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A Conference of Orthodox Readings of Augustine
May Help to Bridge a Gap
by William J. Tighe
St. Augustine, a Doctor of the Western Church, has long had an ambiguous status in the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. He has a place on its calendar of saints, but some Orthodox have, in my hearing, insisted that by referring to him as “Blessed Augustine” rather than “Saint Augustine” they are venerating his person but distancing themselves from his teaching.
They want this distance on such issues as the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son (the filioque dispute) and the relationship of grace, free will, and predestination—issues on which Augustine’s thinking was seminal for the West (Catholic and Protestant), but largely rejected, when not ignored, by theOrthodox (and non-Orthodox) East.
In the twentieth century in particular, a school of thought has arisen in Orthodoxy that sees in Augustine one of the principal sources of the “errors of the Latins,” errors so far-reaching that, to cite the words of the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, there is now “an ontological difference” between the theologies of the two churches.
This “school” is often connected in its origins with the theologian Vladimir Lossky, and its later representatives include the Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras, American theologians John Romanides and Michael Azkoul, and convert Orthodox writers and apologists like Philip Sherrard.
A Better View
Thus the significance, for scholarship as well as ecumenical relations, of “Orthodox Readings of Augustine,” a conference sponsored by FordhamUniversity’s Center for Medieval Studies, held in mid-June. Of the twelve speakers, five were Catholic, four Orthodox, and three Protestant, a Lutheran and two Anglicans.
The conference began with the 2007 “Orthodoxy in America Lecture,” given by Andrew Louth, a patristics scholar at Durham University and an Orthodox priest, on “St. Augustine’s Reading of the Psalms.” Louth suggested that viewing Augustine as a “preacher or expounder” by examining his 546 surviving sermons or homilies (about one-eighth of his whole output) offers a better and more balanced view of him than the Augustines (Augustine of the Great Controversies; Augustine the anti-Donatist; Augustine the “covert Manichee,” as some still see him; and Augustine of the Great Works) both West and East think they already know, and would show him to be “a bridge rather than a wedge” between the two.
He never explained this, but devoted the rest of his lecture to explaining one of Augustine’s homilies, that on Psalm 100 (101), with its theme of the present time as “the time of mercy” and the future coming of Christ as “the time of judgment,” apparently to say that Augustine’s homiletics reflect and develop patristic themes and ideas common to both East and West, and that they are not idiosyncratic or “Augustinian” in the pejorative sense. Later on, he mentioned in passing that for all the importance of predestination in Augustine’s theology of grace, it is not mentioned even once in his surviving homilies.
In “Making a Human Will Divine,” the first plenary speaker, Brian Daley, S.J., of Notre Dame, devoted most of his attention to the Greek theologian Maximos the Confessor. Daley discussed the many years Maximos spent in the West between 626 and 653—during which he was actively involved in theological controversy—before trying to discern traces of Augustine in Maximos’s thought and discussing some common themes in both theirwritings.
Daley pointed to the similarity, if not identity, of their positive, if moderate and occasionally critical, views about the necessary role of the Bishop of Rome in resolving theological controversies; to their respectful but critical evaluation of the role of imperial authority in church matters; and to the parallels in their views of what Augustine termed “grace” and Maximos “divinization.” To the degree that Maximos was aware of Augustine, Daley concluded, he would have found him a kindred spirit, despite the very different ways in which they expressed themselves.
Closer to the Greeks
Perhaps the most important of the major addresses was that of John-Luc Marion of the Sorbonne, the second plenary speaker, on “St. Augustine and the Divine Names,” since this talk addressed one of the more “metaphysical” issues dividing some Eastern and Western thinkers: whether the category of “Being” is applicable to God and whether he can be spoken of as “Supreme Being,” as Western theologians have done, as opposed to the theology preferred in the East that speaks of God as “Beyond Being.”
According to Marion, forAugustine all names can be used of God, “so long as they are used in a worthy manner,” but his own preferred word for God was the Latin adverb idipsum, which might be translated as “the thing itself” or “itself.” Augustine used it both “to denominate God without imposing any metaphysical determination” and “to signify a mode of being that is different from any creature or thing because it is absolutely immutable.”
