Byzantine Theology by John Meyendorff was recommended to me by Jay Dyer, a man gifted with theological and philosophical understanding. I do not have this gift so it was quite a challenge for me to make my way through this book. Even though I did not comprehend much of it, what I did understand was quite beneficial for connecting disparate Christian concepts that I have learned elsewhere.
The necessity of monasticism
That Byzantine Christianity lacked what today would be called a “theology of the secular” is largely the result of the predominant position of monasticism. Yet this very predominance prevented the Christian Church from becoming totally identified with the empire, which constantly tended to sacralize itself and to assimilate the divine plan of salvation to its own temporal interests. The numerical, spiritual, and intellectual strength of Byzantine monasticism was the decisive factor which preserved in the Church the fundamental eschatological dimension of the Christian faith.
Whatever role was played in the Orthodox victory over the iconoclasts by high ecclesiastical dignitaries and such theologians as Patriarch Nicephorus, the real credit belonged to the Byzantine monks who resisted the emperors in overwhelming numbers. The emperors, especially Leo III and Constantine V, expressed more clearly than any of their predecessors a claim to caesaropapism. Thus the iconoclastic controversy was largely a confrontation between the state and a non-conformist, staunchly independent monasticism, which assumed the prophetic role of standing for the independence of the Gospel from the “world.” The fact that this role was assumed by the monks, and not by the highest canonical authority of the Church, underlines the fact that the issue was the defense, not of the Church as an institution, but of the Christian faith as the way to eternal salvation.
The monks, of course, took their role very seriously and preserved, even after their victory, a peculiar sense of responsibility for the faith, as we saw in the case of Theodore the Studite. Theologically they maintained a tradition of faithfulness to the past, as well as a sense of the existential relevance of theology as such. Their role in later-Byzantine theological development remained decisive for centuries.
Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of monasticism, especially a modern hierarch, is attempting to subvert the Church. Without monks there would be little left to the faith, because they are upholders of the faith in a way that laymen—who have attachments to the world—and hierarchs—who can be corrupted by power—are not.
…the whole of Eastern Christian theology has often been called “mystical.” The term is truly correct, provided one remember that in Byzantium “mystical” knowledge does not imply emotional individualism, but quite the opposite: a continuous communion with the Spirit who dwells in the whole Church.
Essence and energies distinction
Gregory Palamas: “…the concepts of beauty, being, goodness, and the like, reflect God, but not His essence, only His ‘powers’ and ‘energies’—which are not, however, a diminished form of deity, or mere emanations, but themselves fully God, in whom created being can participate in the proportion and analogy proper to each.”
…there cannot be any participation in divine essence by man.
Triumph of iconography
Any veneration of images was equated with idolatry. If the goal pursued by Constantine V to “purify” Byzantine Christianity, not only of the image cult, but also of monasticism, had been achieved, the entire character of Eastern Christian piety and its ethos would have evolved differently. The victory of Orthodoxy meant, for example, that religious faith could be expressed, not only in propositions, in books, or in personal experience, but also through man’s power over matter, through aesthetic experience, and through gestures and bodily attitudes before holy images. All this implied a philosophy of religion and an anthropology; worship, the liturgy, religious consciousness involved the whole man, without despising any functions of the soul or of the body, and without leaving any of them to the realm of the secular.
According to Evagrius, the true nature of the “mind” is to be fixed in God, and anything which detaches it from God is evil. Thus, since the Fall, the human mind is captured with self-love, which generates “thoughts”; “thoughts,” a definitely pejorative term in Evagrius, imply interest in sensible things and distraction from God. Acting upon the passible part of the soul, they can lead it to passions. These passions form a very definite hierarchy, beginning with the casual attachment to the most inevitable of all human sensible needs, food, and ending with demonic possession, with love for oneself.
Instead of using the potentialities of his nature to raise himself and the whole of creation to God, man submitted himself to the desire of his material senses. As a result, the world which was originally created by God as “very good” became for man a prison and a constant temptation, through which the “prince of this world” establishes his reign of death.
Man was created as the master of the cosmos and called by the creator to draw all creation to God. His failure to do so was a cosmic catastrophe, which could be repaired only by the creator Himself.
…by rejecting God, human freedom, in fact, destroys itself. Outside of God, man ceases to be authentically and fully human. He is enslaved to the devil through death. This idea, which is central to Maximian thought and which made him profess so strongly the existence of a human, created will in Christ, serves as the basis of the Byzantine understanding of the destiny of man: participation in God, or “deification” (theosis), as the goal of human existence.
The “secular” is always imperfect, or rather it exists only as a fallen and defective state of creation. This is particularly true of man, whose nature consists precisely in his being “theocentric.” He received this “theocentricity,” which the Greek Fathers always understood as a real “participation” in the life of God, when he was created and when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gn 2:7).
What is divine economy (oikonomia)?
…oikonomia—i.e., God’s plan for the Church—represents a living flexibility extending beyond a legalistic interpretation of sacramental validity.
What is at stake is not only an exception to the law, but an obligation to decide individual issues in the general context of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Canonical strictures may sometimes be inadequate to the full reality and universality of the Gospel, and, by themselves, do not provide the assurance that, in applying them, one is obedient to the will of God. For the Byzantine—to use an expression of Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos (901-907, 912-925)—oikonomia is an “imitation of God’s love for man” and not simply an “exception to the rule.”
The purpose of the Church
The primary function of the Church… is to provide [the Christian] with criteria of thought and a discipline of behavior, which would allow him to overcome his sinful condition and direct him to good works. On this assumption, the Church is understood primarily as an institution established in the world, serving the world and freely using the means available in the world, and appropriate for dealing with sinful humanity, particularly the concepts of law, authority, and administrative power.
