"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 14, 2020

Matthew Briel on Greek Thomists

I think I first met our author, Matthew Briel, at a lovely conference at the University of Saint Thomas in the Twin Cities in July 2017, devoted to questions of reception history in theology. I gave a paper on the usefulness of forgetting, drawing on numerous books I have discussed on here since 2016. My paper had a lovely and thrilling response from Sarah Coakley.

Since then, Matthew has finished his doctoral work, found a job, and published his dissertation as A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios. Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions about his background and new book. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

MB: I am a Catholic layman originally from Minnesota but now an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts. My undergraduate degree in philosophy and an MTS in theology are from Notre Dame and it was there that my basic view of the world through a Thomistic and Newmanian lens was confirmed. John Henry Newman, in particular, has affected my view of history and epistemology.

After a year of teaching in a Catholic high school I did a three-year MA in Classics at the University of Minnesota which strengthened my Latin, gave me my Greek, and provided a broad introduction to classical literature. It also prepared me for the academy by exposing me to critical theory. I then entered Fordham’s doctoral program to study with George Demacopoulos. This was my introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy and Byzantine theology.

AD: What led to the writing of A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios?

MB: As an MA student I read Aristotle in Greek for the first time and found myself again attracted to his basic worldview with its primacy of the particular and his, to me, mostly convincing metaphysics and ethics. I was reminded of my basically Thomistic orientation and wondered if there was a way that I could incorporate Thomas into my studies but at the same time had begun the MA in order to learn Greek to work in the Greek Orthodox theological tradition. When I learned about Greek Thomism I was committed.

I began my doctoral work by writing a seminar paper on Demetrios Kydones, the first Orthodox thinker to read Thomas with care. I came to the conclusion that Kydones wasn’t a genius and looked to so if there might be someone else. I then stumbled across Scholarios, became convinced of his towering intellect, and began working on him.

My beginning in Scholarios was a tutorial with a Thomist, Franklin Harkins, at Fordham. I would come with translations of Scholarios to our meetings and we would discuss them, identifying Thomas’ influence. After that I worked carefully with George Demacopoulos to develop a framework and to place Scholarios in the Orthodox theological tradition.

AD: Tell us a bit about your titular character and why he’s important

MB: Born around 1400 in Constantinople, Scholarios became a teacher of philosophy in his 20s. He learned Latin well early in his life and read voraciously in Latin and Greek philosophy and theology. Really the breadth of his knowledge of both theological traditions is breathtaking. By his late 20s Scholarios became convinced that Latin scholasticism, and Aquinas in particular, not only had developed and refined classical Greek philosophy, especially in logic, but that Aquinas had profound insight into the Greek Fathers, surpassing even Byzantine understanding of the Greek fathers.

Scholarios remained an unmarried lay scholar (a bachelor-don) and developed a reputation for his profound learning. As a result, he was brought to the Council of Florence in 1438 as one of three lay theological advisors to the Orthodox delegation. At this point Scholarios was very much in favor of reunion with Rome. At the same time, Scholarios was committed to a reunion established on dogmatic grounds rather than a political compromise. Returning to Constantinople in 1439, Scholarios, under the influence of his teacher Mark of Ephesus (the hero who resisted reunion on the grounds of compromised dogma), grew increasingly anti-union. Scholarios took monastic vows in his late 40s and grew increasingly frustrated with the imperial uniate position. He became the leader of the anti-union party.

After the fall of the City in 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror chose Scholarios to be patriarch in large part due to his resistance to Rome. Scholarios remained in this position for two years until he retired first to Mt. Athos and then to the manuscript- rich Monastery of the Forerunner outside of Serres in Northern Greece.

As the first patriarch of Constantinople after its fall in 1453, Scholarios laid the groundwork for the relationship of Orthodox Christians with their Muslim conquerors for the next several centuries. Serving as both ecclesial and secular ruler of the Rum Millet (Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire), Scholarios provided sophisticated defenses of Christianity to his new Muslim rulers, worked to provide places of worship for Christians, and helped to establish a place for Christians in Ottoman society.

