"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).

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (3)

I noted earlier the very happy arrival of The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, edited by John McGuckin.

I continue to pluck entries at random to sample, and they are all--so far--of a consistently high quality in very smoothly edited English. Here are two to consider:

McGuckin's own entry, "Patristics." If you are challenged, as I often am, in trying to provide a succinct overview of the Fathers, especially to students who have never heard of them and whose grasp of Christian history is almost non-existent, then you could simply send them to the library to read this entry. He cannot, of course, go into a lot of detail, but he does provide a good overview--though the list of "References and Suggested Readings" at the end is rather too short and dated.
Of course, one of the first places I turned was to the essay on the papacy, written by Augustine Casiday, a prolific scholar and author of such notable works as a recent book on Evagrius, another on Cassian, and, most interesting of all, editor of a forthcoming collection from Routledge, The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge Worlds), a 672-page work that looks like it might give the McGuckin encyclopedia a run for its money (if one may be forgiven the vulgarism.)

Casiday's essay is a very good historical overview but its focus is very much on the first millennium. He writes with great cogency and dispassion, treating that complicated and controversial period very fairly, but his treatment of the second millennium is short, and his treatment of the post-Vatican II period virtually non-existent. He refers the reader to John Meyendorff's The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church, even though the original version of that book dates to the early 1960s, and much work has been done in the aftermath of Vatican II's reforms and the arguably even more revolutionary initiative of Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint.  For a complete survey of the literature of Orthodox thinking on the papacy, from 1962 onward, the work to consult, of course, is Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Synodality and Primacy

Known under a variety of interchangeable terms, synodality, conciliarity, or sobornost is the phenomenon (inspired by the 34th Apostolic Canon) of ecclesial governance of "the many" gathered together under the presidency of "the one" (variously understood as pope, patriarch, or metropolitan, inter alia). The forms which this has taken have varied over the centuries and in different contexts. Gradually, however, some consensus has emerged as to which councils are to be accorded which status--whether local, national, regional, or ecumenical. Sorting out which is which has never been an easy task, and continues to preoccupy scholars today, including Norman Tanner, author of significant works in church history, especially the history of the Ecumenical Councils, including the critical edition of the conciliar decrees. He has just published another book that I noted earlier:

The Church in Council: Conciliar Movements, Religious Practice and the Papacy from Nicea to Vatican II (I.B. Tauris, 2011), xi+249pp.

This is a fascinating collection of articles, all of which were published previously in a variety of forms. And those previous publications were, in the main, themselves previously given as lectures; all the hallmarks of oral provenance are still present in this book which, despite such a mouthful of a title, still has a very warmly conversational feel to it. Tanner is clearly a lecturer who tries to draw his audience into a dialogue rather than bore them into a condition of coma with a monologue. He succeeds most admirably here, and so readers should not be put off by his title into thinking that this is an extremely specialized work only for historians, theologians, or ecumenists. There is much here that a moderately educated Christian of any tradition will benefit from, not least a general overview of each of the seven Ecumenical Councils properly so called (Nicaea I in 325 to Nicaea II in 787) and the other fourteen councils of the Western Church sometimes considered by it to be ecumenical but more properly (as both the Council of Constance in 1417, and Pope Paul VI in 1974, noted) to be considered as "general" (generales synodos in occidentali orbe, to use the papal phrase).

Tanner offers several overviews of each of the first seven ecumenical councils properly so called. Those with little background in the history of the councils or their literature and consequences will find these overviews helpful though rather brief; the scholar will not find a lot that is new here--though I did wonder, in two or three places, about things Tanner raises but does not develop. E.g., his treatment of Nicaea II and iconoclasm rather overemphasizes, it seems to me, the role of Islam, which, in the light of recent and ongoing scholarship, recedes more and more into the background here. Tanner also does not address a very interesting question that Joseph Ratzinger raised more than a decade ago in his The Spirit of the Liturgy: has the West, in fact, really received and integrated the teaching of Nicaea II on icon veneration? Ratzinger seems to think it has not: there is, he suggested in The Spirit of the Liturgy a latent stream of iconoclasm in the West, and not just in, say, Calvin's Geneva, but even in the Latin Church, perhaps now more than ever in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Rather off-handedly, Tanner asserts that "confirmation of the councils' decrees by the pope, the bishop of Rome, was important--indeed essential alongside that of the other patriarchal sees" (17). This is, of course, a standard Roman Catholic notion but it is surprising that such an historian as Tanner does not bother at all to demonstrate how and where this expectation of Roman confirmation developed, and whether it was always as consistently and neatly practiced as Catholic apologists today would certainly have us believe. As Aidan Nichols has recently argued in his Rome and the Eastern Churches, papal confirmation is undoubtedly important but one cannot say that the pope speaks for everyone or his voice alone is the voice of "the Church."

