"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, May 16, 2014

The Immaculate Conception's Roots in Byzantine Theology

In some circles both Orthodox and Protestant, the modern Marian definitions dogmatically promulgated by the popes of Rome in 1854 and 1950 are thought to be problematic. I have never once found the theology behind either definition to be remotely problematic because of ample precedent in the hymnody of the East and the theology of the early Church in not only the West but especially the East. (One can, however, raise the problem of whether these needed to be defined when they were, and whether the pope of Rome has the authority to do so. But those are quite separate discussions.) Of the two definitions, the Immaculate Conception from 1854 is more often held up by certain Orthodox apologists as being questionable for its reliance on, as is regularly said, an Augustinian doctrine of original sin totally at odds, we are led to believe, with Eastern theology.

Those arguments are going to have to be revised in light of the most recent and impressive scholarship, some of which is contained in a compelling new historical work just published by Christiaan Kappes: The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While John Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas, and Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary (Academy of the Immaculate Press, 2014), xx+252pp. 

I recently made contact with Fr. Christiaan, whose related scholarly work on such figures as Mark Eugenicus ("of Ephesus") is featured in part in an essay in the spring issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies (details here).  We had a chance for an interview to discuss his new book. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background:

First, let me say, I am overjoyed with your interest in the book and must thank Dr. Daniel Galadza (Vienna) for putting us into contact, without whose communication we may have never crossed paths. 

I am a Latin rite Roman Catholic priest. I have had various priestly assignments (e.g., in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, in Guadalajara, Mexico). Before I began to know and appreciate Orthodoxy, I was studying Scholastic philosophy and liturgiology in Rome from 2006 to 2009. Before moving to Greece in 2008, eventually finding myself under the direction of Metropolitan Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, my aspirations were merely to learn and repeat traditional neo-Thomist talking points (I distinguish those from the real Thomas Aquinas). 

Later, upon studying in Italy under wonderful Dominicans (for example, Walter Senner, OP [formerly on the Leonine Commission]), I viewed Aquinas with an historical and contextual eye. However, even before then, many unanswered questions prevented me from adopting his “system.” I found myself often siding with John Duns Scotus. So, I sought out the renowned Bonaventuran and Scotist scholar, Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, FI. I am grateful to him for allowing me to sit at his feet and hear not a few satisfactory explanations to questions I had about metaphysics. I could have never guessed that this would lead to me embrace the Greek patristic tradition--until I encountered two famous Orthodox theologians, namely, Gennadios Scholarios and Gregory Palamas. Upon reading their work, I found it strange that they seemed to be saying very similar things to Scotus, whose views were allegedly “modern” according to several contemporary scholars. Simultaneously, I was exploring Byzantine Scholasticism and contacted Dr. Athanasia Glycofrydi-Leontsini at the University of Athens. She was very generous with her time and showed me her work on the Greek edition of the Summa Theologiae, translated by Demetrius Cydones (c. 1358). My professor, Fr. Charles Morerod, OP, (now Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, whose books on ecumenism, Adam, you have reviewed in the past!) further encouraged my study of Byzantine Scholasticism. He eventually recommended me for a scholarship in Greece for this end. It was there that I met Bishop Kyrillos Katerelos, who urged me to finish my doctorate in Liturgy at Sant’Anselmo in Rome. Bishop Kyrillos helped me to go to Thessaloniki to study the relation betweeen Byzantine Scholasticism and Palamism. There, at Aristotle University, despite his numerous burdens, Metropolitan Elpidophoros kindly agreed to guide my thesis intending to exonerate Gennadios Scholarius from unfair neo-Thomistic evaluations stemming from the dissertation of Sebastian Guichardan in the 1930s. I still hope to finish this thesis.

AD: What led you to write this book?

Early in 2012, in appreciation of Fr. Peter’s guidance in my studies, I asked him if there was something I could do to help the Franciscan mission of promoting Mary’s role in the economy of salvation. Fr. Peter suggested to me a contribution that would comprise a chapter within a collection of essays in a Marian series that he had recently inaugurated for Academy of the Immaculate Press. I suggested studying a very odd reference to Mary within the metaphysical and trinitarian treatise of Mark of Ephesus, The First Antirrhetic against Manuel Kalekas (scripsit 1430s). Mark but once referred to Mary in this moderately sized work. When he spoke of the Theotokos, he referred to her as the “prokathartheisa” or “prepurified” virgin. I was driven mad by the fact that no scholars seemed to understand this sobriquet, which Mark mentioned as something obvious to the eyes of his Byzantine reader. So, Fr. Peter and I agreed that I’d make my “small” contribution on this topic. As it turned out, a vast world of Palamite, and even patristic, Mariology opened up to me that seemed to have no terminus until I arrived at Gregory Nazianzen. This necessitate a full monograph on the subject.

