The Mystery of Christ in the Fathers of the Church, Janet E Rutherford and David Woods (eds), Four Courts Press, 240 pp, €49.50, ISBN: 9781846823701
This book is a festschrift offered by scholars associated with the Maynooth-based Patristics Symposium to Father Vincent Twomey, emeritus Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth. Twomey founded the Patristics Symposium in 1986. He is an interesting and important figure in his own right. He was a doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, in the University of Regensburg in Bavaria before Ratzinger’s appointment as Archbishop of Munich in 1977 and, in the same year, cardinal. Ratzinger had moved to the newly founded University of Regensburg in 1969 from the University of Tübingen, which had been heavily affected by the disturbances of 1968. In 1981 he was appointed Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in this role he made many enemies, through his struggles with what he saw as distortions of traditional Catholic teaching by theologians such as Hans Küng, his former colleague in Tübingen, and the theorist of liberation theology, Leonardo Boff.
Ratzinger’s opponents see his period at Regensburg, the period when Twomey was working with him, as the period when he switched from being a broadminded “liberal” theologian to being a conservative traditionalist. Or, to put it another way, from being a leading proponent of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council to being a “restorationist”, trying to return the Church to something more like what it had been prior to the council. Twomey is given a couple of pages in the broadly hostile account by John L Allen ‑ Cardinal Ratzinger, The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith ‑ as an example of the “second wave” of Ratzinger’s disciples, arguing the restorationist case both with regard to liturgy and to morality. Allen describes him in this context as a “street fighter”.
Ratzinger’s reputation as an erstwhile “liberal” derives from his role as peritus (adviser) to Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, who led a revolt of the bishops against an attempt on the part of the papal curia to dictate the agenda of Vatican II. Vatican II, however, was far from being simply a confrontation between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Indeed one might question if liberalism in the sense in which it is understood these days ‑ after 1968, the pill, feminism, gay liberation ‑ was present at the council at all. If Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were allies in the 1960s and parted company in the 1970s it is perhaps more because of changes in Küng than changes in Ratzinger. Küng’s changes, however, were in broad harmony with changes in the zeitgeist, changes undergone by society as a whole, and for that reason perhaps less visible.
Ratzinger would have seen himself at the time, and subsequently, as sympathising with a very different tendency ‑ the movement which referred to itself as the ressourcement (the word is difficult to translate but might be understood as return to the sources with an overtone of regeneration) and which was called by its enemies la nouvelle théologie ‑ a movement most crudely characterised as opposition to the neoscholastic philosophy, following the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, which was dominant in the Church at that time.
The Thomists believed that through the methodology developed by Thomas they had a sure and certain means of arriving at objective truth. Theology was a precise science, continuous with philosophy, which could be expanded to cover all aspects of human life, including social and economic questions. The attraction of Thomism can be seen in the calm certainty of the writings of the Frenchman Jacques Maritain and the Irish Alfred O’Rahilly. They could say with Pablo Picasso: “I do not seek. I find.”
It is not easy ‑ at least I have not found it easy ‑ to form a clear idea of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the stately structure of neoscholasticism. Certainly mastery of the Aristotelian logic on which it is based could be a tedious business. One of the leading figures in the ressourcement, Hans Urs von Balthasar, says he found the neoscholastic lectures he had to sit through as a seminarian so boring he used to stuff his ears with cotton wool to concentrate on surreptitiously reading the early Fathers. But another problem may have been that in its very completeness Thomism tended to seal Roman Catholic thought off from other substantial human philosophical or religious tendencies.
One of the disputes turned on the relation between “nature” and “grace”. The Thomists argued that although “natural” human beings outside the Church could have an intellectual knowledge of the existence of God, an actual experience of the presence of God was an entry into the “supernatural” which could only be had through grace and, consequently, through participation in the sacraments of the Church. In a book on the supernatural, another leading ressourcement theorist, Henri de Lubac, argued that a capacity for experience of the presence of God was built into human nature and consequently could be expressed, even if inadequately, outside the Church. Hence the possibility of an opening to other Christian denominations and even other religions. If the movement associated with Joseph Ratzinger is not “liberal” in the modern sense of the word, it has certainly continued to be “ecumenical” in the sense argued by de Lubac.
The Neoscholastics believed that Thomas Aquinas was the climax and fulfilment of all the intellectual work that had gone before him. As Leo XIII put it in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, a really rather beautiful hymn of praise to Thomas:
Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all, towers Thomas Aquinas who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.” The doctrines of these illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.
Since all that was valuable in “the ancient doctors of the Church” was gathered together in Thomas, the Thomists had little incentive other than historical curiosity to study them. Thomas was the solid ground on which any subsequent theological structures could be built. The ressourcement theologians, by contrast, embarked on a major, and very impressive, work of uncovering and exploring the earlier “Fathers of the Church” ‑ a work which they saw as valuable both because it uncovered Christian insights that were not to be found in Thomas and because it returned to sources from the days before the separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions and subsequent separation of Roman Catholic and Protestant. The early Fathers were to a large extent respected in common by all the mainstream Christian denominations.
