Review of Christological Reflections of the Modern Eastern Orthodox Theologians

OCP Icon of Christ the Pantocrator., written by OCP Romanian Delegate & Iconographer Anca Sirbu.
OCP Icon of Christ the Pantocrator, written by OCP Romanian Delegate & Iconographer Anca Sirbu.

Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob – Chief of COS – 26/11/18

Modern Eastern Orthodox Theologians are generally conscientious in keeping their Christological reflections within the bounds of the Chalcedonian faith formula regarding nature/s of Christ. It is apparent in their writings that there is an inherent tension between the obligation to safeguard the Chalcedonian expression, and defend their Christological orientation from inclining towards an Antiochene position, namely, emphasizing the idea of an independent human hypostasis in Jesus Christ. It became a norm for many of the Eastern Orthodox Theologians, (even of the twentieth century,) to make conscious and constant attempts to reconcile the Chalcedonian Christological position with St. Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of hypostatic union in Christ. This tendency reveals the influence of neo-Chalcedonianism in the understanding of modern thinkers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Although, they do not feel that the western understanding of Chalcedonian Christological formula and the Tome of Leo represents their Christological position.

Theologians of the Roman Catholic Communion, with hardly any exemption, consider the Chalcedonian Christological formulations, which is practically the Tome of Leo, to be the definitive end of the early Christological discourses and controversies. Aiden Nichols comments on the nature of Eastern Orthodox Christology: “The Orthodox regard these seven Councils as internally related, a kind of symphony rendered one by a single major theme. That theme is the affirmation that in Jesus Christ there is one person, who is divine, and in two natures, divine and human.” Many modern Eastern Orthodox Theologians are aware of their Christological reflections having lesser traits of moderate Antiochianism of the Chalcedonian proclamation. At the same time, there is an apparent tension between the neo-Chalcedonian theory attested at the Council of Constantinople in 553, and the moderate Antiochianism reaffirmed at the next council held in 680 – 81. The former holds to the en-hypostasis theory, stating that Jesus Christ has the hypostasis of Divine Logos to which humanity is en-hypostasised, while the latter affirms the two wills (Divine and human) in Jesus along with their proper operations.

An inquiry into the details of Christological reflections made by all prominent contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians would be too vast a subject for a single article, so the scope of this study is limited to seeing how the previously mentioned theme is treated by scholars from both the Greek Orthodox Church and from among the Russian Orthodox émigrés in the western world. Any study about the Christological reflections would remain incomplete without mentioning the Christological dimensions of Soteriology expressed in the writings of many of the prominent theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.

Christo-Centrism in Georges Florovsky’s Theology
Archpriest Georges Vasil’evich Florovsky (1896 – 1979) is regarded as the mastermind and the most shining protagonist of the Russian Orthodox theological revival of the 20th Century. He is commonly credited with initiating a return to a Patristic orientation in twentieth-century Orthodox Theology. “For him, Patristic theology offered the single norm by which all theological proposals were to be judged.” The whole programme of ‘neo-Patristic Synthesis’ constituted a project of renewing and adapting the thought of the Church Fathers to the context of the 20th century and its implementation to modern philosophical-theological issues. It involves an invitation to explore the depths of the theology in the Patristic sources and to present it to today’s world through a balanced hermeneutics, synthesizing between the mind of the Fathers and modern ways of thinking.

Florovsky’s theology in general and neo-patristic synthesis, in particular, is deeply Christo-centric. For him, the whole ministry and functioning of the Church are to be understood Christologically. Andrew Louth comments on the Christo-centrism in Florovsky’s theological understanding: “Christ stands at the center of Florovsky’s understanding of theology, and theological authority; the human exercise of that authority is only possible owing to the presence of the spirit of Christ, whether exercised by synods, bishops, or the radical authority of those who have emptied themselves and become vessels of the spirit… the neo-patristic synthesis was intended to refocus theology on the mystery of Christ crucified and risen.” Florovsky was always afraid of defocusing theology from its centrality in the Logos, the one involved in the creation of this world and present through the incarnation and the continuity of the work of His Spirit in the Church.

