"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).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Augustine of Hippo and Orthodoxy

Too many Orthodox polemicists and apologists, who--as the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has himself admitted--invariably know very little about what they are railing against and have almost never read the sources they fatuously criticize (and do not have the languages to read those sources in their originals), are fond of holding up Augustine of Hippo as one of the worst offenders in Western theology's supposed long trajectory into heresy and outer darkness and ultimately separation from the East. To be able to sum up thus the unspeakably vast and complex corpus of Augustine's works is a little breath-taking. (That is not to say that there are not aspects of Augustine thinking unworthy of criticism--indeed there are.)

The place and understanding of Augustine came up last weekend at the outstanding ASEC conference where Amy Slagle--on whose wonderful new book I shall have more to say next week I hope--presented a paper on the influence of the late Seraphim Rose. In the discussion after her lecture, I asked for her thoughts on why, in some respects, Rose seemed to return to Augustine each year for the former's Lenten readings when (a) Rose seemed to rather severely misunderstand Augustine; and (b) Rose was so highly critical of many other aspects of Latin Christianity.

I read Rose many years ago now and put him out of my mind as an obvious crank whose interpretation of Augustine (to whom he always referred with strange circumlocutions and epithets), inter alia, was, to put it charitably, sui generis. But in misunderstanding Augustine, Rose is not at all sui generis in many respects. Augustine is, in fact, regularly (tendentiously) misunderstood by some Eastern Christians today, though if they attended to three recent studies many of the misunderstandings would be cleared up. First, more than ten years ago now, there was Myroslaw Tataryn's Augustine and Russian Orthodoxy, a careful study that still repays attention today.

Then in 2008, we had two important studies. The first was a very lucid and compelling article by Peter Galadza, “The Liturgical Commemoration of Augustine in the Orthodox Church: An Ambiguous Lex Orandi for an Ambiguous Lex Credendi,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008): 111-130.

The second was a very welcome, and widely praised, collection of articles by George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, eds., Orthodox Readings of Augustine (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), 304pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us that it
not only presents Eastern Orthodox readings of the great Latin theologian, but also demonstrates the very nature of theological consensus in ecumenical dialogue, from a referential starting point of the ancient and great Fathers. This collection exemplifies how, once, the Latin and Byzantine churches, from a deep communion of the faith that transcended linguistic, cultural and intellectual differences, sang from the same page a harmonious song of the beauty of Christ. Contributors are: Lewis Ayres, John Behr, David Bradshaw, Brian E. Daley, George E. Demacopoulos, Elizabeth Fisher, Reinhard Flogaus, Carol Harrison, David Bentley Hart, Joseph T. Lienhard, Andrew Louth, Jean-Luc Marion, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and David Tracy. 
In the last review he ever wrote for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the noted Augustine scholar J. Kevin Coyle--before his untimely death a year ago--noted of Orthodox Readings of Augustine that "all the volume’s entries are thoughtfully written and rarely does the reader’s mind wander" and in sum this book constitutes "a welcome contribution to dialogue between East and West on Augustine."

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