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.