A few other areas in which I expected, but did not find, Tanner to have taken greater account of historical scholarship include his rather too brief coverage of the Council of Constance. Here, as I've noted previously, the person to pay attention to is Francis Oakley in his The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 as well as many other works.

To my mind, Tanner missed a hugely important opportunity to develop a crucial point when he noted that "the Church today is less definitively bound to the decrees of the medieeval councils because of the lower status of these councils in comparison with those of the early Church" (30). Tanner has in mind here the councils of the Lateran, of Lyons, and Vienne, all of which, he says, dealt with disciplinary issues of relevance to the Western Church alone. But then he goes on to argue that
in the case of disciplinary decrees there is the additional reason that many of them dealt with contingent matters and therefore are, in principle, open to change. The same point applies, mutatis mutandis, to other decrees of a more practical nature, those concerning devotional life and even ecclesiology (30, my emphasis).
That latter point--about ecclesiology--is, in theory at least, very significant and its effects potentially far-reaching. It would have been fascinating to see Tanner apply this to, inter alia, Pastor Aeternus.

About that decree, in fact, Tanner makes some rather odd observations which, again, he does not substantiate or elaborate upon: "Whether the papacy, as portrayed in the decree, represents more the model of authority in the East than in the West may be debated. The decree did not try to base itself upon any secular models of authority, be they of East or West" (36). This may be debated, indeed, but I know of few today doing so. Most recent scholarship, in fact, strongly suggests that the model upon which Vatican I based itself was precisely a Western one, and a very political one: Hermann Pottmeyer, among others, has repeatedly suggested that Vatican I's model of papal primacy cannot be understood apart from nineteenth-century debates about the "sovereignty" of the nascent nation-state as it was emerging in France and the rest of Europe. Here the work of Joseph de Maistre is very influential. Another important volume to consult here is that of Klaus Schatz: Papal Primacy: From its Origin to the Present.

When we get to Vatican II, Tanner has done some valuable work in the acta and other documents surrounding the council. Here he unearths fascinating stories about Eastern Catholic, especially Melkite, influence at the council. Much of this has, of course, been published in French (L'Eglise Grecque Melkite au Concile, 1967, now helpfully translated here) and more recent works on Melkite influence are also available in English. But Tanner goes beyond the sometimes rosy portrait to show that the Melkites often led but on some issues ended up isolated from even fellow Eastern Catholics as well as the huge Latin majority.

One of the unintended (and generally unknown) consequences of Vatican II--especially the 1983 Code of Canon Law prepared in its wake--has been, as I've shown elsewhere, the downgrading of the prospects of regional and local synods or councils. Unlike the supposedly "retrograde" or "reactionary" council of Trent, the supposedly "progressive" and "reforming" Vatican II did not require, as Trent did, the holding of regular regional councils. About this Tanner rightly notes: "the demise of regional councils, and the culture of dialogue they embodied, has been one of the greatest blows in the history of the Church" (71-72). Part of the reason for this may be, he says later (clearly echoing Francis Oakley), a "fear of the conciliar ghost [which] remains with us today in many quarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The restriction to an advisory role, and to a tightly controlled agenda, of the...biennial synods of bishops, is one example of this fear" (82). Later still Tanner notes something that others have recently argued: the Catholic Church "can learn from other churches regarding the conciliar dimension of Church government" (117). I spent no little time surveying the conciliar government of Orthodox Churches in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

All such collections usually entail some repetition and overlap, but in this book in several instances points are repeated verbatim not twice but thrice or even in quadruplicate. Had this book been more rigorously edited, it could easily have been reduced by at least 20%, and the result would have been a much more tightly written text. I've never understood why that does not happen more often. If one insists on publishing collections of previously published articles, there is no need slavishly to reproduce every word of an article as it originally appeared.

