"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).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Ecumenical Councils: An Interview with Sergey Trostyanskiy

From the first moments of its inception, this blog has sung the praises of Gorgias Press for its devotion to Eastern Christian publications in a collection unrivaled by anyone for its vastness. Here is but the latest of many offerings, a book I previously notedSeven Icons of Christ: An Introduction to the Oikoumenical Councils (Gorgias Press, 2016). It will be a welcome addition to any classroom covering these most important gatherings in church history. The book follows a helpful standard format and will make not only primary documents, but up-to-date scholarship on the seven councils, accessible to students of our day.

The timing of this book is significant insofar as the topic of councils, and their status, has of course been greatly debated in these last days as most of the Orthodox churches have assembled on Crete for the long-expected council that has been in preparation for most of the last century. I asked the editor, Sergey Trostyanskiy, for an interview about this collection, and here are his thoughts.

AD:  Tell us about your background

ST: I am currently a Research Fellow of the Sophia Institute of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox studies, New York and Union Theological Seminary, New York. I hold a PhD from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My research interests include Byzantine history and philosophy.

AD: What led you to put together this collection?

ST: The idea of this volume was introduced to me by John A. McGuckin who is my mentor and also, at the time, supervised by doctoral thesis on St. Cyril of Alexandria. Whatever this giant communicated to me was indeed some sort of categorical imperative. The rational behind the volume was to come up with a more up-to-date volume on the Councils that can be used by graduate and undergraduate students of Patristic thought possibly extending its readership to all interested in the subject.

AD: How do you see your book as different from other treatments of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (e.g., Leo Davis’s book from 1988; or more recently Stephen Need)?

We thought that the degree of discernment and theological import of those studies did not fully exhaust the subject. Leo David’s book, despite its merits, used certain conceptual tools that at this point appear quite antiquated, so to say. Stephen Need’s recent account has many merits as well. But again, this book did not exhaust the subject at stake (which is indeed inexhaustible). Our particular emphasis was on explicating the philosophical foundations of the Councils. Moreover, we aimed to provide more up-to-date reference sources for the subject matter.

AD: How has recent scholarship on the councils held up vis-à-vis earlier studies? Has there been a lot of historical revision, or is there greater continuity?

The science of Christ was set in motion a few millennia ago. Since then it keeps rethinking its own foundational sources. We can think of modern scholarship as a midrash on patristic literature. Indeed, it revolves around certain themes. Thus, there is a certain thematic and semantic continuity between any scholarly efforts (more or less modern) to make sense of this very aporetic subject (i.e. the nature of God, of Christ, etc.). In general, the science of Christ remains vibrant and moves alone swiftly, constantly reevaluating and reassessing its own historical and speculative accounts.

At this moment the question should be confined within the boundaries of the late-eighteenth to early twentieth-century scholarship. We can thus speak of “modern scholarship” within this time-frame. My opinion is that, in general, “modern scholarship” aimed to make sense of Patristic literature so as to properly elucidate its contents by rediscovering its historical horizons and philosophical underpinnings. In other words, the right exegesis of Patristic literature was the final end of Patristic studies during that time. This is indeed not to say that in many instances the studies of Patristic literature were ideologically leveraged, thus reading modern concerns into ancient sources and approaching the subject apologetically. This pattern indeed aimed at subverting the original intention of exegetical studies, practicing rather an eisegesis of Patristic literature. Even so, the idea of being faithful to the source marked off that period. The studies of the councils in general followed the same path.

I should say that there has been a major shift in Patristic studies in the second half of the twentieth century (since c. the 1970s). The subject area nowadays no longer appears simple but rather over-complex. Various clichés of the previous centuries and decades had being reevaluated and an increasing number of studies published. This ascent of interest in Patristic literature was also accompanied by an oikoumenical movement which sought to find common grounds between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. As a result, a more sympathetic hearing was given to certain great miaphysite scholars of Patristic time.