Scholarios is perhaps more remarkable as a theologian. Among other things, he offered the first Orthodox account of transubstantiation. This was to have a long afterlife in the Orthodox theological tradition. Then there’s his reconciliation of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies with the Catholic understanding of divine simplicity. His pastoral work and application of economy is a forerunner to contemporary Orthodox practice. Finally, of course, there is his account of divine providence, the subject of the book, which had a profound effect on later Orthodox theology.

AD: Your book is, as we say today, at the intersection of several phenomena: Greek Orthodox thought and Thomism, Aristotelian philosophy and theology, a Turkish Islamic context at the end of the East-Roman Empire, inter alia. What were some of the surprises you found in examining these intersections?

MB: I was surprised by the fierce debate about providence between fifteenth-century Greek theologians (including the pagan Pletho) and its parallel in discussion on the ground, so to say. There are reports of popular opinions in contemporary historians as well as a cache of letters written in simple Greek that evince a great concern with providence. Novel accounts of fate/determinism and a conception of a random universe were also circulating. It was in this context that Scholarios worked. He attempted to respond both to a popular decline in belief in providence (in part influenced indirectly by higher levels of discourse and the fall of the Byzantine Empire) and the ideas of scholars.

Pletho, too, was a surprise to me. Perhaps the greatest mind of the later Byzantine Empire, Pletho was a convinced pagan (and possibly theurgist) who was highly critical of Aristotle, whose language and concepts undergird traditional Byzantine theology, and instead preferred Plato. Pletho’s pamphlet, On the Differences between Plato and Aristotle, caused quite a stir in the mid-15th century in both Italy and the Byzantine Empire. Scholarios responded to this pamphlet with a text that presents Aristotle, without change, as compatible with Christianity. In his response, Pletho easily demolished Scholarios’ arguments and pressed him to reconsider Aristotle’s compatibility with the Christian understanding of God and the universe. Scholarios realized that Aristotle had to be transformed if he was to be used in Christian dogmatics and he did just that, largely, but not simply, following the path established by Aquinas. Scholarios’ teaching on providence became the consensus position among later Orthodox theologians and it is in part due to Pletho’s intervention. In this way a revival of paganism at the end of the Byzantine Empire led to an important development in Orthodox doctrine.

AD: Marcus Plested (interviewed here), who has endorsed your book and is the author of an earlier and similar work on Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, has helped to break down some of the assumptions and stereotypes about Latin scholasticism and Greek patristics. Does your book continue that process, differ from it, or add to it?

Plested’s book draws attention for the first time to the massive influence, both negative and positive, that Aquinas has had on Orthodox theology. There was a good sized body of literature on the Byzantine reception of Aquinas in various languages since the turn of the twentieth century. Plested brings that literature together into a coherent narrative, arguing that Orthodoxy has in the past and continues today to have something to learn from Aquinas.

At the same time this engagement with Aquinas has been and must be a critical reception. This is an important challenge to Orthodox theology which has, since the middle of the twentieth century, tended to rest content with eschewing Latin theology by reducing it to a caricature and proceeding to reject it. Plested demonstrates that this approach is in fact not the historical road of Orthodoxy and shouldn’t be the approach today.

Plested’s book gives a fair amount of attention to Scholarios and holds him up as a model for rapprochement with Aquinas in particular and with Western theology in general. Scholarios knew Aquinas deeply, recognized his genius and his mastery of the Greek patristic tradition and learned from him. Indeed, Scholarios drew upon Aquinas in his own theology. But this was not a passive reception. Instead Scholarios drew attention to Aquinas’ errors while praising him.

I focused on Scholarios because, like Plested, I am convinced that he is a model of Orthodox engagement with Aquinas. My book furthers Plested’s argument about Aquinas and Orthodox doctrine. Like Plested, I also engage the Greek patristic tradition that formed Scholarios and present Aquinas as a valid interpreter of that tradition. Because Plested’s book covers so much territory, he didn’t have the space to develop why Scholarios is a model for Orthodox theology. By focusing on him, my book is able to do this.

AD: As we learn more about the previously unknown or ignored connections between Latin and Greek Christian thought in this period, you are very clear in your introduction that the result of such an encounter does not necessarily entail “captivity” (Florovsky) or the creation of a tertium quid, but can result in “a healthy development of the Orthodox theological tradition” (p.4), referencing Newman. But I thought “development” was an impermissible category in Orthodox thought—certainly I recall Andrew Louth and others saying that as recently as 2006? Tell us more about how you understand development in the context of Scholarios.

