Review of Marcus Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

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In Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, Marcus Plested argues that the historical use of scholastic methods and philosophy, and the reception of Thomas Aquinas among the Orthodox, bears little resemblance to the picture painted by contemporary polemicists.

The book’s first section, “Greek East and Latin West: An Exercises in Multiple Perspective,” focuses on Aquinas and St. Gregory Palamas, who are often presented as exemplars of two irreconcilable theological perspectives. Plested argues however, that Aquinas is much more “Greek” and apophatic in his theology, and Palamas more “Scholastic” and rational in his methods than is often suggested. The primary example of this for Aquinas is his reliance not on the Latin St. Augustine, as one would expect, but on the Greek St. John Chrysostom who “… is the single most cited author…” in all of Aquinas’ work. (18) Furthermore, Plested identifies the mystical thread running throughout all of Aquinas’ works, and emphasizes that “… any presentation of Thomas that paints him as an out-and-out rationalist… will fall short of the truth. (14) Plested then highlights that Palamas was “… praised for his mastery of Aristotle…” and logic, and penned theological works that were just as systematic and, dare one say, scholastic as those of Aquinas. Perhaps the most important of Plested’s revelations in this first section is that there existed no clear division between Scholastics and anti-Palamites on the one hand, and anti-Scholastics and and anti-Palamites on the other has no basis in history. In fact, the record shows that some of Palamas’ chief rivals, such as Barlaam of Calabria, were opponents of logic and rational argument within the theological discipline.

Section two, “Byzantine Readings of Aquinas,” is a chronological survey that details how Aquinas was received in the Christian East during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Plested demonstrates that Aquinas was widely read among Orthodox intellectuals and hierarchs, and even had loyal followers who used his works to defend Orthodox Christianity and Palamism against the Latin West. Gennadios Scholarios, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1454 to 1464 CE, provides this praise and lamentation of Aquinas:

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 operation. Then you would have been as infallible in theological matters as you are in this treatise on ethics. (132)

Methods one might today label as “Scholastic” were also widely used throughout these centuries, even by stalwart defenders of the Orthodox faith, such as St. Mark of Ephesus:”Like Palamas and indeed Aquinas he expressly commends and embraces syllogistic reasoning even in the highest realms of theology – so long as proper subservience to the authority of scripture and the Fathers be maintained.”

The third and final section, “Ottoman Era and Modern Orthodox Readings of Aquinas,” surveys receptions of Aquinas in both Orthodox Greece and Orthodox Russia from the fall of Constantinople to our modern era. Here Plested shows that the staunch opposition to Aquinas one finds in modern Orthodox thinkers like Lossky and Romanides has not been the prevailing position since the advent of Aquinas’ works in the Orthodox East, but is rather unique to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the Greek Church fell under the rule of the Ottomans, engagement and appreciation for Aquinas continued:

… Gennadios’ anti-unionist but otherwise pro-Latin stance achieved normative status in this period… [Aquinas] remains in the days of the Ottoman Empire, as in the Byzantine, a prominent interlocutor and recurrent resource for Orthodox theology. (169)

Plested notes that appreciation for Scholasticism and Thomism found its way into the Kievan school of Orthodox thought, and even became its preferred method of inquiry and pedagogy. Even St. Dimitri of Rostov’s theological works indicate that he was well-versed in Aquinas, as they bear, in Plested’s words, “… unmistakable traces of his Western learning.” (175)