From a Thomist point of view this was simply a matter of undoing Thomas’s work of collecting together and cementing the scattered members of a body. By the end of the war the new theology was causing serious disquiet among the scholastic teachers, giving rise in 1950 to a papal encyclical, Pius XII’s Humani Generis (“False trends in modern teaching”), which summarises one of the positions it criticises as follows:
Dogma must be disentangled from the forms of expression which have so long been accepted in the schools, from the philosophic notions which find favour with Catholic teachers; there must be a return, in our exposition of Catholic teaching, to the language of Scripture and of the Fathers. Privately they cherish the hope that dogma, when thus stripped of the elements which they regard as external to divine revelation, may be usefully compared with the theological opinions of other bodies, separated from the unity of the Church; this might lead, by degrees, to a levelling up between Catholic doctrine and the views of those who disagree with us … There is no absurdity, then, they say, rather there is a strict necessity about the idea that theology should constantly be exchanging old concepts for new, as times keep altering and it finds, in the gradual development of philosophy, new tools ready to its hand … And they go on to say that the history of dogma consists in that and nothing else; in giving some account of the various forms under which revealed truth has appeared, corresponding to the various theories and speculations which the centuries have brought with them.
Specifically “they aim at giving currency instead to certain vague ideas on the subject (in this case the Authority of the Church ‑ PB), derived from the ancient Fathers, the Greek Fathers particularly”.
As against this, Pius XII argues that “history teaches us that many propositions which were at one time freely discussed, have afterward been settled beyond the possibility of dispute … The framework which has been built up, over a course of centuries, by the common consent of Catholic teachers, in the effort to reach truth about such and such a doctrine, cannot be dismissed as resting on a flimsy foundation of that sort. It rests on principles, on ideas, which have been inferred from a just apprehension of created things … It is a process that has often cost centuries of labour, carried out by men of no common intellectual attainments, under the watchful eye of Authority, with light and leading, too, from the Holy Spirit … Treat with disrespect the terms and concepts which have been used by scholastic theologians and the result, inevitably, is to take all the force out of what is called ‘speculative’ theology. It rests entirely on theological reasoning, and so, for these modern thinkers, has no real validity!”
We may note here that Vincent Twomey praises Ratzinger because, unlike his one time colleague Karl Rahner, he did not attempt to develop a coherent “systematic” theology. “Ratzinger,” he said in an interview on the publication of his book Benedict XVI: The conscience of our age, “found the neoscholastics too cerebral … For NeoScholasticism, everything found its place in the ‘system’, but Ratzinger was instinctively aware that truth is more than any system of thought could encompass, that it has to be experienced anew in all its freshness from one generation to the next.”
This has been rather a long introduction but I thought it useful to establish the background to the Maynooth Patristics Symposium, which is much more than just another gathering of academics. Whatever the different intentions might be of individual contributors, the symposium as a project is part of a programme which goes back at least to the 1940s, which was, or appeared to have been, condemned in a papal encyclical in 1950, which exercised great influence on the Second Vatican Council and which now, in the person of Benedict XVI, occupies the papal chair ‑ and yet which can hardly be said to have been victorious, at least certainly not in Ireland.
In the absence of any chair of patristic studies, despite an impressive number of scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, who did their research on the Church Fathers but ended up teaching other subjects (dogma, morals, history, philosophy), a few colleagues at Maynooth founded The Patristic Symposium in 1986 to foster the study of the Fathers of the Church. It was this field of specialised research that was responsible for many of the changes inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. Patristic studies have taken on a new significance since then in the light of the new situation the Church finds itself in at present, namely one similar to that of the early Church: a minority in an alien environment. More importantly, to study the early Fathers is to be initiated into the original way of doing theology as well as becoming acquainted with a theology that is as spiritually as it is intellectually challenging. To date, there is no centre for such research in Ireland. Thanks primarily to funds from overseas, the Patristic Symposium was able to organise four conferences (with papers given by members of various denominations and invited international scholars). The proceedings of the first three conferences were published and were well received internationally, though practically ignored at home. This is no substitute for a fulltime chair or institute, where younger scholars can be trained in the required skills and continuity be assured.
Since 2003, when Twomey’s The End of Irish Catholicism? was published, there have been four more conferences and the proceedings of seven conferences have been published as well as the present volume, which continues the series though it does not record the proceedings of a conference. There is, however, still no chair or institute of patristic studies in Ireland which is very surprising especially, as Twomey points out, given the importance of patristic studies to the Second Vatican Council and therefore to the subsequent development of the Church, not to mention the obvious relevance to the early history of Ireland and to relations with other churches where the importance of patristic studies seems to be more generally recognised. Nor can this be attributed, as it might have been thirty years ago, to the influence of the Thomists. The ressourcement theologians seem to have succeeded better in their negative aim of undermining the importance attached to scholastic philosophy than in their positive aim of promoting the Fathers.
This having been said, however, I am inclined to doubt if “the Fathers” can give the Roman Catholic Church the same intellectual self-confidence it derived from Thomism and that it so obviously lacks today. I am saying this as a convert to Orthodoxy, so this is not in any sense an expression of discontent with the Fathers. On the contrary. I am suggesting that the Fathers cannot be for the Roman Catholic Church the source of intellectual self-confidence and authority that they are for the Orthodox Church. The reason for this is, I believe, a difference in approach which, long established, was hardened on the Catholic side after the thirteenth century and the triumph of Thomism, and on the Orthodox side after the fourteenth century and the triumph of Saint Gregory Palamas.
