Aquinas in the Orthodox Tradition

A talk given at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on October 2, 2014. By Marcus Plested

I’m going to begin by taking you back in time to the 12th of December 1452, to Constantinople, and to the great Church of The Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. These were dark days for the Byzantine Empire.  Little remained of the Byzantine Empire apart from the city of Constantinople itself, held in a strangle-hold by the Turks. It seemed inevitable that the city would fall, sooner or later, despite its great wall. For one thing, the Byzantines were lacking the men to man the wall, and in desperation, the emperor, the last emperor of Rome  —  (the Byzantines never called themselves Byzantines, you know; they were always Romans living in “New Rome” which is Constantinople) — the Byzantines were desperate for help, desperate for help even from the wicked West with all its theological errors, and in a sort of last-ditch attempt, on the 12th of December 1452 they formally proclaimed the union that had been established, at least at a formal level, between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39). There it was ratified officially. At the time it was only proclaimed in Constantinople until the end of 1452. 

On the 12th of December, there was a con-celebration in the great church of The Holy Wisdom. There were large chunks of the population who regarded this as a craven capitulation to Rome based on the slender hope of getting some substantial military support to hold back the Turks, to hold back the almost inevitable taking of the city. It must be remembered in Byzantium, there were vast troughs of loathing of the Latins. The Latin occupation of Constantinople between 1204 and 1261 was a vivid and living memory, as was the forced Unionist policy of Emperor Michael VIII, the emperor who recaptured Constantinople from the Latins. The Latins had a strangle-hold on the trade of the much-diminished empire, and they were not, for the most part, seen as particularly desirable persons. So the sight of a Latin priest consecrating and confecting the Eucharist out of unleavened bread, using a wafer, was horrifying to large chunks of the population. And using cold water in the chalice, this was dreadful. Shocked by the enormity of unleavened bread on the altar of the great Church of Holy Wisdom, Haiga Sophia, a large chunk of the populace went to the acknowledged leader of the anti-Unionist party, the party that was standing up against any compromise with the wicked West, any sort of con-celebration even if it were to be to get some military help for the embattled city.  They beat a path to the door of the monk, Gennadios Scholarius, and he, somewhat fearful of the mob, barricaded himself in his cell. He just put a notice on the door, and that notice on the door read, “Oh unhappy Romans (i.e. Byzantines). Oh unhappy Romans. Why have you forsaken the truth (you know, in allowing this con-celebration, this formal declaration of the union between the Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches)? Why have you forsaken the truth? Why do you not trust in God instead of in the Italians (the hated Italians: the Genoese, Venetians, etc.)? In losing your faith (through this acceptance of union with Rome), in losing your faith, you will lose your city.” In the end, this unhappy prediction proved all too prescient, and the city did indeed fall on the 29th of May 1453, a Tuesday. Tuesday being considered a very bad day to do anything in modern Greece, even today, so I’m happy to be here on a Monday rather than a Tuesday.  

There was some aide from the West forthcoming but it proved fairly insubstantial in terms of holding back the forces of the Sultan Mehmed II. And the city, as I say, fell. This capitulation to Rome achieved nothing as Gennadios had prophesied, and there was great chaos that followed. The city was sacked and looted for three days. Gennadios himself was taken into captivity. He had a tremendously difficult time, wandering here and there, in an effective state of servitude. His prophecy had proved to be true. No help had come, no help that could fend off the Turks. But in his departure from the city and his consequent servitude to the Turks  —  in this period of chaos, desolation, yes, he’s leading the anti-Unionist party but the empire has fallen around him  —  in his knapsack, as it were, carrying around with him the few things he took with him, is an abridged version of Thomas Aquinas. You have the leader of the anti-Unionist party in Byzantium and his most precious possession is an abridged version of some of the works of Thomas Aquinas.

For all his anti-Unionist credentials and his insistence that there can be no rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, no rapprochement that involved any sort of compromise at any rate, this in no way defeated him from being Thomas Aquinas’s greatest fan. I say greatest fan by his own account. Gennadios Scholarius declared himself to be Thomas Aquinas’s chief disciple. “I do not think,” he says, “that any one of his followers has honored Thomas Aquinas more than I. Nor does anyone who becomes his follower need any other muse.” He doesn’t, of course, regard Thomas as infallible. As leader of the anti-Unionist party in Byzantium, he could hardly countenance Thomas’s position on the papacy, the filioque (procession from the Father and the Son), and all the distinctions between the divine essence and divine energies (God as He is and God as He does) associated with the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, which by this time is the official theological position of the Orthodox church. In his regard to Thomas’s position on these matters, it is essentially a kind of aberration, an accident dependent upon his birth in the West. In the marginal notes of one of these abridged versions of Thomas that he carried with him, even in the most trying of circumstances, Gennadios wrote, “If only most excellent Thomas” (and this in an abridged version of the Prima secundae) “If only most excellent Thomas you had not been born in the West, then you would not have been obliged to justify the errors of that Church, concerning for instance the procession of the Spirit and the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energy or operation. Then you would have been as infallible in theological matters as you are in this treatise on ethics” (as I say, he’s working on the Prima secundae here). 

