A Greek Thomist

Providence in Gennadios Scholarios

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Matthew C. Briel
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , April
     2020.
     288 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780268107499.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios, Matthew Briel seeks to demonstrate that Gennadios Scholarios, more than anyone else, created a synthesis and thus a positive development of Eastern Orthodox doctrine by incorporating Scholarios’ understanding of Thomas Aquinas into a larger picture of providence that is both faithfully Orthodox and Western. But Briel’s thesis is successful only if one considers Scholarios a Latinized Orthodox theologian who understood Orthodoxy from a Thomist perspective. There are serious issues with Briel’s (and Scholarios’?) understanding of Orthodoxy that, if considered, may invalidate Scholarios’ work as properly Orthodox and require a reassessment of the success of Briel’s thesis.

Scholarios (through Aquinas) argues for an analogy of being between created and uncreated beings, where humans are analogically like God but not of the same or similar type of being (univocal/equivocal). All created things are created by the first cause without a cause (God). From here Briel discusses Aquinas’ notion of secondary causality as it relates to human freedom, which is compatibilism, plain and simple. Scholarios (in support of secondary causality) uses the example of Herod and John the Baptist, and says grace is withheld from Herod because God’s prescience knows he will reject him: “From the beginning it was necessary for Herod to merit being left behind” (117). God’s grace simply will not cooperate with those predetermined to fail (120). From the divine standpoint, everything is caused by God; from the human perspective, humanity is God’s instrument (92). There is only a notional sense of choice here that, through secondary causality, gives the creature a feel of self-determination that is however already predetermined. One cannot know which causes are properly internal or external (there are too many causes at work). So compatibilism remains theoretical at best and semantical at worst in its separation from hard determinism. From here, if compatibilism is nothing more than theoretical, and Briel does not explain how Orthodox synergism works apart from compatibilism (say between the choices of John and Herod), then Gregory Palamas’ essence and energies distinction, with respect to Scholarios, need not entail an opportunity for God to withhold grace. On the one hand, Palamas (the explicator of the essence and energies distinction and the “founder” of Palamite theology within the Orthodox tradition) , says the acquisition of a special grace (energia) of “uncreated light” given through pure prayer can indeed be taken from an unworthy person. But on the other hand, the grace of God according to Palamas also remains despite (un)worthiness through a diversity of means. God’s attributes (or energies) are always transcended by God’s superessentiality (what one might call a simple essence). But that being so does not change the fact that God’s essence compared to God’s energies, and how they manifest themselves to humans, are different but of the same uncreated source. Clearly, a Palamite (which Briel claims Scholarios is) cannot say God is both God’s being and existence, a notion actually endorsed by Scholarios. Instead, according to Palamas, each remain distinct, uncreated, and find their source in God. God remains the cause of God’s attributes within God’s essence. In fact, it is the experience of the energies of God that gives humans a sense of God’s unknowable essence. Not only is Briel’s discussion of this distinction scant, but it is also inaccurate. Thus, Scholarios’ ability to synthetize it with Aquinas’ analogy of being is suspect.               

There are also serious issues with Briel’s understanding and use of patristic writers such as Origen and Maximus. To Origen and Maximus, free will was a negation of present blessedness or participation in the good (God). Such participation with the good was prior to the negligent choice of (in the case of Origen) the various intellects and (in the case of Maximus) the first humans to abandon the real good for an apparent one. This decision (or fall), according to both patristic writers, created a postlapsarian reality requiring ascetical effort began by and carried out by the grace of God. The first humans (or intellects) had only one “choice” (God), but they oxymoronically “chose” (contrary to their own natures and God’s will) nonexistence. Thus, instead of living naturally—as they were meant to—they “chose” to live unnaturally apart from their source of being, incredibly “choosing” a privation of being. Since Briel uses and ultimately misunderstands Origen and Maximus to lay the foundation of what he considers Scholarios’ and the Orthodox theological tradition, this contrary reading has significant implications for the success of Briel’s thesis.

Briel continually refers to Maximus, presenting him as the best Orthodox voice on providence (86). But he fails to mention Maximus’ distinction between the human logos (being/essence) and tropos (mode of being/essence), acting as if this important distinction does not exist. According to Maximus, the logos remained pure and immutable after the fall, while only the tropos (the center of human deliberation and action between greater and lesser goods) was corrupted. Instead, Briel (with undoubtably Western influence) says Scholarios believed attraction to the body and concern for it affected the human logos in a negative way after the fall; and Briel incorrectly supports this statement by saying “it draws deeply on . . . the theology of Maximus [the] Confessor” (106). The distinction between logos and tropos, if appreciated, has the opportunity to change Briel’s conclusions about choice and Scholarios’ synthesis altogether.

Briel introduces and closes his chapters well so that the reader knows exactly what has been and will be covered. He provides English translations of Greek phrases, which is helpful for a lay audience, and brings a great deal to the proverbial theological table by translating Scholarios’ first tract on providence, which has never before been done (99). Nonetheless, since he spends the first two chapters discussing the various earthquakes and plagues in Constantinople during its last remaining years as a Christian state, which caused many people to question God’s providence, a greater dive into the philosophical question of the problem of evil and what it means for God’s providence would have been appreciated. This is especially so when Briel discusses God’s instrumental use of human beings through secondary causality, which forces many questions about divine responsibility for evil. But such questions unfortunately go unanswered.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chase Montague is a doctoral student in theology and religion at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew C. Briel is assistant professor of theology at Assumption College.

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