MB: Yes, I should have clarified this in the book. My sense of Louth’s chapter in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Festschrift is that his criticism of the idea of the development of doctrine is a criticism of it as it is conceived of by modern western theologians, and not as it was understood by Newman. Although Louth presents an analysis of Newman in this chapter, he simply gets him wrong. Louth’s concern is: “if development means that there is an historical advance in Christian understanding of the faith deeper or more profound than that of the Fathers, at least in principle, then such a notion of development cannot be accepted as a category of Orthodox theology” (55).

Newman wholeheartedly agrees with Louth and I would argue that such a conception of development cannot be accepted as a category of Catholic theology either. For Newman it is not a question of the depth of understanding but rather a question of making precise and making implicit knowledge (which is real and more fundamental knowledge) explicit.

In the case of Scholarios’ understanding of providence, there existed a tension between strains of theology in the Orthodox tradition. Some fathers tended towards emphasizing human freedom and muting divine agency and predetermination, while others stressed the predetermination of events and only falteringly accounted for human freedom. The sense of the Church was that both must be true. Scholarios provided the vocabulary and framework for giving an account of this mystery but it was a mystery that was already understood, if only implicitly. Scholarios does not reflect on his achievement in his Tracts on Providence but he is aware that it is a new solution. He might not even go so far as to call his theology a development, as Palamas calls the essence-energy distinction, and he certainly wouldn’t be so bold as to describe it as knowledge disclosed by the Holy Spirit after the time of the Apostles, as Gregory Nazianzen does when reflecting on the doctrine of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

AD: I had an “ah-ha!” moment as soon as you mentioned (p.5) the name of the rather infamous Martin Jugie, who seems to be an expert in prejudicing the reception and ruining the reputations of several figures between East and West, including Scholarios. Tell us about Jugie’s role here.

Jugie is a fascinating and important figure and we are all indebted to him. Without him we’d only have a tenth of the works of Scholarios in print instead of nearly the whole corpus. His mastery of Byzantine and modern Orthodox theology (in both Greek and Russian) was unparalleled and his body of work is lasting, if problematic.

Jugie understood himself to be a faithful son of the Church, and the approach of the Catholic Church towards ecumenism in the early twentieth century was, in large part, to bring Protestants and Orthodox into submission to Rome. The Catholic Church was not to learn from her separated brothers, but rather to make clear their errors and convince them of the truth. In addition to the lack of charity and the naïve epistemology that this entails (if I simply provide cogent arguments, you will be converted), this led, I think, Jugie to exaggerate what he considered to be errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, the essence-energies distinction was not simply a misconstrual of the divine simplicity, but it was even close to polytheism. The approach was not fraternal engagement, but more of a debate such as we see in news programs today in which you try to score points rather than actually communicate. This, of course, was almost completely ineffective in bringing Orthodox Christians to the Catholic Church.

By exaggerating the theological positions of Byzantine theologians, Jugie prompted a distancing of Orthodox and Catholic theologians. Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky responded to Jugie’s articles by accepting the dichotomy presented but arguing for the Orthodox position. Thus, it seems to me, Jugie was a catalyst for many Orthodox theologians in the 20th century to think that the Palamite essence-energies distinction was simply incompatible with Roman Catholic doctrine.

AD: You use a helpful Russian architectural metaphor to explain what Scholarios did, saying it’s more akin to the building of the Kremlin Church of the Dormition than that of St. Petersburgh’s Cathedral of St. Isaac. Unpack that a bit for those not familiar with the history of those buildings.

I’m glad to hear that you found it helpful. In the fifteenth century Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow decided to build the largest church in his realm in the Kremlin. He first hired local architects but their building collapsed after two years of construction. Frustrated by undaunted, Ivan hired an Italian, Aristotle Fioravanti to build his Church of the Dormition. Fioravanti introduced several internal structural modifications that had been recently developed in Italy. In addition to laying a much deeper foundation and driving oaks into that foundation for stability, he also designed lightweight but hardened bricks for construction and employed iron tie-rods for the vaults. Finally, he used groin vaults and transverse arches to support the massive dome, giving the interior a light and airy feel. While the church’s bones were derived from Italian Renaissance technology, the appearance of the church was fully in the Russian Orthodox Tradition. It still stands today.

