detailed monographs on this author. On Ephrem of Antioch, see Library, codex 228.
11. “The divine is in the universe both by essence and by energy.” AmphiL, 75; PG 101:465BC.
12. See Akindynos, Against Palamas, in Codex Monaccnsis graecus 223, foil. 283▼, 293▼, 298▼, 305, 311▼, etc.
13. Library, codex 1.
15. Ep. 2 to Pope Nicholas; PG 102:604D-605D.
16. Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, 15; PG 102:293A.
17. Ibid., 9, 23; PG 102:289B, 313BC.
18. Ibid., 94.
Psellos, Address to His Negligent Disciples, ed. J. F. Boissonade (
20. Ed. C.
Sathas, Bibliotheca graeca medii aevi (
21. Address to His Negligent Disciples, p. 146.
22. See B. Tatakis, La philosophic byzantine (Paris: Alcan, 1949), p. 199.
23. Michael Psellos, On the Character of Some Writings, ed. J. F. Boissonade, p. 52.
24. See J. Gouillard, Synodikpn, pp. 56-60, 188-202.
The role of the monks in the
triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm illustrates their traditional involvement
in theological debates in
It is well known that very early in its development monasticism became a diversified movement. Between the extreme eremitism of Antony of Egypt and the absolute and organized cenobitism of Pachomius, there was a whole scale of intermediary forms of monastic life practised everywhere in Eastern Christendom and gradually spreading to the West. Between the hermits — also frequently called “hesychasts” — and the coenobites, there was often competition and at times conflict; but the entire Eastern monastic movement remained united in its basic “other-worldliness” and in the conviction that prayer, whatever its form, was the fundamental and permanent content of monastic life. Some monastic centres — such as the monastery of Studios — may have been relatively “activist,” developing social work, learning, manuscript copying and other practical concerns; but even then, the liturgical cycle of the monastic office remained the absolute centre of the community’s life and generally comprised at least half of the monk’s daily schedule.
whole, the monastic community taught the Byzantines how to pray. The coenobites
developed a liturgical system (which was gradually adopted by the whole Church
until today the Eastern Church knows no ordo but the monastic one), while the
hesychasts created a tradition of personal prayer and continuous contemplation.
In both cases, prayer was understood as a way to reach the goal of Christian
life as such: participation in God, theõsis through communion with the
deified humanity of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The coenobites generally
emphasized the sacramental or liturgical nature of this communion, while the
hesychasts taught that experience was to be reached through personal effort. In
The role of Evagrius Ponticus († 399) in the shaping of early monastic spirituality was recognized by historians early in this century. The authentic text of his Gnostic Centuries with their quite heretical Christology explains his condemnation by the Council of 553. Seen as an expression of his metaphysical system — a developed Origenism, Evagrius’ spiritual doctrine itself becomes somehow suspect. But in the Byzantine tradition taken as a whole, it will be used for centuries out of its original and heretical context; and its extraordinary psychological relevance will be exploited fully. We will mention here two major aspects of Evagrian thought because of their permanence in later tradition: the doctrine of the passions and the doctrine of prayer.
According to Evagrius, the true nature of the “mind” is to be fixed in God, and anything, which detaches it from God, is evil. Thus since the Fall, the human mind is captured with self-love, which generates “thoughts;” “thoughts,” a definitely pejorative term in Evagrius, imply interest in sensible things and distraction from God. Acting upon the passible part of the soul, they can lead it to passions. These passions form a very definite hierarchy beginning with the casual attachment to the most inevitable of all human sensible needs, such as food, and ending with demonic possession, with love for oneself. The eight steps, which constitute this hierarchy are: gluttony, fornication, avarice, grief, wrath, weariness, vainglory, and pride.1 With very slight variations, this classification of the passions and the psychological structure of the human mind, which it presupposes, are retained by John Cassian, John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and almost all the Eastern ascetical writers. The first goal of monastic “practice” is to subdue the passions and reach a state of “passionlessness” — a detachment from senses and “thoughts,” which makes a restoration of the true original relationship between the mind and God possible. Beginning with the elementary monastic virtues, fasting and celibacy, the life of the monk can gradually subdue the other passions and reach true detachment.
Macarius of Egypt was a contemporary and teacher of Evagrius’ in the
While Evagrius identifies man with the “intellect” and conceives Christian spirituality as a dematerialization, Macarius understands man as a psychosomatic in whole, destined to “deification.” To the Origenistic and Platonic anthropology of Evagrius, he opposes a Biblical idea of man, which makes it inconceivable for the “mind” or the “soul” to have its final destiny in separation from the body. From this, anthropology follows a spirituality based upon the reality of Baptism and the Eucharist as ways of union with Christ and of “deification” of the entire human existence in all its aspects including the corporeal. “The fire, which lives inside, in the heart, appears then [on the last day] openly and realizes the resurrection of the bodies.”6
In Macarius, the Evagrian “prayer of the mind” thus becomes the “prayer of the heart;” the centre of man’s psychosomatic life, the heart, is the “table where the grace of God engraves the laws of the Spirit;”7 but it also can be a “sepulchre” where “the prince of evil and his angels find refuge.”8 The human heart is thus the battlefield between God and Satan, life and death. And the monk devoting his entire existence to prayer chooses, in fact, to be at the forefront of this battle in a direct and conscious way, for the presence of God is a real fact, which the “inner man” perceives “as an experience and with assurance.”9 In Macarius, just as in some books of the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, the role played by the heart is undeniably connected with a physiology, which sees in this particular organ the centre of the psychosomatic life of man. This means in practice that whenever the “heart” is mentioned the author simply means man’s inner personality, the “I” at its very depth. In any case, the “heart” never designates the emotional side of man alone as it sometimes is in the West.
notion of the coexistence of God and Satan in the heart of man and the call for
a conscious experience of grace have led some modern historians to identify the
Homilies of Macarius with the writings of a Messalian leader. If this accusation
is true, it would involve Macarius as well as much of the later monastic
An Origenistic spiritualism and Messalian pseudo-prophetism — in which prayer and visions are supposed to replace the sacraments — were the two main temptations of Eastern Christian monasticism. The examples of Evagrius and Macarius showed that in the fourth and fifth centuries it may not have been easy to draw a line in the monastic milieu between the orthodox and the sectarians. After several conciliar decrees against Messalianism (at Side in 390, at Constantinople in 426, and at Ephesus in 431) and the condemnation of Evagrius in 553, confusion became impossible; but clarification had begun to emerge in the monastic milieu itself at the very time when the councils were legislating on the issue. We will mention here briefly three authors of major importance who after assimilating the major contributions of both the Evagrian and the Macarian traditions gave to Eastern Christian spirituality its classical forms.
Diadochus, a bishop of Photice in
Baptism for Diadochus is the only foundation of spiritual life: “Grace is hidden in the depth of our mind from the very moment in which we were baptized and gives purification both to the soul and to the body.”10 This concern for the wholeness of man is expressed by a mysticism of the “heart” as opposed to the Evagrian insistence on the “mind.” Actually, Diadochus, just like Macarius, locates the mind, or soul, “in the heart”:
Grace hides its presence in the baptized, waiting for the initiative of the soul; but when the whole man turns toward the Lord, grace reveals its presence to the heart through an ineffable experience... And if man begins his progress by keeping the commandments and ceaselessly invoking the Lord Jesus, then the fire of holy grace penetrates even the external senses of the heart…11
Diadochus on several occasions in his Chapters clarifies the ambiguity of the Macarian tradition on the issue of the coexistence of God and Satan in the heart; but he is fully in agreement with Macarius in affirming that Christians must experience consciously and even “externally” (i.e., not only “intellectually” in the Evagrian sense) the presence of the Spirit in their hearts. His definition of the Christian faith as a personal experience is appropriated by Symeon the New Theologian and other Byzantine spiritual writers. In the writings of Diadochus, the teaching on incessant prayer, adopted from Evagrius and Macarius, presupposes a constant invocation of the name of Jesus;12 an essential orientation of spirituality toward the Person of the Incarnate Logos with a resurgence of the role played in Biblical theology by the concept of the “name” of God thus replaces in Diadochus the much more abstract and spiritualistic understanding of prayer in Evagrius.
Better known in the West since the Middle Ages and more exalted in the East (where a special celebration in its honour takes place on the Fifth Sunday of Lent), the personality of John Climacus, “the author of The Ladder” and an abbot of the monastery on Mount Sinai, is another great witness of monastic spirituality based upon invocation of the “name of Jesus.” Very little is known of his life, and even the date of his death is not solidly established (it is generally believed to have taken place some time around 649).
His famous book, The Ladder of Paradise, has more definite leanings toward Evagrianism than the Chapters of Diadochus does as can be seen from its detailed classification of the passions and from the extreme forms of asceticism, which John required from his monks and which certainly denote Origenist spiritualism. This extremism pleased the French Jansenists of the seventeenth century who contributed to the popularity of The Ladder in the West. But John’s positive teaching about prayer like that of Macarius and Diadochus is centred on the person and the name of Jesus: it thus denotes a purely Christian incarnational foundation and involves the whole man, not just the “mind.”
“Let the memory of Jesus be united to your breathing: then you will understand the usefulness of hesychia.”13 In John, the terms “hesychia” (“silence,” “quietude”) and “hesychasts” designate quite specifically the eremitic, contemplative life of the solitary monk practicing the “Jesus prayer.” “The hesychast is the one who says, ‘My heart is firm’ [Ps 57:8]; the hesychast is the one who says, ‘I sleep, but my heart is awake’ [Sg 5:2]. Hesychia is an uninterrupted worship and service to God. The hesychast is the one who aspires to circumscribe the Incorporeal in a fleshly dwelling...”14
The terminology, which John uses, will gain particular popularity among the later Byzantine hesychasts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with their practice of connecting mental prayer to breathing; it is not a priori impossible that the practice was known in Sinai in the time of John. In any case, he understands “deification” as a communion of the whole man with the transfigured Christ. The “memory of Jesus” meant precisely this, not a simple “meditation” on the historical Jesus or on any particular episode in His life. Warnings against any evoking, through imagination, of figures external to the “heart” is constant in Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. The monk is always called to realize in himself (his “heart”) the objective reality of the transfigured Christ, which is neither an image nor a symbol, but the very reality of God’s presence through the sacraments, independent of any form of imagination.
At this point one should understand the necessary and unavoidable link, which exists in this tradition between spirituality and theology. If any single author succeeded in formulating this link that was Maximus the Confessor.
We have already seen the heroic and lonely role of Maximus in the Christological controversy and his ability to integrate into a consistent Christological and anthropological system the issues, which were at stake between the orthodox and the Monothelites. His ability to view the problems of the spiritual life as they arose in his time in the light of the Evagrian and Macarian heritages, on one side, and of orthodox Christology, on the other, was similarly remarkable.
Origen and Evagrius certainly occupied the first place in Maximus’ readings and intellectual formation. In his doctrine of the spiritual life, he adopts the Evagrian hierarchy of passions as well as the concept of “passionlessness,” as the goal of ascetic praxis. In Evagrius, the detachment from passions” is a negative achievement through which a total emptiness from any sensation of the soul or of the body is supposed to be achieved in order for the mind to realize its divine nature and recover its essential union with God through knowledge; this concept obviously implies an Origenistic anthropology in which any connection of the “mind” with either a “soul” or a “body” is a consequence of the Fall. As a result in Evagrius, true detachment is also detachment from virtues; and active love itself is superseded by knowledge. In Maximus however love is understood not only as the highest virtue but as the only true result of detachment. Because of “passionlessness,” love can be perfectly equal for all since human preferences are the result of imperfection.15 Ultimately, human love, which necessarily includes an element of desire (eros), must be transformed by a gift of God and thus become agape.16
This transformation of the Evagrian spirituality parallels in Maximus a basic modification of Origenism in the doctrine of creation and implies a positive view of man whose ultimate destiny does not consist of an absorption into God’s essence, but in a “natural activity” made possible through a God-given active love. The total transcendence and inaccessibility of the essence of God becomes, — in Maximus as in Gregory of Nyssa before him and in later Byzantine theology after him, — a matter of Christian faith fundamental for spiritual life.17 If love but not “essential gnosis” is the highest goal of spiritual life, man while united with God remains totally himself in his nature and activity; but he also enjoys communion with the activity of God, which alone can guarantee his total liberation from “passion” and transform his eras into agape. In Byzantine monastic spirituality, to “follow the commandments,” i.e. active love, will therefore remain both a condition and a necessary aspect of the vision of God.
To achieve his balanced understanding of spiritual life, Maximus did not rely only on the monastic spiritual tradition. He was a consistent Chalcedonian first of all, and thus he approached the problem with a fundamental conviction that each nature of Christ keeps as nature its characteristics and activity. “Deification” does not suppress humanity but makes it more authentically human.
traditional unpopularity of
In spite of a widespread view that Eastern Christian thought is Platonic in contrast to Western Aristotelianism, an important corrective must be found in the fact that the above-mentioned condemnations of various forms of Platonism are repeated yearly as part of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy in all churches on the First Sunday of Lent. The universities taught Aristotle’s logic as a part of the “general curriculum” required from students under the age of eighteen; but the pious families prevented their children from continuing education on a higher level where students were required to read Plato. This generally explains the ever-recurring remark by hagiographers that saints, especially monks, stopped their education at eighteen to enter monasteries.
monastic circles, denunciations of “secular philosophy” are constant; and the
polarization, which occurs in the ninth century between the party of the
monastic “zealots” (often followers of Theodore the Studite), on the one hand,
and that of the higher secular clergy, on the other, is intellectual as well as
political. The monks oppose compromises with the state, but they also reject the
renaissance of secular humanism. Patriarch Ignatius, Photius’ great competitor
supported by the monastic party, is known to have snubbed the promoters of
secular philosophy;18 Symeon the New Theologian writes virulent
verses against them;19 and Gregory Paiamas († 1359) orients his
entire polemic against Barlaam the Calabrian on the issue of the “Hellenic
wisdom” which he considers to be the main source of Barlaam’s errors. Perhaps,
it was precisely because
Macarius and in Diadochus, we noted the identification of the Christian faith
itself with a conscious-experience of God. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)
becomes a prophet of that idea in Medieval Byzantium. Disciple of a Studite
monk, the “New Theologian” — a title given to him by his later admirers in order
to identify him with John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzus, both often
called “Theologians” in Byzantine literature — started his monastic life as a
novice at the Studion. But the strict regimentation of the big monastery was
obviously foreign to his temperament, and he withdrew to the small community of
St. Mamas, also in
Symeon has often been classified as a major representative of the
hesychast tradition in
autobiographical Symeon’s writings are centred on the reality of a conscious
encounter with Christ, and here, it is obviously that he follows Macarius. “Yes,
I beg you,” he addresses his monks, “let us try now, in this life, to see and
contemplate Him. For if we are deemed worthy to see Him sensibly, we shall not
see death; death will have no dominion over us [Rm 6:9].” 20 The
notion of “sensible” vision makes Symeon, as well as Macarius, a border on
Messalianism; but it is generally known today21 that Symeon’s intent
differs fundamentally from that of the sectarians who defined “experience” in
opposition to the sacramental structure of the Church. What Symeon wants to make
clear is that the
Symeon’s prophetic insistence that the Christian faith is an experience of the living Christ met with resistance; the legalistic and minimalistic view of Christianity, limiting the faith to the performance of “obligations,” seemed much more realistic to monks and laymen alike. For Symeon, these minimalists were modern heretics:
Here are those whom I call heretics [he proclaims in a homily addressed to his community]: those who say that there is no one in our time in our midst that would observe the commandments of the Gospel and become like the holy Fathers... [and] those who pretend that this is impossible. This person has not fallen into some particular heresy but into all the heresies at once, since this one is worse than into all in its impiety... If anyone speaks in this way, he destroys all the divine scriptures. These anti-Christs affirm: “This is impossible, impossible!”24
involved at the end of his life in violent conflict with Stephen, a former
as always, Symeon is not directly concerned with rationalization; his purpose is
to formulate the tension between the Kingdom and “this world,” to affirm that
the tension between the “institution” and the “event” is built into the very
existence of the Church in history. The New Theologian’s realistic
sacramentalism shows clearly that this tension, not the denial of the
sacramental nature of the Church, is his true concern. The
debates, which took place in fourteenth-century
Although this method is held by some as a return to the origins of monasticism, it appears only in explicit, written documents, of the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries. It is described in particular by Nicephorus the Hesychast, an anonymous author, whose Method of Holy Prayer and Attention is attributed, by some manuscripts, to Symeon the New Theologian and to Gregory of Sinai (1255-1346) who became widely known in Slavic countries. Undoubtedly, the Method was widely known, for Gregory Palamas quotes among its adepts such major figures of the Church as Patriarch Athanasius I (1289-1293, 1303-1310) and Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia (1250-1321/26).26 The method consisted in obtaining “attention” (prosoche) — the first condition of authentic prayer — by concentrating one’s mind “in the heart” retaining each breath and reciting mentally the short prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Parallelisms in non-Christian Eastern spiritual practices are easy to find, and “materialistic” abuses may have occurred among Byzantine monks. But the major representatives of fourteenth-century hesychasm are unanimous in saying that the psychosomatic method is not an end in itself but only a useful tool for placing a man literally “in attention” — ready to receive the grace of God provided, which, of course, he deserve by “observing the commandments.” Barlaam objected to this method with a Platonic view of man: any somatic participation in prayer can only be an obstacle to a true “intellectual” encounter. The Council of 1341 condemned Barlaam for his attacks on the monks. Still, several Byzantine theologians — Gregory Akindynos, Nicephorus Gregoras, and the Thomist Prochoros Cydones later — continued to protest against the theological positions of Palamas. Palamas however received final conciliar endorsement of his theology successively in 1347, 1351, and posthumously in 1368 when he was also canonized.
The theological positions of Gregory Palamas may be summarized in the three following points:
1) Knowledge of God is an experience given to all Christians through Baptism and through their continuous participation in the life of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. It requires the involvement of the whole man in prayer and service through love for God and neighbour; and then it becomes recognizable as not only an “intellectual” experience of the mind alone but also as a “spiritual sense,” which conveys a perception neither purely “intellectual” nor purely material. In Christ, God assumed the whole of man: soul and body; and man as such was deified. In prayer — for example, in the “method” — in the sacraments, in the entire life of the Church as a community, man is called to participation in divine life: this participation is also the true knowledge of God.
2) God is absolutely inaccessible in His essence, both this life and in the future; for only the three divine hypostases are “God by essence.” Man, in “deification,” can become God only “by grace” or “by energy.” The inaccessibility of the essence of God was one of the basic affirmations of the Cappadocian Fathers against Eunomius and also, in a different context, against Origen. Affirming the absolute transcendence of God is only another way of saying that He is the Creator ex nihilo: anything, which exists outside of God, exists only through His “will” or “energy,” and can participate in His life only as a result of His will or “grace.”
3) The full force with which Palamas affirms God’s inaccessibility and the equally strong affirmation of deification and of participation in God’s life as the original purpose and the goal of human existence also gives full reality to the Palamite distinction between “essence” and “energy” in God. Palamas does not try to justify the distinction philosophically: his God is a living God, both transcendent and willingly immanent, who does not enter into preconceived philosophical categories. However, Palamas considers his teaching to be a development of the Sixth Council decisions that Christ has two natures (“essences”) and two natural wills (“energies”). 27 For Christ’s humanity itself, en-hypostasized as it is in the Logos and thus having become truly God’s humanity, did not become “God by essence;” it was penetrated with the divine energy — through the circumin-cessio idiomatum — and, in it, our own humanity finds access to God in His energies. The energies, therefore, are never considered as divine emanations or as a diminished God. They are divine life as given by God to His creatures; and they are God; for in His Son, He truly gave Himself for our salvation.
The victory of Palamism in the fourteenth century was therefore the victory of a specifically Christian, God-centred humanism for which the Greek patristic tradition always stood in opposition to all concepts of man, which considered him as an autonomous or “secular” being. Its essential intuition that “deification” does not suppress humanity but makes man truly human and is, of course, greatly relevant for our own contemporary concerns: man can be fully “human” only if he restores his lost communion with God.
1. Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos; PG 40:1272-1276.
2. Pseudo-Nilus (Evagrius), De Oratione, 84; PG 79:1185B.
3. Ibid., 52.
4. Ibid., 34A.
5. Ibid., 11.
6. Macarius of
7. Ibid., 15, 20; p. 139.
8. Ibid., 11, 11; p. 103.
9. Ibid., 1, 12; p. 12.
10. Diadochus, Cap. 77, 78; ed. E. des Places, SC, 5 bis (Paris: Cerf, 1955), pp. 135-136.
11. Ibid., 85; pp. 144-145.
12. See ibid., 31, 32, 61, 88.
Climacus, The Ladder of
14. Ibid., Degree 27; PG 88:1097AB.
15. On Evagrius and Maximus, see Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund: Gleerup, 1965), pp. 317-325.
16. See P. Sherwood, in Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, ACW 21 (Westminster: Newman, 1955), p. 83.
17. See Lossky, Vision of God, pp. 9-10.
18. Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Preface to the Eighth Council, Mansi XVI, 6.
20. Symeon the New Theologian, Cat. II; ed. B. Krivocheine, Symeon le Nouveau Theohgien, Catecheses, SC 96 (Paris: Cerf, 1963), pp. 421-424.
21. See J. Darrouzes, SC 122, Introduction, p. 26.
22. Symeon the New Theologian, Cat. VI, ed. Krivocheine, pp. 358-368.
23. Symeon the New Theologian, Euch. 2; ed. Krivocheine, pp. 47-73.
24. Cat. 29; ed. Krivocheine, pp. 166-190.
25. Cap. Eth., 6; ed. J. Darrouzes, pp. 406-454.
Palamas, Triads, I, 2; ed. J. MeyendorfT, Defence des saints hesychastes,
Specilegium Sacrum Lovaniense 30 (
27. Synodal Tome of 1351; PG 151:722B.
In Greek Patristic literature accepted throughout the entire Byzantine period as the ultimate expression of Church tradition, there was, generally speaking, no systematic treatment of “ecclesiology.” This does not mean however that such factors of Christian life as Church order, the sacraments, and tradition were not central for the Byzantines. A major source of our knowledge of Byzantine ecclesiological ideas is constituted by ancient canonical texts: conciliar decrees, commentaries, and later synodal legislation. Even imperial laws concerning the Church, inasmuch as they were accepted as guiding principles of ecclesiastical polity, often witnessed to ecclesiastical consciousness essentially identical to that of the conciliar canons.
Viewed from a juridical point of view, the entire body of Byzantine
canonical sources hardly constitutes a coherent whole. The attempts at
codification which we shall mention later are far from exhaustive and do not
eliminate important contradictions. They were never intended to provide the
attitude did not mean however that the Byzantines were either indifferent toward
the canons or juridically incompetent quite the contrary. They were generally
aware that at least certain canons reflected the eternal and divine nature of
the Church, and it was a Christian and absolute duty to obey them. Yet Roman
traditions were always strong enough in
The standard Byzantine canonical collection, which also forms the basis of canon law in Slavic countries and in the modern Orthodox Church — the so-called Nomocanon in XIV Titles (its origin and development will be mentioned farther), contains the following canonical texts of purely ecclesiastical origin:
i. The Apostolic Canons,
an early collection of eighty-five disciplinary rules, which served in the first
half of the fourth century as a standard canonical text in Syria. Its content in
many ways reflects the practices of the pre-Nicaean period but is certainly not
of genuinely apostolic origin. A shorter collection (fifty canons) was
translated into Latin by Dionysius Exiguus (late-fifth century) and widely
accepted in the West. The introduction of the full series of eighty-five canons
into the canon law of the
ii. The Canons of the Ecumenical Councils:
5. The Quinisext (or “Fifth-Sixth”) Council also known as the Council in Trullo and often referred to in Byzantine texts as the “Sixth Council” (692) because its entire canonical corpus was given post jactum an “ecumenical” status in being procedurally attributed to the ecumenical councils of 553 and 680 — 102 canons;
6. Nicaea II (787) — 22 canons.
iii. The Canons of local Councils:
2. Neocaesarea (314-325) — 15 canons;
4. Sardica (343) — 20 canons;
5. Gangra (first half of fourth century) — 21 canons;
iv. The Canons of the Holy Fathers: The patristic texts gathered in this category were mostly the occasional letters or authoritative answers written to individuals. In collections, they are often divided or classified in “canons.” The following authors appear in the Nomocanon:
1. Dionysius of
2. Gregory of Neocaesarea († 270);
3. Peter of
4. Athanasius of
5. Basil of
6. Gregory of Nyssa († 395);
7. Gregory of Nazianzus († 389);
8. Amphilochius of Iconium († 395);
9. Timothy of
10. Theophilus of
11. Cyril of
12. Gennadius I of
collections also include texts by the patriarchs of
principle stated earlier about the transitory and relative significance of law
in Church polity can serve now as a key for the understanding of the easy and
practically unchallenged acceptance in the East of imperial legislation in the
field of Church administration once the emperor himself became a member of the
Church and had agreed to protect the basic sacramental and doctrinal principles
upon which the Church is built. No text ever gave the emperor the power to
define or formulate these principles, but it was universally accepted that he
had a responsibility for relating them to the empirical realities of history and
thus to manage where necessary the practical affairs of the visible Church. This
is the meaning of the famous words attributed to
Taking ever every forethought for the most holy churches and for both honour and glory of the Holy Immaculate and Consubstantial Trinity through which we have believed that both we ourselves and the common polity have been saved, also following the holy apostles’ teaching... and by the present law, we ordain that as often as in any city whatever it should happen that the Episcopal see is vacant and a vote by the persons inhabiting the said city should be taken concerning three persons who have borne a character for correct faith and holiness of life and the other virtues, so that, the most suitable from these, should be selected for the episcopates…2
The famous Novella 6 contains, on the other hand, a full set of bylaws for the Church’s existence in the framework of the Roman imperial system.
It was self-evident that, in principle, there could be no contradiction between ecclesiastical canons and imperial laws. Justinian himself ordered that canons had “force of law”3 (legum vicem, Nov. 131, 1), but later Byzantine commentators admitted the possibility of a contradiction between canons and imperial laws. In that case, the canons were to be preferred.4 Actually, it is always important to remember that, in spite of all the power, which was accorded them in ecclesiastical affairs, the emperors were above neither the dogmas nor the canons of the Church. The explicit denial of doctrinal authority to the emperors by anti-iconoclastic writers like John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite and the opposition of Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos (901-907, 912-925) to the uncanonical fourth marriage of Emperor Leo VI (886-912) are among the many examples available. The above reservations in no way exclude the fact that it is impossible to understand Byzantine ecclesiastical polity and consciousness without taking imperial legislation into consideration. After the Code of Justinian, the greatest body of important texts was found among the Leges Novellae, which were promulgated by Justinian and by his successors, especially Leo VI (886-912) as complements to the Code.
Other important collections of laws relevant for the Church are the Ecloga of the Isaurians issued between 739 and 741, which includes modifications of Justinian’s legislation, especially in marriage and divorce laws. Basil I (867-886) published major legislative texts, partly codifying and partly modifying, earlier legislation, the Procheiron, which appeared between 870 and 878, was a handbook for lawyers and which like the Ecloga contained laws on marriage and on ecclesiastical affairs: a Title VII — on forbidden marriages, a Title XI — on divorce, a Title XXVIII — on qualifications and procedure for clergy appointments. The so-called Basilics, which appeared partly under Basil I and partly under his successor Leo VI, reproduced some of Justinian’s laws but omitted others thus making a selection important for Medieval Byzantine and Slavic ecclesiastical practices. The exact character of another text, which also appeared under the Macedonians and was probably drafted by Patriarch Photius, was not so clear: the Epanagoge (“Recapitulation of the Law”) was well known for its description of the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople as “the most exalted and the most necessary members of society;” it also contains legislation on matters of clerical discipline (Titles VIII and IX), on the legal status of Church property (Title X), and on marital law (Titles XVII and XXI). It was not quite clear if the Epanagoge acquired force of law and was ever formally promulgated, but it was often quoted and reproduced in later legal collections. Its scheme of a God-established dyarchy of the emperor and of the patriarch — in line with Justinian’s theory of “symphony” between Church and state, but exalting in particular the unique position of the “ecumenical patriarch” of Constantinople as a high official of the empire — is close to the ideology which prevailed in Byzantium in the ninth century after the victory over imperial iconoclasm. Later, this scheme became a standard program in Slavic countries, where national “patriarchs” shared the dyarchy with various local rulers.
Besides the famous Codex, the era of Justinian naturally saw the
appearance of codified ecclesiastical legislation although various forms of
chronological and systematic collections had existed earlier. During both the
reign of Justinian and in the years, which followed his death, John HI
Scholasticus, Patriarch of Constantinople (565-577), a lawyer by formation,
contributed most to this codification. He is credited with having composed a
Collection of Fifty Titles, which divided the conciliar canons according to
subjects as well as a parallel collection of imperial laws divided into
eighty-seven chapters (Collectio LXXXVII capitulorum). The end of the sixth
century was marked by the appearance of another, anonymous collection similar to
that of John Scholasticus’ but subdivided into fourteen Titles with a parallel
collection of imperial laws under the same headings. The anonymous author was
familiar with the work of a Western contemporary and colleague, the monjk
Dionysius Exiguus († 555), the author of the first Latin collection of conciliar
canons, and adopted from him the “African canonical code,” which as “the canons
of the Council of Carthage” enjoyed great authority in
The Nomocanon in Fourteen Titles the final form of which took shape in 883 probably under the supervision of Photius covered a much greater number of texts and in general gave greater satisfaction to generations of canonists. Moreover, it often served as a basis for later canonical commentaries. Both Nomocanons were translated into Slavic. The Nomocanon in Fourteen Titles served as the basis for the standard Slavic canonical collection in its various versions, the so-called Kormchaya Kniga. Together with the Nomocanons, several canonical reference books circulated in the Byzantine world. A Canonical Synopsis by Stephen of Ephesus, dating probably from the sixth century later revised and completed included a commentary by Aristenos. In the fourteenth century, two prominent lawyers of Thessalonica published systematic collections in which canons were clearly separated from imperial laws: Constantine Harmenopoulos well known by historians of Roman Law for his Hexabiblon also compiled an Epitome of canons, which served as the appendix to his compendium of civil law; and Matthew Blastares, a priest and monk, produced a canonical “collection” accompanied by several more recent documents and critical articles on canonical issues.
Under the reign of John n Comnenos (1118-1143), John Zonaras, an encyclopaedic Byzantine scholar and historian, composed a commentary on the anonymous canonical collection in fourteen titles. A systematic mind, Zonaras, clarifies the canonical texts in order of importance. In doing so, he adopts a logically coherent but historically artificial scheme, which considers the so-called Apostolic Canons to be of greater authority than conciliar texts and the decisions of ecumenical councils of greater weight than those of local councils; he attributes the least value to the canons of individual “fathers.” The difficulty in applying this logical principle consistently (for ecumenical councils often issued decrees of passing and casual significance while important doctrinal and ecclesiological points are made in texts which Zonaras would consider “secondary”) was undoubtedly felt by Zonaras’ contemporary, Alexios Aristenos, the author of a more literal and brief commentary based upon a shortened collection, epitome, of canons. His aim is mainly to explain the meaning of the texts in their historical setting rather than to judge their relation to each other and their respective importance.
The third great commentator of the twelfth century, Theodore Balsamon, in his major work based on Photius’ Nomocanon in its entirety pursued a specific task entrusted to him by Emperor Manuel I Comnenos (1143-1180) and ecumenical Patriarch Michael of Anchialos (1170-1178): a coordination between ecclesiastical and imperial legislation. The task implied, in fact, a codification of the imperial laws, some of which contained contradictions in their stipulations concerning the Church. Balsamon’s concrete task involved those instances when a law of Justinian included in the Nomocanon was either omitted or contradicted in the Basilics. As a principle, he gives preference to the Basilics over Justinian and consequently in some cases over Photius’ Nomocanon. Balsamon’s greater emphasis on imperial legislation in its more recent form does not prevent him from affirming explicitly the precedence of ecclesiastical canons over laws5 though in practice he does at times overrule clear conciliar definitions by referring to imperial laws.6 This emphasis on the role of the emperor prompts Balsamon also to stress the authority of the ecumenical patriarch in general Church affairs; he always visualizes the Church as centralized in the framework of an ideally universal Christian empire.
An abundant canonical literature whose authors it would be impossible to enumerate here discusses issues arising from the canons, from imperial legislation, and from the commentaries: this literature, mostly polemical in nature, constitutes one of the major sources for our understanding of Byzantine Medieval ecclesiology, which otherwise is not expounded in any systematic way.
One of the major issues arising in this literature is the canonical relationship between the patriarch and the provincial primates, metropolitans. Actually, the controversies on this issue touched implicitly upon the role of the emperor in Church affairs; for it was an agreed fact that the ecumenical patriarch was not only an ecclesiastical but also a state, official. His secular function was expressed in the right to crown the emperor (a privilege, which dated from the tenth century) and through the custom of his assuming the regency in case of need. The patriarch’s appointment as a state official formally depended upon an “investiture” by the emperor, which followed an election of three candidates by the synod.7 Meanwhile, the texts foresaw no official intervention of the emperor in the election of local metropolitans, and several canons even severely condemned it. Thus, dependence or independence of the metropolitans upon the patriarch as civil servants involved their relation to the emperor as well.
In the tenth century, a discussion arose between Euthymios, Metropolitan of Sardis, who defended the right of the patriarch to choose metropolitans from among the three candidates preserved by the synod, and an anonymous author who interpreted the canons as attributing to the patriarch the right of the ordination of the metropolitans but not that of election. Nicetas, Metropolitan of Amaseia, then wrote a treatise in favour of patriarchal rights.8
It seemed that the debate ended in favour of imperial and patriarchal centralization, an idea, which had also been expressed in Balsamon’s commentaries (particularly on Canon 28 of Chalcedon). But in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as the imperial power weakened, the patriarchate acquired greater prestige independent of the empire. A series of patriarchs of the Paleologan period simultaneously asserted a greater independence from the state and a wider authority over the metropolitans. Patriarch Athanasius I (1289-1293, 1303-1310) even dismissed the synod altogether. His unedited correspondence and encyclicals offer a considerable canonical and ecclesiological interest.9 The example of Athanasius will be followed by the patriarchs of the fourteenth century, especially Callistos and Philo-theos, with their concept of “universal leadership” (kēdemonia pantōn), which they attribute to the patriarch of Constantinople and which is reflected in the patriarchal Acts of their time.