But to understand how Thomas could be both so admired and also so resisted in the matter of the difficult issues separating East and West, we have to go back 100 years, or more precisely 99 years, to 1354. From 1453, the fall of the Empire, back to 1354.

1354 was a very bad year for what remained of the Byzantine Empire. I take you there because there was a great earthquake in that year, the March of that year, March 2nd, which destroyed the City of Gallipoli, and the inhabitants of Gallipoli fled. You can picture Gallipoli, I trust, in the Dardanelles, a very strategic place between Asia and Europe. To some extent if you controlled Gallipoli, you could control the Dardanelles, and hence the trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean  —  a most strategic place. So Gallipoli was desolated by an earthquake and the inhabitants of Byzantine had to flee. They packed up their bags and almost immediately a group of Turks crossed the Hellespont and settled in Gallipoli, establishing thereby the first permanent Turkish foothold on European soil, effectively sealing the fate of the embattled Empire, because it was going to be from Gallipoli that Turk trade would establish a strangle-hold on the City of Constantinople. It was a very bad year in geopolitical terms. The fact that the Turks were able to take advantage of this event is very much due to the politics of Byzantium itself. There had been a series of very ruinous civil wars in which both sides had employed Turkish mercenaries. So the Turks had been able to sort of scout out some of the land that they were soon to claim as their own territory. 

But something else happened in 1354. The Emperor who lost Gallipoli, and partly because of the loss of Gallipoli, is John VI. John VI was the emperor who supported St. Gregory Palamas and the distinction between the Divine essence and the Divine operation or energies. It was John VI who also presided over the Council of 1351 that formally adopted Palamite theology as the official doctrine of the Orthodox Church. In a strange sort of quirk of fate John VI is succeeded not as you might expect by John VII but by John V because he had superseded his nephew for a time. This is one of the few instances in history where the procession does not go quite according to plan. So John V comes after John VI. It would be like when you’re counting backward in BC or BCE date, counting backward at this point. 

John VI fell from power, partly due to the loss of Gallipoli. He became a monk and this was his way of being able to carry on sort of doing his theological work  —  he had great theological interests  —  without threatening his nephew’s accession as John V. 

John VI’s prime minister, his chief minister, was an extraordinary man by the name of Demetrios Kydones. Demetrios Kydones was a native of Thessalonica. Kydones’s main diplomatic thrust was rapprochement with the Latins with a view to getting help from the Latins to shore-up the Empire against the all too obvious threat of the rising Ottoman power. Because he was so involved in diplomacy with the Latin powers, Demetrios Kydones took it upon himself to learn Latin. He was by his own account dissatisfied with the translators that were available to him, so he decided to learn Latin himself. He found a teacher; he found a Dominican teacher. The Dominicans had an establishment in Constantinople. Well, strictly speaking, it was in Galata, Para, just on the other side of the Golden Horn from Constantinople proper. That very canny Dominican teacher in a very canny move taught Demetrious, the prime minister effective of Byzantium Empire, Latin on the basis of Aquinas. He sent him Aquinas to translate. Demetrios Kydones was hooked. He was amazed by this stuff. This was wonderful material. “Having tasted the lotus,” he says, “I cannot stop until I’ve made known these works to my fellow man”.

So Demetrios set himself the task of translating Aquinas into Greek. And he was actually able to put the finishing touch to his translation when he followed his imperial master, John VI, into monastic retirement for a time, in the monastery of St. George of the Mangana. In fact, his manuscript gives us the 24th of December 1354 as the precise date on which he finished his translation of the Summa contra gentiles. So in a way, the fall from power gave him a bit of time to finish his translation work. If you think I have been quite detailed in giving you the date, in fact, it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon initially. He actually writes this in Latin, using the Anno Domini dating system, which was unusual in Byzantium at the time.

