Logomachy, Orthodoxy, and the Holy and Great Council

Original on academia.edu >>

7 June 2016

Protopresbyter Dr Doru Costache
Sydney College of Divinity, Australia

To Paul,
who stirred my interest in the matters discussed here

I remember reading, many years ago, a very popular Romanian short story, Election of an Abbess, by Damian Stănoiu. At the forefront of the story were the human, all too human politics, intrigues, plots, hatred, betrayals, and other such dubious virtues exhibited by the dwellers of a large nunnery during an election campaign. At some point in the story, the author changed the angle—from the complex interactions between the nuns caught in the game of thrones to the devils which piled up on a nearby hill, reduced to spectators unable to cause more havoc than the nuns themselves did. This is how the Orthodox Commonwealth, which travels toward the Holy and Great Council, must currently look to the invisible hordes piling up on the hills… Why should the enemy stir us against one another when we do it so well ourselves? How could the devil divide further what is already divided? The fact of the matter is that instead of looking at the greater good, namely, the beginning of serious talks about the challenges confronting the Church in our age, the Orthodox seek more and more pretexts to postpone the encounter—from the game of thrones to human, all too human, passions.

My intention is not to review the whole pre-conciliar pandemonium. Until a few days ago, when the friend to whom I dedicate this essay brought me up to date, I have not been even aware of it. Given his questions and my own concerns, in what follows I refer to one of the most recent episodes of this pitiful saga, namely, the declaration of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, of 25 May 2016, gone viral on the world wide web. More specifically, and without discussing either his anachronistic notion regarding the supposedly ecumenical practice of pre-conciliar consultation or his hierarchical dismissal of the teachers of theology, herein I consider his renewed attack on the terminology of personhood and modern Orthodox personology. In short, Metropolitan Vlachos labels the contemporary discourse on personhood as theological poison, a doctrinal error, a theological deviation and a misinterpretation of the teaching of the Fathers, urging the abandonment of the term person in favour of the term man/human being. The attack contains the outrageous statement that the theology of personhood, with its trademark, the freedom of personal will as distinct from the necessary character of the natural will, annihilates the Trinitarian God. To make his plea weightier, the Metropolitan concatenates some impressive names—from Aquinas to Kant and Hegel—cultural trends and ideologies—from scholasticism to socialism—and events—such as the recent tripartite communique in Mytilene and the upcoming Holy and Great Council. There is not much a willing reader can make out of this tirade. How are all these related? How can the Mytilene declaration on the challenges of this day and age, including the humanitarian crises unfolding under our very eyes, bear on the contemporary Orthodox theology of the person? How do, both the Mytilene declaration and the other items mentioned by the Metropolitan, bear on the Holy and Great Council? But enough said with reference to the inconsistencies of his discourse.

Turning to more serious matters, I begin by considering the reasons behind the Metropolitan’s very colourful invectives related to the Orthodox theology of the person and his exhortation to abandon the vocabulary of person.

Before anything though, I have to point out that, alongside the Metropolitan’s dislike for modern Orthodox personology, behind his opposition one can discern the assumption that theology is reducible to a useless, repetitive academic exercise. It seems that for him Orthodox theology must be satisfied with reciting some well-rehearsed lines of basic catechism—a view which any student of the Fathers may readily liken to the handbookish opinions of the notorious ex-metropolitan Stephen of Nicomedia about the ‘innovations’ of St Symeon the New Theologian or, earlier, the criticisms levelled by ‘traditionalists’ at St Basil the Great’s unusual Homilies on the Hexaemeron. By opposing the language of personhood as theologically valid, Metropolitan Vlachos denies contemporary theology its task to convey the wisdom of the ecclesial tradition in ways that take in consideration our current circumstances and reach out to audiences of today. In so doing, he omits the call and task of theology to engage the world in a missionary fashion—by bridging the Gospel and the culture of any time and place so that the minds and lives shaped by certain cultural frameworks be more receptive to the ecclesial tradition. Among other directions in contemporary theology, this, precisely, is what modern Orthodox personalists undertake, namely, to work according to the paradigm of the Logos incarnate and so flesh out the Gospel by the means of contemporary culture. Much like in the first centuries of Christianity, when our ancestors had to adopt notions and terms relevant to their cultural contexts in order to successfully promote the Gospel in the midst of a hostile society, contemporary Orthodox theologians, struggling to make an impact on this brave new world of ours have to explore appropriate ways to do so as efficiently as in the past. There is nothing new, methodologically speaking, in the current efforts to make the message of tradition heard and appreciated in the language of the person—at least not for a diligent, honest and God-fearing researcher of the Fathers of old. They, the saints of old, have done the same when, in their attempts to promote the Christian ethos and lifestyle in the language of ecclesia or leitourgia, adopted these very words from the pre-Christian culture. They, the saints of old, have done the same when they adopted the term philosophia to designate the Christian lifestyle, particularly the monastic experience. The reader knows that the list could continue indefinitely. I will mention here only the fact that personological vocabulary—hypostasis (the person in its ontological dimension), prosopon (the person in its relational dimension), nous (the person in its thinking and contemplative dimension) etc—was borrowed and refashioned by the saints of old from the classical culture. Contemporary personalists tread therefore the path of tradition, some of them, like Vladimir Lossky, Panayiotis Nellas and Father Dumitru Stăniloae, having even walked the path of holiness in the footsteps of the saints of old. Theology cannot be reduced to lecture room speculations. Its task is as sacred, apostolic, necessary and ecclesially relevant as any other undertaking of God’s people—irrespective of the weaknesses of either those who serve it or their output. This is the light in which should be assessed the efforts of the most illustrious Orthodox theologians of modern times, as long as the Church is the living body of Christ in which all the members, organs and cells have a function to perform.