During the entire Byzantine period, the patriarch of
Beginning with a solemn thanksgiving for the triumph of Orthodoxy over
“all heresies,” the text of the Synodikon contains a particular
commemoration of the defenders of the true faith during the iconoclastic period;
it adds praises for the orthodox patriarchs of the subsequent period and finally
anathemas against various heretics. Since the end of the ninth century, the
document has received some additions as a result of several later doctrinal
disputes, which were solved by synodal decrees in
The listing of the patriarchs for the period between 715 and 1416 is, in itself, an important witness to the ways in which various internal and external problems are solved. The successive mention of Ignatius, Photius, Stephen, Anthony, Nicholas, and Euthymius as “orthodox patriarchs of eternal memory”10 showed that the famous schisms, which occurred in the ninth and tenth centuries between Ignatius and Photius and also between Nicholas and Euthymius, and the mutual excommunications, which ensued, were simply considered as not having taken place. But the omission among the names of the patriarchs of the late-thirteenth century of the names of Nicephorus II (1260-1261), Germanus III (1265-1267), John XI Beccos (1275-1282), Gregory II of Cyprus (1283-1289), and John XII Cosmas (1294-1303) reflects the rejection of the Union of Lyons (1274) and the terms of the reconciliation of the “Arsenites” with the official Church in 1310. The Arsenites had refused to recognize the deposition of Patriarch Arsenius Autoreianus in 1260 and obtained in 1310 his full rehabilitation as well as a partial damnatio memoriae for several of his successors.11
Synodikon also portrays the Byzantine
magisterium in action against the Platonism of John Italos (1076-1077, 1082) as
well as the Christological deviations of John’s contemporary, Nilus the
Calabrian, those of Eustratius of Nicaea (1117), Soterichos Panteugenos
(1155-1156), Constantine of Corfu, and John Eirenikos (1169-1170); and finally
the solution was given to the great doctrinal disputes on “deification” and the
“energies” in the fourteenth century. The Acts of the patriarchal synod,
unfortunately, are not preserved for the entire period, but only for the last
two centuries of the
both historical and theological literature, the principle of oikonomia is often referred to
illustrate the particularly Byzantine ability to interpret the law arbitrarily
to suit political or personal purposes. Such a use betrays an obvious
misunderstanding of the term and is an injustice both to the principle itself
and to its proper application. The term oikonomia does not belong originally to
legal vocabulary; meaning “household management,” it designates in the New
Testament the divine plan of salvation: “He has made known to us in all wisdom
and insight the mystery of his will according to his purpose which he set forth
in Christ as a plan [oikonomia] for
the fullness of time, to recapitulate all things in him, things in heaven and
things on earth” (Ep 1:9-10; v. also 3:2-3). But this divine plan for the
management of history and of the world has been entrusted to men. For Paul,
preaching of the word is an oikonomia
entrusted by God (1 Co ), and, therefore, we should be regarded as “servants of
Christ and stewards [oikonomoi] of
the mysteries of God” (1 Co 4:1). More specifically, the “management” or
“stewardship” belongs to those who fulfil the ministry of leading the Church:
“The Church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office [oikonomia], which was given to me for
the Greek Fathers, oikonomia has the
standard meaning of “incarnation history,” especially during the Christological
controversies of the fifth century. In a subsidiary way, it is also used in
canonical texts and then obviously places the pastoral “management” entrusted to
the Church in the context of God’s plan for the salvation of humankind. Thus in
his famous Letter to Amphilochius, which became an authoritative part of the
Byzantine canonical collections, Basil of Caesarea, after reaffirming the
Cyprianic principle about the invalidity of baptism by heretics, continues: “If
however this becomes an obstacle to [God’s] general oikonomia, one should again refer to
custom and follow the Fathers who have managed [the Church].” The “custom” to
which Basil refered was current “in
becomes part of the rule itself whether the word itself is used or not. Canon 8
Oikonomia, on the other hand, plays an important role in Byzantine marriage law. This law, as we shall see later, aims fundamentally at expressing and protecting the notion that the unique Christian marriage, a sacramental reality, is projected — “in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ep 5:32) — into the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage therefore is not simply a contract, which is indissoluble only while both parties remain in this world but an eternal relationship not broken by death. In accordance with St. Paul (1 Co 7:8-9), second marriage is tolerated but not considered “legitimate” in itself whether it is concluded after the death of one partner or after a divorce. In both cases, it is tolerated twice only “by economy” as a lesser evil, while a fourth marriage is excluded.
its nature, oikonomia cannot be
defined as a legal norm, and piratical misuses and abuses of it have frequently
occurred. Throughout its entire history, the
1. De Vita Constantini, 4, 24; PG 20:1172AB.
2. Codex Justinianus I, 3, 41; English text in P. R. Coleman-Norton, Roman State and Christian Church, III (London: SPCK, 1966), no. 579, p. 1017.
3. Novella 131, 1.
4. Balsamon, Commentary on Nomocanon, I, 2; PG 104:981C.
6. See his commentary on Laodicea 58 and Quinisext 59 forbidding celebration of sacraments in private homes, but overruled by Novella 4 of Leo VI; ed. at., II, 440; See Les novelles de Uon VI, edd. P. Noailles and A. Dain (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1944), pp. 20-21.
7. Constantine Porphyrogenctos, De ceremoniis, II, 14; PG 112:1044A; Symeon of Thessalonica, De sacris ordinibus; PG 155:440D.
8. All texts and French translation in J. Darrouzes, Documents inedits d’ecclesiologie byzantine (Paris: Institut francos deludes byzantines, 1966).
9. R. Guilland,
“Correspondence inedite d’Athanase, patriarche de
10. Synodikpn, ed. J. Gouillard, II, 103.
11. On the
12. Basil of
13. Nicholas Mystikos, Ep. 32 (to the pope), ed. A. Mai, Spicilegium Romanum 10 (1844), 300; PG 111:213A.
14. Eulogius, quoted by Photius in Library, 227; ed. R. Henry (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1965), 4:112.
controversies of the fifth century, as we have seen, provoked a final break
between Byzantine Christendom and the other ancient spiritual families of the
East: Syrian, Egyptian, and Armenian. The Greeks and the Latins remained alone
in their common faithfulness to
In fact, neither the schism nor the failure of the attempts at reunion can be explained exclusively by socio-political or cultural factors. The difficulties created by history could be resolved if there had been a common ecclesiological criterion to settle the theological, canonical, or liturgical issues keeping the East and the West apart. But the Medieval development of the Roman primacy as the ultimate reference in doctrinal matters stood in obvious contrast with the concept of the Church prevailing in the East. Thus, there could not be agreement on the issues themselves or on the manner of solving them as long as there was divergence on the notion of authority in the Church.
The Byzantines considered the Filioque issue as the central point of disagreement. In their eyes, the Latin Church by accepting an interpolated creed was both opposing a text adopted by the ecumenical councils as the expression of the universal Christian faith and giving dogmatic authority to an incorrect concept of the Trinity. Among the Byzantines, even the moderates like Peter, Patriarch of Antioch, who objected to the systematic anti-Latinism of his colleague in Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, considered the interpolation as an “evil and even the worst of evils.”1
Generally, the Byzantines lacked a full knowledge of the complicated historical circumstances, which led to the acceptance of the Filioque in the West: the interpolation of the creed in Spain in the sixth century as a means of strengthening the anti-Arian position of the Spanish Church; the spreading of the interpolated creed in the Prankish Empire; Charlemagne’s use of it in his anti-Greek polemic; the post factum reference by Prankish theologians to Augustine’s De Trinitate to justify the interpolation (which Augustine never envisaged), and, finally, the acceptance of the Filioque in Rome probably in 1014. Photius offered the first open Greek refutation in 866 when he saw in the interpolated creed not only an alteration by some Prankish “barbarians” in the distant West, but also a weapon of anti-Byzantine propaganda among the nearby Bulgarians, who had recently been converted to Christianity by the Greeks and for whom the Byzantine patriarch considered himself directly responsible.
In his encyclical to the Eastern patriarchs (866), Photius considers the Filioque as the “crown of evils” introduced by the Prankish missionaries in Bulgaria.2 We have already seen that his major theological objection to the interpolation is presupposed a confusion of the hypostatic characters of the Persons of the Trinity and therefore a new form of modalism, or “semi-Sabellianism.” After the Council of 879-880, which solemnly confirmed the original text of the creed and formally anathematized anyone who would either “compose another confession of faith” or corrupt the creed with “illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions,”3 Photius considered himself fully satisfied. To celebrate what he considered a final victory of Orthodoxy, he composed a detailed refutation of the doctrine of the “double procession” — his famous Mystagogy — in which he also praised Pope John VIII for having made the triumph possible.4
the final adoption of the Filioque in
battles around ancient authorities often concentrated on texts by those Fathers
— especially Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Epiphanius of Cyprus — whose
main concern was anti-Arian or anti-Nestorian polemics, i.e., the establishment
of Christ’s identity as the eternal and pre-existing divine Logos. In reference
to the Holy Spirit, they unavoidably used expressions similar to those also
adopted in sixth-century
However, those whom the Byzantines called Latinophrones, the “Latin-minded”, and especially John Beccos (1275-1282), enthroned as patriarch by Emperor Michael VIII Paleologus with the explicit task of promoting in Byzantium the Union of Lyons (1274), made a significant effort to use Greek patristic texts on the Spirit’s procession “through the Son” in favour of the Latin Filioque. According to the Latinophrones, both “through the Son” and “from the Son” were legitimate expressions of the same Trinitarian faith.
The usual counter-argument of the Orthodox side was that in Biblical or patristic theology procession “from” or “through” the Son designates the charismata of the Spirit and not His hypostatic existence.8 For indeed pneuma can designate the giver and the gift; and in the latter case, a procession of the “Spirit” from or through the Son — i.e., through the Incarnate, historical Christ — happens in time and thus does not coincide with the eternal procession of the Spirit from the hypostasis of the Father, the only “source of divinity.”
This counter-argument was recognized as insufficient however by the major Orthodox Byzantine theologians of the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. Gregory of Cyprus, a successor of Beccos’ on the patriarchal throne (1283-1289) and chairman of the council (1285), which officially rejected the Union of Lyons, had this assembly approve a text, which, while condemning the Filioque, recognized an “eternal manifestation” of the Spirit through the Son.9 What served as a background to the council’s position is the notion that the charismata of the Spirit are not temporal, created realities but the eternal, uncreated grace or “energy” of God. To this uncreated divine life, man has access in the body of the Incarnate Logos. Therefore, the grace of the Spirit does indeed come to us “through” or “from” the Son; but what is being given to us is neither the very hypostasis of the Spirit nor a created, temporal grace but the external “manifestation” of God, distinct from both His persons and His essence. The argument was also taken over and developed by Gregory Palamas, the great Byzantine theologian of the fourteenth century, who like Gregory of Cyprus formally recognizes that as energy: “the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and comes from Him, being breathed and sent and manifested by Him, but in His very being and His existence, He is the Spirit of Christ, but is not from Christ, but from the Father.”10
As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the Filioque dispute was not a discussion on words — for there was a sense in which both sides would agree to say that the Spirit proceeds “from the Son” — but on the issue of whether the hypostatic existence of the Persons of the Trinity could be reduced to their internal relations, as the post-Augustinian West would admit, or whether the primary Christian experience was that of a Trinity of Persons whose personal existence was irreducible to their common essence. The question was whether tri-personality or consubstantiality was the first and basic content of Christian religious experience. But to place the debate on that level and to enter into a true dialogue on the very substance of the matter, each side needed to understand the other’s position. This unfortunately never occurred. Even at the Council of Florence, where interminable confrontations on the Filioque issue took place, the discussion still dealt mainly with attempts at accommodating Greek and Latin formulations. The council finally adopted a basically Augustinian definition of the Trinity, while affirming that the Greek formulations were not in contradiction with it. This however was not a solution of the fundamental issue.
Photius in his encyclical of 867 also had criticized several liturgical
and canonical practices introduced by Prankish missionaries in
attitude will generally predominate among the best theologians of
On the less enlightened level of popular piety however polemics took a sharper tone and were often oriented toward peripheral issues. When well-intentioned but ill-informed, Prankish reformers in Bulgaria under Photius, or in Italy under Michael Cerularius, attacked the practices of the Greek Church, the Church often answered with a counterattack on Latin discipline and rites. Thus, the schism of the eleventh century was almost exclusively a dispute about ritual practices. In addition to the issues quoted by Photius, Michael Cerularius mentions among “Latin heresies” the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the leniency of the Latin fast, baptism by one and not three immersions, and other similar issues.11
Cerularius’ list of heresies was frequently repeated, and often expanded, by later polemicists. Of the problems mentioned in the list however the only one to be viewed consistently by the Greeks as a theological issue — and even sometimes placed on a level of importance comparable to that of the Filioque — is that of the azymes, the use of unleavened bread in the Latin Eucharistic celebration. Thus, in the late Middle Ages, Greek and Slavic peoples often characterized the Latins as azymites.
The arguments brought against the Latin practice by Cerularius’ friends and contemporaries — Leo of Ohrid and Nicetas Stethatos — and repeated by their successors can be reduced to three: (1) the use of unleavened bread is Judaic;- (2) it contradicts the historic evidence as recorded in the Synoptics (Jesus took “bread”); and (3) its symbolic value is that of “death,” not of “life,” for yeast in the dough is like the soul in the body. The second point in particular implies the solution of several exegetical and historical problems: Was the Last Supper a paschal meal? In that case unleavened bread would have been used. Or did Jesus deliberately violate the law in order to institute a “new” covenant? Can the word artos, which normally designates ordinary bread, also mean “unleavened bread”?
third argument was also raised by Greek polemicists in the Christo-logical
context of anti-Armenian polemics. Nicetas Stethatos himself was involved in
arguments against the Armenians, who after the conquests of the Macedonian
emperors of the tenth century were in close contact with
the late-thirteenth century, the growing Scholastic precisions, which appeared
in contemporary Latin theology, concerning the fate of the souls after death and
purgatory fire, were reflected in the various encounters between Latin and Greek
theologians. The unionist Profession of Faith, which had to be signed by Emperor
Michael VIII Paieologus (1259-1282), included a long clause affirming that the
souls, before enjoying the fruits of repentance in heaven, “were purified after
death through the fire of Purgatory,” and that prayer for the departed was able
to alleviate their “pains.”12 Although the Byzantine tradition had
always acknowledged that prayers for the dead were both licit and necessary,
that the solidarity of all the members of the Body of Christ was not broken by
death, and that, through the intercession of the Church, the departed could get
closer to God, it ignored the notion of redemption through “satisfaction” of
which the legalistic concept of “purgatory pains” was an expression. On this
point, most Byzantine theologians were more puzzled than Impressed by the
Latins, and they never succeeded in placing the issue in the wider context of
the doctrine of salvation, the only level on which a successful refutation and
alternative could be found. Even in
In the decades preceding the Council of Florence, the growing knowledge among Byzantines of the Latin liturgical practices led to the emergence of another issue between the churches, that of the relationship in the Eucharist canon between the words of institution and the invocation of the Spirit, or epiclesis. Reproaching the Latins for the absence of an epiclesis in the Roman canon of the Mass, Byzantine polemicists pointed out the fact that all sacramental acts are effected through the Holy Spirit. Nicholas Cabasilas († before 1391), the famous spiritual writer, in his Explanation of the Divine Liturgy14 invokes in favour of this point the authority of the Latin rite itself whose Christian authenticity he thus explicitly recognizes. He recalls that an invocation of the Spirit is part of the Latin rite of ordination and that the Roman Mass includes in the oration supplices te rogamus a prayer for the gifts, which follows the words of institution, a fact which, according to Cabasilas, means that the words of institution are not consecratory in themselves. Whatever the strength of this last argument, it is clear that the Greek insistence on an explicit invocation of the Spirit is very much in line with the traditional patristic theology of the sacraments, especially when it considers the epiclesis not as a “formula” of consecration, opposed to the Latin one, but as the normal and necessary fulfilment of the Eucharistic prayer of which the words of institution also constitute a fundamental part.
Most of the controversy, which set Greek against Latin in the Middle Ages could have been solved easily if both churches had recognized a common authority able to solve the unavoidable differences created by divergent cultures and historical situations. Unfortunately, an ecclesiological dichotomy stood behind the various doctrinal, disciplinary, and liturgical disputes. Any historian today would recognize that the Medieval papacy was the result of a long doctrinal and institutional development in which the Eastern Church had either no opportunity or no desire to participate. Orthodox and Roman Catholics still argue whether this development was legitimate from the point of view of Christian revelation.
reformed papacy of the eleventh century used a long-standing Western tradition
of exegesis when it applied systematically and legalistically the passages on
the role of Peter (especially Mt , Lk , and Jn -17) to the bishop of
Origen, the common source of patristic exegetical tradition, commenting on Matthew , interprets the famous logion as Jesus’ answer to Peter’s confession: Simon became the “rock” on which the Church is founded because he expressed the true belief in the divinity of Christ. Origen continues: “If we also say, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ then we also become Peter..., for whoever assimilates to Christ becomes rock. Does Christ give the keys of the kingdom to Peter alone whereas other blessed people cannot receive them?”16 According to Origen, therefore, Peter is no more than the first “believer,” and the keys he received opened the gates of heaven to him alone: if others want to follow, they can “imitate” Peter and receive the same keys. Thus, the words of Christ have a soteriological, but not an institutional, significance. They only affirm that the Christian faith is the faith expressed by Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi. In the whole body of patristic exegesis, this is the prevailing understanding of the “Petrine” logia, and it remains valid in Byzantine literature. In the twelfth-century Italo-Greek homilies attributed to Theophanes Kerameus, one can still read: “The Lord gives the keys to Peter and to all those who resemble him, so that the gates of the Kingdom of heaven remain closed for the heretics, yet are easily accessible to the faithful.”17 Thus, when he spoke to Peter, Jesus was underlining the meaning of the faith as the foundation of the Church rather than organizing the Church as guardian of the faith. The whole ecclesiological debate between East and West is thus reducible to the issue of whether the faith depends on Peter, or Peter on the faith. The issue becomes clear when one compares the two concepts of the succession of Peter.
many Byzantine ecclesiastical writers follow Origen in recognizing this
succession in each believer, others have a less individualistic view of
Christianity; they understand that the faith can be fully realized only in the
sacramental community, where the bishop fulfils, in a very particular way,
Christ’s ministry of teaching and, thus, preserves the faith. In this sense,
there is a definite relationship between Peter, called by Christ to “strengthen
his brethren” (Lk ),
and the bishop, as guardian of the faith in his local church. The early
Christian concept, best expressed in the third century by Cyprian of
Carthage,18 according to which the “see of Peter” belongs, in each
local church, to the bishop, remains the longstanding and obvious pattern for
the Byzantines. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, can write that Jesus “through
Peter gave to the bishops the keys of heavenly honours.”19
Pseudo-Dionysius, when he mentions the “hierarchs” — i.e., the bishops of the
earthly Church — refers immediately to the image of Peter.20 Examples
taken from the later period and quite independent of anti-Latin polemics can
easily be multiplied. Peter’s succession is seen wherever the right faith is
preserved, and, as such, it cannot be localized geographically or monopolized by
a single church or individual. It is only natural, therefore, that the Byzantine
will fail to understand the developed Medieval concept of Roman primacy. Thus,
in the thirteenth century, shortly after the capture of
You try to
present Peter as the teacher of
text of Mesarites’ implies a concept of the Church, which recognizes the
fullness of catholicity in each local church in the sense in which the Apostolic
Fathers could speak, for example, of the “catholic church sojourning in
Historians have often cited the fact that
When the Council of Nicaea, in its famous Canon 6, vaguely mentioned the “ancient customs” which recognized an exceptional prestige to the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, the selection of these particular churches was determined not by their apostolic foundation but by the fact that they were located in the most important cities of the empire. For if apostolicity were the criterion, as later Western interpretations insist, the position of Alexandria, purported to have been founded by a minor apostolic figure, Mark, could not be greater than Antioch’s, where Peter’s presence is attested by the New Testament.
East remained pragmatic in its definition of universal or local primacies among
the churches, and this attitude made conflict inevitable as soon as
rightly granted privileges to the throne of old
This text was in
no way meant to suppress the prestige of
conformity with the logical development of ecclesiastical organisms in the
Byzantine period, which since the era of
As we have seen
above, the succession of Peter was considered to be involved in the Episcopal
office present in every church, and was envisaged as a responsibility in which
any “successor of Peter,” including the bishop of
Cultural and historical differences may easily lead to theological divergences; but such divergences need not become contradictions and incompatibilities. There were differences and even violent conflicts between the East and West as early as the fourth century, but in spite of ever-recurring tension, there existed, until the eleventh century, a mutually recognized procedure for solving difficulties: the council. Joint councils, meeting generally in the East, convened by the emperor, and at which Roman legates were given a place of honour, served as the ultimate tribunals to solve the standing issues. Thus, the crisis which set Photius against Pope Nicholas ι was finally ended at the last council (879-880) to follow that procedure and one which still ranks, according to the Orthodox Church, on almost the same level as the earlier ecumenical councils.
German-oriented reformed papacy of the eleventh century was definitely no longer
attuned to this type of conciliarity. The Crusades did much to antagonize the
two culturally distinct civilizations of the East and of the West. And when the
papacy shaken by the Great Western Schism and
1. Peter of
2. Photius, Encyclical, 8; PG 102:725C.
3. Mansi, XVII, 520B.
4. Photius, Mystagogy, 89; PG 102:380-381.
5. Athanasius, To Serapion, III, 1; PG 26:625B.
6. Cyril, Thesaurus; PG 68:148A.
7. Maximus the Confessor, Letter to Marinus; PG 91:136AD.
8. The argument is found in Photius, Mystagogy, 59; PG 102:337.
9. Gregory of
Palamas, Apodictic Treatise, I, 9; ed. B. Bobrinskoy, in P. Chrestou, Palama
Cerularius, Letter to Peter of
12. Mansi, XXIV, 70A.
13. See the major
documents on this discussion published by L. Petit in PatrOr, 15 (
14. Nicholas Cabasilas, Explanation of the Divine Liturgy, chs. 29-30; ed. Perichon, SC 4 bis (Paris: Cerf, 1967), pp. 179-199; trans. J. M. Hussey and P. A. McNulty (London: SPCK, 1960), pp. 71-79.
15. Photius, Horn., 1; trans. in C. Mango, The Homilies of Photius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 50.
16. Origen, Horn,
in Matt., XII, 10; ed. Klostermann GCS 40 (
17. Theophanes Kerameus, Horn., 55; PG 142:965A. For a more general view of patristic exegesis on Matthew 16:18, see particularly J. Ludwig, Die Primatworte Mt. 16, 18, 19 in der altkirchlichen Exegese (Munster, 1952); and J. Meyendorff, “St. Peter in Byzantine Theology,” The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church, ed. J. Meyendorff (London: Faith Press, 1963), pp. 7-29.
18. On Cyprian,
see, for example, A. d’Ales, La theologie de St. Cyprien (Paris: Beauchesne,
1922); P.-Th. Camelot, “St. Cyprien et la primaute,” Istina 4 (1957), 421-434;
cf. also M. Bevenot’s introduction and notes for Cyprian De catholicae ecclesiae
imitate in ACW 25. (
19. Gregory of Nyssa, De castigatione; PG 46:312C.
20. Pseudo-Dionysius, EccL hier., VII, 7; PG 3:561-564.
21. Nicholas Mesarites, in A. Heisenberg, ed., Neue Quellen zur Geschichte des lateinischen Kaisertums und der Kirchenuniont II. Die Unionverhandlungen von 30. Aug. 1206, in AbhMünchAk, phil. Klasse (1923) II, 34-35.
Dvornik, The Idea of Apostolicity in
23. J. Meyendorff, Orthodoxy and Catholicity (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1956), p. 74.
24. Symeon of Thessalonica, Dialogus contra haereses, 23; PG 155:120AB.
WITH THE EXCEPTION of Barlaam the Calabrian, no major participant of the great theological controversies, which ended in 1351, had anything but a casual knowledge of Western theology. Discussions between Greeks and Latins revolved around formulae, which were used by both sides, each in a totally different context. And Barlaam himself, in spite of his double theological formation, was hardly a prominent representative of Western the theological thought; he was, rather, a manipulator of ideas and probably influenced by Nominalism.
Meanwhile, the formal conciliar decisions of 1341 and 1351, endorsing a theology of real “participation” of man in God and, therefore, of a real distinction between “essence” and “energy” in God, were clearly incompatible with the prevailing Latin theology of the time. A significant dialogue on the content of these decisions as well as on their true relation to patristic tradition, on the one hand, and Latin Scholasticism, on the other, would have required much time, wide historical knowledge, and true openness of mind. These conditions were obviously lacking on both sides but — and this will be the main point of this chapter — they were in the process of being realized in Byzantium during the last century of the empire.
Father-in-law of the legitimate emperor John V Paleologos and emperor
himself between 1347 and 1354, John Cantacuzenos, exercised a decisive influence
in assuring the triumph of Palamism in Byzantium, and after his abdication
remained for almost forty years a powerful political and intellectual force in
Byzantine society. Having accepted monastic tonsure in 1354, he nonetheless kept
at his personal disposal enough funds and influence to act as a generous
Maecenas for Byzantine intellectuals. Travelling between
theologian himself, he is the author of learned apologies of Palamism and of a
lengthy refutation of Islam. During his entire life however, he never lost sight
of Western Christianity and several times participated in debates with papal
envoys. Ecclesiastical union with
was never opposed to contacts with the West however repeatedly proposed a
serious theological dialogue and actively supported careful preparation on the
Byzantine side for this eventual encounter. Knowledge of Latin the theological
thought was a necessary precondition, of course, and it is in the circle of
Cantacuzenos that Latin theological sources were systematically translated into
Greek. The emperor himself used some of them in his polemics against Islam, but
his secretary and friend Djemetrios Cydones devoted his entire life, with
Cantacuzenos’ approval and support to the translation and study of Thomism.
Meanwhile, another friend, Nicholas Cabasilas, was reviving sacramental
mysticism in the best tradition of the Greek Fathers. Speaking to the legate
Paul in 1367, Cantacuzenos developed his conviction that union never was
achieved by imperial decree: “This is impossible in our Church,” he said, “since
faith can never be forced.”1 His view of the situation was all the
more realistic since the greater part of the Orthodox world was then out of the
reach of the Byzantine emperor. The greater mass of the Greeks was already under
Turkish occupation, the Balkan Slavs were politically and ecclesiastically
independent, and the Russians were unlikely to accept lightly any union scheme
drafted without their participation.
Out of the groundwork laid by the circle of Cantacuzenos, grew two or three generations of intellectuals who often adopted radically divergent attitudes toward the main theological options of the day. Investigation of their writings and thought has only recendy begun; but at the present stage of our knowledge, it was already clear that, in spite of several individual casualties and major mistakes, an “in depth” encounter with Western theology was in the making.
The encyclopaedic interests of Cantacuzenos led him to grant support to all forms of knowledge, including the study of secular philosophy — a tradition at all times alive in a small group of Byzantine aristocrats and intellectuals. Synodal decrees of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had warned the humanists against the dangers of considering Greek philosophy as a criterion of the theological thought, but Barlaam of Calabria — originally a protege of Cantacuzenos’ — went beyond the permissible by reducing theology to the level of intellectual wisdom and discursive knowledge. The Council of 1341 signalled his defeat and condemnation. The capture of imperial power by Cantacuzenos in 1347 coincided with the total victory of Palamas and the Hesychasts and was seen as a disaster by the humanists among whom the Antipalamite party recruited most of its members. Clearly, the Byzantine Church was rejecting Platonizing humanism and refusing to accept the very patterns of humanistic civilization by which the West was in the process of adopting.2 It was precisely at this time that several prominent humanists, whose intellectual forefathers — Photius, Michael Psellos, Theodore Metochites — had despised the Latins as “barbarians,” discovered in the Latin West and particularly in Italy the last refuge of true Hellenism.
Demetrios Cydones (ca. 1324-ca. 1398), a close political associate of Cantacuzenos’, certainly belongs to this category. Staunch to Orthodox in his youth, he sometimes worried that the protocol requirements for an imperial ambassador to the pope, which would force him to address the Roman pontiff as “beatitude,” “holiness,” “common pastor,” “Father,” and “Vicar of Christ,” might have been harmful to his faith.3 But then suddenly, he discovered Thomism. When his diplomatic functions led him to learning Latin from a Dominican of Pera, he used the Summa contra Gentiles as an exercise book, and the effect on this friend of Barlaam, disappointed by the recent victory (in 1347) of the Hesychasts, was astounding. The Latins, whom the Byzantines considered incapable of rising above the military or merchant professions,4 knew Greek philosophy! “Because the Byzantines did not care for their own [Greek] wisdom, they considered Latin reasonings to be Latin inventions.” In fact, if only one took the time to unveil the meaning of Latin books hidden by a foreign tongue, one would have found that “they show great thirst for walking in those labyrinths of Aristotle and Plato for which our people never showed interest.”5
With the approval and support of Cantacuzenos, Demetrios continued his work of translation. The entire Summa contra Gentiles, most of Summa theologica, as well as important texts of Augustine and Anselm were made accessible, in Greek versions, to Demetrios’ contemporaries and to the following generations of Byzantine theologians. Cantacuzenos himself used Demetrios’ translation of the Refutation of the Koran by the Dominican Ricoldo da Montecroce as a source book for his writings against Islam.
The persistence of opposition against Palamism by isolated but influential intellectuals and the implications of the controversy for East-West relations explain the very great number of Byzantine Palamite writings during the period. Together with those of Nilus Cabasilas and Joseph Bryennios, the names of John Cantacuzenos and of Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos (1353-1354, 1364-1376) are particularly important.
Also, the remarkable lay theologian Nicholas Cabasilas (ca. 1320-ca. 1390) is found among the members of the close circle of Cantacuzenos. A nephew of Nilus Cabasilas, Nicholas, was an intimate friend and correspondent of Demetrios Cydones. His background was very similar to Demetrios’, and he pursued a like political career in the shadow of Cantacuzenos. But after Cantacuzenos’ abdication (1354), Cydones committed himself totally to the cause of union with the Latins, and Cabasilas became an original exponent of traditional and patristic sacramental theology.
main theological writings of Nicholas Cabasilas are The Life in Christ, a vast spiritual and
theological commentary on the sacraments, an Explanation of the Divine Liturgy, and
three Mariological sermons. Occasionally, the important theological thought is
also to be found in his Encomia (“laudations”) of various saints. Although some
authors have seen a little rapport between his theology and
Palamas’,9 there is, in fact, total unity of inspiration and purpose
between them: to affirm that communion with God in Christ through the Spirit is
the only true meaning of human life. Cabasilas actually did write a brief but
violent pamphlet against the Anti-Palamite Nicephoros Gregoras and clearly took
sides in the controversy. His major theological writings are also conceived as
an implicit manifesto against the ideology of the humanists; many of them were
his personal friends. His thought represents anything but a mystical escape from
the issues of the day. He did not explicitly quote Palamas, but many passages of
The Life in Christ were paraphrases
of Palamas’ Triads. Similarly, he practically never quotes the Fathers of the
Church, but parallels with the sacramental passages of John Chrysostom or Cyril
of Alexandria can be found on almost every page of The Life in Christ. The greatness of
Cabasilas was that he succeeded in defending a theology of communion with God in
a challenging age without being either scholastic or polemical. What Palamas
rendered in terms of concepts, Cabasilas expressed as an existential reality not
only for Hesychast monks but also for every Christian. To understand the
theological achievement of fourteenth-century
In his Interpretation of the Divine Liturgy, Cabasilas still sometimes seems derivative of pseudo-Dionysius and his symbolism. But when he is compared with Dionysius himself and with other Medieval liturgical writers, it becomes clear that Cabasilas represents a step toward a sacramental realism more congenial with the early Christian understanding of the sacraments. This realism permeates The Life in Christ where the author is more concerned with sacramental theology and spirituality than with explaining individual details of the rites. In the first chapter, Cabasilas takes pains to show that the divine life, which will be “perfected” in the eschaton, is nonetheless a living experience, accessible in the present age.10 Baptism is a new birth to this life. As in the earlier Greek Fathers, the positive notion of “new birth” rather than the negative concept of a “remission of sin” dominates Cabasilas’ theology of baptism. In the new life, which he enters by baptism, man receives an “experience”: “He becomes eye to see the light.”11
If baptism gives new being, chrismation — the gift of the Spirit — bestows “energy” and “movement,” i.e., the free personal enjoyment of baptismal grace.12 In the Eucharist, Christ gives man not “something of Himself but Himself” as whole; “this is the most-praised wedding to which the Bridegroom leads the Church as a Virgin Bride..., when we become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.”13 The paradox of the Church’s existence is that “as children, we remain free but we also depend on Him as His members.”14 Sanctification comes only from Christ15 but sanctity consists in conforming our wills to His divine will. Cabasilas makes this last point clear when he discusses the concept of “sainthood” in the Church: miracles are unmerited gifts of God and do not constitute sanctity — a free human achievement.16
Side by side with the Pauline image of Christ as Head of the Church, Cabasilas will speak of Jesus as the “heart” of the Body: “As the risen Christ does not know death, so the members of Christ never taste death. How can death touch members in communion with a living heart?” This passage and its parallels lead us to an understanding of the very personal manner in which Cabasilas describes the Christian mystery17 and show his indebtedness to the anthropology of Macarius, which is predominant in Hesychast circles and locates the centre of the psychosomatic human complex precisely in the heart.
ecclesiology is understood through the Eucharist, which, for Cabasilas, is the
“completion” of all sacraments, not simply one of them,18 through a
spirituality founded on a living experience of Christ and a theocentric
anthropology: these legacies of Cabasilas are clearly in contrast with the
ideology of the humanists. This contrast did not mean however that Cabasilas
expressed at any time, even in his polemics, any systematic prejudice against
the Latin West. We have already seen that even when he accuses the Latins of
having dropped the epiclesis from the Eucharistic canon, he involves the
authority of the Latin rite itself whose legitimacy he thus recognizes.
