Dominant Figures

It is inimical to any form of Eastern Christianity to impose modern, scholastic or systematic divisions into the rich and complex entirety of its thought, but it is worth noting that among the dominant figures in Byzantine Christianity are monks, priests and bishops; and theologians (in the Evagrian sense) were noted for their preaching, poetry, pastoral care or political acumen. All of these modes of expression serve to articulate doctrine and thus the faith of the Byzantine Christian; none had a monopoly of credence. because innovation within the tradition was viewed with suspicion, those who found new ways of explaining the eternal mysteries of faith inevitably come to mind, and are remembered for what they said or did that was inspired or different, even when it aroused hostility among the more conservative of their contemporaries. Omissions from this necessarily brief list must be forgiven.

The Cappadocian fathers are an obvious starting point, because of their contribution to the development of monastic communities, the lifeblood of Byzantine Christianity; their articulation of Trinitarian dogma; their integration of the mystical and philosophical into the spiritual life of the Byzantine Church. Basil the Great renounced the secular world into which he had been educated and grafted to the existing Egyptian monasticism the structures and rules which enabled it to evolve into coenobitic monas-ticism. In this he was much informed by his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89), who in addition to being an assistant (if reluctant) bishop and author of five Theological Orations (fundamental for an understanding of the evolving doctrine of the Holy Spirit), wrote religious poetry of great beauty. Basil left a number of lucid and influential letters on various topics. A significant achievement was his refutation of Arianism, and his contribution to the debate on whether homoiousios ('of like substance') or homoousios ('of same/one substance') was the correct term to designate the relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father. Basil's brother Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (330-95) was also involved in the anti-Arian polemics of the Ecumenical Councils, and is remarkable for his integration of Neoplatonic and Platonic thought into Christian writing; he also shows the influence of Origen, a massively important exegete and thinker of the previous century. Gregory's Catechetical Orations, polemical writings and ascetical treatises, including the remarkable Dialogue of the Soul, which reveals the subtle mind of his sister Macrina, were important legacies for the Byzantine Church.

Evagrius (345-99) came from Pontos in Asia Minor, and (like the Cappadocian fathers with whom he was connected) combined practical asceticism in the desert with a Christianization of Neoplatonism. His Chapters on Prayer and the Praktikos give sound counsel to monastics but also form the basis for the evolution of categorizing deadly sins. He used the word logismos to describe the mental process of intent which precedes action. His writings are brief but cogent, and being seized upon as Origenistic caused Evagrius to be shrouded in the mists of supposed heresy for centuries, but his works continued to circulate under different names. Once rehabilitated, the strong link he offers between Hellenism and early Christianity proved inspirational to western as well as to eastern monastic and intellectual communities.

Romanus the Melode (d. c.555) enjoyed considerable though short-lived fame as Byzantium's best-known hymnographer. He served as a deacon before achieving prominence as a composer of biblically based kontakia: their authorship is debated, although around 60 of the 85 attributed to him are probably authentic. The 'Akathistos', which may be by Romanus, is the lone survivor in the Byzantine liturgy. Various reasons for the replacement of Romanus' works within the liturgy have been put forward; these include monastic zeal about the proportion of purely biblical material, especially as the monastic typika increasingly framed the liturgy, and perhaps their length, which would prove problematic in an already long liturgy. As examples of Byzantine poetry they are readable and dramatic, and the inclusion within them of non-scriptural themes render them a fascinating source of comment on some current affairs. Theologically, their stance tends to stress the divine nature of Christ.

The true identity of Pseudo-Dionysius, or Dionysius the Areopagite, is unknown, and has been deduced largely from references to his works in Greek and Syriac texts from the sixth century onwards. The influence of his writings, however, is immense, and not just in the Byzantine world: arguably his concepts of negative theology are expressed in the West through the writings of the author of the anonymous fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing. In fact, some scholars believe that he was more valued in the West, as is clear from the writings of John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, and by Syriac-speaking Christians than in Byzantium itself. Maximus the Confessor wrote a commentary on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and developed some of his ideas on hypostatic unity. Although writing at the time of the mainstream Christo-logical debates, Pseudo-Dionysius used utterly different language and concepts to explore the nature of God. He drew on the Neoplatonists and especially Proclus (d. 485) to emphasize the unity of God within a sophisticated hierarchical cosmology. The extant Mystical Theology, Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and Divine Names are mentioned above and provide a deep mine of theological and philosophical treasures.