So this is 1354. We have a full translation of one of Aquinas’s major works, the Summa contra gentiles, translated into Greek as Kata Elenon*, which could be literally translated, but would be a mistranslation as “Against the Greeks” because Kata Elenon means “against the pagans,” as a way of rendering gentiles as pagans. Byzantines for the most part quite apart from not referring to themselves as Byzantines, also for the most part did not think of themselves as Hellenists or Greeks. So translated as Kata Elenon, it would not necessarily be taken as a dig against the Greeks.

*Kata Eleon is not the actual Greek spelling for “Against the Greeks” It is a phonetic spelling of the Greek title.

Writing to one of his disciples, Demetrios sets out his reasons for admiring Aquinas. “For the treasury of divine ideas in this man is really great,” he says, “and you would not find any difficult question in the dogmas of the faith which he in his treatises does not investigate in itself or demonstrate in his other questions and answers.” And it is in his theological method that Aquinas seems to be attractive to Demetrios. Most articulately, Demetrios Kydones finds it astonishing that Thomas gives the arguments opposed to the question as if they were spoken by an opponent. “And after resolving these arguments in no ordinary way,” he says, “so that they have no effectiveness left, and he then binds fast the objects of inquiry with proofs from all sides, using evidence from scripture which takes precedence in all his works and also using proofs from reasoning and from philosophy in order that this might abound in strong proofs of the faith.” 

I think Kydones certainly appreciates the value of Aquinas in the context of resistance to the forces of Islam, and this is perhaps why he chose the Summa contra gentiles as the first work to translate. He went on to translate much of the Summa theological (assisted to some extent by his brother, Prochorus Kydones, about whom you will hear more), as well as other works by Aquinas and other Latin writers. 

Kydones is not so interested in Aquinas’s philosophical work specifically. Then again, he has no doubt whatsoever in general about the superiority of theology over philosophy. Kydones thinks it is quite self-evident that if Aquinas were to have debated Aristotle and Plato, he would have persuaded them to leave the Academy and join the Church.

His translations are quite fascinating in themselves. They are done with a great deal of care and skill. They are also to some extent an improvement on the original because Kydones had Aristotle in the original Greek, which Aquinas for the most part did not have such ready access to. So in some sense his is an improvement in translation insofar as the references to Aristotle are more accurate. Note that in Byzantium, there was never a kind of loss of classical culture or loss of Aristotle or Plato. There was no need to try to recover it as we have — to the contrary, there was an unbroken tradition of Aristotelian scholarship, of which Demetrios Kydones was a part.

In terms of theology, Kydones finds little to criticize in Thomas, even on the matters of the filioque, papal claims, and so forth. Indeed, Kydones himself was eventually received into the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, Kydones was disappointed in his hopes that rapprochement with the West would help save the Empire and he ran into a lot of opposition on the ground for his pro-Latin policy. Demetrios rather plaintively asked rhetorically, “What closer allies did the Romans have than the Romans?”  —  What closer allies did the Romans (Byzantines) have than the Romans (Roman Catholics); but there were few in Byzantium prepared to heed that plaintive cry.

In the world as diplomatic schemes Demetrios Kydones had little success and, indeed, his own conversion, I think, was somewhat rocky, and he was somewhat perturbed by the schism that opened up in the West in the latter 14th century, but the translations he made unleashed somewhat of a great, great power onto the Byzantine world. I think one can say that things were never the same again.

Now 1354. We’re still on 1354. We’ll get slightly closer to the present day eventually, but 1354, with the loss of Gallipoli and with the translation of Aquinas, is a very important year. In fact, 1354 has been zeroed in on by a contemporary Greek philosopher and theologian, Christos Yannaras, as really the time in which everything went wrong for Greece and the Orthodox world. “The great historical cycle,” Yannaras writes, “which started in motion in 1354 with Demetrios Kydones as the symbolic marker seems to be coming to a conclusion in the shape of Greece’s absorption by Europe  —  the final triumph of the pro-Unionist.” So in 1354 everything started to go wrong.

It is precisely the entry of this Western scholastic world-view into the Hellenic world that Yannaras sees as so problematic. For Yannaras, the whole scholastic tradition is regarded as foreign to the Orthodox world. The whole scholastic tradition is about man seeking with his individualistic intellect to dominate the reality of the physical world. This stance truly forms the foundation of the entire phenomenon of modern technology, and modern technology is not a good thing in that respect. There is a kind of separation between God and the world and a kind of desire on the part of human kind to master the creation that has led to all the woes we have today. And he’s not the only person to put forth a similar narrative. There are elements of it in Zissimos Lorentzatos, Philip Sherrard, and other thinkers of the Greek intellectual scene. 

