Ex Occidente Lux: The Byzantine Reception of St Aquinas
Aquinas arrived on the Byzantine literary scene on 24th December, 1354, when Kydones completed his translation of Summa contra gentiles. The “Dumb Ox” – often labelled as one of the greatest western theologians – enjoyed a certain vogue in the last years of the Eastern Roman empire. His popularity was for the most part, however, confined to the anti-Palamites and unionists i.e. thinkers who saw something stale in the old Roman ideology and a titillating frisson of lucidity and reason in Aquinas.
Since their deaths Palamas and Aquinas have been raised above history proper and erected into theological cheerleaders for their respective sides. The former derided by Latins as a paragon of the East’s mystical incoherence, the latter poo-pooed as an agent of legalistic rationalism. Jugie and Gerhard are the loudest trombones (best exponents) for the Latin position, meanwhile Bulgakov and Lossky play first trumpets for the Orthodox (with transubstantiation, papal primacy and the filioque playing second fiddle in enunciating the ills of Latin theology).
In short, the argument claims bifurcation ruined the whole. The East gave up on God’s primary gift, reason, and retreated into mystical mumbo-jumbo. The Latins ran so far down the garden-path of rationalisation that they managed to desacralize theology (leading directly to the secular mess of the status quo). In consequence there can be no theosis, the primary point of the Gospel.
To the Orthodox, Aquinas’ main fault is to play Scholasticism’s champion, which greats such as Yannaras perceive as corrupting the relationship between Creator and created. The indefinable Lord becomes an object subject to the intellect and treated as a syllogistically defined entity knowable in his essence. He continues
“Man in [this tradition] does not participate personally in the truth of the cosmos. He does not seek to bring out the meaning, the logos of things, the disclosure of the personal activity of God in the cosmos, but seeks with his individualistic intellect to dominate the reality of the physical world. This stance forms the foundation of the entire phenomenon of modern technology.”
Indeed, Yannaras opposes the ecumenical movement mainly on the basis that
“If we continue to theologise dialectically with the West, we shall perhaps come in a short time to represent no more than an interesting, exotic aspect of the Western worldview, a narrow doctrine that belongs to the ‘archaeology of ideas.’ This is where the ecumenical dialogue leads us… Orthodox views ring out in poetical notes, deeply moving but completely utopian, having no reality within our own Churches today.”
These narratives, while true for the modern Orthodox, nevertheless underplay the fundamental congruity – the Romanitas – of Latin and Byzantine thought in the late Byzantine period. While there was undoubtedly estrangement (which arguably evolved into outright division by the fourth crusade) many unionists studied Aquinas’ theology so deeply (while correcting his Greek citations) as to cross the Tiber and enter into communion with the Elder Rome (a compliment rarely repaid by Latins). Conversions such as these hold little water with the Orthodox, however, who see naked politics (saving Constantinople) lurking behind such gauche (temporal) weltanschauungen.
His brother Prochoros, who was theologically sincerer in his objections, died excommunicated after assembling a Thomist refutation that rejected the Athonite’s musings on the grounds of divine simplicity, the inadmissibility of potentiality in the deity, and the impossibility of direct participation in uncreated grace – though the manuscript was paid the backhanded compliment of being rebuffed by a figure no less than John VI.
Indeed, readers are in danger of reading hostility backwards. Palamites did not divide the world into Byzantine theologians and Latin scum. There were the universal truths of the [Roman] Church Fathers and those in error. Palamas, for instance, himself could draw on Planoudes’ translation of Augustine at will as well as defend the use of syllogisms against Barlaam. While Palamites such as Neilos Kabasilas could draw on Thomas’ more apophatic remarks to justify their scepticism about the outsized role reason had been given in the discourse.
In short, though no sincere form of Byzantine Thomism developed (at most the majority deployed Aquinas cynically i.e. as an out-of-context authority to buttress their arguments) it would be anachronistic to claim that the theological cleavage between East and West can be backdated to Palamas and Aquinas in a historical sense. While an emphasis on the two different theological characters of East and West is not without merit (hence the potency of Yannaras) Aquinas did not feel incompatible with Eastern theology to the majority of Byzantine contemporaries. Perhaps no figure can better illustrate this better than Scholarios – the first patriarch of Constantinople under Ottoman rule – who was Thomist to the bone.
The bigger question, however, is whether Aquinas’ Byzantine contemporaries or later Orthodox theologians are correct. I lean towards the latter. After all, it’s striking that so much praise of Aquinas is simply cognitive dissonance. Scholarios, for instance, had to overlook the filioque, papal primacy and the essence-energies distinction in order to describe himself as the Italian’s “devoted disciple.”
What is half-discerned – because still young, budding, nascent – is the auto-alienation of the Eastern Romans: the fact that the Hellenes for reasons both political (the fate of Constantinople) and/or spiritual (believing their rump-state was a sign that God wanted theological change) might end up celebrating scholasticism is an odd denouement. Ultimately Yannaras is correct that Aquinas is not compatible with Orthodoxy in any but a facile sense. Not because he is not a great thinker but because he was born in a West that
“Had transformed the Gospel into a rationalistic structure, an apodictic methodology, able to convince the individual intellect (modus argumentativus) with its sacred science (sacra scientia) which neglected experience and empirical evidence.”