It does not, Marion went on to assert, denote “any essence but simply our own inability to speak of God.” Augustine thought only one other term, “holy,” could indicate such transcendence. Later interpreters, from the medieval scholastics to twentieth-century Neo-Thomists such as Etienne Gilson, he argued, all translated idipsum as “being itself,” but in doing so, in effect added to idipsum a Latin word, esse ( “to be” or “being”) so as to make it idipsum esse.
This enabled them to substitute “a metaphysical sense of ‘being’” for Augustine’s “radically biblical and apophatic thought”—or rather, he concluded, to substitute a designation that “implies nothing” about God’s nature, not even negatively, and so goes beyond both kataphatic (analytic) and apophatic (negative and non--discursive) discourse, to “a third level beyond them both.” Augustine, he concluded, was thus much closer to the Greek (Orthodox) theological tradition in this respect than to his medieval Latin disciples and interpreters.
The third plenary speaker wasDavid Bentley Hart of Providence College, who saw Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa as sharing many features in their understanding of Being and God. He thought that there was no foundation for the assertion of many contemporary Orthodox philosophers and theologians, such as Yannaras, that the difference between seeing God as “supreme being” and as “beyond being” was basic and fundamental to the divergence of East and West.
In the circumstances (his paper had been lost in his word processor), he was unable to develop his views in detail, but even so, his talk led to strong assertions of dissent and disagreement from some of the Orthodox participants.
The fourth and final plenary speaker was the Catholic theologian David Tracy of the University of Chicago, whose topic was “The Christological Fragments of Augustine and their Implications for Contemporary Theology.” He dealt with the separation of theology and philosophy in the West from Thomas Aquinas onwards, the Eastern Christian avoidance of this separation, modern attempts to deal with this disjunction (especially Heidegger’s), and much else besides—including Augustine’s“existential” anticipation of some of these “contemporary themes.”
I was able to understand this presentation, at best, only in part, no doubt due to my lack of philosophical training, and perhaps the same deficiency on my part accounts for my impression that it had nothing to do with the topic of the conference, as its sole reference to Orthodoxy came in Tracy’s admission that only in the past fifteen years has he become acquainted with Orthodox theology.
The first of the three symposia consisted of two presentations. Elizabeth Fisher, professor of classics at George Washington University and anEpiscopalian, discussed the Greek translation of St. Augustine’s De Trinitate made in Constantinople around 1280, asking whether it was shaped (as was later alleged) to highlight or intensify the perceived incompatibility of Augustine’s views on the double procession of the Holy Spirit with Eastern doctrine on the subject, and so to discredit the brief “reunion” of the Eastern and Western churches at and after the Council of Lyons, between 1274 and 1282—a reunion the translator had first supported and later repudiated.
She concluded that there is no evidence for any such “spinning.” Nevertheless, due perhaps to his own admitted ignorance of theology and avoidance of the subject, the translator did render the term “procession” in a way that for Greek readers heightened rather than diminished these differences.
Reinhard Flogaus, a German Lutheran theologian and scholar, discussed in his “Inspiration—Exploitation—Distortion” the way in which modern scholars and Orthodox writers have made a hard-and-fast contrast between (Western) Augustinianism and theHesychasm of St. Gregory Palamas by representing Palamas’s great opponent, the Italo-Greek monk Barlaam of Calabria, as an “Augustinian” and, as such, his polar opposite in theological method.
Flogaus demonstrated that Palamas’s works are full of paraphrases and even lengthy quotations from Augustine’s De Trinitate, that he once described Augustine as an “apostolic man,” and that he even once employed the (typically Western) description of the Holy Spirit as the “bond of love” between the Father and the Son. However, Flogaus continued, Palamas at times used Augustine’s arguments while rejecting his conclusions, or else distorted them so as to come to the opposite conclusions.
In the second symposium, John Behr, newly appointed Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, spoke on “Augustine and the Legacy of Nicaea,” and Lewis Ayres, a Catholic on the faculty of Emory University, spoke on “Augustine’s Pneumatology and the Metaphysics of Spirit.”
Behr insisted that both Eastern and Western Christians have misrepresented Augustine in claiming that he collapsed the Trinitarian Persons into the divine unity by prioritizing the unity over the Persons. With Augustine, he asserted, we see a shift from characterizing the Trinity as “the One God who is Father, the only-begotten God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God” to “the One God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom is the One God” or simply “the Triune God.”