But I always get tickled by the fact that another Greek thinker of modern Greece, Stelios Ramphos, has reached exactly the opposite conclusion about what went wrong in the 1350s. For him, it is not 1354 that is the point where everything went wrong for Greece. It is actually 1351. It is in 1351 that we have the definitive council that canonized the theology of St. Gregory of Palamas, making the distinction between the Divine essence and Divine energy. For Ramphos, this embracing of hesychastic theology, of monastic theology, of distinguishing between Divine essence and Divine energy is a disaster. It represents a triumph of a world-denying, body-denying form of Christianity, an anti-rational form of Christianity, an Aristotelian-form of Christianity rather than a neo-Platonic form of Christianity, essentially asundering the realm of theology from the realm of reason. So in the Act of 1351, Orthodoxy has rejected the much more world-affirming, body-affirming, reason-affirming traditions of Western Christianity as exemplified above all by Aquinas. Ramphos goes on to see all the problems of the priests in 1453 as going back to this Council in 1351, as well as the fall of the city to the Turks, which he contributes to a kind of fatalistic acceptance of the rule of the Sultan over any kind of accommodation with the West, the bursts of extremism, and the neglect of everyday reality. He even writes in the main Greek newspaper, for example, in response to the riots coming after the fall-out of the financial crisis in 2008 onward, attributing that kind of social disturbance to this fracture in the Greek soul – the denial of the world, the denial of the body, the denial of reason  —  which he associates with 1351.

As I said, it really tickles me that we have two major Greek thinkers here, each picking a date in the 1350s when everything started going to the dogs. I often invite people to come up with another date in the 1350s when everything went wrong. Answer on a post card please. You see in Yannaras that Greece’s problem is that it is too Western. For Ramphos, Greece’s problem is that it is too Eastern.  But in both cases, medieval Western scholasticism as exemplified by Aquinas serves as the symbol of that which Greece either most desperately needs or must absolutely, categorically reject. That tendency to hold medieval Western scholasticism in general and Aquinas in particular acts as a sort of archetypical seabed of differences between Greek East and Latin West, and this was eluded to in Professor Gavrilyuk’s introduction. 

To hold Aquinas and scholasticism up as the archetype of this Western scholasticism which Greece either needs or rejects owes a lot, it seems to me, to the theology of the Russian diaspora after the Russian Revolution of 1917. And just to make it clear, basically in the theology of the Russian diaspora, Aquinas is a very bad thing, symbolizing everything that is wrong with the West. For example, Sergius Bulgakov is certainly the greatest and most creative Orthodox theologian of the 20th century  —  having said that, you must realize that to be creative is not necessarily a good thing in Orthodox circles – but he is certainly one of the most speculative, thoughtful, creative Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. Sergius Bulgakov is associated with sophiology, the vision of God in the world and the world in God, centered on primordial God-matter, co-inherence of God and creation, and so on and so forth, a very heady vision. He finds Western theology, as summed up for him in the doctrine of transubstantiation put forward by Aquinas, to be a seabed of everything that was wrong in the West, particularly the triumph of reason over theology, reason over revelation. Transubstantiation, he says, is “rationalistic, groundless.” It contains within itself “the rationalism that was just beginning to raise its head and which would lead to the humanistic Renaissance.” Again, Renaissance is not normally seen as a good thing in Orthodox circles. The only way of getting out of such earthbound rationalism is to return to the Fathers, the Church Fathers. “By relying on the patristic doctrine,” Bulgakov writes, “we can exit the scholastic labyrinth and go out into the open air.” Scholasticism tends to be a bit of a dirty word in Orthodox circles. It’s invariably a bad thing. One of the many things I was trying to do in this book was to demonstrate the rootedness of scholasticism in Byzantine East and to argue that it is perfectly proper to Orthodox theology. But there is an anti-scholastic, anti-Thomas narrative going on in Bulgakov. 

There is also an anti-scholastic, anti-Thomas narrative going on in Vladimir Lossky, another very great figure of the 20th century, known especially for being Bulgakov’s nemesis. He produced much of the materials that were used in judgments that were made against Bulgakov, opposing his sophiology in the form of Gnosticism. But for Lossky, despite being extensively an enemy of Bulgakov in respect to the Sophia, wisdom question, he shared the same anti-Western animus. For Lossky, it is not so much the transubstantiation but the filioque – the dreaded words “and the Son” added to the Creed. It’s the filioque that represents everything that’s wrong with the West; its rationalism in particular and again it is Aquinas who is the chief villain of the piece. The filioque, for Lossky, is a” rationalization of the mystery of the Trinity and it’s a rationalization that has led inexorably to secularism.” 

