by Eric Jobe, Ph.D.
￼In a series of seven posts on his blog Mystagogy, John Sanidopoulos has published an essay by the Protopresbyter John Photopoulos regarding some of the more controversial theology found in the so-called Second Part of the corpus of writings attributed to St. Isaac of Nineveh. What follows in this post is not a defense of those theological positions, which I urge the reader to study carefully from both sides of the issues in order to make an informed decision. Rather, I offer a critique of the essay itself, its critical methodology, and most importantly its rhetorical tone.
In the modern world, along with the many advances in art, science, and technology, there has developed a refined mode of discourse in the public sphere for all matters dealing with academic subjects such as history, theology, philology, and literary criticism. This mode of discourse includes the following protocols:
• Absence of rhetorical figuration
• Avoidance of logical fallacies
• General respect for opposing views and interlocutors
• Neutral tone that avoids characterization, ad-hominem attacks, and polemical
• Delineation of presuppositions with evidence why such presuppositions are warranted
• Thorough presentation of evidence with citation from multiple sources covering all
It is unfortunate that, in many circles of Eastern Orthodoxy, this modern form of discourse has yet to be adopted, and in its place is an older mode of discourse found among ancient and medieval authors, which features a highly polemical tone, the use of rhetorical figuration, and selective presentation of evidence often without citation. This form of discourse is no longer a respectable form of argumentation in our contemporary age, even though we afford the proper respect for the authors of ancient times and their respective views.
The essay authored by Protopresbyter John Photopoulos unfortunately does not engage in the properly respectable form of modern discourse, rather it makes frequent use of rhetorical name-calling and mischaracterization, the selective presentation of evidence, and many unexplained presuppositions.
At first glance, the biting rhetoric of this essay is immediately apparent. It shocks the senses and obscures any attempt to follow a coherent argument. The force of the article comes from rhetorical bullying rather than dispassionate presentation of a thesis and evidence. The author begins his essay with a shockingly generalized statement: “The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West and the consequent rationalization of theologians has created for it a mess, a confusion for all ‘Christians’ in the West.” From the outset, the author has presumed that God has utterly abandoned the West (which he does not define) to gracelessness and utter confusion due to “rationalization” (again, which he does not define). This statement alone should inform the reader that what follows should be taken as polemic rather than reasoned argumentation. The author, though denying grace to Western Christianity, has strangely enough affirmed the presence of grace within St. Isaac himself, a bishop of the Church of the East. One wonders, then, if grace is to be entirely denied to the Chalcedonian West, how is it that grace can be found among the Church of the East, which was torn from the Orthodox-Catholic Church after the Third Ecumenical Council?
He continues by stating that “the book by the Russian bishop of Vienna, Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, serves this purpose,” i.e. the rationalization and confusion found in “the West.” He begins by taking issue with Bishop Hilarion’s acceptance of the East Syriac biography of St. Isaac included in the Book of Chastity. Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos prefers the Byzantine tradition over the saint’s own, native Syriac tradition. No scholarship is examined here; rather, the East Syriac source is rejected simply because it is not Orthodox. The underlying assumption here is that no true knowledge can be had anywhere outside of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, and furthermore, that Orthodox hagiographic sources are incapable of being mistaken about biographical details or otherwise less precise than native sources. This position creates certain epistemological problems that cannot stand up to any rational, philosophical inquiry. One of the hallmarks of pseudo-scholarship and fundamentalist religion is the rejection of knowledge outside of one’s own circle of insiders. In other words, what Fr. Photopoulos has adopted is a dangerous gnosticism that itself is foreign to Orthodox Christianity.
Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos claims that the Isaac of the East Syriac sources is another Isaac than the “Orthodox” Isaac, yet he provides no real evidence for such being the case. The attempt to co-opt St. Isaac as “Orthodox,” i.e., a part of the organizational Chalcedonian Church, is without merit. Analysis of the Syriac text of the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac by the celebrated Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock reveals an author thoroughly at home within an East Syriac context familiar with Eastern and Western Syriac works and East Syriac phraseology. However, even if we acknowledge, as scholars unanimously do, that St. Isaac was the Eastern bishop of Nineveh, this does not necessitate that he had a thoroughly Nestorian Christology. Some scholars, such as A. Sidorov, have even argued that there was a pro-Chalcedonian movement within the Church of the East, and St. Isaac could very well have been a proponent of a more Chalcedonian Christology than the label “Nestorian” may allow while being a bishop of the Church of the East.
