Tuesday, January 12, 2021

31 - Book Review: "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" by Vladimir Lossky

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Published by James Clark & Co., London, 1957, 252 pages.

By Vladimir Lossky

Reviewed by Georges Florovsky
The Journal of Religion, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Jul., 1958), pp. 207-208.

The author of this book died recently in Paris. One reads the book as a theological testament of the author. In fact, it is not a new book. It was first published in French in 1944 (Essai sur la thdologie mystique de l'eglise d'Orient [Paris: Aubier]) and at that time was reviewed and discussed. Yet it kept its urgency and freshness. It is a provocative and stimulating book. In a sense, it is an essay in what can be described as a "neo-patristic synthesis." The author expounds the thoughts of the Greek Fathers and wants to be faithful to their spirit, but he does it as a "modern man," who has passed through the school of modern philosophy and is well acquainted with the challenge of the "modern mind." He confines himself strictly to the Eastern tradition and probably exaggerates the tension between the East and the West even in the Patristic period. A "tension" there obviously existed, as there were "tensions" inside the "Eastern tradition" itself, e.g., between Alexandria and Antioch. But the author seems to assume that the tension between the East and the West, e.g., between the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians and that of Augustine, was of such a sharp and radical character as to exclude any kind of "reconciliation" and overarching synthesis. It would be more accurate to say that such a synthesis has never been accomplished or even has not been thoroughly attempted. Even if we admit, as we certainly must, that the Trinitarian theology of Augustine was not well known in the East, up to the late Middle Ages, Augustine's authority had never been seriously questioned in Byzantium even in the times of Patriarch Photius. It is therefore unsafe to exclude his contribution from the Patristic heritage of the "Undivided Church." One should be "ecumenical" rather than simply "oriental" in the field of Patristic studies. One has to take into account the whole wealth of the Patristic tradition and wrestle impartially with its intrinsic variety and tensions.

Lossky's analysis is usually sharp and penetrating. It is impossible to summarize briefly the rich content of his excellent book, excellent in spite of his manifold bias. All students of Christian antiquity should read the book, and they will be richly rewarded, even if they finally find the book controversial. Indeed, every student in the field will be helped in formulating his own views on the various matters touched upon or covered by Lossky. Although the author keeps within the limits of the ancient tradition, he raises and discusses the most urgent problems of contemporary theology. He opens his book with two admirable chapters on the "Apophatic Theology." Actually, he raises the basic problem of theological knowledge. Is an "intellectual" knowledge of God, i.e., a knowledge which is adequately expressed in strict and rigid logical concepts, possible at all? In other words, is a "non-symbolic" knowledge of God possible? Lossky's answer is rigidly negative. One knows God only by "unknowing." The answer may be true and correct. And yet it seems to need a careful qualification. Lossky dismisses the Thomistic versions of the "negative theology" probably too easily. One may profit, for his own clarification, from comparing Lossky's book with a recent treatment of the problem from the Thomistic point of view by Charles Journet, The Dark Knowledge of God (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948). In any case, there was a "mystic theology" in the West also after St. Bernard. The ultimate knowledge of God is available "by faith" only, in an "experience" which transcends "logical reason." And yet even the vision of faith is a "noetic vision," according to the tradition of the Greek Fathers themselves. Obviously, "life in God" is a more adequate description of the ultimate goal and purpose of human existence than just "knowledge." But "knowledge" is still an integral part of this beatific "life." This was the firm conviction of the Cappadocian Fathers and of a long line of their successors. The whole problem of "Christian intellectualism" is still open.

A more substantial weakness of Lossky's book is its basic structure. Of course, it is a matter of theological option. Yet, if one wants, as Lossky obviously does, to develop a system of "Christian philosophy," which is identical with Dogmatics, should he not begin with Christ? Strangely enough, it is not seldom contended that a "christological" approach to theology is alien to the Eastern Orthodox mind. Historically speaking, it is simply untrue. Indeed, what warrant may a Christian theologian or a "Christian" philosopher have to speak of God, except the fact that "the Only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father" has declared the unfathomable mystery of the Divine life? Would it not be proper, therefore, to begin with an opening chapter on the Incarnation and the Person of the Incarnate, instead of following a rather "philosophical" order of thought: God, Creation, Created Being, and Imago Dei, etc., so as to arrive at Christology only in the middle of the road? In fact, the christological chapter of Lossky's book (chap. vii, "The Economy of the Son") is the most controversial, and the same could be said of the chapter on the Church (chap. ix, "Two Aspects of the Church"). Nevertheless, the book is excellent. It is a great theological book, in spite of its bias, or rather because of its bias, which only reveals the profound concern of the author with, and his ultimate commitment to, the deep matters he is discussing and describing. The reader will close the book with a profound regret that no further communication is coming from the author, who has passed from the world of search to the world of contemplation.