Orthodoxy is not a matter of changing some words by other words. Orthodoxy is not logomachy. There are no Orthodox words. All the words can be used either the wrong way or the good way, this is the lesson of the Fathers. The latter have led the way by adopting the strangest words and ideas from the culture of their times, converting them into channels for the communication of the Gospel. They have called the human person, alongside anthropos, in many other ways, including zoon logikon (rational animal, e.g. St Cyril of Alexandria, St Gregory Palamas) and zoon theoumenon (deified animal, e.g. St Gregory the Theologian, St Nicholas Cabasilas). And if one makes the effort to look at the vocabulary of Orthodoxy in other languages than Greek, more surprises will become apparent. Whereas both the Metropolitan and anyone else could simply avoid this vocabulary in their sermons, the terminology of prosopon and the construal of a person-centred theological anthropology—rooted in the wisdom of the saints of old—proves to be what Orthodoxy needs today to communicate its message to our contemporaries. Both the terminology of the person and its theological articulations are an effective missionary and pastoral tool. The numerous conversions to Orthodoxy in lands where the Orthodox are in minority, particularly among Western intellectuals, should be largely credited to the efforts of the Orthodox theologians who have walked with—and like—the Fathers, inspiredly presenting to the world our tradition’s call to the human person to embrace a noble life of wholeness and holiness. We should not fear the words and ideas of our time, the way the Fathers of old have not feared the words and ideas of their times. Instead, we should work on these ideas and words to transform them into means for the conveyance of the ecclesial wisdom to the world.

Looking again at the Metropolitan’s statements, together with the conviction that his Trinitarian God is an ideological construct that is threatened (literally, destroyed) by a certain theological discourse, the reader may discern there the echo of a tenet he proposed elsewhere—namely, that if there was a Byzantine theology of the person it would have derived from a Christological, not Trinitarian foundation. For him, a personology rooted in Trinitarian theology is inconceivable. Two points on this. First, it is true that Byzantine personology was refined by St Cyril of Alexandria through the latter’s remaking of the Cappadocian notion of hypostasis, a process which continued with the contributions of the so-called neo-Chalcedonians, particularly St Maximus the Confessor and St John Damascene. That said, at least Letter 38 in the corpus of St Basil the Great outlined the theology of the person within a clear Trinitarian context. Second, the distinction between Christological and Trinitarian doctrines is a modern construct of foreign origin that, largely, illustrates the heterodox representation of Christ as not quite “one of the Holy Trinity.” Within the ecclesial tradition, any Christological theology is Trinitarian and any Trinitarian theology is Christological. There is no Orthodox reflection on personhood that is deprived of either Trinitarian or Christological connotations. The opposition of the Metropolitan to contemporary person-centred theology has no traditional ground and seems to depend on foreign ways of thinking.