He mentions, as I have just done above, “A certain Dr. Sebastian Brock,” who discovered a Syriac manuscript in 1983 of the so-called Second Part of the corpus of St. Isaac of Syria, which Fr. Photopoulos rejects as not being an authentic work of St. Isaac. Yet, Fr. Photopoulos neglects to mention that Brock is the most celebrated and respected Syriac scholar in the world, a reader (high ranking professor) in Syriac language and literature at Oxford University, and a fellow of the British Academy. Brock has published countless books and articles in Syriac studies and is regarded world-wide as the foremost authority in the discipline. The above-mentioned manuscript discovery was published in two 1995 monographs in the series Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, vols. 554 (Syriac edition) and 555 (English translation). In these monographs, particularly in the introduction to the English translation, Brock presents ￼ample evidence to conclude that the content of the Second Part bears “striking correspondences in phraseology between Part I and Part II,” after which follows a long list of Syriac phrases which illustrate his point (Brock XXXVIII).*
Fr. Photopoulos claims that, because the writings of Part II are referenced “nowhere among Orthodox writings,” one cannot regard as certain the evaluation that they are authentic writings of St. Isaac. A few things to note here, firstly, that Part II was not unknown among Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, for it did exist among Arabic and Syriac speaking “Rum” Orthodox Christians as testified by recent manuscript finds. Furthermore, we find again the gnostic assumption that if a text did not enter into the mainstream of Greek speaking Orthodoxy, that it cannot be an authentic text! Such claims strain logic beyond all reasoning. We only have to look to the Didache, an ancient text composed about the same time as St. John’s Revelation, which was subsequently lost sometime after the 3rd century not to be discovered again until 1873. Even though this text was not within the main stream of Orthodox theological literature for the majority of its existence, no one questions its ancient provenance or its Orthodox content.
The writings of St. Isaac are assumed to be “unjustly accused” from the outset, and the bifurcation of the real St. Isaac and the “heterodox, Nestorian” Isaac is made without any attempt to supply a methodology of how such distinction can be made. The only attempt at doing so is to show that the heretical Isaac articulates Nestorian Christology while the “real” St. Isaac is only assumed not to do so. Yet the evidence that he supplied appears to be grasping at straws. In his first example, he quotes St. Isaac as saying, “I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary of your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity, namely, for him who holds the scepter of your kingdom, who governs all you have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of your eternal Being … Jesus Christ.”
To call this “Nestorian” is a stretch, for St. Isaac is using biblical language to describe the being of Christ, of whom St. John the Evangelist states, “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen, lit. “tabernacled”) among us” (John 1:14). If this quote here articulates Nestorian Christology, then we ought also lay this charge to St. John. Furthermore since St. Isaac was a bishop of the Church of the East, it is likely, even if his own Christology were Orthodox, that the expression of it might be cast in the phraseology of the Church of the East and in idioms proper to the Syriac language.
Charges of inauthenticity cannot be made on the assumption that a particular writer simply would not articulate this or that idea. Inauthenticity should be demonstrated on grounds of anachronism (e.g. Pseudo-Dionisius) or through a difference in style. For example, I have read several pieces of Syriac poetry attributed to St. Isaac, even though there is no known poetic corpus that belongs to him, and the style of the poetry is more akin to later periods and different locations. In order to prove the inauthenticity of Part II, one would have to demonstrate that its style or language differs remarkably from Part I or one would have to demonstrate anachronistic elements that would place its composition elsewhere. The author of this essay has done neither, and, in fact, the opposite has been demonstrated by numerous scholars who have evaluated its language.
Aside from the insurmountable epistemological issues that this essay presents, it is perhaps the persistent labeling of opponents that is most troubling. Those who accept the authenticity of Part II are labeled “thieves and robbers of our salvation.” Doctrines are labeled “cacodox” or “origenist” before they are even explored or defined. The tone is one of bullying, ad hominem rhetoric, which is disrespectful, slanderous, and contrary to Christian principles. Without the presentation of proper evidence to support his claims, such labeling merely obscures reasoned argumentation.