AD: The preface to your book notes that "one particular title of Mary, Prepurified,common in the East from earliest times, [was] a synonym for Immaculate Conception" (xvi). Tell us a bit more about what your research has uncovered as to the meaning, history, and usage of "prepurified." 

First, Adam, I think it is important to emphasis the superior richness of this Greek title in Palamite thought. Whereas “Immaculate Conception” is a laser focus on a biological point of time in Mary’s life in utero, “prepurified” denotes something temporally expansive –in fact, timeless as we shall see. Latin theologians initially focused on justifying Mary’s privileged grace at her physical conception, gradually relating this privilege to subsequent events of her life and death. They also moved backwards in time until arriving at moment of creation and the prior contingent choice of Mary’s privilege within the divine mind. Hence, Orthodox might be surprised to know that “Immaculate Conception” is employed in the Franciscan school as something that refers to more than just that moment of physical conception.  

Diversely, Palamites saw the Incarnation during Mary’s “prepurification” at the Annuciation as the optic through which all of Mary’s other historico-liturgical feasts could be understood. Since Jesus and Mary were “purified” in some manner in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 22), in Christology and Mariology, purification (counterintuitively) primarily came to mean (with Nazianzen and his followers): (a.) external glory as a sign of predestination (b.) and internal grace so intense that only a perfect human nature participated it. In Mary’s case (unlike Jesus) she was also called “pre”-purified, which points out her moments of grace and glory before the historico-liturgical event of the Annuciation. Now, if we think of pre-Incarnational Marian feasts of the Byzantine liturgical calendar (e.g., Conception, Birth, and Presentation of Mary), one of those feasts happens to be the conception of St. Ann. Hence, as one of several pre-Incarnational events in the life of Mary, her conception also ranks as an event where this totally pure and perfect instance of human nature was granted unequalled participation in the divine energies.

A last point is in order. Following Maximus the Confessor’s sense of predestination and predetermination, Palamites saw the plan of Mary’s grace and glory as preselected along with the Incarnate Christ prior to any other temporal being or creation itself was selected in the contingent order. The Theotokos is the highest thought in the eternal divine mind before any actually created being was made in time. This does not threaten the sovereignty of Christ, for “Theotokos” only derives meaning from the fact that Mary bears something, namely, the Incarnate Word.

In conclusion, the similarity between the Latin doctrine and the Greek doctrine does not lie in the method, neither is there direct, nor indirect influence of the Latin thinking upon Palamism. Instead, Palamism takes the patristic and liturgical tradition of Byzantium and sees every instance of visible divine intervention in the lives of Jesus and Mary as a manifestation of predestined and peculiar moments of participation in the divine energies for the human natures of Jesus and Mary. Palamas even went so far to argue that the mystery of the Resurrection was a feast where Mary was first witness of the divine light, wherein she was purified to see the Lord in his glory. Palamas is truly a genius in this respect, for without doing violence to the biblical narrative, he sees the Resurrection as a moment of glory shared between Jesus and Mary as is ought. Truly, Palamas represents the apex of Byzantine Mariology!

So, the Latin “Immaculate Conception” coincides with one of the many graceful and miraculous moments in the life of Jesus and Mary, but should not be isolated from the series of salvific events along the course of her life (including her mental conception before creation within the divine mind).

You note that several classically "Eastern" theologians (Sts. Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory Palamas, Mark Eugenicus) are absolutely central to your argument. Tell us a bit about each of them. Your research, it seems to me, has uncovered very different, much fuller understandings of each--especially Palamas and Eugenicus--that seem to be at odds with the figures one often finds portrayed in popular Orthodox apologetics. Aren't Palamas, and especially Eugenicus, supposedly hostile to Latin theology ("scholasticism" above all) while being the great defenders of Orthodoxy since Ferrara-Florence?

Thanks for this question. I have found Nazianzen to be grappling with how to make sense of Jesus’ (and Mary’s) purification in the temple. Gregory seems to have actually suggested a “Copernican revolution” in theological wordview. We use “purification” primarily to clean something soiled. For Nazianzen, the primary meaning of purification derives from meditation on Christ’s experiences of being “purified.” Whether in the temple or at his baptism, we must take the “dove’s-eye-view” of purification, i.e., from the Spirit’s perspective. The Spirit descends not to take away sin but to add grace and glory. Furthemore, Jesus and Mary were conjointly purified within the temple, so each experienced a manifestiation of grace and glory according to the capacities of their respective natures.

