Monday, July 11, 2005

Back just in time

As just more evidence the Lord works in mysterious ways, the material I was reading and pondering over my vacation turns out to be directly relevant to the goings-on in my absence. Eric Svendsen has decided to link our earlier discussion about the use of the term "Mother of God" as a demonstration of what "contemporary patristic scholarship" says about Nestorius. As I mentioned repeatedly in that dialogue, I wasn't even discussing Nestorius's views or St. Cyril's; I was specifically dealing with the conciliar condemnation of Nestorianism at Constantinople, which is strictly a theological issue. But since it is now being held out as the historical dialogue that it wasn't, I feel the need to address what "contemporary patristic scholarship" actually does say about Nestorius and the revisionist attempts to rehabilitate him. For the most part, I will be following John Anthony McGuckin's excellent work St. Cyril: The Christological Controversy, which (despite his own demurral about not being a "definitive" work) has by and large dispensed with the all-too-common historical fallacies that have been uncritically passed along in the last several decades. I will particularly focus on how and why this particular myth about Nestorius continues to crop up and what I perceive as the danger in its persistence.

The following is an outline of my reasons that I presented on GregK's board:

I find it oddly coincidental that there was so much discussion on the topic of Nestorianism while I was gone for a week. Ironically, I also felt that I had uncovered what appears to me to be the source of the Protestant (and particularly Baptist) affinity for being apologists for Nestorius and the historical errors on which it relies. At any rate, it provides a nice segue' into a set of articles that I was planning on composing anyway, in which I will explore some of these issues in great detail. In the past, I had not discussed the historical issues in much detail, preferring to stick with the actual doctrinal pronouncements of the councils, but now it seems that such historical discussion is unavoidable. I will likely be doing more extensive treatments of these issues in the near future, but in light of my name and my earlier dialogue with Dr. Svendsen being mentioned, I thought I ought to introduce these points for the good of the record:

1. Regarding my opinion of Dr. Svendsen's thesis, I disagree with the nastiness pointed in its direction to the effect that it is essentially ridiculous. I think there are legitimate objections to how convincing his conclusions are, but he laid out his argument and conclusions in a manner that makes his justification transparent, so that one can agree or disagree with his conclusions in an informed way. I certainly don't think it is so decisive that there is no room for reasonable disagreement.

2. Absent an argument in favor of the grammatical-historical method as a limit on the meaning of text, most discussions between Mr. Bugay's school of evangelism and Catholics are pointless. Mr. Bugay says that we read our theology back into the New Testament. Catholics say God put it there in order that we would later discern this meaning through the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Unless such an interpretation is so absolutely and definitively contradictory that there is no way that the interpretation can be reconciled with the text, then a Catholic will view the interpretation as permissible, and the probabilistic techniques of the grammatical-historical method will not be convincing.

3. Keeping that in mind, I believe that there are Christological implications for one's view of the transcendence of Scripture, so that the limits that one sets on the spiritual sense of Scripture strongly correlate to an emphasis on the human limits of Christ as a definition of his humanity. Thus, one will repeatedly hear such people criticize others for making Christ "not really a man" and the like, much like they would criticize interpretation of Scripture in the Catholic manner as disregarding the historical reality of Scripture.

4. Such beliefs have common cause with Nestorius (who shared concerns about insufficiently emphasizing the humanity of Jesus) and more generally with the so-called "Antiochene school" of Scriptural exegesis. Following the tradition of Mar Diodore of Tarsus and Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia and culminating in the writing of Nestorius and Theodore of Cyr, the Antiochene school emphasize the spiritual sense (theoria) as against the so-called "unconstrained" allegory of the Alexandrian school, so that all interpretations had to be grounded within the historical intent of the passages. They generally restricted themselves to typology and those allegorical interpretations that were explicitly explained in the text.

5. Many Protestantism has, to some extent or another, always been enamored with this mode of exegesis for obvious reasons. Calvin, for example, admired the exegetical style of St. John Chrysostom of Antioch even more than that of St. Augustine, whom Calvin felt resorted to allegorical exegesis too often. This tendency was reinforced all the more strongly in Protestant historiography by the uniform portrayal of Chalcedon as a resolution between competing Alexandrian and Antiochene Christology, a resolution that was ostensibly facilitated by the moderate Christology of the Tome of Leo.