Perhaps the most egregious error in this essay is the manner in which Fr. Photopoulos uses the word “tradition.” For example, he states in a header, “Because according to Orthodox tradition, these texts do not belong to Saint Isaac.” What exactly is this “tradition?” Which canon, which council, which Father, has declared such a thing, and when was it affirmed by the universal Church? One cannot simply brandish the term “tradition” without providing some evidence that such is indeed a part of the Orthodox Holy Tradition. Such statements of inauthenticity do not exist as a part of any identifiable source of our Tradition. All the while, Fr. Photopoulos ignores the actual documentary evidence that Parts II and III of St. Isaac’s corpus were known among “Rum” Orthodox Christians, therefore making their inclusion within the broader Orthodox intellectual and spiritual heritage a matter of fact.
Finally, it should be noted that such treatments of St. Isaac and the question of the authenticity of works attributed to him ought to be dealt with by people who are competent in the Syriac language and literature. Those who are have universally affirmed the authenticity of Part II and have spoken with the authority of their expertise. It is not proper for someone who is unskilled in these areas to speak as Fr. Photopoulos has without the slightest reference to Syriac experts.
Readers of Fr. Photopoulos’ essay do well to judge the composition of properly reasoned arguments with the awareness that they must include the presentation of documented evidence and the avoidance of inflamed rhetoric. We must learn to accept information from qualified sources who have been trained in the relevant disciplines in question. Always consult experts and seek information from respected sources that provide actual, documented evidence. Knowledge cannot be had from mere rhetoric alone, but from the careful examination and presentation of evidence. Only then can we begin to examine the theology of St. Isaac from a standpoint of methodological stability and not by opinions alone.
*Sebastian Brock ed., Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac The Syrian) ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, Vols. 554-555, ed. Bernard Coulie (Louvain: Peeters) 1995.
Click Here for a short essay by Metropolitan Hilarion on the authenticity of these writings.
Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.
This essay sounds like a rhetorical attack on the essay by Fr. Photopoulos without engaging it in any substantial way. It merely shows signs of being offended and bitter over the fact that someone expressed an opinion different from yours and the “established” opinion, even though these extra writings attributed to Isaac were rejected by many scholars in Greece. One need not be elitist to think that you need to know Syriac to form an opinion about these writings and that textual analysis alone is the only way to determine this.
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On the contrary, I have engaged the essay at multiple points, including direct quotations, the provision of counter evidence, and an analysis of its methodological flaws. I’m not sure what else you think I ought to do to “engage” it more substantially. I did not say that one needs to know Syriac in order to form an opinion on these things. I did say, however, that one should at least consult Syriac experts before forming an opinion.
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I followed your tweet to read more about Apokatastasis and it isn’t mentioned in the article.
I’m not very well read in theology, so I don’t know if I’m part of the intended audience for your blog, but a mention of apokatastasis would have been a help to me.
Hi, bgilroy26. The rundown is this: if the Second Part of St Isaac’s discourses are genuine, then St Isaac taught a (non-Origenist) form of apokatastasis. For more on this, see this article by Dr Sebastian Brock, which provides plenty of citations from St Isaac. Hopefully this will clarify matters for you. Also see my series on St Isaac.
It sounds to me like the argument behind all the rhetoric is: “Someone we’ve loved all this time cannot possibly have thought all that.”
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Exactly. It’s clear from Fr. Photopoulos article that his argument is driven, not by textual scholarship, but by his preconceptions of what St Isaac could and could not have believed and taught on apokatastasis, even if it is by no means obvious on the basis of the First Part alone that the “Orthodox” Isaac believed in eternal perdition.
I don’t know why it is so difficult for some to admit that there were saints that advocated a qualified apokatastasis. If there hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have converted to Orthodoxy. It seems heartless to not at least hope.
