Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pangiotes K. Chrestiou, Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers. G. Dion. Dragas, transl.

One of the nice things about summer is that it gives me a lot of time to read, so that means that I have more books to review. The book that I'm reviewing today, Pangiotes K. Chrestiou's Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers was something of a find as I was browsing the theological shelves at my wife's favourite theological library on campus. I don't often get a chance to read the Eastern Orthodox side of things, so I welcomed the chance to do so here. Eastern Orthodoxy is, after all, a rather different theological world from the Western traditions of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Yet, all three traditions (Protestantism, unfortunately, the least of these) have or are recognizing the continuity between themselves and the Fathers, so many of the questions which concern me on this blog concern the Eastern Orthodox world as well.

This book is the translation of the introductory part of Crestiou's Greek Patrology (1979) and allows us a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox view of the Fathers. I say, Greek Orthodox because the tone throughout this book is an emphasis on the importance of the Greek influence on Christianity extending even to the pre-Christian classical era (exemplified in Plato). Here we find the tradition of Moses' influence on Plato or the origin of Neoplatonism through the Christian born Ammonias cited without much comment. Both of these traditions have patristic origins, but not many Western trained academics would be willing to cite them without trying to distance themselves from them. For myself, I find both of these suggestions interesting, but I really don't know how you'd prove the connections implied.

Similarly, the section discussing the importance of Greek for the development of Christianity is striking in its implication that the only way that one can be orthodox is through the Greek tradition of the Fathers. The connection that Crestou makes between heresy and different languages is a case and point. He argues that the extension of Christian writing into different languages tended to be done by heretics, citing Tertullian, later in life a Montantist, in the case of Latin and Tatian, who started his own sect, in the case of Syriac. He doesn't note that both Tertullain and Tatian started off as orthodox and have left us orthodox writing which continue to be respected in patristic circles. I'm also curious to know how his non-Greek Orthodox coreligionists take his philohellinist position.

Another interesting element of this emphasis on the Greek tradition is an almost total neglect of both the Western and Eastern non-Greek traditions which are usually accepted as elements of most patrologies. Western writers are hardly ever mentioned and, when they are, usually they are mentioned with disapproval. Now, to an extent, this is fair enough. Given the striking ignorance of most Western Christians of Eastern Orthodoxy, a little turnabout is fair play. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, not all Western writers are out of the patristic canon in the East, so I'm not sure why these aren't mentioned. Perhaps my orthodox readers can enlightenment on this point.

The discussion of Church Fathers, while more limited geographically, is expanded in time by extending the patristic age to include the Byzantine period. This is not a common practice in the West, but it makes sense in the East because the sense of continuity with the patristic era is never really broken. Ecclesiastical writers even in the last years of the Byzantine Empire continued to see themselves very much in continuity with the Fathers in the more widely acknowledged limits of the patristic era (c.AD 70-750). The reason for the more narrow definition of the patristic era in most modern treatments appears to have been that, after St. John of Damascus, theological writers were more purely derivative and, hence, they didn't deserve the title of Church Father. I sometimes wonder if that isn't our own impoverished idea of tradition and our over-emphasis on creativity in theological writing that is blinding us. Writing in a tradition is more confining, but opportunities for originality appear when new problems are thrown at us and we struggle to figure out how to deal with them in the context of our tradition. The Hesychiast controversy in the 14th century is an excellent example of this kind of problem in Eastern Orthodox and it spawned a flowering of theological writings including St. Gregory Palamas and others who, eventually, prevailed, preserving the mystical tradition of Orthodoxy against their more rationalistic opponents. The fact that Palamas and other used the Fathers who proceeded them shouldn't change the fact that they were forced to do so differently than their predecessors had done before.

As a side note, the translation is generally a good one, but there are times when the vocabulary and style can be distracting; not so much wrong as odd. I suspect this is the survival of Hellenisms in the English, but this doesn't detract from the meaning intended.

As an overview of Greek Orthodox thinking on the Fathers, this is a book well worth reading. Be ready for the Greek slant, of course, but this is an good way to see the Fathers from a rather different angle than most of us are used to.



R. E. Aguirre. said...

Excellent review and keen eye on the Orthodox slant.

R. E. Aguirre

Maureen said...

That's pretty amusing, considering that I've seen a lot of authors commenting on how Greek speaking areas were very clever on doctrine, but also full of very clever heretics; whereas the rustics who wrote in Latin (horrors!) preserved true doctrine.
Clearly, we need a food fight to clear this up. ;)

But I guess the Greek heretics don't count if their writings mostly don't exist.... :)

Phil Snider said...


I think the problem has been the influence of Greek philosophy, especially Platonism. Eastern Orthodoxy has had a tendency to be more Platonic than Western traditions, at least from the scholastic era onwards. That said, the influence of Greek philosophy and, especially, Platonism, is important for both Latin and Greek Fathers.

It is important to recognize that philosophy is a constant for both Latin and Greek fathers. I suspect the view you are noting is just reflecting the Roman cultural stereotypes about themselves (hard-working and practical) and the Greeks (smart, but shifty). I don't think they bear up to examination.