For Lossky, Orthodox theology is all about the mystical experience. On the other hand, and quite differently, Western scholasticism is all about the reason. It’s about the elevation of the reason above almost everything else. There is no real apophatic theology in the West  —  no real sense of participation or theosis, deification; no real sense of mystery at the heart of theology in Western theology. Aquinas is the chief exponent and chief representative of everything deficient about the West. Again, Lossky doubts that between the positive rationalizing approach of the West and the negative apophatic mystical approach of the East, that there is any common ground at all. You’ll find similar sentiments in John Meyendoff, doubting whether you can apply the term “theology” to the respective enterprises of East and West.

So for Lossky, as for Bulgakov, it is only a creative return to the Fathers that is going to get us out of this sorry Western saga of decline and fall.  This position has become pretty much the standard within modern Orthodox theology at least until recent years, and Aquinas is invariably there at the center of these presentations of everything that’s wrong with the West  —  the archetypal Westerner and foremost champion of the scholastic method. The kind of flip side to this has also become common in Orthodox theology  —  to set up St Gregory Palamas, with his distinction between essence/energies, with his theology of deification based on experience – to set Palamas up as a kind of opposite to Aquinas, as our answer to Thomas, as an archetypal Easterner to hold up against an archetypal Westerner. So there is no doubt, in other words, of the prevailing narrative in Orthodox thought to set up in opposition to the rationalistic West represented by Aquinas, the mystical East represented by Palamas. I sympathize to some extent but I think there is an essential truth in this being the prevailing narrative.

But the real picture is much more complex, much more subtle. When we look at the Byzantine reaction to Aquinas in particular and in the first instance, the idea that there is any kind of necessary antagonism or even opposition between Eastern and Western approaches to theology must be seriously reconsidered. When we look closely at the facts, we find admirers of Aquinas at some very surprising places. I’ve given you the shining example of Gennadios Scholarius of whom I’ll speak more about anon. But we find these admirers of Aquinas in anti-Unionists, like Scholarius, in supporters of St. Gregory Palamas, and in opponents of St. Gregory Palamas. This very complex pattern of the Byzantine reception of Aquinas must cause us to seriously question the idea of theological otherness between East and West. Before saying much more about that, let me say a few things about Aquinas himself and his rootedness in the Greek patristic tradition.

  Some of you will know that Aquinas was greatly devoted to the Greek Fathers. He’s said to have expressed that he would prefer to have a copy of Chrysostom’s copy of the Commentary of St. Matthew to the whole city of Paris. Now whether anyone was actually offering him the city of Paris is a moot question. I don’t think it was quite like Henry of Navarre when he was being offered the throne of France if he would become a Catholic during the French War of the Religion when he came into the city and declared that [mistranslated as] Paris is rather a mess. Thomas’s regard for and rootedness in the patristic tradition, I think, comes out very clearly in his Catena Aurea, a collection of patristic commentaries on scripture. Chrysostom is the most cited author in that collection surpassing even Augustine there. But the most striking feature of the Catena Aurea is the prominence given to a near-contemporary Byzantine author, Theophylact of Ochrid. It is Thomas who makes Theophylact, an 11th century author, known in the West by commissioning translations and making him a part of his biblical container. This regard that Thomas has for Theophylace, a nearby Byzantine, a near-contemporary Byzantine author, speaks volumes of his irenic attitude to the Greeks of his own time.

In the 1260s, Thomas begins making extensive use of the Acts of the ecumenical councils, including the later ecumenical councils. He is using Constantinople II (553) in the 1260s and even Constantinople III (681) in the works of the early 1270s.  This use of conciliar materials went hand-in-hand with what I see as an ever-intensifying engagement with the Greek patristic tradition. We’ve long known of his love for and regard for Dionysius the Areopagite, but we’ve also got to recognize the centrality of John of Damascus in his system, and through John of Damascus, he had really the whole of patristic tradition condensed, as it were. I think Thomas’s devotion to the Greek Fathers certainly impacted his reaction, his response, and his thoughts on the Greeks of his own time. Note that he never calls the Greeks heretics; some of his contemporaries had no qualms about calling the Greeks heretics.

But I think Thomas’s rootedness in the Greek Fathers, conciliar materials and so on and so forth, is recognized by the Byzantines. They particularly admired his mastery of Aristotle. There the Byzantines aren’t recognizing something new and something foreign but recognizing Thomas, I think, as “one of us.” They’re not simply doing homage to a superior culture. On the contrary, the Byzantines were amazed that the Latins could produce anything so good. They tended to look down on the Latins as merchants, mercenaries, and so forth. They were amazed by Thomas’s learning, but not as a foreign import, but as one of us because of his rootedness in the Greek patristic and Greek philosophical tradition.  One of us. This is very much what I understand or put forward as the Byzantine Aquinas, looking at Aquinas from the perspective of the Byzantine East and really recognizing and acknowledging his rootedness in the Greek East. 

