God, Hierarchy, and Power

Orthodox Theologies of Authority from Byzantium

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Ashley M. Purpura
Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780823278374.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ashley M. Purpura’s God, Hierarchy and Power: Orthodox Theologies of Authority from Byzantium is a fascinating and deeply complex study on the relationship between spiritual authority and its sometimes troubled (and troubling) relationship with human maintenance of power and religious hierarchy. In the process, Purpura offers a welcome theoretical approach to the critical analysis of select Byzantine theologians whose historical distances are eclipsed by their common notions of power as rooted fully in the divine and expressed in ecclesiastical hierarchy. Prior to the précis and subsequent analysis of Purpura’s study that I offer below, it is worth placing this publication within its academic context. 

God, Hierarchy and Poweris part of the Fordham University Press’s “Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought” series, which promotes interdisciplinary studies on historical and theological expressions of Orthodox Christianity in engagement with contemporary methods and theories, and in conversation with modern challenges. The series publication emerges from Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, which supports academic publications, intellectual conversation, and cultural awareness of Orthodox Christianity, and seeks to make visible “public” Orthodoxy through a well-written, academically sound blog. These layers matter because Purpura’s important contribution to our understanding of these views of authority begins in an environment which can too often point to an obscure term, “tradition,” as a vague validation for “the way things are.” Our current political climate requires that we revisit many of the structural systems that support “the way things are” and ask hard questions about how we arrived at this point in historical time. Further, it requires that we enlist the assistance of great thinkers as Purpura does, individuals such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Marx, to help us make sense of what we cannot, on our own, understand. 

The claim made in God, Hierarchy and Power is that Orthodox hierarchy, as it was developed by Byzantine theologians, “is most fundamentally and consistently rendered as the communication of divinity” (16). Through deft analysis of four Byzantine theologians—Dionysius the Areopagite (who divinizes hierarchy), Maximus the Confessor, Niketas Stethatos, and Nicholas Cabasilas—within their specific and distinct historical and theological contexts, she comes to the provocative conclusion (for the conventional Orthodox Christian) that Orthodox communities would do well to remember that each hierarchy contains all levels of the hierarchy within it. Considering Orthodox Christianity’s theological claim of God’s election for human powerlessness in the activity of Jesus, priestly and hierarchic symbols are rendered impotent if they fail to reinforce for the cleric and the laity a humility and obedience to the divinity to whom the symbols and gestures point.

After an introduction (1-18) that outlines her claim, tasks, and methods, Purpura divides her study through sketches of each of the above-mentioned theologians. The crucial first chapter, “Dionysius the Areopagite’s Divinizing Hierarchy” (19-53), offers a foundational, Dionysian understanding of hierarchy for subsequent Byzantine theologians. Hierarchy is, for Dionysius, activity and communication. This idea that hierarchical structure provides both the link between the human and the divine and the way in which the divine participates with the human resonates in the work of Maximus the Confessor, which she explores in her second chapter, “Maximus the Confessor and Christological Realization” (54-78). It is in this chapter that Purpura explores a theological dynamic that expands beyond priestly vestments and rituals and creates space for new ways of thinking about issues such as “gender, bodily difference, geographic identity, and social status” (77), issues that divide far too many Christians. 

In “Niketas Stethatos Hierarchic Re-Imaging” (79-103), Stethatos, a devoted disciple of the famous Symeon the New Theologian, grounds his understanding of Dionysian hierarchy in Christology informed by the historical events of the previous era, specifically the impact of iconoclasm and the challenge to monastic authorities (witnessed first-hand in the case of his own elder, Symeon). The result is an understanding of hierarchy and authority as grounded in the visible activity of God within human action (102), ordained or otherwise. 

The final theologian in Purpura’s analysis is “Nicholas Cabasilas and Embodied Authority” (104-131), the 14th-century mystic and Orthodox humanist. Purpura is correct that while Cabasilas has much in common with his theological predecessors in this topic, his work Life in Christ adds a unique and pastoral insight to the conversation, focused as it is on the way in which the frail, human body of the participant contributes to the culmination of the Eucharist as much as that of the liturgical fidelity of the hierarchs. 

Purpura’s final chapter prior to the conclusion (157-70) allows her space to offer an interpretation of power and hierarchy as read through the works of the four theologians identified above. In this chapter, “Theatrical Power in Theory and Practice” (132-56), Purpura employs the work of theorists to offer a nuanced reading of power within that highlights the cultural creativity of Byzantine theologians, revealing an evolving and adaptable view of hierarchy. And while Purpura refrains from delivering a clarion call to the Orthodox hierarchy, the clarity of her arguments should chasten those who rely merely on terms such as “canonical” or “traditional” to shut down or end conversation on evolving views of leadership and hierarchy. 

According to four unique theologians across the lifetime of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, God is the singular source and dominant agent of all power, but this power is manifest in multiple ways, including in the condensation of Godself for human salvation, through the ritual behavior and moral actions of the modest ecclesiastical hierarchy and—no less—the humble Christian. Aided by theoretical approaches, Purpura’s careful analysis and dissection of distinctions among these theologians suggests that there are a variety of ways of understanding Orthodox views of God’s power that developed in the Byzantine Empire. If Eastern Orthodoxy understands itself as drawing from the rich Byzantine heritage, then this work has significant implications for contemporary Orthodox congregations who claim a Dionysian heritage.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen is Associate Professor of Early and Medieval Christian History at Pacific Lutheran University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ashley Purpura is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Purdue University.

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