Obviously, Florovsky was a defender of the Chalcedonian Christological position, but he was extremely careful in not falling into the moderate Antiochianism, which was a constant undertone in the Western Christological orientation. He always sympathized more with Alexandria than Antioch, insisting that there was no separate human hypostasis in Christ. He writes: “It was not a man who died on the cross. In Christ, there was no human hypostasis.” His Christological position that no new hypostasis came into existence through the incarnation of the Logos, is clearly in line with the doctrinal position of Leontious of Byzantium, who explained that the humanity of Jesus Christ was enhypostasized in the hypostasis of the divine Logos. This position was accepted by the Council held in Constantinople in 553. From an ecumenical perspective, Florovsky deserves appreciation for his explicit inclination to firmly support the Christological position of Cyril of Alexandria, relating to the undivided Church.
Florovsky never viewed Christology apart from the context of redemption. For him, the crux of Patristic Christology is its soteriological concern. He writes: “The very fact of the Incarnation was usually interpreted in early Christian theology in the perspective of Redemption. Erroneous Conceptions of the Person of Christ with which the early Church had to wrestle were criticized and refuted precisely when they tended to undermine the reality of human Redemption”.

Florovsky consistently maintains this soteriological undertone all through his Christological reflections. For him, the whole edifice of Christological doctrine loses its meaning if the soteriological dimension is lost. He even criticizes the Tome of Leo, which was the basic document behind the Christological formulation of the Council of Chalcedon. In his book, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, he writes thus: “Pope Leo proceeds from soteriological motives. Only the acceptance and assimilation of our own nature by him, whom neither sin could ensnare nor death could imprison, could open up the possibility of victory over sin and death… He defines the completeness of union as the unity of Person. However, he never defines directly and precisely what he means by “person.” This was not an accidental oversight. It would be inappropriate to pass this over in silence in a dogmatic Tome. But Pope Leo did not know how to define the person.” This sharp criticism can be viewed as a reaction against the doctrinal position Pope Leo imposed on Chalcedon which was a clear deviation from the earlier position of the Fathers of the Church, especially of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Florovsky even “regarded (it) as an endemic Latin tendency to ‘Nestorianize’, a tendency perpetuated, indeed aggravated, he said, in Protestantism.” For him the ‘Antiochene’ tendency to overemphasize the humanity of Jesus Christ was perpetuated in the West with far-reaching consequences, even echoing in the understanding of Christ in the contemporary Protestant West. “Florovsky was bold enough to say that: ‘modern man [in his desperate self-reliance] is tempted by the Nestorian extreme’ of separating Christ into the two natures and in effect, concentrating almost solely on the human historical figure.” For him, the Nestorian tendency in the West reached its zenith in the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth and in the theological expositions of Reinhold Niebuhr. The moderate Antiochene tendency perpetuated in the West is seen by Florovsky as a deviation from the soteriologically justifiable theological position of the early Fathers of the Church.

Person and Economy of Christ in Vladimir Lossky’s Theology
Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky (1903 – 1958) was one of the great architects of the Eastern Orthodox Patristic Revival of the twentieth century, and one of the most prominent contemporary theologians within the Russian Diaspora. Lossky’s theology is totally an exploration and exposition of the mind of the Fathers. He brilliantly establishes his own theological perspectives in the form of patristic hermeneutics. According to Lossky’s understanding, Eastern theology is necessarily and essentially apophatic and mystical. In contrast to western theological categories, he does not regard apophaticism and mysticism as branches of theology, but rather as the essential nature and attitude which should undergird the whole theological discourse. It is not a parallel ascent of intellectual inquiry to a higher plane of truth, but the very activity of the Church integrating theology and spirituality. For Lossky, Theology is inseparably united with the life of the Church. Mysticism in the eastern tradition is not something detached from intellectual pursuit, but complementary to it and transcending it in the higher stages of spiritual growth towards ‘theosis’. His Christology is developed in the same way. Even though he affirmed his allegiance to the Chalcedonian Christological position he mainly concentrates on presenting the Economy of God the Son with its inseparable soteriological dimensions.

Quoting Maximus, the Confessor Lossky presents the theosis of human beings as the ultimate common goal of the creation of humanity and the incarnation. “God descends to the world and becomes man, and man is raised towards divine fullness and becomes god, because this union of two natures, the divine, and the human, has been determined in the eternal counsel of God, and because it is the final end for which the world was created out of nothing.” Lossky summarized the soteriological significance of the whole Christ event primarily as the restoration of creation to the pre-fallen condition.

His birth of the virgin, He surpassed the division of human nature into male and female. On the cross, he unites paradise, the dwelling place of the first men before the fall, with the terrestrial reality where the fallen descendants of the first Adam now dwell; … At His ascension, first of all, He unites earth to the heavenly spheres, that is to the sensible heaven; then He penetrates into the empyreum, passes through the angelic hierarchies and united the spiritual heaven, the world of mind, with the sensible world. Finally like a new cosmic Adam, He presents to the Father the totality of the universe restored to unity in Him, by uniting the created to the uncreated.

