Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saint Thomas & Scholasticism, a Legacy of Orthodox Christianity

Underneath the glow of candles lit before icons of the Pantokrator and the Theotokos and the sweet scent of incense a current runs in Greek Christianity that says "We have never changed or thought about anything, ever." One deacon told a very confused congregation "We don't write things down, we just do what the people before us did," a remark which only further befuddled the befuddled. Any contrast with Latin Christianity draws buzz words like "legalism", "Aristotle", "juridical", "original", "mystical", "pastoral", and "the Fathers". What the faithful do not often hear is that Scholasticism and the forces behind it are as much or more integral to Orthodox Christianity than the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian or Palamas.

A "Scholastic" is a "school man", a variation of the word schola, school in Latin. Schools were not centers of textbook reading, flag saluting, and learning how not to offend men in dresses in prior ages. A schola, East and West, was a center of instruction through dialogue and disputation, a system of purely Greek invention, one founded on Socrates' smart aleck ways and more coherently developed in the Dialogues of his student, Plato. Dialogue proved a useful oral tool in directing conversation to concentrate on crystallizing certain points of inquiry, in finding the finer points of a thing; similarly, dialogue was a useful written tool in answering objections as a point developed and in keeping the reader's interest rather than lugubriously lecturing him like a hipster, post-modern bore. Even when Plato waned in popularity his teaching methods remained in vogue in Orthodox and Latin culture until the end of the Middle Ages.

For as much grief as modern Orthodox writers give Augustine for his reliance on Plato and the Doctor Angelicus for his extensive use of Aristotle, Greek Christian history is plentiful with more notable example of applying the language of popular philosophy to contemporary theology and binding it upon future generations. The definition of a matter of theology in the language of philosophy is not a wholesale baptism of whatever that particular Greek said, merely that certain concepts were found useful to explain a certain elements of Christian truth for all time. In defense of ICEL's caterwauling over the translation of "consubstantial" in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the idea of substance very much belongs to Greek philosophy and not to any familiar thought in the last few centuries. Far from excusing our ignorance of "substance"—or prosopon in the case of Trinitarian theology—the Church is obligated to teach us about God using these very fitting terms. 

Similarly, the "legalistic" and exacting approach of Aquinas and the Schoolmen survives today only in courtrooms, yet for centuries was the acceptable means of settling a matter. When Leo III, Leo V, and Michael III stripped the holy images from the churches of Constantinople and rendered the Hagia Sophia as barren and dull as a Dallas church, Saint John of Damascus did not throw up his hands in objection and exclaim "We've always venerated icons! But why is a mystery, so let us do it and not discuss it!" In his third treatise against the iconoclasts, John taxonomizes numerous levels of veneration and their related sub-types:
  1. Veneration due to God, of which there are
    1. Worship
    2. Wonderment
    3. Gratitude
    4. Petition
    5. Repentance
      1. Repentance out of love
      2. Repentance out of fear for loss of love
      3. Repentance out of fear for punishment
  2. Veneration of persons or things through which God has worked
  3. Veneration due to things dedicated to God
  4. Veneration of types of God
  5. Veneration of God in other human beings
  6. Veneration of authority that comes from God
  7. Veneration of benefactors
In a like manner, Saint John examines specific ways in which something can be an image:
  1. A natural image, like God the Son is an image of God the Father
  2. A prophetic image of what is to come
  3. An imitation
  4. A Scriptural type
  5. A type of an event
  6. A memory
After a resurgence of iconoclasm in his own time, Saint Theodore the Studite got in touch with his inner-Plato and wrote a lengthy dialogue pitting the "Orthodox" against the hopeless "Heretic". Contemporaries would have read the names as the "True Worshiper" and "The One Who Chooses". Like the ancient Greeks Theodore uses his protagonist to propose his doctrine and the counterpart to present objections as each brick of teaching builds a wall of belief. 

During the same era the Roman Church produced relatively few notable theologians and no worthwhile movements of thought. Perhaps more genuinely in line with what modern would-be Hesychasts present Greek Christianity to be, the Romans did little else than what was given to them because much of their intellectual inheritance had been lost in the years following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The odd notable writer like Saint Gregory the Great or Saint Bede the Venerable relied heavily on Scripture for his terms and monasticism for his outlook.

