Some propositions

September 24, 2007

• Bekkos is a better reader of the fathers than some interpreters, both modern and medieval, have given him credit for: he is not a mere “anthologist,” nor can he be easily dismissed as someone who “fails to detect the deeper movement of the fathers’ thought.” Nor was he a “latinophron”: he did not read Latin, and his thinking was based entirely upon the Eastern fathers. Bekkos supplies a great deal of evidence to show that, for many centuries prior to the schism, there was a widespread body of opinion amongst Greek-speaking Christians that the Son plays an essential mediating role in the Holy Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father, a mediating role signified by the fathers in various ways, sometimes with the preposition “through,” but also, at times, with the preposition “from.” It may be that Bekkos infers from this evidence a more complete unanimity among the fathers on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s procession than the evidence warrants; but he at least shows that the opposite claim is untenable, viz., the claim that there was a universal agreement in the early Church that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

• Bekkos’s theological effort represents a restatement of the pneumatology of St. Cyril, St. Athanasius, St. Epiphanius, and, in general, of the strict homoousian or “Old Nicene” tradition, while relying, at some crucial points, upon St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa. In particular, Bekkos argues for the continuing significance of the original wording of the Nicene Creed, with its statement that the Son is “from the substance of the Father”; fathers like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria employed this same kind of language to speak of the Holy Spirit’s being from the substance of the Father and the Son, and Bekkos sees the Latin tradition as meaning precisely that.

• There is reason to think that the text Bekkos cites of Basil, Adversus Eunomium III.1 is genuine (in spite of the rejection of this reading by the Sources Chrétiennes edition). It has been rejected, in part, because it has been assumed to refer to the later filioque controversy; I think its language about the Spirit’s ontological dependence on the Son is, if anything, Origenistic, and could well derive from an early treatise of Basil’s, written at a time when he had close ties with homoiousians. More generally, I am convinced that, in many of the cases where Bekkos gives readings of patristic texts that differ from what is found in modern editions, he has actually preserved the original text. His work can open up new interpretations of the fathers’ thought.

• The explicit claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally and hypostatically from the Father alone has a history. It seems to have originated in the late fourth century in the school of Diodore of Tarsus, as part of this school’s opposition to the thought of Apollinarius of Laodicea. In his trinitarian thought, Apollinarius was largely a faithful interpreter of the thought of St. Athanasius; both of them stressed that, in the incarnation, it is the eternal Son who is the one subject of Christ’s actions, and Christ’s giving of the Spirit in time is a temporal manifestation of an eternal breathing forth of the Spirit by or from the Son. The school of Diodore, and the Antiochene school generally, stressed instead the differentiation between the divine and the human in Christ; these theologians tended to interpret Christ’s breathing forth of the Spirit upon the disciples as an imparting, not of the Spirit’s person, but of temporal, spiritual gifts, since they saw the opposite notion, that the human Christ imparts a divine person, as involving a confusion of Christ’s divinity and humanity; by contrast, Athanasius, Apollinarius, and Cyril (and probably Epiphanius) all teach that Christ’s breathing imparts the Spirit himself, not just spiritual gifts; it is a single breathing by the one divine-human Son. This christological background, I am coming to think, is an essential Greek context behind the later Greek/Latin filioque controversy. Although Photius accepts fathers like Epiphanius and Cyril as part of holy tradition, he reads them exclusively with Antiochene spectacles. Bekkos, by contrast, takes the Alexandrian fathers as a key to his understanding of Greek patristic tradition as a whole, and a key to understanding the compatibility of Greek and Latin theology.

• The evidence of what the Cappadocian fathers thought regarding the Holy Spirit’s hypostatic origination is ambiguous, and in many instances complicated by the existence of textual variants, some of them very old. My guess is that the Cappadocian fathers’ thinking, on this issue, developed over time, in response to the ecclesiastical situation, and that this development accounts for some of the textual variants. The Cappadocians were ecumenists, who sought to preserve an ecclesiastical unity amongst the warring factions of the East, and between East and West. They recognized that language is an imperfect medium, that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between words and things, and that theological disagreements are sometimes merely verbal. They tended to represent doctrinal disagreements between Eastern and Western Christians in this light, and Bekkos, in this respect, follows them faithfully. There are some some texts which seem to indicate that Gregory of Nyssa, at least, saw the Holy Spirit to proceed hypostatically from the Father alone, and essentially from the Father and the Son. I am not sure what that formulation means. Nevertheless, the presence of such texts seems to have convinced Gregory of Cyprus that Bekkos’s reading of the fathers was not the full story, and he used it as a basis for repudiating the union.

• The popes who succeeded Gregory X, and especially Martin IV, bear at least as large a share of responsibility for the union’s failure as do any of the Greeks. There were political pressures on both sides for rejecting the union: on the Greek side, from the monks, who sought greater control over the Byzantine Church; on the side of the West, from Charles of Anjou, who did not want a religious peace to stand in the way of his acquiring the Byzantine Empire for himself. Both sides eventually capitulated to these pressures; it is worth noting that Rome capitulated first.

• Bekkos’s pneumatology was officially rejected by the Orthodox Church at the Council of Blachernae in 1285. Although Blachernae was hardly an ecumenical council, and its decision (largely forgotten at the time) was not deemed sufficiently authoritative to dissuade the Eastern delegates at Florence from accepting union with the Latin Church, it was later reaffirmed, and its pneumatological teaching, i.e., the pneumatology of Gregory of Cyprus, has come to be regarded as the definitive Orthodox teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit. In recent years, Catholic ecumenism has bent over backwards to represent this teaching as full of ecumenical possibilities. I would like to think that those representations were true. But some reality check is surely necessary. Gregory of Cyprus did not advance his theory as a opening of a door to the West, but as a closing of one. He began by supporting the union of the Churches, and ended up condemning the Latins as heretics; Bekkos’s development went in the opposite direction. It is hard to see how the Cypriot’s teaching, which holds that any language about the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally through or from the Son refers necessarily to an eternal manifestation, what the Palamites would later call an “energetic procession,” and has no bearing whatsoever on the question of the Spirit’s hypostatic origin, can be squared with the traditional teaching of the Latin West, of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas; it is to reinterpret the West, retrospectively, as never having been part of the Church to begin with. Bekkos, by contrast, sees the Western teaching as a kind of local variant of a view widely represented in the Eastern fathers, particularly among the Alexandrians although not exclusively so, that holds that the Spirit’s hypostatic existence from the Father is mediated by the Son in a way that is eternal, substantial, and necessary. My own view is that Bekkos is an honest man, and a legitimate heir to an Eastern eirenic tradition that includes such men as St. Maximus and the Cappadocians. His writings are necessary reading for Christians trying to understand how the Church came to be divided. He does not sell out Byzantium, or view the Church primarily in terms of subordination and one-directional submission; he presupposes the fundamental equality of Eastern and Western traditions, based on the oneness of believers in Christ. He provides an essential antidote for a certain myopic Eastern self-understanding, for an all-too-prevalent anti-Latin reading of Greek patristic tradition, and that is why I am translating him.


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