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John Meyendorff 

Theology in the Thirteenth Century: Methodological Contrasts* 

From: The 17th lnternational Byzantine Congress: Μajor Papers, ed. A.D. Caratzas, New Rochelle, Ν.Y. 1986. Reprinted by permission.  


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1. The West: Universities and Religious Orders 

A brief of Pope Innocent III, published around 1211, gave a new legal and canonical status to the Studium parisiense, a corporation of teachers and students, who were dispersing and receiving learning under the auspices of either the cathedral, or the monastery of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. The brief stipulated that a "proctor" of the new University would represent it at the papal court. In 1215, a papal legate, Robert de Courson, sanctioned the University's statutes. Although the King Philip-Augustus also recognized the new institution, it is the papal decree which gave it a universal significance. However, the "universality" of the Latin world of the thirteenth century was a relative concept. In any case, its world-view was defined without any reference to the tradition of the East. It was dominated by the concern of the Latin Church for the integrity of its tradition, which was challenged not by Greeks, but by a flow of truly revolutionary ideas, resulting from the translation of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin, and the infusion -together with that translation- of Arab philosophy, which itself was rooted in Neo-Platonism. Τo use a phrase of Etienne Gilson: "The studium parisiense was established as a spiritual and moral force, whose deepest significance is neither Parisian, nor French, but Christian and ecclesiastical. It became an element of the Universal Church, in exactly the same way as the Priesthood and the Empire"(2). 

The tremendous expansion of knowledge and methodology, contained in the newly available texts and ideas, was not confronted, in Latin Christendom, with old patterns and forms, inherited from Late Antiquity, but through the creation of new tools and new institutions, generating new forms of thought and intellectual creativity, which were, however, to be directed and controlled by the magisterium of the Church. This new and creative initiative, which will have such a fundamental importance for the development of modern Europe placed the Studium on the same level with the Sacerdotium and the Imperium. According to the Franciscan chronicler Jordan of Giano the three institutions were like the foundation, the walls and the roof of a single building -the Catholic Church- which without their cooperation could not achieve proper structure and growth(3).

Although the two English Universities, created a few decades later at Oxford and Cambridge, were less tightly attached to the Roman magisterium, they reflected the same basic trend towards structure and professionalism. The consequences for the very nature of theology were radical: it became a science -the highest of all, of course- to which the other disciplines, including philosophy and the natural sciences, were to be subservient. It was taught by licensed professionals at a special Faculty, the Faculty of Theology, whose teaching was supervised on a regular basis, by the magisterium of the Church. This supervision was direct and concrete. In 1215, the papal legate, Robert de Courson, forbade the teaching of physics and metaphysics in Paris. In 1228, Pope Gregory IX reminded the Faculty that theology should direct other sciences, as the spirit directs the flesh, and, in 1231, he called the masters of theology "not to try to appear as philosophers"(4). 

Nevertheless, even if these papal reminders made plain the requirement for the Studium to act in accordance with the Sacerdotium, the main results of the work of the Universities was a new creative synthesis, known as Scholasticism, as best exemplified in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas -a synthesis between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy, clearly distinct from both the platonic legacy of St. Augustine, or the Greek legacy of Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century, which were accepted as major criterion of orthodoxy in the East. 

Another decisive factor which enhanced professionalism in theology was the rise of religious orders -an institution also unknown in the East- and whose role in education and development of theological schools would be extraordinary. In 1216, Pope Honorius III formally sanctioned the existence of the Order of the Preachers, or "Dominicans", which made the study of theology so much of an obligation for its members, that seven of them went to Paris that same year. Half a century later, the theology of one great Dominican, Thomas, would dominate the Latin world. The order of St. Francis also became, under its "second founder" St. Bonaventure (1257- 74), a major promoter of theological study. Even the Cistercians followed the general mood, establishing houses of study in Paris and Oxford, where both Dominican and Franciscan priories had obtained almost a monopoly in teaching theology.  

Such scholastic professionalism -clerical monopoly of Latin learning- was quite foreign to the Byzantines. In the East, not only clerics and monks, but also laymen -including emperors and civil officials- could be involved in theology and publish theological treatises. There were no organized theological schools. Theology was seen as a highest form of knowledge, but not a "science" among others to be learned at school. The patriarchal school of Constantinople never developed into a hotbed of new theological ideas. It trained primarily ecclesiastical administrators and canonists(5). In the twelfth century, very sophisticated debates had taken place in the Byzantine capital, involving Eustratius of Nicea (1117), Soterichus Panteugenos (1155- 6), Constantine of Corfu and John Eirenikos (1167-70), but these were aftermaths of old christological controversies, involving dialogues with Armenians(6) -nothing really related to the problems of the day. The gigantic intellectual development, happening in the West, was apparently passing Byzantium by. As late as 1347, after all the events of the thirteenth century, the Byzantine aristocrat Demetrius Kydones is surprised when he discovers that Latins "show great thirst for walking in those labyrinths of Aristotle and Plato, for which our people never showed interest"(7).  

If one considers the autobiographies of two prominent Greek theologians of the thirteenth century, Nicephorus Blemmydes and Gregory of Cyprus, who were directly involved in contacts with the Latins, one discovers that neither of them received a structured, theological training, comparable to what the rise of Scholasticism was making available to their Latin counterparts. Both were quite learned men, but their education was acquired by methods identical to those used since Late Antiquity, in various places and under individual masters. Theology, as a formal discipline is not even mentioned in the curriculum covered by Blemmydes under a certain Monasteriotes in Brusa, under several unnamed teachers in Nicea, under Demetrios Karykes (who was invested with the formerly prestigious title of ύπατoς των φιλoσόφων) in Smyrna, under his own father (with whom he studied medicine), and under a certain Prodromos in a small city on the river Skamandron. He was tested in rhetorical skills at the court of Emperor John Vatatzes in Nymphaeum, before entering a monastery, where finally, on his own, he consecrated himself to the study of Scripture and patristic writings(8). Gregory of Cyprus, eventually a patriarch of Constantinople, does not mention theological training at all in his Autobiography(9), but points to some elementary education at a Latin school under the Latin archbishop of Nicosia, followed by wanderings in search of knowledge, which he finally acquired primarily under the humanist George Acropolites in Constantinople (1267-74).  

The best of the Byzantine theologians of the period did not lack sophistication and basic information about Greek philosophy and patristic theological tradition. However, in meeting their Latin counterparts, who were graduates of Western Universities, they encountered not only professionalism and argumentative skills unprecedented in Christendom, but also a sense of academic and cultural self-sufficiency, which often bewildered them making them even more defensive in their attitude towards Latin Christendom.  

Νo real attempt was made, until the second half of the fourteenth century, by any Greek theologian to get acquainted with the real substance of Latin theology and Latin intellectual methods. The Greek translation of Augustine's De Trinitate by Maximus Planudes (d. 1310) remained the work of an isolated humanist, whose work was hardly ever used by Byzantine theologians(10).