The Byzantine Conceptual World View

Byzantine Christianity has a distinctive conceptual framework, which it shares to a great extent with the modern Eastern Orthodox Church. It is based on the concept of tradition (paradosis) and rooted in study of patristics and scripture. The theological definitions given by patristic authors constantly refer, intertextually, to other fathers, even where they are not named or identified clearly. In contrast to modern anxieties about plagiarism and the protection of intellectual property, Byzantine theology consciously seeks to integrate previous insights, to affirm the ideas of others within the same tradition (leading to the strongest possible refutation of heresy) in a manner which suggests a 'golden chain' of illuminated wisdom. At the same time, it integrates and synthesizes certain Christianized aspects of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, as well as owing something to rabbinic hermeneutical devices. In other respects, too, Byzantine Christianity is Greek rather than Latin in orientation, articulated, for example, by the adoption from the early seventh century of the Greek term Basileus for the emperor.

Basil the Great (c.330-79) expresses a typically Byzantine affirmation of the place of tradition, in this case unwritten tradition, in his work On the Holy Spirit:

We do not content ourselves with what was reported in Acts and in the Epistles and in the Gospels; but, both before and after reading them, we add other doctrines, received from oral teaching, and carrying much weight in the mystery of the faith.

Although dating from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, the authority of this statement endures throughout Byzantine Christianity: this, in itself, is a testament to the very concept of paradosis, that knowledge and insight are passed on from one generation of the faithful to another, informed by apostolic insights and enlivened by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Scripturally based, the Christian tradition of Byzantium relied on the accumulated wisdom of inspired living saints, whose experience illuminated the love of God and his desire for perfection for all humanity. Behind this was what Meyendorff describes as a 'theocentric anthropology', known as theosis (divinization or deification to give it more Latinate terms). The presupposition was that humanity was made in God's image, and strove continually to be reunited with God. Through the unique sacrifice of the god-man Christ, all humanity shares in the godhead, a total participation. Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) in his Ambigua echoes the Hellenistic understanding of the composite parts of the human person in his description of deification:

In the same way in which the soul and the body are united, God should become accessible for participation by the soul and, through the soul's intermediary, by the body, in order that the soul might receive an unchanging character, and the body, immortality; and finally that the whole man should become God, deified by the grace of God-become-man, becoming whole man, soul and body, by nature, and becoming whole God, soul and body, by grace.

Humanity's potential to become God (first articulated by Irenaeus in the second century) raises the key issue of the Mother of God, another distinctive aspect of the conceptual life of Byzantine Christianity. The status of Jesus' human mother was the source of angry debate in Ecumenical Councils and also featured in the iconoclast controversy. Whilst the Western Church venerates Mary as the ever-virgin mother of God, the Eastern Church focuses, through the title Theotokos, on how her humanity expresses that of Christ - who is also divine. The nuance of the term Theotokos strongly affirms Mary as the bearer of God in Christ, as far more than a human incubator of a divine seed. Gregory Nazianzus (329-90) states:

If anyone does not confess that the Virgin Mary is Theotokos, he is found to be far from God. Whoever maintains that Christ passed through the Virgin as through a channel and was not fashioned in her in a manner at the same time human and divine . . . is likewise godless.

Cyril of Alexandria's famous Third Letter to Nestorius continues the theme, providing the basis for Byzantine Christianity's veneration for the Holy Mother of God. In this, he states that it was 'Because the holy virgin bore in the flesh God who was united hypo-statically with the flesh, for that reason we call her Mother of God.' Nestorius, and the Antiochene School argued against the use of this term. The somewhat ambiguous use of the word 'Nestorian' as a derogatory term to describe the Assyrian Church of the East is evidence of the depth of feeling about the whole issue of the Theotokos. The West's choice of the term Dei Genitrix leads to a focus on Mary as a maternal figure, and by extension the Church as a nurturing female. The West knows her as the blessed virgin, and thus became increasingly concerned with the virgin status not only of Mary but of her own human mother, and of Mary's perpetual virginity; the East concentrates on Mary as the bearer of God, a woman whose willing co-operation with God's will articulates an essential understanding of the act of free will. The 'sinfulness of human procreation', often seen as innate in the West, is less emphasized in the East. While East and West differed about the immaculate conception of Mary, they are both agreed on a doctrine of her assumption into heaven, and the Dormition of the Virgin became and remains a major Byzantine Orthodox feast.

A dominant characteristic of Byzantine Christianity is that its concepts and doctrine cannot be easily separated: in the Eastern Christian world, praxis and theoria are enmeshed, just as in Christ, divinity and humanity, are intertwined and indistinguishable. According to Evagrius Ponticus (346-99) in his work On Prayer, there can be no theorizing, no theologizing without the practical impetus of prayer and faith: 'He who truly prays is a theologian, and a theologian is he who truly prays.' In other words, theology becomes almost an apophatic experience: it is, simultaneously, entirely experiential and yet incapable of verbal expression. What the Byzantine knows of God can only be expressed by what God is not, since humanity is not capable of comprehending the entirety of God. In both apophatic theology and the enmeshing of theoria and praxis, the common link is the enlivening force of the Holy Spirit, and the need for the Christian to be fully aware of being spirit-filled; hence the significance of the teachings of Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359).