Traits of the re-capitulation theory which St. Irenaeus of Lyons derived from St. Paul (Eph. 1: 10), are well reflected in this passage from Lossky. For him the primary aspect of redemption is recapitulation. He writes; “The mystery of our redemption leads up to what the Fathers call recapitulation of our nature by Christ and in Christ.” He regarded the theosis of human beings as the ultimate common purpose behind the creation of humanity and the incarnation. Quoting Maximus the Confessor Lossky explains thus: “God descends to the world and becomes man, and man is raised towards divine fullness and becomes god, because this union of two natures, the divine, and the human, has been determined in the eternal counsel of God, and because it is the final end for which the world has been created out of nothing.” Lossky identified and presented very well the concept of the all-encompassing paternal love expressed in the incarnation, which was also reflected by St. Cyril of Alexandria. He discusses it in detail in his book The Vision of God.

In Lossky’s view, the Christological and Pneumatological elements have equal footing in ecclesiology. For him, Pentecost is not a continuation of the Incarnation, but a result of it and the work of the Holy Spirit is not subordinate to that of the Son, but a completion of it. Humanity became fit to receive the Holy Spirit when redeemed by the salvific work of the Son. The Economy of the Holy Spirit makes human beings grow towards the complete acquisition of the likeness of God being in the ‘body of Christ’.

While maintaining their inseparability, however, Lossky also makes a distinction between the economy of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit. Lossky extends his distinction between “nature” and “person” into his synthesis of Christology and Pneumatology. In this scheme, the content of Christology refers to the “objective” (or, nature) aspect of the Church, whereas the content of Pneumatology refers to the “subjective” (or, personal) aspect.
Lossky strongly holds the doctrinal position of Maximus the Confessor in regard to Christology, namely, the idea that despite having two separate wills existing in Jesus Christ the human will was completely submitted to the divine will to avoid any conflict of wills. Unlike Florovsky, in his Christological doctrine, Lossky inclines towards moderate Antiochianism which as attested by the council of Constantinople in the year 681. Quoting John of Damascus he even speaks of a conflict of interest between the wills at the time of the suffering of Jesus Christ, thus explicitly exposing a position inclined towards moderate Antiochianism in line with the western Christological position of the post-Chalcedonian era.

Christ and Communion in John Zizioulas’ Theology
Metropolitan John Zizioulas, a prominent theologian of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, presented his theology in the light of the concepts of personhood and communion. Zizioulas showed an exceptional brilliance in synthesizing patristic thoughts with Greek philosophical propositions and presented it to modern readers with the notion of personhood and communion. He was an ardent critic of the western tendency to identify personhood with individualism, the root of which could be traced back to the 5th Century Boethius, who defined person as an individual substance of a rational nature. For him Christ is the realization of communion between the creator and creation, in whom we acquire true personhood which transcends the isolation and otherness, effectively becoming His ecclesia.

For him what we acquire in Christ is growth from a biologically born individual to a person in communion with God, having a hope of being eternal with Him. Zizioulas considers it an entry into a new mode of existence, a ‘hypostasis of ecclesial existence’ which one can acquire through baptism and sacramental union with Christ. He writes: Christology, in the definitive form which the Fathers gave it, looks towards a single goal of purely existential significance, the goal of giving man the assurance that the quest for the person, not as a “mask” or as a “tragic figure,” but as the authentic person, is not mythical or nostalgic but is a historical reality. Jesus Christ does not justify the title Savior because He brings the world a beautiful revelation, a sublime teaching about the person, but because He realizes in history the very reality of the person and makes it the basis and “hypostasis” of the person for every man.

Gaining of that personhood in Christ entails liberation from the biological limitations and confinements of this world, which we can acquire by using our free will to choose to be in Christ, like the incarnation of God the Son out of free will. Being in Christ is becoming a person in communion in eternity by acquiring ‘ecclesial hypostasis.’