Let me turn for a moment to St. Gregory Palamas. You remember he is the one often held up as an opposite to Aquinas, as an archetypal Easterner to hold up against, an archetypal Westerner. I hope what I have said about Aquinas already will have begun to make the point that perhaps these “East/West” dichotomies do not actually hold water when you look closely, even at these supposed archetypes.

In fact, we find Palamas, for example, making good use of Augustine, admiring Augustine in the Planoudes translation made at the end of the 13th century, and even drawing upon images like the Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son within the context of his treatises against the Latin filioque. Palamas was heir to a long tradition of Byzantine scholasticism. He at one point makes the remarkable observation that one should not criticize the Latins for their use of syllogisms in theology. On the contrary, says Palamas, we have been taught by the Fathers to use syllogisms in theology. It is a great irony, I think, of Orthodox theology that the sort of anti-rational element is squarely to be associated not with Palamas, who “won” the battle in the 1340s and 1350s, but with his opponents, in particularly Barlaam of Calabrian, Gregory Akindynos, and Nikephorus Gregorus. All of them set up some sort of anti-rationalist discourse, disclaiming the possibility of any sort of productive union between philosophy and theology. There is nothing anti-rational, anti-Western or anti-Latin about the theology of Gregory Palamas. Indeed, he maintained close friendly contact with Latins of his own time. He sent his work to the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes and to the Latins in Para. Indeed, his sort of sympathies or his friendly relations with the Latins are something his enemies used against him.  All the enemies of Palamas are all anti-Latin, anti-Western and anti-rational, and Palamas is none of these things.

So, if we recognize Aquinas as shaped by the Greek Fathers, by the Greek philosophical traditions, and as at home in Byzantine (“the Byzantine Aquinas”), and we recognize Palamas’s high regard for Latin theology and for good relations with the Latins, then we might be better placed to understand how it could be that so many Byzantines, including anti-Unionists and pro-Palamites, would be so enthusiastic about Aquinas. I’ve mentioned Kydones, who ended up being converted to Roman Catholicism, and that is one particular story. But what particularly interests me is the phenomenon of anti-Unionists and pro-Palamites as admirers of Aquinas in Byzantium – in precisely the places where if you bought into the standard narrative of East/West dichotomy, you would not expect to find any appreciation of Aquinas. You would expect them to say, “Ah, this is Western rationalism. We do not like this.” But far from it.

Let us talk about the first anti-Unionist pro-Palamite admirer of Aquinas in my narrative. This is Neilos Kabasilas, who died in 1363. Neilos Kabasilas was a layman much of his life. He was elected Archbishop of Thessalonica in 1361 in succession to St. Gregory Palamas. He did not write much on hesychastic theology but was a supporter of Palamas. His main works were directed against the Latins, especially in his treatise, On the Procession of the Holy Spirit. He attacks Aquinas on his position of the filioque, but also seeks to draw from Aquinas against the filioque. Now, I will not go into all the details of how he does this, but it is a very intriguing, unsuccessful, but intriguing attempt to sort of wrested Thomas away from his own conclusions in support of the Greek position of the filioque. So, Thomas ended up being an opponent of the filioque for all his sensible acceptance of the filioque. As I say, not necessarily a kind of successful attempt to manipulate Thomas but it is intriguing. The interesting thing is that he tries it in the first place. He tries to sort of appropriate Aquinas for the Orthodox cause even in the matter of the filioque. It was a tremendously interesting phenomenon. Thomas became a 5th column within the Latin encampment on the matter of the filioque. Neilos makes use of the translations made by Demetrios Kydones and his brother, Prochoros, of the Summa contra gentiles, Summa theologicae, and De potentia. He admires the theological methodology of Thomas and makes use of it to some extent. He calls Thomas the “interpreter of the theologians” — the interpreter of the theologians — strictly talking about some of Thomas’s interpretations of some Christological material from the 5th century.  He admires the way in which Thomas is able to amplify and clarify patristic testimony. He is seeing Thomas as a voice of the Fathers in this respect. There was, as I say, a great deal of criticism, but at the same time, the overall credit is one of “cautious enthusiasm”. 