Palamas is best known for his defence of the “hesychast” movement among the monks of Mount Athos and particularly for his argument ‑ in this context it might be better to say “affirmation” ‑ that through certain exercises (the Greek word askesis, as in asceticism, means exercise) it was possible under the grace of God for men and women to enter into a union with God so complete that it could be called theosis or deification, in other words, so that they could “become” God, though this has to be understood in the light of the distinction he draws between the “essence” of God and the “energies” of God. The saints can participate in the energies of God but not in His essence. An analogy is drawn with the sun as the essence, and the light rays of the sun as the energies. We cannot approach the sun but we can participate in the light, which is still fully of the nature of the sun.
St Paul talks about an eventual resolution of the world in a state in which God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor 15, 28) and most Christians will see this as the eventual “end” of the world. Palamas however was insisting that it was a possible state prior to death. It is this state that characterises the saints and is symbolised in iconography by the halo. The saints speak with authority, an authority that has nothing to do with eloquence, erudition or dialectical skill, though they may possess these qualities. It is an authority that is continuous and of like nature with the authority of the prophets and of the apostles. In the Catholic Church, authority belongs to the divinely instituted administrative structure which is believed to be protected from error by the promise given by Jesus to Saint Peter, while for a faithful Thomist this authority is complemented by a well-tried philosophical method, a precise science which enables the “just apprehension of created things … centuries of labour, carried out by men of no common intellectual attainments” of Pius XII.
The point here is not to argue that either of these approaches is right or wrong but simply that it is difficult for the Catholic Church to assume the Fathers, in the way they are assumed by the Orthodox Church, as sources of authority. From the Catholic point of view they are intellectually interesting. From a Thomist point of view, as expressed by Leo XIII, they are interesting as having prepared the way for the method brought to a high level of perfection by Thomas. From a non-Thomist Catholic point of view they are interesting in their own right. As Vincent Twomey expressed it, they initiate us into “the original way of doing theology”. Once we are so initiated the implication is that we can then do it too, which in Orthodox eyes is rather like saying that once initiated into the methods of the prophets and the apostles, we too can write the Bible.
For the Orthodox, then, the problem of studying the Fathers ‑ or perhaps we should now say the Saints ‑ academically rather resembles the problem of studying the Bible academically. Yes, there are historical circumstances and yes, there are “influences”, and these can be talked about or studied. But the real benefit of the text comes from reading it naïvely, as a weapon in life conceived of as a struggle through time towards eternity. The function of regarding the text as divinely inspired is precisely to lift it out of the web of historical circumstances and influences, living it not judging it, entering into it not observing it.
One figure who can be used to illustrate the difference in approach is Augustine of Hippo. Augustine dominates the intellectual history of Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. Leo XIII, in the encyclical quoted earlier, writes with radiant enthusiasm about the earlier Fathers, including the Greeks ‑ Clement of Alexandria, Origen (who “published many volumes, involving great labour, which were wonderfully adapted to explain the divine writings and illustrate the sacred dogmas; which though, as they now stand, not altogether free from error, contain nonetheless a wealth of knowledge tending to the growth and advance of natural truths”), “the great Athanasius and Chrysostom, the prince of orators” whose writings on the human soul “are, by common consent, so supremely excellent that it seems scarcely anything could be added to their subtlety and fullness”; then Basil the Great and “the two Gregories” (Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa). I quote this to show that sympathetic interest in the early Fathers, including the Greeks, is far from being a twentieth century innovation and is quite compatible with the essentially Thomist approach Leo XIII defends. But he continues saying that: “Augustine would seem to have wrested the palm from all. Of a most powerful genius and thoroughly saturated with sacred and profane learning, with the loftiest faith and with equal knowledge … What topic of philosophy did he not investigate? What region of it did he not diligently explore ..?”
Augustine, however, was not so well appreciated in the Orthodox world. It is only in the last century that he was allotted a day in the calendars of the Patriarch of Constantinople (as “Saint Augustine”) and of the Patriarch of Moscow (as “blessed Augustine”). Many Orthodox writers, trying to understand and give theological substance to the schism between East and West, see Augustine as the source of what they regard as the Western errors, especially through his writings on grace and on the relations between the Persons of the Trinity. But leaving aside doctrinal questions, there is a very distinct character to Augustine’s writings, which stands out among the writings of the Fathers and is actually quite well evoked in Leo’s description ‑ his sheer intellectual exuberance. He is interested in, and writes about, everything. He obviously loved writing and loved the operations of his own mind. He also writes very personally ‑ the Confessions has often often been described as the first autobiography, showing great interest in the details of his personal life.
All of which is very attractive, and indeed the Confessions has attracted a wide Orthodox readership. But it does not quite fit the impersonal, objective profile of the deified saint. Indeed Augustine would almost certainly have regarded deification as envisaged by the hesychast movement as an impossibility. He would have seen the arguments of Gregory Palamas as “Pelagian”, as arguing, with Pelagius, that divine grace could be earned through human effort. The hesychasts would certainly regard deification as a free gift of grace and not something that could be claimed as a deserved reward for ascetic struggle. But they would also have seen it as impossible this side of the grave without ascetic struggle. For Augustine, as for Thomas and the Western tradition in general, the distinction between divine and human is absolute even when by an entirely unmerited act of divine grace the human is redeemed. The distinction I am trying clumsily to express seems to me to run through the whole tradition of East and West from a very early stage, with Augustine as a key figure ‑ a Western Father who (unlike Irenaeus, say, or Hilary of Poitiers) cannot be comfortably assimilated to the Eastern tradition.