6. There is one problem: the account of Chalcedon as a compromise between the Antiochene and Alexandrian views is entirely wrong. It stems from a well-intended but ultimately misguided attempt by the Jesuit historian Aloys Grillmeier to explain Chalcedon from a Western perspective according to the famous "Peter has spoken through Leo!" dictum, but the reality of the situation was that Leo was being judged for orthodoxy by comparison to Cyril's doctrine, which was uniformly held to be the standard of orthodoxy.

7. The traction of this account of Chalcedon, having been sufficiently compelling to sweep along historians as well-reputed as Jaroslav Pelikan, has been increased by several factors. First, there was the demythologizing work of liberal scholars Adolf von Harnack and Reinhold Seeberg that cast St. Cyril as a crypto-Monophysite. This was in turn helped by the fact that several notable devotees of St. Cyril, such as Dioscorus and Eutyches, themselves misunderstood St. Cyril's position, even to the point of disavowing St. Cyril's own writings when he indicated his willingness to accept other formulae that conveyed his theological intent. Second, there was Nestorius's own account of St. Cyril as something akin to a devil incarnate, one which was insufficiently scrutinized by historians. Third, the exegesis of St. Cyril itself suffered from excessive emphasis on particular formulations rather than theological concepts, which caused an entirely overblown emphasis to be placed on St. Cyril's use of mia physis and similarly meter theou, meaning that even earlier ecumenical historians such as John Meyendorff were probably giving opponents too much credit when conceding that St. Cyril could be interpreted as a Monophysite. Every one of these errors has been unequivocally refuted by John Anthony McGuckin's St. Cyril: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (1994, republished 2004). In terms of the most recent and careful scholarship, the notion of Chalcedon as a compromise between Alexandria and Antioch is no longer tenable; St. Cyril's victory as the standard of orthodoxy was absolute. Far from being the "pop apologetic" standard of history, it is quite simply the correct understanding of history.

8. The attempt to rehabilitate the Antiochene view by glossing the condemnation of Antiochenes at Constantinople in terms of excessive Monophysite influence can now be seen as the stretch that it always was. The fact was that the game was effectively over after Chalcedon (and really, after Ephesus). In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Antiochene "school" was anything other than an addition to the faith produced by Arius's mentor Lucian as an overreaction to Alexandrian allegory. The more moderate allegorical Alexandrian method of Ss. Athanasius and Cyril, correcting the excesses of Origen, is unquestionably the traditional Christian method.

9. This is not to say that there is nothing worthy in the Antiochene method. In terms of moralism, preaching, homiletics, and general praxis, the strictures of the Antiochene method are entirely sound, which is why St. John Chrysostom is revered as the great Eastern Doctor of Preachers. Ironically for Protestants, this emphasis on morals as opposed to theology proper makes the Antiochene method more vulnerable to Pelagianism, the very basis on which Rome condemned Nestorius. But in any case, it runs the risk of abrogating Christological safeguards in the tradition of the Church, leading to nascent Nestorianism and/or Arianism. It seems hardly coincidental that this view of Scripture has produced some of the most insidious Christological heresies in history and no luminaries on the scale of Ss. Athanasius or Cyril or the Cappadocian Fathers (who were notably opponents of Diodore).

10. Consequently, it would seem to me that the defense of Nestorius is hardly coincidental; indeed, it is a symptom of an entire Christological worldview that I view as extremely dubious. And contra [theological discussion board poster] Theophan, I do not believe that a bare confession of the title theotokos will suffice to resolve it; even Nestorius was willing to do that much as a manner of "speaking" or "words." It is St. Cyril's notion of a hypostatic union (a real single-subject) that is demanded by orthodox Christianity, and I have never seen any demonstration that Nestorius's prosopic union actually showed that belief (in fact, implicit denial and deliberate evasion of this denial seems FAR more plausible). For reasons similar to Dave Armstrong, I would not say its proponents are un-Christian, especially given the number of extremely well-regarded historians who considered the "Alexandria-Antioch compromise" a viable account of history. But there is no doubt in my mind that the historical apologism for Nestorius can no longer be supported by the historical facts, and at some point, various Protestants are going to have to confront the fact that their appeals to historical Christianity based on Antiochene exegesis effectively compromises their claim of creedal orthodoxy. Compared to the risk associated with superstitious veneration of Mary among the theologically unsophisticated, I consider the Protestant difficulties far more serious.