Another figure we might mention, another committed Palamite who is deeply enthusiastic about Aquinas, is someone I’ve mentioned already, Emperor John VI Kantakuzene. He was very supportive of his prime minister’s translation project. He paid for various copies to be made. He expressed his opinion that there was much in Aquinas which would be availed to the good of the Greek commonwealth. His support of Palamite theology in no way affected his admiration for Aquinas. John VI got involved in the affair involving Demetrios Kudone’s younger brother, Prochoros Kydones, a monk of Mt. Athos, who in the 1350s into the 1360s begans speaking up against Palamite theology and arguing, among other things, that the light of Tabor, the light of the Transfiguration, must be seen as merely created and not uncreated. The Palamites saw the light of Tabor as an instance of God’s self-revelation and cooperation, and because this is God’s self-revelation, it is evidently uncreated; it is God Himself, not a created act. John VI set himself to defeat Prochoros Kudones. Prochoros had produced a kind of assembly of material drawn from Aquinas in support of his stance on the created/uncreated character of the light of Tabor.  He produced 6 books:  1-5 are basically just lectures of Thomas, but 6 is his own disposition on the character of the light of Tabor. 

To cut a long story short, John VI does not attack books 1 through 5, which are pure Thomas. I think being so closely associated with the work of translation, he knew this was Aquinas. But he does attack book 6 which is basically Prochoros’s own work, his own sort of reflection on some principals drawn from Aquinas but is far from a faithful reflection of what Aquinas does actually have to say on matters of Transfiguration, for example, the Summa theologiae III, question 45. John VI adopts the extraordinary strategy to marshalling Aquinas against Prochoros. Again, I cannot go into all the details here. It is a rather complex argument, but he brings Thomas to bear, by name, against Prochoros, precisely recognizing that Prochoros is claiming a certain support of the angelic doctor here. “I bring before you the witness of Thomas,” he says, “teacher among the Latins, who breathes syllogisms rather than air, and against whom it would not be right for you to object.” And Thomas is then cited with evident approval here with a long extract from the Summa contra gentiles 1,9, and what follows: we have the passage on the twofold truth of divine things, one which reason can investigate, the other which escapes all human intellectual prying. The former pertaining to such things as God’s existence can be argued to demonstrate the latter. Such things as God’s triune nature cannot be demonstrated; they transcend rational demonstration. 

As I say, without going into all the details as they become quite complex, what John VI is doing is not criticizing Prochoros for using Aquinas, as has sometimes been interpreted in more recent literature, but he is criticizing Prochoros for being insufficiently Thomist, for not following Thomas. In no way does the condemnation of Prochoros mean a condemnation of Western theology in general? In general, the whole Palamite controversy with the exception of this footnote in the end (the Prochoros affair) was an anti-Palamite affair. Even when Western theology does enter in, there is no condemnation of Western theology by the condemnation of Prochoros Kudones in 1358.

Another figure I might mention briefly is Theophanes of Nicaea. Theophanes of Nicaea also writes against Prochoros and his character of the light of Tabor, again borrowing much of Thomas Aquinas: threefold division of knowledge, creation through the senses, faith based on revelation, and direct apprehension of God as he is (1 John 3:2) strikingly similar to the model we find in Summa contra gentiles IV.1 down to the citation of 1 John. We also have in Theophanes a proposal on the basis of Divine simplicity; the identity of God’s essence with His intellect, intellectual activity, and self-existence as Wisdom. Now, this is a Palamite figure espousing principles which are normally seen as foreign to Palamite theology and doing so on the authority of Aquinas. Yes, this does introduce some inconsistencies into his account of Palamite theology, but the interesting thing for our purpose is his use of Aquinas to bolster Palamite theology.

We have other anti-Unionist figures like Joseph Bryennios and Makarios Makres, who borrowed more or less both freely, directly, and without acknowledgement from Aquinas, for example, his arguments in support of celibacy and his arguments against Islam, taken wholesale from Aquinas and, in these cases, not attributed. 

Lest I give you the impression that everyone in Byzantium thought Aquinas was marvelous, there are several voices who did not appreciate Aquinas very much. The dominant voice here is one Kallistos Angelikoudes, who is one of the authors found in the Philokalia. Kallistos produced a systematic refutation of the Summa contra gentiles sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century. It is an enormous work and in it he announces his purpose in stark terms, “Against that which Thomas the Latin writes in heretical fashion and outside the chorus of the Holy Church, a clear refutation of his arrogant disregard for holy scripture.” Thomas’s great sin is his reliance on philosophy. Kallistos finds it deeply suspicious that Aquinas would refer to Aristotle as “the” philosopher. “In his wanton use of reason” — note here that we are getting into some of the anti-rational discourse associated with Palamas’s opponents in the 14th century and also with modern Orthodox theology. It is his use of reason and his reliance on philosophy that is the real problem. — “Thomas has lapsed into the errors of Arius and Mohammed,” says Kallistos Angelikoudes. He spares nothing in his critique. Angelikoudes does regard the Summa contra gentiles or Kata Eleon as a dig against the Greeks. It is “so full of lies and untruths, beholden to empty profane wisdom that it should be recognized as directed not against the pagans but against God’s holy Church.” Outer learning, utterly futile; outer learning has a demonic character. “In his love for philosophy, Thomas has fallen prey to the demons.”  