There are two essays on Augustine in the present collection, one of them, by Brendan Leahy, Professor of Systematic Theology in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, a discussion of the love between the Persons of the Trinity in Augustine’s De Trinitate which expands into a general discussion of the nature of love and, precisely, of the possible union of the divine and human. The other is a reflection by Janet Rutherford, editor of the collection, on the subsequent trajectory of Augustine’s thinking through the Western Christian tradition, with special reference to the Reformation.
De Trinitate is divided into fifteen books, of which the first seven are a more or less straightforward orthodox account of the doctrines formulated at the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). In the eighth book, however, Augustine goes off on what from an Orthodox point of view is a tangent. He argues that if man is created in the image of God, and if God is a Trinity, there must be some way in which human experience can be described as trinitarian and therefore some way in which our knowledge of ourselves can contribute to our understanding of the Trinity. It is of course not just a question of finding any old triad but a triad that will correspond in some way to the Trinity as dogmatically defined. Thenceforth De Trinitate turns into a series of speculations on possible analogies to the Trinity to be found in human experience, eventually settling on a psychological triad of memory, understanding and will. However the very first speculation, in Book VIII itself, based on the dictum that “God is Love”, seeks a trinity in the nature of love, concluding with the lover and the beloved, as analogous to the Father and the Son, and love itself as analogous to the Holy Spirit. The idea was to gain added importance as one of the supports for the filioque ‑ the clause the Western Church added to the creed of Nicaea/Constantinople by which the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son together rather than the Father alone as in the original text.
Augustine does not develop this idea. The rest of De Trinitate concentrates on analogies within a single individual rather than relations between individuals. Leahy quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar as saying that Augustine could not develop his interesting idea because the philosophical language he had inherited from the neoplatonists was unable to deal with “intersubjectivity, upon which the Gospel is based … Accordingly, it is a largely Neoplatonic (and therefore undialogical) metaphysics which provides the conceptual underpinning for the Augustinian theology of caritas.” It happens that an article published in The Relationship between Neoplatonism and Christianity ‑ the first of the Patristics Symposium volumes ‑ Eoin Cassidy’s “The Recovery of the classical ideal of friendship in Augustine’s portrayal of Caritas” ‑ argues almost the opposite case. Cassidy agrees that neoplatonism, with its emphasis on The One, as opposed to the many, was indeed weak on friendship (which is surely something to do with intersubjectivity and dialogue) but he points out that there was a rich Platonist/Stoic/Aristotelian literature which Augustine inherited and knew how to use. Another article in one of the earlier Symposium volumes ‑ Lewis Ayres’s “The Christological Context of Augustine’s De Trinitate XIII ‑ towards relocating books VIII-XV” ‑ suggests further that the whole of books VIII-XV is setting up a neoplatonist mode of investigating the Trinity simply in order to demonstrate how inadequate it is. The project has failure deliberately built into it (and by implication therefore the subsequent developments in Catholic theology that were based on it were thoroughly misconceived).
Leahy however, in the present volume, accepts that Augustine has sincerely tried to do what he said he wanted to do and has failed largely because, for whatever reason, he couldn’t pursue the promising analogy (lover-beloved-love) he had indicated in Book VIII. However he then says that at the end of Book XIV, discussing the Holy Spirit, “Augustine did in fact offer the beginnings of an exploration that will be taken up centuries later.” The problem being how we can reconcile God as a substance, or “hypostasis”, presumably thought of as being unique, with God as a relationship, which is what is implied in the word “love”. And the response is, as at the end of Book VIII, an identification of love with the Holy Spirit.
We are left a little curious as to who it was who took this exploration up “centuries later” and we seem to be given the answer at the end of the article: “It is this line of reflection on a Trinitarian ontology that has been developed by authors such as von Balthasar, Bulgakov and Ghislain Lafont.” So the Church has had to wait some fifteen hundred years before developing an adequate, or at least a better, understanding of the nature of the Trinity and the nature of love ‑ the “intersubjectivity upon which the Gospel is based”, to quote von Balthasar. The implication is that Christian theology is an adventure conducted through history, somewhat as one might imagine scientific or technical progress. We may be reminded here of the way Pius XII characterised the school of thought he was criticising in Humani Generis: “the idea that theology should constantly be exchanging old concepts for new, as times keep altering and it finds, in the gradual development of philosophy, new tools ready to its hand …” But in fact some such idea, of the “progress” of theological knowledge through time, is implicit in the Thomist project itself ‑ the “process that has often cost centuries of labour, carried out by men of no common intellectual attainments” to quote Humani Generis again.
In contrast, the Orthodox tradition, despite the presence in Brendan Leahy’s list of the Orthodox priest Sergei Bulgakov, sees the Christian adventure as a more or less identical struggle towards union with God conducted by each individual soul in the course of a single lifetime under the guidance of a Church which in itself, whatever about any individual member, possesses, and always has possessed everything, all the theological knowledge, that is necessary. The job of those who wish to write on these matters is to transmit as accurately as possible a knowledge that already exists.
One reason a Thomist in the Roman Catholic Church might have looked with suspicion on any attempt to return to the Fathers and especially to Augustine, is of course that this is how the Reformation had presented itself ‑ a return to the principles governing the early Church, to Augustine, a rejection of innovations that were thought to have been introduced, to the progress that the Catholic Church believed had been made subsequent to, say, the fifth century Council of Chalcedon, and most particularly to the innovations and progress associated with scholastic philosophy from the thirteenth century onwards. This ‑ Augustine as seen by the Reformation ‑ is the theme of the article “Augustine, sixteenth century reformations and escaping predestination” by Janet Rutherford.
