Byzantine Theology

While the topic of theosis has grown in popularity among scholars, I regularly get awkward looks by students and family when the term arises. While my primary work has been in the area of theosis and the Bible, particularly theosis and the apostle Paul, I cut my teeth on the topic with my masters work on Maximus the Confessor.

As a fruit of that work, I later co-authored a piece for the Ashgate Companion to Theological Anthropology with a friend Kris Miller. In our essay “Theosis and Theological Anthropology,” we explored theosis from a Christological perspective (via Maximus the Confessor) and a Trinitarian perspective (via T.F. Torrance). If you are looking for a primer on theosis, this essay would give you the key ideas that I think are relevant.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading Symeon the New Theologian.  He has a section where he rewrites the prodigal son story with an emperor that forgives and accepts an opposing general.  The emperor receives the humble and contrite general with a celebration and a feast, with a crown and robe for him.  He goes on:

And this is not the whole tale, but day and night he rejoices and is glad with him, embracing him and kissing his mouth with his own.  So much does he love him exceedingly that he is not separated from him even in his sleep, but lies together with him embracing him on his bed, and covers him all about with his own cloak, and places his face upon all his members.

Symeon the New Theologian, Ethical Discourse 10, Section 6 (pg 150-51).

I thought, wow, did I just read that?  Fortunately the translator offers this footnote:

Sometimes the saint’s gift for images will exceed his discretion and good sense.  This appears to be one such instance.  We leave it in solely out of respect for the text.  It is, however, consistent with the New Theologian’s uses of nuptial imagery elsewhere.  See also his warning against taking his metaphors in a literal, sexual sense: ‘Understanding this spiritually, you who read, lest you be wretchedly defiled’ Hymn 46, lines 29-31.

Sometimes you’ve got know when to say when.

What were the choices in the cafeteria of perspectives before the reformation and Luther’s so-called “Old Perspective”?  The Lutheran “Old Perspective” says that the problem with Judaism was that they were seeking to attain salvation by works-righteousness.  Enter then the “New Perspective” which says in various ways that the problem with Judaism was ethnocentrism.  Along with other Byzantine theologians–John of Damascus and Gregory Palamas–I was recently reading St Symeon the New Theologian (c. AD 1000), who has quite a bit to say about how salvation history and the relationship between the (covenantal) different stages.  In each stage God chooses a ‘portion’ through whom the next stage progresses.  It is in this setting that he addresses the problem of Jewish ethnocentrism:

Out of the scattering of the nations, as I said above, Israel became the Lord’s portion [from Noah’s descendants]. Now this Israel, having become a great nation and a populous people, then fell into idolatry just like that of the gentiles. A very few, like a kind of leaven, were preserved as a portion for God. If they had believed in Christ when he did come, and had worshipped Him as God, then all of them, just and unjust, God-fearing and idolatrous, would have become one, and at the same time would have been saved.  And, if this had happened, then the gentiles would have spoken up and said to Him: ‘God and Master of all, Lord of the ages, behold all these whom You have saved without respect to any works of righteousness. What, then? Are not we, too, the works of Your hands and of your fashioning?’ The Jews would have answered them with what in fact they did say: ‘No, but we ourselves alone are His portion; we alone His [p105] lot. The tablets of the covenant, the circumcision, and the rest—these are ours, promised to us alone, and given just to us. To you, though, He will never give anything’.   In reply, the gentiles would again raise an objection, though without reckoning the envious Jews worthy of an answer: ‘O Master and Word of God, You rightly rejected us as unworthy, abandoning us who were heedless as stiff-necked and disobedient . . . .  But, You showed love . . . [to these people who also turned to idols.]  You have been compassionate with them . . . .  Will you not have mercy on us too? . . .  And so, with justice and reason, those of the uncircumcision would have been joined with the circumcised who had sacrificed to idols, and all would have become one in Christ.  [But the Jews rejected the Christ, and God drew the Gentiles into his people.] [p106] The greater part of the portion [of Israel], which had fallen into unbelief by its own free choice, He cast away.  The gentiles entered instead of them and, by faith, were joined in their turn to the portion of election by faith.

Symeon the New Theologian, Ethical Discourse 2.6 (pg 104-106).

Symeon seems to have in mind something of the discussion from Romans 9-11.  (Much of Discourse 1 seems to me to be a reading of the larger flow of Romans.)  The New Perspective was really an old perspective that predates the reformation.

Meyendorff continues his East versus West description:

And as Athanasius of Alexandria has shown in his polemics against Arianism, God alone is able to vanquish death, because He ‘alone has immortality’ (1 Tim 6.16).  Just as original sin did not consist in an inherited guilt, so redemption was not primarily a justification, but a victory over death.  (p. 160)

It’s not that the East doesn’t care about forgiveness or justification; it’s just that this is not ‘primary’. The problem from Adam is not that ‘in him’ we sinned (as the Latin had Rom 5.12), but ‘because’ of Adam death entered the world through sin.

I’ve been reading through Byzantine theologians lately (John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas) and so I thought I’d read through one of the classic secondary sources on the this time period as well: John Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology.  He gives this as one of his summaries of the East vs West:

Given the fallen state of man, the redemptive death of Christ makes this final restoration possible.  But the death of Christ is truly redemptive and ‘life-giving’ precisely because it is the death of the Son of God in the flesh (i.e., in virtue of the hypostatic union).  In the East, the cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which ‘satisfies’ a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for man’s sins.  As Georges Florovsky rightly puts it: ‘the death of the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.’  The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious cycle of sin and corruption. (p. 160)