Great intellects of both the philosophical and theological bent have long pondered how to use human words to express transcendent matters: can language and reason, however sophisticated, apprehend something uncreated, like God? Apophatic, or negative theology, is the term used during the Byzantine period to describe this paradoxical endeavour. The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century were among the first Christian thinkers to consider this. Writing against Eunomios, Gregory of Nyssa diverges from Neoplatonic concepts of the incomprehensibility of God: he sees in the soul the potential to ascend to God in a direct encounter:

having by the action of the Spirit passed through the whole of the hypercosmic city, having failed to recognize the One he desires among intelligible and incorporeal beings, and abandoning all that he finds, he recognizes the One he is seeking as the only One he does not comprehend.

Apophasis (the Greek word from which 'apophatic' derives) finds its most compelling expression in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (an unknown author of the late fifth or early sixth century), who explored in his Divine Names and Mystical Theology (arguably the most exciting seven pages of theology extant), and in the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies the paradox of speaking about the ineffable. He asserts that negative here means not an absence or deprivation, but rather a surfeit: God is so far beyond human comprehension that the limited faculties of human nature cannot find adequate language to describe him. Dionysius posits that a state of religious ecstasy, such as that of Moses when receiving the Ten Commandments, or Christ when transfigured on Mount Tabor effects a direct knowledge of God which transcends human speech; as the human intellect progresses it leaves language and the senses behind as an inadequate form of expressing divine truth.

In explaining what God is Dionysius acknowledges the intellectual and sensory tools given to humanity, and the limitations they impose on comprehending the Almighty:

God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything.

The issue of the transcendence of God fuelled the debate between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian (c.1290-1348) in the mid-fourteenth century. The debate focused on a distinction between the knowable energies of God and his unfathomable divine essence. Barlaam had been Eastern Orthodox and a monastic, but joined the Catholic Church on his return to Italy in 1342. Palamas, who was Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1347-59), defended in his Triads the practice of Hesychast contemplative prayer as fostering the vision of the uncreated light. Rather than asserting the transcendence of God as forming a gulf between the divine and human, this perspective affirms the redemptive role of the Incarnation and the means to bridge the gap. He saw God as unknowable in his essence but comprehensible in his uncreated energies. The debate between Barlaam and Palamas highlights the conflict between the more philosophical and rationalist aspects of Christian belief, and the more intellectually demanding and experiential understanding of faith.

The ambivalent relationship between Rome and Constantinople was a longstanding source of friction in the Byzantine Church. Doctrinally, the Byzantine Church diverges from the Latin Western Church even before the schism of 1054. The three main issues contributing to this were mentioned above as the filioque, the azymes, and the rival theories about authority within the Church, including the status (marital and otherwise) of clergy. With regard to the filioque controversy, it needs to be noted that although a creed had been forged by the Ecumenical Councils culminating in that of Chalcedon in 451, the status of the Holy Spirit had not been adequately addressed: the focus of theological thought had been on the person of Christ and his relationship to the Father. This situation presented a Church that believed in the charismatic authority of 'illuminated' living saints with a significant challenge. Experiential wisdom, which ratified the teachings of scripture, relied on divine inspiration for its authority. So the whole issue of the 'procession of the Holy Spirit' became a rallying ground for opposite camps, culminating in the involvement of the patriarch Photius mentioned above.

Schism could be said to characterize Byzantine Christianity. During the earliest days as a Christian state, the empire was deeply divided by heated debate about creedal issues such as the correct understanding of homoousios/homoiousios. For many years, scholars have divided theologians of the period into Antiochene and Alexandrian in emphasis, suggesting their greater focus on, respectively, the human and divine aspects of Christ. Close reading suggests more complexity than this, but the rival claims of Antioch and Alexandria, like those of Rome and Constantinople, demonstrate the partisan nature of much Byzantine religious thought. The iconoclast controversy is another example of polarities stubbornly defended by appeals to the authority of broadly similar sources. At the heart of many of these disagreements is the fundamental desire to explain the inexplicable: the divine and human natures of Christ, and the perichoretic nature of the Trinity. In other words, Byzantine Christianity is conceptually rooted in Christology; much of what holds it together, and much of what divides it, finds its source in this essential matter of faith.

The vociferousness with which opinions on these matters diverge is evident from the anathemas and excommunications which litter the history of the Councils, a practice which also speaks of the immense cultural and intellectual diversity of Byzantine Christianity. The heritage of Greek philosophy, both in terms of its intellectual content (for example, ideas about the soul and creation) and its mode of discourse is another source of friction within Byzantine thought. At one extreme the expression of philosophical ideas becomes an almost secular humanism, a type of scholasticism; the term 'theologian' is even seen as a term of abuse, suggesting as it does to some a divorce between the theoretical and the practical. When studying sources from the period, it is always worth remembering that Byzantine theologians did not seek to write in a systematic and consistent manner; modern inhibitions about intellectual ownership did not exist and ideas from the many diverse cultures which fed into Constantinople were absorbed into a rich and at times indigestible mix. But at the heart of Byzantine Christianity is the focus on Christ, his person and his work, informed and enlivened by the movement of the Holy Spirit, through prayer and fasting. It is a construct which integrates the intellectual, spiritual and emotional aspects of the human person just as Christ himself integrates the human and divine, and which acknowledges the human person as made in the divine image. Issues of ecclesial authority and details of liturgical practice may thus be seen as subservient to this focus. The language employed to explain such mysteries is complex and subtle.

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