This is the first in a new series of “rolling reviews” we have begun on Hortulus that are published in between issues of the journal. If you would like to review a book or if you have any suggestions, please contact the reviews editor, Paul Brazinski, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. By Marcus Plested. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 276, ISBN: 978-0-19-965065-1. $99.
There are a number of “hedge-issues” ranging from language to yeast that often impede Eastern and Western theologians from direct engagement with the heart of their dogmatic disagreements. One of these chief impediments seems to be Western scholasticism in general and Thomas Aquinas in particular. When dropped in conversations, Aquinas’ name is often a great sail that catches gusts of emotion and tends to veer dialogue off course. Plested’s pioneering work has great potential to stabilize this conversation by recognizing both Aquinas’ reception of the Eastern tradition and the Eastern tradition’s reception of Aquinas, because “the study of the Orthodox reception of Thomas is to some extent the study of Orthodox theology itself, so central is his role as both friend and fiend” (4). As an Orthodox scholar, Plested succeeds in this undertaking by bringing both a fidelity to the texts at hand and a laudable honesty, which is not afraid to acknowledge that the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) between East and West may be built more from general prejudices than actual sources.
The book’s first part is a poignant diptych of both Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas, whom Plested places in his study like a pair of icons. He invites the reader to an arresting exercise of “reverse perspective”, where one gets a sense that they are viewing him more than he is viewing them; as Plested reminds us, “Our sources are as much active subjects as objects of enquiry” (10). His icon of Thomas depicts an impressive advocate for the East, whose “work is bathed in this orientale lumen” (17). He recounts measures taken by Aquinas to increase the volume of patristic and conciliar sources used in the West by ordering translations of many Greek Fathers and integrating a staggering amount of them in his own exegetical and theological works. Plested’s icon of Palamas also presents the reader with an Orthodox theologian who was not afraid to integrate the Western sources like Augustine into his own Trinitarian theology when truth and clarity was to be found there.
The book’s second part concerns the largely favorable Byzantine reception of Aquinas, which came about both because of Aquinas’ intrinsic fidelity to the Fathers and the Constantinopolitan “care for terminological exactitude that can scarcely be denied the label ‘scholastic’” (48). His overview of the Dominican’s reception by Byzantine scholasticism shows that this affection did not come from eccentrics on the fringes, but from some of “the Empire’s finest scholars and foremost statesmen” (67). But in contrast to enthusiastic emperors, bishops and theologians, there are also detractors who find Thomas overly reliant on logic and pagan philosophy. In evaluating these complaints, Plested shows that their writings often reflect a limited or shallow reading of Thomas, for which they were often swiftly chastised by other Byzantines.
The book’s third part concerns the Orthodox reception of Aquinas from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans (A.D.1453) until the present day, where the historical narrative turns from a stunning and varied tour of Greek and Russian readers to the rigid dichotomies born in the 19th Century, which have become, “very much the preserve of the modern Orthodox mindset and do not accurately reflect the Byzantine legacy” (224). He blames this abruptly negative and deviant reading of Aquinas (and all things Western) largely on the Slavophile movement, which was exacerbated when Diaspora theologians encountered the stagnant Thomism of the early 20th Century and found Thomas to be a “convenient whipping boy” (194). This habit became at times a decrepit via negativa where an oppositional Orthodoxy began defining itself only by was it was not; this often resulted in a “theology of reaction” (206) or at worst, “little more than a faith constituted by anti-papalism” (184). Plested acknowledges that this paradigm of opposition reflects more modern culture than theology, because, “In a bipolar world, nothing seems more natural than a dichotomy” (225). He concludes his study with a survey of today and a note of hope that the miasma of dichotomy will dissipate and that the fruitful dialogue between Aquinas and the Orthodox will resume.
Overall, this book should serve as a touchstone for Thomists and Orthodox alike. The breadth and depth of this narrative is bound to give both parties plenty of fodder for surprise and conversation. In addition to the past, Plested is also aware of advances in both contemporary Thomism and Orthodox theology that either side may not know. A minor disappointment is that Plested alludes to Greek translations of Aquinas, but there is rarely direct engagement with them. As language is often cited as a hindrance to union, it would be helpful to see how Thomas is translated into Greek (theosis, ousia, hypostasis, etc.). Though, that critique is perhaps more evidence of Plested’s argument whetting an appetite than of any lacuna on his part; and with the range of Aquinas’ work, it would probably demand several volumes to do those topics justice.
Plested has done much in this work to heal the divide between mysticism and scholasticism by showing they are found in both the Dumb Ox and the Orthodox. Plested’s icon of Thomas seems as promising as it is natural and Aquinas seems quite at home in the East, where he found it fitting for God to place the earthly paradise (ST I, 102, 1). Likewise Plested shows how the East has traditionally been glad to host the Angelic Doctor, contrary to the cultural bias that functions “as if intellectual rigour, the careful use of sources and systematic method were somehow foreign to Orthodoxy” (225). In all of this Plested’s delightfully-written and thoroughly-researched work has the potential to heal the divide spoken by the Psalmist: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103 : 12).
Reviewed by Samuel Granger, Boston College