"Do you like the Pope?"
"Great! You're in charge."
Amid disputes from the Greeks against the Spanish introduction of the Filioque and the "Azymites", as well as from Latins against the deteriorating relationship with the papacy, a renewed interest in theology emerged during Palaiologan Byzantium that did not preclude the Schoolmen. If anything the introduction of Saint Thomas Aquinas' writings shocked the Greek intellectual world. The Summa was probably first translated from Latin to Greek by Maximus Planudes in the early 14th century and quickly gained a following. Opinions of Aquinas and the established Latin theological traditions of Scholasticism and Scotism enjoyed a popularity irrespective of one's opinion of the Filioque, unleavened bread, and the pope. "As a star of the West, [Saint Thomas] illumined the Church of Christ" in the words of hymnographer Janus Plousiadenos (thanks, Marko!). Basilios Bessarion may not have been an outright Thomist, but Scholasticism certainly influenced his speculative theology. Among opponents of Rome, Mark of Ephesus (accomplished in many things and remembered only for giving Rome the middle finger on the eve of Byzantium's fall) criticized Aquinas' rejection of the Immaculate Conception from Scotistic grounds. 

Gennadius Scholarius recanted of his Scholasticism after leaving the Council of Florence without voting on any propositions to lead the separatist party back home. Yet, before Florence he sang Aquinas' praises:
"Would O excellent Thomas that you had not been born in the West. Then you would not have needed to defend the deviations of the Church there.... You would have been as perfect in theology as you are in ethics."
According to Hugh Barbour O. Praem, Palamite emperor John VI took an interest in Thomas and patronized Demetrios Kydones' translation of the Summa contra gentiles. Two other opponents of the Florentine Union quoted Aquinas' arguments for the Incarnation and consecrated virginity word for word and without attribution; these two opponents, Makarios Makres and Joseph Bryennios, were cited as examples of fidelity to Orthodox tradition in a letter of Athonites monks against the ecumenism of the Greek patriarch.

Why were Palaiologan Orthodox so fond of Saint Thomas when their descendants today are not? It seems likely that, aside from where Thomas "needed to defend the deviations" of Rome, the Greeks perceived him as one of the highest expressions of their own approach to theology, to argument, and to reasoning. There was no antithetical relationship between reason and mysticism, between logic and tradition; there was only truth and falsehood, and Aquinas enunciated the former more eloquently and with greater edification than any other writer centuries forward or backward, East or West; his imitators were less successful.

A separate Scholastic tradition would develop in Russia, firmly separated from Rome and independent of Constantinople after the events of 1453. Russia lacked an indigenous theological tradition, relying instead on sparsely available translations of Greek writers. There was a need for stability in both church and state which the Scholastic method supplied. Today some writers consider these centuries as the "Western Captivity of Orthodoxy."

Now that we have seen Greek Christianity's well rooted similarities to Latin Scholasticism and their amenable history with Saint Thomas, the question remains why Aquinas has fallen out of favor and into disrepute with Orthodox theologians. The answer is simple: because Orthodox Christianity, not unlike modern Roman Catholic theology, is under the intellectual domain of a small clique of thinkers who do not represent their tradition in its entirety. I will close with a quote from Patrick Reardon, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church:
“What almost always passes for ‘Orthodox theology’ among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian.
"The Orthodox Church is an ancient castle, as it were, of which only two or three rooms have been much in use since about 1920. These two or three rooms were furnished by the Russian émigrés in Paris between the two World Wars. This furniture is heavily neo-Palamite and anti-Scholastic. It relies heavily on the Cappadocians, Maximus, and Gregory Palamas (who are good folks, or course). Anything that does not fit comfortably into that model is dismissed as “Western” and even non-Orthodox.
"Consequently, one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted.
"Now I submit that any ‘Orthodox’ theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.
"Likewise, this popular neo-Palamite brand of Orthodoxy, though it quotes Damascene when it is convenient, never really engages Damascene’’s manifestly ‘Scholastic’ approach to theology.
"Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East.
"There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo’s distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine. 
"Augustine tends to be classified as a ‘Scholastic,’ which he most certainly was not.
But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks.
"In fact, however, Augustine and the Scholastics represent only other rooms in the larger castle.
"For this reason I urge you, as you can, to read in the Orthodox sources that tend to get skipped in what currently passes for ‘Orthodoxy.’ For my part, I believe the Russian émigré theology from Paris, which seems profoundly reactionary and anti-Western, is an inadequate instrument for the evangelization of this country and the world. I say this while gladly recognizing my own debt to Russian émigré theology.”


  1. I was midway through your post when I thought of Fr. Patrick Reardon and, lo and behold, you went and quoted him!
    I enjoy his homilies immensely and look forward to them every week (I've been listening to him pretty much since I came back to the Church). Such a shame that he left Rome Antioch. I often wonder why he did not simply become a Melkite...