Obviously, his attitude toward the Western Church is similar to that of his
friend Cantacuzenos, who took some pains to explain Palamite theology to the
legate Paul and sought a free dialogue at a joint council; or even to that of
Patriarch Philotheos who endorsed the project and invited the other patriarchs
to take part expressing the wish however that “at the council, our doctrine may
be shown better than that of the Latins, so that they may join us in a common
confession.”19 In the following century, when the conciliar project
is finally accepted by the pope, the Palamite Mark of
spite of the numerous non-theological factors, which contributed to the
circumstances in which the Council of Ferrara-Florence was held, the event
itself was of greal theological significance. Its convocation represented a
major concession on Rome’s part — a concession which the popes of the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries had systematically refused to make, in spite of
numerous Byzantine requests. The holding of a union council where all
differences, including those to which
if a small group of “Latin-minded” humanists among the Byzantines were ready for
union through the simple acceptance of papal teachings, the vast majority —
including the conservative Palamites — considered the council as the normal way
to union on the basis of Orthodoxy yet the impressive and formally very
representative Byzantine delegation, which came to Ferrara was hampered by
serious handicaps. First, it was internally divided on the issue of knowledge:
although they had formally ascribed to Palamism at their Episcopal
consecrations, several important members actually were Barlaamites, and
therefore sceptical on the issue of whether true knowledge of divine truths was
actually attainable. Second, in spite of prolonged contacts with the West in the
previous decades, the Byzantines (perhaps under the influence of their theory of
“pentarchy,” which recognized the pope as patriarch of the whole West) seemed
not to have understood the deep implications of the ecclesiological problems,
which were dividing the West, and they failed to capitalize on the division.
They chose to negotiate with the pope under the impression that he was able to
speak for all Latins and to raise immediate military help against the Turks.
And, finally, the representative character of the Byzantine delegation was only
formal — the delegation, in fact, had been selected from among the tiny elite of
Still, these handicaps did not prevent the Council of Ferrara-Florence from providing an occasion for useful, dramatic, and fundamentally free theological dialogue.
decree Laetentur caeli finally signed
Orthodox apologetics had frequently maintained that the Greeks were under physical and mental strain when they signed this text. Most of signing soon changed their minds, and those who remained faithful to their signature integrated themselves fully into the world of the Italian Renaissance and papal politics and had no further theological influence upon their compatriots.
Four personalities of the Greek delegation played a leading intellectual role in Ferrara, in Florence, and in the years immediately following the council (Mark, Metropolitan of Ephesus; Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea) and two lay Archontes (George Scholarios and Gemisthos Pletho). Bessarion led the majority of Greeks who finally signed the decree of union; the others represent three rather different forms of opposition to union.
Eugenikos (1392-1444) was made Metropolitan of Ephesus in the year before the
council (1437). He had studied with Joseph Bryennios in theology and with
Gemistos Pletho in philosophy; under Pletho, he had received a much more
elaborate philosophical training than was customary in monastic circles. Mark’s
view of the Latin West coincided with that of the circle of Cantacuzenos in the
preceding century; and he had been willing to recognize the council as
ecumenical until he lost hope that the truth would prevail at the assembly. At
the beginning of the sessions in
George Scholarios is an intellectual enigma awaiting modern scholarly
investigation. Mark of Ephesus on his deathbed entrusted him with the leadership
of the Orthodox party. He accepted, assumed the monastic garb under the name of
Gennadios, and was affirmed patriarch by Mohammed II in 1453, after the fall of
Bessarion of Nicaea (1402-1472) was chosen metropolitan in 1436 when the
council was in the making; his ecclesiastical career however did not prevent him
from maintaining close humanist sympathies and concerns. His obviously sincere
religious evolution in
The personality and intellectual evolution of Bessarion is the best possible illustration of the fact that if “the definition of Florence about the primacy of the papacy has dealt a death-blow to Conciliarism”28 and thus changed the course of Western Church history by making the Reformation inevitable, it actually bypasses the issues dividing East and West and, stiffening the positions of both sides, made the schism a much deeper reality than it had been.
1. See J. MeyendorfT, “Projets de Concile oecumenique en 1367:un dialogue inЈdit entre Jean Cantacuzene et le legat Paul,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 14 (1960), 174.
2. See J. MeyendorfT, Introduction a I’etude de Gregoire Ρalamos (Paris: du Seuil, 1959), p. 194.
3. Demetrios Cydones, Letter 1 in Demetrius Cydonès, Correspondance, ed. G. Camelli (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1930), p. 2.
4. Demetrios Cydones, Apology I, in G. Mercati, “Notizie di Procoro c Demetrio Cidone... ,” Studi e Testi 56 (1931), 365.
5. Ibid., 366.
6. Demetrios Cydones, Letter 33-, ed. R. J. Loenertz, SeT 186 (1956), 66.
7. Demetrios Cydones, De contemnenda morte-, PG 154:1169-1212.
8. Demetrios Cydones, Apology III·, in Mercati, “Notizie,” 391.
9. See, for example, H.-G. Beck, KTLBR, p. 781.
10. Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ; PG 150:496D.
11. lbid.\ PG 150:560c-56lA.
12. lbid.\ PG 150:569A-580C.
13. Ibid.-, PG 150:593D.
14. Ibid.-, PG 150:600A.
15. For this see Cabasilas’ commentary on the exclamation “The holy tl/ings to the holy” in the liturgy; see also Life in Christ, PG 150:613A.
16. Cabasilas, “On St. Theodora,” PG 150:753-772.
17. A good discussion of this can be found in M. Lot-Borodine, Nicholas Cabasilas (Paris: 1’Orante, 1958), pp. 114-116.
18. Cabasilas, Life in Christ-, PG 150:585B.
Philotheos, Letter to the Patriarch of
20. See A. M.
Schneider, “Die Bevolkerung Konstantinopels im XV. Jahrhundert,”1
21. J. Gill, The
22. Ferrariae gesta, ed. I. Gill (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1952), Vol. 5, fasc. 1, pp. 28-34.
23. Syropulos, Memoire, X, 15; Les “Memoires” du Grand Ecclesiarque de I’Eglise de Constantinople Sylvestre Syropoulos (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scicntifique, 1971), p. 496.
24. G. Scholarios, Oeut/res completes, edd. L. Petit and M. Jugie (Paris: Bonne Presse, 1928-1936), VI, 1.
25. F. Masai, Plethon et le Platonisme de Mistra (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1956), p. 321.
26. Ibid., p. 98.
27. Kardinal Bessarion, ed. L. Mohler (Paderborn: Schoningh, 1942), III, 469-469; see the comments and French translation in Masai, Plethon, pp. 306 — 307.
28. Gill, Council
Byzantine’christianity is known for the wealth of its liturgy, a wealth, which reflects indeed a theological — or rather an ecclesiological — position. Through the liturgy a Byzantine recognized and experienced his membership in the Body of Christ. While a Western Christian generally checked his faith against external authority (the magisterium or the Bible), the Byzantine Christian considered the liturgy both a source and an expression of his theology; hence, the very great conservatism, which often prevailed both in Byzantium itself and in post-Byzantine times in matters of liturgical tradition and practice. The liturgy maintained the Church’s identity and continuity in the midst of a changing world.
conservatism did not mean however that the liturgical structures of the
The famous temple built by Justinian and dedicated to Christ, “the Wisdom of God,” or “Hagia Sophia,” remained for centuries the greatest religious edifice in Christendom. Serving as a cathedral for the “archbishop of New Rome,” the “ecumenical” patriarch, it provoked amazement in the whole world and had a great aesthetic and, therefore, missionary impact. When the ambassadors of the Russian prince Vladimir of Kiev visited it in 988, they confessed that they wondered whether “they were still on earth or in heaven,” and the Russian Chronicle interprets the adoption of Byzantine Christianity by the Russians as an effect of their report.1 But the influence of the “Great Church” was felt not only by the “barbarians;” other Christian communities, possessing a tradition of their own, accepted it as well. During the Byzantine occupation of Italy (sixth-seventh centuries), the Roman Church adopted a great number of Byzantine hymns.2 The Syrian Jacobites, in spite of their separation from Orthodoxy on the Christological issue, translated and adopted much of Byzantine hymnography, mostly during the Byzantine reconquest of the Middle East under the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056).3 A similar influence on Armenia is well known.
the exception of the few, rather superficial, elements which were borrowed from
imperial court ceremonial, the liturgy of the “
The form of the Byzantine liturgy — and hence its theology — was determined by the following main elements:
a. The early Christian, pre-Constantinian nucleus to which the Byzantine Church (as well as all the other major traditions of the Christian East) remained very closely faithful in the celebration of the two mysteries, which “recapitulate” all the others: baptism and the Eucharist.5 In spite of the totally different conditions of Christian life and of the adoption of infant baptism as a universal pattern, the rite of baptism retained the wording and the essential forms shaped in the second and third centuries. Performed by full immersion, it remained an elaborate and solemn representation of the paschal mystery and of the “passage” from the old life to the new, of the renunciation of Satan and the union with Christ. The rite remained virtually free of later forms of symbolism and unaffected by extra-sacramental theological developments. Confirmation, performed by a priest with “holy chrism” blessed by a bishop, was never separated from baptism; the neophyte, even if only a child, was then admitted immediately to the Eucharist.
The pre-Constantinian nucleus is less in evidence in the developed Byzantine Eucharist, whose peripheral parts have been embellished with symbolism and interpreted as a sacramental re-enactment of the life of Christ. Its central part — i.e., the Eucharistic canon itself — retains very faithfully however the original form and the Jewish root of the Eucharist. This is true for both Eucharistic liturgies, which replaced in the Byzantine world the more ancient Palestinian liturgy of “St. James” — the liturgies of Basil and of John Chrysostom. Both date essentially from the fourth and fifth century with the direct authorship by Basil of Caesarea († 379) are almost certain in the case of the canon bearing his name. But Basil used a more ancient tradition which he attributed to the apostles themselves.6 His Eucharistic prayer “is assuredly one of the most beautiful and most harmonious formulas of this type bequeathed to us by Christian antiquity..., very close to the most ancient wording of the Christian prayer with expressions that is still very near to the Jewish prayer itself.”7
According to the Medieval Byzantine ordo reflected by the twelfth-century
canonist Balsamon,8 the liturgy of John Chrysostom is the usual
Eucharistic form celebrated throughout the year, except during Lent; Basil’s is
used only on ten solemn occasions. The ancient liturgy of “St. James” however
was not entirely forgotten in
b. The liturgical evolution of the so-called “cathedral” rite, a designation applied by A. Baumstark to the practice of the major city-churches as distinct from the monastic communities.9 A manuscript preserves a description of this rite as it was practiced at Hagia Sophia from 802 to 806,10 and Symeon of Thessalonica († 1429) describes a “chanted vigil” belonging to the same tradition, although he recognizes that, in his times, it was no longer practiced in its pure form even at Hagia Sophia.11
Devoting comparatively little time to scriptural reading, or psalmody, this rite had favoured the mushrooming of hymnography and the development of the liturgy as a “mystery,” or “drama.” It was indeed difficult to preserve the communal concept of Christian worship, or the notion that the Eucharist is a communion meal, when the liturgy began to be celebrated in huge basilicas holding several thousand worshippers. But since the early Christian community was now transformed into a crowd of nominal Christians (a transformation described as a real tragedy by Chrysostom in his famous sermons at Constantinople), it was necessary for the Church to emphasize the sacred character of the Christian sacraments to protect them from secular profanation, and to surround them with veils and barriers thus practically excluding the mass of the laity from active participation in their celebration, except through the singing of hymns.
This was an evolution, which could have been a purely practical and pastoral; and thus, justifiable development acquired a not altogether healthy theological expression of which the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of pseudo-Dionysius was the most explicit witness. We described earlier the way in which the “earthly” liturgy was explained by Dionysius as a symbolic — and only symbolic — representation of an unchangeable hierarchy of beingawho stand between the individual Christian and his God. After Dionysius, the liturgy began to play the role of a Gnostic initiation, and the notion of common life in Christ was often lost. But sacramental realism and a more traditional view of the liturgy were preserved in the rite itself, and theologians like Nicholas Cabasilas in their writings about the liturgy were able to overcome the ambiguous tradition of individualism and Gnostic symbolism which Dionysius had introduced in the sixth century.
c. Monasticism. From the beginning of the Constantinian era, a monastic type of worship existed concurrently with the emerging “cathedral” type and soon entered into competition with it. It was characterized by a number of autonomous units of common worship (vespers, compline, midnight prayer, matins, and the four canonical hours, completed in Jerusalem with “mid-hours”), by its almost exclusive use of psalmody, and by its original opposition to hymnography.12 A monastic office could be practically continuous through day and night as it was, for example, in the monastery of the “Non-sleepers” in Constantinople. The monastic communities also developed the penitential aspects of the later Byzantine synthesis: Lenten cycle, prostrations, fasting.
earliest available descriptions of the Typikon of the monastery of Studion in
their initial integration did not occur in
adoption of a single system of liturgy for both secular and monastic churches
facilitated liturgical unification throughout the Church. Byzantine dominance in
the Christian East led, in fact, to an even greater liturgical centralization
Equally important was the adoption of a monastic Typikon by the
In its fully developed form reached in the fourteenth century, the Byzantine rite is still essentially dominated by the paschal theme of the early Christian message: in Christ, man passes from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life. Byzantine liturgy may frequently use conceptual definitions, formal doctrinal confessions, or romantic poetry — as we shall see in our discussion of hymnography — but it is impossible to understand its structure and the internal logic of its cycles without grasping the dynamic suggestion of a passage from the “old” to the “new,” which is the central theme of almost every liturgical unit. Variations on this theme appear everywhere. The misery of man’s existence in the “old Adam” is given more or less emphasis, just as the bliss of new life is considered either as an already present reality or as a goal still to be achieved.
Each cycle normally corresponds to a particular liturgical book. The daily cycle, found in the Expanded Psalter, or its abbreviated form, the Horologion, uses the paschal theme in connection with the daily alternation of light and darkness. Following in its permanent, unchangeable structure, the ancient monastic patterns, which used to shun hymnography, Byzantine vespers and matins select almost exclusively scriptural texts to connect the coming of night with man’s fall and separation from God and sunrise with the advent of Christ, the “true light.” Vespers begin with an evocation of creation (Ps 104) and a suggestion of man’s helplessness after the Fall (Pss 140, 141, 129, 116), and end with the prayer of Simeon (Lk 2:29-32), the hope of salvation, the idea that night and death can also become blessed repose for those who hope in the coming of the Messiah. Alternating the themes of repentance and hope, matins represent an ascension toward the meeting of light: the ten Biblical canticles — including the eminently paschal Canticles of Moses (Ex 15:1-18; Dt 32:1-43) and of the Three Youths in Babylon (Dn 3:26-56, 67-88) — are part of a psalmodic ensemble called a canon, which culminates in the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) and the Benedictus (Lk 1:68-79) combined. At sunrise the triumphant Psalms 148, 149, 150 (the Latin lauds), the exclamation “Glory to Thee, who has shown us the light,” and the doxology reflect the Christian joy and assurance of God-given salvation.
Vespers obviously aim at suggesting the “old” situation of man, and thus the developed Byzantine rite includes Old Testament readings only at vespers. Matins, by contrast, are highlighted on certain appointed days by readings from the Gospels. The weekly cycle also uses the theme of the “old” and the “new” centring it on Sunday, the “eighth day,”14 the “day of the Lord” and of His second coming (Rv 1:10), the day of His resurrection and of His presence in the Eucharist. Still, the “old” Jewish Sabbath is not simply discarded: it is the day of awaiting, of commemoration of the dead, who expect resurrection, and also the day when Christ, in the tomb, descends into Hell to assure the dead of the forthcoming liberation. Thus, Saturday is considered together with Sunday as a Eucharistic day, even during Lent.
The feast of Easter serves as the movable centre of the yearly cycle. It has a period of preparation (Lent) and a fifty-day celebration (Pentecost), and its date determines the following liturgical year. For each of these periods there is a corresponding liturgical book containing the pertinent hymnography: the Triodion for Lent, the Pentecostarion for the period between Easter and Pentecost, and the Otyoetyos (Book of eight tones) containing the cycle of eight weeks, which repeats itself between the Second Sunday after Pentecost and the following Lent.
Finally, the twelve volumes of the Menaion (Book of months) contain
proper offices for each day of the calendar year. The very great amount of
hymnographic material, which is gradually accepted into the Menaion through the
centuries is very uneven in quality, but the offices of the major feasts and of
principal saints are generally celebrated with hymns composed by the best
liturgical poets of
three major cycles of the yearly feasts commemorate the lives of Christ, the
Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. The Christological cycle includes the feasts
of the Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Circumcision, “Meeting” with Simeon
(February 2), and the Transfiguration. The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
(September 14) is also part of this cycle. The cycle of the Virgin includes the
commemoration of her conception, nativity, presentation, and dormition. The
cycle of John the Baptist is an early Palestinian creation with a Biblical
foundation and serves as the model for the Mariological cycle. It includes the
feasts of conception, nativity, and decollation. This entire system, represented
iconographically on the so-called “Deisis” — a composition often shown centrally
in the iconostasis and including the central figure of Christ flanked by Mary
and John — suggests a parallelism between the Mother and the Precursor, the two
representatives of the human race who stood closest to Jesus. No particular
liturgical attention is paid to
The Menaion contains explicit commemoration however of numerous Old Testament figures — prophets, kings, and others — the theological implication being that, after Christ’s descent into Hell, they, as well as those who pleased God in the new dispensation, are alive in Him.
The introduction of massive hymnology in the “cathedral” rite is generally connected with the name of Romanos the Melody. There is very little historical evidence showing the reasons why the kontakia by Romanos and his imitators are very soon replaced in Byzantine liturgical cycles by different types of hymnography, but it may be assumed that the kontakion had to face monastic opposition. Although it dealt primarily with Biblical themes and often paraphrased Biblical texts, the kontakion nevertheless constituted a substitute for the Biblical psalms or canticles themselves and encouraged the use of music which the monks considered too secular. The long poetical pieces of Romanos of course had no organic place in the increasingly rigid and strictly Biblical framework of vespers, matins, and other liturgical units as they were being elaborated in the monastic Typika. Yet the fact that Romanos’ poetry though explicitly, Chalcedonian and Cyrillian, generally stands aloof from the great Christological disputes of the sixth and seventh centuries may also have contributed to the emergence of a hymnography more distinctly theological and doctrinal than the kontakya.
original ascetic opposition of many monastic centres against hymnographical
creativity did not persist. By the fifth century, Auxentios († in Bithynia ca.
470) was composing troparia, short
poetical pieces of two or three sentences, sung according to the pattern of
Biblical psalmody and probably in conjunction with Biblical psalms or
canticles.15 This style of hymnography served as the alternative for
the long and independent kontakia of
Romanos. Short troparia, or stikhera, were composed to be sung after each verse of the regular Biblical
texts accepted as parts of vespers and matins rather than as independent
liturgical services. Complete series of troparia were written to accompany the
ten Biblical canticles of matins. These series received the convenient
appellation of canon, or “rule.” They often include after the sixth ode a
vestigial remnant of a kontakion of
Romanos, while parts of the same kontakion are paraphrased in other stikhera or troparia (Nativity services, for
example). Thus, a few short pieces of Romanes’ poetry were kept in the
liturgical books after the final adoption, in the ninth or tenth century, of the
new patterns of hymnography. Palestinian monks of the Lavra of St. Sabbas
(Andrew, who later became bishop in
In the final form, it assumed in the ninth century — the later enrichments were only peripheral — the Byzantine hymnographical system was a poetic encyclopedia of patristic spirituality and theology. Its importance for our understanding of Byzantine religious thought cannot be exaggerated. Medieval Byzantium never attributed to schools, to intellectual speculation, or even to the magisterium the importance which they acquired in the West, but the centuries-old hymnographical tradition will be referred — for example by Gregory Palamas against Barlaam — as a certain criterion of orthodoxy and as an expression of Church tradition par excellence. It will remain so in the Slavic and other areas where Byzantine Christianity will be spread.
The difficulty in using hymnographical materials as a source for theology lies in the tremendous volume and diversity of the hymns. Of course, the many hagiographical legends and poetic exaggerations found in them can be used only in the context in which they are originally written. The Byzantines however obviously understood the difference between doctrinal statements and poetry, for some hymns were explicitly called dogmatifka troparia; those of Saturday vespers, for example, which were always dedicated to the meaning of the Incarnation in terms of the Chalcedonian definition:
Who will not bless you, Ο all-holy Virgin? Who will not sing praises to the One whom you bore? The only-begotten Son, who shone forth before all ages from the Father, the same came forth from you, Ο pure one. Ineffably He became incarnate being by nature God and became man by nature for our sakes; not being divided in two persons but known in two natures without confusion. Him do you beseech, Ο pure and blessed one, that He will have mercy on our souls [Tone 6].
This text obviously is meant to be a confession of faith as well as a prayer or a piece of religious poetry. Other boundlessly emotional hymns addressed to Mary, the Theotokos use Biblical images and symbols to describe her role in salvation history:
Hail, Ο earth unsown! Hail, Ο bush, which burned, yet was not consumed! Hail, Ο abyss unfathomable! Hail, Ο bridge leading to heaven and lofty ladder, which Jacob saw! Hail, Ο divine container of manna! Hail, Ο abrogation of the curse! Hail, Ο recall of Adam! The Lord is with you [Annunciation vespers].
emotionalism displayed by Byzantine hymnographers — the same ones who were able
to use the strictest possible theological language in other texts — is often an
expression of liturgical wisdom and common sense. The liturgy of the Church, a
sacred play involving the whole of man, must assume and transform all forms of
human feeling and must not be restricted to satisfying only his intellectual
capacity. The alternation and correlation between the various aspects of
religious experience is probably the secret of the lasting impact exercised by
This humaneness of Byzantine hymnography is also shown in the Triodion, a book for use during the Lenten period, composed in large part by Theodore the Studite and his immediate disciples. A monument of monastic spirituality, the Triodion assumes a patristic system of anthropology according to which man is truly man only when he is in real communion with God: then also is he truly free. In his present fallen state, however, man is a prisoner of Satan, and, as we saw in connection with the spiritual doctrine of Evagrius, his liberation and salvation presuppose the suppression of his “passions” — i.e., of that, which makes him love creatures rather than God. The way to “passionlessness” (apatheia) is through repentance:
Ο how many are the good things I miss! How beautiful was the Kingdom I lost through my passions! I spent the wealth I once possessed by transgressing the commandment. Alas, Ο impassionate soul! You were condemned to fire eternal. But before end comes, call on Christ, our God. Accept me as the prodigal son, Ο God, and have mercy on me [Sunday of the prodigal son, vespers].
Abstinence and asceticism are the tools proposed to fight passions; but even if the ascetic note is somewhat exaggerated, the true dimension of the Christian life and hope is never lost: “The Kingdom of God is neither food nor drink but joy in the Holy Spirit,” proclaims a stikheron of the first week of Lent; “Give money to the poor, have compassion on the suffering: this is the true fast, which pleases God.” Monastic-oriented asceticism does not make the authors lose sight of marriage, family life, and social responsibility:
Marriage is honourable, the couch is blameless; for Christ, in advance, blessed the one and the other by partaking food in the flesh and by changing water into wine in Cana... , so that you may change, Ο soul [Canon of Andrew of Crete, ode 9].
But all the
appeals to “repentance” and to “change” would be meaningless if a foretaste of
the blessed and joyful Kingdom to come is not also given. The triumphant hymns
of the paschal night, composed by John of Damascus, paraphrasing a paschal
sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus, are an immortal
This is the day of resurrection!
Let us shine joyfully, Ο peoples!
The Pascha of the Lord, the Paschal
From death to life, and from earth to heaven,
Christ has led us, and we sing hymns of victory.
Ο Christ, the great and holy Pascha, Ο wisdom, Word, and Power of God! Permit us to partake more fully of Thee in the unending day of Thy Kingdom.
1. “The Russian Primary Chronicle,” trans. S. H. Cross, Harvard Studies in Philology and Literature 12 (1930), 199.
2. A. Baumstark, Liturgie comparée (CheVtogne, 1953), pp. 109-113.
3. Ibid., pp. 104-106.
4. See A. Schmemann, “The Byzantine Synthesis,” Introduction to Liturgical Theology (London: Faith Press, 1966), pp. 116-166.
Palamas, Horn. 60; ed. S. Oikonomos (
6. Basil of
7. Louis Bouyer, Eucharist (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 302-303.
8. PG 119:1033.
9. Baumstark, Liturgie comparée, p. 124.
10. MS Patmos
266, published by A. Dmitrievsky, Opisanie Liturgi’cheskikh Rukopisei (
11. Symeon of Thessalonica; PG 155:556D.
12. Baumstark, Liturgie comparée, p. 114.
13. See M.
Skaballanovich, Tolkovyi Tipikon (
14. Basil of
15. See the Life of Auxentios, ActSS., Feb. 11, 770ff.
The historical outline found in the first nine chapters of this book
was an attempt to cover the theological controversies, the distinctive
tendencies, and the basic sources of the theological thought in
I have attempted to achieve this by adopting in the following chapters a plan of exposition which conforms to the content of the Christian experience itself: man, created and fallen, meets Christ, accepts the action of the Spirit, and is thus introduced into communion with the Triune God. The reader judges for himself whether this plan is or is not more adequate than the other to the subject matter itself.
Inevitably, a systematic exposition of doctrinal themes in Byzantine
theology requires frequent reference to writings, which sometimes fall outside
the chronological limits defined in the Introduction. It is impossible, for
example, to speak of either anthropology or Trinitarian theology in
It was also inevitable, on the other hand, that my treatment of the Byzantine authors be influenced by the fact that, as an Orthodox theologian, I personally see the great tradition of the undivided Church as continuing in Byzantium and through it carrying its message to modern times as well.
Patristic thought on creation developed within the framework of age-long polemics against Origenism. The issue in the debate was the Greek concept of an eternal cosmos and the Biblical linear view of history, which began with the creative fiat. The starting point of Origen’s view on the origin of the world was that the act of creation was an expression of God’s nature and that, since this nature is changeless, there could never be a “time” when God would not be creating. Consequently, the world has always existed because God’s goodness has always needed an object.1 In Origenism, eternity of creation was, in fact, ontologically indistinguishable from the eternity of the Logos. Both proceeded eternally from God. This identification led Arius after his rejecting the eternity of creation to the concept that the Logos had also been generated in time. The anti-Arian theology of Athanasius of Alexandria defined the categories which became standard in later Byzantine authors: the distinction between generation and creation.
For Athanasius,2 creation is an act of the will of God, and a will is ontologically distinct from nature. By nature, the Father generates the Son — and this generation is indeed beyond time — but creation occurs through the will of God, which means that God remains absolutely free to create or not to create and transcendent to the world after creating it. The absence of a distinction between the nature of God and the will of God was common to Origen and to Arius. To establish this distinction constitutes the main argument of Athanasius.
It is totally impossible to consider the Father without the Son because “the Son is not a creature, which comes into being by an act of will; by nature, He is the proper Son of the essence [of the Father].”3 The Son therefore is God by nature while “the nature of creatures, which come into being from nothing, is fluid, impotent, mortal, and composite.”4 Refuting the Arian’s idea that the Logos is created in view of the world, Athanasius affirms that “it is not He who was created for us, but we were created for Him.”5 In God, the order of nature precedes the order of volitive action6 and is both superior to and independent of it. Because God is what He is, He is not determined or in any way limited in what He does, not even by His own essence and being.
Divine “nature” and created “nature” are therefore separate and totally dissimilar modes of existence. The first is totally free from the second. Yet creatures depend upon God; they exist “by His grace, His will, and His word..., so that they can even cease to exist if the Creator so wishes.”7 In Athanasius, therefore, we have advanced quite far from Origen’s cosmos, which was considered a necessary expression of God’s goodness identified with divine nature itself. At this point one discovers that the notion of creation, as expressed by Athanasius, leads to a distinction in God between His transcendent essence and His properties, such as “power” or “goodness,” which express His existence and action ad extra, not His essence.
The difference in nature between God and His creatures, as well as the distinction between the “natural” generation of the Son by the Father, and creation “by act of will,” is emphasized by both Cyril of Alexandria8 and John of Damascus.9 The difference also represents the ontolojKcal raison d’etre of the Chalcedonian definition on the “two natures” of Christ. The two natures can be understood as being in “communion” with each other, as “hypostatically” united, but they can never be “confused” — i.e., considered as “one nature.”
Athanasius’ insistence on the transitory character of creation should not mislead us. What he wants to show is a contrast between the absolute, self-sufficient nature of God and the dependence upon Him of all created nature. He certainly does not want to reduce created existence to a mere “phenomenon.” God’s creative act produced a new “created” order, another “essence” distinct from His own, an “essence” worthy of God deserving of His love and concern and fundamentally “very good.” God does not create, as in Origen, simply a collection of equal intellects, which find a meaning of existence only in contemplating the essence of God and which are diversified only as a consequence of their Fall. Because creation is an essence and not simply a phantom or a mirage, there is a sense in which its meaning is found in itself, for even God “loves” the world, i.e., considers it as a reality vis-a-vis Himself. Even when it is assumed by the Logos in a hypostatic union, the created nature, according to the Chalcedonian definition, “preserves its properties.” The implication of this created autonomy was developed in particular by Maximus the Confessor and by the Orthodox theologians of the iconoclastic period. Let us only emphasize here that the very ideas of providence, love, and communion, which reflect the creator’s action toward the world, presuppose difference and distinction between Him and His creation.
Creation in time — i.e., the possibility of a true beginning of created existence — presents the major cleavage between Greek thought and Biblical Revelation. But the idea of an eternal plan which God put into effect when He created the world in time is not inconsistent with the concepts found in the Jewish “wisdom” literature, even more concretely in the Johannine theology of the Logos, and responds to at least some preoccupations of Greek philosophical thought.
Throughout its history, Byzantine theology, both “Greek” and Biblical as it was, struggled with the possibility of integrating into a consistent Christian view of creation, a theory of divine “ideas” about the world. The Platonic kosmos noẽtos had to be rejected inasmuch as it represented an eternal reality outside of God, both impersonal and “substantial,” which would have limited the absolute freedom of the creative act, exclude creation ex nihilo, and tend to diminish the substantial reality of visible creation by considering it only as a shadow of eternal realities. This rejection was accomplished implicitly by the condemnation of Origen in 553 and explicitly in the Synodal decisions against John Italos in 1081. Meanwhile, patristic and Byzantine thought developed in reaction to Origenism. Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, speaks of “images of the world” as thoughts of God.10 These “thoughts” do not limit the freedom of a personal God, since they remain distinct from His nature. Only when He creates in time, they become “reality.”11 The thoughts are the expressions also of divine will,12 not of divine nature; they are “perfect, eternal thoughts of an eternal God.”13 Since there cannot be anything created “in God,” the thoughts, or ideas about the world, are uncreated expressions of divine life, which represent the unlimited potentiality of divine freedom. God creates the world not “out of them” but out of nothing. The beginning of the world is the beginning of a totally new reality put forward by the act of creation, which comes from God and conforms to His eternal plan.
The existence in God of eternal, uncreated “potentiality,” which is not God’s essence, either the world’s nor an essence in itself, but which implies a certain contingency toward creation, presupposes an antinomical concept of God, which finds different forms of expression in Byzantine theology. To describe it, Georges Florovsky writes that “we have to distinguish as it are two modes of eternity: the essential eternity in which only the Trinity lives and the contingent eternity of the free acts of Divine grace.” 14 Actually on this point, Byzantine theology reached a direct sense of the difference between the impersonal philosophical notion of God as an absolute and the Biblical understanding of a God: personal transcendent and free.
To express the relationship between creator and creatures, the great Maximus the Confessor uses the old theology of the Logos as centre and living unity of the logos of creation. The terminology already existed in Philo and Origen. But whereas for Origen, the logoi as logoi exist only in an essential unity with the one Logos, for Maximus — their real and “logical” existence is also expressed in their diversity. The great difference between Origen and Maximus is that Maximus rejects Origen’s view of visible creation as diversified only through the Fall. The “goodness” of creation, according to Maximus, resides in creation itself, and not only in its unity with divine essence. But creation cannot be truly “good” unless its differentiated logoi, which pre-existed as “thoughts” and “wills” of God, are fixed in Him and preserve communion with the one “super-essential” divine Logos.15 Creatures therefore do not exist only “as logoi” or only by the fact that God eternally “knows them;” they exist “by themselves” from the very moment when God put His foreknowledge into action. In His thought, eternally, creatures exist only potentially while their actual existence occurs in time. This temporal, actual existence of created beings is not autonomous but centred in the one Logos and in communion with Him. There is a sense, therefore, in which “the one Logos is many logoi, and the many are one;” “the One is many according to creative and unifying procession of the One into the many, but the many are One according to the providence, which leads the many to turn up toward the One as their all-powerful principle.”16 Paradoxically, therefore, the creatures are one in the one Logos, who however is “super-essential” and above participation.17 “Thus, the logoi are, to Maximus, not identical either with the essence of God or with the existence of the things in the created world. In fact, an apophatic tendency is combined, in Maximus, with an anti-pantheistic tendency... This is affected, above all, thanks to the understanding of the logoi as decisions of God’s will.”18
By remaining faithful to the Athanasian distinction between nature and will, Maximus succeeds in building an authentically Christian ontology of creation, which remains throughout the history of Byzantine thought, a standard and virtually unchallenged authority.19 This ontology presupposes a distinction in God between “nature” (or “essence”) and “energy,” a distinction, which would later be called “Palamism.” It presumes a personal and dynamic understanding of God as well as a dynamic, or “energetic,” conception of created nature.
For Origen, the original, intellectual creation is static. It finds its true logical existence in the contemplation of God’s essence, and its first movement is a form of rebellion against God. Change and diversity in creation are consequences of the Fall and therefore fundamentally evil. For Maximus and the entire Byzantine theological tradition, the movement (kynesis) of creatures is the necessary and natural consequence of their creation by God.20 God therefore in creating the world placed outside of Himself a system of dynamic beings, which were different from Him in that they changed and moved toward Him.21 The logos of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active;22 there is no “nature” without “energy” or movement.
