John Kyparissiotes: Preface to the Decades

August 20, 2010

John Kyparissiotes was a Greek theologian and philosopher who lived in the middle part of the fourteenth century, and took part in the later stages of the Palamite Controversy, on the Antipalamite side; he apparently belonged to a circle of scholars that frequented the home of Nikephoros Gregoras, who had taken on the role of leading the opposition to the Palamites after the death of Gregory Akindynos (1348). Some while ago, I wrote a Wikipedia article on him, in which I mentioned, among other things, that Kyparissiotes wrote a kind of systematic theology, unofficially called the Decades, but, more properly, the Elementary Exposition of Theological Texts (in Greek, Τῶν θεολογικῶν ῥήσεων στοιχειώδης ἔκθεσις: the word στοιχειώδης, which literally means “elementary,” carries here something of the meaning of “systematic”; it certainly does not mean “elementary” in the sense of dumbed-down). Although an edition of the Greek text of this work reportedly was published in Athens in 1982[1], I have never been able to see it, and I don’t have the means to travel to Europe and consult specialized libraries which might possess this book. Nevertheless, I have seen a series of articles Dentakes published on this work in the Greek journal Θεολογία between the years 1958 and 1961[2]; they contain the Greek text of at least the book’s one hundred chapter headings. I have been reading them, slowly, in the midst of my other work; it is a kind of diversion from the work I am doing on John Bekkos, who died some twenty years or so before Kyparissiotes was born. Nevertheless, I find there are some striking similarities between the two men’s theological positions. For instance, the title to Kyparissiotes’ Decade VII.4 reads as follows:

“That, in partaking of the nature of God, we are partakers, not of the bare, non-hypostatic grace that is from Him, but of the living and subsisting Holy Spirit Himself; and that the entire trihypostatic God is called grace and the Son and the Spirit are together grace and each of them in particular is called grace; while, again, what is created and effected by them is also, equivocally, called grace.”

The claim that, “in partaking of the nature of God, we are partakers, not of the bare, non-hypostatic grace that is from Him, but of the living and subsisting Holy Spirit Himself,” could stand as a clear summary of the position John Bekkos himself takes in a work titled Against George Moschabar, written around the year 1280, some 80 or 90 years before Kyparissiotes wrote his Decades. (See an earlier post of mine on this hitherto-unedited work of Bekkos’s, Pages from a Lost Book.) This correspondence confirms for me that Bekkos, in his debate with Moschabar, was identifying a point that would remain a vital issue nearly a century later: does theosis mean the acquisition of divine energies, distinct from the persons of the Trinity, or does it mean the active indwelling in us of the Holy Spirit Himself, and, through the indwelling of the Spirit, the indwelling also of the Father and the Son?

Below, I present a translation of the preface to John Kyparissiotes’s Decades. Because I lack the Greek text to this, I have translated it from Francesco Torres’s Latin translation that was first published in 1581 and was reprinted by J.-P. Migne in his Patrologia Graeca vol. 152 (cols. 741-992; the preface is found on cols. 741-746). Given that I am translating here at one remove from the original, and Kyparissiotes’s Greek tends to be pretty lapidary and obscure at the best of times, much of the translation that follows must be taken as something of a creative paraphrase. But I do think I have conveyed the gist of the preliminary theological distinctions Kyparissiotes sets forth in introducing his work.


[1] Vasileios L. Dentakes, ed., Ἰωάννου τοῦ Κυπαρισσιώτου, τῶν Θεολογικῶν ῾Ρήσεων Στοιχειώδης Ἔκθεσις. Τὸ κείμενον (μετὰ τῆς λατινικῆς μεταφράσεως τοῦ Franciscus Turrianus) νῦν τὸ πρῶτον ἐκδιδόμενον (Editio princeps). [John Kyparissiotes’ Elementary Exposition of Theological Texts. The text, together with the Latin translation of Francisco Torres, now first appearing in print (Editio princeps).] Athens, 1982. — Essentially, this is a printing of Dentakes’s doctoral dissertation, which he did, presumably at Munich, under the direction of Franz Dölger.

[2] Basileios L. Dentakis, “Joannes Kyparissiotes: Stoicheiodes ekthesis ton theologikon rheseon (ihre Überlieferung und ihr Gehalt),” Θεολογία vol. 29 (1958), pp. 115-124; 301-311 (437-447); 411-420; vol. 30 (1959), pp. 492-502; vol. 32 (1961), pp. 108-124; 305-323 (605-623); 437-454.

John the Wise, surnamed Kyparissiotes

Preface to the Elementary Exposition of Theological Texts

Among the sciences which make use of discursive reason, the most beautiful is philosophy. But the highest branch of philosophy is theology; it declares its own excellency, not only by the very name by which it is called, but much more so by virtue of those teachings it conveys, and by the contemplation of those things which fall under its intellectual vision. For it is set forth as a kind of sun, which dispels all the darkness of false opinion by its rays; but anything that adulterates and waters down the truth is immediately refuted when it meets with its countenance, nor will it allow anything of an evil character to fall in with it; rather, it casts such things out of its presence. Accordingly, so that, like geometers, we may lay down an axiom as a kind of foundation: Theology is discourse about God that is, in and of itself, worthy of credence on account of the authority of its claims. First, then, there is the discourse that belongs to the Gospels of the saving God; close in succession to this is the discourse of those who, on account of Christ’s love for mankind, saw Him and heard His words; after these things come those authors who expounded the discourses of the first and second kind; and these authors were afterwards followed, at least when the things they passed down agree with the seven ecumenical councils, in such a way that they neither imply anything beyond their teachings nor subtract anything from them, a thing which is prohibited with dire execrations.