    1. I cannot speak for him, but he is not the only head scratcher. I once met an Eastern Catholic woman whose brother was a Ruthenian priest and who left for the Eastern Orthodox. Why? To be more perfectly Byzantine. She was clearly very bothered, but trying to maintain her loyalty to her brother had given her a lot of grief.

    2. From what I've been able to piece together from his homilies over the years, he was born into an Irish RC family (he mentions never missing Mass apart from being extremely sick as a child, and family rosary every night, no matter wherever the family was). Somewhere along the line he became an Episcopalian minister, and from there moved on to Orthodoxy.
      I think he might keep tabs on what "Rome" is doing, as one of the few times I heard him speak poorly of Catholicism, it was related to the disrespect for Tradition and the Liturgy. He lately made a comment on rules which seemed quite the opposite of what our Pope has to say on the matter - I don't know if I was the one reading too much into that or not, however.

    3. "To be more perfectly Byzantine."

      I had similar sentiments but decided to stick to Eastern Catholicism even though the parishes around me do not have the same liturgical/prayer life as the Orthodox churches in the area.

    4. "To be more perfectly Byzantine."

      Wouldn't that "perfection" absolutely include communion with the Pope of Old Rome?

      Besides, "the liturgical life" of the Orthodox never really prevented them from heretical views, actions, and decisions. Did not most (if not all) of the early heresies come from the East (despite their "perfect" liturgical life)?

    5. Yes, they did. And then the West later had all the flavors of Protestantism, Jansenism, extreme Ultramontanism, and Modernism. For every heresy emanating from the Latin world there is one emanating from the Greeks and vice-versa. Even the Orientals are not without their own: Monophysitism among the Syrians and Nestorianism among the Assyrians.

      It's almost like no one really has a reason to be triumphalist over their sister churches. 'Let he without fault cast the first stone' and all that...

    6. I think the desire to be more "perfectly Byzantine" comes from an easy romanticism for a golden age that is passed, for imperial Constantinople, Holy Russia, a Christian Empire and the like. In that sense the Eastern Orthodox Churches are a more attractive venue to live that way than the always frowned upon "uniate" churches.

      Why the early heresies came uniquely from the Eastern churches is probably why protestantism came from the West: too much speculative thinking without being checked by tradition combined with opportunistic political support; Arianism, iconoclasm, Jansenism, Calvin, and Luther all had that un-holy trinity.

      In some sense the Orthodox churches benefited from the destruction of the Byzantine Empire in that their theology became a closed system immune to any external influences. However, as Fr Reardon points out, they've closed the gates but only lived in a few rooms of the house. Roman traditionalists, at least in America and the UK, often do the same thing.

    7. I once read on an Orthodox blig a father, monk-priest, claiming that it would be sad if the Catholic, in his example the Pope, would be presented and convinced that Orthodoxy equals Byzantium.
      In Orthodox tradition when we comemorate the fall of Constantinopole there is a sign also to be comemorated - a 5 fingers palm, a human palm, found engraved as a sign after the defeat. This is interpreted, in dogma like so "If I would have found 5 truly faithful men Constantinopole would have been saved." Will they change it in the future to something more..uplifting like this was the palm of God that slapped you once? Or even more acceptable... God is still holding you in His palm...
      There are visions on Mt. Athos nevertheless that the Antichrist himself is gonna offer Constantinopole back to OC. And then so many will be lost for loving the gift but not seeing the hand who offers it for what it is...Satan.

  2. What i take from this is that Orthodoxy is like tradistan: fixated on one subset of a theological school (Russian emigre theology for the former and dry manualist neoscholasticism on the other).

    This is actually why I decided to do a "paleo" approach for a bit and try the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Justin Martyr was a breeze and then Iranaeus of Lyons... well, let's just say Gnosticism be whacked.

    1. I think the idea of automatically associating "manualism" and "neoscholasticism" with the adjective "dry" is a bad mental habit, an unfair caricature, "traditioned" to us by (some) Nouvelle Theologians.

      This is not to blame you at all, as I used to share it too, unthinkingly, reflexively, until I actually started reading these supposed "dry manualists" to see for myself; e.g. Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey, author of one of the most widely used (and excellent!) pre-V2 manuals on ascetical and mystical theology (which was virtually thrown out around Vatican II, as recounted by Fr. Louis Bouyer in his memoirs), or Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, the 20th century's Thomist of the Strict Observance par excellence. They personally struck me as the opposite of dry -- more like refreshing streams of clean, clear, unpretentious but rigorous orthodox theological thought.

