The Source of Byzantine Theology

It is not at all easy to distinguish the borders between
periods in the fluid and unbroken element of human life.
Moreover, the incommensurability of successive historical
cycles is quite manifestly revealed. New life themes come
to light, new forces start to make themselves felt, new
spiritual centers form. Someone’s very first
impression is that the late fourth century signifies some
indisputable boundary in the history of the Church, in the
history of Christian culture. Someone may conditionally
define this boundary as the beginning of Byzantinism. The
Nicene era closes the previous epoch, and a new epoch
begins in any case: if not with Constantine
(d. 337), then with Theodosius (emperor 379-395). It
attains its zenith, its acme under Justinian (emperor
527-563). The failure of Julian the Apostate (332-363,
emperor from 361 to 363) testifies to the decline of pagan
Hellenism, but only its decline, not its eradication.

The epoch of Christian Hellenism has begun; it is a time
when people try to construct Christian culture as a
system. And this is a time of painful and intense
spiritual struggle. In the disputes and disquiet of
earlier Byzantinism, it is not difficult to identify a
common fundamental characteristic theme. This is the
Christological theme, which is at the same time the theme
of a man. Someone can say that what was really being
discussed in these Christological disputes was the
anthropological problem, for it was a dispute over the
Saviour’s humanity and receives human nature over
the sense of how the Only-Begotten Son and the Logos [or
Word] and thus over the sense and limit of human life and
activity. It is perhaps precisely for this reason that
Christological disputes attained such an exceptional
poignancy and dragged on for three centuries. In them,
there were revealed and laid bare, a whole multitude of
irreconcilable and mutually exclusive religious ideals.
These disputes ended with a great cultural and historical
catastrophe—the great defection of the East. Almost
all of the non-Greek East broke away, dropped out of the
Church, and retired into heresy. If one accepts the late
fourth century as a boundary, as the end of one epoch and
the beginning of Byzantine theology proper, then more is
involved, for Byzantine theology not only cannot be
properly understood without understanding the theological
controversies of the fourth century, without understanding
the legacy of the fourth century. There is more. The
legacy, which Byzantine theology was to inherit, cannot be
understood properly without an understanding of the entire
legacy, which it inherited. And there is a special
concern, for Byzantine theology—indeed Byzantium
itself—has been understood but little in the West.

For several reasons, Western Christianity somehow keeps
pace even if inadequately with some of the Greek or
“Byzantine” fathers of the fourth
century—in a strictly historical sense Byzantine
theology begins in 330, in that year when the city of
Byzantium was inaugurated, was christened Constantinople,
“New Rome.” Those theologians writing in Greek
after the year 330 can indeed be considered
“Byzantine” theologians. However, as the
decades and centuries flow onward the Latin West appears
incapable of keeping abreast with the vital work of
Byzantine theologians. True is there is usually a small
circle of persons in Rome who have contact and some
knowledge of Byzantine or Eastern theology but this circle
is limited and their knowledge fragmented. It was a sore
tragedy for the history of Christianity, for the life of
the united Church, that this drift took place. There were
certainly political and cultural reasons for the drift,
and, often, the blame can be placed on Byzantium.
Nevertheless, in the realm of the Church, in the realm of
theological thought, in the realm of vital issues,
concerning the essence of the faith such a drift should
never have occurred. In modern terms, someone could say
that Byzantium and Byzantine theology has had—and
largely still has—a “bad press” among
Western Christians. Moreover, included in this “bad
press” is not only an atmosphere of contempt for the
Byzantine East but also a grave ignorance and lack of
understanding. Byzantine theology was engaged in a
struggle for the preservation of the truth—it was
engaged in vital theological issues just as St.
Athanasius and as the Cappadocian fathers in the
fourth century were. Western Christians kept abreast with
the thought of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians, but it
must be regrettably acknowledged that even that knowledge
is not complete, that somehow ineluctably a curtain
partially closes and prevents Western Christians from
dealing with and understanding the totality of the thought
of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians.

It is not only a brief survey of the salient elements of
fourth century Eastern theology necessary for a proper
understanding of Byzantine theology but also necessary an
overview of certain patterns of thought in the earlier
Patristic era. And it is almost scandalous that even a
brief overview of Christological thought in the New
Testament is a prerequisite for an understanding of
Byzantine theology precisely to demonstrate that Byzantine
theology is organically related to the original deposit of
the truth of the faith, that Byzantine theology is, as it
was, a Biblical theology and not a fabrication of
sophistry, that Byzantine theology was dealing with
burning issues of the Christian faith and of Christian
life. The beginning of Byzantinism is not the beginning of
a new Christianity. Rather, it is the legitimate heir of
the legacy of the New Testament, of early Christianity, of
the Apostolic Fathers, of the Fathers of Church.

The Christological and Trinitarian definitions of the
Council of Chalcedony,—moreover, of all the
definitions of the seven Ecumenical Councils—are not
the result of philosophical intrusions into the Biblical
vision of God but rather—and precisely—the
explication of what was originally revealed, of what was
originally deposited, of what was experienced by the
earliest Christians: that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of
the Living God, that Jesus was both true God and True Man,
the God-Man, that God is God the Father, God the Son, and
God the Holy Spirit.

The rationalism and, as it was, the arrogance of the
eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars of the New
Testament created more an exercise in exegesis than
exegesis of the New Testament. And it has made the
understanding of Byzantine theology even more distant to
Western Christians. If the Christ of the New Testament is
one and the same with the Christ of Byzantine theology in
its ultimate victory over heretical thought and if the
Christ of the New Testament has been misrepresented by
schools of New Testament thought in the eighteenth and
nineteenth century, some carrying over to the twentieth
century, then the possibility of misunderstanding
Byzantine theology is heightened, is increased. For this
reason, it is necessary to present textual material from
the New Testament precisely as a legacy inherited by
Byzantine theologians, a task that should not be necessary
and that would not have been necessary in most periods of
the history of Christianity. The twentieth century has
witnessed largely a reverse of this position—a
considerable body of twentieth century scholarship on the
New Testament has again discovered that the definitions of
the Ecumenical Councils correspond to that truth present
ab initio. There is no intention to present any
comprehensive study of the New Testament. Moreover, there
is no intention to present an exhaustive and comprehensive
analysis of the Christology of the New Testament. Only
some texts from various writers of the New Testament will
be presented. These texts consist of those, which are
explicit, and those, in which many do not discern the
Christological implications. It is merely a sampling,
merely an overview to set the basis of the background, the
core of the foundation, in which and from which Byzantine
theology worked. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that
the Byzantine theologians were always conscience of being
the heirs of the apostolic faith, heirs of the theology of
the New Testament and the theology first delivered. They
saw a continuous and cohesive link and bond between them
and the earliest theology of the Church, between them and
the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension
of Jesus Christ, the eternal Only-Begotten Son of the
Father. The very fact of the existence of the
Christological controversies in Byzantium testifies that
it was a vibrant and creative theological life rather than
an ossified one. It is true that they also saw themselves
as preservers of that faith once delivered, but in the
very process of preserving that original deposit, they are
of necessity creative.

From Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the
Fifth Century
.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *