I recently read David Bently Hart’s article “The Myth of a Schism”. Much that he says is true, and it was all very strategically-argued. But I cannot agree with everything he says, nor do I think that he employs his strategies in a way that is completely fair.
Hart seems to be trying to set the conversation about reunion between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church by eliminating certain people from the category of “acceptable voices of Catholic or Orthodox theology”. If such people are not in that category, then their opposition to certain kinds of reunion is inconsequential.
He then presents a picture of the extreme Catholic and the extreme Orthodox. These pictures are rightly silly, of course, and that helps get his point across. Hart gets us to laugh “Hah! No sane Catholic would believe that the celibacy of priests is Apostolic!” or “That’s silly for an Orthodox person to think the schism started in the 8th century.” Admittedly he’s correct; such people exist, and their voices are not relevant to the question of reunion. But I got the impression (perhaps this is actually his intent, perhaps not) that on his view, those who are much more conservative than he is automatically fall into the “extreme Orthodox” category and should therefore be disregarded as irrelevant to questions of reunion. Some of the things he says about Lossky’s writings suggest this. It looks like Hart ironically caricatures some of the very writers and viewpoints that he claims are caricaturing the West and presenting a too-narrow understanding of Orthodox theology. His boldness may leave the reader with a false sense of security about the issues. In fact, many of the arguments he brings up have already been answered in the literature for some time now. The (real or imagined) suggestion that people who are more conservative than he is should be disregarded seems false, and Hart uses some mistaken arguments to support this idea. I suspect there are several examples of this inaccurate argumentation in the paper, but am satisfied if readers go away with the impression that there is at least one important error. Below I will argue that there is a problem in Hart’s paper that is significant and misleading: his analysis of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods” as supporting something like the filioque.
Hart interprets St. Gregory of Nyssa as a supporter of something akin to St. Augustine’s doctrine of the filioque. He employs this claim to suggest that whatever the filioque issue may be, it is not something that all the Eastern Fathers reject, and thus is not necessarily a Church-dividing dogmatic disagreement. The claim that St. Gregory of Nyssa is teaching the Father is the first cause in the Trinity and the Son is a second cause who contributes to the existence of the person of the Holy Spirit was suggested by a mistranslation of the Greek in Schaff and Wade’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:
“For one is directly from the first Cause, and another by that which is directly from the first Cause; so that the attribute of being Only-begotten abides without doubt in the Son, and the interposition of the Son, while it guards His attribute of being Only-begotten, does not shut out the Spirit from His relation by way of nature to the Father.” (“On Not Three Gods”, 56, Schaff and Wade translation)
Notice how the language of “first cause” when applied to the Father implies that there is a second cause, namely the Son. Thus, on this translation, it sounds like St. Gregory is claiming that the Son’s role in the Spirit’s procession “by/through the Son” is causal—the Son contributes to causing the person of the Holy Spirit to exist. But the Greek does not use the language of “first” conjoined to “cause” to describe the Father (Turcuscu, from The Concept of Divine Persons in Saint Gregory of Nyssa, from footnote 42 on pg. 68). It simply says “the cause” (from the translation Hart uses) or “the first” (Turcuscu’s translation). This mistranslation has led to use of the text of “On Not Three Gods” in Roman Catholic apologetics and in Eastern ecumenical texts trying to demonstrate an Eastern acceptance of the Filioque. This problem was accentuated by other passages that appear to support the Filioque in St. Gregory’s writings, that are now considered by many scholars to be interpolations. The translation Hart is using is much more accurate, but reveals that he is misinterpreting Gregory. His translation says:
“we believe one to be the cause and another to be from the cause; and again we conceive of another difference within that which is from the cause: between the one who, on the one hand, comes directly from the principle and the one who, on the other, comes from the principle through the one who arises directly…” (“On Not Three Gods”, 56, the translation Hart is using)
Notice what is implied by the language of “the cause”: there is only one cause identified in the Trinity, namely the Father. And this is where the distinction between “from the Son” and “through the Son” comes in. According to the patristics scholar Lucian Turcuscu, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s language of “through the Son”
…must not be identified with the filioque, since the Father and the Son do not form one principle like in that Western doctrine; the proper cause of the Spirit is the Father. Phrases found in Gregory’s writings which would allegedly imply that he favors the filioque have proven to be interpolations. In stating that the Spirit comes from the Father through the Son, Gregory and his brother Basil actually manifest themselves as followers of Origen. It was Origen who interpreted John 1:3 (“All things came into being through him [i.e., the Word], and without him not one thing came into being”) as meaning that all things came into existence through the Word, including the Holy Spirit. (from The Concept of Divine Persons in Saint Gregory of Nyssa, pg.68)
Turcuscu’s claims might even be supplemented by the analysis of St. Gregory’s writings in Siecienski’s recent book The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy. Siecienski rightly acknowledges that in St. Gregory there is teaching about an eternal relationship between Son and Spirit, where the Spirit proceeds from the Father “through the Son” (pg 44). But he is very careful to acknowledge that this is not a causal relationship. One might note, though Siecienski does not make this connection (or at least does not state it directly), that St. Gregory’s language does not explicitly state, but is quite compatible with, an eternal energetic procession. Notice how different this is from St. Augustine’s claim:
“Wherefore let him who can understand the generation of the Son from the Father without time, understand also the procession of the Holy Spirit from both without time.” (On the Holy Trinity, 15)
or the claim of the Council of Florence that
The holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and has his essence and his subsistent being from the Father together with the Son, and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration.
both of which acknowledge the role of the Son as sharing in common with the Father the procession of the person of the Holy Spirit (as from one principle). Thus, it is misleading for Hart to make the following claim about St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian theology:
This is the very argument—made by Augustine in De Trinitate—that scores of Orthodox theologians in recent decades have denounced as entirely alien to Eastern tradition.