Still, at least one salutary effect of this repetition is that of making clear some key lines of thought that Tanner rightly draws our attention to. These include Tanner returning again and again to address the question of the dominance of the Church in Asia over the doctrinal development of Christianity as a whole.  The first section of this book is entitled "Is the Church Too Asian? Reflections on the Ecumenical Councils." Here Tanner has cleverly and nicely turned on its head the oft-heard charge that Christianity is "too Western." Au contraire, he suggests, its doctrinal foundations were not laid in the West, but in the East--in Asia or, perhaps to be more precise, in Asia Minor. The involvement of "the West" in laying the doctrinal foundations--and much else besides--of Christianity was very minimal.

The final chapter in this book returns to that question of doctrinal foundations: "Greek Metaphysics and the Language of the Early Church Councils: Nicaea I (325) to Nicaea II (787). It is a short chapter (as all are in this book) that leaves the reader wishing for more. Tanner's conclusion is that we still don't have a complete picture of why the Church ended up adopting terms like physis, hypostasis, prosopon, and ousia. He also notes in passing that "Christianity, in a sense, invented the concept of the human person. There was no clear word in classical Greek for 'person'" (212). This is an idea that John Zizioulas has recently developed at much greater length in his wonderful book Lectures in Christian Dogmatics.

In sum
The Church in Council: Conciliar Movements, Religious Practice and the Papacy from Nicea to Vatican II  is a fascinating collection perhaps of greatest interest to those new to the world of the councils. For those who want to get straight at the conciliar decrees themselves, and not take the rather meandering route of Tanner, with lots of fascinating commentary, I would recommend Leo Davis's book The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. But it would be a very profitable exercise to read the two together. One more, then, we are in Tanner's debt for his historical work, here as elsewhere, on those august bodies that clarified and established ad perpetuam rei memoriam the faith of the Church both East and West.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy

This book is now in print, and has been for five days:

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 280pp.

Have you not got your copy yet? Don't delay!

This is the only book of its kind to appear to address the only really serious remaining issue in the search for Orthodox-Catholic unity. Favorably reviewed by an Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, several Roman Catholic, and two OCA scholars, this volume is a must-have for all who are interested in the search for healing the East-West split.

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: have you got your copy today?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Irenaeus for the Uninitiated

Irenaeus of Lyons has long been recognized as one of the most important figures of the sub-apostolic period.  The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once called him the Church's first "systematic" theologian.

James R. Payton Jr., author of a decent work introducing Orthodoxy to evangelicals, has a new book out introducing one of the most important--if not the most important--works of the earliest patristic period by St. Irenaeus:

Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies (Wipf and Stock, 2011), 234pp.

About this book the publisher says the following:

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202) was the greatest theologian of the early post-apostolic church. In his writings we have access to the Christian teaching of a spiritual grandson of the apostle John, for Irenaeus' instructor in the faith was himself taught by the apostle. Irenaeus stresses the importance of apostolic teaching and faithfully handing on the apostolic tradition. His presentation of the Christian faith deserves careful attention, since he knew exactly what he was talking about. There is no better avenue to the apostolic tradition in the early church than his writings.

Irenaeus' massive Against Heresies offers a winsome and compelling presentation of the Christian faith, but few have read this magnum opus since the first two of its five books focus on exposing and answering Gnostic heresies, and the only complete English version is difficult to read.

This volume eliminates both these obstacles. James Payton has condensed Against Heresies by cutting out most of the interaction with the Gnostics, allowing Irenaeus' rich presentation on the Christian faith to shine through. Furthermore, the author has refurbished the English prose to make it accessible to contemporary readers.