This dynamic conception of created nature constitutes Maximus’ main argument against the “Monoenergists” of the seventh century whose Christology consideres Christ’s humanity as having lost its genuinely human “energy” or will because of its union with divinity. But for Maximus, created nature would lose its very existence if it is deprived of its proper energy, its proper purpose, and its proper dynamic identity. This proper movement of nature however can be fully itself only if it follows its proper goal (skopos), which consists in striving for God, entering into communion with Him, and thus fulfilling the logos, or divine purpose, though which and for which it is created. The true purpose of creation is, therefore, not contemplation of divine essence (which is inaccessible) but communion in divine energy, transfiguration, and transparency to divine action in the world. We shall discuss later the anthropological and Christological dimensions of this concept of creation. But it also has obvious cosmological implications.
In general, the Byzantines accepted cosmological concepts inherited from the Bible or from antiquity. So hesitant were to push scientific knowledge further that it had even been written that “the meager accomplishment of the Byzantines in the natural sciences remains one of the mysteries of the Greek Middle Ages.”23 In any case, it does not seem that Byzantine theology is to blame for that failure, for theology affirmes the dynamism of nature and therefore containes the fundamental incentive for studying and eventually controlling its development.
During the entire Byzantine Middle Ages, Basil’s homilies On the Hexaemeron were the standard and most authoritative text on the origin, structure, and development of the world. Supporting Athanasius’ opposition to the Hellenic and Origenistic concept of creation as an eternal cyclical repetition of worlds and affirming creation in time, Basil maintains the reality of a created movement and dynamism in creatures. The creatures do not simply receive their form and diversity from God; they possess energy, certainly also God-given, but authentically their own. “Let the earth bring forth” (Gn ): “this short commandment,” says Basil, “immediately became a great reality and a creative logos, putting forth, in a way, which transcended our understanding, the innumerable varieties of plants... Thus, the order of nature, having received its beginning from the first commandment, enters the period of following time until it achieves the overall formation of the universe.”24 Using scientific knowledge as it existed in his time as well as the Stoic terminology of the “seminal reasons,” Basil remains theologically independent from his non-Biblical sources. For example, he rejects the Stoic idea that the logoi of creatures are the true eternal essences of beings, a concept which could lead to the eternal return “of worlds after their destruction.”25 Like Athanasius and Maximus, Basil remains faithful to the Biblical concept of absolute divine transcendence and freedom in the act of creation; divine providence, which gives being to the world through the logoi, also maintains it in existence but not at the expense of the world’s own created dynamism, which is part of the creative plan itself.
The existence of the world as dynamic “nature” (i.e., as a reality “outside of” God — for whom it is an object of love and providence), following its own order of evolutive growth and development, implies the possibility of purely objective scientific investigation of creatures by the human mind. This does not mean however that created nature is ontologically “autonomous.” It has been created in order to “participate” in God, who is not only the prime mover and the goal of creation but also the ultimate meaning (logos) of its permanence. “God is the principle, the centre and the end,” writes Maximus, “insofar as He acts without being passive... He is the principle as creator, He is the centre as providence, and He is the end as conclusion, for all things come from him, by him, and toward him [Rm ll:36].”26 A scientific knowledge, which would ignore this ultimate meaning of creation, would therefore be dangerously one-sided.
In its present, defective state, created nature fulfils its destiny quite inadequately. The Biblical, anthropocentric concept of the world is preserved in Greek patristic literature: nature suffers from the Fall of man, the “microcosm,” to whom God has granted the control of nature and who, instead, prefers to be controlled by it. As a result instead of revealing through its internal meaning (logos) and purpose (skopos), the divine plan for creation and through this — God Himself, nature became the domain and instrument of Satan: throughout creation, the “natural energy,” which conforms to the original divine plan, is in struggle with the destructive forces of death. The dramatic character of the present existence of creation is generally taken for granted by Byzantine theologians, but it is most explicitly formulated in liturgy and spirituality.
The Byzantine rite of Baptism has inherited from Christian antiquity the strong initial emphasis on exorcism. The deliberate renunciation of Satan, the sacramental expulsion of the forces of evil from the soul of the candidate for baptism, implies a passage from slavery under the “prince of this world” to freedom in Christ. Liturgical exorcisms however are concerned not only with the demonic forces controlling the human soul. The “Great Blessing of Water” on the Feast of the Epiphany exorcises the cosmos whose basic element, water, is seen as a refuge of “nestling dragons.” The frequent mention of the demonic forces of the universe in liturgical and patristic texts should be understood in a theological context, for they cannot be reduced to Biblical or Medieval mythologies alone even if they often reflect mythological beliefs. The “demonic” in nature comes from the fact that creation has fallen out of its original meaning and direction. God had entrusted control over the world to man — His own “image and likeness.” But man chose to be controlled by the world and thereby lost his freedom. He then became subject to cosmic determinism to which his “passions” attach him and in which ultimate power belongs to death. This is the interpretation which Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus apply to the passage of Genesis 3:21 about the “garments of skin” given to Adam and Eve after the Fall. Rejecting Origen’s identification of the “garments” with material bodies — an interpretation based upon the Origenistic idea on the pre-existence of souls, Maximus describes the change in man’s situation only in terms of a new dependence upon the animal side of the world’s existence. Instead of using the potentialities of his nature to raise himself and the whole of creation to God, man submitted himself to the desires of his material senses.27 As a result, the world which was originally created by God, as “very good” became for man a prison and a constant temptation, through which the “prince of this world” establishes his reign of death.
By sanctifying water, food, and plants as well as the results of man’s own creativity such as works of art or technology (the Byzantine liturgy is very rich in sacramental actions of sanctification, or blessing), the Church replaces them all in their original and true relation, not only to God but also to man, who is God’s “image,” to proclaim God’s control over the universe as the Blessing of Epiphany does, and amounts, in fact, to affirming that man is no longer a slave to cosmic forces:
The immaterial powers tremble before Thee; the sun praises Thee; and the moon worships Thee; the stars are Thy servants; and light bows to Thy will; the tempests tremble and the springs adore Thee. Thou didst spread out the heavens like a tent; Thou didst set the land upon the waters... [Therefore,] heeding the depth of Thy compassion, Ο Master, Thou couldst not bear to see humanity defeated by the devil, and so Thou didst come and didst save us. ... Thou didst free the children of our nature...
Thus, sanctification of nature implies its demystification. For a Christian, the forces of nature cannot be divine; neither can they be subject to any form of natural determinism: the resurrection of Christ by breaking the laws of nature has liberated man from slavery to nature, and he is called to realize his destiny as lord of nature in God’s name.
Byzantine liturgy, when it proclaims the sanctification of the cosmos,
frequently mentions, not only the demonic powers, which have usurped authority
over the world but also the “bodiless powers of heaven,” cooperates with God and
man in the restoration of the original and “natural” order in the world. Yet
In spite of its very widespread but rather peripheral influence, the Dionysian concept of the angelic world never succeeded in eliminating the more ancient and more Biblical ideas about the angels. Particularly, striking is the opposition between the very minor role ascribed by Dionysius to the “archangels” (second rank from the bottom of the angelic hierarchy) and the concept found in Jewish apocalyptic writings including Daniel, Jude, and Revelation where the archangels Michael and Gabriel rank is the “chief captains” of God’s celestial armies. This idea has been preserved in the liturgy, which should be considered as the main and most reliable source of Byzantine “angelology.”
Involved in the struggle against the demonic powers of the cosmos, the angels represent, in a way, the ideal side of creation. According to Byzantine theologians, they were created before the visible world,28 and their essential function is to serve God and His image, man. The scriptural idea that the angels perpetually praise God (Is 6:3; Lk ) is a frequent theme of the Byzantine liturgy, especially of the Eucharistic canons, which call the faithful to join the choir of angels — i.e., to recover their original fellowship with God. This reunion of heaven and earth, anticipated in the Eucharist, is the eschatological goal of the whole of creation. The angels contribute to its preparation by participating invisibly in the life of the cosmos.
1. Origcn, De principiis, I, 2, 10; cd. Koctschau, pp. 41-42; trans. Butterworth, p. 23.
2. Sec G. Florovsky, “The Concept of Creation in Saint Athanasius,” Studia Patrisiica VI, part IV, TU 81 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1962), 36-37.
3. Athanasius, Contra Arianos, III, 60; PG 26:448-449.
4. Contra Gentes, 41; PG 25:81CD.
5. Contra Arianos. II, 31; PG 26:212B.
6. Ibid., II, 2; PG26:149c.
7. Ibid., I, 20; PG 26:55A.
8. See, for example, Thesaurus, 15; PG 75:276B; ibid., 18; PG 75:313C.
9. De fide orth., I, 8; PG 94:812-813.
10. See especially Gregory of Nazianzus, Cartn. theol IV de mundo, V, 67-68; PG 37:421.
11. John of
12. Ibid., I, 9; PG 94:837.
13. Maximus the Confessor, Schol.; PG 4:317.
14. Georges Florovsky, “The Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy,” EChurchQ 8 (1949), 67.
15. See Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, pp. 76-84.
16. Maximus the Confessor, Amb. 7; PG 91:1081c.
17. lbid.; PG 91:1081B.
18. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p. 81.
19. See S. L.
Epifanovich, Prepodobnyi Matksim
lspovednik i Vizantiiskoe bogoslovie (
20. See J. Meyendorfr, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus, 1969), pp. 100-102.
21. See Maximus
the Confessor, Ad
22. Maximus the Confessor, Amb.; PG 91:1057B.
23. Milton V. Anastos, “The History of Byzantine Science: Report on the Dumbarton Oaks Symposium of 1961,” Dumbarton Oakjs Papers 16 (1962), 411.
24. Basil of
25. Ibid., 3; PG 29:73C.
26. Maximus the Confessor, Cap. gnostica, I, 10; PG 91:1085D-1088A.
27. See, in
particular, Maximus the Confessor, Ad
28. Gregory Nazianzus, Or. 38, 9; PG 36:320C; John of Damascus, De fide orth.; II, 3; PG 94:873.
The view of man prevailing in the Christian East is based upon the notion of “participation” in God. Man has not been created as an autonomous or self-sufficient being; his very nature is truly itself only inasmuch as it exists “in God” or “in grace.” Grace therefore gives man his “natural” development. This basic presupposition explains why the terms “nature” and “grace” when used by Byzantine authors have a meaning quite different from the Western usage; rather than being in direct opposition, the terms “nature” and “grace” express a dynamic, living, and necessary relationship between God and man, different by their natures but in communion with each other through God’s energy, or grace. Yet man is the centre of creation — a “microcosm,” and his free self-determination defines the ultimate destiny of the universe.
According to Maximus the Confessor, God in creating man “communicated” to him four of His own properties: being, eternity, goodness, and wisdom.1 Of these four divine properties, the first two belong to the very essence of man; the third and the fourth are merely offered to man’s willful aptitude.
The idea that his “participation” in God is man’s particular privilege is expressed in various ways but consistently, in the Greek patristic tradition. Irenaeus, for example, writes that man is composed of three elements: body, soul, and Holy Spirit;2 and the Cappadocian Fathers speak of an “efflux” of the Holy Spirit in man.3 Gregory of Nyssa in his treatise On the Creation of Man in discussing man before the Fall attributes to him the “beatitude of immortality,” “justice,” “purity.” “God is love,” writes Gregory, “and source of love. The creator of our nature has also imparted to us the character of love... If love is absent, all the elements of the image are deformed.”4 Jean Danielou’s comments on this passage may, in fact, be extended to Greek patristic thought as a whole:
Gregory identifies realities which Western theology considers distinct. He ascribes to man certain traits such as reason or freedom which the West attributes to the [created] spirit; others such as apatheia or love (called grace by Westerners), he attributed to divine life as well as the effects of final glorification: incorruptibility and beatitude. For Gregory, the distinctions do not exist.5
Thus, the most important aspect of Greek patristic anthropology, which is taken for granted by the Byzantine theologians throughout the Middle Ages, is the concept that man is not an autonomous being, his true humanity is realized only when he lives ‘in God” and possesses divine qualities. To express this idea, various authors use various terminologies: Origenistic, Neo-Platonic, or Biblical; yet there is a consensus on the essential openness of man, a concept, which does not fit into the Western categories of “nature” and “grace.”
As we have seen in the passage of Maximus’ citation at the beginning of this section, the “natural” participation of man in God is not a static giveness; it is a challenge, and man is called to grow in divine life. Divine life is a gift but also a task, which is to be accomplished by a free human effort. This polarity between the “gift” and the “task” is often expressed in terms of the distinction between the concepts of “image” and “likeness.” In Greek, the term homoiōsis, which corresponds to “likeness” in Genesis , suggests the idea of dynamic progress (“assimilation”) and implies human freedom. To use an expression of Gregory Palamas’: Adam, before the Fall, possessed “the ancient dignity of freedom.”6 Thus, there is no opposition between freedom and grace in the Byzantine tradition: the presence in man of divine qualities, of a “grace,” which is part of his nature and makes him fully man, neither destroys his freedom nor limits the necessity for him to become fully himself by his own effort; rather, it secures that cooperation, or synergy, between the divine will and human choice, which makes possible the progress “from glory to glory” and the assimilation of man to the divine dignity for which he was created.
The understanding of man as an “open being” naturally possessing in him a divine “spark” and dynamically oriented toward further progress in God has direct implications for the theory of knowledge and particularly for the theory of the knowledge of God. Western Scholasticism has assumed that this knowledge is based upon revealed premises — Scripture or church magisterium, — which serve as a basis for development by the human mind in conformity with the principles of Aristotelian logic. This concept of theology, which presupposes the autonomy of the human mind in defining Christian truths on the basis of Revelation, is the initial issue in the controversy between Barlaam the Calabrian and Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century. According to Barlaam, the natural human mind could never reach divine truth itself but only draw conclusions from revealed premises. In cases when revealed premises specifically affirmed a given proposition, a logical intellectual process could lead to “apodictic” conclusions, i.e., to intellectually evident truths. If a theological affirmation could not be based on revealed premises however it could not be considered as “demonstrated” but only as “dialectically possible.” To refute these views, Palamas developed an experiential concept of our knowledge of God based upon the notion that God is not known through a purely intellectual process, but that man when he is in communion with God (i.e., restored to his natural state) can and even must enjoy a direct knowledge and experience of his creator. This direct knowledge is possible because man since he is not an autonomous being but an image of God “open upward” possesses the natural property of transcending himself and of reaching the divine. This property is not simply intellectual; it implies purification of the whole being, ascetical detachment, and ethical progress: “It is impossible to possess God in oneself,” writes Palamas, “or to experience God in purity, or to be united with the unmixed light unless one purify oneself through virtue, unless one get out or rather above oneself.”7
Obviously, this Palamite understanding of knowledge coincides with Gregory of Nyssa’s concepts of “the sense of the heart” or the “eyes of the soul”8 and with Maximus’ identification of the knowledge of God with “deification.” For the entire patristic and Byzantine tradition, knowledge of God implies “participation” in God — i.e., not only intellectual knowledge but a state of the entire human being transformed by grace and freely cooperating with it by the efforts of both will and mind. In the monastic tradition of Macarius, reflected, for example, in the writings of Symeon the New Theologian, this idea of “participation” is inseparable from the idea of freedom and of consciousness. A true Christian knows God through a free and conscious experience; this is precisely the friendship with God, which was man’s state before the Fall, the state in which God wanted man to live, and which was restored in Jesus Christ.
The “image and likeness” of God in man implies, not only an openness of man toward God, but also a function and task of man in the whole of creation.
Against Origen, the Fathers unanimously affirmed that man is a unity of soul and body. On this point, the Biblical view decidedly overcame Platonic spiritualism; by the same sign, the visible world and its history were recognized as worthy of salvation and redemption. If, in the Origenistic system, the diversity of visible phenomena was only a consequence of the Fall and of the bodily nature of man — an “engrossed” and defective mode of the soul’s existence, the only true and eternal reality being spiritual and divine, — the Biblical and Christian concept understood the universe in its entirety as “very good;” and this concept applied first of all to man.
According to Maximus the Confessor, body and soul are complementary and
cannot exist separately.9 If primarily directed against the
Origenistic idea of the pre-existence of souls, this affirmation raises the
issue of the soul’s survival after death. This survival is not denied, of
course, but neither is it understood as “liberation” from the body, in a
Platonic sense. The separation of body and soul at death is as contrary to
“nature” as death itself, and the ultimate and eternal survival of the soul is
possible only if the whole man is raised from death at the resurrection. Yet the
soul’s immortality is not only directed toward the resurrection of the whole
man; it is also conditioned by the soul’s relationship to God. The spiritual
literature of the Byzantine East frequently speaks of the “death of the soul” as
a consequence of rebellion against God, i.e., of sin. “After the transgression
of our ancestors in
Obviously, the dual nature of man is not simply a static juxtaposition of two heterogeneous elements, a mortal body and an immortal soul; it reflects a dynamic function of man between God and creation. Describing the anthropology of Maximus, Lars Thunberg is fully justified when he writes, “Maximus seems to stress the independence of the elements [i.e., soul and body], not primarily in order to maintain the immortality of the soul in spite of its relationship to the body but in order to underline the creative will of God as the only constitutive factor for both as well as for their unity.”11 We are here back to the point made at the beginning of this section: man is truly man because he is the image of God, and the divine factor in man concerns not only his spiritual aspect — as Origen and Evagrius maintained — but the whole of man, soul and body.
This last point is the reason why a majority of Byzantine theologians describe man in terms of a trichotomist scheme: spirit (or mind), soul, and body. Their trichotomism is very directly connected with the notion of participation in God as the basis of anthropology.
We have seen that this theocentrism appears in Irenaeus’ use of Pauline trichotomism: Spirit, soul, and body.12 Under Origenistic influence, the Fathers of the fourth century, followed by the later Byzantine authors, preferred to speak of mind (nous), soul, and body. The desire to avoid ambiguity concerning the identity of the “spirit” and to affirm the created character of the human “spirit” may also have contributed to this evolution. But even then, Origenistic and Evagrian terminology was unsatisfactory because the concept of the nous was connected with the myth of eternal pre-existence, original, Fall and disincarnate restoration. Although it reflected satisfactorily the theocentric aspect of patristic anthropology, this terminology failed to emphasize the function of man in the visible world. Thus, in Maximus the Confessor, the human mind, though certainly understood as the element par excellence connecting man with God, is also seen as a created function of man’s created psychosomatic unity.
The nous, therefore, is not so much a “part” of man as (1) the ability which man possesses to transcend himself in order to participate in God, (2) the unity of man’s composite nature when it faces his ultimate destiny in God and in the world, and (3) the freedom of man, which can either fully develop if it finds God or become defective if it submits itself to the body. “The spirit (nous) in human nature corresponds most nearly to the person,” writes Vladimir Lossky.13 The judgment of Lars Thunberg on Maximus is valid for the entire Byzantine tradition: “Maximus is able to express his conviction that there is a personal aspect in man’s life, which goes, as it were, beyond his nature and represents his inner unity as well as his relationship to God.”14 This concept of the person or hypostasis, irreducible to nature or to any part of it, is a central notion in both theology and anthropology, as we shall see later in connection with the doctrine of the Trinity.
As image of God, man is lord of creation and “microcosm.” This second concept, which is widely used in Platonism and Stoicism, is adopted by the Cappadocian Fathers and given a Christian dimension: man is a “microcosm” because (1) he unites in his hypostatic existence the intelligible and sensible aspects of creation, (2) he is given by God the task and function to make this unity ever more perfect, especially after the Fall, when forces of disintegration and division are also actively at work in creation. On this point and especially in Maximus the Confessor, we find another aspect of the polarity of image-likeness: God’s gift to man is also a task and a challenge.
Maximus in a famous passage of Ambigua 41:16 lists five polarities, which are to be overcome by man: God and creation, the intelligible and the sensible, heaven and earth, paradise and world, man and woman. The polarities have been sharpened by sin and rendered insuperable by human capabilities alone. Only the man Jesus, because He is also God, is able to overcome them. He is the new Adam; and in Him, creation again finds communion with the creator and harmony within itself.
The central role of man in the cosmos is also reflected — better perhaps than in any system of concepts — in the Byzantine liturgy with its emphasis on the union of heaven and earth, its sacramental realism, its rites of blessing food, nature, and human life as well as in the affirmation that by nature man is closer to God than the angels themselves are. The idea originates in Hebrews 1:14 and is developed by Gregory Palamas in the context of an Incarnational theology: “The Word became flesh to honour the flesh, even this mortal flesh; therefore, the proud spirits should not consider themselves and should not be considered worthy of greater honours than man nor should they deify themselves on account of their incorporality and their apparent immortality.”16
Among creatures, there is no greater glory than to be the lord of all creation: man is given this glory if he preserves in himself the image of God — i.e., if he partakes in the life and glory of the creator Himself.
In order to understand many major theological problems, which arose between East and West both before and after the schism, the extraordinary impact upon Western thought of Augustine’s polemics against Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum must be fully taken into account. In the Byzantine world where Augustinian thought exercised practically no influence, the significance of the sin of Adam and of its consequences for mankind was understood along quite different lines.
We have seen that in the East man’s relationship with God was understood as a communion of the human person with that, which is above nature. “Nature” therefore designates that, which is, in virtue of creation, distinct from God. But nature can and must be transcended; this is the privilege and the function of the free mind made “according to God’s image.”
Now, in Greek patristic thought, only this free, personal mind can commit sin and incur the concomitant “guilt” — a point made particularly clear by Maximus the Confessor in his distinction between “natural will” and “gnomic will.” Human nature as God’s creature always exercises its dynamic properties (which together constitute the “natural will” — a created dynamism) in accordance with the divine will, which creates it. But when the human person, or hypostasis, by rebelling against both God and nature misuses its freedom, it can distort the “natural will” and thus corrupt nature itself. It is able to do so because it possesses freedom, or “gnomic will,” which is capable of orienting man toward the good and of “imitating God” (“God alone is good by nature,” writes Maximus, “and only God’s imitator is good by his gnome”);17 it is also capable of sin because “our salvation depends on our will.”18 But sin is always a personal act and never an act of nature.19 Patriarch Photius even goes so far as to say, referring to Western doctrines, that the belief in a “sin of nature” is a heresy.20
From these basic ideas about the personal character of sin, it is evident that the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin; there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a “sin of nature,” although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin.
The Greek patristic understanding of man never denies the unity of mankind or replaces it with a radical individualism. The Pauline doctrine of the two Adams (“As in Adam all men die, so also in Christ all are brought to life” [1 Co 15:22]) as well as the Platonic concept of the ideal man leads Gregory of Nyssa to understand Genesis 1:27 — “God created man in His own image” — to refer to the creation of mankind as a whole.21 It is obvious therefore that the sin of Adam must also be related to all men, just as salvation brought by Christ is salvation for all mankind; but neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual’s life without involving his personal and free responsibility.
The scriptural text, which played a decisive role in the polemics between Augustine and the Pelagians, is found in Romans 5:12 where Paul speaking of Adam writes, “As sin came into the world through one man and through sin and death, so death spreads to all men because all men have sinned [eph ho pantes hemarton]” In this passage there is a major issue of translation. The last four Greek words were translated in Latin as in quo omnes peccaverunt (“in whom [i.e., in Adam] all men have sinned”), and this translation was used in the West to justify the doctrine of guilt inherited from Adam and spread to his descendants. But such a meaning cannot be drawn from the original Greek — the text read, of course, by the Byzantines. The form eph ho — a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho — can be translated as “because,” a meaning accepted by most modern scholars of all confessional backgrounds.22 Such a translation renders Paul’s thought to mean that death, which is “the wages of sin” (Rm 6:23) for Adam, is also the punishment applied to those who like him sin. It presupposed a cosmic significance of the sin of Adam, but did not say that his descendants are “guilty” as he was unless they also sinned as he did.
A number of Byzantine authors, including Photius, understood the eph ho to mean “because” and saw nothing in the Pauline text beyond a moral similarity between Adam and other sinners in death being the normal retribution for sin. But there is also the consensus of the majority of Eastern Fathers, who interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with 1 Corinthians 15:22 — between Adam and his descendants there is a solidarity in death just as there is a solidarity in life between the risen Lord and the baptized. This interpretation comes obviously from the literal, grammatical meaning of Romans 5:12. Eph ho, if it means “because,” is a neuter pronoun; but it can also be masculine referring to the immediately preceding substantive thanatos (“death”). The sentence then may have a meaning, which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning which most Greek Fathers accepted: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned...”
Mortality, or “corruption,” or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed since Christian antiquity as a cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is “the murderer from the beginning” (Jn ). It is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense “corrupts” nature.
Cyril of Alexandria, humanity after the sin of Adam “fell sick of
corruption.”23 Cyril’s opponents, the theologians of the
There is indeed a consensus in Greek patristic and Byzantine traditions in identifying the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than of sinfulness, sinfulness being merely a consequence of mortality. The idea appears in Chrysostom in the eleventh-century commentator Theophylact of Ohrida27, who specifically denies the imputation of sin to the descendants of Adam,26 and in later Byzantine authors, particularly in Gregory Palamas.28 The always-more-sophisticated Maximus the Confessor, when he speaks of the consequences of the sin of Adam, identifies them mainly with the mind’s submission to the flesh and finds in sexual procreation the most obvious expression of man’s acquiescence in animal instincts; but as we have seen, sin remains, for Maximus, a personal act, and inherited guilt is impossible.29 For him as for the others, “the wrong choice but not inherited guilt made by Adam brought in passion, corruption, and mortality.”30
The contrast with Western tradition on this point is brought into sharp focus when Eastern authors discuss the meaning of baptism. Augustine’s arguments in favour of infant baptism were taken from the text of the creeds (baptism for “the remission of sins”) and from his understanding of Romans . Children are born sinful not because they have sinned personally, but because they have sinned “in Adam;” their baptism is therefore also a baptism “for the remission of sins.” At the same time, an Eastern contemporary of Augustine’s, Theodoret of Cyrus, flatly denies that the creedal formula “for the remission of sins” is applicable to infant baptism. For Theodoret, in fact, the “remission of sins” is only a side effect of baptism, fully real in cases of adult baptism, which is the norm, of course, in the early Church and which indeed “remits sins.” But the principal meaning of baptism is wider and more positive: “If the only meaning of baptism is the remission of sins,” writes Theodoret, “why would we baptize the newborn children who have not yet tasted of sin? But the mystery [of baptism] is not limited to this; it is a promise of greater and more perfect gifts. In it, there are the promises of future delights; it is a type of the future resurrection, a communion with the master’s passion, a participation in His resurrection, a mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or rather it is light itself.”31
the Church baptizes children not to “remit” their yet nonexistent sins but in
order to give them a new and immortal life, which their mortal parents are
unable to communicate to them. The opposition between the two
In this perspective, death and mortality are viewed not as much as retribution for sin (although they are also a just retribution for personal sins) but as means through which the fundamentally unjust “tyranny” of the devil is exercised over mankind after Adam’s sin. From this, baptism is liberation because it gives access to the new immortal life brought into the world by Christ’s Resurrection. The Resurrection delivers men from the fear of death and, therefore, also from the necessity of struggling for existence. Only in the light of the risen Lord the Sermon on the Mount does acquire its full realism: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body — more than clothing?” (Mt6:25).
Communion in the risen body of Christ, participation in divine life, sanctification through the energy of God, which penetrates true humanity and restores it to its “natural” state rather than justification, or remission of inherited guilt, — these are at the centre of Byzantine understanding of the Christian Gospel.
As early as Justin and Irenaeus, primitive Christian tradition established a parallel between Genesis 2 and the Lucan account of the Annunciation and the contrast between two virgins, Eve and Mary, to symbolize two possible uses of created freedom by man: in the first — a surrender to the devil’s offer of false deification, in the second — humble acceptance of the will of God.
Although it was superseded after the Council of Ephesus by the veneration of Mary as Mother of God, or Theotokos, the concept of the New Eve, who on behalf of all fallen humanity was able to accept the corning of the new “dispensation,” was present in the patristic tradition throughout the Byzantine period. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (434-446), frequently used the idea in his homilies. The Virgin Mary is viewed as the goal of Old Testament history, which began with the children of Eve: “Among the children of Adam, God chose the admirable Seth,” writes Palamas, “and so the election, which had in view by divine foreknowledge her who should have become the Mother of God, had its origin in the children of Adam themselves, filled up in the successive generations, descended as far as the King and Prophet David... When it came to the time when this election should have find its fulfilment, Joachim and Anna, of the house and country of David, were chosen by God. ... It was to them that God now promised and gave the child who would be the Mother of God.”32
The election of the Virgin Mary is therefore the culminating point of Israel’s progress toward reconciliation with God, but God’s final response to this progress and the beginning of new life comes with the Incarnation of the Word. Salvation needed “a new root,” writes Palamas in the same homily, “for no one, except God, is without sin; no one can give life; no one can remit sins.”33 This “new root” is God the Word made flesh; the Virgin Mary is His “temple.”
Byzantine homiletic and hymnographical texts often praise the Virgin as “fully prepared,” “cleansed,” and “sanctified.” But these texts were to be understood in the context of the doctrine of original sin, which prevailed in the East: the inheritance from Adam was mortality, not guilt, and there was never any doubt among Byzantine theologians that Mary was indeed a mortal being.
preoccupation of Western theologians to find in
Quotations can easily be multiplied, and they give clear indications that the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it has been defined in 1854 if only they shared the Western doctrine of original sin. But it should be remembered — especially in the context of the poetical, emotional, or rhetorical exaggerations characteristic of Byzantine liturgical Mariology — that such concepts as “purity” and “holiness” could easily be visualized even in the framework of pre-Christian humanity, which is considered as mortal but not necessarily “guilty.” In the case of Mary, her response to the angel and her status as the “new Eve” gave to her a special relation to the “new race” born of her. Yet never does one read in Byzantine authors any statement, which would imply that she receives a special grace of immortality. Only such a statement would clearly imply that her humanity does not share the common lot of the descendants of Adam.
order to maintain a fully balanced view of Byzantine Mariology, it is necessary
to keep in mind the essentially Christological framework of the veneration of
the Theotofos in
one, of course, would have dared to accuse the great Chrysostom of impiety. So
What greater honour could be rendered to a human being? What clearer basis could be found for a Christian theocentric anthropology?
1. Maximus the Confessor, De Char., III, 25; PG 90:1024BC.
2. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 5, 6, 1.
3. Gregory of Nazianzus, Carm.; PG 37:452.
4. Gregory of Nyssa, De opif. horn. 5; PG 44:137C.
5. Jean Danielou, Platonisme et theologie mystique (Paris: Aubier, 1944), p. 54.
Palamas, Triads, I, 1, 9; ed. J. MeyendorfT (
7. Ibid.; ed. MeyendorfT, p. 203.
8. See Danielou, Platonisme et theologie mystique, pp. 240-241.
9. Maximus the Confessor, Amb. 7; PG 91:1109CD.
10. Gregory Palamas, Horn. 11; PG 151.-125A; see other references in J. Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: Faith Press, 1964), pp. 122-124.
11. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p. 103.
12. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 5, 6, 1.
13. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology, p. 201.
14. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p. 119.
15. Maximus the Confessor, Amb.t 41; PG 91:1305D.
16. Gregory Palamas, Horn. 16; PG 157:204A.
17. De Char., IV, 90; PG 90:1069C.
18. Maximus the Confessor, Liber Asceticus; PG 90:953B.
19. Maximus the Confessor, Expos, or. dom.; PG 90:905A; on this, see J. Meyendorfl, Christ, pp. 112-113.
20. Photius, Library, 177; ed. R. Henry (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1960), 2:177.
21. Gregory of Nyssa, De opif. horn. 16; PG 44:185u.
22. Sec Joseph A.
Fitzmeyer, s.j., in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice-Hall, 1968) 53:56-57 (II, pp. 307-308): “The meaning of the phrase eph’ hõ is much disputed. The least
convincing interpretations treat it as a strict rel[ative] phrase: (1) ‘in
whom,’ an interpretation based on the [Vulgate] translation, ‘in quo,’ and
commonly used in the
23. Cyril of
24. Theodore of
25. Theodoret of
26. John Chrysostom, In Rom. horn. 10; PG 60:474-475.
of Ohrida, Exp. in
28. See J. Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas, pp. 121-126.
29. See Epifanovich, Prepodobnyi Maksim Ispovednik i Vizantiiskoe bogoslovie, p. 65n5.
30. Maximus the Confessor, Quaest. ad Thai, PG 90:40SBC.
31. Theodoret of Cyrus, Haeret. fabul. compendium, ; PG 83:512.
Palamas, Horn, in Present., 6-7; ed. Oikonomos (
33. Ibid., 2; p. 122.
34. Sophronius of
35. Andrew of
36. Nicholas Cabasilas, Horn, in Dorm., 4; PG 19:498.
Scholarios, Qeuvres completes de Georges Scholarios, edd. J. Petit and M. Jugie
38. John Chrysostom, Horn. 44 in Matt.; PG 57:464; Horn. 21 in Jn 2; PG 59:131.
Byzantine Christology has always been dominated by the categories of thought and the terminology of the great controversies of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries about the person and identity of Jesus Christ. As we have shown in Part I, these controversies involves conceptual problems as well as the theological basis of life. In the mind of Eastern Christians, the entire content of the Christian faith depends upon the way in which the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” is answered.
The five ecumenical councils, which issued specific definitions on the relationship between the divine and the human natures in Christ, had at times been viewed as a pendulant development: from the emphasis on the divinity of Christ, at Ephesus (431), to the reaffirmation of His full humanity, at Chalcedon (451), then back to His divinity with the acceptance of Cyril’s idea of Theopaschism, at Constantinople (553); followed by a new awareness of His human “energy” or “will,” again at Constantinople (680), and of His human quality of describability in the anti-iconoclastic definition of Nicaea n (787). Still, this opinion is often expressed in Western theological literature that Byzantine Christology is crypto-Monophysite and offered as an explanation for the lack of concern among Eastern Christians for man in his secular or social creativity. We hope that the following discussion sheds some light on these frequently recurring issues.
To affirm that God became man and that His humanity possesses all the characteristics proper to human nature, it implies that the Incarnation is a cosmic event. Man was created as the master of the cosmos and called by the creator to draw all creation to God. His failure to do so was a cosmic catastrophe, which could be repaired only by the creator Himself.