It is not an edifying work, by my estimation, but it does serve as a sign of the deep loathing present in Byzantine society against the Latins in general, and Latin theology in particular. But I think it really defeats itself in its failure to take Thomas seriously. This is not the approach of Gregory Palamas, Philotheos Kokkinos, the Patriarch of Constantinople and a Palamite figure, Neilos Kabasilas who we looked at, Theophanes of Nicaea, or Mark of Ephesus, the leader of the anti-Unionist party at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. All these are disposed toward Aquinas, given certain limitations and exceptions, and certainly in no way would any of these figures decry the use of reason in its proper place within theological endeavors. So, it is not a balanced work, this work of Kallistos Angelikoudes, and it is probably not lamented that it has long languished in total obscurity. But this sort of instinctive antipathy to the scholastic method is rare in Byzantium, but it has become quite common in recent modern Orthodox theology. 

Now let me say a few words about Gennadios Scholarios, again, and then we will come to a conclusion. Gennadios Scholarios regarded himself, as I mentioned, as Thomas’s greatest disciple. He was aware that Thomas’s authority was somewhat questioned in the West, that he had rivals, particularly among the Franciscans, and he singled out Dun Scotus as a rival. He regards Aquinas as not having the stamp of approval by the Church, the Roman Church, whereas the Franciscans did that stamp of approval. He loves Thomas for his use of Aristotle. Gennadios was a devoted student of Aristotelian philosophy from a young age. He also learned Latin from a young age. He translated and commented on Aquinas’s philosophical works and theological works. 

He always had to down play his Latin sympathies even during his time as the leader of the party opposed to union with the West. But he never departed from his basic attitude of enthusiasm for Thomas with a few exceptions. “This Thomas,” he observes, “although he was Latin by race and doctrine and so differs from us in those things in which the Roman Church has in recent time regrettably renovated, in other respects, he is wise and profitable to those who read him.” In Thomas’s exegesis, his philosophical works, and much of his theology, it is all good stuff. Where Thomas differs from the ancestral faith, he must, of course, be disregarded. But Thomas remains a figure of enormous value; one who witnesses to the universal patristic tradition of Asia and Europe, of East and West, of Greek Fathers and Latin — the common inheritance of Christians. Just like Demetrios Kydones before him, Scholarios was not welcoming in a foreign import but recognized him as “one of us”, albeit in unfamiliar Latin garb and with a few regrettable errors. Despite his unfortunate aberrations, says Scholarios, “we love this divinely-inspired and wise man.”

Scholarios was not an uncritical reader of Aquinas. He disagrees with him. He takes him on, not only on the points of departure from the teachings of the Orthodox Church, but in various matters. But Thomas is regarded as an enormous value and we have to simply forgive the unfortunate deviations that Thomas fell into because of the accident of his birth in the West.

Turning to a conclusion now. The idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between East and West, between scholasticism and Orthodox, really does not hold. There was no default setting of antipathy to Thomas among either the Palamites or anti-Unionists. Aquinas, as we have briefly seen, found admirers among the anti-Unionists as well as among the Unionists, among the Palamites as well as among the anti-Palamites. The Byzantines too welcomed Thomas in, welcomed him as “one of us” but welcomed him in critical fashion. They were capable of sophisticated reading that involved no doctrinal compromise but admiring him as an exceptionally able exponent of the universally shared Christian tradition and as an exponent of traditional Christian Hellenism rooted in scripture and the Fathers. 

To cut a long story short, the Byzantine reception of Aquinas must prompt us to revise the whole question of theological otherness between East and West.  The Byzantine recognized that it was possible to be both Eastern and Western, and it is perhaps that kind of deeply Hellenistic and properly Catholic approach that the Church needs most today. We could perhaps sum this all up in a exhortation  —  directed to the Orthodox: for the Orthodox to become more Western in order to become Orthodox; and to the Catholics: for the Catholics to become more Eastern in order to become more Catholic. Thank you very much.