Late Byzantine Theology

Late Byzantine theology waas dominated by the constantly evolving political and ecclesiastical rivalry with the Vatican and Western states, with negative perceptions of the Latins created by the 1204 conquest later tempered by constant attempts to gain Western military support against the Turks, towards the empire’s collapse in the mid-15th century. The stumbling block, however, was always the divisive issues preventing church union.

Although the East-West split had lingered since 1054, conditions for intellectual debate surrounding the reasons for Church division became rather more immediate following the 1204 Latin invasion in the diverted Fourth Crusade, and the imposition of a Latin Emperor and Catholic Patriarch in the See of Constantinople. The issues preventing church union were firstly pragmatic and politic, such as the Pope’s claim to supremacy, versus the Constantinople Patriarch’s self-perception as ‘first among equals’ in consideration of the original patriarchal sees of ancient Christianity. Secondly, small but pesky theological differences persisted. Most serious from the Orthodox point of view was the Catholic ‘innovation’ with the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Whether or not the Holy Spirit could be said to proceed from the father singly or from the Father and the Son was judged a matter of paramount importance, and any scholar, churchman or emperor had to choose carefully what said they would adopt. Many changed their views over time depending on immediate political exigencies.

Nikiphoros Blemmydes, for example, the first late Byzantine philosopher to grow up directly under the new dynamic, actually writing treatises on the Procession of the Holy Spirit, advocating the western usage. But each such case must be judged on its own merits, as the various Byzantine philosophers and theologians also did had have genuine beliefs and the mix of East and West made for numerous stirring debates on these issues.

Patriarch Gregory II of Constantinople (1241-1290), also known as Gregory of Cyprus due to his island of origin, was a student of Akropolites’ and subsequently teacher of Choumnos. He became patriarch in 1283, just 22 years after the Latins had been expelled from Constantinople. Gregory was not considered a great thinker, but he did play an important role by putting the emperor’s stamp of approval on a theological dispute with the West, ensuring that the division between the two churches would continue.

In the aftermath of the Latin expulsion from Constantinople in 1261, the Vatican and its allied powers had sought to maintain control over Byzantium through a reconquest. Seeking to prevent this, Emperor Michael Palaiologos attempted to placate the West by pushing for union between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches. Such a result was thus controversially proclaimed in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyons.

Gregory II, under imperial guidance, would not accept the result, however. His objection to the filioque clause won acceptance among Orthodox conservatives. Gregory’s theological response cited an ‘eternal manifestation’ of the Holy Spirit by the Son. This formula was accepted as an Orthodox response to the filioque, though it did not attain official Orthodox doctrinal status. Gregory’s definition of the Trinity was accepted at the 1285 Council of Blachernae in Constantinople- the Byzantine response to the Lyons affair

From the divisive doctrinal issues,  several prominent personalities came to become known as standard-bearers of Orthodox theology versus the Catholics, while others accepted church union at different points and went on to successful clerical careers outside of Byzantium. This dynamic led to enduring divisions and expedited the tendencies for Byzantine intellectuals to choose opposite camps as the Ottoman period arrived in 1453.

For three examples of persons who took opposite paths, we need look only at the fallout of he 1438-39 Council of Ferrara-Florevce, which officially resulted in a church union agreement for military aid against the Turks, which was however never accepted nor ever translated into military aid. However, it did further fracture the Orthodox Church.

Mark Eugennikos, the Bishop of Ephesos, was a prominent opponent of church union at the 14439 Council of Ferrara-Florence.

One well-known participant, Mark Eugennikos (or Mark of Ephesus, 1392-1444) had been born into a staunchly Orthodox family, as son of a Constatinopolitan deacon, and was later educated by Chortasmenos. As Bishop of Ephesos at the Ferrara-Florence Council, Mark gained fame and support from the conservative wing by being the only bishop not to sign the union agreement, returning to Constantinople with the reputation of defender of Orthodoxy. In addition to disagreeing on a compromised filioque clause, Mark dismissed the Catholic view of ‘purgatorial fire’ as a Catholic ‘innovation’ without substance, and on this point was actually successful in that the final Council findings struck the suggestion from the conclusion. On his deathbed, Mark warned former student (and future patriarch) Scholarios to be wary of dealings with the Catholics, which the latter clearly took to heart.