The same can be said of various heterodox figures and movements of the same era. The agenda of restoring the reputation of the “heretics” found its implementation in the restoration of certain great figures of the time as Orthodox. Their theology was reset as reflecting diverging “theologumena” rather than subverting the purity of faith as reflected in doctrine. Hence, a certain “relativist” trend became fashionable among the scholars, one that tried to wash away oikoumenically established demarcation lines between Orthodoxy and heresy. Even so, more recent scholarly endeavors were not bound by the necessity of framing research within an oikoumenically correct rhetoric.

As far as the studies of the councils are concerned, all these aspects should be taken into account. Here we have more or less the same patterns of thought operative. Moreover, in the last few decades there was an attempt to translate the proceedings of the councils into modern languages. Richard Price’s translation of Chalcedon and Constantinople II, for instance, gave scholars and the general audience an opportunity to read ancient documents in English for the first time in history.

To conclude: the science of Christ and of its foundational oikoumenical pillars (i.e. Councils) is as vibrant as it has ever been. Its development can be described as discontinuous continuity or as a continuous revision of its own method and sources, one that remains faithful to the sources through the constant critical reassessment of its own feeble methodological and ideological roots.

AD: In the lead-up to the Orthodox great and holy council on Crete this week, there has been some discussion of two issues. First, some called for recognizing an 8th, and perhaps even 9th, council as “ecumenical” by the Orthodox East. Did you have any thoughts on that? Is the number seven somehow “sacred” for some, so that no additions to the list of “ecumenical” councils could be entertained?

Indeed, there is a certain numerological or, rather, arithmological significance attached to the numbers. If we apply Iamblichus’ arithmology to the subject at stake we may perhaps say that, in a sense, the non-Chalcedonian triad in this volume is completed by the Chalcedonian hebdomad. Even so, we may perhaps ascend to a composite number 21 (according to the Roman Catholic count) which is divisible not only by itself and unity but also by 3 and 7 (thus having 3 and 7 as its elements). At any rate, seven seems preferable for various reasons, firstly, because it represents the golden mean between the two extremes (Miaphysite and Roman Catholic), and secondly because it has a structural affinity to the Incarnate Christ. As we learn from Nicomachus of Gerasa: “its structure has been collected and gathered together in a manner resembling unity since it is altogether indissoluble, except into something which has the same denominator as itself; or because all things have brought their natural results to completion by its agency.” Thus, this volume comes to rest at number seven. We can indeed supply a speculative numerological account for the subject matter. However, I bet, not many bishops will endorse it. So, we shall better set it aside and say that, even if the number seven has a certain sacred dimension, nothing prevents Orthodoxy from extending the number of councils to 8 or 9 or 21, etc. for the sake of reinforcing unity and attaining other good things that would benefit the Orthodox Churches and their people.

AD: The second question is over the status of the Crete gathering, which remains much in dispute. Normally, of course, a council is accounted “ecumenical” in retrospect. But are there clear criteria consistently applied from 325-787 that might guide future discussions of whether the 2016 gathering is “ecumenical” or not? 

There was indeed a set of criteria for a council to be accounted oikoumenical (I briefly delineated some criteria in the volume). Even so, in some cases not all criteria were fulfilled and not all conditions satisfied by particular councils. However, the following generations of bishops endorsed such “formally impure” councils as oikoumenical. More important was the fact that for the collective phronema of the time these councils were marked off by the work of the Spirit made manifest through the gathering of the bishops. I think the formal criteria represent sufficient but not necessary conditions for a council to acquire the status of oikoumenical. It is the combination of formalities and the work of the Spirit that are thought of as both necessary and sufficient conditions for oikoumenisity.

