Evagrius and His Legacy

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Joel Kalvesmaki, Robin D. Young
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , February
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Evagrius and His Legacy is a collection of essays on the relatively little known, but nevertheless highly influential monastic writer, Evagrius of Pontus. This volume is an excellent and timely collection, both revising the historical picture of Evagrius Ponticus and offering implicit—though perhaps not always intentional—commentary on important issues in modern Christianity. Specifically, Evagrius and His Legacy has value for modern Christian dialogue in three areas: First, the volume offers a compelling survey of late “Origenism” (though this term is rightly problematized by Robin Darling Young, Joel Kalvesmaki, and Brian E. Daley) and the apokatastasis, once condemned as heresy under the auspices of Justinian but now receiving new life as modern theologians are rethinking traditional eschatology. Those theologians retrieving Origen’s famous theodicy would certainly benefit from this perceptive volume. Second, the collection initiates Western readers into ancient Middle-Eastern Christian spirituality, especially the monastic spirituality of the Syrian churches that was so deeply and pervasively influenced by Evagrius. This introduction is not only important for its own sake, interesting and informative as it is, but is morally necessary as the Western world comes more and more into contact with displaced Syrians and their cultural heritage. If Western Christianity is to be hospitable, it must be knowledgeable. Third, the essays cumulatively introduce Latin Christian readers (Protestants and Catholics) to the profound and sometimes foreign world of Greek Orthodox Christian spirituality. The final chapter in the volume shows how influential Evagrius’s thought was on St. Gregory Palamas, one of the chief architects of Greek monastic spirituality. As Latin and Greek theologians engage in more fruitful dialogue, more understanding will mean more fruit, and this volume has the potential to add significantly to that understanding. As an added bonus, the same article discusses the shaping of hesychasm by Evagrius’s theology and the now famous Jesus Prayer, two staples of modern Christian spirituality that extend far beyond the bounds of Greek monasticism.

The essays in Evagrius and His Legacy are incredibly diverse, ranging from a detailed discussion of technical terms in the Evagrian corpus (chapter 2 by Kevin Corrigan) to a survey of competing interpretations of Evagrius in sixth-century Syria (chapter 7 by David A. Michaelson); from Evagrius’s pioneering of the influential literary form kephalaia (chapter 10 by Joel Kalvesmaki) to the fallout of the second Origenist controversy, and the way in which theologians influenced by Evagrius signaled (and hid) their “Origenist” and Evagrian sympathies (chapter 11 by Dirk Krausmüller). And this impressive scope does not capture the broad diversity of the collection, since to do so would entail listing every chapter. Rather, this is just a sampling of the breadth of scholarship available to the academic or informed ecclesiastic in this clearly written and reasonably priced volume.

Perhaps the most interesting and important article in Evagrius and His Legacy is “Evagrius: East of the Euphrates” by Anthony J. Watson. Not only is this chapter clearly written and logically ordered, the subject matter is so foreign to Western Christians that Watson opens up new, wide avenues of thought to the open-minded reader. First, Watson explains the importance of demonology and personal revelation to Evagrius’s thought, both relatively foreign concepts to the Western, Enlightenment-shaped mind. The bulk of Evagrius’s monastic spirituality, Watson claims, consists in the solitary monk’s combat with demons. Watson explicitly contrasts this to Latin Christianity, claiming that what was thought of as vice in the West was demon in the East (237). Second, unlike a Paul Tillich or a Karl Barth—perhaps the two most influential modern, Western Christian minds on the subject of divine revelation—Evagrius insists on a revelation centered on purity of heart. It is to the pure that revelation is given; not necessarily in the form of propositional truth, but in the form of an unmediated vision of God. Whatever modern theologians may make of these ideas, which are analyzed and explained throughout the volume, Evagrius’s thought demands interaction. From Watson’s insightful and brief overview of these key aspects of Evagrius’s thought, he proceeds to survey the almost-unknown history of Evagrianism in the Middle and Far East. This brief overview includes not only the rapid expansion of the Church of the East under Catholicos Timothy I (780-823), under whom the Church of the East included tens of millions and reached all the way to China, but even includes a discussion of the Christian queens and tribesmen who led the Mongol Empire in the era and line of Genghis Khan. Even this brief overview of Watson’s argument is enough to show the depth of scholarship in this exceptional chapter.

Watson’s chapter is by no means unique in this volume. Though of course some articles are bound to be more accessible or informative than others, as is the case with any book (especially in one with twelve separate authors), by and large the chapters in Evagrius and His Legacy are lucid, compelling, informative, and even entertaining. Some articles tend towards density and weight (Brian E. Daley’s “Evagrius and Cappadocian Orthodoxy”) while some tend towards clarity and perspicuity (Joel Kalvesmaki’s “Evagrius in the Byzantine Genre of Chapters”). In none, though, is the diligent reader’s time or energy wasted. And this is no small compliment for a broad collected volume.

Beyond even the book itself, the bibliography appended to the volume is an excellent source for further study on both Evagrius himself, and the many other ancient authors referenced in the diverse array of chapters. Forty-four pages of Evagrius’s works are included in the bibliography, which contains the link to a website curated by Joel Kalvesmaki that publishes an exhaustive, detailed, and up-to-date bibliography of all of the extant Evagrian corpus.

Evagrius and His Legacy is highly recommended to those readers interested in monastic spirituality both East and West, modern theologians engaging with Origen and “Origenist” theology, and those who wish to broaden their grasp of the history of the Church beyond the Latin and Greek West.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gerhard Stübben is a graduate student in Biblical Studies and Languages at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Kalvesmaki is editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

Robin Darling Young is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Catholic University of America.


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