Moreover, the fact of the Incarnation implies that the bond between God and man, which has been expressed in the Biblical concept of “image and likeness,” is unbreakable. The restoration of creation is a “new creation,” but it does not establish a new pattern, so far as man is concerned; it reinstates man in his original divine glory among creatures and in his original responsibility for the world. It reaffirms that man is truly man when he participates in the life of God; that he is not autonomous either in relation to God nor in relation to the world; that true human life can never be “secular.” In Jesus Christ, God and man are one; in Him, therefore, God becomes accessible not by superseding or eliminating the humanum, but by realizing and manifesting humanity in its purest and most authentic form.
The Incarnation of the Logos was very consistently considered by Byzantine theologians as having a cosmic significance. The cosmic dimension of the Christ-event is expressed particularly well in Byzantine hymnology: “Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: the Angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother.”1 The connection between creation and the Incarnation is constantly emphasized in the hymns: “Man fell from the divine and better life; though made in the image of God, through transgression he became wholly subject to corruption and decay. But now the wise Creator fashions him anew; for He has been glorified.”2 Similarly, the hymnology of Good Friday stresses the involvement of creation as a whole in the death of Christ: “The sun beholding Thee upon the Cross covered itself with gloom; the earth trembled for fear...”3
Thus, poetic images reflect the parallelism between Genesis 1:2 and John 1. The coming of Christ is the Incarnation of the Logos “through whom” all things are made: it is a new creation, but the creator is the same. Against the Gnostics, who professed a dualism distinguishing the God of the Old Testament from the Father of Jesus, patristic tradition affirmed their absolute identity and therefore the essential “goodness” of the original creation.
The Christ-event is a cosmic event both because Christ is the Logos — and therefore in God the agent of creation — and because He is man since man is a “microcosm.” Man’s sin plunges creation into death and decay, but man’s restoration in Christ is a restoration of the cosmos to its original beauty. Here again, Byzantine hymnology is the best witness:
foreseeing in spirit the sojourn with men of the Only-begotten Son in the flesh,
called the creation to rejoice with him and prophetically lifted up his voice to
cry: ‘Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Thy name” [Ps 88:13]. For having gone
up, Ο Christ, with Thy disciples into
The glorification of man, which is also the glorification of the whole of creation, should, of course, be understood eschatologically. In the person of Christ, in the sacramental reality of His Body, and in the life of the saints, the transfiguration of the entire cosmos is anticipated; but its advent in strength is still to come. This glorification however is indeed already a living experience available to all Christians, especially in the liturgy. This experience alone can give a goal and a meaning to human history.
The cosmic dimension of the Incarnation is implied in the Chalcedonian definition of 451 to which Byzantine theology remains faithful: Christ is “of one substance with us in His humanity, ‘like unto us in all things save sin.’“ He is God and man, for “the distinction of natures is in no way abolished because of the union; rather, the characteristic properties of each nature are preserved.” The last sentence of the definition obviously covers the creative, inventive, controlling functions of man in the cosmos. The idea is developed in the theology of Maximus the Confessor when he argues against the Monothelites, for the existence in Christ of a human “will,” or “energy,” stressing that without it authentic humanity is inconceivable. If Christ’s manhood is identical with ours in all things except sin (and unless one classifies as “sin” every human “motion,” “creativity,” or “dynamism”), one must admit that Christ who is man in His body, in His soul, and in His mind was indeed acts with all these functions of true humanity. As Maximus fully understood, Christ’s human energy or will was not superseded by His divine will but accepted conformity with it. “The two natural wills [of Christ] are not contrary to each other..., but the human will follows [the divine].”5 This conformity of the humanum with the divinum in Christ is, therefore, not a diminution of humanity but its restoration: “Christ restores nature to conformity with itself... Becoming man, He keeps His free will in impassibility and peace with nature.6 “Participation” in God — as we have shown — is the very nature of man, not its abolition. This is the key to Eastern Christian understanding of the God-man relationship.
Christ, the union of the two natures is hypostatic: they “concur into one person
[prosōpon] and one hypostasis,”
according to the Fathers of Chalcedon. The controversies which arose from the
Chalcedonian formula led to further definitions of the meaning of the term
This fundamental position has two important implications:
There is no absolute symmetry between divinity and humanity in Christ because
the unique hypostasis is only divine and because the human will follows the divine. It was precisely a
“symmetrical” Christology, which was rejected as Nestorian in
(b) The human nature of Christ is not personalized into a separate human hypostasis, which means that the concept of hypostasis is not an expression of natural existence, either in God or in man, but it designates personal existence. Post-Chalcedonian Christology postulates that Christ is fully man and also that He is a human individual, but it rejects the Nestorian view that He is a human hypostasis, or person. A fully human individual life was en-hypostasized in the hypostasis of the Logos without losing any of its human characteristics. The theory associated with the name of Apollinaris of Laodicea and according to which the Logos in Jesus had taken the place of the human soul is systematically rejected by Byzantine theologians since it implied that the humanity of Christ was not complete. Cyril’s celebrated formula — wrongly attributed to Athanasius and, in fact, uttered by Apollinaris — “one nature incarnate of God the Word” was accepted only in a Chalcedonian context. Divine nature and human nature could never merge, be confused, or become complementary to each other; but in Christ, they were united in the single, divine hypostasis of the Logos: the divine model matched the human image.
The fact that the notion of hypostasis is irreducible to the concepts of “particular nature,” or to the notion of “individuality,” is crucially important not only in Christology but also in Trinitarian theology. Hypostasis is the personal “acting” source of natural life; but it is not “nature,” or life itself. In the hypostasis, the two natures of Christ accomplish a union without confusion. They retain their natural characteristics; but because they share a common hypostatic life, there is a “communication of idioms,” or perichoresis, which, for example, enables some of Christ’s human actions — words or gestures — to carry consequences which only God could have provoked. The clay made out of His spittle, for example, restores sight to the blind man.
Christ is one [writes John of Damascus]. Therefore, the glory which naturally comes from the divinity has become common [to both natures] thanks to the identity of hypostasis; and through the flesh, humility has also become common [to both natures]... , [but] it is the divinity which communicates its privileges to the body remaining itself outside the passions of the flesh.7
union implies also that the Logos made humanity His own in its totality; thus
the Second Person of the Trinity was indeed the subject, or agent, of the human
experiences, or acts, of Jesus. The controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and
Nestorius concerning the term Theotokos applied to the Virgin Mary
concerned essentially this very problem. Was there, in Jesus, a human person
whose mother could have been Mary? Cyril’s answer — emphatically negative — was,
in fact, a Christological option of great importance. In Christ, there was only
one Son, the Son of God, and Mary could not have been the Mother of anyone else.
She was therefore, indeed, the “Mother of God.” Exactly the same problem arose
in connection with the death of Christ: impassibility and immortality were
indeed characteristics of the divine nature. How then, asked the theologians of
“Theopaschism” — the acceptance of formulae which affirm that the “Son of God died in the flesh” — illustrates how distinct the concepts of “hypostasis” and “nature” or “essence” really are. The distinction is stressed by one of the main Chalcedonian theologians of the age of Justinian, Leontius of Jerusalem: “The Logos,” writes Leontius, “is said to have suffered according to the hypostasis, for within His hypostasis He assumed a passible [human] essence besides His own impassible essence, and what can be asserted of the [human] essence can be asserted of the hypostasis.”9 What this implies is that the characteristics of the divine essence — impassibility, immutability, etc. — are not absolutely binding upon the personal, or hypostatic, existence of God. Later we shall see the importance of this fact for the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God. Meanwhile on the level of soteriology, the affirmation that the Son of God indeed “died in the flesh” reflected — better than any other Christological formula — the boundlessness of God’s love for man, the reality of the “appropriation” by the Logos of fallen and mortal humanity — i.e., the very mystery of salvation.
often-recurring criticism of Byzantine Christology, as it was defined by the
Fifth Council, was that it, in fact, had betrayed
It is undoubtedly true that Byzantine theology and spirituality are very conscious of the uniqueness of the personality of Jesus and are reluctant to investigate His human “psychology.” A balanced judgment on this subject however can be attained only if one keeps in mind not only the doctrine of the hypostatic union but also the prevailing Eastern view of what “natural” man is; for in Jesus, the new Adam, “natural” humanity has been restored. As we saw, “natural” man was considered as participating in the glory of God. Such a man undoubtedly would no longer be fully subject to the laws of “fallen” psychology. These laws however were not simply denied in Jesus but seen in the light of soteriology.
The full dimension of the problem was never directly discussed by Byzantine theologians, but there are indications which can help us to understand their position: (a) their interpretation of such passages as Luke 2:52 (“He progressed in age and wisdom”), (b) their attitude toward the heresy of Aphthartodocetism, and (c) the stand of the Orthodox defenders of the images against the iconoclasts.
(a) The idea of “progress in wisdom” implies a degree of ignorance in Jesus, which is confirmed by other well-known passages of the Gospels (Mk , for example). Byzantine thought on this subject may often have been confused by the Evagrian idea that “essential knowledge” is the very characteristic of humanity before the Fall. Evagrius also thought that Jesus was precisely a created “intellect” which had preserved this original “knowledge.” The search for gnosis was indeed conceived, in the Evagrian spiritual tradition, which remained alive in the Christian East as the very content of spiritual life. This may have contributed to the fact that a majority of Byzantine authors deny any “ignorance” in Jesus Himself. John of Damascus, for example, can write:
One must know that the Word assumed the ignorant and subjected nature; [but] thanks to the identity of the hypostasis and the indissoluble union, the Lord’s soul was enriched with the knowledge of things to come and other divine signs; similarly, the flesh of human beings is not by nature life-giving while the Lord’s flesh without ceasing to be mortal by nature becomes life-giving, thanks to its hypostatic union with the Word.13
This text certainly represents a clear case of a representative Byzantine author’s affirming that the hypostatic union — in virtue of the “communication of idioms” — modifies the character of human nature. But this modification is clearly seen in the framework of a dynamic and soteriological Christology; the humanity of Christ is “paschal” in the sense that in it man passes from death to life, from ignorance to knowledge, and from sin to righteousness. However, in many less-justifiable cases, the ignorance of Jesus, as the Gospel texts describe, is simply interpreted as a pedagogical device or “appearance” on the part of Christ to show His “condescension.” This obviously unsatisfactory solution is rejected by other authors who affirm Christ’s real, human ignorance. “Most Fathers admitted,” writes the anonymous author of the De sectis, “that Christ was ignorant of certain things; since He is in all things consubstantial with us and since we ourselves are ignorant of certain things, it is clear that Christ also suffered ignorance. Scripture says about Christ: ‘He progressed in age and wisdom’ [Lk ]; this means that ‘He was learning what He did not previously know.”14 Obviously, Byzantine theologians are authentically concerned about recognizing in Christ our fallen humanity, but their minds are less clear about the moment when in Jesus this humanity becomes the transfigured, perfect, and “natural” humanity of the New Man.
(b) The heresy of the Aphthartodocetae whose leader was the sixth-century theologian Julian of Halicarnassus conceived Christ’s humanity as incorruptible, and they were accused of a docetic understanding of the Incarnation. As R. Draguet has shown, the issue is not so much the connection between hypostatic union and corruptibility but the very nature of man. Was man naturally corruptible (as he is naturally ignorant), or did corruptibility come with sin? The Aphthartodocetae denied that man by nature was corruptible. Since Christ is the New Adam and the truly “natural” man, His humanity is indeed incorruptible. In rejecting Aphthartodocetism, the Orthodox affirmed: (1) the inheritance of mortality from Adam was not an inheritance of guilt, and (2) the Logos voluntarily assumed not an abstract ideal manhood but our fallen humanity with all the consequences of sin including corruptibility. Opposition to Aphthartodocetism certainly contributed to preserving a clearer notion of Christ’s real and full human nature.
(c) Iconoclasm is certainly another way of denying that Christ is man in a concrete and individual manner. Patriarch Nicephorus, one of the leading Orthodox polemicists, called it Agraptodocetism because iconoclasts considered Jesus as “indescribable.”15 In order to justify the possibility of painting an image of Christ, John of Damascus and even more explicitly Theodore the Studite insisted upon His individual human characteristics: “Indescribable Christ,” writes Theodore, “would also be an incorporeal Christ; but Isaiah [8:3] describes this as a male being, and only the forms of the body can make man and woman distinct from one another.”16 Nicephorus in order to defend the use of images stresses very forcibly the human limitations of Jesus, His experience of tiredness, hunger, and thirst:17 “He acted, desired, was ignorant, and suffered as man.”18 This means that He is man like one of us and can be represented on an image.
As interpreted by the Orthodox theologians of the eighth and ninth centuries who struggled against iconoclasm, the icon of Christ becomes a confession of faith in the Incarnation:
The Inconceivable is conceived in the womb of a Virgin [writes Theodore the Studite]; the Unmeasurable becomes three cubits high, the Unqualifi-able acquires a quality; the Undefinable stands up, sits down, and lies down; He who is everywhere is put into a crib; He who is above time gradually reaches the age of twelve; He who is formless appears with the shape of a man, and the Incorporeal enters into a body... Therefore, He is describable and indescribable.19
For Theodore, the icon of Christ is the best possible illustration of what is meant by the hypostatic union. What appears on the image is the very hypostasis of God the Word in the flesh. In the Byzantine tradition, the inscription around the halo surrounding the head of Jesus says “The One who is,” the equivalent of the sacred name YHWE, the name of God whose person is revealed, but whose essence is inaccessible. It is neither God’s indescribable divinity nor His human nature alone which is represented on an icon but the person of God the Son who takes flesh: “Every portrait,” writes Theodore, “is the portrait of an hypostasis and not of a nature.”20
To paint an image of the divine essence or of God before His incarnation is obviously impossible; just as it is impossible to represent human nature as such, other than symbolically. Thus, symbolic images of Old Testament theophanies are not yet “icons” in a true sense. But the icon of Christ is different. With bodily eyes, the hypostasis of the Logos could be seen in the flesh, although its divine essence remained hidden; it is this mystery of the Incarnation which makes possible the sacred icons and requires their veneration.
defence of images forced Byzantine thought to reaffirm the full concrete
humanity of Christ. If an additional doctrinal stand against Monophysitism was
necessary, it was taken by the
The Chalcedonian definition proclaims that Christ is consubstantial not only with His Father but also “with us.” Though fully man, Christ does not possess a human hypostasis, for the hypostasis of His two natures is the divine hypostasis of the Logos. Each human individual fully “consubstantial” with his fellow men is nonetheless radically distinct from them in his unique, unrepeatable, and inassimilable personality or hypostasis: no man can fully be in another man. But Jesus’ hypostasis has a fundamental affinity with all human personalities: that of being their model, for indeed all men are created according to the image of God, i.e., according to the image of the Logos. When the Logos became incarnate, the divine stamp matched all its imprints: God assumed humanity in a way which did not exclude any human hypostasis, but which opened to all of them the possibility of restoring their unity in Him. He becomes, indeed, the “new Adam” in whom every man finds his own nature realized perfectly and fully, without the limitations which would have been inevitable if Jesus is only a human personality.
This was a concept of Christ which Maximus the Confessor had in mind when he re-emphasized the old Pauline image of “recapitulation” in reference to the incarnate Logos21 and saw in Him the victory over the disintegrating separations in humanity. As man, Christ “accomplishes in all truth the true human destiny that He Himself has predetermined as God and from which man had turned: He unites man to God.”22 Thus, Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian Christology would be meaningless speculation where it is not oriented toward the notion of redemption. “The whole history of Christological dogma was determined by this basic idea: the Incarnation of the Word, as Salvation.”23
Byzantine theology did not produce any significant elaboration of the Pauline doctrine of justification expressed in Romans and Galatians. The Greek patristic commentaries on such passages as Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us”) generally interpret the idea of redemption by substitution in the wider context of victory over death and of sanctification. They never develop the idea in the direction of an Anselmian theory of “satisfaction.” The voluntary assumption of human mortality by the Logos was an act of God’s “condescension” by which He united to Himself the whole of humanity; for, as Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “what is not assumed is not healed, and what is united to God is saved;”24 therefore, “we needed a God made flesh and were put to death in order that we could live again.”25
The death of “One of the Holy Trinity in the flesh” was a voluntary act, a voluntary assumption by God of the entire dimension of human tragedy. “There is nothing in Him by compulsion or necessity; everything was free: willingly He was hungry, willingly thirsty, willingly He was frightened, and willingly He died.”26 But — and this was the essential difference between the Orthodox and the Aphthartodocetae — this divine freedom of the hypostasis of the Logos did not limit the reality of His human condition: the Lord assumed a mortal humanity at the very moment of the Incarnation, at which time the free divine decision to die had already been made. “He takes a body, a body which is not different from ours,” writes Athanasius; “He takes from us a nature similar to ours; and since we all are subject to corruption and death, He delivers His body to death for us.”27
idea that the cross was the purpose of the Incarnation itself was vividly
suggested by the Byzantine liturgical texts of the Nativity. The hymnology of
the pre-feast (December 20 to 24) is structured according to that of Holy Week,
and the humility of
question whether the Incarnation would have taken place, had there not been a
Fall, never stood at the centre of attention in
Given the fallen state of man, the redemptive death of Christ makes this final restoration possible. But the death of Christ is truly redemptive and “life-giving” precisely because it is the death of the Son of God in the flesh (i.e., in virtue of the hypostatic union). In the East, the cross is not envisaged so much as the punishment of the just one, which “satisfies” a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for man’s sins. As Georges Florovsky rightly puts it, “the death of the Cross was effective not as a death of an Innocent One but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.”30 The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious circle of sin and corruption. And, as Athanasius of Alexandria has shown in his polemics against Arianism, God alone is able to vanquish death because He “alone has immortality” (1 Tm ). Just as original sin did not consist in an inherited guilt, so redemption was not primarily a justification but a victory over death. Byzantine liturgy, following Gregory of Nyssa, uses the image of the devil swallowing a hook hidden by the body of Emmanuel; the same idea is found in a pseudo-Chrysostomic sermon read during the liturgy of the paschal night: “Hell received a body and encountered God; it received mortal dust and met Heaven face to face.”
Summarizing this patristic concept of death and resurrection, in the light of the Christological statements of the fifth and sixth centuries, John of Damascus writes,
Although Christ died as man, and His holy soul was separated from His most pure body, His divinity remained with both the soul and the body and continued inseparable from either. Thus, the one hypostasis was not divided into two hypostases, for from the beginning both body and soul existed in the hypostasis of the Word. Although at the hour of death body and soul were separated from each other, yet each of them was preserved having the one hypostasis of the Word. Therefore, the one hypostasis of the Word was an hypostasis as of the Word; so also of the body and of the soul, for neither the body nor the soul ever had any proper hypostasis other than that of the Word. The hypostasis, then, of the Word is ever one, and there were never two hypostases of the Word. Accordingly, the hypostasis of Christ is ever one. And though the soul is separated from the body in space, yet they remain hypostatically united through the Word.31
The triduum of Easter — the three days when Christ’s humanity suffered the common fate of man, yet remained mysteriously en-hypostasized in the one divine hypostasis of the Logos — was graphically expressed in the traditional Byzantine iconography of the Resurrection: Christ trampling down the gates of Sheol and lifting Adam and Eve back to life. Better than any conceptual language and better also than the image of any particular event or aspect of the mystery — such as the empty tomb or even the crucifixion itself — this icon points to the dynamic, soteriological dimension of Christ’s death: God’s intrusion into the domain usurped by the devil and the breaking up of his control over humanity. The same mystery of hypostatic unity which remained unbroken in death itself is expressed in the Byzantine liturgy of Holy Week; on Good Friday, at vespers, at the very moment when Christ gives up the spirit, the first hymns of the Resurrection are beginning to resound: “Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself free from corruption.” The hidden yet decisive triumph over death permeates the liturgical celebration of Holy Saturday: “Though the temple of Thy body was destroyed in the hour of the passion, yet even then one was the hypostasis of Thy Divinity and Thy flesh.”32 One could discover in these texts the ultimate, soteriological reason why Cyril’s theopaschite formula becomes a criterion of orthodoxy in sixth-century Byzantine theology: death was vanquished precisely because God Himself had tasted of it hypostatically in the humanity which He had assumed. This is the paschal message of Christianity.
In connection with our discussion of the Greek patristic view of original sin as inherited mortality, we mentioned the concomitant understanding of the Resurrection as the foundation of Christian ethics and spirituality, for the Resurrection of Christ means indeed that death has ceased to be the controlling element of man’s existence, and man therefore is also free from slavery to sin. Death certainly remains as a physical phenomenon, but it does not dominate man as an unavoidable and ultimate fate: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Co ). And Athanasius writes, “Henceforth, we are dissolved for a time only, according to our bodies’ mortal nature in order the better to receive resurrection; like seeds cast into the earth, we do not perish but sown in the earth; we shall rise again since death has been brought to nought by the grace of the Saviour.”33 And Chrysostom: “It is true we still die as before, but we do not remain in death; and this is not to die. The power and the very reality of death are just that a dead man has no possibility of returning to life. But if after death, he is to be quickened and moreover to be given a better life, then this is no longer death but a falling asleep.”34 Since death has ceased to be the only possible end of existence, man is free from fear and sin based on the instinct of self-preservation is no longer unavoidable. The vicious circle has been broken on Easter Sunday and is broken each time “the death of Christ is announced and His resurrection is confessed.”
But what does “being in Christ” mean concretely? The last quotation — from the Byzantine Eucharistic canon of St. Basil — suggests the answer: through baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist, man freely becomes a member of the risen Body of Christ.
This element of freedom — and even of “consciousness” — is essential to the doctrine of salvation as understood by the Byzantine patristic, sacramental, and liturgical tradition. On the one hand, there are emphatic affirmations of the universality of redemption. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, assures us that
As the principle of death took its rise in one person and passed on in succession through the whole of the human nature, so the principle of the Resurrection extends from one person to the whole of humanity... This is the mystery of God’s plan with regard to His death and His resurrection from the dead.35
And his thoughts on the universality of redemption and “recapitulation” are echoed by Maximus the Confessor. On the other hand, the new life in Christ implies personal and free commitment. On the last day, the Resurrection will indeed be universal, but blessedness will be given only to those who longed for it. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us that baptismal “resurrection of nature” is a free gift from God given even to children who do not express consent; but “the Kingdom, the contemplation of God, and common life with Christ belong to free will.” 36
Byzantine theologians seldom devote much explicit attention to speculation about the exact fate of souls after death. The fact that the Logos assumed human nature as such implied the universal validity of redemption but not the apokatastasis or universal salvation, a doctrine which in 553 was formally condemned as Origenistic. Freedom must remain an inalienable element of every man, and no one is to be forced into the Kingdom of God against his own free choice; the apotytastasis had to be rejected precisely because it presupposed an ultimate limitation of human freedom — the freedom to remain outside of God.
But by rejecting God, human freedom, in fact, destroys itself. Outside of God, man ceases to be authentically and fully human. He is enslaved to the devil through death. This idea, which is central to Maximian thought and which makes him profess so strongly the existence of a human created will in Christ, serves as the basis of the Byzantine understanding of the destiny of man: participation in God, or “deification” (theōsis) as the goal of human existence.
En-hypostasized in the Logos, Christ’s humanity, in virtue of the “communication of idioms,” is penetrated with divine “energy.” It is therefore a deified humanity, which however does not in any way lose its human characteristics. It is quite to the contrary. These characteristics become even more real and authentic by contact with the divine model according to which they were created. In this deified humanity of Christ’s, man is called to participate, and to share in its deification. This is the meaning of sacramental life and the basis of Christian spirituality. The Christian is called not to an “imitation” of Jesus — a purely extrinsic and moral act — but, as Nicholas Cabasilas puts it, to “life in Christ” through baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist.
Deification is described by Maximus as a participation of the “whole man” in the “whole God”:
In the same way in which the soul and the body are united, God should become accessible for participation by the soul and through the soul’s intermediary by the body in order that the soul might receive an unchanging character and the body immortality; and finally that the whole man should become God deified by the grace of God-become-man becoming whole man — soul and body — by nature and becoming whole God — soul and body — by grace.37
“Thus, for Maximus the doctrinal basis of man’s deification is clearly to be found in hypostatic unity between the divine and the human nature in Christ.”38 The man Jesus is God hypostatically; and, therefore, in Him, there is a “communication” (perichōrēsis — circumincessio) of the “energies” divine and human. This “communication” also reaches those who are “in Christ.” But they, of course, are human hypostases and united to God not hypostatically but only “by grace” or “by energy.” “A man who becomes obedient to God in all things hears God saying: ‘I said: you are gods’ [Jn ]; he then is God and is called ‘God’ not by nature or by relation but by [divine] decree and grace.” 39 It is not through his own activity or “energy” that man can be deified — this would be Pelagianism — but by divine “energy” to which his human activity is “obedient;” between the two, there is a “synergy” of which the relation of the two energies in Christ is the ontological basis. But there is no confusion of natures just as there cannot be any participation in divine essence by man. This is the theology of deification which we can also find in Gregory Palamas: “God in His completeness deifies those who are worthy of this by uniting Himself with them, neither hypostatically — that belonged to Christ alone — nor essentially but through a small part of the uncreated energies and the uncreated divinity... while yet being entirely present in each.”40 Actually, the Byzantine Council of 1351, which confirmed the theology of Palamas, defined it as a “development” of the decrees of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680) on the two wills or “energies” of Christ.41 In “deification,” man achieves the supreme goal for which he is created. This goal, already realized in Christ by a unilateral action of God’s love, represents both the meaning of human history and a judgment over man. It is open to man’s response and free effort.
only doctrinal definition on Mary to which the
But it was the theology of Cyril of Alexandria affirming the personal, hypostatic identity of Jesus with the pre-existent Logos, as it was endorsed in Ephesus, which served as the Christological basis for the tremendous development of piety centred on the person of Mary after the fifth century. God became our Saviour by becoming man; but this “humanization” of God came about through Mary who was thus inseparable from the person and work of her Son. Since in Jesus there is no human hypostasis; and since a mother can be mother only of “someone,” not of something, Mary is indeed the mother of the incarnate Logos, the “Mother of God.” And since the deification of man takes place “in Christ,” she is also — in a sense just as real as man’s participation “in Christ” — the mother of the whole body of the Church.
This closeness of Mary with Christ led to an increasing in the East popularity of those apocryphal traditions which reported her bodily glorification after her death. These traditions found a place in the hymnographical poetry of the Feast of the Dormition (Koimesis, August 15) but never were the object of theological speculation or doctrinal definition. The tradition of Mary’s bodily “assumption” was treated by poets and preachers as an eschatological sign, a follow-up of the resurrection of Christ, an anticipation of the general resurrection. The texts speak very explicitly of the Virgin’s natural death, excluding any possible connection with a doctrine of Immaculate Conception, which would attribute immortality to her and would be totally incomprehensible in the light of the Eastern view of original sin as inherited mortality.42 Thus, the boundless expressions of Marian piety and devotion in the Byzantine liturgy are nothing other than an illustration of the doctrine of hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ. In a sense, they represent a legitimate and organic way of placing the somewhat abstract concepts of fifth- and sixth-century Christology on the level of the simple faithful.
1. Dec. 24, Vespers; The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and K. Ware (London· Faber, 1969), p. 254.
2. Dec. 25, Matins; Ibid., p. 269.
3. Holy and Great Friday, Vespers.
4. Aug. 6, Transfiguration, Vespers; Festal Menaion, pp. 476-477.
5. Council of
6. Maximus the Confessor, Expos, orat. doming PG 90:877D.
7. John of
8. Denz. 222; Anathema 10 of Council of 553.
9. Leontius of
10. Marcel Richard, “St. Athanase et la psychologic du Christ selon les Ariens,” Mel Set Rel 4 (1947), 54.
11. Charles Moeller, “Le chalcèdonisme et le nèo-chalcèdonisme en Orient de 451 á la fin du VI* siècle,” in Grillmeier-Bacht, I, 717.
12. See ibid., pp. 715-716.
13. John of
14. Anonymous, De sectis; PG 86:1264A.
15. Patriarch Nicephorus, Antirrh., I; PG 100.-268A.
16. Theodore the Studite, Antirrh., III; PG 99:409C.
17. Nicephorus, Antirrh., I; PG 100:272B.
18. Ibid.; PG 100:328BD.
19. Theodore the Studite, Antirrh. III; PG 99:396B.
20. Ibid., III; PG 99:405A.
21. See especially Maximus the Confessor, Amb.; PG 90:1308o, 1312A.
22. J. Meyendortf, Christ, p. 108.
23. Georges Florovsky, “The Lamb of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology (March 1961), 16.
24. Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep. 101 ad Clcdonium-, PG 37:181c-184A.
25. Gregory of Nazianzus, Horn. 45; PG 36:661c.
26. John of
27. Athanasius, De incarn., 8; PG 25:109C.
28. Dec. 24, Compline, Canon, odes 5 and 6; Festal Menaion, pp. 206-207.
29. Maximus the
30. Florovsky, “The Lamb jf God,” p. 24.
31. John of
32. Holy Saturday, Matins, Canon, ode 6.
33. Athanasius, De incarn., 21; PG 25:129D.
34. John Chrysostom, In Haebr., horn. 17:2; PG 63:129.
35. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration, 16; ed. J. H. Srawlcy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 71-72.
36. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, II; PG 150:541C.
37. Maximus the Confessor, Amb., PG 91:1088C.
38. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p. 457.
39. Maximus the Confessor, Amb.; PG 91:1237AB.
Palamas, Against Afyndynos, V, 26; edd. A. Kontogiannes and V. Pha-nourgakes, in
P. Khrestov, Gregoriou ton Palatna Syggrammata III (
41. Tome of 1351; PG 151:722B.
42. I do not
imply here that the Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception necessarily
implies Mary’s immortality although some Roman Catholic theologians have
suggested this implication (for example, M. Jugie, l’Immactdee Conception dans I’Ecriture
sainte et dans la Tradition orientale, Bibliotheca Immaculatae Conceptions,
The early Christian understanding of creation and of man’s ultimate destiny is inseparable from pneumatology; but the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and in the early Fathers cannot easily be reduced to a system of concepts. The fourth-century discussions on the divinity of the Spirit remained in a soteriological, existential context. Since the action of the Spirit gives life “in Christ,” He cannot be a creature; He is indeed consubstantial with the Father and the Son. This argument was used both by Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion and by Basil in his famous treatise On the Holy Spirit. These two patristic writings remained throughout the Byzantine period the standard authorities in pneumatology. Except in the controversy around the Filioque — a debate about the nature of God rather than about the Spirit specifically, — there was little conceptual development of pneumatology in the Byzantine Middle Ages. This did not mean however that the experience of the Spirit was not emphasized with greater strength than in the West, especially in hymnology, in sacramental theology, and in spiritual literature.
“As he who grasps one end of a chain pulls along with it the other end to himself, so he who draws the Spirit draws both the Son and the Father along with It,” Basil writes.1 This passage, quite representative of Cappadocian thought, implies, first, that all major acts of God are Trinitarian acts and, secondly, that the particular role of the Spirit is to make the “first contact” which is then followed — existentially but not chronologically — by a revelation of the Son and — through Him — of the Father. The personal being of the Spirit remains mysteriously hidden even if He is active at every great step of divine activity: creation, redemption, ultimate fulfilment. His function is not to reveal Himself but to reveal the Son “through whom all things are made” and who is also personally known in His humanity as Jesus Christ. “It is impossible to give a precise definition of the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit, and we must simply resist errors concerning Him which come from various sides.”2 The personal existence of the Holy Spirit thus remains a mystery. It is a “kenotic” existence whose fulfilment consists in manifesting the kingship of the Logos in creation and in salvation history.
For the Cappadocian Fathers, the Trinitarian interpretation of all the acts of God implies the participation of the Spirit in the act of creation. When Genesis mentions, “the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters” (Gn 1:2), patristic tradition interprets the passage in the sense of a primeval maintenance of all things by the Spirit which makes possible the subsequent appearance of a created logical order through the Word of God. No chronological sequence is implied here, of course; and the action of the Spirit is part of the continuous creative action of God in the world: “The principle of all things is one,” writes Basil, “which creates through the Son and perfects in the Spirit.”3
identifies this function of “perfecting” creation as “sanctification” and
implies that not only man but nature as a whole is perfectly itself only when it
is in communion with God and when it is “filled” with the Spirit. The “secular”
is always imperfect; or rather, it exists only as a fallen and defective state
of creation. This is particularly true of man whose nature consists precisely in
his being “theocentric.” He received this “theocentricity” which the Greek
Fathers always understood as a real “participation” in the life of God, when he
was created and when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gn
2:7). This “breath” of God’s life identified with the Holy Spirit on the basis
of the Septuagint version is what makes man to be “God’s image.” “A being taken
from the earth,” writes Cyril of Alexandria, “could not be seen as an image of
the Most High, if he had not received this [breath].”4 Thus, the
“perfecting” action of the Spirit does not belong to the category of the
“miraculous” but forms a part of the original and natural plan of God. It
assumes, inspires, and vivifies everything which is still fundamentally good and
beautiful, in spite of the Fall, and maintains in creation the first fruits of
the eschatological transfiguration. In this sense, the Spirit is the very
content of the
liturgical offices of Pentecost, though centred mainly on the role of the Spirit
in redemption and salvation, also glorify the Spirit as “the One who rules all
things, who is Lord of all, and who preserves creation from falling
apart.”6 Popular Byzantine customs associated with Pentecost suggest
that the outpouring of the Spirit is indeed an anticipation of cosmic
transfiguration; the traditional decoration of churches with greens and flowers
on that day reflects the experience of new creation. The same idea dominates the
“Great Blessing of Water” celebrated with great solemnity on the Feast of the
Epiphany (January 6). Water, the primeval cosmic element, is sanctified “by the
power, effectual operation [“energy”] and descent of the Holy Spirit” (Great
Litany of the Day). Since the Fall, the cosmic elements are controlled by the
“prince of this world,” and the action of the Spirit must have a purifying
function: “Thou didst hallow the streams of
full significance of this rite of exorcism becomes evident when one recalls
that, in Biblical categories, water is a source of life for the entire cosmos
over which man is called to rule. Only through the Fall, nature did become
subject to Satan. But the Spirit liberates man from dependence upon nature.
Instead of being a source of demonic power, nature receives “the grace of
redemption, the blessing of
This anticipation however is not a magical operation occurring in the material universe. The universe does not change in its empirical existence. The change is seen only by the eyes of faith — i.e., because man has received in his heart the Spirit which cries, “Abba, Father” (Ga 4:6), he is able to experience, in the mystery of faith, the paradisaic reality of nature serving him and to recognize that this experience is not a subjective fancy but one which reveals the ultimate truth about nature and creation as a whole. By the power of the Spirit, the true and natural relationship is restored between God, man, and creation.