But the problems related to the Metropolitan’s anti-personalist assertions are even more serious than that. Borrowing from the Western reinterpretation of tradition by Jean-Claude Larchet, the Metropolitan presents a simplified version of the views of the latter’s substantialism or naturalism and rejects the Orthodox person-centred discourse on a Trinitarian and an anthropological level. If I read correctly his statements—particularly his appraisal of the person as no more than an individual specimen of a nature—together with Larchet he would consider the person an attribute or phenomenon of nature, whether divine or human. This is typical for a pre-Christian understanding of the person as individual subordinated to nature’s determinism, an understanding which in modern secular culture has taken the form of naturalism. For instance, in the name of nature or one’s genetic makeup currently many vices, sins and crimes tend to be easily justified given the general perception that one cannot fight his or her nature. In Trinitarian terms, the reduction of the person to nature was condemned by the ancient Church as Sabellianism, a heresy according to which the divine persons were manifestations of God’s substance. A Christological assessment conduces to identical outcomes. When looked at from the viewpoint of Christology, the substantialist position corresponds to monophysitism. By monophysitism the Byzantines understood the representation of Christ only in terms of nature (physis monon) and the rejection of the richer vocabulary of the Cappadocian Fathers, St Cyril of Alexandria and others, which approached the mystery of Christ in various ways and by using terms which are foundational for the Orthodox theology of the person. I would say that the current opponents to Orthodox personalism in the name of ancient substantialism are by all intents and purposes monophysites, without the term having a bearing on non-Chalcedonian Christology.

Granted, in its subtler versions, as posited by Larchet and other scholars, this reductionist naturalism takes the form of an opposition to what the proponents see as the separation of person from nature in the discourse of many Orthodox personalists, from Vladimir Lossky to Panayiotis Nellas and from Father Dumitru Stăniloae to Christos Yannaras and Metropolitan John Zizioulas. I am not convinced that any of the above Orthodox thinkers have in fact contemplated a separation. Their views can be summarised in the tenet that for Christian anthropology, with its Trinitarian and Christological foundations, human mystery cannot be reduced to the determinism which characterises our nature and that all our existential decisions—virtuous or sinful, dispassionate or vicious, theocentric or autonomous—are made on the level of personhood. This tenet is the actual point contested by Metropolitan Vlachos. According to him, the notions of “human person,” “nature’s necessity” and “will and freedom of the person” contradict Orthodox theology which, in his views, would assert nature’s goodness and the fact that human nature does not know necessity; furthermore, that (free) will is nature’s desire, not an aptitude of the person. This is the context within which the Metropolitan outrageously affirms that “the link between will and person destroys the Trinitarian God by introducing tritheism.” These are very serious assertions which would require a more detailed analysis than the points outlined below. Nevertheless, given the pressures of these days even the following brief observations could be of some use.

Before any further comment, I have to emphasise that the statements of Metropolitan Vlachos should not come as a surprise to anyone still attached to what many illustrious Orthodox theologians of last century have referred to as the Babylonian captivity of Orthodox theology to foreign, Western medieval ways of thinking. A diligent reader will find a striking overlap between the Metropolitan’s statements and that alienated form of thinking—indeed a scholasticising pseudomorphosis of Orthodox theology—for which human mystery was reducible to a simplistic psychosomatic schema and which replaced the doctrine of supernatural deification by the view that holiness is attainable within the boundaries of nature. The same is true for the origin of this entire debate, which can be drawn back to the attack of Savvas Agouridis on modern Orthodox personalism, launched in 1990, from a thoroughly nontraditional angle, deprived of liturgical, philokalic and patristic sensitivity. But let me address several punctual matters which the Metropolitan seems to be unaware of, albeit his commitment to tradition.

He opposes what he calls the separation of person and nature. I reiterate my suspicion that modern Orthodox personalism does not entail a literal separation. Distinction is not separation. I propose that what modern personalists posit is a distinction between person and nature as different orders pertaining to the human mystery, not their separation. This distinction has taken various forms in the past, from the classical soul and body construct to St Gregory of Nyssa’s refusal to reduce what-is-in-the-image-of-God-within-us to our psychosomatic nature etc. This distinction indeed entails person’s inbuilt capacity to transcend its nature—specifically the fallen nature which we all inherit through birth—and so escape genetic conditioning. This capacity makes possible one’s embracing sinful life. How would one account for sin if sin is determined by one’s nature? The same capacity makes possible also asceticism and the ascetic transformation of one’s being. This is how an Egyptian young woman, Mary, has chosen debauchery at first and then has become, through determination and ascesis, St Mary the Egyptian. Nature does not make sinners and saints. This is, furthermore, how from St Silouan’s “sinful dust” one becomes “without beginning and without end”—as St Maximus the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas affirmed—through uncreated participation in the divine life, without the created being transformed into uncreated. It is not the dust of the earth that is deified. What is deified is what-is-in-the-image-of-God-within-us. And this is how “the Word of God [who] is whole, complete essence [i.e. nature], for He is God, and whole, undiminished hypostasis [i.e. person], for He is Son, ... became the seed of His own flesh, and ... the hypostasis of two natures” (trans. Nicholas Constas, slightly altered) as St Maximus articulated the mystery of the hypostatic/personal event of the incarnation. Whereas the distinction between person and nature facilitates our perception of the incarnation, ascesis and deification, the monophysite denial of their distinction (by overemphasising person’s dependence on nature) makes these impossible to articulate in an Orthodox manner.

