Beginning with Adolph von Harnack and Reinhold Seeberg in the Nineteenth century, the first historians of doctrine in the modern, comprehensive and systematic sense, there is a growing awareness of a sea-change in the fourth century, a change associated with the name of St. Augustine of Hippo Regius. The Byzantinist Joan M. Hussey remarks, in her little book, Church and Learning in the Byzantine Empire that “insofar as it is possible to assign a watershed, that comes in the fourth century, between those who follow Augustine on the one hand, and those who follow the Cappadocians on the other.” The comment, coming as it does from a scholar of a civilization, and by no means a theologian, is a significant one, for it means that underlying all other expressions of the problem, be they cultural, canonical, or even liturgical, the underlying problem is dogmatic and more specifically Trinitarian.
Even St. Maximus the Confessor indicates as much. When the inquiry is made concerning the presence of the filioque in some of the formularies of the Latin West, he accepts the doctrine, but only insofar as expressing the sending of the Spirit by the Son, and explicitly rejects the doctrine in its Augustinian form.
But the most succinct statements of the problem may be found in the early twentieth century Calvinist historian James Orr’s Progress of Dogma:
“With Augustine, theology passes from East to West, and from the region of theology proper to that of anthropology. Not that this great Father was not a theologian in the stricter sense as well. No man plunged deeper than he into the mysteries of the divine nature in his discussions of the Trinity.” (p. 131)
On this point, the perception both of Eastern Orthodox and Western scholars regarding the position and significance is the same.
But the interpretation of this significance, at least for the Orthodox, is problematic, perhaps the most problematic of all points with which we have to deal. On it hinges everything we have to say, and do not have to say, to the Christian West, and on it hinges how we must come to listen to the Christian West. There are essentially two broad approaches, the “assimilationist approach” of Fr. Seraphim Rose, and the “Rejectionist-Purist approach” exemplified by Father Michael Azkoul.
A. Fr. Seraphim Rose
The Assimilationist approach of Fr. Seraphim Rose has been surveyed in his little book, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church. Both the title and the fact that it was published by a traditionalist within a “traditionalist” jurisdiction hint at the profundity of the problem. Basically, this approach says that one must simply accept Augustine, since he is accepted by the Church, and not go into detailed examinations or speculations on his doctrinal and dogmatic errors. If St. John Cassian accepted ST. Augustine, that is good enough for us. To criticize Augustine is to fall into that horrid trap of academic theology into which Fr. Azkoul falls, of wanting to have everything perfectly consistent and rational.
The difficulty with this approach is that it is a species of unreality, and leads to quite absurd results. Thus, the same Fr. Seraphim, rejecting out of hand any sound theological appraisal of Augustinism as “rationalism” or “academic theology” ends teaching a doctrine of “Toll House Eschatology” that for all intents and purposes is a much cruder form of purgatory than purgatory itself. Rejecting a critique of augustinism while accepting Augustine without such a critique seems to end by making one an Augustinian. We end on this approach, quite literally with the picture of an educated Western convert to Orthodoxy looking like a strangely attired Hasidic Jew, smelling like a camel, practicing a severe form of asceticism perhaps more akin to the flagellant orders of the medieval West or the Coptic monks of the Egyptian desert, presuming to have found the key to “Western Orthodoxy” and presuming to teach those who imbibed the best in the Christian West, as well as those in the Orthodox Church, on the true meaning of Western Orthodoxy. An absurd picture, but nevertheless true.
B. Fr. Michael Azkoul
The opposite picture, of course, is presented to us by the Azkoul School of proper Polemics: Augustine is the Father of the Schism of the West, taught every manner of heresy by teaching the abominable filioque, and ergo he is not a Father of the Church, and neither he nor the West have anything actually to teach us, remove him from the dyptichs because he is even worse then Origen!
There are two profound errors here, and I am bold to assert that they are dogmatic errors. First, as St. Photios himself acknowledges, Augustine is a father. To be a father of the Church does not mean to be free from error, even extreme errors. A father must also be holy, repentant, and devout, which Augustine certainly was. To be a father, one must precisely be accepted as such by the Church. Thus, and secondly, Fr. Azkoul himself slips into a subtle form of the very “Augustinian” rationalism he seeks to deny. The Church has accepted Augustine, how dare he, or anyone else, do otherwise. Contained within this is yet another problem. Augustinian theology is not the sum total of Western Christianity. The Western rite, for example, is no more “Augustinian” than is the Eastern. Of course, there are a few accretions over time, and of course, things within the Western Rite come to be interpreted in an Augustinian sense, for example, the phrase in the Western Rite “through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, o Father Almighty, world without end.”
That phrase itself is indicative of the mammoth task we must now perform. How is this to be interpreted. Clearly, in the Azkoul school, “in the unity of the Holy Ghost” means that the Holy Ghost is confessed to be the new source and principle of Unity in the Godhead” which is of course filioquism, and to be rejected. And of course, that is the interpretation most informed Western Augustinians would give it. But was there and is there an Orthodox way of understanding it? Of course. Recall that St. Basil the Great’s polemic with Eunomios was precisely over the Presuppositions used in the doxology at Liturgy: Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Ghost”, onto which prepositions Eunomius engrafted his heretical subordination of the Son and the Spirit. But do we not, argued St. Basil, confess God in the love and unity of the Holy Spirit? Of course. Does that mean He is less than the Father? Of course not. Does that mean, then, by the same token, that this phrase necessarily confesses the false doctrine of the Spirit being the principle of the unity of the Godhead? Of course not. The Azkoul School, then, also appears unable to draw some necessary and subtle distinctions when dealing with Augustine and the West. For this school, Augustine is nothing more than the icon of every apparent wrong of the West, and the West is the icon of everything wrong in Augustine. Neither, quite bluntly, are true.
C. Dr. Pelikan
Dr. Pelikan perhaps summarizes the problem with the most judiciousness when he writes “If one affirmed, as all orthodox and even most semi-orthodox theologians did, that the incarnate Logos was “homoousios” with us according to his humanity just as he was “homoousios with the father according to his divinity”, it became necessary to specify the referent of the former as well as of the latter. For reasons whose ultimate cultural origins go beyond the scope of this book, it fell to Western Christianity to be the primary locus of this doctrinal controversy, apart from, and to a considerable degree in spite of the Eastern tradition.”(p. 279)
In stating this, Pelikan has softened somewhat, but not escaped, the fact that he has accepted the same division within the consensus patrum as Azkoul and Rose, but done so on cultural grounds.
At this stage, I would submit that the only safe approach for the Orthodox is to accept Augustine and the West within the consensus patrum, and to acknowledge that the differences do not stem from the culture, but that the cultural differences stem from the differences in the liturgies of the East and the West. St. Photios the Great, unsparing as he was in his assessment of the filioque as doctrine, nevertheless has no difficulty embracing Augustine in communion and Pope John VIII, Gregorian Rite and all; he, unlike Azkoul, Rose, and Pelikan, looked beyond culture and Augustinism.
–Joseph P. Farrell, exceprt from God, History, and Dialectic