Christ in Eastern Thought: Icons (9)

Byzantine piety was rooted in a geographical tradition where the idea of “image” had a cultic priority (173).    Meyendorff locates the iconoclastic imperial motives against icons in looking for a non-Muslim alternative to Greek Christianity.

Neo-Platonic Background

“It forced them to take the defence of material images, while their metaphysics considered matter as an essentially inferior state of existence.  Hence came their relative conception of the image, as a means of access to the divine prototype” (173).

Meyendorff even admits “From the moment paganism ceased to represetnt a real danger for the Christian Church, numerous references to images appeared in Christian literature” (175).

Iconodules reasoned that it wasn’t idolatry as long as the image wasn’t identified with the prototype.  Further, much of their argument rested on the claim that Christ assumed “all of human nature” and was “man in general” (185).


Neither side does a particularly good job of arguing.   The iconoclasts were wrong to say that “God” (whatever you want to mean by that term) cannot be circumscribed, for that would call the incarnation into question.  On the other hand, just because The Word took flesh, does not mean all images of the Word are warranted.   The iconodules make a huge logical jump on that point.


Christ in Eastern Thought: Damascene (8)

Defines nature as “a species which can’t be divided into other species” (154, quoting PG 94, col. 593).

Hypostasis: existence by itself (155).

“The Word has the initiative in the work of the Incarnation, and it is evident that the theory of enhypostasis while asserting and underlying Christ’s humanity, shows in an unequivocal way the primordial greatness of the divinity” (156).  No one will accuse John of Damascus of being a monothelite; in fact, his statement appears to be a restatement of the instrumentalization thesis.   Calvinists never say that Christ’s divinity overrides his humanity, or that the Holy Spirit mechanistically does so.  But if Calvinists are to be accused of monothelitism because the divine nature has precedence over the human nature, then the charge must also extend to John of Damascus.

Jesus’s hypostasis:  “constitutes or represents, in a sense, the whole of mankind” (160).  Reformed would say that Jesus represents the whole of mankind, but on covenantal not metaphysical grounds.

original sin: “Sin is not in nature but in the free choice” (162).  “The Greek Fathers conceived original sin as first of all hereditary mortality that mainatined mankind under the devil’s control” (162-163).  The consequence of the sin is that the soul submitted to the body.

John goes on to state that Christ only assumed the incorruptible passions like hunger and death, and not the passions leading to sin.  Interestingly, this isn’t that far removed from the Reformed contention that sin is accidental to the human nature and not a positive principle (cf Charles Hodge).

Christ Eastern Thought: Maximus (7)

“Being implies movement, but gives to that movement an opposite direction; movement does not consist in a fall, as in Origen, but of a movement upward toward God” (133-134).

Man’s will:  possesses a natural will, and that will is a freedom of nature in conformity with divine freedom and unable to lead to anything but the Good (137).

“For Maximus, and for the monastic tradition he represented on that point…the enjoyment of the senses is now more or less identified with the idea of sexual pleasure, and as such expresses what is corrupted in human nature from the moment of sin” (142).

Logos-tropos distinction:  every being posseses in himself a natural law but concretely exists only according to a mode of existence (145).

Gnomic will:  gnome reflects hypostasis or will, but Maximus is not saying that will is hypostatic.  It is the free will of created hypostases.  It is on a level with movement.  The point he wants to make is that sin is a personal action, not a natural one.  Christ did not possess a gnomic will (which raises the question, is he really consubstantial with our humanity?).

Alarmingly, Maximus writes, “Our salvation depends on our will” (149, Liber Asceticus, col. 953b).  “Spiritual life…supposes the transformation of our gnomic will into a ‘divine and angelic gnome'” (149).  Maximus goes on to say that union with God is natural to man, meaning that our nature points to it.


It’s a beautiful metaphysics, maybe the most beautiful.   While he did cut Origenism off at the knees, the spectre of Neo-Platonism and Ps. Dionysius haunts the realm.   We hear absolutely nothing of the gospel proclamation extra nos.  Meyendorff is quick to assure us that Maximus is no Pelagian.  Fair enough (though see comments by Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 17), but is he a semi-Pelagian?

Christ in Eastern Thought: Desert Spirituality (6)

Theme:  Spirituality and soteriology are tied together.  Further tying these two are three sub-themes:  doctrine of the imago dei, rejection of original sin, and deification (114).

Meyendorff begins with this interesting concession:  “There is no patrum consensus for a complete exegesis of Genesis 1:26-27) (114).   Another point where Orthodox Bridge is wrong.

“Image implies a participation in the divine nature” (114).  Commenting on Cyril, Meyendorff says “It appears from this passage that the proper dignity of human nature, as conceived by God and realized by Adam, consists of going beyond itself and receiving illuminating grace” (115).  This is the Eastern version of the Latin donum superadditum.

On freedom:  “The original existence of man presupposed a free participation in God through the intermediary of the superior elements of the human composite, essentially the intellect” (116; cf. McCormack essay and comments on Damascene).

Sin, for Cyril, is conceived as an illness (117).

A Thought:  If salvation is simply participation, does this mean that salvation is in some sense an arising upward of the inner man?  How does this square with the extra nos that comes by preaching?  Further, how does it escape Feuerbach’s critique?

