Orthodoxy & Augustine

I have just finished reading a collection of essays, based on a conference held at Fordham University in 2007, entitled Orthodox Readings of Augustine.  It is an interesting group of essays, and a friend of mine who is a Byzantine Catholic priest informs me that the conference was organized by a student of Kallistos Ware, the English Orthodox bishop, to try and make Augustine safe for Orthodoxy, or at least dispel some of the bad press he has gotten in the past century or so.  You can check the contents of the volume here.

A few general remarks about the essays as a whole before look at some of them individually are in order.  It is really only recently in my life that I have begun to have an interest the Eastern Christian traditions, and so things like the whole filioque controversy are just now beginning to make sense to me.  Maybe it is just my Western way of thinking, but it always seemed like something blown out of proportion, and a proxy for other issues.  I still believe it is not the real issue dividing East and West, but I understand better now its importance.  I say this because if one doesn’t come Orthodox Readings of Augustine with such an understanding, you might not get as much out of it.  The first essay does explain quite well how Augustine came to be viewed such disdain by modern Orthodox scholars, but others issues are assumed as common knowledge which probably would not be, outside of the circle of academic theologians familiar with them.   Another item worth remarking on is the relative irenicism of the authors in regards to those controversies, which is perhaps to be expected since it was held at a Catholic university, but I kind of felt a bit cheated, in that I expected to hear more criticism of Augustine from Orthodox scholars than I did.  In fact, the most contentious disagreements arose not between Catholic and Orthodox scholars, but between two Orthodox scholars, which I will detail in a moment. 

The opening essay by Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos outlines the reception of Augustine’s work, such as it was, from the early Byzantine period up through the 20th century, and outlines the reasons why he became the focal point of Orthodox criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially among Russian theologians.  Two essays, by Elizabeth Fisher and Rheinhard Flogaus, dealt with the translation of Augustine’s De Trinitate in the 13th century, and the use of it by Gregory Palamas in the 14th, respectively.  Joseph Lienhard S.J., wrote an essay on the extent of Augustine’s knowledge of the “Cappadocian” Fathers of the East, while Brian Daley S.J., wrote on his theology of sin and grace compared to that of Maximus the Confessor. 

The next five essays in the volume all deal with Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity in one way or another:  Lewis Ayres, recently tabbed to run the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University in England, wrote an essay in which he challenged the assertion of John Zizioulas that Augustine identified the One God with divine essence, rather than the trinitarian hypostases, while John Behre argued that his trinitarian theology was unknown in the Eastern theology of his time.  Jean Luc-Marion disputes the notion that Augustine was not an apophatic theologian, against the interpretation of John Romanides and Christos Yannaras, who claimed Augustine had initiated a rationalistic understanding of God which had corrupted Western theology at the source.  David Bentley Hart argued that there is less difference between Augustine and the Eastern fathers than has been presumed, while David Bradshaw argued that Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonist thought marked a profound break with the way Eastern theologians had conceived of God.  The last three essays in the book take a different tack, with Carol Harrison taking a look at what constituted “orthodoxy” for Augustine, and David Tracy and Andrew Louth examining some of his lesser known works to demonstrate the “Christocentrism” of his thought (Tracy), and the skillfulness with which he interpreted the Scriptures in his homilies to his congregation (Louth). 

I would have to say the most illuminating essays were the ones which put Augustine in conversation with the Greek Fathers, especially Fr. Lienhard’s, but it was the exchange between David Hart and David Bradshaw that was most revealing.  I have read some articles by David Bentley Hart in First Things, as well as his wonderful book The Beauty of  the Infinite, and I know that he was a convert from Anglicanism who has a deeper understanding of Western theology than perhaps some Orthodox theologians do.   I say this because he vehemently attacked Bradshaw for misrepresenting Augustine as rejecting “apophaticism”:  Bradshaw believes that Augustine was too rationalistic and not mystical enough in his theology.  Following Vladimir Lossky, he believes that Augustine’s assertions of the limitations of the human mind do not amount to a true “apophatic” theology:  that is, Augustine still believes that one will have an “intellectualist” vision of God in his essence (something like the “Beatific Vision” of Aquinas).  He contrasts this with what he takes to be the position of the Eastern Fathers, which is that the human mind can only have access to the Divine energies, not the Divine essence.   Bradshaw’s paper was particularly illuminating, as I had never heard the charge that Augustine had rejected “apophaticism” before, and he gives a straightforward explanation of what it was.  I agreed with Hart on the merits of the case, however, in that Bradshaw seemed to me to read the essence/energies distinction anachronistically back into the 4th century, didn’t cite that many texts from Augustine, and the only thing he really proved to me is that Augustine was not terribly consisent in referring to how we can know God.  (That, and the only other authority he cited beside Lossky’s works were his own works, which made me kind of suspicious).  But I have to say, I though Hart criticized Bradshaw a bit too harshly, as if he were somehow willfully misrepresenting Augustine, which I don’t think he intended to do; I would rather say he misinterpreted him, or read too much into the fact that Augustine failed to produce the proper Palamite distinctions.  Still, they were both very stimulating in that regard, and I do think that Bradshaw may be right in thinking that there were real differences involved between Augustine and the Eastern Fathers, even if he overrates them.  Part of my problem is that I’ve not read De Trinitate, so I can’t speak to the particulars of that work; my impression is that Augustine, when he talks of having an “intellectual vision” of God in his essence, means one can only comprehend his essence as far as finite creatures can comprehend an infinite God, which is to say, not terribly much; there is always something of God that escapes our vision, even when in the afterlife we will see him “as he is.”   This doesn’t seem satifactory to Bradshaw, I think, because it makes God seem too accessible, and he thinks the essence/energies distinction safeguards this, whereas Augustine’s less conceptually refined terminology seems to invite abuse.  Perhaps this is so, but I still don’t think that makes Augustine wrong, just less perfect, and I don’t think that is any reason for division between the East and West.  But in any case, it was good to hear that particular Orthodox position so clearly stated.

The other essays on Augustine’s other works I found interesting were the ones on his lesser known works, especially Louth’s.  I have read the section in Peter Brown’s updated biography of Augustine, and the sermons of his discovered in the last 30yrs or so make clear that the late anti-Pelagian works are not typical of his thinking on topics like predestination.   People engaged in a polemic often overstate their case in order to bludgeon their opponents, and that always seemed like the case to me with Augustine at the end of his life.  His views on predestination don’t appear to be  a big sticking point anymore in Catholic-Orthodox relations, but it is good to know that it is no longer an issue.  The best thing I can say about the volume as a whole is that it makes me want to read Augustine again, and to read some of the Greek Fathers, so I can get a better handle on all this. 

In any case, his essay and the others gave me a great deal to think about, for which I am grateful, and I would heartily recommend the book to someone who wants to think more deeply about these issues.

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~ by Alypius on July 10, 2009.

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