On the other side, there were Byzantine prelates who did accept the 1439 church union, which was deicedly unpopular among the average people in Byzantium. Most had to leave; one such was Isidore of Kiev (1386-1463), a Peloponnesian-born bishop who unlike Mark Eugennikos, accepted the church union deal with open arms.

For the reason of his theological skills and diplomatic powers of persuasion, Isidore had been sent in 1434 to Basel, in order to prepare the groundwork for a the Ferrara-Florence Council. Next, the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos sent him to Kiev to become bishop, in order to draw the power of Russia into a military alliance. However, Isidore had trouble convincing the devoutly Orthodox Basil II of Russia that church union was a good idea. Nevertheless, Isodore did succeed in getting Russian funds needed in order to transport the Byzantine delegation to Italy- the once-formidable imperial navy having all-but evaporated following centuries of Venetian and Genoese commercial rule.

Isidore became a Catholic and was exiled to Kiev, where the Rus were nominally Orthodox. Thus, Isidore administered to a breakaway congregation – known then and now as the ‘Greek Catholics’ or ‘Byzantine Catholics’ – and kept his allegiances firm with Rome. From 1441-43, he was imprisoned by Vasili II for accepting church union, before escaping to Rome. Later, the pope gave Isidore 200 soldiers to defend Constantinople in 1453, where he was wounded in battle and made a tricky escape to Crete and later, Rome.

Thirdly, and probably the best all-around thinker of the bunch associated with the church council was Bessarion (Vasilis Vissarion in Greek), who like Isidore had been a student of Plethon’s. Bessarion is most notable for having become a cardinal and in fact was very nearly elected to the papal see- which would have made him the only Greek to do so. He possessed an encyclopedic and lucid knowledge of the Greek classics across the board, as well as Byzantine thought and of course, Orthodox and Catholic theology. However, he was more open-minded than the likes of Scholarios and Eugennikos, as his interest in Platonism attests.

Almost twice elected pope, Cardinal Bessarion was the most learned Byzantine scholar to convert to Catholicism after the 1438 Ferrara-Florence council on church union, and personally amassed a priceless collection of manuscripts- the foundations of Venice’s Bibliotheca Marciana.

Although born in the remote eastern Black Sea town of Trebizond, which haad been one of the three successor states to Byzantiumduring the Latin occupation, the young Bessarion moved to Constantinople to study and later, in 1423, to the equally remote southern Peloponnese in search of Gemistos Plethon at the court in Mystras, a fortified city near the ruins of ancient Sparta. There Bessarion was introduced to Plethon’s unique insights into Plato, Neo-Platonic, astronomical and Pythagorean mysticism. While some have questioned how such a ‘dangerous’ interest in Neoplatonism could have aided Bessarion’s future career, it is probable that it would have aided him in dealing with the Renaissance Italians who were keen to learn more about it; however, since most Byzantine thinkers of the day were strictly focused on Aristotle and other less controversial ancient philosophers, this knowledge quite conceivably would been advantageous for Bessarion.

At the 1438 Council, Bessarion was attending as Orthodox Bishop of Nicaea. However, his support for the union and Catholic side in general made him the subject of resentment among the regular folk and clergy at home. In 1439, an appreciative Pope Eugenicus IV bestowed on him the rank of Cardinal. From that point on, Bessarion would carry out his clerical and intellectual activities in Rome, where he lavishly funded the transmission of learning from Byzantium to Italy in the form of manuscript collections and translation commissions. In this regard, he was the key patron of Byzantine émigrés like including Theodore Gaza (c. 1396- c. 1475), George of Trebizond (1395-1486) and John Argyropoulos (c. 1415-1487).