In the “economy” of salvation, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable: “When the Word dwelt upon the holy Virgin Mary,” Athanasius writes, “the Spirit, together with the Word, entered her; in the Spirit, the Word fashioned a body for Himself making it in conformity with Himself in His will to bring all creation to the Father through Himself.”8 The main argument in favour of the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Son and the Father — used by Athanasius, by Cyril of Alexandria, and by the Cappadocian Fathers — is the unity of the creative and redemptive action of God, which is always Trinitarian: “The Father does all things by the Word in the Holy Spirit.”9
the essential difference between the action of the Logos and that of the Spirit
was that the Logos and not the Spirit became man and thus could be directly seen
as the concrete person and hypostasis of Jesus Christ while the personal
existence of the Holy Spirit remained covered by divine incognoscibility. The
Spirit in His action reveals not Himself but the Son; when He indwells in Mary,
the Word is being conceived; when He reposes on the Son at the baptism in
We have already seen that in Greek patristic and Byzantine thought salvation is understood essentially in terms of participation in and communion with the deified humanity of the incarnate Logos, the New Adam. When the Fathers call the Spirit the “image of the Son,” they imply that He is the main agent which makes this communion a reality. The Son has given us “the first fruits of the Spirit,” writes Athanasius, “so that we may be transformed into sons of God according to the image of the Son of God.”11 Thus, if it is through the Spirit that the Logos became man, it is also only through the Spirit that true life reaches all men. “What are the effect and the result of the sufferings, works and teaching of Christ?” asks Nicholas Cabasilas. “Considered in relation to ourselves, it is nothing other than the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.”12
Spirit transforms the Christian community into the “Body of Christ.” In
Byzantine hymns for the day of Pentecost, the Spirit is sometimes called the
“glory of Christ” granted to the disciples after the Ascension;13 and
at each Eucharist, the congregation after communion chants: “We have seen the
true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith;
we worship the undivided Trinity, for it has saved us.” Pentecost, the birthday
of the Church, is the moment when the true meaning of Christ’s cross and
Resurrection becomes manifest when a new mankind enters back into divine
fellowship, when a new knowledge is granted to “fishermen.” This is the main
theme of the feast of Pentecost in the Byzantine tradition; and, curiously, it
matches the awareness of many modern students of Christian origins that full
understanding of Christ’s teaching is indeed a “post-Resurrection” experience of
the early Church: “The Spirit through His appearance in tongues of fire firmly
plants the memory of those man-saving words which Christ has told the Apostles
having received them from the Father.”14 But the “knowledge,” or
“memory” granted by the Spirit is not an intellectual function; it implies an
“illumination” of human life as a whole. The theme of “light,” which through
Origen and Gregory of Nyssa permitted the association of the Biblical
theophanies with Greek Neo-Platonic mysticism, also permeates the liturgical
hymnography of Pentecost. “The Father is light, the Word is light, and the Holy
Spirit is light; that light was sent to the Apostles as tongues of fire and
through it the whole world is illumined and venerates the Holy Trinity” (solemn
hymn, called exaposteilarion). For indeed, the Holy Spirit is the “glory” of
Christ which not only transfigures the body of the historical Jesus, as in the
case of the Transfiguration but glorifies as well His wider “Body,” i.e., all
those who believe in Him. In fact, a comparison of the Byzantine liturgical
texts of Pentecost with those appointed for the Feast of the Transfiguration
(August 6) — and it is always important to remember that for the Byzantines the
liturgy has been the highest expression of their faith and Christian experience
— shows that the miracle of Pentecost is considered as an expanded form of the
mystery of Tabor. On
Examples can be easily multiplied and it shows that the Byzantine theological tradition is constantly aware that in the “economy” of creation and salvation the Son and the Spirit are accomplishing one single divine act without however being subordinated to one another in their hypostatic or personal existence. The “head” of the new, redeemed humanity is, of course, Christ, but the Spirit is not only Christ’s agent; He is, in the words of John of Damascus (which are paraphrased in the hymns of Pentecost): “Spirit of God, direct, ruling; the fountain of wisdom, life and holiness; God existing and addressed along with the Father and Son; uncreated, full, creative, all-ruling, all-effecting, all-powerful, of infinite power, Lord of all creation and not subject to any; deifying but not deified; filling but not filled; shared in but not sharing in; sanctifying but not sanctified.” 17
This personal “independence” of the Spirit is connected, as Vladimir Lossky points out, with the whole mystery of redemption, which is both a unification (or “recapitulation”) of mankind in the one divine-human hypostasis of Christ — the new Adam — and a mysterious personal encounter between each man and God. The unification of human nature is a free divine gift, but the personal encounter depends upon human freedom: “Christ becomes the sole image appropriate to the common nature of humanity. The Holy Spirit grants to each person created in the image of God the possibility of fulfilling the likeness in the common nature. The one lends His hypostasis to the nature, the other gives His divinity to the persons.”18 There is, of course, one divinity and one divine action, or “energy,” leading mankind to the one eschatological goal of deification; but the personal, hypostatic functions of the Son and of the Spirit are not identical. Divine grace and divine life are a single reality, but God is Trinity and not an impersonal essence into which humanity would be called to merge. Thus, here, as we have seen above, Byzantine Christian tradition requires the distinction in God between the One unapproachable Essence, the three hypostases, and the grace, or energy, through which God enters into communion with creatures.
The mystery of Pentecost is not an incarnation of the Spirit but the bestowing of these gifts. The Spirit does not reveal His Person as the Son does in Jesus and does not en-hypostasize human nature as a whole; He communicates His uncreated grace to each human person, to each member of the Body of Christ. New humanity is realized in the hypostasis of the Son incarnate, but it receives only the gifts of the Spirit. The distinction between the Person of the Spirit and His gifts will receive great emphasis in Byzantine theology in connection with the theological controversies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Gregory of Cyprus and Gregory Palamas insisted, in different contexts, that at Pentecost the Apostles received the eternal gifts or “energies” of the Spirit, but that there was no new hypostatic union between the Spirit and humanity.19
Thus, the theology of the Holy Spirit implies a crucial polarity which concerns the nature of the Christian faith itself. Pentecost has seen the birth of the Church — a community which acquires structures and presupposes continuity and authority — and is an outpouring of spiritual gifts to liberating man from servitude giving him freedom and personal experience of God. Byzantine Christianity remains aware of an unavoidable tension between these two aspects of faith: faith as doctrinal continuity and authority and faith as the personal experience of saints. It generally understands that an exaggerated emphasis on one aspect or the other destroys the very meaning of the Christian Gospel. The Spirit gives a structure to the community of the Church and authenticates the ministries which possess the authority to preserve the structure, to lead, and to teach; but the same Spirit also maintains in the Church prophetic functions and reveals the whole truth to each member of Christ’s body if only he is able and worthy to “receive” it. The life of the Church — because it is created by the Spirit — cannot be reduced to either the “institution” or the “event,” to either authority or freedom. It is a “new” community created by the Spirit in Christ where true freedom is recovered in the spiritual communion of the Body of Christ.
In Byzantine liturgical language, the term koinonia (“communion”) is the specific expression designating the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic community and one of the key notions in Basil’s treatise on the Holy Spirit.20 This observation is important inasmuch as it emphasizes that the “communion” of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as divine Trinity the “communion of the Holy Spirit” which introduces man into divine life, and the “communion,” or “community,” which is then created between men in Christ are not only designated with the same term but ultimately represent the same spiritual experience and reality. The Church is not simply a society of human beings associated with each other by common beliefs and goals; it is a koinonia in God and with God. And if God Himself was not a Trinitarian koinonia, if He was not three Persons, the Church could never be an association of persons irreducible to each other in their personal identity. Participation in divine life would be nothing more than a Neo-Platonic or Buddhist integration into an impersonal “One.”
The very specific “oneness” realized in the Eucharistic koinonia, is, par excellence, a gift of the Spirit.
One of the recurring themes in the Byzantine hymnography of Pentecost is a parallel drawn between the “confusion” of Babel and the “union” and “symphony” effected by the descent of the Spirit in tongues of fire: “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit.”21 The Spirit does not suppress the pluralism and variety of creation; nor, more particularly, does He exclude the truly personal experience of God, accessible to each man; He overcomes division, contradiction, and corruption. He Himself is the “symphony” of creation which can be fully realized in the eschatological fulfilment. The Church’s function is to render this fulfilment accessible by anticipation through its role of “sanctification” effected by the Spirit.
“Creation is sanctified,” Basil writes, “and the Spirit is the
Sanctifier. In the same manner, the angels, the archangels and all the super
celestial powers receive their sanctity from the Spirit. But the Spirit Himself
possesses sanctity by nature. He does not receive it by grace but essentially;
hence, He is distinctively called Holy. Thus, He is holy by nature as the Father
and the Son are holy by nature.”22 The mysterious but overwhelming
role of the Spirit in the “economy” of salvation cannot be expressed fully other
than by this suggestive tautology: the Holy Spirit “sanctifies,” i.e., He
creates a koinonia of man with God,
and, hence, of men between themselves as a “community of saints.” It is best
expressed in the “anaphora of St. Basil” — celebrated ten times each year in the
We pray Thee and call upon Thee, Ο Holy of Holies, that, by the favour of Thy goodness, Thy Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, shed for the life of the world, and [that the Spirit may] unite all of us to one another who become partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion [koinonia] of the Holy Spirit.
Each one individually having been baptized “in the death of Christ” and having received the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the sacrament of chrismation faithfully participates with otheres together in the mystery of the Eucharist. The existence of their koinonia is both a condition of the Eucharistic miracle — the Spirit is being invoked not only on the “gifts” but “upon us and upon the gifts” — and its consequence: the Spirit sanctifies the gifts so that the koinonia may become an always-renewed reality.
role of the Spirit in transforming a community of sinners into the “
creation” implies mission to the world; hence the Church is always “apostolic,”
i.e., not only founded on the faith of those who saw the risen Lord, but
assuming their function of “being sent” to announce and establish the
The Spirit has bestowed upon the Church its “apostolicity” since the day of Pentecost; and only through the Spirit can the Church preserve consistency and continuity with the original Christian Gospel. The various ministries, created by the Spirit in the Christian koinonia even more particularly that of the episcopate, are meant to maintain and structure this continuity thus assuring the purity and effectiveness of the Church’s mission in the world.
We saw in Chapter 11 that man was not understood in the Greek patristic tradition as an autonomous being; participation in divine life was seen as an integral part of his nature. But since man is created free, it is obvious that there cannot be as in Western theology any opposition between “grace” and freedom. It is quite to the contrary. Man can be authentically free only “in God” when through the Holy Spirit he has been liberated from the determinism of created and fallen existence and has received the power to share in God’s lordship over creation.
This approach to freedom has crucial implications for man’s attitude toward the Church as well as for his social and personal ethics. On the one hand, it presupposes that nowhere, except in the sacramental community of the Church, is it possible to achieve the truly liberating divine life. On the other hand, the whole approach to man’s salvation remains based on a personal, responsible, and free experience of God. This paradox, irreducible to a rational scheme, corresponds to an essential element of pneumatology: the Spirit simultaneously guarantees the continuity and authenticity of the Church’s sacramental institutions and bestows upon each human person a possibility of free divine experience and therefore a full responsibility for both personal salvation and corporate continuity of the Church in the divine truth. Between the corporate and the sacramental, on the one hand, and the personal, on the other, there is therefore a necessary tension in the spiritual life of the Christian and in his ethical behaviour. The Kingdom to come is already realized in the sacraments, but each individual Christian is called to grow into it by exercising his own efforts and by using his own God-given freedom with the cooperation of the Spirit.
In the Byzantine tradition, there has never been any strong tendency to build systems of Christian ethics, and the Church has never been viewed as the source of authoritative and detailed statements on Christian behaviour. Church authority was certainly often called upon to solve concrete cases, and its decisions were seen as authoritative criteria for future judgments; but the creative mainstream of Byzantine spirituality was a call to “perfection” and to “holiness” and not a prepositional system of ethics. It is the mystical, eschatological, and therefore maximalistic character of this call to holiness which gives it its essential difference from the legalism of Medieval Roman Catholicism, the puritanical moralism of other Western trends, and the relativism of modern “situation ethics.” Whenever they searched for models of Christian behaviour, Byzantine Christians looked rather at saints and “athletes of the faith,” especially the monks. Monastic literature is the source par excellence for our own understanding of Byzantine spirituality, and it is dominated by a “quest” of the Spirit.
Especially associated with the tradition of Macarius, this quest is particularly evident in the flowery, hymns of Symeon the New Theologian, addressed to the Holy Spirit:
I give thanks to Thee for this, that Thou, divine Being above all things, makest Thyself a single spirit with me — without confusion, without change — and that Thou didst become all in all for me, ineffable nourishment, freely distributed, which falls from the lips of my soul, which flows abundantly from the source of my heart; the resplendent vesture which covers me and protects me and which destroys the demons; the purification which washes from me every stain through these holy and perpetual tears which Thy presence accords to those whom Thou visitest. I give thanks to Thee for Thy being which was revealed to me as the day without twilight, as the sun which does not set. Ο Thou who hast no place where Thou hidest Thyself, for Thou dost never shun us, never hast Thou disdained anyone; it is we, on the contrary, who hide ourselves, not wishing to go toward Thee.26
The conscious and personal experience of the Holy Spirit is therefore the supreme goal of Christian life in the Byzantine tradition, an experience which presupposes constant growth and ascent. This experience is not opposed to an essentially Christocentric understanding of the Gospel, for it itself is possible only “in Christ,” i.e., through communion in the deified humanity of Jesus; nor is it contradictory to practical ethical requirements, for it remains impossible unless these requirements are fulfilled. But obviously, such experience reflects a basically personalistic understanding of Christianity. To a degree larger than in the West then, the Byzantine Church will see in the saint or in the mystic the guardian of the faith and will trust him more than any permanent institution; and it will not develop legal or canonical guarantees for an independent Christian action in the world hoping rather that if they will be needed prophets will arise to preserve the identity of the Gospel; this hope will indeed be fulfilled in the irreducible non-conformity of monastic personalities and communities throughout Byzantine history.
Obviously, however, Byzantine Christianity will also be faced with temptations inherent in its personalistic outlook. Spiritualistic and dualistic sects will often prosper in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world, side by side with Orthodox spirituality. Between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, various forms of Messalianism — “the Plagiarisms of the East”27— will promote an anti-social, non-sacramental, and dualistic interpretation of the monastic ideal. They will be followed by the Russian Strigol’niky and other sects. Their influence under the form of an exaggerated anti-institutionalism will always be felt inside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church itself.
Church, of course, has never admitted that spiritualistic individualism and
“enthusiasm” to be erected as an ecclesiological system but has maintained its
sacramental structure and canonical discipline. Conscious of the fact that in
Whatever the obvious ambiguity and the hypocrisy which at times was
evident in the Byzantine state, it thus served as an historical framework for a
tradition which maintained the eschatological character of Christianity. In
general, whether in the lands of Islam or in modern secular societies of
1. Letter 38, 4; PG 32:332C; trans. R. J. Deferrari (London: Hcinemann, 1961), p. 211.
2. Cat. 16, 11; PG 33:932C.
3. De Spir. S.t 16, 38; PG 32:136B.
4. In Joh. XI, 10; PG 74:541C.
5. See R. Leaney, “The Lucan text of the Lord’s Prayer (in Gregory of Nyssa),” Novum Testamentum 1 (1956), 103-111.
6. Apodeipnon, canon, ode 5.
7. Great Blessing of Water.
8. Ad Scrap. 1, 31; PG 26:605A.
9. Ibid., 1, 28; PG 26:590A.
10. See for example Basil, De Spirit. S., 9, 23, PG 32:109B.
11. On the Incarnation and Against the Arians, 8; PG 26:997A.
12. A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 37, 3, SC 4 bis, p. 229; trans. J. M. Husscy and P. A. McNulty (London: SPCK, 1960), p. 90.
13. Kathisma, after the Polyeleon.
14. Canon 2, ode 8.
15. Canon 1, ode 1.
16. Kathisma 1.
17. De fide orth. I, 8; PG 94:821nc.
18. Lossky, Mystical Theology, pp. 166-167.
19. Cf. J. Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas, pp. 14-15, 231.
20. Boris Bobrinskoy, “Liturgie et ecclesiologie trinitaire de St. Basile,” Etudes patris-tiques: le traite sur le Saint-Esprit de Saint Basile, Foi et Constitution, 1969, pp. 89-90; also in Verbum Caro, 23, No. 88.
21. Kontat(ion of Pentecost.
22. Letter 159, 2; PG 32:62lAB; ed. Deferrari, p. 396.
23. Sunday Matins, Antiphon, tone 4.
24. On The Life in Christ, IV; PG I50:617B.
26. PG 120:509BC.
27. I. Hausherr, “L’erreur fondamentale et la logique du mcssalianismc,” OCP 1 (1955), 328-360.
“When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” writes Gregory of Nazianzus.1 Far from being a form of abstract speculation, the doctrine of the Trinity was always for the Greek patristic tradition a matter of religious experience — liturgical, mystical, and often poetical:
No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three, I think of Him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.2
The basis of this Trinitarian theology, which was formulated by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century at the conclusion of the Arian controversies and remained standard throughout the Byzantine period, was found in soteriology: the Fathers were actually preoccupied not with speculation but with man’s salvation. The Nicaean doctrine of con-substantiality meant “the confession of the fullness of divinity in Christ and implied that the Incarnation was essential to the redemptive act of Christ;” and maintained similarly that if “the Spirit was not fully God He was unable to bestow sanctification.”3 In itself, the Cappadocian doctrine of the Trinity remains totally meaningless unless one remembers that its goal is to maintain the Christological and pneumatological presuppositions developed in the last two chapters: the incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit are met and experienced first as divine agents of salvation, and only then they are also discovered to be essentially one God. It was well known that during the theological debates of the fourth century the Cappadocian Fathers were accused of tritheism, so that Gregory of Nyssa was even obliged to issue his famous apologetic treatise proving that “there were not three gods.”4 It remained debatable however whether he succeeded in proving his point philosophically. The doctrine of the three hypostases, adopted by the Cappadocian Fathers to designate the three divine Persons, had definite Plotinian and Origenistic associations, which normally implied substantial differentiation. The Fathers however remained faithful to the terminology they had adopted, in spite of all difficulties and criticism — both from the “old Nicaeans” faithful to Athanasius and from the theologians of the Latin West — because they saw no other means of preserving the Biblical experience of salvation in the fully identifiable and distinct persons of Christ and the Spirit, an experience which could never enter the categories of philosophical essentialism.
The Latin West adopted a different approach to Trinitarian theology, and the contrast has been well expressed by Theodore de Régnon: “Latin philosophy considers the nature in itself first and proceeds to the agent; Greek philosophy considers the agent first and passes through it to find the nature. The Latins think of personality as a mode of nature; the Greeks think of nature as the content of the person.”5 Practically speaking, the difference of emphasis means that in both the lex orandi and the lex credendi of Byzantine Christianity the Trinity remains a primary and concrete experience; the unity of God’s nature was an article of faith coupled always with an insistence on the absolute unknowability of the divine essence. In the West, however, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology. Obviously, as long as the two schools of thought remained open to dialogue and mutual understanding, they could have developed in a complementary way. Unfortunately, the bitter polemics on the Filioque issue led to a stiffening position and became one of the major causes of the schism. The modern crisis of deism, the increasing difficulty faced by modern theologians in explaining and justifying the being of God as a philosophically definable entity, may prove helpful not only in solving the Medieval controversy between East and West but also in the revival of a more authentic Trinitarianism. “It would seem that in our time,” writes Theodore de Regnon, “the dogma of the divine unity had, as it were, absorbed the dogma of the Trinity of which one only speaks as a memory.”6 But the “dogma of the divine unity” is being challenged by that of the “death of God;” hence, there is a return to an existential and experiential approach to the doctrine of God seen in the context of salvation history: “Without our experience of Father, Son, and Spirit in salvation history,” writes Karl Rahner, “we would ultimately be unable to conceive at all of their subsisting distinctly as the one God.” 7
These modern concerns meet directly the consistent position of Byzantine theology.
The Cappadocian Fathers adopts the formulation which would remain the criterion of Orthodox Trinitarian theology in the East: God is one essence in three hypostases. This Cappadocian settlement given the circumstances of the fourth century never pretended to be anything more than the best possible description of the divine mystery, not the solution of a philosophical process similar to the Plotinian “Trinity of hypostases.” The Fathers always affirms that we cannot know what God is; only that He is because He has revealed Himself — in salvation history — as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is Trinity, “and this fact can be deduced from no principle nor explained by any sufficient reason, for there are neither principles nor causes anterior to the Trinity.”8
Why then are this description and this terminology preferable to others? Mainly, it is because all the options then available seemed inadequate from the start. The formula “one essence, three prosopa,” for example, was not able to exclude a modalistic Trinity since the term prosopon although commonly used to designate “person” could also mean “mask” or “appearance.” The Cappadocian Fathers meanwhile have wanted to affirm simultaneously that God is one object and three objects, that both His unity and His trinity are full realities. “When I speak of God,” writes Gregory of Nazianzus, “you must be illumined at once by one flash of light and by three. Three in properties, in hypostases or Persons, if anyone prefers so to call them, for we would not quarrel about names so long as the syllables amount to the same meaning; but one in respect of the ousia, that is, the Godhead.”9
There is no claim here for philosophical consistency although an effort is made to use current philosophical terms. The ultimate meaning of the terms however is clearly different from their meaning in Greek philosophy, and their inadequacy is frankly recognized.
This is particularly true of hypostasis, a term crucial in Trinitarian theology, and in Christology. Neither in Aristotelianism nor in Neo-Platonism was the term intended to designate a person in the Christian (and modern) sense, an agent, “possessing” his own nature and “acting” accordingly, a unique subject whose absolute identity can in no way be duplicated. Against the “old Nicaeans,” the Cappadocian Fathers wanted to emphasize that the Nicaean homoousion (“consubstantial”) did not identify the Son with the Father on the personal level but only on the level of the ousia. “Neither is the Son Father, for the Father is one, but He is what the Father is; nor is the Spirit Son because He is of God, for the Only-begotten is one, but He is what the Son is.”10 Thus, in God, the “what” is one, but the three hypostases are personal identities irreducible to each other in their personal being. They “possess divinity,”11 and divinity is “in them.”12
One recognizes the hypostatic character [of the Spirit] in that He is revealed after the Son and with the Son, and in that He receives His subsistence from the Father. And the Son, in Himself and with Himself revealing the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, shines alone with the un-begotten light and has nothing in common with the Father and the Spirit in the identity of His particularities, but is revealed alone in the characters proper to His hypostasis. And the Father possesses the particular hypostatic character of being the Father and of being independent from all causality...13
The same personalistic emphasis appears in the Greek Fathers’ insistence on the “monarchy” of the Father. Contrary to the concept which prevails in the post-Augustinian West and in Latin Scholasticism, Greek theology attributes the origin of hypostatic ‘‘subsistence” to the hypostasis of the Father — not to the common essence. The Father is the “cause” (aitia) and the “principle” (archē) of the divine nature, which is in the Son and in the Spirit. What is even more striking is the fact that this “monarchy” of the Father is constantly used by the Cappadocian Fathers against those who accuse them of “tritheism”: “God is one,” writes Basil, “because the Father is one.”14 And the same thought is found in Gregory of Nazianzus: “God is the common nature of the three, but the Father is their union [henōsis].”15 Pseudo-Dionysius also speaks of the Father as the “source of Divinity,”16 and John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith also affirms the essential dependence of the Son and the Spirit upon the Person of the Father:
Whatsoever the Son has from the Father, the Spirit also has, including His very being. And if the Father does not exist, then neither does the Son and the Spirit; and if the Father does not have something, then neither has the Son or the Spirit. Furthermore, because of the Father, that is because of the fact that the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are; and because of the Father, the Son and the Spirit have everything that they have.17
By accepting Nicaea, the Cappadocian Fathers eliminated the ontological subordinationism of Origen and Arius, but they preserved indeed together with their understanding of hypostatic life, a Biblical and Orthodox subordinationism, maintaining the personal identity of the Father as the ultimate origin of all divine being and action: “The three [are] one God when contemplated together; each [is] God because [they are] consubstantial; the three [are] one God because of the monarchy [of the Father].”18 Developing his well-known doctrine of the divine image in man, Gregory of Nyssa defines one aspect of human personal existence which is clearly different from that of God: each human person possesses the power of reproducing himself while in God there is only “one and the same Person of the Father from whom the Son is born and the Spirit proceeds.”19 Thus, the human race is in a constant process of fragmentation, and can recover its unity only through adoption by the Father in Christ — i.e., by becoming children of the one single hypostasis which generates without fragmenting or multiplying. The origin of unity in the Trinity, the Father restores the unity of creation by adopting humanity in His Son, the New Adam, in whom humanity is “recapitulated” through the activity of the Spirit.
Not an abstract intellectual speculation, the doctrine of the Trinity stands at the very centre of Byzantine religious experience: the immanent Trinity manifests itself as the “economic” Trinity, i.e., the saving revelation of God in history. This is made particularly clear in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharistic canon. As a solemn prayer to the Father by the adopted human community united in the incarnate Son and invoking the Spirit, the Eucharist is indeed the sacrament of divine unity being bestowed upon men. The same Trinitarian reality is expressed in innumerable hymns scattered throughout the Byzantine liturgical cycles. Here is a solemn hymn of Pentecost attributed to the emperor-poet Leo VI (886-912), and constituting a variation on the famous Trisagion:
Come, Ο peoples, let us venerate the tri-hypostatic Deity,
The Son in the Father, with the Holy Spirit
For before time the Father generated a Son, sharing His eternity and His
And the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified together with the Son.
One Power, One Essence, One Deity, whom we all venerate and say:
Holy God, who created all things through the Son, with the cooperation of
the Holy Spirit;
Holy Mighty, through whom we knew the Father and the Holy Spirit
dwelt in the world;
Holy Immortal, the Spirit Comforter, who proceeds from the Father
and abides in the Son,
Holy Trinity, glory to Thee.20
In the classical Latin Trinitarian doctrine, “Father, Son, and Spirit are only ‘relatively’ distinct.”21 Whatever the interpretation given to the idea of “relation” implied in this statement, it is clear that Western thought recognized the ontological primacy of essential unity over personal diversity in God; that is that God is essentially one, except in the divine Persons who are defined in terms of relations. In Byzantine thought, however, — to use an expression from Maximus the Confessor, — “God is identically monad and triad,”22 and there is probably a tendency in both worship and philosophical formulations (as distinct from doctrinal statements) to give a certain pre-eminence to the personal diversity over essential unity. A reference to the Nicaean “consubstantial” was the Byzantine response to the accusation of “tritheism.”
This reference however could not be decisive in itself simply because Greek patristic thought and particularly that of the Cappadocians always presupposed the starting point of apophatic theology: that God’s being and, consequently, the ultimate meaning of hypostatic relations were understood to be totally above comprehension, definition, or argument. The very notion of God’s being both Unity and Trinity was a revelation illustrating this incomprehensibility; for no reality accessible to the mind could be both “one” and “three.” As Vladimir Lossky puts it: “the Incomprehensible reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for His incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons.”23
The knowledge of God is therefore possible only inasmuch as He reveals Himself, inasmuch as the immanent Trinity manifests itself in the “economy” of salvation, and inasmuch as the transcendent acts on the immanent level. It is in the fundamental oneness of these “acts” or “energies” of God that the Greek Fathers, particularly Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, discover the decisive and existential sign of the unity of God’s essence. Basil’s well-known argument in favour of the divinity of the Spirit is that He has the same “energy” as the Father and the Son. Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa proves the essential unity of Father, Son, and Spirit from the unity of their operation.24 This argument also fitted into the context of the Cappadocians’ polemics against Eunomius who affirmed the possibility of knowing God’s essence; no knowledge concerning God they asserted was possible, except from His “energies.” The “economic” Trinity revealed in God’s action in the world is therefore the only possible basis for affirming that God is indeed, paradoxically and incomprehensibly, a transcendent and immanent Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of the “energies” is well described by G. L. Prestige:
In men..., in spite of the solidarity of the whole race, each individual acts separately, so that it is proper to regard them as many. This is not so... with God. The Father never acts independently of the Son, nor the Son of the Spirit. Divine action... always begins from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Holy Spirit; there is no such thing as a separate individual operation of any Person; the energy invariably passes through the three, though the effect is not three actions but one.25
In fact, the Aristotelian principle according to which each “nature” (physis) has an “energy” (energeia) — i.e., an existentially perceivable manifestation, — provides the terminological background for the patristic concept of “energy” (We find this terminology is used as well in Christology where Maximus the Confessor, for example, maintains that the two natures of Christ presuppose two “energies” or wills). However, significantly, the Aristotelian dyad, nature-energy, was not considered sufficient in itself when applied to God because in God’s nature the decisive acting factor is hypostatic; hence, divine “energy” is not only unique but tri-hypostatic since the “energy” reflects the common life of the three Persons. The personal aspects of the divine subsistence do not disappear in the one “energy,” and it is indeed the Trinitarian life of God which is communicated and participated in the “energy”: through the “energy” therefore the divine hypostases appear in their co-inherence (pcrichōrēsis):26 “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn ). Human persons though also one in nature and substance act disjointly and often in conflict with each other; in God however the pcrichōrēsis expresses the perfect love, and, therefore, the perfect unity of “energy,” of the three hypostases, without however any mingling or coalescence. The “energy,” because it is always Trinitarian, is always an expression and a communication of love: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love” (Jn 15:9).
It is probably in the context of the doctrine of the pcrichōrēsis that one should understand a unique passage in Palamas, where he seems inspired by the Augustinian “psychological” image of the Trinity.27 Palamas writes, “This Spirit of the Word from on high is like the mysterious love of the Father toward the Word mysteriously begotten; it is that possessed by the Word, the beloved Son, toward the Father who begat Him; this the Son does insofar as He comes from the Father conjointly with this love, and this love rests naturally upon him.”28 Since the whole approach to the Trinity in Palamas is different from Augustine’s, it is certainly the result of the personalistic interpretation, which can be given to the “psychological” image being used here to suggest the Trinitarian mystery: love unites the three divine hypostases, and pours out, through their common divine “energy” or “action,” upon those worthy to receive it.
The distinction — a real distinction — between divine “essence” and divine “energy” is made unavoidable in the context of the doctrine of “deification,” which implies a “participation” of created man in the uncreated life of God whose essence remains transcendent and totally unparticipable. All these aspects of the doctrine of God will, in fact, be faced simultaneously during the controversies between Gregory Palamas and his adversaries in the fourteenth century. His conclusion necessarily is that “three elements belong to God: essence, energy, and the triad of the divine hypostases.”29
This triple distinction is rendered inescapable as soon as one rejects the Augustinian option of Trinitarianism in favour of the Cappadocian. For, indeed, if the Persons are only relations internal to the essence, the revelation of God, if any, is a revelation either of the “essence” or of “analogous” created symbols; the “energies,” then, are either the “essence” of God or created signs, and there is no real distinction in God. But if, on the contrary, the Persons are distinct from the essence, which is common to them but transcendent and inaccessible to man, and if in Christ man meets God “face to face,” so there is a real “participation” in divine existence, this participated divine existence can only be a free gift from God, which safeguards the inaccessible character of the essence and the transcendence of God. This God-giving-Himself is the divine “energy;” a living and personal God is indeed an acting God.
We have seen that the doctrine of the “energies” in the Byzantine tradition is central both to the understanding of creation and to Christology. Refusing to reduce the being of God to the philosophical concept of simple “essence,” Byzantine thought affirms the full and distinct reality of the Triune hypostatic life of God ad intra as well as His “multiplication” as creator ad extra. These two “multiplicities” do not however coincide. The terminology which the doctrine of energies received, in its relation to the three hypostases, was stabilized in the Palamite synthesis of the fourteenth century:
The proper appellations of the divine hypostases are common to the energies; whereas appellations common to the hypostases are particular to each of the divine energies. Thus, life is a common appellation of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, but foreknowledge is not called life, nor is simplicity, nor unchangeableness, nor any other energy. Thus, each of the realities which we have enumerated belongs at the same time to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; but they only belong to one energy and not to all; each reality, in fact, has only one signification. Inversely, Father is the proper appellation of one sole hypostasis, but it is manifest in all the energies... And the same is true of the appellations Son and Spirit... Thus, since God in His wholeness is wholly incarnate, He has unchangeably united to the whole of me ... the divine nature and all its power and energy in one of the divine hypostases. Thus, also, through each of His energies one shares in the whole of God ... the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...30
The triple distinction — essence, hypostasis, energy — is not a division of God’s being; it reflects the mysterious life of the “One-who-is” — transcendent, tri-personal, and present to His creation.
Palamite formulations of the fourteenth century were preceded by theological
developments which dealt with the same triple distinction. In 1156 and 1157, two
local councils held in
Therefore, even if the Father alone is the addressee of the Eucharistic prayer, the act of “receiving” the sacrifice is a Trinitarian act as are all the divine acts ad extra?31 The mystery of the Incarnation however consists in the fact that the divine hypostasis of the Logos assumed also the role of offering bringing humanity with itself to the throne of the Father. The Eucharistic sacrifice is precisely this offering accomplished in the body of Christ where human nature is penetrated with divine energy assumed as it is by the hypostasis of the Logos.
The hypostatic, personal existence implies an “openness,” which makes it possible for the incarnate Logos to “offer” and to “receive,” to be man and God, and to remain, with the Father and the Spirit, the “actor” of the “energies” characterizing divine nature.
“God, when He was speaking with Moses, did not say: ‘I am the essence’ but: ‘I am who am’ [Ex ]. It is therefore not He-who-is who comes from the essence, but it is the essence which comes from He-who-is, for He-who-is embraces in Himself all being.”32 When Palamas in the passage just quoted explicitly refers to the Biblical doctrine of the living God or when he refuses to identify the being of God with the philosophical notion of essence — “The essence is necessarily being, but being is not necessarily essence,”89 — he expresses the very content of his quarrel with Barlaam and Akindynos but also maintains the theologia of the Cappadocian Fathers.
