Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oh no

I am nerdier than 93% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Supreme Nerd. Apply for a professorship at MIT now!!!.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

All men are liars

Decided to take a little side track from the series to address a a relevant side issue that I came across regarding the exegesis of Psalm 112:6, which says that David in his ecstasy learned that "all men are liars." There are two distinct patristic approaches to this passage. The earlier version appears to be that of Didymus the Blind. This version interprets the passage in terms of deification, concluding that the term "men" here is to be contrasted with the term "gods" as applied to the deified Christian who has received the Word of God. St. Augustine follows this approach in his exegesis, and it is indicative of a generally Platonic trend of the soul mounting up to divinity from humanity, transcending creaturely limits. The passage is therefore viewed in an ontological, moral, and noetic sense, so that men being liars is taken as a limitation on humanity attaining to the truth that is the Word of God.

Gregory Nyssen takes a different approach. He views this passage as dealing with an inherent limitation of language, so that it does not deal with an ontological limitation on human nature, but with the ability of human concepts to fully express that to which they refer. This passage therefore supports the classic Cappadocian version of apophaticism. It is notable that this conception does express anything pejorative about this limitation, unlike the version propounded by Didymus, which expresses a sense of failure. This difference cannot be pressed too far, since both Didymus and Augustine viewed the soul itself as being akin to a piece of divinity, so that no man is ever entirely lacking illumination. Rather, the notion of "men" is placed in the context of progress, teaching, and increasing illumination, much like the account that Clement of Alexandria gives. Thus, neither approach expresses a disdain for matter or any suggestion of a "fall into matter" from which the soul must recover.

I think it is safe to say that the Augustinian version DOES view the progression through matter as a stage of progress, a limitation that will eventually be transcended in favor of a new and more perfect mode of knowledge and communication that will render what we experience a "lie" by comparison. But this is not said with the connotation of sin or evil, simply incompleteness, much as an infant is not any less human despite not having reached the age of reason. There is some sense of privation associated with not having attained to the later stages, which is probably what Augustine has in mind by original sin. Had Augustine been entirely consistent on the point, he probably would not have gone so far as to say that infants could be condemned for this condition. But as I have pointed out on Sacramentum Vitae, he did not have access to the medieval Power Distinction, so he lacked the analytical basis to distinguish what might be absolutely possible from what was possible as ordained in God's justice. We cannot anachronistically expect Augustine to have seen all of that through. It suffices to say that Augustine's view, though different from Gregory Nyssen's, has its own traditional support and its own unique theological applications.

Helpful references:
Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition
Scot Douglass, Theology Of The Gap: Cappadocian Language Theory And The Trinitarian Controversy

Friday, November 17, 2006

Franco-Roman conspiracy theories

Rather than repeating this particular bit of historical inquiry in comboxes multiple times, I've decided to dust off the old blog to comment on the notion, popularized by John Romanides in particular, that there was some sort of monolithic nation formed from West Romans and East Romans in pristine unity against the barbarous Franks.

I contended on Michael Liccione's blog, Sacramentum Vitae, that this was untenable, and that the Western Romans had their own interests and their own theology:

The Franks were more or less holders of the antiquated homoian creed from the synod of Constantinople in 360 delivered by Ulfila, and I find it a little odd for the West to be simultaneously accused of Eunomianism/Origenism AND homoianism, since the positions were polar opposites regarding the knowability of God. The relative unsophistication of the Frankish view is fairly obvious from the Libri Carolini. Given the military realities of the time, it's unsurprising that the Pope was willing to deal with them, but to say that the Frankish position on this subject had substantial theological influence over Rome is to strain credibility. Romanides's history is palpably weak on this point; the West Romans cheerfully allied themselves with various barbarian groups (frequently playing them against each other in the process) to secure their autonomy, which even Romanides admits. They seem to have been entirely cognizant that the Frankish version of the filioque was different from their own, but that the similarity might be exploited for the sake of manipulating the Franks or the difference exploited to manipulate the Easterners.
Photius was pretty well played by Pope John, for example, while the West was conniving for control of Bulgaria, even though that didn't actually get pulled off until Rome had the Normans as pawns. I see no reason to think that situation ever changed, that Augustine's formulation of the filioque was heterodox, or that the Frankish version thereof ever replaced Augustine's.All that is ugly history, no question. It would be nice to live in the sort of world where Christians didn't do this to each other, where West Romans and East Romans formed one big happy family against the nasty barbarians, but, to quote Jules in Pulp Fiction, "that s&!t ain't the truth." The truth is that Rome had cut Byzantium loose way before any of this had ever happened; the signs were there all the way back to Justinian in the resentment many Westerners had toward his high-handedness. Pretending there was some sort of mutual regard and understanding, that West Romans and East Romans were "one country" in any meaningful sense, would just be a happy fantasy.