Yes. Although in parts III and IV he does offer some engagement with the material, it is largely on the disappointing level of litmus-testing. There may be a level at which this is appropriate, but it is difficult to read it without seeing it as question-begging. To be fair, there are a couple of points in Part III regarding the divergence of traditions that made me wonder what response would come from someone who strongly defends the authenticity of the disputed writings. I assume that Brock or Met. Hilarion has some rejoinder to the argument that the writer of these uncomfortable teachings lived in the wrong century or hailed from the wrong part of the Middle East. Probably here is where being a Syriac specialist would be helpful. Or then again, one could just “keep it simple,” as it is for “Us Orthodox.” As my Mormon upbringing used to emphasize, when the Prophet (or “the tradition”) has spoken, the thinking has been done. I do not doubt that I am prone to serious temptations to intellectual pride. but beating me up with authority does not help me avoid them.
skholiast, IMHO, the appeal to ecclesial authority to solve a question of textual authenticity is completely inappropriate. As far as I know, serious Syriac scholars have not contested the authenticity of the Second Part. This doesn’t mean that sometime in the future they might not, but if they were ever to mount such a challenge, they would do so on objective scholarly grounds (at least as objective as scholars can be).
There’s no reason for any of us to be afraid. Just because we acknowledge St Isaac to be a saint doesn’t mean that he was right about everything that he believed and taught. Orthodoxy recognizes the sainthood of Augustine of Hippo, without authorizing his belief in absolute predestination. Ditto for St Gregory of Nyssa and his belief in apokatastasis. Augustine Casiday has written a helpful book on how we should treat Church Fathers with whom we disagree: Remember the Days of Old.
I would have engaged those quotes of St. Isaac a bit more closely, but I am still waiting for my copy of the Syriac text to come in the mail. The problem was, Fr. Photopoulos didn’t cite the quotes, so I have no idea where they come from. I would have to search through the entire Second Part to find them, and I just don’t have that kind of time. But I do agree, that more needs to be done in this regard. Perhaps I’ll get to it sometime soon.
Fr Photopoulos’ notion that Isaac the Syrian was from the 6th century is probably due to a half-remembered confusion between him and the 5th century writer Isaac of Antioch. Isaac of Nineveh (or ‘the Syrian’) is well-attested across many sources as an 8th century writer—his condemnation and subsequent rehabilitation in the Church of the East even makes it into Muslim heresiography—al-Shahristani discusses his universalism, for example.
But on a basic philological level, we can know that the East Syriac versions of Isaac are the authentic ones because he constantly quotes Theodore of Mopuestia, who was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. In the West Syriac and Melkite Syriac manuscripts of his works, these quotations are either given without attribution or they are wrongly attributed to various ‘acceptable’ sources…
Thank you for taking the time to write this. You have elegantly done what I wanted to do, but opted not to due to frustration. There seems to be an increasingly prevalent problem in Orthodox Christian discourse where rather than arguing in a civil and reasonable manner, interlocutors choose sides and blindly defend “their guy” because he affirms what they want the faith to be. I commend you for not falling into this trap.
Interestingly when someone posted this blog post in a link on a forum at orthodoxchristian.net (I think, I’ve just joined it) I posted a link to your St Issac the Syrian series in response on here :
http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,61659.0.html , and then I saw this new blog in relation to it 😉 .
Thank you for a your posts Fr Aidan. I have been reading them since I stumbled upon “What is Orthodox Hell” recently which I think is one of the most honest and helpful reflections I have read since discovering the Orthodox Faith over ten years ago and trying to make sense of the Church’s divergent teachings about hell. The idea that hell is God’s love experienced differently but in a static way for all eternity has confused me to no end especially when it is presented as the authoritative teaching of the Church
by so many well respected theologians.
It occurs to me that what you believe about hell cannot be separated from what you believe about God. It’s a a question of whether you believe God is good or whether God is not good which is surely as important as understanding whether Christ has two wills for instance, or believing in the distinction between Gods essence and His energies.
Which brings us to St Isaac’s argument at the end of Part II. From my reading of it, Isaac is making exactly this point. The question of Gehenna is intrinsically related to Gods very nature. St Isaac’s argument is so persuasive and important to me because of how he frames the question and the difficulty of Gehenna, not just because he expressed his hope of its end.