Maximus the Confessor (580-662) more even than Pseudo-Dionysius, bridged East and West retrospectively. He also accommodated both the language of negative-apophatic and positive-cataphatic theology. His main contribution was to affirm that Christ had both a human and divine will, since he had both natures; this brought him into conflict with both the imperial and ecclesiastical Monothelites of the mid-seventh century, and led ultimately to his persecution, torture and martyrdom. In common with the Cappadocians, Maximus found authentic ways of integrating Hellenistic thought and Christian faith, and also achieved a measure of authentication for the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. His writings include the Mystagogy, Chapters on Love and Chapters on Knowledge. They expound the concept that human beings are made in the image of God, a microcosm of their creator, and have a duty to renounce the vices outlined by Evagrius in order to achieve perfect union with Christ.

John of Damascus (d. c.749) was a monk of Mar Sabas, near Jerusalem, and also a priest. His three treatises in defence of the holy icons gave crucial expression to the understanding of the right veneration of icons; he was able to distinguish between different types of images and suggest appropriate ways of approaching them. Latreia, worship or veneration, is to be reserved for God alone, while proskynesis, a relative veneration, is appropriate for images of Christ, his mother and the saints. These writings may have formed the basis for the discussions at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, and followed on from the Christological arguments propounded by Germanus I, Patriarch of Constantinople (715-30), who was forced by an imperial groundswell of iconoclasm to resign. Their Christological stance in relation to icons and their veneration was taken up and developed further by Theodore the Studite in the ninth century. John of Damascus' tripartite Fount of Knowledge is a comprehensive presentation of philosophical definitions, a classification of heresies, and a systematization of Byzantine theology. It represents the culmination of Greek patristic thought in the eighth century and proved to be extremely influential in both the Greek East and the Latin West.

Theodore the Studite (759-826) contributed to Byzantine monasticism not only through major reforms at the Studios monastery in Constantinople, which during his time as abbot grew in numbers as well as discipline and fervour, but also for his writings. He based his coenobitic rule on that of Basil the Great, and was a firm believer in the need for monks to participate in labour as well as contemplative prayer. His Hypo-typosis not only provided his own monks with guidelines, but also inspired and invigorated monastic culture generally throughout the Byzantine world. Other writings survive in Byzantine hymnography, especially parts of the proper for Great Lent; his three Antirrhetics defending the holy icons and over five hundred of his letters are extant. Like Symeon the New Theologian, he was exiled on several occasions by his patriarch; his advice to his monks included being prepared to accept martyrdom. One aspect of his teaching which may have been particularly influential was his list of six sacraments: baptism, known as 'illumination', the Eucharist or synaxis, holy chrism, ordination, monastic tonsure and burial of the dead.

Symeon the New Theologian's contribution to Byzantine theology has been noted already in terms of his fierce defence of the authority of charism, and the imperative for the experiential as a measure of spiritual standing within the Church. His dates were probably 949-1022. His key writings include the contentious and elegant Hymns of Divine Love, the Practical and Theological Chapters and many strident Catecheses on theological and ethical matters, written for his own monks at St Mamas in Constantinople and elsewhere. Symeon focuses in his teaching on the major monastic practice of spiritual fatherhood, the expression of which caused challenges to other sources of authority within Byzantine Christianity. His rather idiosyncratic stance and emphasis on the purity of the inner being fed into the Hesychast revival of the fourteenth century steered by Gregory Palamas.

Nicholas Cabasilas (1320-90) was a lay theologian, possibly later a monk, whose main contribution to Byzantine Christianity was a long commentary on the sacraments, The Life in Christ (which consists partly of paraphrases of Gregory Palamas) and the Explanation of the Divine Liturgy. His concern with prayer is reflected in the operation of grace through the celebrant of the Eucharist; the priest is a conduit of God's power and love. Despite the theological nature of these texts, he is also renowned as a humanist, much concerned with social, ethical and political issues.

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