We have already noted that the conflict within Byzantine society which set the monks against the “humanists” involved an understanding of man’s destiny based on the Bible as opposed to one based on Platonic spiritualism. A similar problem developed on the level of “theology” proper, i.e., the doctrine of God. The issue was complicated by the fact that Latin Scholasticism provided the Byzantine anti-Palamites with a truly “Greek” interpretation of the divine being, and they readily turned into Latinophrones. For, indeed, the real significance of the Filioque quarrel consisted in the fact that the two sides held to a different approach to God.
1. Oratio 45, 4; PG 36:628C.
2. Oratio 40, 41; PG 36:417BC.
3. Both quotations from Georges Florovsky, Vostochnye Ottsy (Paris: VMCA Press, 1931), p. 23.
4. The treatise
is addressed To Ablabius, ed. F. Mueller (
5. Theodore de
Regnon, Etudes de theologie positive sur la Sainte Trinite (
6. De RЈgnon, Etudes, I, 365.
7. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel, s.j. (London: Burns & Gates, 1969), pp. 110-111.
8. Lossky, Mystical Theology, p. 47.
9. Oratio 39, 11; PG 36:345CD.
10. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio, 31, 9; PG 36:144A.
11. Gregory of Nazianzus, Poem. Dogm. 20,3; PG 37:414A.
12. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 31, 41; PG 36:149λ.
13. Basil, Ep. 38, 4; PG 32:329CD.
14. Basil, Contra Sab., 3; PG 31:605A.
15. Oratio 42, 15; PG 36:476B.
16. Pseudo-Dionysius, De div. nom. 2, 7; PG 3:645B.
17. De fide orthodoxa 1, 8; PG 94:324B; trans. F. H. Chase, fathers of the Church’ 37 (New York, 1958), p. 184.
18. Gregory oЈ Nazianzus, Oratio 40, 41; PG 36:417B.
19. Adv. Graecos; PG 45:180.
20. Pentef(pstarion (Athens: Phos, 1960), p. 218.
21. K. Rahner, Op. cit., p. 68.
22. Capita theol. et oecon. II, 1; PG 90:1125A.
23. Op. cit., p. 64.
24. Sec G. L. Prestige, Op. cit. pp. 257-260.
25. Op. cit., p. 260.
26. The term was first used in Christology (see Prestige, God in Patristic Thought,. pp. 291-299); it began to be applied to the hypostatic relations by pseudo-Cyril and by John of Damascus.
28. Cap. phys. 36; PG 151:1144D-1145A.
29. Cap. phys. 75; PG 151:11738.
30. Against Akindynos, V, 27; edd. Kontogiannes and Phanourgakes, pp. 373-374.
31. On the councils of 1156 and 1157, see J. Mcyendorrf, Christ, pp. 152-154.
Palamas, Triads III, 2, 12; ed J. Meyendorff, in Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense,
33. Against Af(indynos III, 10; edd. Kontogiannes and Phanourgakes, p. 184.
34. “The procession of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Triadology” in Eastern Churches Quarterly. Supplemental issue Concerning the Holy Spirit (1948), p. 46. See also the debate on the Filioque between Orthodox (Bishop Cassian, MeyendorrT, Verhov-skoy, and others) and Roman Catholic (Camelot, Bouyer, Henry, Dubarle, Dondainc, and others) theologians published in Russic et Chretiente (1950), No. 3-4.
35. Cf. J. MeycndorfT, Christ, p. 166.
36. K. Rahner, Op. cit., p. 111.
In his book on The Life in Christ — a commentary on baptism, confirmation, and communion — Nicholas Cabasilas writes, “It is possible for the saints in this present world not only to be disposed and prepared for [eternal] life [in Christ] but also even now to live and act according to it.”1 The Kingdom of God, an anticipation of the eschatological fulfilment, is already accessible in the Body of Christ: this possibility of “being in Christ,” of “participating” in divine life — the “natural” state of humanity, — is for the Byzantines essentially manifested in the sacraments, or mysteria, of the Church. These sacraments are understood less as isolated acts through which a “particular” grace is bestowed upon individuals by properly appointed ministers acting with the proper intention and more as the aspects of a unique mystery of the Church in which God shares divine life with humanity redeeming man from sin and death and bestowing upon him the glory of immortality.
Byzantine theology ignores the Western distinction between “sacraments” and “sacramentals” and has never formally committed itself to any strict limitation of the number of sacraments. In the patristic period, there was no technical term to designate “sacraments” as a specific category of church acts: the term mysterion was used primarily in the wider and general sense of “mystery of salvation”2 and only in a subsidiary manner to designate the particular actions which bestowed salvation. In this second sense, it was used concurrently with such terms as “rites” or “sanctifications.”3 Theodore the Studite in the ninth century gives a list of six sacraments: the holy “illumination” (baptism), the “synaxis” (Eucharist), the holy chrism, ordination, monastic tonsure, and the service of burial.4 The doctrine of the “seven sacraments” appears for the first time — very characteristically — in the Profession of Faith required from Emperor Michael Paleologus by Pope Clement Clement IV in 1267.5 The Profession had been prepared, of course, by Latin theologians.
obviously Western origin of this strict numbering of the sacraments did not
prevent it from being widely accepted among Eastern Christians after the
thirteenth century, even among those who fiercely rejected union with
Obviously, the Byzantine Church never committed itself formally to any specific list; many authors accept the standard series of seven sacraments — baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, penance, and the anointing of the sick — while others give a longer list; and still, others emphasize the exclusive and prominent importance of baptism and the Eucharist, the basic Christian initiation into “new life.” Thus, Gregory Palamas proclaims that “in these two [sacraments] our whole salvation is rooted since the entire economy of the God-man is recapitulated in them.”9 And Nicholas Cabasilas composes his famous book on The Life in Christ as a commentary on baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist.
In the Eastern Church, baptism and confirmation (the latter being effected through anointment with “holy chrism” blessed by the bishop) are normally celebrated together. Immediately after receiving baptism and confirmation, the child is admitted to Eucharistic communion. There is therefore no practical difference between admitting a child or an adult to membership in the Church; in both cases, a human being who belongs to the “old Adam” through his natural birth is introduced to “new life” by partaking of baptism, chrismation, and holy communion. Christian initiation is one single and indivisible act: “If one does not receive the chrism, one is not perfectly baptized,” writes Symeon of Thessalonica.10
As we have seen, the patristic doctrine of salvation is based not on the idea of guilt inherited from Adam and from which man is relieved in Christ but on a more existential understanding of both “fallen” and “redeemed” humanity. From the “old Adam” through his natural birth, man inherits a defective form of life — bound by mortality, inevitably sinful, lacking fundamental freedom from the “prince of this world.” The alternative to this “fallen” state is “life in Christ,” which is true and “natural” human life — the gift of God bestowed in the mystery of the Church. “Baptism,” writes Nicholas Cabasilas, “is nothing else but to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature.” 11
The emphasis in both the rite of baptism and the theological commentaries of the Byzantine period is on the positive meaning of baptism as “new birth.” “The salutary day of Baptism,” Cabasilas continues, “becomes a name day to Christians because then they are formed and shaped, and our shapeless and undefined life receives shape and definition.”12 Again according to Cabasilas, all the scriptural and traditional designations of baptism point to the same positive meaning: “‘Birth’ and ‘new birth,’ ‘refashioning’ and ‘seal’ — as well as ‘baptism,’ ‘clothing,’ and ‘anointing’ — ‘gift,’ ‘enlightening,’ and ‘washing’ — all signify this one thing: that the rite is the beginning of existence for those who are and live in accordance with God.”13
Considering baptism as “new birth” implies also that it is a free gift from God and is in no sense dependent upon human choice, consent, or even consciousness: “Just as in the case of physical birth we do not even contribute willingness to all the blessings derived from baptism.”14 In the East, therefore, there was never any serious doubt or controversy about the legitimacy of infant baptism. This legitimacy was based not on the idea of a “sin” which would have made even the infant guilty in the eyes of God and in need of baptism as justification but on the fact that at all stages of life, including infancy, man needs to be “born anew” — i.e. to begin a new and eternal life in Christ. The ultimate eschatological goal of new life cannot be fully comprehended even by the “conscious adult.”
Just as it is not possible to understand the power of the eyes or the grace of colour without light, or for those who sleep to learn the affairs of those who stay awake while they are yet asleep, in the same way in this life, it is not possible to understand the new members and their faculties which are directed solely to the life to come... Yet we are members of Christ, and this is the result of baptism. The splendour and beauty of the members consists in the Head, for the members would not appear to be beautiful unless they are attached to the Head. Of these members the Head will be hidden in the present life but will be clearly apparent when they shine forth together with the Head.15
Since he is a member of the Body of Christ through baptism, man again becomes “theocentric” — that is he recovers his original destiny, which is eschatological and mysterious because it participates in the very mystery of God. As a divine gift whether bestowed upon an adult or an infant, baptism is the beginning of new life. As Theodoret of Cyrus writes,
If the only meaning of baptism were remission of sins, why would we baptize newborn children who have not yet tasted of sin? But the mystery of baptism is not limited to this; it is a promise of greater and more perfect gifts. In it, there are the promises of future delights; it is the type of the future resurrection, a communion with the master’s Passion, a participation in His Resurrection, a mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or rather it is light itself.16
As a “beginning” and a promise of new life, baptism implies free self-determination and growth. It does not suppress human freedom but restores it to its original and “natural” form. In the case of infant baptism, this restoration is, of course, only potential, but the sacrament always implies a call to freedom. In the Byzantine tradition, the formula of baptism is not pronounced as in the West in the name of the minister who performs the sacrament (“I baptize you”) but is a solemn declaration on behalf of the baptized: “The servant of God, N, is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” “This,” writes Symeon of Thessalonica, “signifies the freedom of the baptized.”17 After baptism, the way toward God is a “synergy” of God’s power and free human effort. It is also a liberation from the bonds of Satan — the tyrant and the usurper — signified by the exorcisms which precede the sacrament of baptism itself.18
The Byzantine tradition has retained the ancient Christian practice of baptism through triple immersion. Actually, immersion was sometimes considered essential to the validity of the sacrament, and some extreme anti-Latin polemicists questioned the effectiveness of Western baptism on the grounds that it was performed by sprinkling. Immersion is indeed the very sign of what baptism means: “The water destroys the one life but shows forth the other; it drowns the old man and raises the new,” writes Cabasilas.19 “Drowning” cannot be meaningfully signified other than through immersion.
To the man liberated through baptism from servitude to Satan, the Spirit bestows the faculty of “being active in spiritual energies,” according to another expression of Cabasilas’.20 We have already seen that Byzantine patristic theology recognized a connection between the gifts of the Spirit and human freedom; redemption of humanity implies that not only human “nature” but also each man, freely and personally, will find his place in the new creation “recapitulated” in Christ. The gift of the Spirit in chrismation is the main sacramental sign of this particular dimension of salvation, which is, according to the liturgical norm, inseparable from baptism. Thus, the “life in Christ” and “life in the Spirit” are not two separate forms of spirituality; they are complementary aspects of the same road leading toward eschatological “deification.”
Normally united with baptism in a single rite of Christian initiation, chrismation is celebrated separately only in cases of reconciliation to the Church of certain categories of heretics and schismatics enumerated in Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo. Its significance, then, is to validate through “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” (the formula pronounced by the priest during the anointing), a Christian baptism performed in irregular circumstances — i.e., outside the canonical boundaries of the Church.
Sacramental penance — i.e., reconciliation to the Church after sins committed after baptism — has had a parallel development in East and West. Originally, a public act, required from sinners who either had been officially excommunicated or had performed acts liable to excommunication, penance, gradually and especially after the fourth century, took the form of private confession, followed by a prayer of absolution pronounced by a priest. It then identified itself almost completely with the practice of private spiritual direction, especially widespread in monastic communities.
The development of penitential practice and theology in the Byzantine world was distinct from its Western counterpart in that it never knew the influence of legalistic interpretations of salvation, such as the Anselmian doctrine of “satisfaction,” and never faced a crisis comparable to the Western Reformation and Counter-Reformation with the latter’s stress on clerical authority.
Patristic and Byzantine literature on repentance is almost entirely ascetical and moral. Very few authors of ascetical treatises on repentance specifically mention sacramental absolution as a formal requirement. This silence does not imply that sacramental repentance did not exist; except cases of formal excommunication which had to be followed by an equally formal reconciliation, it was only encouraged but not required. In his innumerable calls to repentance, Chrysostom frequently mentions “confession,” i.e., an opening of one’s conscience before a witness or “the Church;” but regular sacramental confession does not seem to be meant. In his nine sermons specifically dealing with “repentance” only once, he does refer to the Church as a direct recourse: “Did you commit sin? Enter the Church and repent for your sin... You are an old man, and still you commit sin? Enter [the Church], repent; for here is the physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated, one receives remission of sins.”21
A French ecclesiastical historian is probably correct when he writes, “The Byzantines seldom go to confession, at least in the secular world, for in the monasteries... confession is regularly practiced. But is this confession, or is it a direction of conscience of simple laymen by their spiritual fathers? Both practices exist and in the monasteries are indistinguishable from one another.”22
Ascetical and canonical literature frequently mentions penitential requirements — periods of excommunication, prostrations, and charitable works required as retribution for sins committed and confessed; but except in case of “mortal” sins — murder, apostasy, adultery — followed by formal excommunication, it is nowhere evident that a priest’s absolution is necessary to seal the act of repentance. On the contrary, numerous sources describe absolutions given by non-ordained monks,23 a practice which has survived in Eastern monasteries until our own day.
The various forms of absolution found in Byzantine — euchologia and the penitentials24 — all have the form of prayer: “In the East,” writes A. Almazov, “it was always understood that absolution is expressed through prayer; and even if a declaratory formula is being used, it implies that remission of sins is attributed to God Himself.”25 Declaratory formulas (“I, an unworthy priest..., forgive and absolve...”) which crept into some euchologia, Greek and Slavic are all of post-Scholastic Latin origin and have been adopted within the framework of a general Latinization of the Byzantine rite.
Byzantine theologians themselves were hesitant about the exact status of penance among the mysteria of the Church and often listed it with either monastic tonsure or anointing of the sick. By the fifteenth century however private confession to a priest, followed by a prayer of remission, was a generally accepted practice among laymen with confession to lay monks existing as an alternative in monasteries. This lack of clarity in both theology and practice had a positive implication: confession and penance were interpreted primarily as a form of spiritual healing, for sin itself in Eastern Christian anthropology is primarily a disease, “passion.” Without denying the Petrine privilege of the keys transmitted to all the bishops or the apostolic power to remit sins of which the Church is bearer, Byzantine theologians have never succumbed to the temptation of reducing sin to the no-don of a legal crime, which is to be sentenced, punished, or forgiven; yet they were aware that the sinner is primarily a prisoner of Satan and as such mortally sick. For this reason, confession and penance — at least ideally — preserved the character of liberation and healing rather than that of judgment; hence, there are the great variety of forms and practices and the impossibility of confining them within static theological categories.
Byzantine theological, liturgical, and canonical tradition unanimously stresses
the absolute uniqueness of Christian marriage and bases this emphasis upon the
teaching of Ephesians 5. As a sacrament, or mysterion, marriage reflects the union
between Christ and the Church, between Yahweh and
Only this basic understanding of Christian marriage can explain the fact that until the tenth century no second marriage — whether of those widowed or of those divorced — was blessed in church. Referring to the custom of “crowning” the bridal pair, a feature of the Byzantine rite of marriage, a canon attributed to Nicephorus the Confessor (806-815) specifies: “Those who enter a second marriage are not crowned and are not admitted to receive the most pure mysteries for two years; those who enter a third marriage are excommunicated for five years.”26 This text, which merely repeats the earlier prescriptions of the canons of Basil,27 presupposes that second and third marriages of those widowed or divorced can be concluded as civil contracts only. Actually, since the marriage blessing was normally given at a Eucharist where the bridal pair received communion, the required temporary excommunication excluded the Church’s participation or blessing in cases when marriage was repeated.
Absolute uniqueness as the norm of Christian marriage is also affirmed in the fact that in Byzantine canon law it is strictly required from clergy; a man who was married twice or married to a widow or a divorcee is not eligible for ordination to the diaconate or to the priesthood.28 But laymen after a period of penitence and abstention from the sacraments are re-admitted to full communion with the Church even after a second or third marriage; understanding and toleration is extended to them when they cannot agree to remaining single or would like to have a second chance to build up a true Christian marriage. Obviously, Byzantine tradition approaches the problem of remarriage — after widowhood or divorce — in terms of penitential discipline. Marriage as a sacrament implies the bestowing of God’s grace; but this grace, to be effective, requires human cooperation (“synergy”). This is true of all the sacraments but particularly of baptism whose fruits can be dispersed through sin and then restored through repentance. In the case of marriage, which presupposes personal understanding and psychological adjustment, Byzantine tradition accepts the possibility of an initial mistake as well as the fact that single life in cases of death or the simple absence of the partner is a greater evil than remarriage for those who cannot “bear” it.
possibility of divorce remained an integral part of Byzantine civil legislation
at all times. In the framework of the “symphony” between Church and state, it
was never challenged a fact which cannot be explained simply by reference to
attitude of the
maintained however at least in principle an essential distinction between the
first and the following marriages: a special service was introduced for the
latter, dissociated from the Eucharist and penitential in character. It was
understood therefore that second and third marriages were not the norm, and as
such were deficient sacramentally. The most striking difference between the
Byzantine theology of marriage and its Medieval Latin counterpart is that the
Byzantines strongly emphasized the unicity of Christian marriage and the
eternity of the marriage bond; they never considered that Christian marriage was
a legal contract, automatically dissolved by the death of one of the partners.
Remarriage of the widowed was only tolerated by them, as was the remarriage of
the divorced. But this “toleration” did not mean approval. It implied
repentance, and remarriage was allowed only to those men or women whose previous
marriages could be considered as non-existent in practice (the various imperial
codes listed the cases). Meanwhile, the Latin West became legalistically
intolerant toward divorce while admitting without limitation any number of
remarriages after widowhood. Guided in its practice by the legal notion of
contract, marriage indissoluble as long as both parties were alive; the West
seemed to ignore the idea that marriage — if it was a sacrament — had to be
projected as an eternal bond into the Kingdom of God; that like all sacraments
marriage requires a free response and implies the possibility of human rejection
and human mistake; and that, after such a sinful rejection or human mistake,
repentance always allows a new beginning. This is the theological basis for the
toleration of divorce in the early Christian Church as well as in
Frequently associated with penance as a single sacrament, the office of
“holy unction” did not evolve into “extreme unction” for the dying. The
sacrament was always performed for the healing of a sick person. In
The funeral service has no particular significance. Even in death, the Christian remains a member of the living and resurrected Body of Christ into which he has been incorporated through baptism and the Eucharist. Through the funeral service, the Church gathers to bear witness to this fact visible only to the eyes of faith but already experienced by every Christian who possesses the awesome privilege of living in the future Kingdom by anticipation.
1. Cabasilas, De vita in Chrisio, I, 3; PG 150:496D.
2. Sec, for example, Chrysostom, Horn. 7,1 in I Cor.; PG 61:55.
3. Chrysostom, Catècheses baptismales, ed. A. Wenger, Sources Chrcucnna 50 (Paris: Cerf, 1957), II, 17, p. 143.
4. Ep. II, 165; PG 99:1524B.
5. G. M. Jugie,
Thcologia dogmatic a Christianorum
orientalium, III (
6. Quoted by M. Jugie, ibid., pp. 17-18.
7. De sacramentis, 52; PG 155:197A.
8. Responsa canonica, ed. A. I. Almazov
9. Hom. 60, cd.
10. De sacramentis, 43; PG 155:188A,
11. De vita in Chrislo, II, 3; PG 150:524A.
12. Ibid., 4, 525A.
13. Ibid., 524C.
14. Ibid., 5, 525D.
15. Ibid., 22:548BC.
16. Haeret. jabul. compendium 5, 18; PG 83:512.
17. De sacramentis, 64; PG 155:228B-229B. Sec also Manuel of Corinth, Apology 7; PG 140:480.
18. Nicholas Cabasilas, loc. cit., 6:528B.
19. Ibid., 9:532u.
20. Ibid., III, 1; 569A.
21. De penitentia, III, 1; PG 49:292.
22. J. Pargoire, L’Eglise byzantine de 527 á 847 (Paris: Lecoffre, 1932), p. 347.
23. Ibid., p. 348.
24. The earliest
available manuscripts are of the tenth century. By far the best collection of
penitential rites, in Greek and Slavic versions, is found in A. Almazov, Tainaia Ispoved’ ν pravoslavnoi vostochnoi
tserkvi III (
25. Op. cit., I, pp. 149-150.
26 Canon 2, in
Syntagma Canonum IV, edd. G. Rhalles and M. Potles (
27. Particularly canons 4 and 50 in Rhalles-Potles, Op. cit., pp. 102 and 203.
28. Quinisext Council, canon 3, ibid.t II, pp. 312-314.
29. Les novelles de Leon VI, le Sage, ed. A. Dain (Paris: Belles Lettrcs, 1944), pp. 294-297.
30. Rhalles-Potles, Op. cit., V, pp. 4-10.
Formal conservatism was one of the predominant features of Byzantine civilization, affecting both the secular and the sacred aspects of life, and the forms of the liturgy in particular. But if the avowed intention was to preserve things as they were, if the basic structures of the Eucharistic liturgy had not been modified since the early centuries of Christianity and even today retain the forms which they acquired in the ninth century, the interpretation of words and gestures was subject to substantial change and evolution. Thus, Byzantine ritual conservatism was instrumental in preserving the original Christian lex orandi often reinterpreted otherwise in the context of a Platonizing or moralizing symbolism though it also allowed in due time — especially with Nicholas Cabasilas and the Hesychast theologians of the fourteenth century — a strong reaffirmation of the original sacramental realism in liturgical theology.
Early Christianity and the patristic tradition understood the Eucharist as a mystery of true and real communion with Christ. Speaking of the Eucharist, Chrysostom insists that “Christ even now is present, even now operates;”1 and Gregory of Nyssa, in spite of the Platonizing tendencies of his thought, stands otherwise for the same view of the Eucharist as a mystery of real “participation” in the glorified Body of Christ, the seed of immortality.
By dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose existence comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers to secure that by this union with the Immortal man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He “trans-elements” [metastoi-cheiōsis] the natural quality of these visible things to that immortal thing.2
Participation in these sources of immortality and unity is a constant concern for every Christian:
It is good and beneficial to communicate every day [Basil writes,] and to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ. For He distinctly says, “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” [Jn ]. And who doubts that to share frequently in life is the same thing as to have manifold life? I indeed communicate four times a week — on the Lord’s day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath — and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any saint.3
and existential theology of the Eucharist was, as we saw,4 challenged
by pastoral needs in the
could be argued that the pastoral considerations which prompted this evolution
were at least partially justified; the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist
implied a withdrawal from the “world,” a “closed” community of committed
participants. Now that in the empire of
Most influential in promoting this symbolic understanding of the Eucharist were the writings of pseudo-Dionysius. Reducing the Eucharistic synaxis to a moral appeal, the Areopagite calls his readers to a “higher” contemplation:
Let us leave to the imperfect these signs which, as I said, are magnificently painted in the vestibules of the sanctuaries; they will be sufficient to feed their contemplation. As far as we are concerned, let us turn back in considering the holy synaxis from the effects to their causes, and, thanks to the lights which Jesus gives us, we should be able to contemplate harmoniously the intelligible realities in which are clearly reflected the blessed goodness of the models.5
Thus, the Eucharist is only the visible “effect” of an invisible “model;” and the celebrant “by offering Jesus Christ to our eyes shows us in a tangible way and as in an image our intelligible life.”6 Thus for Dionysius, “the loftiest sense of the Eucharistic rites and of sacramental communion itself is in symbolizing the union of our minds with God and with Christ... Dionysius never formally presents Eucharistic communion as a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ.”7
Dionysius’ symbolism only superficially affected the Eucharistic rites themselves, but it became quite popular among commentators on the liturgy. Thus, the great Maximus the Confessor whose use of the concept of “symbol” is probably more realistic than Dionysius’ nevertheless systematically applies the terms “symbol” or “image” to the Eucharistic liturgy in general and to the elements of bread and wine in particular.8
the eighth century, this symbolism led to a serious theological debate
concerning the Eucharist — the only one
Thus, the defenders of the images, especially Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus, firmly rejected it. For Theodore, the Eucharist is not “type” but the very “truth;” it is the “mystery which recapitulates the whole of the [divine] dispensation.”10 According to Nicephorus, it is the “flesh of God,” “one and the same thing” with the Body and Blood of Christ,11 who came to save the very reality of human flesh by becoming and remaining “flesh,” even after His glorification; thus in the Eucharist, “what is the matter of the sacrament if the flesh is not real, so that we see it being perfected by the Spirit?”12
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine “Eucharistic realism” clearly departing from Dionysian terminology was redirected along Christological and soteriological lines; in the Eucharist, man participates in the glorified humanity of Christ, which is not the “essence of God”13 but a humanity still consubstantial to man and available to him as food and drink. In his treatise Against Eusebius and Epiphanius, Patriarch Nicephorus is particularly emphatic in condemning the Origenist idea that in the Eucharist man contemplates or participates in the “essence” of God.14 For him as also for later Byzantine theologians, the Eucharist is Christ’s transfigured, life-giving, but still human body en-hypostasized in the Logos and penetrated with divine “energies.” Characteristically, one never finds the category of “essence” (ousia) used by Byzantine theologians in a Eucharistic context. They would consider a term like “transubstantiation” (metousiōsis) improper to designate the Eucharistic mystery and generally use the concept of metabole found in the canon of John Chrysostom or such dynamic terms as “trans-elementation” (metastoicheiōsis) or “re-ordination” (metarrhythmisis). Transubstantiation (metousiōsis) appears only in the writings of the Latinophrones of the thirteenth century and is nothing but a straight translation from the Latin. The first Orthodox author to use it is Gennadios Scholarios;15 but in his case as well direct Latin influence is obvious. The Eucharist is neither a symbol to be “contemplated” from outside nor an “essence” distinct from humanity but Jesus Himself, the risen Lord, “made known through the breaking of bread” (Lk 24:35); Byzantine theologians rarely speculated beyond this realistic and soteriological affirmation of the Eucharistic presence as that of the glorified humanity of Christ.
The rejection of the concept of the Eucharist as “image” or “symbol” is, on the other hand, very significant for the understanding of the entire Eucharistic “perception” of the Byzantines; the Eucharist for them always remained fundamentally a mystery to be received as food and drink and not to be “seen” through physical eyes. The elements remained covered, except during the prayers of consecration and during communion and, in contrast with Western Medieval piety, were never “venerated” outside the framework of the Eucharistic liturgy itself. The Eucharist cannot reveal anything to the sense of vision; it is only the bread of heaven. Vision is offered another channel of revelation — the icons: hence, the revelatory program of the Byzantine iconostasis with the figures of Christ and the saints exposed precisely in order to be seen and venerated. “Christ is not shown in the Holy Gifts,” writes Leonid Ouspensky, “He is given. He is shown in the icons. The visible side of the reality of the Eucharist is an image which can never be replaced either by imagination or by looking at the Holy Gifts.”16
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine Eucharistic theology retained and re-emphasized the mystery and hiddenness of this central liturgical action of the Church. But it also reaffirmed that the Eucharist was essentially a meal which could be partaken of only through eating and drinking because God had assumed the fullness of our humanity with all its psychic and physical functions in order to lead it to resurrection.
Byzantine theologians had an opportunity to make the same point in connection with their anti-Latin polemics against the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The discussion on the azymes, which started in the eleventh century, was generally entangled in arguments of purely symbolic nature (the Greeks maintained, for example, that the Eucharistic bread had to be leavened in order to symbolize the animated humanity of Christ while the Latin used of azymes implied Apollinarianism, i.e., the denial that Jesus had a human soul), but the controversy also recognized that the Byzantines understood the Eucharistic bread to be necessarily consubstantial with humanity, while Latin Medieval piety emphasized its “super substantiality,” its otherworldliness. The use of ordinary bread identical with the bread used as everyday food was the sign of true Incarnation. “What is the daily bread [of the Lord’s Prayer],” asks Nicetas Stethatos, “If it is not consubstantial with us? And the bread consubstantial with us is none other than the Body of Christ, who became consubstantial with us through the flesh of His humanity.”17
The Byzantines did not see the substance of the bread somehow changed in the Eucharistic mystery into another substance — the Body of Christ — but viewed this bread as the “type” of humanity: our humanity changed into the transfigured humanity of Christ.18 For this reason, Eucharistic theology played such a prominent role in the theological debates of the fourteenth century when the basic issue was a confrontation between an autonomous concept of man and the Hesychast defence of “deification.” The great Nicholas Cabasilas, though still bound to the old Dionysian symbolism, overcomes the dangers of Nominalism; clearly for him as also for Gregory Palamas, the Eucharist is the mystery which not only “represents” the life of Christ and offers it to our “contemplation;” it is the moment and the place in which Christ’s deified humanity becomes ours.
He not merely clothed Himself in a body. He also took a soul, mind, and will — everything of human, so that He might be able to be united to the whole of us, penetrate through the whole of us, and resolve us into Himself having in every respect joined His own to that which is ours... For since it has not been possible for us to ascend and participate in that which is His, He comes down to us and participates in that which is ours. And so precisely does He conform to the things which He assumes that in giving to us those things which He has received from us He gives Himself to us. Partaking of the body and blood of His humanity, we receive God Himself in our souls — the Body and Blood of God and the soul, mind, and will of God — no less than His humanity.19
The last word on the Eucharist in Byzantine theology is thus an anthropological and soteriological understanding of the mystery. “In approaching the Eucharist, the Byzantines began not with bread qua bread but with bread qua man.”20 Bread and wine are offered only because the Logos has assumed humanity, and they are being changed and deified by the operation of the Spirit because Christ’s humanity has been transformed into glory through the cross and Resurrection. This is the thought of Cabasilas, as just quoted, and the meaning of the canon of John Chrysostom: “Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts and make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ and that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ, so that, for those who partake, they may be a purification of soul, a remission of sins, the communion of Thy Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Kingdom of heaven...”
Cabasilas, the sacrament of new humanity par excellence, the Eucharist, “alone of
the mysteries perfects the other sacraments..., since they cannot fulfil the
initiation without it.”21 Christians partake of it “continually,” for
“it is the perfect sacrament for all purposes, and there is nothing of which
those who partake thereof stand in need which it does not supply in an eminent
way.”22 The Eucharist is also “the much praised marriage according to
which the most holy Bridegroom espouses the Church as a bride;”23
that means the Eucharist is the very sacrament, which truly transforms a human
community into “the
The ecclesiological significance of the Eucharist, though challenged by the Hellenistic world-view which tended to interpret it as a system of “symbols” visually contemplated by the individual, was always maintained by the Byzantine lex orandi and reaffirmed by those who followed the mainstream of traditional theology. In the controversy on the azymes, the implication on the Byzantine side was that the Eucharist is indeed a paschal mystery, in which our fallen humanity is transformed into the glorified humanity of the New Adam, Christ: this glorified humanity is realized in the Body of the Church.
These anthropological presuppositions of Byzantine Eucharistic theology necessarily had to include the concepts of “synergy” and of the unity of mankind.
It is against the background of the Greek patristic doctrine of “synergy” that one can really understand the significance of the Byzantine insistence on the epiclesis in the Eucharistic liturgy, another issue debated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by Greek and Latin theologians. The text of the epiclesis, as it appears in the canon of John Chrysostom and in other Eastern liturgies, implies that the mystery is accomplished through a prayer of the entire Church (“We ask Thee...”) — a concept which does not necessarily exclude the idea that the bishop or priest pronouncing the words of institution acts in persona Christi, as Latin theology insists, but which deprives this notion of its exclusivity by interpreting the ministerial sacerdotal “power” to perform the sacraments as a function of the entire worshipping Body of the Church.
In well-known passages of his Commentary on the Liturgy, Cabasilas, defending the epiclesis, rightly recalls that all sacraments are accomplished through prayer. Specifically, he quotes the consecration of the chrism, the prayers of ordination, of absolution, and of the anointing of the sick.24 Thus, he writes, “it is the tradition of the Fathers, who received this teaching from the Apostles and from their successors, that the sacraments are rendered effective through prayer; all the sacraments, as I have said, and particularly the holy Eucharist.”25 This “deprecatory” form of sacramental rites does not imply however a doctrine of validity ex opere operantis, i.e., dependent upon the worthiness of the celebrant. “He who celebrates the sacrifice daily,” Cabasilas continues, “is but the minister of the grace. He brings to it nothing of his own; he would not dare to do or say anything according to his own judgment and reason... Grace works all; the priest is only a minister, and that very ministry comes to him by grace; he does not hold it on his own account.”26
mystery of the Church, fully realized in the Eucharist, overcomes the dilemma of
prayer and response, of nature and grace, of the divine as opposed to the human,
because the Church, as the Body of Christ, is precisely a communion of God and
man, not only where God is present and active, but where humanity becomes fully
“acceptable to God,” fully adequate to the original divine plan; prayer itself
then becomes an act of communion, where there cannot be any question of its not
being heard by God. The conflict, the “question,” the separateness, and the
sinfulness are still present in each individual member of the Church, but only
inasmuch as he has not fully appropriated the divine presence and refuses to
conform to it; the presence itself however is the “new testament in my Blood”
(Lk 22:20), and God will not take it away. Thus, all Christians — including the
bishop, or the priest — are individually nothing more than sinners, whose
prayers are not necessarily heard, but when gathered together in the name of
Christ, as the “
As a divine-human communion and “synergy,” the Eucharist is a prayer addressed “in Christ” to the Father, and accomplished through the descent of the Holy Spirit. The epiclesis, therefore, is the fulfilment of the Eucharistic action, just as Pentecost is the fulfilment of a divine “economy” of salvation; salvation is always a Trinitarian action. The pneumatological dimension of the Eucharist is also presupposed in the very notion of “synergy;” it is the Spirit which makes Christ present in the age between His two comings: when divine action is not imposing itself on humanity, but offering itself for acceptance by human freedom and, by communicating itself to man, making him authentically free.
