January 10, 2008
Last week I posted to the blog a fairly extended passage from John Bekkos’s On the Union and Peace of the Churches of Old and New Rome. Some readers may not immediately see why the passage is significant, or why they should bother to plough through Bekkos’s long sentences when life presents so many other matters worthy of attention. The text, in other words, calls out for commentary. That is what I shall attempt to provide here.
To get a sense of what Bekkos is saying in §§7-9 of the De unione ecclesiarum, one needs to bear in mind the situation in which he wrote. The book probably was published in the year 1275 or shortly thereafter; and, although the Council of Lyons had been officially approved and there was an official state of communion between the Churches (in that the Pope’s name had been restored to the diptychs, i.e., he was being commemorated, along with the other Orthodox patriarchs, in hierarchical liturgies at Constantinople), most people in Byzantium remained very uneasy about the whole idea of communion with the Church of Rome; if they agreed to it at all, it was from the idea of “economy,” that is, the notion, often encountered in Eastern canon law, that the stringency of ecclesiastical rules can be relaxed upon occasion with a view to a greater good — in this case, the greater good of forestalling another Latin assault upon Constantinople. Bekkos himself, only two years earlier, had been of the opinion that the Latins were in reality heretics, and that therefore communion with them, whatever pragmatic grounds might be advanced, was illicit. (See Pachymeres, De Michaele Palaeologo, book V, ch. 12: “Some people are in fact heretics and are said to be such; others neither are nor are said to be; others again are said to be but are not; whereas others are said not to be and are. Among these last the Italians should be classed.” [Gill, tr.] This was the line that caused Bekkos to be thrown in jail, not for the last time in his life.) If Bekkos later agreed to the Union of the Churches, and became in fact its most articulate advocate within the Greek-speaking world, it was because his mind had changed upon this very point: by studying the fathers, he had become convinced that the chief source of doctrinal contention between Eastern and Western Christians was founded upon a misunderstanding; that, although Greek and Latin Christians use somewhat different language when speaking about the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, their essential belief is the same; that, when Latin Christians speak of the Holy Spirit being from the Father and the Son, they mean essentially no more than what Basil and other Eastern saints had meant when they said that the Holy Spirit is from the Father through the Son (and certainly no more than what some of these same Eastern saints, like Cyril of Alexandria and Epiphanius of Cyprus, had meant when they explicitly said that the Holy Spirit is “from the Father and the Son”); and that therefore the Latins were not in fact heretics after all and that it was right, and one’s Christian duty, to make peace with them.
Bekkos also knew that this very claim, that the Latin Church is not heretical, raised the issue of how to interpret the views of those Greek churchmen, from Photius onward, who had said that it is, and who had backed up this claim with argumentation. The majority of Bekkos’s writings are devoted to a detailed confrontation with that argumentation, what he refers to at one point as a “critiquing of the critics.” He carries on this critique in different ways in different works of his; for instance, in the work On Peace (De pace ecclesiastica), Bekkos presents documentary evidence to show that Photius’s attitude towards communion with the Church of Rome, his view of that Church’s orthodoxy, shifted back and forth according to whether or not the popes acknowledged him as legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople; when the question was still undecided, Photius paid Rome flatteries; when the question was decided against him, he declared Rome heretical; when a later pope decided in favor of him, he accepted communion with Rome, i.e., with the same people he had previously blacklisted as heretics. Bekkos infers from this behavior that, if there had not been a high ecclesiastical office at stake (and, he might have added, the ecclesiastical and political alliance of newly-Christianized Bulgaria), Photius would not have raised the dogmatic issue of the orthodoxy of the Latin Filioque teaching and of the legitimacy of the Western addition of this word to the text of the Creed. Bekkos commends Photius for having had the sense to patch things up with Rome at the synod of 879, he has high praise for Photius as a scholar and a writer, he does not deny Photius’s love of his country and his real Christian virtues; but, rightly or wrongly, he is convinced that the spirit that inspired Photius to turn the question of the Holy Spirit’s procession into a chronic, Church-dividing issue was not a spirit of truth.