Plested then moves to considerations of how the Enlightenment, bringing with it challenges to Thomism and traditional Christianity in general, shaped Orthodox engagement with Aquinas. With Thomism’s decrease in popularity, Greek theological scholars found less with which to engage, and thus Orthodox Greece is relatively silent on matters of Thomism during this era. In Russia, however, a Slavophile distrust of rationality and scholasticism arose, which eventually found expressions in the works of Pavel Florensky and then Vladimir Lossky. Others, such as Sergius Bulgakov, accused Aquinas’ philosophy of a fatal subservience to Aristotle. Such unflattering treatments continued in the twentieth century neo-Patristic works of Orthodox thinkers, namely Lossky, Romanides, and Christos Yannaris. However, Orthodox scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky adopted a subtler position, claiming that “The antithesis of “West and East” belongs more to the polemical and publicistic phraseology than to sober historical thinking.” (198) This criticism was aimed primarily at Lossky, whom Florovsky thought had exaggerated tensions between East and West in his works, and had further failed to acknowledge that there were tensions even within the Eastern tradition itself, such as those between the Christian schools of Alexandria and Antioch. Where Lossky had, in Florovsky’s estimation, too easily dismissed the West, Florovsky saw “… creative possibilities… for Orthodox engagement with Western medieval theology-with Aquinas and Scotus especially in mind.” (201) This is, Plested notes,  “… a far cry from the positions of Lossky and Bulgakov.”

In Florovsky, Plested sees an exemplar for how the future of Orthodox theological scholarship and engagement ought to operate: “Florovsky is… something of a hero of this study.” (203) Plested concludes by identifying those who he believes have followed in Florovsky’s footsteps, paying Western theology its due respect. Such individuals include Olivier Clement, Archimandrite Lev Gillet, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, and Met. Kallistos Ware.

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Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas is a valuable historical contribution that highlights the contrast between Thomas Aquinas’ initial reception among Orthodox Christians and the way in which he has been received and described by his Orthodox critics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Plested persuasively argues that a lack serious engagement with Western theology and especially Scholasticism is working to the detriment of Orthodox thought. However, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, while being concerned primarily with the philosophical methods and attitudes of both East and West spends little time actually detailing them. Throughout the book one is provided examples of Orthodox thinkers who did or did not view Aquinas favorably, but insufficient space is dedicated to explaining, philosophically, the reasons Aquinas’ ideas were received as they were by the noted individuals in the Orthodox East. An especially noteworthy omission are details regarding how pro-Palamite Thomists in the East reconciled the essence-energies distinction of St. Gregory Palamas and the Absolute Divine Simplicity of Aquinas. This, however, should not be held against Plested, whose task was to provide a historical rather than philosophical exposition of Aquinas’ reception among the Orthodox.

This volume is an invaluable resource for those wishing to know the “who, where, and when” of Aquinas’ reception among the Orthodox; however, deeper philosophical and theological questions regarding why and how Aquinas was received as he was is a topic left to be explored elsewhere.

 

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8 thoughts on “Review of Marcus Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

  1. Just one question. Did the pro-Palamite Thomists ever actually reconcile divine simplicity (including purus actus) and the essence-energies distinction? Or did they just toss out the former? I realize the author, as you have said, didn’t go into detail, but has anyone explored this topic? I’m just curious because to me, if Aquinas on this point is taken to the most logical and fundamental conclusion, it would make one either a pantheist or an atheist of some sort. Of course, Aquinas was neither since cognitive dissonance is a funny thing.

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  2. I remember reading a book review on First Things about this book. (found here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/05/the-dumb-ox-and-the-orthodox) Although I haven’t read Plested’s book yet, this line in the First Things review stuck out to me: “Plested closes his book by making a plea for the Orthodox to recover the confidence in their own tradition that enabled them to respond with understanding and enthusiasm to Aquinas, and to engage with his theological achievement.”

    In what ways do you think the Orthodox have lost confidence in their own tradition? And how do you think Orthodox readings of Aquinas help with this? It sounds from the review that Plested doesn’t really address this in his book, but, only proposes that it be done.

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    • Hello Shawn,

      I actually disagree with Plested that the issue is Orthodoxy’s lack of confidence in their own tradition. If anything, I think the problem is that too much credence is given to certain Orthodox thinkers, and this leads Orthodox Christians to accept certain claims uncritically. If anything, I think what is needed is a loss of confidence, or at least a more critical eye towards Orthodox engagements with the West that came out of the 20th century.

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