Rutherford is secretary of the Patristics Symposium and editor of this volume. She has also been involved with publishing the proceedings of an annual conference held in Fota, Co Cork, since Joseph Ratzinger became Pope, to promote the liturgical and cultural reforms that would correspond to the spirit of his pontificate. It is another project with which Vincent Twomey is closely associated. The present article is on the face of it about Protestantism and predestination but behind it is a theme which she has developed in other articles and which is highly relevant to the wider project of the conferences in Maynooth and Fota ‑ the return to a Christian Platonism (which is how she tends to understand the early Fathers) as against the scholasticism which developed under the influence of Aristotle. It is through this prism of the Greek philosophers that she interprets the differences that developed between the Lutheran and the Reformed, or Calvinist, traditions.
Both Luther and Calvin were, quite self-consciously, Augustinian in that they both accepted Augustine’s doctrine of the total incapacity of the human will to contribute anything towards the work of its own salvation ‑ freedom from sin and the incapacity for union with God that comes with it. Salvation, Augustine argued, in opposition to the followers of Pelagius, is entirely an unmerited work of divine grace. The Swiss reformers drew from this the logical inference that the salvation of those whom God had chosen to be saved (the “elect”) and the damnation of the non-elect were equally predetermined and willed by God. In fact this “double predestination” ‑ together with the inference that God has willed, or is at least responsible for, sin itself ‑ is an almost inescapable conclusion from the doctrine of the omniscience and omnipotence of God. Even if God has not actually willed evil and the damnation of the non-elect, His omniscience implies that He knew what the consequences would be ‑ including the eternal suffering of many millions of immortal souls ‑ when He created the world.
The impossibility of escaping this conclusion led the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev to reject theology as a science and to adopt the heretical view that God did not create the world ex nihilo. Only by suggesting that God was working with a refractory material that was quite other than Himself and, necessarily coeternal with Him could it be argued a) that God was not responsible for the existence of evil and sin and b) that the human will is truly free. Berdyaev identified this material with the urgrund of the philosophy of Jakob Böhme but himself preferred to call it “freedom”, enabling both evil and a human creativity independent of God.
There is, though, another way of dealing with the problem, which is simply to declare the obvious, that omniscience and omnipotence are states that are so totally beyond our imagining that there is no point in trying to draw from them any logical inference whatsoever. An example of the sort of mess we get into if we try: God being omniscient cannot create a being whose destiny is unknown to Him. But if there is anything He cannot do, then He is not omnipotent … We may remember Gregory Palamas’s distinction between the essence and the energies of God. God can only be known through His energies, which are uncreated and continuous with the essence, so they are God. But the essence is strictly unknowable. We may safely confide the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence to the care of the unknowable, unthinkable God.
But this of course was not a strategy accessible to either Luther or Calvin. Rutherford paints a picture of a Luther continually harrassed by the Swiss reformers Zwingli and Calvin, as by a persistent fly, complaining at his failure to draw out the logical implications of his Augustinian doctrine of grace. In fact he did spell them out very radically in what he himself regarded as his most important theological work ‑ On the Bondage of the Will, published in 1525 in response to a theological critique by Erasmus. The Anglican evangelical theologian JIPacker, in his introduction to an English translation of On the Bondage of the Will, summarises the argument as follows:
The idea of a meritorious act is an idea of an independent act which is no way necessitated by God for man or performed by God in man, but is carried out by man acting in some sense apart from God. And there is no such action as this in God’s universe. The Creator directly energises and controls all the acts of His creatures … Luther does not shrink from stating this truth in its bluntest form. God, he says, works every human deed, whether good or evil. He works in the evil man according to that man’s nature as he finds it. It is true that the evil man is proximately and directly governed by Satan … yet it is God the Creator who energises Satan according to his nature … Behind the revealed dualism of cosmic conflict between the devil and God lies the hidden mystery of absolute divine sovereignty; evil is brought to expression only by the omnipotent working of the good God … Only God has “free will”, for He is the only independent agent that there is.
Which leaves us wondering what the origin is of the “nature” of the evil man or of Satan.
It is difficult to see that this is a less extreme development of Augustine’s doctrine than anything in Calvin, and if the term “predestination” does not appear, the operative idea ‑ that God, as the only effective free will in the universe freely chooses who is or isn’t saved ‑ is very much present; and Luther argues vigorously against Erasmus not only that this is a proper subject for theology but that it is the key central concept of Christian doctrine.
The great quarrel between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions turned not so much on grace as on the idea of the Church. Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” effectively delivered the church into the hands of the civil authorities, while Calvin developed an idea of the Church as a divinely ordained polity in its own right, independent of, and in some respects sovereign over, the civil authority. Rutherford argues that England, after the conflicts of the seventeenth century, became quite allergic to Calvinism but it is worth pointing out that what we might call the subordinate nations ‑ Scotland, Wales and the area that would eventually become “Northern Ireland” ‑ all to a large extent adopted Calvinism as a defining national or regional ideology. The appeal of Calvinism was partly that, like Catholicism but unlike Lutheranism or Anglicanism, it argued for the Church as an authority in some respects superior to the civil power. But there is also, as Rutherford rightly observes, a similarity with Thomism. As with Thomism, its intellectual rigour conveys a sense of certitude which, together with its very refusal of spiritual self-indulgence and sentimentality, gives it an austere beauty all its own.