Photios (Daniel) Jones replied to these remarks and others, and I think they tend to illustrate just why it is that I have trouble accepting the thesis. Daniel's words will be quoted in red below:
And you are incorrect that Rome had broken itself from the Roman-Byzantine oikonomia prior to 9th Century (Nicholas I). That does not make sense of the stance of Pope Leo III's (a real bishop of Rome) speech to the Frankish envoy or his crowning Charlemagne emperor of the IMPERIUM ROMANUM. Yet we are told that this is what Charlemagne wanted, and he was extremely displeased even angry at Pope Leo III for such a move (since he wanted to obtain such a goal through marriage to the Empress Irene). The joke was on Charlegmagne as Pope Leo III knew the Romans in the East would never recognize a foreign ruler. Hence, Leo III played the spoil to Charlemagne’s crafty plan making an idiot out of him.

By and large, I agree with everything said here except the conclusion announced in the first sentence. The only thing that follows from this scenario is that Pope Leo III was interested in protecting his own power. How this shows Roman-Byzantine harmony is entirely beyond me. Leo seemed perfectly willing to protect his own prerogatives by thwarting the ambitions of Frankish rulers, just as the popes before him had exploited the Franks themselves for the same purpose, as even Romanides admits:

While still consolidating their grip on Gaul, the Franks conquered Northern and Central Italian Romania in the middle of the eighth century, in the guise of liberators of Italic of Papal Romania from Lombard oppression. At this time, the papacy was deeply involved in the iconoclastic controversy, having taken a firm stand, against the Roman emperors and patriarchs of New Rome who supported the iconoclastic movement.

The Franks applied their policy of destroying the unity between the Romans under their rule and the Romans under the rule of Constantinople and the Arabs. They played one Roman party against the other, took neither side, and finally condemned both the iconoclasts and the Seventh Ecumenical Synod (786/7) at their own Council of Frankfurt in 794, in the presence of the legates of Pope Hadrian I (771-795), the staunch supporter of Orthodox practice.

A less paranoid rendering of history would point out that there was nothing guileful in the Pope's acceptance of the Franks' assistance. To say that the Franks were responsible for "destroying the unity" between West Romans and East Romans is simply revisionism; the very fact of resistance to the iconoclast emperors and patriarchs shows Rome's insistence on its own autonomy in matters theological and political. The West Romans were simply willing to deal with the Franks to serve their own interests, and they appear to have viewed the Emperor as simply another piece in the puzzle. Certainly, there was not any loyalty to the East after Justinian, having ostensibly reestablished himself as Emperor of both East and West, gave little if any thought to Rome, practically establishing Ravenna as a competitor to Rome. The West Romans were not played against the East; rather, the West Romans saw which side was going to be most useful to them, and they went that way.

Regarding my observation that Franks were homoians, exactly opposite to the Eunomians, Daniel says:

Not really since it is all dialectical to begin with. The filioque reproduces Polytheism and Sebellianism depending on which route one goes to develop (Uncaused-Cause and Caused-Cause vs. Father-Son as a single principle) which are polar opposites. And the Franks were not “more or less” holders of the homoian creed. There is nothing different about Alcuin and Paulinus’ conception then Augustine’s or Anselm’s.

To clarify one point up front, I meant "more or less" to indicate that the Franks were homoians in spirit and substance, even if not holding onto that Arian creed in every detail. There is something to be said for both approaches being dialectical. Eunomius starts with agenetos as a defining characteristic or name and asserts that we know by this name every bit as much as the Father knows about Himself. The Homoians (and probably Arius himself, at least later on in his controversy with Alexander) take a radically opposite view: that the Father is entirely unknowable, and that it is precisely because the Son is knowable that He cannot be of the same essence as the Father. But in some sense, these come back to precisely the same point, as some definite property about divinity is being asserted, whether negatively (the Homoian view) or positively (the Eunomian view), so I take the observation that both views were dialectical amicably.

What I find difficult to accept is that one could simultaneously be Eunomian and Homoian. Homoianism commits one to at least some formulation of divine unknowability that serves as a definition of the divinity. No Eunomian could ever accept that, because on the Eunomian view, it would render all talk about God meaningless (N.B., it would also violate the anomios tenet that every name has a definite meaning different from every other name, a philosophical weakness that Athanasius pointed out to good effect). "As from a single principle" would be impossible from the Homoian position; it would effectively assert a mixture of two absolute contraries. That's why the filioque could be used with great effect against the Franks; on the authority of Augustine, it could not be denied, but it was absolutely incompatible with the Gothic Homoianism.

In fact, the use of the filioque as a response to Gothic Homoianism appears to have been used for as long as there were Goths in the West. For example, in writing to Turribius in Visigothic Spain, Pope St. Leo the Great affirms the filioque as the correct orthodox position as against the Priscillianists ("And so under the first head is shown what unholy views they hold about the Divine Trinity: they affirm that the person of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is one and the same, as if the same GOD were named now Father, now Son, and now Holy Ghost: and as if He who begot were not one, He who was begotten, another, and He who proceeded from both, yet another..."), which demonstrates that the theological position of the West as against the Visigoths included the filioque (and it was the theological filioque, not the economic filioque, as the context demonstrates). It's also evidence against the conclusion that this is simply a Sabellian pole being opposed to the Homoian polytheist pole, because Leo specifically accuses the Priscillianists of having taken their denial of the filioque from Sabellius.

There remains, then, the open question of whether Leo is simply using a Eunomian position taken from Augustine as against the Homoian position, because the Eunomian position, although wrong, would also oppose both the Homoian position and the Sabellian position. I'll explain the implications of that in the next installment.