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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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3. Monastic theology


The adjective "monastic" is used here for lack of a better term. It is true Byzantine theology of the period is often associated with "Hesychasm" - a movement traced back to the writings of Nicephorus the Hesychast, and other spiritual authors of the late thirteenth century, who promoted a psychosomatic method of using the "Jesus prayer". However, the theological trend, represented in the fourteenth century by Palamism, was not coextensive, or identical with individual ascetic mysticism, evoked by the term "hesychasm"(26). Palamas himself, when he refers to recent "authorities" for his own theological formulations, mentions particularly Theoleptus of Philadelphia and Patriarch Athanasius I(27), whereas his main disciple, Philotheos Kokkinos refers to Gregory of Cyprus(28). The antecedents of the theological revival of the fourteenth century are therefore not exclusively "monastic". Nevertheless, in the Palaeologan period the Byzantine Church gradually became dominated by monastic clergy. This domination was really completed in 1347 with the victory of the civil war by John Cantacuzenos, but the process had begun already with the patriarchate of Athanasius I (1289-1293, 1303-1310). This "monastic" trend was contemporary with a theological revival which was not directly connected with union negotiations or anti-Latin polemics, but emerged within the Byzantine church itself, reflecting its intellectual and spiritual concerns, and the social issues of the day. Its orientation consisted in placing strong emphasis on spirituality and sacramentalism, as evidenced in works -largely unpublished still- of the metropolitan of Philadelphia, Theoleptus (ca.1250 - ca.1324)(29), or the dynamic, and sometimes fanatical social activism of Patriarch Athanasius(30). In the late thirteenth century however, the major theological issue which confronted everyone of these authors was connected with church order and ecclesiology: the lingering "Arsenite schism", whose leadership was also predominantly monastic, often invoked the "spiritual" authority of "holy" individuals to the sacramental and canonical responsibility of bishops. Men like Theoleptus and Athanasius, who did not always agree with each other on methods and persons, were nevertheless concerned with reforming the episcopate and the monasteries simultaneously, and both saw many bishops and many monks as unworthy of their calling, or misunderstanding their roles and responsibilities within the Church. It is interesting to note that most of the Byzantine writing of the period is connected with "ecclesiology", but it is not so much preoccupied with the issue of papal primacy, as with the internal issues of the Eastern Church itself(31). This spiritual, but at the same time social and reformist orientation of the theologians, whom I call "monastic", stands in some contrast with the writers of intellectuals like Nicephorus Blemmydes. This contrast anticipates the confrontation, which will begin more distinctly in the fourteenth century, between lovers of secular "Hellenic" learning and the Palamites.  

In spite of the vast difference in intellectual make-up and methodological approaches to theology between the professional "scholastics" of the West and the old-fashioned sophisticated scholars of Byzantium, the massive Latin ecclesiastical presence in the East, from Palestine to Greece and to the Italian commercial centers on the Northern shores of the Black Sea, made the thirteenth century a time for inevitable encounters. In Latin occupied areas, the animosity between the two communities did not prevent friendlier meetings on the level of popular piety: the local population could use a Greek translation of the Roman mass(32), whereas some Latins liked Byzantine icons and commissioned some(33). One can be sure that if, instead of formal, officially-sponsored debates of theologians on the Filioque issue, more spontaneous and direct encounters were possible between early Franciscans and Byzantine hesychasts, the dialogue would have followed somewhat different directions. But we do not know anything about such encounters and the historical and cultural conditions of the day did not favor them. The professional Latin theologians were commandeered to refute the Greek positions on the basis of the achievements of the new Scholastic synthesis: St.Thomas Aquinas himself was asked to prepare an anti-Greek dossier for the council of Lyons(34). All three major religious orders -Dominicans, Franciscans and Cistercians- established centers in conquered Romania(35). The Dominican house in Pera established under the Latin Empire across the Golden Horn from Constantinople, remained active even after 1261, and served as a major point of contact between Byzantine intellectuals and the Latin Church.  

Were there concrete results? Yes, in terms of the wholesale adoption by some Greeks of the Latin Thomistic world view. There was no real "move" on the Latin side towards discovering that Christian unity might consist in anything else than the simple "conversion" of the Greeks (reductio Gτaecorum). The Orthodox side, however -from Blemmydes, to Gregory of Cyprus and to Palamas- was gradually transcending a purely defensive stand, by discovering that the real problem of the Filioque lies not in the formula itself, but in the definition of God as actus purus as finalized in the De ente et essentia of Thomas Aquinas, vis-à-vis the more personalistic trinitarian vision inherited by the Byzantines from the Cappadocian Fathers(36).