 Bessarion interacted with some of these beneficiaries in his own massive oeuvre, which accompanied with his manuscript library (which was donated to the Venetian state in 1468 and still forms the basis of the city’s ancient library), he wrote translations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Bessarion also carried on the Scholarios-Plethon polemical feud over Plato and Aristotle in a treatise against the Aristotelian Georgios of Trebizond. Called In Calumniatorem Platonis (“Against the Slanderer of Plato”), the cardinal’s text sought to reconcile the two ancient philosophies. On quite another topic, Bessarion can also be credited with preserving the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, a compendium of Greek Mythology.

On the other side, back in the Byzantine sphere of influence, conservative Orthodox grew further apart from Catholicism owing to the failure of 1438, growing ties with Russia, and the rise of monasticism. Places that enjoyed imperial and aristocratic patronage, but were otherwise self-sufficient, like the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Macedonia became very important not only as repositories of knowledge, but as  intellectual capitals for the new theological response of the Orthodox East, Hesychasm. This 14th-century movement remains today as a defining element of Orthodox spirituality, and was primarily developed by the monk Saint Gregory Palamas of Thessaloniki (1296-1359).

Interjecting a personal and mystical aspect to spirituality, Hesychasm had an instant appeal (especially to the masses of believers) as it was something that could be tangibly carried out by anyone. Although theologically it had a theological purpose (to achieve a vision of the uncreated Light, or Illumination or Vision of God), this was not done through abstract education that only the learned aristocrats of the capital could hope to attain; rather, Palamas emphasized constant mindfulness and the almost mantric recitation of the Jesus Prayer, Kyrie Isou Hristou, eleison me, amartatolos (‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner’).

Saint Gregpry Palamas, defender of the monastic Hesychast contemplative movement, sparked a controversy in the 14th century but is legacy has endured in the modern Orthodox Church.

The Hesychast movement sparled a rift in the Orthodox world. The more rational-minded dismissed it as quasi-mystical naval-gazing and some, such as Barlaam of Calabria (1290-1348) even wrote treatises against Hesychasm, contrasting it with the alleged rightness of Roman Catholic theology. Nevertheless, Palamas enjoyed a great reputation in his lifetime and after, enduring today as one of the most revered of the ‘modern’ Orthodox saints. He was born in Constantinople in 1296, but out of a desire for the monastic went to Mt. Athos in 1318 with two of his brothers. Here, Palamas first encountered the contemplative Hesychast meditative tradition which had quietly been cultivated on this isolated monastic peninsula during the previous millennium. With the expansion of the Ottomans in the Balkans, Gregory moved first to Thessaloniki and then to an isolated mountain further east neat Veria, before returning to Athos in 1331. Later on, as his fame grew, Gregory became Bishop of Thessaloniki.

After Barlaam began to criticize Athonite monks for their perceived inferior lifestyle devoted to contemplation and not – to the Calabrian’s view, anyway – sufficiently intellectual understandings of God, the monks entreated Gregory to write in their defense. The attack from a prominent foreign intellectual was like an attack on monasticism itself, which had enjoyed a central place in Byzantine society since the beginning.

And so Palamas wrote a vigorous rebuttal in around 1338, the Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts. His theological argument was supported by two subsequent synods in 1340 and 1341, and further in 1347 and 1351. Barlaam was later excommunicated and became a Catholic. As for Gregory, wrote in the inter-synodal years the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, a summary of his theological views. Today, he remains a revered figure in the Orthodox world and has had a special influence, especially on the monks of Athos in their continued role of keeping alive Byzantine tradition and spirituality.

Additional Reading on this topic:

John Monfasani, Bessarion Scholasticus: A Study of Cardinal Bessarion’s Latin Library

Gregory Palamas, Gregory Palamas: The Triads (Classics of Western Spirituality)

Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam

Joseph Gill, The Council of Florenece

Basil N. Tatakis and George Dion Dragas, Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition

John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church


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