This is a report on a paper presented by Fr Prof Andrew Louth, member of the British Academy of Sciences, formerly Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, and currently Professor at the Free University, Amsterdam, at the Patristics Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 24th of February 2011.
The list of forthcoming papers in the Patristics Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here.
In his characteristic clear and concise way, Prof Louth presented a very interesting paper covering more than four centuries of Eastern Christian thought and theology. A revised form of this paper is to be published shortly as a separate chapter in a collective monograph. Beginning with the iconoclast movement and John of Damascus (c. 650–c. 749), the author analyses both the various theological writings and their reception in the Byzantine Empire.
1. 650-800. John of Damascus, who extensively drew on the theology of Maximus the Confessor, was probably the most prominent byzantine theologian of this period. He wrote three apologetic treatises against the iconoclasts (among other treatises against various heresies) but also a summary of the early Fathers’ theology (‘On the Orthodox Faith’) in his attempt to define and explain ‘orthodoxy’. Writing florilegia (collections of extracts taken from the writings of the Church Fathers) was a growing practice and shows the interest for erudition among the Christian writers. Also in John’s works, a certain influence of Pseudo-Dionysius’ cataphatic and apophatic theology can be seen. But it was not until the Second Council of Nicaea (787) that the veneration of icons (which had been suppressed by the Byzantine emperor Leo III) was confirmed as a dogmatic truth. Beginning with Leontios, bishop of Neapolis (7th century), and his apology against Jews, the question of authenticity of patristic references arose.
2. 800-1080. In this second period, there can be seen a true Byzantine intellectual revival. The monks are of great importance in this period, producing ascetical, mystical and, later, polemical writings. Following Maximus’ model (‘Ambigua’) this period is characterised by a great interest for reflection on theological problems. Also, a versified theology (poems) is developed. Photius of Constantinopole (c. 810/820–c. 892/95), one of the most learned persons of his time, wrote ‘Bibliotheca’ (‘The Library’), sermons and a large number of letters and treatises on various themes. Bibliotheca, an occasional work dedicated to his brother, represents a collection of reviews of secular and Christian writings. In this rich composition the author examined among others church historians (such as Eusebius, Julius Africanus), exegetical writings, theological works (such as Maximus the Confessor, Clement of Rome), hagiography (especially pagan figures), homilies (such as John Chrysostom’s). In his Amphilochia, a collection of 300 questions and answers, Photius deals with difficult passages of Scripture, Christian doctrine and Fathers (such as John Climacus and Theodoret), with special emphasis on Trinity and Christology. Prof. Louth concluded by observing that Photius’ theology is based on extensive learning. Another erudite author of this period, Michael Psellos (c. 1017/18–1078), was renowned for his enormous learning (especially in Neoplatonism). He talks about himself a lot, as seen in his Chronographia, but he does seem to be greatly learned, as Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga asserted. Psellos wrote a large number of philosophical and theological treatises, and also treatises in verse form. In his works he claims that he ‘followed the Great Fathers’ and comments upon the difficult passages of Scripture and Patristic theologians. Gregory of Nazianzus seems to be particularly prominent in Psellos’ writings. In what the monastic experience of this period is concerned, massive compilations of works (florilegia) and treatises on monastic and Christian life (largely based on the writings of the Dessert Fathers) were created. Two of the most important Byzantine monastic writers of this period are Symeon the New Theologian (c. 949–1022) and Theodore the Studite (759–826). It can be observed that both seem to have been interested in sources. Also in this period the liturgical poetry was developed in the form of kontakia, troparia and canons used for Vespers and Matins (among other authors, see: Andrew of Crete, Romanos the Melodist and John Damascene). Answering the question of the reception of theology in the liturgical poetry, Prof. Louth, once again, observed that Gregory of Nazianzus seems to be a primary source among others (especially elements taken from his homilies, e.g. the Paschal canon). Gregory’s prose was transformed into verse, one example being the text of the troparion of Pentecost which is taken from his Homily on Pentecost.
Prof Louth’s survey of Byzantine theology from 650 to 1080 proved to be a lucid account of the history of literature and thought. His synthesis of the Christian literature produced in this period is remarkable, convincing and highly authoritative.
Justin A. Mihoc
Department of Theology and Religion