Whether he was a theologian, a monk, or an average layman, the Byzantine Christian knew that his Christian faith was not an obedient acceptance of intellectual propositions, issues by an appropriate authority, but on evidence, accessible to him personally in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and also in the life of prayer and contemplation, the one being inseparable from the other.
[The Greeks and Latins] agreed that prayers for the departed are necessary and helpful, but Mark of Ephesus insisted that even the just need them; he referred, in particular, to the Eucharistic canon of Chrysostom’s liturgy, which offers the “bloodless sacrifice” for “patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” and even for the Virgin Mary herself. Obviously he understood the state of the blessed, not as a legal and static justification, but as a never-ending ascent, into which the entire communion of saints—the Church in heaven and the Church on earth—has been initiated in Christ. In the communion of the Body of Christ, all members of the Church, living or dead, are interdependent and united by ties of love and mutual concern; thus, the prayers of the Church on earth and intercession of the saints in heaven can effectively help all sinners, i.e., all men, to get closer to God.
The true purpose of creation
…created nature would lose its very existence if it were deprived of its proper energy, its proper purpose, and its proper dynamic identity. This proper movement of nature, however, can be fully itself only if it follows its proper goal (skopos), which consists in striving for God, entering into communion with Him, and thus fulfilling the logos, or divine purpose, though which and for which it is created. The true purpose of creation is, therefore, not contemplation of divine essence (which is inaccessible), but communion in divine energy, transfiguration, and transparency to divine action in the world.
The relationship between man and God
The view of man prevailing in the Christian East is based upon the notion of “participation” in God. Man has been created not as an autonomous, or self-sufficient, being; his very nature is truly itself only inasmuch as it exists “in God” or “in grace.” Grace, therefore, gives man his “natural” development. This basic presupposition explains why the terms “nature” and “grace,” when used by Byzantine authors, have a meaning quite different from the Western usage; rather than being in direction opposition, the terms “nature” and “grace” express a dynamic, living, and necessary relationship between God and man, different by their natures, but in communion with each other through God’s energy, or grace. Yet man is the center of creation—a “microcosm”—and his free self-determination defines the ultimate destiny of the universe.
According to Maximus the Confessor, God, in creating man, “communicated” to him four of His own properties: being, eternity, goodness, and wisdom. Of these four divine properties, the first two belong to the very essence of man; the third and the fourth are merely offered to man’s willful aptitude.
…man is not an autonomous being, that his true humanity is realized only when he lives “in God” and possesses divine qualities.
…Palamas developed an experiential concept of our knowledge of God, based upon the notion that God is not known through a purely intellectual process, but that man, when he is in communion with God (i.e., restored to his natural state) can, and even must, enjoy a direct knowledge and experience of his creator. This direct knowledge is possible because man, since he is not an autonomous being, but an image of God “open upward,” possesses the natural property of transcending himself and of reaching the divine. This property is not simply intellectual; it implies purification of the whole being, ascetical detachment, and ethical progress: “It is impossible to possess God in oneself,” writes Palamas, “or to experience God in purity, or be united with the unmixed light, unless one purify oneself through virtue, unless one get out, or rather above, oneself.”
The Mother of God
The election of the Virgin Mary is, therefore, the culminating point of Israel’s progress toward reconciliation with God, but God’s final response to this progress and the beginning of new life comes with the Incarnation of the Word.
Lord Jesus Christ
In Jesus Christ, God and man are one; in Him, therefore, God becomes accessible not by superseding or eliminating the humanum, but by realizing and manifesting humanity in its purest and most authentic form.
As Georges Florovsky rightly puts it: “the death of the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.” The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious circle of sin and corruption. And, as Athanasius of Alexandria has shown in his polemics against Arianism, God alone is able to vanquish death, because He “alone has immortality” (1 Tm 6:16).
The Holy Trinity
…all major acts of God are Trinitarian acts, and secondly that the particular role of the Spirit is to make the “first contact,” which is then followed—existentially, but not chronologically—by a revelation of the Son and, through Him, of the Father. The personal being of the Spirit remains mysteriously hidden, even if He is active at every great step of divine activity: creation, redemption, ultimate fulfillment. His function is not to reveal Himself, but to reveal the Son “through whom all things were made” and who is also personally known in His humanity as Jesus Christ.
“The Father does all things by the Word in the Holy Spirit.”
…Byzantine Christian tradition requires the distinction in God, between the One unapproachable Essence, the three hypostases, and the grace, or energy, through which God enters into communion with creatures.
The very notion of God’s being both Unity and Trinity was a revelation illustrating this incomprehensibility; for no reality, accessible to the mind, could be both “one” and “three.” As Vladimir Lossky puts it: “the Incomprehensible reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for His incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only nature but also Three Persons.”
In men…, in spite of the solidarity of the whole race, each individual acts separately so that it is proper to regard them as many. This is not so… with God. The Father never acts independently of the Son, nor the Son of the Spirit. Divine action… always begins from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Holy Spirit; there is no such thing as a separate individual operation of any Person; the energy invariably passes through the three, though the effect is not three actions but one. [Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of the energies described by G. L. Prestige]
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have read this book before I was received into the Church, because its concepts were difficult, but since it didn’t offer spiritual guidance, the potential of it to damage my faith is much lower than, for example, reading The Ladder Of Divine Ascent, which could cause serious problems if you follow advice that you’re not ready for. However, if you believe you’re ready for weighty theological matters concerning the Church, Byzantine Theology is a good place to start.
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