Gregory Palamas never lost sight of this sense of purification that was handed down by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem and St. John Damascene. Since the tradition was monastic, it is all the more appropriate that it was absorbed and exalted in Palamas. Naturally, Mark of Ephesus devotedly followed his “master” Palamas. For this reason, Mark applied his very profound understanding of predestination and predetermination in the divine mind to Mary’s role in the economy of salvation. He came up with a flawless summary of Maximus’ sense of the primacy of the Incarnation and linked it to the Theotokos.

Finally, with respect to Palamas’ and Mark’s opposition to Latin theology, I think that it is safe to say that Palamite theology clearly adopted select points from Augustine (true for both Palamas and Mark). Factually, Mark employed select arguments from Aquinas to bolster his apologetics on certain topics (e.g., proofs for the reasonability of the resurrection of the body). We find in both authors an openmindedness toward Latin sources. This does not negate the fact that both opposed exchanging the Greek patristic heritage and traditional tenents for Latin peculiarities. Mark used extreme caution and held numerous reservations about Aquinas. Frankly, Mark correctly assessed and unabashedly opposed Thomistic theology’s approach to a “distinction of reason” within the Godhead. I wish that there was a middle way to resolve the differences but I find no reason to believe that Dominicans and Palamites misunderstood each other on the question of the divine essence-energies, even if numerous historical misunderstandings about the Filioque existed.

You speak at one point of the "interplay between the Byzantino-Palamite and Immaculitist-Scotistic Tradition." These are not terms, I admit, that I expected to see brought together! And yet you show evidence of the "astonishingly compatible" Mariologies of Palamas, Eugenicus, and Scotus even while noting in your conclusion that we need more research to demonstrate "Latin-Greek intellectual interchange (or lack thereof) in the 15th century" (195). Who else is doing that kind of research and intellectual genealogy today? What other projects have you worked on in this regard? 

Your astonishment is well-founded, Adam. Generally speaking, since the late nineteenth century until after the Second Vatican Council (1965), neo-Thomism reigned supreme and unfortunately led to a sort of “mathematization” of theology. Authors who did not attempt to uphold mainline interpretation of Aquinas and subject the theological tradition to agreement with this caricaturized “Thomism” were typically persecuted in the Latin Church. In this environment, it was difficult for Franciscans to publish anything that might be interpreted as a “slight” to the au courant interpretation of the Angelic Doctor.  However, there has been some gradually increasing interest in Franciscan theology and Mariology. I wonder if the post-conciliar collapse of Mariology (with its slow recovery), and perhaps undue caution toward Mariology among modern Orthodox (after the Immaculate Conception and Assumption dogmas), have retarded studies in this field. I myself only stumbled across this because of the Palamite essence-energies question. I have found only seminal interest on this subject in the works of Martin Jugie and other Mariologists from the early and mid-twentieth century.

AD: A few years ago I reviewed a new translation of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov's book about the Theotokos, The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, and in there he spends a great deal of time on the Immaculate Conception, saying bluntly at one point that “the Catholic dogma is an incorrect expression of a correct idea about the personal sinlessness of the Mother of God.” Bulgakov objects for three reasons, the most serious being that if the Theotokos has neither original nor personal sin, then she would not suffer the effect of sin, viz., death, and thus she would be something other than a human being. What are your thoughts and what do you think the Fathers and Doctors you survey would say were they somehow able to debate Bulgakov?

I think that we must take Orthodox concerns seriously. I think your question is framed correctly. We must look to the Fathers for a solution. Although I would insist that Bulgakov’s conclusion falls outside of the patristic lineage leading to the Palamite synthesis, I must acknowledge that scholarship still affirms that Chrysostom held a theologoumenon that coincided with Bulgakov’s thoughts on Mary. If I were to use Mark of Ephesus’ mode of reading the Fathers, however, I would emphasize that Mark believed that no particular Father was inerrant (adiaptôtos). He looked at the whole of the received tradition of the canons, Fathers, and liturgy together. For this reason, I think that Mark’s patristico-liturgical arguments convince far more than Bulgakov’s “reasonings.” If we agree with Bulgakov’s premises, then we will undoubtedly arrive at his conclusions. However, this is precisely what I sought to leave behind when I abandoned neo-Thomism.

What role does St. Augustine of Hippo play in this debate, both about the prepurified/Immacuate mother of God and about ideas of original sin?

Excellent question! Though overly zealous apologists in Orthodoxy sometimes overemphasize the question of Original Sin, I sympathize on two points. First, Augustine’s physicalist theory of traducianism is to be rejected entirely. Indeed, some papal pronouncements of the first millennium use Augustine’s language of “ancestral guilt.” Also, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (translated into Greek under as a pseudepigraphal work of Augustine) repeated this harsh “guilt centered” theory. The closest Greek Father to Augustine’s theory, Maximus the Confessor, recognizes Adam’s guilt (i.e., an interiorly personal and moral defect), but does not employ this concept to the children of Adam. They are subject to an extrinsic “curse” and various corollary effects thereof. However, there is no transmission of an intrinsic “guilt,” justifying our designation as “children of wrath.”

