Occasional writing

November 24, 2007

My apologies for not writing much recently — much family and personal business to attend to. The following paragraphs on Bekkos were written about a year ago, and they seem perhaps worth posting to the blog.

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Observations about Truth are not out of place in considering the life and thought of John Bekkos. His life’s work revolved around the problem of identifying the eternal source of the Spirit of Truth. His own Church taught that the eternal source of the Spirit of Truth is the Father alone. Bekkos saw that this claim itself had a history, and not an unproblematic one. He saw that, if one looked past the Photian polemics of the ninth century, there was much evidence, in the earlier patristic record, of a Greek theological position that saw the Son’s role in the Holy Spirit’s eternal production to be necessary and unavoidable. The Son, who is Truth, is himself the source of the Spirit of Truth: not in such a way that he and the Father are two sources of the one Spirit, but because all that is from the Father is through the Son. The meaning of this through is what John Bekkos sought to recover and to clarify.

Perhaps one could state it in this way: the eternal Son comes to be in time, and it is only through the Son, who comes to be in time, that we have any knowledge of the Spirit’s eternal being. It may not be accidental that a strong reading of the Son’s mediation of the Spirit of Truth focuses upon history in a way that a weak reading of this mediation does not.

Both monopatrism and filioquism are claims about the ontology of Truth. And it seems correct to say that, for the filioquist position, history figures in the ontology of Truth in a way that, for the monopatrist position, it does not. For Bekkos, and for the West generally, one has no access to the Spirit of Truth, nor to the being of the Spirit of Truth, except through the eternal Son who has come to be in time. This does not mean that time determines the being of the Spirit of Truth; Bekkos is not a relativist, any more than St. Augustine is. It means a recognition that we, ourselves, are in time, and that we have no access to the Spirit of Truth unless the eternal one takes on our nature and, through himself, gives us that divine Gift which, of ourselves, we are powerless to acquire.

The monopatrist claim is that this sort of language shows the ontological confusion into which the filioquists fall. It shows a confusion between the conditions of the Spirit’s being and the conditions of our knowing him. Although we only know the Spirit through the Son who bestows the Spirit upon us, what the Son declares to us is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). He does not declare that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from himself. But monopatrism goes beyond this, and claims that a procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son is ontologically impossible: it results either in two causes of the Spirit, or in a confusion of the persons of the Father and the Son. It was this stronger claim against the Filioque that was first stated by Photius in the second half of the ninth century, and that has remained a cornerstone of Eastern polemics against Western Christianity ever since.

John Bekkos responds to this Photian dilemma by comparing it to the testimony of the Church’s authoritative texts, especially, the texts of the Church fathers who lived prior to the outbreak of the controversy. Judged by that standard, the dilemma is seen to be based on presuppositions that, according to Bekkos, the fathers themselves do not share. One of those presuppositions, a claim that recurs repeatedly in Photius’s Mystagogy, is the idea that there is nothing said about God that applies solely to two persons and not to three. Bekkos points out that this idea contradicts the teaching of fathers like St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Both of them see “being from the Father” as a common characteristic of the Son and Holy Spirit, and as not applying (obviously) to the Father himself; likewise, “sending the Spirit” is a common characteristic of the Father and the Son, and does not apply to the Spirit himself. These common characteristics do not cause the persons of the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the first case, or of the Father and the Son, in the second, to become confused; why then, Bekkos asks, should this be so if the Father and the Son together are the source of the Holy Spirit’s proceeding?

More directly, Bekkos shows that, for many of the Fathers, it was legitimate to speak of the Holy Spirit being “from” the Son. The monopatrist claim is that, when the fathers said this, they were referring merely to a sending of the Spirit in time, not to the Spirit’s eternal being. But Bekkos shows patristic texts that clearly cannot bear that interpretation. His inference is that, while the Latin doctrine that holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is not as exact as the Greek fathers’ teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, it is compatible with it; and the fathers, who put realities before the terms in which realities are expressed, would have recognized and accepted this compatibility, for the sake of the peace and unity of the Church. Bekkos claims that, in supporting the Union agreed to at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), he is imitating fathers like St. Athanasius, St. Gregory the Theologian and others, and is doing what they would have done in the same situation.

Of course, the last claim, that the fathers would have acted this way, stands or falls upon the previous claim, that holds that the teaching of the Latin Church is not heretical, but merely a different way of expressing what the Greek Church traditionally holds.

When Bekkos speaks of the Latin doctrine being compatible with what the Greek Church traditionally holds, he plainly means by this, not that it is compatible with the anti-Latin tradition that has obtained since Photius, but with the tradition that predates that, the tradition of the fathers. As mentioned above, Bekkos is not a relativist; although there is such a thing as linguistic variability, there is also such a thing as right doctrine and wrong doctrine, and, as far as Bekkos is concerned, Photius’s doctrine on the procession of the Holy Spirit is wrong on several important counts….