He seemed to find this shift problematic, although did not make clear why he did so. In the subsequent discussion, Hart pointed out that Byzantine theology witnessed a similar development when it came to speak of God as tri-hypostatic.
Ayres devoted his presentation to what he termed “one of Augustine’s most important but rarely noticed contributions to Trinitarian theology,” his use and emphasis of the term “Person” when treating the Trinity in general and the Holy Spirit in particular. With respect to the Holy Spirit, his influence was decisive for all subsequent Western Christian reflection.
When Augustine speaks of God’s nature or being, he always speaks in terms of the three Divine Persons and not of the divine essence. His theological approach had much more in common with that of the East, then and subsequently, than with the West in the second Christian millennium.
At the final symposium, Carol Harrison of Durham University (an Anglican and Louth’s wife) spoke about “Augustine’s Reading of Orthodoxy” (in other words, in what Augustine conceived orthodoxy to consist). She emphasized what she saw as his “provisional and open-ended” articulation of orthodoxy, which “pointed to” God rather than “capturing” him.
According to Harrison, Augustine saw “orthodoxy” as, at its heart, consisting not in words but in jubilatio or praise or exultation beyond words. She went on to discuss what she saw as the “dark side” of Augustine’s orthodoxy: that when he sought to articulate it in words, the result was to give rise to difficult and intractable problems such as those involving grace, free will, and predestination.
Apophatic & Not
In “Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers,” Joseph Lienhard, S.J., of Fordham University spoke on how best to evaluate Augustine’s knowledge and use of the works of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
He addressed different methodologies more than results, but he did conclude that Augustine mostly knew their works through Latin translations, and what he knew of their writing was not what historians or theologians might deem their central works, but works of exegesis and homiletics.
The paper did, however, contain the fascinating hint that Augustine, whose lack of knowledge of Greek as a rhetorician and teacher became notorious, might have learned Greek after ordination—at least enough to translate a long passage from Gregory of Nazianzus, a translation Lienhard described as good and accurate.
Finally, David Bradshaw of the University of Kentucky addressed “Augustine the Metaphysician,” describing him as attempting to synthesize themes from Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, and contrasting him with Maximos the Confessor and John of Damascus on such topics as God’s intelligibility (as “supreme being” rather than “beyond being”), the question of the divine essence and the divine energies, and the question of “divine simplicity.”
Linking Augustine’s conception of God with Plotinus’s concept of “the One,” Bradshaw concluded that Augustine could be characterized as an apophatic theologian, if by that phrase is meant a theologian who had a profound awareness of the inability of human language and intellect to “grasp” God. But he could not be so characterized if it means a theologian who regards God as “not noetic,” that is, not an object of the human intellect.
The paper, the most argumentative (or contentious) of the conference, generated a lively discussion. It emerged in that discussion that at least one of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, expressed himself inconsistently, at one time denying and at another affirming that God is “an object of knowledge” (i.e., “noetic”).
The conversation picked up again in the general discussion that followed a coffee break, in which speakers and participants made such points as that Augustine’s anthropology was as shocking to his contemporary philosophers as Freud’s was to contemporary psychologists, and that the complete absence of any treatment of predestination in Augustine’s homiletic works argues for a very different “practical soteriology” than that espoused by later Augustinians in the West.
Others (including Hart and other Orthodox) commented that it is hard to find “a negative word” about Augustine among Orthodox writers before the 1950s and 1960s, and that before the 1950s and 1960s, when Romanides, Yannaras, and Azkoul began to criticize him, he was hardly mentioned by the Greeks but esteemed very highly by the Russians, even amongtheologians and philosophers of the Russian diaspora in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky.
Louth, whose reflections concluded the general discussion, characterized Romanides’ views as “overdrawn and unconvincing,” and Yannaras’s “constant current of anti-Westernism” as “almost a fundamental principle.” Such approaches, he suggested, did more to hinder understanding than to promote it.
The conference was remarkable both for the variety of approaches to its subject and, at the same time, for the relevance of the discussions (with one exception) to it. In addition, the conference straddled the divide between the “academic” and the “practical”: Many, if not most, of the participants were academics, but some of the sessions either began or ended with prayer, and it was clear from the questions and discussions that most of the participants had a genuine personal concern with the mutual understanding and reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christianity. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The proceedings of the conference will be published by Fordham University Press.
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.