Reviews of

La Théologie Byzantine et sa tradition (VIe-VIIe siècles)

In Brepols, Byzantine theology, Carmelo Giuseppe Conticello, Mark W. ELLIOTT, Patristics, review on December 17, 2017 at 4:04 pm


2017.12.27 | Carmelo Giuseppe Conticello (ed.), La Théologie Byzantine et sa tradition I/1 (VIe-VIIe siècles) (Corpus Christianorum; Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). IV+805pp.

Reviewed by Mark W. Elliott, University of St Andrews.

We are told at the outset of this large and handsome volume that theology will be understood more widely than just doctrinal issues to include political theology. (It might even include law.)

At the start of each chapter dedicated to a single writer their works are laid out after the manner of Geerard’s Clavis, and bibliographies bring up the rear.

There is a slightly curious reference in the Avant-Propos which largely defers to that in Vol. II by Jacques Noret, ‘Isaac de Ninive, l’un des phares de la spiritualité et de la théologie syrio-orientale, méritait une monographie à part entire. Elle lui est dédiée.’ (Par qui?) In some ways these slightly better-known writers (particularly Maximus) are harder to write on. In the Volume II the territory was more like virgin soil. The relationship of this volume to the one to which it is the ‘prequel’ is worth bearing in mind. It helps to stop mental ‘jumping’ from Patristics to High Byzantine Theology.

In the opening chapter A. Le Boulluec tells us less about what Justinian wrote in his theological Extravagantes and what he did not or how much influence there was from Leontius of Jerusalem, etc. This may be important at one level, but in another sense it is not for the priority is to relate the material. Justinian edged away from Rome and in the direction of the monophysites (Le Boulluec isn’t particularly interested in nomenclature) with unus de Trinitate crucifixus est: it is the mia physis of Cyril as corrective of Chalcedon, but with authority from Augustine (ep. 196). How important it was correctly to interpret ‘litigious’ texts: Phil 2:6-7, Gal 4:5, Jn 10:30, in the light of other texts whose orthodoxy was clearer, with the guidance from fathers. This is the theological not political side of Justinian, the author insists, bringing the Cyrillian inheritance to full expression, a transference of Trinitarian language to Christology with physis as the subject of the incarnation: one of the Trinity was crucified. The Incarnate Word as Christ is the result of a synthesis, a synthesis that emphasizes union rather than separation. ‘Le néo-chalcédonisme devient canonique.’ (99)

Romanos (ho Melodios) is introduced (by J. Koder) with a short account of his life and then a detailing of his style as a poet. After a section on manuscripts, editions and translation, ninety of his works are listed separately. Twenty-five pages are then devoted to his theology. There is a disclaimer right away as to certainty about the extent of his debt to Neochalcedonians. Perhaps there is more to be claimed for that of Jacob of Serug and Ephraim, even while being acceptable to Justinian’s court. He made use of apocryphal infancy gospels and the Gospel of Nicodemus.

John Climacus receives no less than 128 pp. (by M.J. Pierre, Conticello and J. Chryssavgis.) We learn that the fourth step on the ladder was obedience to spiritual father – ‘a skilled person and a physician’ in the hospital of confession. He advocated a joyful sorrow, an underlying optimism, to redirect worldly love toward God. The erotic connection between God and humanity is the essence of prayer. There can be continual burning with love, aided by short, simple prayers, Jesus prayer especially when demons attack, with the name Jesus less a thought and more a sense of presence. For an ascetic he was not misanthropic, proposing a way of giving rather than a tight dogmatic. As evidence the Letter to the Shepherd in John Chryssavagis’ translation. Of course John was not so much an author as one whose life and sayings were written down in several accounts of his life: editions of these and liturgical works in his praise are listed. However there are also correspondence with Abbot John of Rhaitou and his Spiritual tables and Address to the shepherd, both of which received widespread and durable reception and also some commentaries on him (notably Photius, Psellus, Denys the Carthusian).

