Friday, January 14, 2005

The Eastern Schism revisited

In response to my recent post, "Petrine jurisdiction exercised in the ancient Church" (Scripture & Catholic Tradition, Jan. 10, 2005), Dan Jones kindly offered a number of critical rejoinders from an Eastern Orthodox perspective (link #1; link #2; link #3; and link #4). Jones sees "errors" in Rome's idea of Church unity and primacy embodied in a Pope with universal jurisdiction as stemming from (Augustine's?) theological "errors," in turn stemming from the neo-platonic idea of absolute simplicity and the notion that God's own unity must be understood as a unity of being having absolute simplicity. Even the filioque ("and the Son") insertion in the Nicene Creed, he says, is a product of this view. He asserts that this view is problematic and that Orthodoxy offers a solution to the problem of unity and plurality unavailable to the West, and that the Eastern churches preserve an ecclesial unity without the pope.

Mr. Jones asserts these things. I just don't see how any of it is quite so. I grant that the Church and her theologians have been influenced by the sometimes helpful categories of Greek philosophy in the Latin West as also in the Greek East. I grant that philosophical concepts--such as the "hypostatic unity" of Christ's two natures--are not directly taken from Scripture, and that sometimes apparent contradictions can result--for example, between the Biblical idea that God had "repented" of having created the world in the days of Noah and the philosophical idea (via Boethius) that God is "eternal" and not immersed in the stream of time and change as we are.

What I don't grant is that such philosophical concepts are invariably erroneous or even that they are unhelpful in resolving apparent contradictions. Ecumenical Councils have employed them in clarifying their dogmatic degrees. Further, I don't see how the Eastern Plotinian notion of a Good (or God) "beyond being" resolves the problem of unity and diversity any more effectively than the Platonic-Aristotelian notions one finds in Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite or St. Thomas Aquinas. The notion that the West has somehow stumbled over this issue or failed to resolve it conceptually is simply beyond me. William Norris Clarke, S.J., has directly addressed this question in his masterful study, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (2001). Moreover, the West has always seen the answer to this philosophical problem as residing ultimately in the mystery of the Trinitarian unity of divine nature (One) and diversity of three Persons (Many).

My son, Benjamin Blosser, who is completing a doctorate in the area of Eastern patristics at the Catholic University of America, assures me that the idea that the fall arises from the unstability of creation ex nihilo is found just as much in the East as in the West. Origen is well known to have embraced this view. To what extent it spread throughout the East, or may have been linked with the anti-Origenist controversy in the East, however, I do not know.

Furthermore, how the filioque is theologically a problem I have never understood, since the divine procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son is both affirmed by Scripture and accepted as such on that level by Eastern Orthodox theologians. Here again, B. Blosser offers the following notes:
1. Eastern theologians agree with the filioque on the level of the
economic trinity, i.e. they agree, as Scripture affirms, that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son in the economy of salvation. They simply deny that this is true in the immanent Trinity, i.e. in the eternal processions within the Godhead itself.

2. Eastern theologians claim that all or most Western ecclesiological fallacies arise from the supposedly heretical notion of the filioque--that is, Westerners fail to give a proper role to the pneumatological foundation of the Church, because they so give such an overweening primacy to the Son that the role of the Spirit is crushed. Thus, they claim, the subordination of the Spirit within the Godhead is carried over into ecclesiology.

3. Yet the Church clearly belongs to the theology of the economy, of the economy of salvation, not of the immanent Godhead.

Therefore, since East and West have no disagreement about the processions on the economic level, a level on which ecclesiology clearly belongs, it is unclear how or why Trinitarian disagreements should have any effect at all on ecclesiological disagreements. On the other hand, it seems rather that the Eastern theologians are letting their misguided hatred of the filioque 'bleed' from the level of the immanent Trinity to the level of the economic.
The more substantial question is how ecclesial unity is preserved in the Eastern churches, beyond the loose consensual unity that has only recently begun to be subjected to the corrosive acids of modernity and postmodernity. How theological disputes over faith and morals may be resolved remains a major question. Some Eastern churches accept and ecclesiastically sanction divorce and re-marriage (up to three times). Some Eastern churches ecclesiastically sanction the use of contraceptives (even though ancient tradition condemns contraception and the birth control pills in use today are proven abortifacients). How such practices can be squared with Sacred Tradition or be ecclesiastically resolved among acephalous Orthodox hierarchies that do not recognize one another's jurisdiction remains a major question as well.

The purpose of my original post was to merely to demonstrate that the conception of a legitimately exercised universal Petrine jurisdiction is attested to in Church history well before the Eastern Schism of 1054, even by an Eastern father such as St. Maximus the Confessor.