The main thrust of Rutherford’s article is that a return to the Fathers should not be a return to Augustine but to what she calls “the Platonism of light bequeathed to us most notably by Origen” as opposed to Augustine’s “Platonism of darkness, which emphasises the depravity of humanity and the inability of human nature to understand God, positing that God is so radically other than humanity that he operates in ways entirely incomprehensible to us”. She continues: “Not having been blessed with Augustine, the Orthodox Churches have always had a more moderate assessment of the damage done to human will as a result of the fall.”
The broad Orthodox critique of Augustine is that although the power of sin can indeed, as Augustine argues, only be overcome by the grace of God, the human will has a role to play in co-operating with, or at least consenting to, the will of God. But it is important to stress that this Orthodox emphasis on the role of the human will is inseparable from the Orthodox emphasis on asceticism, the struggle with the passions that is described almost as a science in the many writings of saints gathered together in the collection known as the Philokalia, a book that in Orthodox eyes is second in importance only to the Bible itself. Origen may have had a huge influence on the Philokalia, not so much for his theology, outlined in the De Principiis (which may have had more influence through Rufinus’s Latin translation in the West than it did in the East) as through his methods of biblical exegesis ‑ the astonishing freedom with which, for example, the wars of the Old Testament are reinterpreted in terms of the war of the ascetic against his or her internal demons. In Origen’s method, as used by the writers of the Philokalia, the whole of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, becomes a manual for the ascetic life.
The attraction of Augustine’s doctrine of grace for the Protestants of the sixteenth century (very obviously in the case of Luther) was that it liberated them from the ascetic struggle, rendering the monastic life superfluous, and I think it is reasonable to see the Pelagian critique of Augustine as a defence of asceticism. Indeed, a criticism that could be made of Orthodoxy is that it is sometimes difficult to see how salvation can be achieved outside the ascetic life. For Rutherford, though, the answer to Augustine’s stress on the impotence of the human will is to stress, not the ascetic struggle of the saints, but the human will of Christ: “the perfect co-operation of Christ’s undamaged will with his divine will”. Hence the great importance she attaches, in common it may be said in parenthesis with Hans Urs von Balthasar, on Maximus the Confessor.
Maximus the Confessor had his tongue pulled out and his right hand cut off in the seventh century for preaching against the “monothelite” heresy which was being promoted by the Emperor Heraclius as a means of healing the great division that had opened up after the Council of Chalcedon in 452 between the patriarch of Constantinople and the patriarch of Alexandria. Chalcedon had agreed the formula that Christ is one Person with two natures, fully divine and fully human. The formula of two natures was opposed by the patriarchate of Alexandria, whose position was characterised by Constantinople as “monophysite”, that is insisting that Christ had one single nature. We run into problems of terminology. Obviously the Coptic Church, which is the successor to Alexandria’s opposition to Chalcedon – Coptic means Egyptian ‑ regards itself as “orthodox”. They also tend to reject the term “monophysite”, preferring the term “miaphysite”. Both “mono” and “mia” mean “one” but “mono” implies a solitary “one”, while “mia” implies a unity, we might say a bringing together into one. “Miaphysite” also has the advantage that it borrows from a term used by Cyril of Alexandria, recognised by both sides to the dispute as a saint.
The Chalcedonian understanding of the monophysite position was that Christ’s human nature had been fully absorbed into His divine nature. The “monothelite” attempt at compromise was to argue that although Christ had two natures, human and divine, He only had one will, necessarily the divine will. Maximus argued that this made nonsense of the idea of a fully human nature. He insisted, with the support of the then patriarchs of Rome (John IV, Theodore I and the martyr Martin I), that two natures could only mean two wills ‑ a “dyothelite” position. Hence Rutherford’s argument that “To recover an anthropology that makes space for free will we must therefore begin by recognising the fundamental importance of holding a correct dyothelite Christology. And to do this we in the West must, at long last, fully appropriate Alexandrian Christian Platonism, particularly as represented by the greatest theologian of the east: Maximos Confessor.” And she concludes, possibly with a little wave of the hand to the liturgical reformers meeting in Fota: “Piecemeal tinkering with hymnography and liturgy will not be enough to recover sound dyothelite Christology and anthropology for the west. To achieve this, we need the theology of Maximos and the poetry of Narekatsi.”
As editor, Rutherford is bringing the themes of the book together because, as it happens, there are also essays on Maximus and on Narekatsi ‑ Grigor of Narek (951-1003), whose Book of Lamentation or Book of Prayer is, according to the article by Serafim Seppälä, “the most read Armenian book of all time”.
There is a certain irony here, since the Armenians were also, like the Copts, anti-Chalcedonian and therefore one might assume that Narekatsi would not be stressing the distinction between Christ’s human and divine wills. Serafim Seppälä’s essay is called “Will of Man and will of God in the poetical vision of Narekatsi” but the “will of man” in question is very much our will, likened to a fog, contrasted to the divine will. Although Seppälä refers to the “self-emptying of Christ’s will at Golgotha, it is very much His divine will that is stressed – “the divine will being life-giving by nature, and in Golgotha this life-giving will paradoxically sacrificed Himself to death”. He continues: “At the first glance it may appear that in this solemn Trinitarian vision Grigor forgets the human side of Christ’s willing. However, Narekatsi does also praise the self-discipline of Christ which de facto presupposes a real human character for His will.” Perhaps, but it hardly suggests the centrality of Christ’s human will in the work of salvation, much less Rutherford’s view that we are saved through the act performed specifically by the human will of Christ as representative of humanity. Narekatsi, in Seppälä’s account, and of course the anti-Chalcedonian tradition in general, does certainly argue for ascetic discipline to bring our unstable will into harmony with the divine will (it is only with Protestantism in the sixteenth century that it became possible to think of Christianity as a non-monastic religion). The “dyothelite” position defended by Maximus argues, as I understand it, that this is only possible because we can pass from the old unstable human nature of Adam to the new, stable but still fully human nature of Christ (as explained by St Paul, 1 Cor 15, 21-22), thereby entering into union with His divine nature.
