Why read Bekkos?
December 20, 2007
Note: The following is some writing from August 2006 that I came across this evening while looking through old notes. It resembles in some ways a posting from September of this year, titled “Why ‘De unione ecclesiarum’?” Both essays begin with similar questions, trying to justify the idea of taking John Bekkos seriously. Both essays note Bekkos’s influence upon the Council of Florence; in different ways, both essays acknowledge that that influence ends up being problematic for contemporary ecumenism. Anyway, although they may sound like a repetition of a previous posting, I hope some readers will find these old notes worthwhile.
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Why read Bekkos? One can think of several reasons: a desire to know something about Byzantine history and theology; an unconscious desire to be accounted a Latinophrone by one’s friends; a longing to stir up medieval polemics over the procession of the Holy Ghost. The question, Why read Bekkos, recalls the old question about the chicken crossing the road. Why read Bekkos? To hear what he has to say.
That is perhaps not as inane a reply as it at first sounds. Bekkos makes a case for something that never really happened, and that some people would still very much like to see happen, viz., the union and peace of the Churches of Old and New Rome. To put it in more contemporary terms, he argues in favor of a restoration of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In the years immediately following the Second Council of Lyons, a state of communion, however unstable and perhaps ill-founded it may have been, officially existed between these two Churches; John Bekkos, who was patriarch of Constantinople for most of those years, presents in his writings a theological rationale for it. One reads Bekkos to know what his arguments are.
Bekkos’s analyses of the theological and historical causes of the division between the Churches have a continuing importance; the issues he raises remain surprisingly contemporary. This alone would justify the appearance of some of his writings in English translation. Bekkos, I would claim, should be required reading for anyone concerned about Christian unity.
Reading Bekkos’s own words should dispel the idea that he is somehow a man with a Christian veneer and a secularist core. The claim is sometimes made in Byzantine historical scholarship that those writers of the Palaeologan era who supported union with Rome, or opposed the Palamite doctrine, were at heart more sympathetic to Aristotle and Plato than to the Gospels, that they worshiped “the God of the philosophers” rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Bekkos’s case at least, that claim is patently false.
Another claim sometimes made about Bekkos is that his readings of the Greek fathers are shallow, that he does not plumb the mystical depths of their thought the way his anti-Western contemporaries (e.g., Gregory of Cyprus) allegedly do, that he is an “anthologist” who, while gathering together texts of the fathers, utterly misrepresents their sense. It seems to me that such claims about Bekkos can be fairly evaluated only on the basis of a close reading of his arguments, something that his critics, by and large, do not provide. By translating Bekkos, I hope to make such an evaluation possible.
Another reason for reading Bekkos is that what has come to be Orthodox dogmatic theology regarding the Latin doctrine of the Trinity, and even regarding issues such as the essence and energies of God, took shape in opposition to him, to an extent that has seldom been acknowledged. Bekkos, in some sense, made Palamism possible. By his detailed criticisms of Photian monopatrism, Bekkos forced his contemporaries, or the more intelligent of them, to acknowledge that the statements of the Fathers that speak of the Spirit proceeding from the Father through the Son cannot all be dismissed as referring merely to a temporal mission: at least some of these texts very clearly speak of this procession through the Son as something eternal and substantial. Gregory of Cyprus sought to get around the difficulty Bekkos had raised by differentiating between the eternal being or existence of the Spirit, which is from the Father alone, and an eternal manifestation of the Spirit, which is from the Father through the Son, or from the Father and the Son. Virtually all scholars now agree that this distinction between God’s eternal being and God’s eternal manifestation was taken up, in the next generation, by Gregory Palamas in his defense of the ascetic practices of the hesychast monks: what the monks saw when they had visions of divine light, Palamas claimed, was not the eternal being of God but the eternal manifestation of God, the uncreated divine energies. In some sense, Bekkos forced Orthodox dogmatic theology into positing a real distinction between essence and energies in God; it was the only way theologians could get around his arguments.
Given that so much of Orthodox dogmatic theology has in fact taken shape in conscious opposition to Bekkos’s thought, can an examination of that thought now serve any irenic purpose, or only a polemical one? If a restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox is to be achieved, it would hardly appear to be possible now upon the theological grounds on which Bekkos would have established it. That was attempted at the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century; Bekkos’s writings in fact played a major role there in persuading men like Bessarion of Nicaea and Isidore of Kiev that the Latins were not heretics. Yet most people would now acknowledge that the Council of Florence, in some important sense, failed to do what it set out to do: it did not end the schism (leaving aside, for the time being, the assignation of blame). Since most of the Christian East has rejected the Council of Florence, some other theological basis needs to be found, it would seem, if communion between the Churches is to be restored. Why then read Bekkos, if his thought is so tied to a theology that the Churches are trying to get beyond?
First of all, any attempt to get beyond something has to be very careful; it is always possible that what one seeks to get beyond is something one never quite understood correctly in the first place. That, I suspect, is the case with at least some of the criticisms of Bekkos’s thought. And even if those who read Bekkos continue to wish to get beyond him, I would hope that at least, by reading him, people who make it their business to criticize the West would learn to be a little more charitable towards this much-maligned Greek of the thirteenth century, who had the audacity to hope for a world in which Christians would not hate each other, and who sought with all the resources of his faith and intellect to bring that world into being. Is it too much to hope that such a world might still come about?
Perhaps one reads Bekkos to reawaken the notion of that possibility.