At all times, Byzantine theologians understood the Eucharist as the centre of a soteriological and triadological mystery, not simply as a change of bread and wine. Those who followed ‘Dionysian symbolism approached the Eucharist in the context of a Hellenistic hierarchical cosmos, and understood it as the centre of salvific action through mystical “contemplation,” which still involved the whole destiny of humanity and the world. Those who held a more Biblical view of man and a more Christocentric understanding of history approached the Eucharist as the key to ecclesiology; the Church, for them, was primarily the place where God and man met in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist became the .criterion of ecclesial structure and the inspiration of all Christian action and responsibility in the world. In both cases the Eucharist was understood in a cosmological and ecclesiological dimension affirmed in the formula of the Byzantine oblation: “Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee in behalf of all and for all.”
One of the ideas, which constantly appears in Byzantine “symbolic” interpretations of the Eucharist, is that the temple in which the Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated is an image of the “new,” transfigured cosmos. The idea is found in several early Christian writers, and reappears in Maximus the Confessor27 and, later, in Symeon of Thessalonica.28 Undoubtedly, it inspired the Byzantine architects who built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the model of all temples of the East, with the circle as its central geometrical theme. In the Neo-Platonic tradition, the circle, the symbol of plenitude, is the standard image of God; God is reflected in His creatures, once they are restored to their original design: “He circumscribes their expansion in a circle and sets Himself as the pattern of the beings which He has created,” writes Maximus, adding immediately that “The holy Church is an image of God, since it effects the union of the faithful, as God does.”29 The Church, as community and as building, is, therefore, a sign of the new age, the eschatological anticipation of the new creation, the created cosmos restored in its original wholeness. Clearly, a theologian like Maximus uses the models and categories of his age to describe the fullness of the world to come. His interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy is “less an initiation into the mystery of the liturgy than an introduction to the mystery with the liturgy as a starting point;”30 but the very idea that the Eucharist is an anticipation of the eschatological fulfilment is affirmed in the canon of the Byzantine liturgy itself, which recalls the second coming of Christ as an event which has already occurred: “Remembering this saving commandment and all the things which have come to pass for us, the cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, and the second and glorious coming, we offer unto Thee...”
This eschatological character of the Eucharistic mystery, strongly expressed in the liturgy, in the religious art which served as its framework, and in the theological commentaries, whatever their school of thought, explains why the Byzantines always believed that in the Eucharist the Church is fully “the Church,” and that the Eucharist is the ultimate criterion and seal of all the other sacraments. Following pseudo-Dionysius, who spoke of the Eucharist as the “sacrament of sacraments,”31 as the “focal point” of each particular sacrament,32 Byzantine theologians affirm the absolute centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church: “It is the final sacrament,” writes Cabasilas, “because it is not possible to proceed further and to add anything to it.”33 “The Eucharist alone of the mysteries brings perfection to the other sacraments..., since they cannot complete the initiation without it.”34 Symeon of Thessalonica applies this idea concretely to individual sacraments. Concerning marriage, for example, he writes that the bridal pair “must be ready to receive communion, so that their crowning be a worthy one and their marriage valid;” and he specifies that communion is not given to those whose marriage is defective from the point of view of Church discipline, and is, therefore, not fully the sacrament, but simply a “good fellowship.”35
local church where the “divine liturgy” of the Eucharist is celebrated
possesses, therefore, the “marks” of the true
Liturgical discipline and Byzantine canon law try to protect this
unifying and catholic character of the Eucharist. They require that on each
altar no more than one Eucharist be celebrated each day; similarly, a priest, or
bishop, is not allowed to celebrate twice on the same day. Whatever the
practical inconveniences, these rules aim at preserving the Eucharist at least
nominally as the gathering “of all together at the same place” (Ac 2:1); all
should be together at the same altar, around the same bishop, at the same time,
because there is only one Christ, one Church, and one Eucharist. The idea that
the Eucharist is the sacrament uniting the whole Church remained alive in the
East and prevented the multiplication of Masses of intention and of low Masses.
The Eucharistic liturgy always remained a festal event in
As a manifestation of the Church’s unity and wholeness, the Eucharist served also as the ultimate theological norm for ecclesiastical structure: the local church where the Eucharist is celebrated was always considered to be not merely a “part” of a universal organization, but the whole Body of Christ manifested sacramentally and including the entire “communion of saints,” living or departed. Such a manifestation was seen as a necessary basis for the geographical expansion of Christianity, but it was not identical with it. Theologically, the sacrament is the sign and reality of the eschatological anticipation of the Kingdom of God, and the episcopate — necessary centre of this reality — is envisaged primarily in its sacramental function, with the other aspects of its ministry (pastorate, teaching) based on this “high priestly” function in the local community, rather than on the idea of a co-optation into a universal apostolic college. The bishop was, first of all, the image of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery. “O Lord our God,” says the prayer of Episcopal ordination, “who in Thy providence hast instituted for us teachers of like nature with ourselves, to maintain Thine Altar, that they may offer unto Thee sacrifice and oblation for all Thy people; do Thou, the same Lord, make this man also, who has been proclaimed a steward of the Episcopal grace, to be an imitator of Thee, the true Shepherd...”36
Thus, according to pseudo-Dionysius, the “high priest” (archiereys) possesses the “first” and the “last” order of hierarchy and “fulfils every hierarchic consecration.”37 Symeon of Thessalonica also defines the Episcopal dignity in terms of its sacramental functions; the bishop for him is the one who performs all sacraments — baptism, chrismation, Eucharist, ordination; he is the one “through whom all ecclesiastical acts are perfected.”38 The Eucharist is, indeed, the ultimate manifestation of God in Christ; and there cannot be, therefore, any ministry higher and more decisive than that which presides over the Eucharist. The centrality of the Eucharist, the awareness that the fullness of Christ’s Body abides in it and that the Episcopal function is the highest in the Church will be the principal foundation of the Byzantine opposition to any theological interpretation of supra-Episcopal primacies: there cannot be, according to them, any authority “by divine right” over the Eucharist and the bishop who heads the Eucharistic assembly.
practice of the
1. Horn, in Π Tim. 2, 4; PG 62:612.
2. Catechetical oration, 37, ed. Strawley, p. 152.
3. Letter 93, ed. Deferrari, II, 145.
4. Sec Chapter 1. For a good historical review of Byzantine Eucharistic theologies and practices (with earlier bibliography), see H. J. Schulz, Die byzanunische Litnrgie — vom Werden ihrer Symbolgestalt (Freiburg: Lambertus-Verlag, 1964).
5. Eccl Hier., III, 3, 1-2; PG 3:428AC.
6. Ibid., III, 13; 444c; see our comments on these texts in Christ, pp. 79-80.
7. R. Roques, L’univers dionysien. Structure hierarchique dtt monde selon le pseudo-Denys (Paris: Aubier, 1954), pp. 267, 269.
8. See particularly Quaestiones et dubia 41; PG 90:820A. On the liturgical theology oЈ Maximus, see R. Bornert, Les commentaires byzantins de la divine liturgie du Vile au XVe siecle, Archives dc lOrient chrétien, 9 (Paris: Institut francais deludes byzantincs, 1966), pp. 82-124.
9. Mansi, XIII, 261D-264C.
10. Aniirrh. I; PG 99:340AC.
11. Aniirrh. II; PG 100:336B-337A.
Eusebium, cd. J. B. Pitra, Spicilegium Solesmense, I (
13. Nicephorus, ibid., p. 446.
14. Ibid., pp. 468-469.
15. De sacramentali cor pore Christi, edd. L. Petit and M. Jugie, I (Paris: Bonne Presse, 1928), pp. 126, 134.
16. “The Problem of the Iconostasis,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 8 (1964), No. 4, 215.
17. Dialexis et antidialogus, ed. A. Michel, Humbert und Kerullarios II (Paderborn: Quellen und Forschungen, 1930), pp. 322-323.
18. This aspect of the controversy on the azymes is brilliantly shown in J. H. Erickson, “Leavened and Unleavened: Some Theological Implications of the Schism of 1054,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 14 (1970), No. 3, 155-176.
19. De vita in Christo, IV, 9:PG 150:592D-593A.
20. Erickson, Op. cit., p. 165.
21. De vita in Christo, IV, 4, 585D. See also Gregory Palamas, Confession of Faith; PG 151:765, trans. A. Papadakis, “Gregory Palamas at the Council of Blachernae, 1351,” Creek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 10 (1969), 340.
22. Ibid., 11; 596C.
23. Ibid., 10; 593.
24. Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 29, edd. R. Bornert, J. Gouillard, and P. Perichon, Sources ChMennes, 4 bis (Paris: Cerf, 1967), pp. 185-187; trans. Husscy and McNulty (London: SPCK, 1960), pp. 74-75.
25. Ibid., p. 190; tr. pp. 75-76.
26. Ed. cit., 46, p. 262; tr. pp. 104-105.
27. See the references in R. Borncrt, Op. cit., pp. 93-94.
28. De sacro tcmplo, 131, 139, 152; PG 155:337D, 348C, 357A.
29. Mystagogia, 1; PG 91:668B.
30. R. Bornert, Op. cit., p. 92.
31. Eccl. Hier., III, 1; PG 3:424C.
32. Ibid., col. 444D.
33. De vita in Christo, IV, 1; PG 150:581B.
34. Ibid.. IV, 4; 585B.
35. De sacro templo, 282; PG 155:512iv-513A.
36. Jacobus Goar,
Euchohgion sive Rituale Graecorum (
37. Hier. Eccl. V, 5; PG 3:505A, 6:505c, etc.
38. De sacris ordinationibus 157; PG 155:364B.
39. De vita in Christo, IV, 8; PG 150:604B.
Christians were Christians only because Christianity brought to them liberation from death. If one would penetrate to the heart of Eastern Christianity one must be present on the night when the Easter liturgy is celebrated: of this liturgy all other rites are but reflections or figures. The three words of the Easter troparion — the Easter hymn — repeated a thousand times in tones ever more and more triumphant, repeated to the point of ecstasy and of an overflowing mystic joy — “By His death He has trodden death beneath His feet” — here is the great message of the Byzantine Church: the joy of Easter, the banishing of that ancient terror which beset the life of man, this it is which has won and kept the allegiance of the masses; it is this creed of triumph which has been translated into all the languages of the Orient, and yet has never lost its virtue; this is the faith which found its material expression in the icon, so that even when the originality of the artist fell short, man’s shortcoming could not veil the meaning of that joyous Mystery.1
These words of a secular historian reflect quite adequately what we have tried to suggest about Byzantine Christianity as experience. Whether he was a theologian, a monk, or an average layman, the Byzantine Christian knew that his Christian faith was not an obedient acceptance of intellectual propositions, issued by an appropriate authority but on evidence, accessible to him personally in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and also in the life of prayer and contemplation, the one being inseparable from the other. Not physical, or emotional, or intellectual, this experience is described as gnosis, or as “spiritual senses,” or as inner “certainty.” To affirm that it was impossible for any Christian to achieve this knowledge was considered as the greatest “heresy” by Symeon the New Theologian. Whether one considers with Vladimir Lossky that “in a certain sense all theology is mystical,”2 or whether one looks down sceptically upon Byzantine “obligatory mysticism,” it is obvious that the definition of Christianity as “experience” raises the issue of its witness to the world in terms of verbal expressions, or definitions, and in terms of action, of behaviour, and of practical responsibility. In the eyes of Western Christians, the Eastern Church often appears as quite other-worldly, and, indeed, the West has traditionally been much more concerned than the East with organizing human society, with defining the Christian truth in terms which could be readily understood, with giving man concrete normative formulae of behaviour and conduct. To attempt a critical description of this problem in Byzantine theology is to raise one of the basic theological and anthropological issues of Christian life: the relation between the absolute divine truth and the relative faculties of perception and action possessed by created and fallen man.
great dream of Byzantine civilization was a universal Christian society
administered by the emperor and spiritually guided by the Church. This idea
obviously combined Roman and Christian universalisms in one single
socio-political program. It was also based upon the theological presuppositions
concerning man which were developed above:3 man, by nature, is
God-centred in all aspects of his life, and he is responsible for the fate of
the entire creation. As long as Christianity was persecuted, this Biblical
assertion could be nothing more than an article of faith, to be realized at the
end of history and anticipated in the sacraments. With the “conversion” of
The official version of the Byzantine social ideal is expressed in the famous text of Justinian’s Sixth Novella:
There are two greatest gifts which God, in his love for man, has granted from on high: the priesthood and the imperial dignity. The first serves divine things, the second directs and administers human affairs; both however proceed from the same origin and adorn the life of mankind. Hence, nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the dignity of the priests, since it is for the [imperial] welfare that they constantly implore God. For if the priesthood is in every way free from blame and possesses access to God, and if the emperors administer equitably and judiciously the state entrusted to their care, general harmony will result, and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race.4
In the thought of
Justinian, the “symphony” between “divine things” and “human affairs” was based
upon the Incarnation, which united the divine and human natures, so that the
person of Christ is the unique source of the two — the civil and ecclesiastical
hierarchies. The fundamental mistake of this approach was to assume that the
ideal humanity which was manifested, through the Incarnation, in the person of
Jesus Christ could also find an adequate manifestation in the
providential significance of the one world-empire was exalted, not only in
imperial laws, but also in ecclesiastical hymnography. A Christmas hymn,
ascribed to the ninth-century nun Kassia, proclaims a direct connection between
the world-empire of
When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of man came to end: And when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; And the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; And we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, When Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.5
As late as 1397, when he had almost reached the nadir of political misery, the Byzantine still understood the universal empire as the necessary support of Christian universalism. Solicited by Prince Basil of Moscow on the issue whether the Russians could omit the liturgical commemoration of the emperor, while continuing to mention the patriarch, Patriarch Anthony iv replied: “It is not possible for Christians to have the Church and not to have the Empire; for Church and Empire form a great unity and community; it is not possible for them to be separated from one another.” 6
The idea of the Christian and universal empire presupposed that the emperor had obligations, both as guardian of the faith and as witness of God’s mercy for man. According to the ninth-century Epanagogë, “The purpose of the emperor is to do well, and therefore he is called benefactor, and when he fails in this obligation to do good, he forsakes his imperial dignity.”7 The system was an authentic attempt to view human life in Christ as a whole: it did not admit any dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, the individual and the social, or the doctrinal and the ethical, but recognized a certain polarity between “divine things” — essentially the sacramental communion of man with God — and “human affairs.” Yet between the two, there had to be a “symphony” in the framework of a single Christian “society” in which both Church and state cooperated in preserving the faith and in building a society based on charity and humaneness.8
wholeness of the Byzantine concept of the Christian mission in the world
reflects the fundamental Chalcedonian belief in the total assumption of humanity
by the Son of God in the Incarnation. The Christian faith, therefore, is
understood to lead to the transfiguration and “deification” of the entire man;
and, as we have seen, this “deification” is indeed accessible, as a living
experience, even now, and not merely in a future kingdom. Byzantine ecclesiology
and Byzantine political philosophy both assume that baptism endows man with that
experience, which transforms not only the “soul” but the whole man, and makes
him, already in this present life, a citizen of the
One can actually see that the main characteristic of Eastern Christianity, in its ethical and social attitudes, is to consider man as already redeemed and glorified in Christ; by contrast, Western Christendom has traditionally understood the present state of humanity in both a more realistic and a more pessimistic way: though redeemed and “justified” in the eyes of God by the sacrifice of the cross, man remains a sinner. The primary function of the Church, therefore, is to provide him with criteria of thought and a discipline of behaviour, which would allow him to overcome his sinful condition and direct him to good works. On this assumption, the Church is understood primarily as an institution established in the world, serving the world and freely using the means available in the world and appropriate for dealing with sinful humanity, particularly the concepts of law, authority, and administrative power. The contrast between the structures built by the Medieval papacy and the eschatological, experiential, and “other-worldly” concepts which prevailed in the ecclesiological thinking of the Byzantine East helps us to understand the historical fate of East and West. In the West, the Church developed as a powerful institution; in the East, it was seen primarily as a sacramental (or “mystical”) organism in charge of “divine things” and endowed with only limited institutional structures. The structures (patriarchates, metropolitanates, and other officialdom) themselves were shaped by the empire (except for the fundamental tripartite hierarchy — bishop, priest, deacon — in each local church) and were not considered to be of divine origin.
This partial surrender on the “institutional” side of Christianity to the empire contributed to the preservation of a sacramental and eschatological understanding of the Church, but it was not without serious dangers. In its later history the Eastern Church experienced the fact that the state did not always deserve its confidence, and often assumed a clearly demonic face.
Throughout the Byzantine period proper however the Justianian “symphony”
worked better than one could expect. The mystical and otherworldly character of
Byzantine Christianity was largely responsible for some major characteristics of
the state itself. The emperor’s personal power, for example, was understood as a
form of charismatic ministry: the sovereign was chosen by God, not by men; hence
the absence, in
This charismatic understanding of the state obviously lacked political realism and efficiency. “Providential usurpations” were quite frequent, and political stability was an exception. In political terms, the Byzantine imperial system was indeed a Utopia. Conceived as a universal counterpart of a universal Church, the empire never achieved universality; understood as a reflection of the heavenly kingdom of God, it has a history of bloody revolutions, of wars, and — like all Medieval states — of social injustice. As always and everywhere, the ideals of Christianity proved inapplicable in legal and institutional terms; they only gave hope to individual heroes of the faith and impulse to those who were striving to draw man closer to the ideal of the “life in Christ” which had become accessible to man. The Byzantines recognized this fact, at least implicitly, when they paid such great veneration to the saints, in whom they saw the divine light shining in a “world” which was theoretically Christianized, but which in fact had changed little after the establishment of Christianity. The permanent presence, in the midst of Byzantine society, of innumerable monastic communities, which — at least the best among them — were withdrawing from the world in order to manifest that the Kingdom was not yet there, was another reminder that there could not be any real and permanent “symphony” between God and the world, only an unstable and dynamic polarity.
polarity was, in fact, nothing else than the opposition between the “old” and
the “new” Adam in man. In terms of social ethics, it excluded clear-cut formulae
and legal absolutes, and prevented the Church from being fully identified with
an institution defined in terms of politics, or sociology; but, at times, it was
also interpreted as a Platonic or Manichaean dualism, and it then meant total
withdrawal from social responsibility. Occasionally this attitude led to a
takeover by the state of the Church’s mission, leaving the monks alone in their
witness to the inevitable conflict and polarity between the
Byzantine concept according to which the empire and the Church were allied in
the leadership of a single universal
Outside the imperial borders, the Church-state alliance frequently led to
a de facto identification, in the
eyes of the non-Christians, of the political interests of the empire with the
fate of Orthodox Christianity. Non-Christian rulers of
Missionary activity was quite successful however among the barbarians
coming from the North — Mongols, Slavs, and Caucasians — who flooded imperial
territories and eventually settled as the empire’s northern neighbours. It is
this missionary work which actually preserved the universal character of the
Orthodox Church after the lapse of the non-Greek communities of the
The Byzantine mission to the Slavs is usually associated with what is called “Cyrillo-Methodian ideology” and is characterized by the translation of both Scripture and liturgy into the vernacular language of the newly converted nations by two brothers, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, in the ninth century. In actual fact however Byzantine churchmen were not always consistent with the principles adopted by the first missionaries; historical evidence shows that enforced Hellenization and cultural integration were also practiced, especially when the empire succeeded in achieving direct political control over Slavic lands. Still the fundamental theological meaning of Christian mission, as expressed by Cyril (or “Constantine the philosopher,” Cyril’s secular name), was never challenged in principle:
Since you have learned to hear, Slavic people,
Hear the Word, for it came from God,
The Word nourishing human souls,
The Word strengthening heart and mind. ...
“In offering my prayer to God,
I had rather speak five words
That all the brethren will understand
Than ten thousand words which are incomprehensible.”11
author sees the proclamation of the Gospel as essential to the very nature of
the Christian faith, which is a revelation of the eternal Word or Logos of God.
The Word must be heard and understood; hence the necessity of a translation of
Scripture and worship into the vernacular. This principle — expressed by the
Prologue in terms which Martin Luther would not have disavowed — will remain the
distinctive characteristic of Orthodox missions, at a time when the Christian
West was opting for a unified but dead language — Latin — as the only channel
for communicating the Word. Cyril and Methodius, during their mission to
deliberate policy of translation implied a mission evolving into the rapid
“indigenization” of the Church, which became an integral part of the various
national cultures. Eventually, Byzantine Orthodox Christianity became deeply
rooted in their lives, and neither foreign domination nor secular ideologies
could easily uproot it. But indigenization also implied the existence of
“national” churches, especially after the dismemberment of what Obolensky has
called the “
Byzantine missionary methods and principles found their continuation in
Orthodox Russia. Stephen of Perm (1340-1396), for example, is known as the
apostle of the Zyrians, a Finnish tribe in north-eastern
Eschatology can never really be considered a separate chapter of Christian theology, for it qualifies the character of theology as a whole. This is especially true of Byzantine Christian thought, as we have tried to show in the preceding chapters. Not only does it consider man’s destiny — and the destiny of all of creation — as oriented toward an end; this orientation is the main characteristic of the sacramental doctrines, of its spirituality, and of its attitude toward the “world.” Furthermore, following Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, it considers the ultimate end itself as a dynamic state of man and of the whole of creation: the goal of created existence is not, as Origen thought, a static contemplation of divine “essence,” but a dynamic ascent of love, which never ends, because God’s transcendent being is inexhaustible, and which, thus, always contains new things yet to be discovered (novissima) through the union of love.
The eschatological state however is not only a reality of the future but a present experience, accessible in Christ through the gifts of the Spirit. The Eucharistic canon of the liturgy of John Chrysostom commemorates the second coming of Christ together with events of the past — the cross, the grave, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. In the Eucharistic presence of the Lord, His forthcoming advent is already realized, and “time” is being transcended. Similarly, the entire tradition of Eastern monastic spirituality is based upon the premise that now, in this life, Christians can experience the vision of God and the reality of “deification.”
This strong emphasis on an “already realized” eschatology explains why Byzantine Christianity lacks a sense of direct responsibility for history as such. Or if it acknowledges such a responsibility, it tends to rely on such institutions as history itself may produce, particularly the Christian empire. The Christian state and the Church as such, assume a responsibility for society as a whole, receiving guidance and inspiration from the Christian Gospel. But the dynamic “movement,” which characterizes the “new humanity in Christ,” and for which the Church is responsible, is not the movement of history but a mystical growth in God, known to the saints alone. The movement certainly occurs in the midst of history and may, to a degree, influence the historical process, but it does not belong to history essentially because it anticipates the end of history. It is, indeed, the “movement” of nature, and of the natural man, but natural humanity — humanity as originally conceived and created by God — presupposes communion with God, freedom from the world, lordship over creation and over history. It must, therefore, be independent from what the world understands as history.
Existing in history, the Church expects the second coming of Christ in power as the visible triumph of God in the world and the final transfiguration of the whole of creation. Man, as centre and lord of creation, will then be restored to his original stature, which has been corrupted by sin and death; this restoration will imply the “resurrection of the flesh,” because man is not only a “soul,” but a psychosomatic whole, necessarily incomplete without his body. Finally, the second coming will also be a judgment, because the criterion of all righteousness — Christ Himself — will be present not “in faith” only, appealing for man’s free response, but in full evidence and power.
These three essential meanings of the parousia — cosmic transfiguration, resurrection, and judgment — are not subjects of detailed speculation by Byzantine theologians; yet they stand at the very centre of Byzantine liturgical experience.
The feast of the Transfiguration (August 6), one of the highlights of the Byzantine liturgical year, celebrates, in the “Taboric light,” the eschatological anticipation of Christ’s coming: “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, Ο Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole of creation.”14 On Easter night, the eschatological dimension of the Resurrection is proclaimed repeatedly: “O Christ, the Passover great and most holy! Ο Wisdom, Word, and Power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the day which knows no night in Thy Kingdom.”15 The parousia, as judgment, appears frequently in Byzantine hymnology, particularly in the Lenten cycle. In this cycle, too, active love for one’s neighor is often emphasized by the hymnographers: “Having learned the commandments of the Lord, let us follow this polity: let us feed the hungry, let us give drink to the thirsty, let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers, let us visit the sick and the prisoners, so that the One who comes to judge the whole earth may tell us: come, Ο blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom which is prepared for you.”16
The only subject on which Byzantine theologians were forced into more systematic and theoretical debates on eschatology was the Medieval controversy on purgatory. The Latin doctrine that divine justice requires retribution for all sins committed, and that, whenever “satisfaction” could not be offered before death, justice would be accomplished through the temporary “fire of purgatory,” was included in the Profession of Faith signed by emperor Michael VIII Paleologus and accepted at the Council of Lyons (1274).17 The short-lived union of Lyons did not provoke much debate on the subject in Byzantium, but the question arose again in Florence and was debated for several weeks; the final decree on union, which Mark of Ephesus refused to sign, included a long definition on purgatory.18
The debate between Greeks and Latins, in which Mark was the main Greek spokesman, showed a radical difference of perspective. While the Latins took for granted their legalistic approach to divine justice — which, according to them, requires a retribution for every sinful act — the Greeks interpreted sin less in terms of the acts committed than in terms of a moral and spiritual disease which was to be healed by divine forbearance and love. The Latins also emphasized the idea of an individual judgment by God of each soul, a judgment which distributes the souls into three categories: the just, the wicked, and those in a middle category — who need to be “purified” by fire. The Greeks, meanwhile, without denying a particular judgment after death or agreeing on the existence of the three categories, maintained that neither the just nor the wicked will attain their final state of either bliss or condemnation before the last day. Both sides agreed that prayers for the departed are necessary and helpful, but Mark of Ephesus insisted that even the just need them; he referred, in particular, to the Eucharistic canon of Chrysostom’s liturgy, which offers the “bloodless sacrifice” for “patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” and even for the Virgin Mary herself. Obviously he understood the state of the blessed, not as a legal and static justification, but as a never-ending ascent, into which the entire communion of saints — the Church in heaven and the Church on earth — has been initiated in Christ.19 In the communion of the Body of Christ, all members of the Church, living or dead, are interdependent and united by ties of love and mutual concern; thus, the prayers of the Church on earth and the intercession of the saints in heaven can effectively help all sinners, i.e., all men, to get closer to God. This communion of saints however is still in expectation of the ultimate fulfilment of the parousia and of the general resurrection, when a decisive, though mysterious, landmark will be reached for each individual destiny.
The Florentine debate on purgatory seems to have been largely improvised on the spot, and both sides used arguments from Scripture and tradition which do not always sound convincing. Still, the difference in the fundamental attitude toward salvation in Christ is easily discernible. Legal-ism, which applied to individual human destiny the Anselmian doctrine of “satisfaction,” is the ratio theologica of the Latin doctrine on purgatory. For Mark of Ephesus however salvation is communion and “deification.” On his way to God, the Christian does not stand alone; he is a member of Christ’s Body. He can achieve this communion even now, before his death as well as afterward, and, in any case, he needs the prayer of the whole Body, at least until the end of time when Christ will be “all in all.” Of course, such an understanding of salvation through communion excludes any legalistic view of the Church’s pastoral and sacramental powers over either the living or the dead (the East will never have a doctrine of “indulgences”), or any precise description of the state of the departed souls before the general resurrection.
Except for the negative act of rejecting the Latin doctrine of purgatory
implied in the canonization of Mark of Ephesus and in later doctrinal statements
of Orthodox theologians, the Orthodox Church never entered the road of seeking
exact doctrinal statements on the “beyond.” A variety of popular beliefs, often
sanctioned in hagiographic literature, exists in practice, but the Church
itself, and especially its liturgy, limits itself to a fundamentally
Christocentric eschatology: “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in
God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in
The ultimate fulfilment of humanity’s destiny will consist however in a last judgment. The condemnation of Origenism by the Fifth Council (553) implies the very explicit rejection of the doctrine of apocatastasis, i.e., the idea that the whole of creation and all of humanity will ultimately be “restored” to their original state of bliss. Obviously, the basic reason why apocatastasis was deemed incompatible with the Christian understanding of man’s ultimate destiny is that it implies a radical curtailment of human freedom. If Maximus the Confessor is right in defining freedom, or self-determination, as the very sign of the image of God in man,20 it is obvious that this freedom is ultimate and that man cannot be forced into a union with God, even in virtue of such philosophical necessity as God’s “goodness.” At the ultimate confrontation with the Logos, on the last day, man will still have the option of rejecting Him and thus will go to “hell.”
Man’s freedom is not destroyed even by physical death; thus, there is the possibility of continuous change and mutual intercession. But it is precisely this freedom which implies responsibility and, therefore, the ultimate test of the last judgment, when — alone in the entire cosmic system, which will then experience its final transfiguration — man will still have the privilege of facing the eternal consequence of either his “yes” or his “no” to God.
2. Mystical Theology, p. 7.
3. See Chapter 11.
4. Novella VI, Corpus juris civilis, ed. Rudolfus
5. The festal Uenaion, p. 254.
patriarchattis Conslaniinopolitanit edcl. F. Miklosich and
7. Title 2, Jus
graeco-romanum, ed. Zepos (
8. On this last aspect of Byzantine ideology, see D. J. Constantelos, Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1968).
9. See J. Meyendorff, “Byzantine Views of Islam,” Dumbarton Oafa Papers 18 (1964), 115-132; and A. Khoury, Les theologiens byzantins et I’lslam (Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1969).
10. For the
history of these missions and their cultural consequences, see Francis Dvornik,
Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
1970); and D. Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth:
11. Trans. by Roman Jakobson in “St. Constantine’s Prologue to the Gospel,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 7 (1963), No. 1, 17-18.
12. Vita Constantini 16, 7-8 in Constantinus et Methodius Thessalonicenses. Fontes, Radovi Staroslovensf(pg Instituta 4 (1960), 131.
13. On Stephen, see particularly George Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), II, 230-245.
14. Exaposteilariont The festal Menaion, p. 495.
15. Paschal canon, ode 9, Pentekpstarion; this troparion is also used as a post-communion prayer in the Eucharistic liturgy.
16. Meat-fare Sunday, vespers, Lite, Triodion.
17. Enchiridion Symbolorum, ed. H. Denziger, No. 464.
18. Ibid., No. 693.
19. See the two
treatises of Mark on purgatory in L. Petit, “Documents relatifs au Concilc dc
20. “Since man was created according to the image of the blessed and supra-essential deity, and since, on the other hand, the divine nature is free, it is obvious that man is free by nature, being the image of the deity” (Disp. cum Pyrrho; PG 91:304C).
The conversion of Greek intellectuals to Christianity meant that philosophical concepts and the arguments of logic would be extensively used in expressing and developing Christian truths. Yet the sacramental understanding of the church implied the hierarchical structure, a continuity in the teaching office, and, finally, conciliar authority. Neither concepts nor hierarchy however were conceived as sources of the Christian experience itself, but only as means to safeguard it, to channel it in accordance with the original rule of faith, and to express it in such a way as to give it life and relevance in the changing and developing processes of history.
In order to preserve its identity, Byzantine the theological thought had to experience several major crises: the recurring temptation of adopting the Hellenistic world-view of Origenism; the conflict with the Roman papacy on the nature of Church authority; the doctrinal controversy over the “energies” of God in the fourteenth century, and several others. Inevitably, the controversies led to formal attitudes and definitions, partly determined by polemics. A certain “freezing” of concepts and formulae was the inevitable result. However, even in their formal definitions, Byzantine theologians have generally succeeded in preserving a sense of inadequacy between the formulae and the content of the faith: the most obvious and positive truths of Christian experience were thus expressed in antinomies, i.e., in propositions which, in formal logic, are mutually exclusive without being irrational.
Thus, the Byzantine concerns on the doctrine of God, derived from the polemics of the Cappadocian Fathers against Eunomius and crystallized in fourteenth-century Palamism, affirms in God a real distinction between the Persons and the common “essence,” just as it maintains that the same God is both transcendent (in the “essence”) and immanent (in the “energies”). Similarly, while essentially unchangeable, God is affirmed as becoming the creator of the world in time through His “energy;” but since “energy” is uncreated — i.e., is God — changeability is seen as a real attribute of the divine. The philosophical antinomies required in this theology reflect a personalistic and dynamic understanding of God, a positive experience of the God of the Bible, inexpressible in Greek philosophical terms.
On the level of anthropology one finds equally antinomic concepts in Byzantine Christian thought. Man, while certainly a creature and, as such, external to God, is defined, in his very nature, as being fully himself only when he is in communion with God. This communion is not a static contemplation of God’s “essence” (as Origen thought), but an eternal progress into the inexhaustible riches of divine life. This is precisely the reason why the doctrine of theōsis — i.e., the process through which, in Christ, man recovers his original relation to God and grows into God “from glory to glory” — is the central theme of Byzantine theology and of the Eastern Christian experience itself.
If one understands the ultimate destiny of man, and therefore also his “salvation,” in terms of theōsis, or “deification,” rather than as a justification from sin and guilt, the Church will necessarily be viewed primarily as a communion of free sons of God and only secondarily as an institution endowed with authority to govern and to judge. Again, it is impossible to define Byzantine ecclesiology without at least a partial recourse to antinomy, particularly in describing the relation between the “institution” and the “event,” between the “Levite” and the “prophet,” between the “hierarch” and the “saint.” In the absence of any legal or infallible criterion of authority, with frequently reiterated statements that authority is not a source of truth but is itself dependent upon the faith of those who are called to exercise it, it was inevitable that the monastic community, as well as individual spiritual personalities, would occasionally compete with bishops and councils as spokesmen of the authentic tradition and as witnesses to the truth. In fact, this polarity was an integral part of the Church’s life and did not necessarily lead to conflict: it only reflected the mystery of human freedom which was seen as the very gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon every Christian at his baptism and making him a fully responsible member of Christ’s Body, However, even then, the sacramental understanding of ecclesiology served as a guarantee against individualism and arbitrariness: responsibility could only be understood in this ecclesial and sacramental framework, which, in turn, was impossible without an identifiable ministry of bishops and priests.
are the basic intuitions which determined the social and individual ethics of
the Byzantine Christians. Actually, one can hardly find, in the entire religious
The religious inheritance of Christian Byzantium has frequently defined itself in opposition to the West, and indeed its entire concept of God-man relationships is different from one which prevailed in post-Augustinian Latin Christianity. Contemporary man — searching for a God who would be not only transcendent but also existentially experienced and immanently present in man, and the gradual discovery of man as essentially open, developing, and growing — should be more receptive to the basic positions of Byzantine thought, which may then acquire an astonishingly contemporary relevance.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doc” trine I. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 9.