I have struggled with the Part II of Saint Isaac for many years not because of the profound thoughts and convictions that Saint Isaac expresses, I’ve never read anything which so clearly and convincingly articulated what every fiber of being tells me must be true, but because Isaac’s and Isaac’s Church’s devotion to Theodore of Mopsuestia as far as I can tell cuts St Isaac and anyone who admires or is encouraged by St Isaac off from the Orthodox faith as it is most commonly understood. I believe the Council which anathematized Theodore also anathematized anyone who harbors open or secret admiration for Theodore (such as St Isaac). In other words doesn’t accepting St Isaac throw into question the nature of the authority of the Church councils?
By the way, I don’t understand Theodore or Fr Sergius Bulgakov but it occurs to me that if there is any thinker from the ancient Church which Fr Sergius could be compared to it is Theodore and not Origin. From I can tell both Theodore and Fr Sergius come perilously close to heresy but to call them heretics would be a great injustice. What from I’ve read the Church of the East understood this about Theodore , that his difficult and obscure teachings need to be carefully interpreted in order that the riches of his other teachings could be beneficial. Maybe the same could be said about Fr Sergius?
Well I’ve said too much about things which I don’t understand. Thanks Fr for helping us all work through some very difficult questions.
You have not engaged the article but rather focused on the rhetoric of the presentation, which you clearly have no respect for. You say the proper protocol of academics is “general respect for opposing views and interlocutors”, but you contradict this protocol throughout your essay in regards to the views and presentation of Fr. Photopuolos. For Orthodoxy, theology is not academic like it is in the West. It is based on the experience of the Saints and is polemical by nature. You say that proper protocol is to “avoid characterization”, but you totally characterize Fr. Photopoulos throughout this article. Just because you choose not to respect his methodology, doesn’t mean you are following your own protocols. Your article is just as polemical if not more so than his. I respect your article for this, but the fact that you are blind to this and contradict yourself I do not respect.
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If I may offer my worthless two cents, the way I saw Fr. Photopoulos was similar to Eric Jobe’s concerns as he addressed them in this post. When I read them, I see a circular argument, that because St. Isaac is a saint in Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, he can never have been of the Assyrian Church. That is pretty much the basis of his arguments. I see no real argument to engage in in Fr. Photopoulos’ article; in fact, he does not even engage the evidence of the newly discovered writings of St. Isaac, and his parallel quotes do not contradict at all; if anything, they seem to confirm each other.
This is not just merely an academic criticism. This is, I feel, like trying to disprove to Protestants who say “the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true.” How can one engage honestly with these authors when they are already dismissive as it is, and they do not want to engage in an honest debate? If you give them evidence, they will dismiss it outright because saints have said otherwise. Origen was a well-respected theologian and beloved and revered by the greatest Nicene fathers and saints (doctors of the Church), and yet no one is saying that those heretical works are “pseudo” just because saints revered him. People like Metropolitan Hilarion and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware are derided as ecumenists who are trying to please the Assyrian Church, and Dr. Sebastian Brock just dismissed outright because he also has Nestorian sympathies. Why should Fr. Photopoulos earn the same respect in reply?
Forgive me if I have offended. Pray for me.
And to add to my reply, I love the Mystatogogy blog and I am edified by many of the articles posted. This one however seems to lack the type of respect that is deserving of an honest and respectful rebuttal.
I was quite grateful to see this response to the articles translated on Mystagogy. As I read those articles, I was struck by its many problems, some that are pointed out here, and found the whole thing to be mostly baseless assertion on Photopoulos’ part, although it did inspire me to pick up some of my books and reacquaint myself with some of the evidence about the authorship of St. Isaac’s Second Part.
