Sunday, 8 February 2015
Byzantine Theology, by John Meyendorff
John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, 1974 Fordham University Press
As an introduction to Eastern Orthoodoxy, I recommended Journey to the Kingdom, by Vassilos Papavassilliou. Spending a lot of time looking at the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church is not the best way to learn about it. Nevertheless, many will want a deeper knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy in its historical context. Byzantine Theology, by the excellent John Meyendorff offers a great perspective on this.
I first read this book over seven years ago when I was studying for my PhD. At the time it shocked me into realising just how theologically shallow my fundamentalist evangelicalism was and caused me to long for a richer and deeper tradition.
The Byzantine Empire was the cultural and theological cradle of Eastern Orthodoxy and all the various ethnic jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church share the legacy of Constantinople. Meyendorff traces the history of theology in the Byzantine Empire from the time of the Christological controversies through to the Council of Florence and the aborted reunification with the Catholic Church.
Three parties are identified in the development of Byzantine Theology. Unsurprisingly, the first is the Imperial government. The emperors sometimes acted as champions of Orthodoxy, but more often than not, they led the church into compromises with heresy such as Monothelitism. Meyenbdorff challenges the frequent assertion of Caesaropapism by arguing that a monastic party was the true defender of Orthodoxy, frequently coming into conflict with the Imperial party line. The author also identifies a third party, the Humanists who treasured the legacy of pre-Christian Hellenistic philosophy. Once again, Meyendorff challenges a frequent misconception, that is that Eastern Orthodox thought was heavily grounded in Hellenism. The key theologians of Orthodox Byzantium spent much of their time combating attempts to mix Christianity and Neo-Platonism. He even paints a picture of Pseudo-Dionysius as offering a challenge to Platonic thought.
I would say this is one of the best books on Eastern Orthodoxy I have read.