Nicholas Madden, who writes on “Human fulfiment in Maximus Confessor”, has been involved with the patristics project since its earliest days. As a Carmelite he is no stranger to ascetic monasticism. His article is largely concerned with the effort of Maximus to distinguish his teaching ‑ or at least the teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus (“Gregory the Theologian”) ‑ from that of Origen. And it poses the question of the extent to which this whole line of thought can be characterised as “Platonist”.
Origen posits a certainly very Platonist schema of all things having fallen away from an original unity then returning back to it. The “all things” start off in an egalitarian nonmaterial realm and that is where the “Fall” (portrayed allegorically in the Book of Genesis) occurs. The material world is created to cope with the consequences of this Fall and to help them return to their original union. I have been intrigued to learn recently that something along these lines is taught in Mormon theology.
There is an interesting account of the relations between Origen and Platonism in the first patristics symposium volume by John Dillon, author of an important book on “Middle Platonism”. Dillon lays out at the start of his essay a general approach to Origen which I think is useful:
Part of the problem is, I think, that the alternatives are stated too starkly. Either Origen is represented as a Platonist with a superficial veneer of Christianity, or he is not considered to be a systematic philosopher at all. The truth may rather be that he is indeed a philosopher, but one who, rather than adopting Platonism or the doctrine of any other Hellenic school, has forged a system of his own out of the Christian Scriptures and tradition, to which he lays Platonism in tribute for concepts and formulations which he finds useful, without surrendering to the Greeks any principle whatever. We may recall that, as he tells it himself … Origen only began to attend the lectures of “the teacher of philosophy” (sc. Ammonius Saccas) when he himself was already an established, if precocious, teacher of Christian doctrine. He went to Ammonius, not to be converted to Platonism, but rather to pick up useful technical information, to aid in his apostolate to the Alexandrian intelligentsia, a number of whom, such as Heraclas and his brother Plutarch, he actually lured away from Ammonius. This he could not have done, I submit, without a system to offer.
The rest of the essay is a brilliant exposition of the system insofar as it can be reconstructed out of Rufinus’s probably sanitised translation, showing Origen’s intimate knowledge of the whole Platonist-Middle Platonist tradition. And though from a practising Christian point of view the system is deeply uninteresting compared to the exegetical and apologetic works, it is historically very important since it gave a kick start, so to speak, to the whole adventure of Christian systematic philosophy, including an attempt to understand how exactly Christ could be both fully God and fully Man (the later Alexandrian refusal of the formula of two natures is probably related in this respect to their dislike of Origen). From a mainstream Christian point of view one might see the subsequent development through Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus as a process by which Origen’s crudely Platonist system was refined and corrected.
The problem Maximus is facing in the Ambigua is that certain expressions in the writings of the Cappadocian Father Gregory the Theologian ‑ by this time a highly authoritative figure ‑ seemed to imply some of the subsequently corrected ideas of Origen, including the pre-existence of souls. Where Origen taught a beginning to God’s creation in Eternity (“Stasis”), a free movement that results in the Fall (“kinesis”) and a resultant incarnation in the material world (“genesis”), Maximus, in Madden’s account, saw the process of creation as beginning in the material world (genesis), resulting in a process in time and movement (kinesis) which would eventually be resolved (actually by definition already is resolved) in eternity (stasis ‑ though this is surely an extraordinarily inadequate word to express eternity, which is the fullness of being, insofar as that is accessible to us, and therefore also the fullness of movement).
Madden stresses in Maximus the absolute division there is between the Uncreated (God, understood in Christian terms as a Trinity) and the created (everything else, including angels and the principles of things). Origen would certainly not have denied this but the distinction is a little blurred by the idea of an original personal state outside the material body and in perfect union with God. With Maximus we are created incarnate: “Place and time” as Madden puts it “are the sine qua non of the being that we recognise as not being absolute.” Everything we experience in the world is created as it is, in its own individual existence, down to the smallest, apparently most insignificant detail ‑ Madden takes up Julian of Norwich’s example of the hazelnut. As he points out, Origen does not deny that souls are created and there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the idea that God might have created “spirits who would eventually become incarnate”. But “where Maximus scores is in insisting implicitly on the substantial unity of man, and so on his being created as a unit” ‑ body and soul. In this view of things there can be no question of our human nature being in some way naturally “divine”: “in Maximus’ view … there cannot be the slightest temptation to associate creatures with God in any way that would invade the divine otherness”.
However, this is far from being a despairing view of the world because of course in Christ the Created and the uncreated are united in one single Person, a “hypostatic union”. The more we stress the gulf that separates the Uncreated and the created, the more we appreciate the marvel that is their union in the incarnate God, a union that in turn renders a similar hypostatic union possible for us. Maximus, as Madden says, affirms “that the goal of the creature is beyond the creaturely state … While remaining a creature it is granted a way of being … that enables it to be and move and live in a way that is beyond it … Man, through hypostatic innovation [that is the Godman, Christ – PB] can surpass the limitations of a world bounded by time and space.”