      Interestingly, another prejudice of mine that was similarly challenged recently was through reading (and enjoying, to my great surprise) one of archmodernist Fr. Edward Schillebeckx OP's earlier works (1962), from before he went completely off the rails: "Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God." I have found it to be one of the best works on sacramental theology I've ever read.

      The moral of it all to me is just reaffirming what Fr. Reardon said, appreciating the rich diversity of our orthodox traditions of theology, and bringing forth from our treasures old and new.

    2. Fair point. It also doesn't help that some priests from unspecified areas of tradistan (take it from someone who grew up there) preach(ed) nothing but the worst parts of manualism in the worst way possible. Think the sad state of the Roman academies before Leo XIII attempted to revive them.

      For every Lagrange there is a Suarez, or worse. Reading the Early Fathers at the source (First Millenium or Ante-Nicene) is a breath of fresh air if all you are used to hearing is pseudo-Thomism.

    3. @imperialreaction
      Lagrange's theology is beautiful. I haven't read Schillebeeckx but i'm glad you find it beautiful too.
      I think that manualists of the 20th century are not nearly as bad as manualists that came after Trent (which paradoxically is one of the best councils ever - the language is so scriptural and patristic, apart from a few scholastic terms). Suarez (as EV mentions) is very dry. I used him for one of the articles and i got first hand experience and i immediately knew what those who hated manualists were talking about.

      But we must know that a manual is a manual. It's supposed to be near your manus, i.e. your hand. It is a thing you check briefly and then close it up. It's not supposed to be as juicy as De Trinitate or Adversus Haereses. It's not a pinnacle of theology but, just as Summa is, a beginner's manual.

    4. I.R. and E.V.: I can "relate" to both experiences. One of my favorite manuals early on was a handbook of all the Fathers and "Ecclesiastical Writers," published by the Assumptionist Augustinians back in the 1940's or earlier. It was so good to begin to get an idea of the Fathers' writings and historical context. (They published a similar manual on the history of philosophy that was very good, too, as an overview and introduction.)

      At the same time, I was subjected during formation to some pretty dry "manualist" preaching: "There are four main kinds of prayer, and I'm going to explain them and all their subcategories right now" (with apologies to a certain comic movie of the 1980's).
      Best, Fr. Capreolus

    5. Thanks for your response, Father!

      One of the best parts of worshiping in the Ordinariate is the rock-solid, red-meat Biblical and Patristic preaching we get every Sunday and feast day. "Pastoral" in the best sense of the word.

      I will also say that the nearest Latin Mass to us also has a good preacher - he meanders sometimes and is not as meticulously structured as my (Ordinariate) pastor, but he usually focuses on making great practical points based on the readings, and often explicitly draws upon the experiences and liturgical practices of both Western and Eastern Churches (and their legitimate differences) to better elucidate his points, which I really appreciate.

    6. " "There are four main kinds of prayer, and I'm going to explain them and all their subcategories right now" LOL
      -And then goes on to discuss the individual parts of each subcategory xD

    7. Do you think that maybe the jump in quality can be attributed to the renewed interest in actually reading Aquinas (as opposed to reading people who wrote about Aquinas) and scholarly work (e.g. Joseph-Marie Lagrange and Pierre Batiffol) that started under Leo XIII?

    8. Most probably. And it's probably because people are getting tired of the whole: "St. XYZ taught ABC." without actually going to the source.

  3. Ante-Nicene Fathers FTW!

    Btw., it's funny that they like the Cappadocians so much when they used highly speculative and philosophical language to defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
    Then the Chalcedonian distinction between will and energy. What? I didn't even know there was a distinction. Well guess it's not all mystery in the East after all.
    And also, the easterners have their own "angels on the head of the needle" needless detail speculation - Essence/Energies distinction.

    Also, something else can be construed from their accusations of the west: "Oh you westerners you're so intellectual. We're too dumb to be smart. Hurr durr.".

    A bit of a joke, but sometimes it seems like they're saying that.

  4. I once bought a book called "The Place of Augustine in Orthodoxy" (or something to that effect). While the book tried to present him in a good light, right at the beginning the author contradicts himself: in one paragraph he accuses Augustine of being to rational because he is a Latin; further on he accuses him of being too "passionate" as he is a north African. Seriously, wth?

  5. This is a fascinating topic, and one that is very worthwhile coming back to. It reminds me of the fact that the Byzantine churches observe the "memorial" so to speak of S. Gregory Palamas today on the Second Sunday of Lent. Your views on the following issues would be appreciated: Was the Church of Rome and the Pope involved at all with the hesychast controversy? If not, why not? Is S. Gregory Palamas recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church today? Was S. Gregory Palamas technically a "schismatic" by the standards of Thomism?