Zizioulas holds that the difference in Christological positions of Western and Eastern Fathers of the Church regarding the union of Divinity and Humanity in Christ is rooted in the beginning point of Christological inquiry. Similarly, in the case of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Western Christological position was based on the concept of ‘natures’ or ‘substances,’ whereas the Eastern Fathers, like St. Cyril of Alexandria, used the hypostasis as the starting point of their Christology. Christological discussions related to the doctrinal position of Chalcedon are virtually absent in Zizioulas’ work. For him, the realization of the human union with God by acquiring the personhood in which we share the eternity in communion with God through the incarnate Logos remains the central theme of Christology. Ecclesia, being the platform for communion opens up the way for us to attain true personhood in Eucharistic union with Christ.
Conclusion

The Eastern Orthodox Theologians under consideration in this article were very successful in synthesizing answers to the modern existential question, who is Jesus Christ for me? They were also successful in dealing with the traditional Christological concerns, namely, the person and economy of Christ. They brilliantly kept a good balance in reflecting on the soteriological significance of the economy of Christ while totally safeguarding the doctrinal position of their Churches.

Georges Florovsky expressed originality and courage in clarifying the doctrinal position which holds the soteriological justification of the Christ event in line with the Christological position of the undivided Church, even without crossing the boundaries of the Chalcedonian formulations. He stands out with his genuine and unbiased reflections with reference to historical documents, without deviating from the prime motive in Christology, namely, concern about salvation, and the Christological position of his own Ecclesial tradition. Vladimir Lossky’s Christological reflections are mostly done on the premises of patristic thought, through his hermeneutics of patristic references with soteriological undertones. He tries to keep the balance between personal experience of Christ and the ecclesial dimensions of life in Christ. His doctrinal position concerning the person of Christ does not seem totally convincing in view of his reflections on the soteriological aspects of the economy of Christ. John Zizioulas concentrates entirely on personhood and communion. While expressing little interest in clarifying his doctrinal position regarding the Person of Christ, he showed exceptional brilliance in addressing the major existential questions of modern man, like individual identity, human freedom etc. from the perspective of Orthodox theology. He reduces all humanity’s concerns to the one aspect of being in communion with God, through the ecclesia, the body of Christ. These contemporary Eastern Orthodox Theologians could all be regarded as models and torchbearers for the future emerging theological figures of the entire Orthodox tradition, through their ability to develop the theology which unites doctrinal stability with contemporary relevance.

References: 

Aiden Nichols, Light From the East, 93.

Dumitru Stâniloae, “The Christology of the Synods” Ekklesiastikos Pharos 56 (1976), pp. 130-7.

Aiden Nichols, Light From the East, 91.

Peter Bouteneff, “Christ and Salvation”,    100, 101.

Paul L. Gavrilyuk, “Florovsky’sNeopatristic Synthesis and the Future Ways of Orthodox Theology” in Orthodox Constructions of the West (ed. George E. Demopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou; New York: Fordham University Press, 2013) 102.

Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian religious Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 1.

Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present (Downers Grove: IVP Academics, 2015) 92, 93.

Georges Florovsky, “The Resurrection of Life,” Bulletin of the Harward University Divinity School, XLIX, No. 8 (April 1952) 16.

F.L. Cross and E.A Livingstone ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 971.

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption (Belmont: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976) 163.

Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of 5th Century, http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/fathers_florovsky_3.htm

George H. Williams, “The Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Georges Florovsky” in Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual and Orthodox Churchman (ed. Andrew Blane; New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1993) 299.

Williams, “The Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Georges Florovsky.

Williams, “The Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Georges Florovsky.

Nichols, Light From the East, 21, 22; Cross and Livingston, ed., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 997; Williams Rowan Douglas Williams, “The Theology of Vladimir NikolaievichLossky: An Exposition and Critique,” Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 1975  http://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:15b86a5d-21f4-44a3-95bb-b8543d326658, 1,2.; T. Paul Varghese, The Freedom of Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973) 7.

Nichols, Light From the East, 26.

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1976)136.

Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 137.

J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A7C Black, 1977) 376.

Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1985) 108.

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1976) 136.

Vladimir Lossky, The Vision of God (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1983) 98.

Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 159, 166-67.

Calinic (Kevin M.) Berger, “Does the Eucharist Make the Church? An Ecclesiological Comparison of
Stäniloae and Zlzioulas,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly51:1 (2007) 27.

Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Incarnation (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 2001) 107.

Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Incarnation, 109.

John  Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: T & T Clark, 2007) 349.

John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion  (New York: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1985) 53.

Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 54.

John D. Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics(New York: T&T Clark, 2008) 104; John Zizioulas, “The Existential Significance of Orthodox Ecclesiology,” StudiaUniversitatisBabeş-Bolyai, TheologiaOrthodoxa, LIV, 1, (2009) 45.

Source:
OCP-COS

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