In my upcoming monograph on the Mariology of Gennadius Scholarius, I will show that Scholarius unfortunately adopted this language of “guilt” common to Aquinas and Augustine. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be too harsh on Scholarius, for I have already cited Macarius Makrês in my present monograph as the likely the inspiration for Scholarius sense of “ancestral guilt.” Scholarius’ short-lived instructor Macarius (perhaps influenced by Aquinas) probably taught Scholarius this terminology. Mark of Ephesus called a Macarius, nonetheless, “a champion of Orthodoxy.”

Yet, I have found no evidence that Mark ever weighed in on Augustinian Original Sin. I suspect that Mark simply followed the extrinsic “curse” doctrine of Maximus. In my upcoming monograph on Scholarius, I hope to show where Palamas textually cited Augustine for “Original Sin.” However, even if Palamas relied on an Augustinian work for his relevant discussion, Palamas systematically changed Augustine’s term “guilt” and replaced it with the vocabulary of Maximus the Confessor. For this reason, Mark was all the more unlikely influenced by Augustine’s doctrine of “guilt,” for Mark was typically under the spell of Palamas.

Lastly, Orthodox are not incorrect to criticize Aquinas’ use of this language of guilt. Nonetheless, I think that--even if Aquinas is inconsistent in the Summa Theologiae with the meaning of this term--Thomas is not committed to a litteral intrinsic sense of “guilt” in all men, and usually supports the notion of a privation of grace. From the citations in my present monograph, the Franciscan tradition clearly focuses on Original Sin as a privation of grace in the will. Still, even the Franciscans did not always rid themselves of the confusing guiltladen terminology, to which the primary referent is typically some real intrinsic defect. For this reason I think it is wrong to simply dismiss Orthodox criticisms grosso modo.

One of Bulgakov's other objections (and it is, I must admit, a question I have myself never found a good answer to) is that dogmatic definitions were once thought to be a stern necessity finally resorted to only in cases of major crisis--a widespread outbreak of heresy, say. But there seems to have been no crisis, no heresy, in the mid-19th century. So how, then, are we to understand Pope Pius IX in 1854 promulgating, as Bulgakov puts it,  “dogmatic laws where life does not in the least require them”?

Well, Adam, my knee-jerk response is to start using Scholastic parsing. For example, just because something manifests a new manner of operating does not call into question the virtual reality of the power within the agent. Doxa tô Theô, logical parsing need not have the last word. Adam, you have already drawn attention to Benedict XVI’s reflection (pace Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) on the necessity to reassess the manner in which papal primacy has been exercised in recent centuries. I agree with your hints and suggestions and only add that we need to explore the Council of Florence’s original decree of papal primacy, which explicitly guarded and preserved all the canonical and traditional rights and privileges of the other four Patriarchates. Nowadays, we like to concentrate on what the Papacy’s raw power (posse) can do instead of what it ought to do in charity and justice (decet). I myself am at a loss to give historical precedents for unilateral pontifical acts in more recent centuries. Still, I need to study the question more.

Sum up what your hopes are for this book.

I sincerely hope Catholics will be inspired to use the common Greek patristic language and Palamite tradition to speak of Mary. The effect of this common language should make the Immaculate Conception a question of emphasis, since differences prove to be methodological. I hope Orthodox see that the real commonalities between the scotistic and Palamite approaches do not threaten Greek-patristic and contemporary Orthodox emphasis on the fact that Mary underwent physical death. Yet, we should not forget that the reasonings behind the necessity of Mary’s death rank for both sides as a theologoumena.

What projects--books, articles--are you at work on now?

Currently, I am finishing a monograph to resolve the question of the epiclesis debate between Byzantine and Latin theology based upon Mark of Ephesus´ libellus on the question at Florence. Surprisingly, Latin treatment of the question did not accurately cite or even recognize the historical sources to resolve the question. I believe Mark´s liturgiology will resolve the question definitively. Secondly, I am hoping to gradually finish the monograph on the Mariology of Gennadius Scholarius next year. Lastly, I am still attempting to complete my thesis on the essence-energies question in the Palamite metaphysics of Gennadius Scholarius by the end of the year. As far as articles go, the next issue of Missio Immaculatae 10.3 (2014), reveals the patristic and liturgical foundations in the East and West for Palamas’ convinction that Mary was first witness of the Resurrection.

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