Theology clearly includes spiritual writing: in case of Isaac the Syrian (S. Brock) it is all about the varieties of versions of the Ascetical Homilies he continued to refer to Christ’s body as ‘temple’ and ‘robe’ Prayer through love is to find reasons for loving God (theology) Cloud of divine glory preferred to Evagrian ‘theoria’. He believed in something much more profound than apokatastasis: ‘Isaac goes on to adduce the witness of the two great authorities of the Church of the East, Theodore and Diodore, in support of the view that there will be some ulterior outcome to Gehenna’ (349), which is a place of painful regret.  He was the only Syriac Father to be quoted in the 1992 Catholic Catechism! Three short translated sermons are appended.

Yet perhaps the most significant chapters are those on Maximus and Anastasios of Sinai.

In the chapter by van Deun and Mueller-Jourdan the differing accounts of Maximus’s lives are introduced, and the question about the stay at Cyzicus and coming under the influence of the eponymous John. The careful reconstruction of his life in the light of recent research (revising Sherwood’s long-standing hypotheses) is one of its strengths. If Maximus’ life was rich in places and mentors as well as adversaries, concurrent was evolution in his thinking, not least of the definitions of γνώμη and θέλημα. His works are set out with extensive bibliographies in terms of Exegetica-Epistulae-Ascetica (really only the Centuries and the Liber Ascetica), Mystical-Liturgical, then Polemical-Dogmatic, and finally Dubia et Spuria. One then gets 80 rich pages on the fundamental points of his theology. Photius was critical of his style. Philosophy both grounded and served theology: ethics for action and physics for contemplation with theologia on top of that. His anthropology led to basically the same situation for ethics amidst dysfunction as in the antique classical tradition but with different (biblical-theological) causes and remedies: communion, assimilation and imitation in that order. Christ has restored humanity to its place as mediator of creation through contemplation. The Church bases its model of harmony on nothing less than the Chalcedonian ‘co-ordinates’ of Christ, finding stability therein for the changeable. To perceive divine realities is to perceive them as creation-providence and judgement, allowing for both the (again, ‘Chalcedonian’) principles of cohesion and distinction. Christology in Maximus had a metaphysical and an anthropological side, in equal measure. The Incarnation was realisation of the divine plan, picking up redemption along the way, as it were.  However, for all the detailed exegesis of the Mystagogy I found the simple assertion of there existing a tension between the divine will and the human natural desire for self-preservation a little underdone.

Uthemann on Anastasios is arguably the highlight among a number of highlights – not least the exhaustive setting out of the sources and scholarship –, itself an abbreviated version of his 2015 monograph. But weighing in at 250pp of the volume one wonders whether it really succeeds in being a precis, or an appetizer for the main course, and it appears that it means ‘poor’ Ps-Macarius gets rather squeezed in at the end of the volume with list of sources and an annotated bibliography, almost as an afterthought. Might it have been even more profitable to have published a shorter version in French or even English, for the purposes of better dissemination of Uthemann’s valuable research?  Still, much more than the missing link between Maximus and John of Damascus, but like both these men widely educated and travelled with a cultural diversity of background and personal virtue to match, Anastasios is a figure who deserves this much recognition. One should bracket out questions of the kind ‘just how significant was Anastasios?’, for what we learn is how he re-used the soul-body analogy to speak of a commonality that preserved the contributing components in Christ intact. For him the human soul needed less reforming than the body. Christ did not know conflict in his will as ‘we do’. He does not attribute all of Christ’s action to the divine hypostasis: rather both natures were at work, even if the human nature worked in a superhuman way. In works like the famous Hodegos his targets were Monoergists or Monothelites. One sees him standing in the tradition of moderate Antiochene Christology, even that of 433. The hypostatic union was for him a synthetic prosopon: the hypostatic union took place in his mother. And enhypostasis meant that only in the Logos did Christ ever exist as human. There is an even-handed consideration of the less than attractive polemical works against the Jews. The research including some amount of history of reception of the Christology in Byzantine theology is rich and resourceful.

This kind of book is a cornucopia. As a standard works it might make sense to have it on-line, and updated regularly at least in its bibliographies. For all its unevenness in terms of chapter size and focus and possibly too wide a working definition of theology, it is a remarkable achievement of the highest calibre, and that can only happen when the best editor can call on the best of international scholars to provide the goods.

Mark W. Elliott
University of St Andrews

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