With this distillation readers now have access to Irenaeus' rich presentation of the Christian faith, saturated in a thorough knowledge of Scripture and steadfastly rooted in the apostolic tradition of the early church. Anyone who wants to know what the early Christian church had received and passed on from the apostles can do no better than to begin with this book.
For those who want a fuller introduction to the overall life and work of this Greek Father who came from the East to tend to his flock in a Western see, they would do well to consult the recent work of Denis Minns:

Irenaeus: An Introduction (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2010), 192pp.
About this book, the publisher tell us:
This is a general introduction to the theology of Irenaeus. Readers will find it comprehensive, informative, lucid, and elegantly written. It is especially welcomed by those able to read only English, for it is the first general book on Irenaeus to appear in English since 1959. The book is chiefly aimed at those approaching him for the first time, but it is based on the most recent scholarship and provides much help for those who wish to work on him as a more advanced level.
Denis Minns explains why Irenaeus, the 2nd-century theologian, deserves his place in history. He explains why, though unfamiliar in its primitiveness, the Christianity represented by Irenaeus is recognizably that of the Catholic Church. Minns takes account of the recent scholarly work on Irenaeus and his period which has been done in recent years, but this book is principally an introduction to the problems of reading him. It is aimed mainly at those approaching Irenaeus for the first time.
Before his sudden death, the Archpriest Robert Anderson, founder of the St. Irenaeus Mission Society, was going to review the Minns volume for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. We hope to see it reviewed later this year nonetheless alongside the Payton volume.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Athanasius the Great

The great St. Athanasius of Alexandria, hero of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea and arch-enemy of Arianism, has been the object of renewed scholarly attention in the last several years, led by the works of Khaled Anatolios. Thomas Weinandy has also contributed to this scholarly renaissance.

Now we have a new work to be published later this year by Baker Academic:

Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius (Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality) (Baker Academic, July 2011), 224pp.

The publisher provides us the following blurb:

This erudite volume offers fresh consideration of the work of famous fourth-century church father Athanasius, giving specific attention to his use of Scripture, his deployment of metaphysical categories, and the intersection between the two. Peter Leithart not only introduces Athanasius and his biblical theology but also puts Athanasius into dialogue with contemporary theologians. The book draws on Athanasius's theology to shed light on contemporary theological debates and defends him against contemporary criticisms of "classical theism."
Athanasius launches the Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality series. This series is based on the conviction that retrieval of the church fathers is essential to contemporary flourishing and further development in Christian theology; that patristic spiritual interpretation continues to hold out prospects for theology; and that participation in the divine was an important underlying conviction for Nicene Christianity on which we should continue to build today. The series contributes to the growing area of theological interpretation and will appeal to both Protestant and Catholic readers.
I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

Step Right Up! Get 'Em While They're Hot

If you wanted not merely to get a copy of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity

but to get a signed copy of the book, then you have several opportunities to do so in the coming months. Mark your calendars for:
  • The 15th annual Orientale Lumen Conference in June in Washington, DC, where I will be speaking--but don't come just for me: instead come for the fantastic roster of other speakers--Robert Taft, Kallistos Ware, and many others.

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity is the only book of its kind to appear to address the only really serious remaining issue in the search for Orthodox-Catholic unity. Favorably reviewed by an Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, several Roman Catholic, and two OCA scholars, this volume is a must-have for all who are interested in the search for healing the East-West split.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Evagrius and Cognition

There has never been so much interest in Evagrius Pontus as there is today if the number of recent publications is anything to go by--and just in English. Into this stream of ongoing interest steps another new book:

George Tsakiridis, Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts (Pickwick Publication, 2010), 124pp.

Part of the interest in Evagrius has been fueled by this kind of attempted linking between ancient monastic wisdom and modern psychology as seen, e.g., in the work of Han F. De Wit and Suzette Phillips.

Pickwick Publishers is an imprint of Wipf and Stock, who provide us the following blurb about this book:

This study puts the thought of Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century theologian, into dialogue with modern cognitive science in regard to the topic of evil, specifically moral evil. Evagrius, in his writings about prayer and the ascetic life, addressed the struggle with personal moral evil in terms of the eight "thoughts" or "demons." These "thoughts" were transmitted by John Cassian to the Western church, and later recast by Gregory the Great as the Seven Deadly Sins. Though present understandings of evil appear to differ greatly from those of Evagrius, his wisdom concerning the battle against evil may prove to be of great help even today. Using the work of Pierre Hadot to recover Evagrius' context, and the work of Paul Ricoeur to discuss how we construct descriptions and myths of evil, Evagrius is brought into dialogue with the cognitive sciences. Using current research, especially the work of Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg, this study reveals the contemporary relevance of Evagrius' approach to combating evil. In addition, the interdisciplinary study of patristics and cognitive science opens the pathway to a better understanding between Christian tradition and the modern sciences. 
I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.
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