Prayer: principal means of liberating the mind.  “This liberation implies for Evagrius a dematerialization…a prelude to the immaterial gnosis” (121).

Meyendorff is aware that desert spirituality, which seem a communion in the Archetype, borders on semi-Pelagianism.  He assures us this is not the case, for this is a real communion between image and archetype (125).  Perhaps, but if this paradigm is seen to be nonbiblical and neo-Platonic, then it is in trouble.

Rather than shying away from this neo-Platonic language, Meyendorff embraces it:  “All things exist by participation in the Only Existing One, but man has a particular way in which he participates in God, different from that of other beings. He communicates with him freely, for he carries in himself the image of the Creator.  Deification is precisely this free and conscious participation in the divine life” (128-129).

Christ Eastern Thought: False Dionysius (5)

A new “Alexandrianism” appeared in the church after the condemnations of Origen.

“God is a super-essence and therefore can be identified with no being as object of knowledge.  He is beyond any knowledge” (94). How, then, can we know God if he is “beyond-knowing?”  False Dionysius’s answer:  “the mind must go out of itself, for the knowledge of God is beyond the mind” (95).

In distinction from Greek polytheism, Dionysius claims we can’t know God through the natural processes of the senses (99).  I agree to a point.  I do wonder if this meshes with Romans 1:20.

Divine manifestations are God’s names and thus truly present in the world.   No real problem, but one must ask:  are these divine manifestations in a divine hierarchy?  If so, have we really overcome neo-platonism?  Meyendorff appears to answer the question:  the procession is not a dimunition of the divine being but a presence of God in the fullness of his being (100-101).  Fair enough, but why then the need for hierarchy at all?


Meyendorff gives a lucid summary of neo-platonic ontology:

All reality proceeds from the One, transcendent and unpartakeable, and is determined in a rigorous system of gradations, in proportion to the remoteness of each being in relation to its origin.  Each superior order (taxis) serves, on the other hand, as an intermediary for the inferiors, and, on the other hand, is itself divided into three elements:  the unpartakeble , the partakable, and the participating, and constitutes a triad (101, cf. Celestial Hierarchy, V, 6).


Triad of bishop, priest, deacon.   Meyendorff notes (and disapproves!) of the intermediary structure.


  1. How coherent is it to speak of the mind knowing by going outside of itself?  We are back to chain of being.  Something is simply wrong with man qua man that we need something added to him (and they don’t mean wrong in the sense of sin, but of finitude).
  2. Meyendorff downplays the role of Ps.Dionysius in the East.

Christ in Eastern Thought: Suffered in flesh (4)

At stake was Christ’s identity and the nature of the union (70).  Since all agreed that the divine nature was impassible, this necessitated a hard distinction between person and nature.

Sidenote:  Gregory of Nyssa saw the image of God not applying to every individual but to the whole of mankind (74).

Leontius of Jerusaelm:  the hypostasis of Christ is the archetype of the whole of mankind (ibid).  If this is true, as JM notes, how can Christ have a concrete manhood?

Was Christ really human?  “Most Byzantine writers, however, have refused to recognize in Christ any ignorance, and explained such passages as Lk. 2:52 as a pedagogical tactic on the part of Christ” (87).  Whatever faults Reformed Christology may have, it does not have this fault.  Here we make a clean and healthy break with Byzantine Christology.

Their reasoning why is interesting.   “There was also a certain philosophy of gnosis, which made knowledge the sign par excellence of unfallen nature” (87).  Back to chain-of-being ontology.  Ignorance, or lack, is sin.

Christ in Eastern Thought: Origenism (3)

This chapter deals with the post-Chalcedonian problems created by Origen’s disciples.  I don’t have a dog in this fight since I think Origen’s own views are clear enough.  I think Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa are far closer to Origen than many would care to admit.

“From its origin, monastic asceticism had suffered the temptation of Platonic spiritualism” (50).

Meyendorff insists that the anathemas of the Fifth Council refute the notion that Byzantine Christianity is Hellenistic (57).  He cites O. Cullman who argues that biblical time contrasts with Greek time, the latter being a circle and the former an ascending line.   True, the council did condemn some of the worst aspects of Hellenism.  I just maintain that the Byzantine church never made a full break with it (and for proof see the fathers on the goodness of married sexual intimacy).

Evagrian Spirituality

“Man, a fallen intellect, is called to come back to his primitive state, that is, a state of purely intellectual activity” (59).  Admittedly, much of Evagrian spirituality was condemned by the council.   Still, he remained influential in the east.  Meyendorff notes that for this tradition we see

“detachment from the passions, continuous concentation, the fight against all distraction, the superiority of mental prayer over psalmody (!!!!), the fear of any concept provoked by imagination, and the return of the mind upon itself as a condition of its union with God” (59-60)

There is nothing remotely Christian (or even Hebraic) about that sentence.  This was the teaching adopted by Maximus, Climacus, and Palamas.   They did make one key change:  intellectual prayer became “the Jesus Prayer…The heart, not the intellect–takes the central place” (60).

The chapter ends with a fine discussion of enhypostasis:  no nature without a hypostasis–the existence “within something” (67).