So, Madden concludes: “Divinization in its perfection after death is a realized participation in the life of God.” He quotes Maximus himself as saying “God is entirely participated in by all … in such a way that the soul receives immutability and the body immortality and the whole man is deified by divinizing grace from God become man, remaining entirely human with soul and body, but becoming by grace entirely God in body and soul.”
This is the aim proposed by Christianity, the real goal of Christianity, the real radicalism of Christianity. Everything in Christianity is a tension towards this hypostatic union of the created and the Uncreated and though it is something mankind as a whole will only experience after death, we can all have glimpses of it, intimations of it ‑ we can all do what we can to prepare for it ‑ but there are those who, even before death, have a relatively full (relative to the rest of us) experience of it. They are the saints and they are the only source of authority and of more or less certain knowledge within the Church. And generally speaking they are men and women who have devoted themselves to trying to live as integrally as possible following the commandments of Christ, notably in the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, they have lived the ascetic life. And we who cannot or who will not live the commandments of Christ (do what He tells us needs to be done to achieve eternal life) can nonetheless participate in the lives of the Saints, by loving them, venerating them and, through engaging in the life of the Church and most especially Holy Communion, participating together with them in the Body (the human body) of Christ.
Maximus himself, in addition to the intellectually rigorous and demanding philosophical works, wrote practical counsels for the ascetic life. I think it is with great reluctance that one of the saints would enter into the field of intellectual speculation, a regrettable necessity to take on heresies, meaning by that term ideas that act as obstacles to the union of the Divine and human that is the real and unique aim of the Christian life. Hence a certain feeling of suspicion towards the obvious (and in its own way very attractive, perhaps we should say seductive) delight in the intellectual life we find in Augustine.
I have only discussed, very superficially, four essays in a book that contains thirteen, all of them in my view interesting and important. The themes I have touched on are mainly those defined in the essay by Rutherford ‑ the two wills of Christ and the tension between the perceived influence of Plato, or Platonism, and that of Aristotle, resulting in scholasticism. These themes could have been developed further in discussion of the two articles on the sixth century Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus, a “miaphysite” and therefore someone who might question the doctrine of the two wills, or understand it differently, and a man credited (if that is the right word) with reintroducing the categories of Aristotle into Christian discourse and indeed anticipating the emergence of a “scientific” approach to the appearances of the natural world. There is obviously much that could be said about that!
I have not at all touched on one of the most important and impressive aspects of the Patristics Symposium project, and that is the serious effort to understand how the insular culture of Ireland and what would later become “Great Britain” related to the generally recognised patristic culture of mainland Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire. Three essays belong to this category ‑ one on Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba, one on insular art (a particular interest of my own) and one on the pioneering use of the Anno Domini dating system in Bede’s History of the English Church and People. This last connects with the biennial conference on the early mediaeval science of computus ‑ calculating calendars ‑ held in the National University of Ireland, Galway. Indeed the whole patristics project, particularly with regard to insular culture, connects with the work being done by the Mediaeval Academy of Ireland based in University College Cork, and its very impressive journal, Peritia.
The last essay in the book, rather deliciously for a group that believes in the modern relevance of the early Church Fathers, concerns the German theologian Franz Overbeck, boldly described as the “single most independently minded thinker on Christianity ever to emerge within the theological guild”. Overbeck argued that the theology of the Fathers was a betrayal of early Christianity, whose central idea had been the imminent return of Christ. Once that expectation was disappointed, the Fathers saved the Church by developing a theology which had little or nothing to do with its original impetus. He regards almost the whole history of theology, starting with the Alexandrians Clement and Origen, as fraudulent: “the Church’s attitude to culture is governed by the need to survive and have influence in the world. It is not governed by any genuine commitment to aesthetic values or to an open search for intellectual truth”. A view that is indeed very independent-minded spoken from within the theological guild but is surely not too far removed from the view of his near contemporary, the Marxist Karl Kautsky in his Foundations of Christianity, though Kautsky’s approach is perhaps a little less morally disapproving.
In short, this volume is something of an intellectual feast. I think it is even rich and nourishing for non-Christians. They may see these ideas as exotic or arcane but they have been enormously influential in the history of the world. An Irish Michel Foucault, should such a thing exist, would know how to make use of them. But we can assume that something more than intellectual gourmandise is envisaged by Vincent Twomey and the movement of which he is part ‑ the ressourcement theologians, Joseph Ratzinger ‑ something perhaps more related to what Overbeck would call “the need to survive and have influence in the world”. It seems to me that the most important essay from this more practical point of view ‑ the need to recover the sort of authority and feeling of certainty the Church formerly derived from Thomism ‑ is Madden’s essay on Maximus the Confessor. The “Fathers” or the saints do not give us interesting new ways of “doing” theology. They give us theology itself, as something already done, to be understood, and internalised, and lived.
Peter Brooke is the author of a general history, Ulster Presbyterianism – The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1987, Athol Books, Belfast, 1994). Since 1987 he has been devoted to the thought and painting of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, teacher of the Irish painters Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, a work which has implications in philosophy and theology. He has an article in the catalogue of the forthcoming IMMA exhibition Analysing Cubism, opening on February 19th.