Review of ‘Orthodox Readings of Aquinas’ by Marcus Plested

plested-aquinas

Dylan Pahman

[Note: A version of this review was published in The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 88, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 184-187. Published here with permission.]

ORTHODOX READINGS OF AQUINAS. By Marcus Plested. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 276. $99.00 Hard Cover, ISBN: 978-0-19-965065-1.

The encounter between the works of Thomas Aquinas and the Orthodox Church is often told in a narrative of opposition, whether in favor of Thomas against the Orthodox or in favor of the East against the West, Thomas being the foremost exemplar of the latter. Yet the largely untold history of Orthodox reception of Aquinas is, according to Marcus Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, much more complex. In his own words, his study “represents a first attempt at a comprehensive account of this deeply formative encounter, taking the story from the Byzantine era to the present day” (4). Plested’s “first attempt” has set a strong standard for future study, whether historical or systematic, whether focused on Thomas in particular or the relationship between the Eastern and Western theological traditions more broadly. With a few notable reservations, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas largely succeeds at its goal.

The book begins with a preliminary survey of the use of the Greek fathers in Aquinas and the Latin tradition in St. Gregory Palamas. This, in addition to noting the Byzantine roots of the scholastic tradition in St. John of Damascus inter alia, helps set the stage to address the all-too-common opposition of the Thomist West to the Palamite East. Plested shows how misguided such characterizations can be. Even if such narrowly conceived labels were accepted (surely the West is more than Thomist and the East more than Palamite), one must overlook key elements of each figure for the sake of such a dichotomy (Plested names Christos Yannaras and Stelios Ramphos as chief offenders in this regard).

Aquinas was substantially influenced by the Greek tradition. He draws heavily upon the Greek fathers. “A telling anecdote has him express his preference for a copy of St John Chrysostom’s commentary on Matthew over the whole city of Paris” (15), writes Plested. In addition, Thomas even ordered the translation of the biblical commentaries of the medieval, Byzantine scholar Theophylact of Ochrid and drew extensively from his work as well. Plested summarizes, “Taken in the round, Thomas’ profound commitment to Greek patristic and conciliar sources and the practical steps he took to extend the volume of such material available in Latin stand out by comparison with his contemporaries” (20).

Plested then notes a number of parallels between the theology of St. Augustine and that of St. Gregory Palamas. Many, he admits, are coincidental, occurring before Augustine’s De Trinitate was translated into Greek, but he notes that Augustine was received quite favorably by Palamas once his work was made more available. While Plested’s case is clearly weaker here, he establishes his basic point well: “the basic fact that an ‘archetypal Easterner’ should embrace an ‘archetypal Westerner,’ as Palamas does Augustine, is strange only if one begins with the assumption of an East-West dichotomy (with attendant archetypes) in the first place” (43).

From his initial survey of Thomas and Palamas, Plested proceeds to examine person after person in the Greek East and their reception of Aquinas. The picture that emerges is not one of a “Babylonian captivity” to Western influence—such reception was never uncritical—but rather a far more subtle Eastern engagement with one of the best minds of the Western tradition. “For all his regrettable errors in respect of certain dogmatic matters,” writes Plested, “[Thomas] has been received by figures such as John Kantakuzene, Neilos Kabasilas, Theophanes of Nicaea, and Gennadios Scholarios as an embodiment of the underlying congruity of the Greek and Latin instantiations of the Christian tradition” (224). He notes, in particular, that a great many of those who favorably received Thomas in the East were also decidedly anti-Unionist and pro-Palamite—something approaching an impossibility under the East-West dichotomies that are yet so popular today.

Despite my high esteem of Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, I must, however, note one significant shortfall. As a primarily historical study, it is comprehensive in the number of figures it covers, yet it is often far too brief when it comes to the details of each figure in question. One example may suffice: in Plested’s treatment of the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, he claims that Lossky launches “an all-out assault on Aquinas on distinctly Bulgakovian lines.” Yet he immediately adds, “For Lossky, it is not transubstantiation but the filioque that most aptly represents the rationalist excesses of Western theology” (195). While Lossky’s rhetoric may be harsh and at times hyperbolic (to the point of implying a likeness between the theology of Aquinas and Voltaire), Plested does not really address the specifics of Lossky’s objections to Aquinas. He names them, to be sure, noting, for example, how Lossky finds that Thomas’s “understanding of the Trinity in terms of relations of opposition reveals an inadmissible essentialism in which the persons are subsumed by the nature,” but he does not really address the substance of such a complaint. After all, if Lossky’s assessment of Aquinas is right, then his reservations should be taken seriously as well—his claim is tantamount to a charge of inadvertent modalism against Aquinas! Perhaps Lossky does dichotomize too much, but such an error does not therefore render all purported East-West incompatibilities moot either, a fact that Plested regrettably tends to overlook or minimalize throughout.

Notably it is the filioque in particular (unlike transubstantiation) that historically constitutes the major, theological disagreement between East and West. Plested himself notes again and again throughout his study that even those Orthodox historically sympathetic to Aquinas consistently reject this element of his Trinitarian theology. Thus the specifics of Lossky’s rejection merit further detail. Simply listing Lossky’s grievance and attendant attitude tell the reader nothing regarding whether such grievances are truly justified and how the history of the Orthodox reception of Aquinas might inform our assessment of the same questions today. It is unfortunate that Plested does not go into greater detail, though this does not seriously detract from the value of his study on the whole.