However, I found it kind of disappointing that Jobe chose to focus on Photopoulos’ rhetorical style and his eschewal of the “refined mode of discourse in the public sphere for all matters dealing with academic subjects …” It just seems like superciliousness. For one thing, there is no actual requirement that anybody adopt any particular mode of discourse. Certainly, the mode of discourse one adopts should be considered carefully, especially in light of the intended audience, but the only people who are strictly bound to follow the kinds of protocols that Jobe outlines above are academics and people who wish to appeal to or impress academics. It seems quite clear that Photopoulos is not particularly concerned about the opinions of academia, so to scold him about his failure to follow their rules of discourse is a bit silly. He doesn’t care. And even though I value the work of academic scholarship, I also don’t care whether a particular writer follows those rules (in fact, I wish more theological writers, while not ignoring academic work, would stop writing like academics — but I suppose that would be asking them to be good writers too, which might be too much to ask). In any case, this kind of scolding, if emphasized too much, makes one wonder whether the important thing here is the matter of Isaac of Nineveh and his writings or whether it is how well a particular writer fits in with the approved group. It seems that Photopoulos can be duly refuted without the need for indignation over his style. His rhetorical figuration, logical fallacies, lack of respect for opponents, ad-hominems and polemics, unsupported presuppositions and lack of citations can all be pointed out in the course of refuting him, but we don’t really need to hear anyone lament or cry foul as though it wasn’t his prerogative to write as he did. If such a way of writing were actually irrelevant, why would anybody be responding at all to him.
Sometimes, I think it is unfortunate that in many circles of Eastern Orthodoxy the modern form of discourse has yet to be adopted, but then again, I am really grateful that Eastern Orthodoxy does not completely give itself over to the faculty’s groupspeak. I hope it never does. I am always pleased to encounter a theological writer who clearly has academic or intellectual chops but who doesn’t constrict his or her words in the academic rhetorical straitjacket. But please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying Photopoulos is such a writer or that I support his views as expressed in the St. Isaac series. I just find a chunk of Jobe’s critique here to have been a bit of a waste of time. I do not want to dismiss a writer because he didn’t adopt the approved rhetoric; I only want to do so when I can see clearly that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
On a slightly different topic, regarding Isaac’s praise for Theodore of Mopsuestia, such praise for “the Interpreter” can also be found in the First Part of Isaac’s writings.
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You might appreciate Jean-Yves Lacoste’s recent book From Theology to Theological Thinking. He is an academic, but expresses many of your sentiments regarding the way theology functions in the typical university setting. Also, note that in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s magnificent Theological Aesthetics, once one enters the modern era, most of the interesting theologians are poets and lay people.
All that said, I have to agree with those who are offended by the provincial dismissal of all of Western Christianity. Personally, I think such a view is manifestly untrue. What an ungenerous notion of the capacity of the Holy Spirit. Someone who is wrong about that is not going to warrant much credibility in my view, though I am not Orthodox, so I guess I just don’t have uncreated Grace.
The link didn’t work for me yesterday, so I thought I would look at the Mystagogy posts now. But the opening sentence was enough to warn me. How can anyone take an essay seriously that opens like that?
An excellent piece by Eric Jobe, who engages fully with the most relevant points. It was the attitude evinced by those like Protopresbyter John Photopoulos, which drove me away from the Orthodox Church, which too often seems beset by phyletism. To open any piece with the words “The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West ” is to begin by announcing that one is right and that others from other traditions have no standing in any discussion; indeed, it is to close down a discussion by saying that one’s own position is right because it is Orthodox. It was precisely that closed-minded insularity which drove this inquirer away from what looked like a ethnic cult.
I am grateful, on the other hand, to Fr Aidan, for reminding me, and everyone who reads him, of what is deep and important about the Orthodox tradition, and why it matters. I am especially grateful for his pieces on St Isaac, who, whatever the Protopresbyter wants to pretend, was indeed a member of the Church of the East. Putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and intoning ‘la, la, la, not listening’ invites what it gets from those not in the solipsism. Fortunately, perhaps, for those in it, the solipsism is so armour-plated, they can’t see how they look to those outside it.
Just a small point about polemics… There was a time when I thought it a no-brainer that polemics and the other argumentative methods you listed had no use and were in fact a hindrance. Today, I am not so certain. Certainly many of the Fathers engaged in such, and I am not willing to say that it was only of the age. Sometimes God has a method to our madness!
Very nice article, and i’m glad *someone* is calling out the *nonsense* that goes for “traditional” Orthodox argumentation!
“The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West ” is just not a serious statement. What do people even think they’re accomplishing with such rhetoric, anyway??!