Three hundred years later the French architect August Montferrand was hired to build the largest Orthodox church in the world, St. Isaacs in St. Petersburg. When standing in St. Isaacs the worshipper today might think that he is in St. Peter’s in Rome. The form is entirely western.

I think that these two churches embody two different ways for Orthodox to make use of western forms. In the Church of the Dormition, western technology is used to serve an Orthodox form and remains subservient to Orthodox traditions. In St. Isaac’s the western form takes over. Instead of playing a subsidiary role, Latin traditions replace Orthodox traditions.

I used this to illustrate two different ways for Orthodox to encounter and profit from Latin traditions. I argue in the course of the book that although Scholarios uses Aquinas to great advantage, he ultimately brings Aquinas in as a servant of the Orthodox theological tradition.

AD: One of my undergraduate professors in moral theology used to insist that “there is no more abused phrase in modern Catholicism than ‘Divine Providence wills that…’.” Tell us how you understand Providence, and what Scholarios brings to that discussion, and why that discussion was so central, as you say in your second chapter, after 1458.

MB: I wonder if your professor was especially concerned with attempts to make sense of particular events?

AD: Yes, exactly!

MB: At any rate, that statement seems on the surface to ignore human interaction with providence and our ability to participate in or reject God’s actions in our life and the world. We learn from the book of Job that any attempt to explain tragedy is a mistake. Really, we don’t know.

I think that God is involved in and foreknows everything that happens in this world. But God doesn’t will everything that happens. With the Greek patristic tradition, starting with Origen and culminating in John of Damascus, I believe that we can, and often do, refuse to participate in God’s plan for our lives. This has real consequences and, in a sense, frustrates God’s plan. In a mysterious way God foreknows all of our actions and their ramifications because he lives outside of time: “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8, cf. Psalm 90:4).

Scholarios, following Aquinas, provides a metaphysical account of this absolute divine providence and full human freedom with his use of the analogy of being. The foundation of this metaphysics is the conception of God as perfectly simple, in which his essence is his existence, while creatures’ essences are not their existence and so derive their existence from being itself, God. In this metaphysics, God, as being (but beyond being) is the primary agent in any action, including existence. Creatures, however, can determine the direction of those actions as true secondary agents. Human beings can choose by free will how to participate in God as being.

An immediate problem arises for Palamites (and Scholarios considered the Palamite distinction between divine essence and energies to be settled Orthodox doctrine after the fourteenth century councils). Scholarios understands the distinction to be neither a mere notional one (and therefore not grounded in reality) nor a real distinction. Instead, drawing on and changing Duns Scotus’ understanding of a notional distinction with a basis in reality, Scholarios provides a Palamite account of divine simplicity that can be the ground of an analogy of being. Furthermore, Scholarios uses the language of Maximus Confessor to see how this relationship of God and creation is played out, especially in the area of providence. In doing so, I am convinced that Scholarios uses Latin theologies in order to grow the Orthodox tradition in an organic way. The tree remains faithful to the Orthodox tradition, but it uses Catholic fertilizer.

Byzantium experienced nearly every conceivable disaster in its last century. Plagues, besieged cities, loss of life and territory, betrayal of the Latins and the collapse of churches led many Orthodox to wonder if God had abandoned him. At the same time, old pagan conceptions of the lack of intelligibility in the universe as well as the predetermination of all events to the exclusion of free will surfaced. With the collapse of their 2100-year-old republic (going back to ancient Rome) and 1100 years as a Christian people, many Christians started to wonder if God weren’t actually favoring their Muslim conquerors. Could Islam be the true religion? Many did convert, including some philosophers (George Amiroutzes, for instance) and those who remained Christian began to have doubts about how God could be acting in their world. Scholarios began to see that while his tradition clearly maintained the two poles of divine omnipotence and human freedom, a more convincing account of these antinomies must be found.

AD: You note that Origen, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus are all significant figures in the Greek and Byzantine tradition of thought on Providence. You note later in your book that the Damascene is especially important as an interlocutor for Aquinas in the latter’s modification of a theology of providence. This modification, you say, comes to be pivotal for both East and West. This sounds like Aquinas can no longer be ostracized by the East to some cordon sanitaire of scholasticism but stands as an integral figure in Eastern thought itself and its development?