In the end, Plested wants to see more Orthodox scholars like Fr. Georges Florovsky, who are not afraid of positive, yet critical, engagement with the West. He writes, “Florovsky, it may be admitted, is something of a hero of this study” (203). I would echo his call and recommend Plested’s study as an important contribution toward heightened mutual understanding as well as more nuanced analysis between the Eastern and Western traditions. Among the Orthodox, for too long now, many have been quick to dismiss doctrines as being Western and therefore errant—without any other substantial disagreement—to the point of rejecting even some doctrines that historically are part of the consensus patrum, East and West (e.g. natural law). Orthodox Readings of Aquinas is a welcome and refreshing change in the face of such trends.

For Western scholars, Plested’s work reveals an oft-overlooked tradition of Eastern Thomism (or, at least, Thomist sympathizers in the East) that may bring a fresh perspective to bear on all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for Thomists today. Plested even notes that Gennadios Scholarios, Patriarch of Constantinople, claimed that there was no more dedicated admirer of Thomas in his day than him, and that this claim may in fact have been true given Western challenges to Aquinas in the fifteenth century. No doubt exploring such perspectives on the Angelic Doctor would uncover a few treasures of historic, philosophical, theological, and ecumenical interest.

Ultimately, Plested’s study accomplishes his stated goal, even if it leaves more work to be done. More than a mere “first attempt,” it has proven to be an achievement.

7 comments:

  1. Now, I hope, someone can conduct a rigorous comparison of the teachings and full philosophy of Aquinas and the Scholastics with Palamas and the Orthodox thinkers in that tradition. Personally, I think until the pre-theological concerns of metaphysics are addressed, the theology which is based on it cannot be meaningfully discussed except in a merely contrastive and descriptive manner.
    Maximos and Damascene may be the keys to understanding the two in parallel.

  2. I’v gotten myself banned from the “Orthodox Bridge” website for passionately defending St Thomas Aquinas.

    No, its not good enough that St Gregory Palamas and Gennadius Scholarious were great admirers of his. They medieval Orthodox bishops and theologians praised his theological acumen and insight. They “excused” the few places he made errors because “who can blame him for being born in the west?” Where did the Orthodox think St Thomas was wrong? Well, three things stand out. First, some of his defense of the Western Papacy. Second, the filioque, obviously. So far no surprises. Third, St Thomas rejected the Immaculate Conception. Medieval Byzantine Orthodox believed in it. And they thought St Thomas was wrong for rejecting it. But most of them agreed he was absolutely brilliant and perhaps the greatest theologian of their time. Gennadius Scholarious, one of the most pro-calamite anti-unionist theologians of the day, as he was fleeing the fall of Constantinople, took one thing with him, his prized possession, a copy of the Summa in Greek.

    No, some Orthodox Christians will not listen to this. They want to close their ears and pretend that this didn’t happen. Why? I have a lot of theories, none of them backed up by serious scholarship. But Marcus Plested is a serious scholar and Oxford University Press is a respected scholarly publisher. So don’t listen to me. Read the book.

    I’d just say that many Orthodox Christians, friends of mine, are very uncomfortable with what they think is “scholasticism.” They really have no idea what it is. And St Thomas Aquinas is the main bad guy that’s to blame for scholasticism and the “metaphysical” differences between East and West.

    They think that scholasticism is about “proving” Christian doctrine from human reason alone, and so they think that scholasticism is a form of humanist speculation that has drifted far from the Church’s Tradition. But read the first part of the Summa. St Thomas says that he does not seek to “prove” the “articles of faith.” They can be accepted on no other basis and no higher authority than the Revelation of God to Man. What he, and most of the great Orthodox theologians such as Sts Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, sought to do, is to use reason to teach, explicate, explain, and draw out the necessary implications of the faith in a clear and persuasive manner. Even Fr John Romanides, perhaps the leading anti-western thinker of the last century, said that what the theologian experiences in a manner beyond words and reason, he then goes on to use reason to find ways to catechize the rest of us.

    We all want someone or something to blame. It only human.

    1. Ryan,

      Thanks for your comment. I am an Orthodox Christian who has long admired Aquinas, so I sympathize with your frustration. I have yet to hear any of my fellow Orthodox brothers and sisters accurately explain to me what exactly it is in Aquinas they find so objectionable. I would have Plested’s book read by all Orthodox Christians. It is an important contribution to East-West dialogue.

  3. were it not for the hundred-dollar price tag, I’d like to see this book. put it on the wish-list and hope a library in my area gets it …

    i am a near-total novice on matters like this, but i would note that i one time saw a lecture (by the liturgy expert and chant performer in capella romana) where he showed us a greek manuscript and even some eastern hymns praising St Thomas Aquinas, even saying he was “a star of the west” and stuff like that …

    also, not challenging anyone here, but i am pretty surprised to read the comment say aquinas did not support the doctrine of the immaculate conception … but that some easterns did in his day … very surprising to read this… i thought the western church regarded aquinas’s “summa” as – even today, not just in the times of the schoolmen – being a proper standard or statement of what the catholic theology is. and i *thought* that the dogma of the immaculate conception was rejected by today’s orthodoxy …

    my bias is that i am impatient about a healing of the schism so christendon can get back on track in this day of so many enemies of the cross … so the idea of proto-western heroes being popular in the east (and the converse) is right up-my-alley.

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