But now Fr Aidan. I know i’ve said it before, but do you think you could spell it “Nineveh”, as is correct, not “Ninevah”? I’d mention, by the way, that Nineveh should rhyme with “Yahweh”, not “Tonopah” (ok, i’m writing you from Nevada), except of course we shouldn’t say “Yahweh” out loud!
Hah! My brain doesn’t seem to get it. You just keep correcting my misspelling of Nineveh, John, until it finally sinks in. 🙂
For an example of true Orthodox scholarship and theology, I recommend Bishop Golitzin’s “Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita”. He argues, in a non-polemical, very objective way that the prevalent scholarly consensus on Dionysius, ( that he was a Neo-Platonic philosopher in the guise of a Christian), is erroneous. He argues that these scholars have overlooked the monastic milieu in which Dionysius wrote. He does so in a thorough, detailed treatment free of polemic though not without dry humour.
Yes, if there is a “complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West” it is hard to see how I (and many others like me who were raised in non-Orthodox backgrounds and have only ever lived in the West) ever found our way into the Orthodox Church, but here we are against all the odds! In the words of the Anglican J. B. Phillips, I have to say “Fr. Photopoulos, your ‘God’ is too small! Contrary to your assertion here, it seems to me He bursts the bounds of the norms given to the Church anywhere He finds a receptive heart. (I’m not here claiming that we, as members of that Church, are free do the same.) Are not the Scriptures and even many of the prayers and hymns of the heterodox not those of the Church? Can God fail to use what He inspired where there is a receptive and spiritually hungry soul?” St. Isaac (the real one), through Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros’ address, “The River of Fire”, is the one who confirmed the Orthodox Church as my true spiritual home.
Thank you, Eric, for this helpful reply to the articles at Mystagogy (though I do think William above makes a good point, too). BTW, does anyone else have trouble with loading pages from that site? John Sandinopoulos, as has been noted, posts many fine, edifying articles and homilies, but I rarely ever read at his site because it takes forever to load pages.
(Also, MIna, your two cents was worth a lot more than that to me!)
When I sees Orthodox priests making statements like “The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West,” which are then repeated over and over again as divine truth, I almost want to despair (almost).
Fortunately, we have the likes of Fr. John Behr, Fr. Alexander Schmemmen, Met. Kallistos Ware and many others as well as all the Saints. I find it ironic that the essay that confirmed Orthodoxy as my spiritual home also contained a polemic against a certain Western theological emphasis (which was helpful to me at the time as a bracing tonic to offset the predominance of PSA in my Evangelical background), but advocated an Orthodox perspective very compatible with and even very much rooted in the full corpus of St. Isaac.
Fr Aidan, in your correspondences with Dr Brock have you heard anything regarding the translation into English and the publication of the remainder of Part II, the chapters on knowledge?
Great question, Andrew. I have not thought to ask him nor have I heard any news about it from other sources. Plus there also remains the Third Part that needs to be translated into English, too.
Ok thanks Father. The few quotations from this part in Met. Hilarions’s book are pretty extraordinary .
I enjoyed your article and it was so well written I no longer feel the need to respond to the posts. However if I might supplement your article a bit the following might prove of interest.
1. In section 4 the author argues against the validity of Part II because it was “unknown” until recently. This is a strange accusation seeing as we who are part of the Greek Orthodox Church have many “Newly-Revealed” Saints such as St. Fanourios, St. Ephraim of Nea Makri, and Saints Nicholas Raphael and Irene.
2. Also in section 4 the author accuses the Part II of Nestorian language. He refers directly to the use of the word Tabernacle and Temple. This language is typical of East Syrian Christology, and as was noted the scriptures themselves. Significantly, Abba Isaac speaks of the, “tabernacle that you put on from our members through the mediation of the Holy Virgin”, in Part 1!
3. The Author also condemns Part II because Abba Isaac speaks of and quotes Theodore of Mopsuestia. Again, Abba Isaac quotes Theodore as well as Evagrius, in Part 1.
4. There is nothing that Abba Isaac says in Part II that he does not already speak of in Part I. Having read both several times I cannot understand how anyone familiar with the great Abba’s writings does not at once hear the same voice.
Finally to quote the great Saint himself, “Flee from discussions of dogma as from an unruly lion; never embark upon them yourself, either with those raised in the Church, or with strangers.”