Friday, October 13, 2006

St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers (part 1)

Following the Fathers...

"Following THE HOLY FATHERS"... It was usual in the Ancient Church to introduce doctrinal statements by phrases like this. The Decree of Chalcedon opens precisely with these very words. The Seventh Ecumenical Council introduces its decision concerning the Holy Icons in a more elaborate way: "Following the Divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church." The didaskalia of the Fathers is the formal and normative term of reference.

Now, this was much more than just an "appeal to antiquity." Indeed, the Church always stresses the permanence of her faith through the ages, from the very beginning. This identity, since the Apostolic times, is the most conspicuous sign and token of right faith — always the same. Yet, "antiquity" by itself is not an adequate proof of the true faith. Moreover, the Christian message was obviously a striking "novelty" for the "ancient world," and, indeed, a call to radical "renovation." The "Old" has passed away, and everything has been "made New." On the other hand, heresies could also appeal to the past and invoke the authority of certain "traditions." In fact, heresies were often lingering in the past. [1] Archaic formulas can often be dangerously misleading. Vincent of Lerins himself was fully aware of this danger. It would suffice to quote this pathetic passage of his: "And now, what an amazing reversal of the situation! the authors of the same opinion are adjudged to be catholics, but the followers — heretics; the masters are absolved, the disciples are condemned; the writers of the books will be children of the Kingdom, their followers will go to Gehenna" (Commonitorium, cap. 6). Vincent had in mind, of course, St. Cyprian and the Donatists. St. Cyprian himself faced the same situation. "Antiquity" as such may happen to be just an inveterate prejudice: nam antiquitas sine veritate vetustas erroris est (Epist. 74). It is to say — "old customs" as such do not guarantee the truth. "Truth" is not just a "habit."

The true tradition is only the tradition of truth, traditio veritatis. This tradition, according of St. Irenaeus, is grounded in, and secured by, that charisma veritatis certum [secure charisma of truth], which has been "deposited" in the Church from the very beginning and has been preserved by the uninterrupted succession of episcopal ministry. "Tradition" in the Church is not a continuity of human memory, or a permanence of rites and habits. It is a living tradition — depositum juvenescens, in the phrase of St. Irenaeus. Accordingly, it cannot be counted inter mortuas regulas [among dead rules]. Ultimately, tradition is a continuity of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a continuity of Divine guidance and illumination. The Church is not bound by the "letter." Rather, she is constantly moved forth by the "Spirit." The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which "spake through the Prophets," which guided the Apostles, is still continuously guiding the Church into the fuller comprehension and understanding of the Divine truth, from glory to glory.

"Following the Holy Fathers"… This is not a reference to some abstract tradition, in formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to holy witnesses. Indeed, we appeal to the Apostles, and not just to an abstract "Apostolicity." In the similar manner do we refer to the Fathers. The witness of the Fathers belongs, intrinsically and integrally, to the very structure of Orthodox belief. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogma of the Fathers. We may quote at this point an admirable ancient hymn (probably, from the pen of St. Romanus the Melode). "Preserving the kerygma of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers, the Church has sealed the one faith and wearing the tunic of truth she shapes rightly the brocade of heavenly theology and praises the great mystery of piety." [2]

The Mind of the Fathers.

The Church is "Apostolic" indeed. But the Church is also "Patristic." She is intrinsically "the Church of the Fathers." These two "notes" cannot be separated. Only by being "Patristic" is the Church truly "Apostolic." The witness of the Fathers is much more than simply a historic feature, a voice from the past. Let us quote another hymn — from the office of the Three Hierarchs. "By the word of knowledge you have composed the dogmas which the fishermen have established first in simple words, in knowledge by the power of the Spirit, for thus our simple piety had to acquire composition." There are, as it were, two basic stages in the proclamation of the Christian faith. "Our simple faith had to acquire composition." There was an inner urge, an inner logic, an internal necessity, in this transition from kerygma to dogma. Indeed, the teaching of the Fathers, and the dogma of the Church, are still the same "simple message" which has been once delivered and deposited, once for ever, by the Apostles. But now it is, as it were, properly and fully articulated. The Apostolic preaching is kept alive in the Church, not only merely preserved. In this sense, the teaching of the Fathers is a permanent category of Christian existence, a constant and ultimate measure and criterion of right faith. Fathers are not only witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis. They are rather witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis. "The mind of the Fathers" is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of Holy Scripture, and indeed never separated from it. As it has been well said, "the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a daughter of the Church of the Fathers — she is and remains the Church of the Fathers." [3]

The Existential Character of Patristic Theology.

The main distinctive mark of Patristic theology was its "existential" character, if we may use this current neologism. The Fathers theologized, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, "in the manner of the Apostles, not in that of Aristotle" — αλιευτικως, ουκ αριστοτελικως (Hom. 23. 12). Their theology was still a "message," a kerygma. Their theology was still "kerygmatic theology," even if it was often logically arranged and supplied with intellectual arguments. The ultimate reference was still to the vision of faith, to spiritual knowledge and experience. Apart from life in Christ theology carries no conviction and, if separated from the life of faith, theology may degenerate into empty dialectics, a vain polylogia, without any spiritual consequence. Patristic theology was existentially rooted in the decisive commitment of faith. It was not a self-explanatory "discipline" which could be presented argumentatively, that is aristotelikos, without any prior spiritual engagement. In the age of theological strife and incessant debates, the great Cappadocian Fathers formally protested against the use of dialectics, of "Aristotelian syllogisms," and endeavoured to refer theology back to the vision of faith. Patristic theology could be only "preached" or "proclaimed" — preached from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the words of prayer and in the sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life. Theology of this kind can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the exercise of virtue. "The climax of purity is the beginning of theology," as St. John the Klimakos puts it: τελοσ δε αγνειας υποθεσις θεολογιας (Scala Paradisi, grade 30).

On the other hand, theology of this type is always, as it were, "propaideutic," since its ultimate aim and purpose is to ascertain and to acknowledge the Mystery of the Living God, and indeed to bear witness to it, in word and deed. "Theology" is not an end in itself. It is always but a way. Theology, and even the "dogmas," present no more than an "intellectual contour" of the revealed truth, and a "noetic" testimony to it. Only in the act of faith is this "contour" filled with content. Christological formulas are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have received and acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It is constantly appealing to the vision of faith. "What we have seen and have heard we announce to you." Apart from this "announcement" theological formulas are empty and of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas can never be taken "abstractly," that is, out of total context of belief. It is misleading to single out particular statements of the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have been actually uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. It is a dangerous habit "to quote" the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. "To follow" the Fathers does not mean just "to quote" them. "To follow" the Fathers means to acquire their "mind," their phronema. (Cont)

-Archpriest George Florovsky

1 comment:

Death Bredon said...

Florovsky rocks!