In a sense there is a diminished degree of ecumenicity that we could already contemplate in the Seven Councils (based on their diminished representational quality after the Non-Chalcedonian fraction of Christendom was alienated from mainstream Orthodoxy and later on when the Latin Church suspended its participation in the last Council). The degree of ecumenicity of the newly proposed 8th council is indeed even more diminished as it includes only Orthodox (Chalcedonian) Churches. Hence, it is rather Pan-Orthodox (i.e. Chalcedonian Orthodoxy) or quasi-oikoumenical.

AD: Your own five-fold definition of “ecumenical” (p.1) notes in the third point the presence of the emperor to convoke a council. In the absence of an emperor today, is it impossible to have any council attain the status of “ecumenical”?

It the context of the modern world characterized by the fractured political units (mainly national states) and by the policy of separation between Church and State (adapted according to certain precepts of the Enlightenment that disjoined religion and politics), the absence of the emperor combining both political and ecclesiastical functions is indeed an obstacle for convening a council that can overcome “national interests” and rivalry between ecclesiastical groups so as to attain to the level of oikoumenisity.

AD: If, say, an aspiring graduate student were looking for a thesis topic in the area of the ecumenical councils, what areas, if any, remain unexplored or underexplored? What avenues of conciliar scholarship still need attention?

In my opinion, philosophical underpinnings of Patristic thought is the area of studies that was most neglected by “modern scholarship” because in its quest for “purity” of Patristic thought it incidentally purged it of its proper conceptual foundation. Thus, the link between late antique and early Christian thought was de-emphasized purposely. However, at this point, this policy seems to fall out of favor. Hence, the study of the philosophical horizons of Patristic and conciliar thought is a great avenue of scholarship that needs further attention.

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and who in particular will benefit from reading it

This book is designed to present to a wide Christian audience interested in Christian doctrinal development, these seven key iconic moments of intellectual history that formulate the classical profession of Jesus Christ as the Word of God Incarnate. The critical essays in this book, specially commissioned for this project by the Sophia Institute of Byzantine Studies and prepared by advanced scholars of the Early Church, set out an exposition of the proceedings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils; a review of the chief works of the major protagonists associated with the councils; the immediate intellectual aftermath; as well as a considered reflection or commentary on the theological ekthesis (theological profession) of each council. The end result is a book whose critical value should make it required reading by specialists, but also will allow it to serve as a solid and scholarly introduction to the subject for both undergraduate and graduate level students.

AD: If you were invited to give a presentation to the bishops assembled this month in Crete, offering them any advice or warnings or suggestions from the seven ecumenical councils, what would you say?

Well, the proposed council is not a typical one since no issues relating to doctrine are at stake at the moment, all concerns being centered on canon law and ecclesiastical discipline and issues associated with them. In a sense this reduced agenda is easier to deal with. Even so, taking into account the presence of significant disagreements on the issues of canonical territories, those of leadership and rank, etc., and the absence of imperial power capable of resolving any issues by arguments or by cutting the Gordian knot and thus appeasing the rival fractions and overriding their squabbles, I see that the only means of persuasion available for the resolution of contentious issues is discussion and argument. But that can go on and on. As the history of the Councils clearly demonstrated, the work of the Spirit and that of the Imperial power used to go hand in hand. If one element is absent, the means of persuasion by force is removed from the scene; the management of affairs by argument led by the Spirit is the only available option. I have no expertise on the subject of the proposed council, but I think that the council should move on under the guidance of the Spirit, who is the sole choir master in this case that can conduct the bishops and orchestrate any conciliar gatherings. Hence, the collective phronema of the Church leaders should reflect on or be the work of the Spirit.

AD: Having finished this collection, Seven Icons of Christ: An Introduction to the Oikoumenical Councils, what are you at work on now in your research?

I am finalizing a monograph entitled St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Metaphysics of the Incarnation (forthcoming, Peter Lang, 2016) and editing (with Theodore Dedon) a collected volume of essays entitled Love, Marriage and Family in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, also with Theodore Dedon (forthcoming: Gorgias Press, 2016).

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