Now, the whole teaching of theology may be summed up by means of the following three axioms:

I. God is one, indivisible, infinite, colorless, invisible, not known out of any natural representation, utterly foreign to all notion of when or whereby, whom the mind by no means can grasp except only by the certainty, given by His creation, that He is, not what He is.

II. This one God is Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, in whom is the Godhead, or (to speak more properly), who are the Godhead, which is the one and only uncreated nature. For Unity is worshiped in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, there being nothing at all preeternal besides Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, what the Godhead is is complete in the Trinity; whatever is outside the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is a servant; we ourselves are an example of this.

III. All things that are from this one, superessential, superdivine nature of the three persons are created. For, at some point, these things did not exist, whether they are visible or invisible; whether they began in time, or, instead, began along with time as a whole [the aevum]; whether they are things participating, or things participated; whether they are universal, or particular. Moreover, there is no mean term between that same divine nature and its creatures, inasmuch as the divine nature alone is above the creation, and all such things as are after the divine nature are created.

In these three axioms is contained the whole, most holy theology of Christians — for, as for the transcendent mystery of the divine Incarnation, sacred writers do not characterize this as a mode of theology, as such, but as a self-emptying, accomplished for us by the Word of God’s unsearchable economy. Following these things in their divine books, the wise and sacred theologians expelled all heresy from the Church of Christ, made clear the whole content of theology, most pure and most translucent, and divinely enjoined it upon our souls. Invoking them today, we have further elaborated that method which they themselves employed, setting out those things which they said about God, and we exhibit how greatly they are in agreement with one another, and how fittingly they harmonize in the wisdom of theology as though in a divine music.

But since all systematic exposition moves from first things to things in second and third place, calling upon these same theologians once again, let us consider how, earlier, they posited that all theology is distributed into two parts: one Symbolic, the other Demonstrative. And they differentiated the two kinds in the following way:

A. that which is Symbolic has to do with either

  1. a sacred creativity or form-production consisting of images falling under the senses, or
  2. a sacred creativity or form-production consisting of metaphors falling under the intellect, whereas

B. that which is Demonstrative they differentiated into

  1. Affirmative and
  2. Negative.

Accordingly, there are now four parts to theology. For either theology is expressed by a physically-perceptible image, like that ladder extending from heaven to earth (Gen 28:11-17), the fire that appeared in the bush (Exod 3:2), the three men received and entertained by Abraham (Gen 16:2 ff.), the backsides of God perceived by Moses (Exod 33:18-23), and those other sensible formations found in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and so on; or else theology is expressed by a verbal metaphor addressed to the intellect, like God’s “drunkenness” (cf. Ps 78:65) and “belching” (Ps 45:1, eructavit cor meum), His waking and sleeping, defensive and offensive weapons, and all other things which are asserted after the similitude of men. The other two parts are, one, affirmative theology, as when we say, God is good, wise, holy, blessed, a savior, and all the other terms we use when praising Him; or, again, negative theology, as when we call Him invisible, incomprehensible, more-than-essence, more-than-good, more-than-living, more-than-wise: all these things, whether said by way of privation or by superlatives, are stated by negations.

Since therefore there are four parts, the first decade is made up of those two parts which contain symbolic theology in its entirety. As for the other two, they are brought together in the second decade, which treats of demonstrative theology as a whole. Then demonstrative theology in general is divided into parts: the affirmative kind is divided, first into divine emanations, and this partition constitutes the third decade; then into the question of the meaning of the divine names, and this is taken up in the fourth. Again, this theme of divine emanations is divided into the identifying characteristics of the various divine names, comprising the fifth and sixth decades, and into the question of divine participations, which makes up the seventh; here the affirmative part of demonstrative theology comes to an end. As for the negative part of demonstrative theology, it is divided, first into the question of God’s infinity in creatures, which makes up the eighth decade, then into that infinity which is in God Himself, which makes up the ninth, then into the question of divine simplicity, which makes up the tenth and last decade. Thus, the whole, elementary exposition of theological texts is contained within these boundaries. Now, the general treatment of symbolic theology could have sustained a further subdivision; but these things, for the most part, have been treated of in the first decade (though without any discussion of their several identifying characteristics). But perhaps, with God’s help, if we shall come across copies of the requisite books, we shall treat also of these matters. For now, however, since we have been driven from our home, and are the object of universal vilification, we lack the resources and leisure to treat of these things and to look into improving this book. As for these texts which we now present to the public, it is with great labor that we have collected them, since we brought the books with us for other uses and other occasions. Because of these things, we have been deprived of many aids that would have brought this work to a more perfect state; but, in the meantime, we have not been deterred from stating those things which were most necessary. Now, as for the elementary exposition to be found in each decade: in the last chapter of each decade will be found an exposition of the things which, in that decade, have followed one by one in sequence, along with the reason for the title of the decade, and an account of how the things that pertain to that subject have been sufficiently treated.

One Response to “John Kyparissiotes: Preface to the Decades”

  1. My comment is that given what I have read of St. Gregory, in translations in any event, I would think that there is much in John Kyparissiotes with which he would concur. I cannot find in the Triads or the Homilies any place where St. Gregory indicates that the energies are somehow, much less sharply, separated from the essence. I always found his work in that regard to be very much like St. Teresa of Avila who spoke of our experience of the Indwelling Trinity, which is what St. Gregory addressed…the experience of the Indwelling Trinity…., as a great river flowing within us. When we were well disposed to receive the Trinity the River of Grace would flow through us as fully as we were capable of managing. But that does not mean we experience the Trinity as the Trinity is in its essential being but we received the grace of the essential being as a great river flowing within us. I admit to the possibility of delusion, but that has been my understanding for a long time.

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