In the book On the Union and Peace of the Churches of Old and New Rome, Bekkos takes a different approach, more dogmatic than historical; he is less concerned here to expose corruption of motives than to expose fallacy of reasoning. The first claim he controverts is the claim, or unspoken assumption, that the existing state of things must be defended and preserved at all costs simply because it is old, i.e., whatever is old, and is ours, is holy, and it is holy because it is old and because it is ours. Tradition is right automatically. We are right because we are us. Bekkos mentions this point of view and disposes of it pretty quickly: if one is going to get agitated over the division of the Churches, he says, one really ought to consider, not only the fact that there is a division, but how that division came about. One ought to examine its causes. Not to do so displays a lack of good sense. The long sentence that follows this (which starts, “And even if we should find that our predecessors …”) is admittedly obscure; I have tried to make the best sense of the original Greek that I can, but I am still not completely certain that I have translated it correctly. (Any readers of this blog who know Greek and would like to suggest alternative translations are encouraged to do so; the passage is found at PG 141, 24 B-C). Bekkos’s involved syntax at this point seems to reflect a certain anxiety about how to state what is on his mind: he plainly wants to condemn neither the Roman Church nor his own predecessors on the see of Constantinople; just as plainly, he thinks that the accusations against the Roman Church that some of his predecessors made were ill-founded and should be abandoned. He speaks, towards the end of the sentence, of two possible attitudes or responses to take towards this recent tradition of anti-Western polemics: one of them is to dismiss it openly, another is to say nothing about it and let it die out quietly from benign neglect. It is worth noting that it was precisely this latter approach that Theodore Xiphilinos, the Grand Economos, urged Bekkos to take; Xiphilinos, an old friend of Bekkos’s, told him that, by writing about doctrine, he would only stir up greater opposition (see Pachymeres, De Michaele Palaeologo, book V, ch. 28). The fact that Bekkos writes this book indicates that, whatever assent he may have given to Xiphilinos at the time, he could not remain satisfied with simply keeping quiet; perhaps that is why he speaks here of setting “a good example to the younger generation and to those who shall come after us” — evidently, he wants to set a good example to future generations, not by keeping silent, but by informing them of what was theologically at stake.
Towards the end of the paragraph, Bekkos uses a phrase, πεισμονὴν ἄλογον, which I have translated here as “unthinking intransigence.” Like most authors, Bekkos has certain characteristic phrases and modes of speaking; he uses both of these Greek words frequently, sometimes, as here, in combination, so it is worth considering what they mean. The word πεισμονή actually occurs in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 5:8, where he says, regarding the view that circumcision is necessary for salvation, “This persuasion (πεισμονή) comes not from him who calls you.” Πεισμονή is derived from the verb πείθω (“to persuade”; in the middle voice, “to believe, obey”), as is alluded to by St. Paul in that very passage, where the middle infinitive πείθεσθαι directly precedes this word. So the word implies a certain belief; yet it is not πίστις, faith, but something else. Interestingly, a related word, πεῖσμα, has two senses: it can mean “confidence, persuasion,” or “a rope, a ship’s cable.” So, similarly, the word πεισμονή can refer to the quality of being confident, and it can also refer to the quality of being like a ship’s cable, “pertinacious,” latched tightly onto its moorings. Like St. Paul, Bekkos sees this “pertinacity” as an attitude one might easily mistake for faith, but one that it is really something else.
My guess is that the other word in this pair, ἄλογον, clarifies how a merely intransigent persuasion falls short of what one means by Christian faith. Faith is not ἄλογος, irrational. Faith is in a God who himself has Λόγος, in a Λόγος who is himself God. Christians are those, St. Peter says, who desire to drink and be fed by “the sincere milk of the word” (1 Pet 2:2), τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα, a rational, or logical, milk. Christ the Word is the good shepherd, and Christian tradition often refers to Christians as λογικὰ πρόβατα, as rational, or logical, sheep. John Bekkos is a Byzantine Christian rationalist — not a rationalist in the modernist or postmodernist sense of someone who thinks reason is its own foundation and dispenses with the need for God, but a Christian rationalist, a man who sees faith as healing the human reason and who denies that faith means a leap into pure irrationality. Bekkos defends simplicity of faith, but reason is necessary precisely to defend faith from the various sophistic arguments that endeavor to complicate it. The fathers engaged in a rational defense of faith, and Bekkos sees himself as following them. He sees his work for the peace and unity of the Church as an extension and continuation of the fathers’ own efforts towards that end. That is a serious claim.
In any case, Bekkos here, and at the beginning of §8, hammers upon the words ἄλογον and λογικωτέρας (“more rational”) to such an extent that it is quite evident that he wants this idea to sink into the reader’s mind: that Christian faith is a faith of reasonable and thoughtful men and women who are willing to consider evidence fairly. That, as he says many times in his work, is how he wants his readers to assess the things he writes; undoubtedly he says this because he knows from experience the unlikelihood of his getting this response. Some years later, when the Union of Lyons had fallen to pieces and Bekkos was the object of general popular rage, he wrote of how
“the whole mass of our nation, men, women, old men, young men, young girls and matrons all took the view that peace is not peace, but war, not solidarity, but division. Then what? A few people, who for a time had control over the Church’s offerings, applied great labor towards inciting the whole common multitude against us; and in fact they were able to give such effective implementation to this counsel of theirs that, through the expectation of death, which was virtually hung up before our very eyes, we were compelled to withdraw from ecclesiastical office” (Bekkos, De depositione sua oratio i, §2; PG 141, 952D – 953A).
It is unlikely that, at the time Bekkos wrote the De unione ecclesiarum, he realized that that was how things were going to turn out. But he definitely understood that he had a hard case to make before his own people. In attempting to make that case, he stresses, here and elsewhere, something that, within a Byzantine context, is most remarkable: the idea that faith is the response to God of a reasoning being, and that God, before whose eyes we stand, wants us to think.
I think I have said enough here about §7, and will leave comments on §§8-9 to some future occasion.