MB: I think that you’re right. Many Orthodox theologians in the centuries after Scholarios accepted his account of providence and his interpretation of John of Damascus. By the nineteenth century the Athenian dogmaticians took this position as well, especially the last great Athenian dogmatician, Panagiotis Trembelas. Now, this school has been largely abandoned (although the Volos academy has recently put together a fine volume on Trembelas), nevertheless it seems to be a settled issue that God has full foreknowledge of all creaturely events, is active in those events, and that human beings are free.

John of Damascus was a slight scandal to Andrew Louth in his excellent book on him because he limits God’s participation to good actions and excludes them from bad actions. John seems to be on to something in that God abhors sin and cannot participate in it. But John misses that God, as being (or beyond being) must underly every creaturely action.  It seems to me, then, that the Aquinas’ conclusion has been accepted as a given by the Orthodox tradition, but his interpretation of the Damascene has been forgotten. I think that remembering this intervention of Aquinas’ in the Orthodox theological tradition is just what you say: Aquinas is integral to the development of Eastern Christian thought. Here too, I should have been more explicit in my book. But I hope that it’s a conclusion that the reader will draw. I’m glad that you saw this.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially would benefit from reading it.

My audience includes a number of groups. I think that Thomists with wide visions would be interested in it, but more importantly I hope that Orthodox theologians will read it. My goal in writing it was that by understanding the important and lasting contribution that Aquinas made to their tradition, they will both be open to engaging Aquinas and to other contributions from the West. The important thing about this story is that Scholarios integrates Aquinas into the Greek theological tradition.

In the worst way this can be understood as spoiling the Egyptians, but in a better light it might be thought of as a cooperative, fraternal search for the truth. This would be rejected if Scholarios simply allowed Aquinas’ framework and categories to determine his thought, but his critical reception of Aquinas and use in developing the Orthodox tradition, I hope, would be of interest to Orthodox theologians. It may even provide a model for how to think about engaging Catholic theology while remaining faithfully Orthodox. In this way, the main goal of the book is ecumenical.

A final group is Byzantinists. This book may be of interest to them for a few reasons. The first couple of chapters provide a window into the late Byzantine experience that has not been given before. Byzantinists interested in intellectual history might also be interested in the cultural and intellectual exchanges at the end of the Empire. Finally, I give a new account of an aspect of Pletho’s activities and account of Aristotle.

My hope is that some MA courses and several PhD seminars might use the book. The first review of the book was by Jude Dougherty, an emeritus professor from CUA and was written for a broader audience. It is probably wishful thinking but perhaps some educated general readers will come across it and find it of interest.

AD: Having finished A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios, what are you at work on now?

You know I’ve been searching for a few years on what to work on next. I’ve given a few papers on Photios and on method in Catholic historical theology. I’ve not gotten around to publishing them but hope to. My first false start was a project on Byzantine scriptural exegesis. After working in that area for a couple of years I realized that I simply didn’t find Byzantine exegesis gripping in any way and so cut of my research after writing on Photios.

One of the great needs of the field is translation, really into any western language but especially English. With that in mind I am directing my energies to two book-length projects. The first is the translation with heavy annotation of Scholarios’ five tracts on providence. This would be a nice pair to my book and would indeed go beyond it in that my book only addresses the first tract.

The second project would be a presentation and study of the metaphysical theological tradition in Byzantium. Much attention has been paid to ascetic and mystical texts in Byzantium, but few have engaged the rich (and rather difficult) philosophical theology of Byzantium. I intend to begin this volume with Dionysios and end with Scholarios, with a chapter devoted to each figure. I would hope to cover ten figures, about one per century. The first three figures are Dionysios, Maximos Confessor and John of Damascus. Those waters are familiar but after that the seas are largely unchartered. I would hope to conclude each chapter with a translation of 2,000-3,000 words as well as, perhaps, an annotated bibliography. I would hope to create an argument in the course of the book for scholars to engage while also writing a book that would be helpful and interesting to MA students. The translations and bibliography could be especially helpful to students.

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