Metropolitan Vlachos is of the opinion, which derives from his naturalism or monophysitism (as defined above), that will belongs to nature and that there is no will of the person. Ecclesial tradition stands in firm and consistent opposition to his views. St Paul spoke to the Romans about the conflict of the “law of the mind” and the “law of the body.” Yes, he did not use the words person and nature, but one cannot expect that from a first century Christian anyhow. Nevertheless, is not his a distinction between personal freedom and natural determinism? In the Byzantine era, St Maximus and St John Damascene spoke of two different kinds of will within the human being: one physical and one gnomic (St Maximus) or physical instinct, θέλησις, and personal will, βουλή (St John). In his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St John went as far as to point out that the natural will or instinct does not deserve the designation of will because it is conditioned and not free. Putting aside any irreverent thought about how things occur within the Trinitarian God, it results that what makes possible good behaviour/transformation and misbehaviour/deformation on a human level is not the natural will/energy; it is the personal will/energy. No one is either virtuous or sinful by nature. The distinction between natural will and personal will entails a distinction between nature and person, albeit the saints of old may not have felt the need to emphasise it in those days.

Metropolitan Vlachos, finally, attempts to bring theodicy to bear on his crusade against modern Orthodox personology by asserting that “the link between nature and necessity blames God for the creation of man” and that nature is good. Necessity, as a trait of nature, is neither good nor evil. Necessity, however worded, is part and parcel of nature on all the levels of the visible creation—human, biological and cosmic. Cosmically, necessity manifests itself in the purposeful dynamism of the universe which moves towards higher states of complex unity. Biologically, necessity pushes all life forms to survive and multiply. On a human level, given our biological side, necessity is obvious in the instincts of survival and reproduction. Necessity is not evil even though necessity has nothing free about it, as St John Damascene stated. Not even our fallen condition from the paradisal goodness (an aspect ignored in the statements of the Metropolitan) causes natural necessity to be evil. We are not evil because we have to eat. And we do not eat because we want; it is because we must. This natural conditioning made St Antony deplore the moments when he had to submit to the necessities of nature—at least according to the narrative of his life by St Athanasius the Great. Thus, it is not up to our nature or natural will or instinct to postpone eating for instance; by nature, we have to eat when we are hungry. There is something else within us, however, another level of the human reality—call it person, mind, spirit, soul or anything else—which is irreducible to nature, its necessity, its conditioning and instincts. At that other level can a decision be made to eat more than needed or to fast, to eat when we are hungry or to delay surrendering to necessity. At that other level the potential of nature, its very instincts and energies, can be well-used or misused—and that is the real problem. Thus, it is neither the association of will with person nor the association of nature with necessity which are blameful. It is the sinful misuse of our potential that is blameful. A true theodicy, the way we see in the Fathers of old, points to sin as blameful, not to any representation of human reality in terms of person, will and nature—or any other terms.

Therefore, when taking position either pro or contra the terminology of personhood and the person-centred character of Orthodox theology, there are many more aspects which should be considered than just to maintain faithfulness to some phraseology. Talking theology and conveying the message of the ecclesial tradition—these are not a matter of finding better words. Orthodoxy is not logomachy. And whilst the debate around the implications of modern Orthodox person-centred theology is quite welcome when there is nothing pressing upon our shoulders, the anti-personalist crusade of Metropolitan Vlachos is as out of place these days, when the Orthodox endeavour to walk together towards the Holy and Great Council, as all the other attempts to sabotage this goal—attempts which cannot avoid being likened to a “game of thrones” and suspected as betraying “human, all too human” passions. These attempts to sabotage the Council remind me of a saying of a contemporary Romanian elder, Father Arsenie Papacioc, of blessed memory. During a talk on the spiritual warfare, he conveyed that at times the strategy of the enemy takes the form of an encouragement to wait, wait, wait, postpone, delay, leave it for some other time… Let the Churches meet! Let their hierarchs meet, so that they put a beginning to further and richer conversations—rather than not meet and postpone everything forever because of words or games of thrones or human, all too human passions. Then will the Churches rejoice, when looking down from the tops of the mountains, at the havoc of the world.