Saturday, 15 October 2016

Light from the East, by Aidan Nichols



Aidan Nichols, Light from the East: Authors and Themes in Orthodox Theology, 1995 Stag Books

In this book, Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols offers a survey of some of the leading modern theologians in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He uses each theologian to demonstrate a particular theme in Orthodox theology. Nichols restricts himself to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It would have been great if he could have covered some Oriental Orthodox theologians, but that would have made for a much thicker volume. In the introduction, Nichols explains the geographical context of the different schools of Orthodox theology, offering historical reasons for the lack of original theological material from Russia herself. Some of the theologians covered are household names, such as Vladimir Lossky and John Meyendorff, while others such as Panagiotis Trembelas are rather less well known.

Our author begins with Vladimir Lossky, explaining his apophatic approach to theological knowledge. Nichols raises the important question of whether Lossky's emphasis on our lack of knowledge of God is in keeping with the emphasis in Scripture of the knowledge that comes from participation in the covenant relationship. He follows this with a look at John Meyendorff and his revival of the thought of Saint Gregory Palamas, which had been neglected during Russian Orthodoxy's western theological captivity. He points out a number of Catholic responses to the Palamatite energy/ essence distinction, ranging from harshly negative to full harmonization with the thought of Aquinas. Nichols suggests that Palamism presents the danger of using our knowledge of God as a criteria for understanding the divine essence:

"And this brings us to a third objection, which is the gravest of them all. If we turn our experience of the God of salvation into statements about what God is like themselves controlled by the Palamite distinction, then we appear to be undermining the simplicity of God- the fact that everything God has by way of attribute, that he simply is."

Nichols is cautious in his judgement of Segius Bulgakov's Sophiology. He has written a primer on Bulgakov, which I am looking forward to reading. I am on a bit of a Bulgakov binge at the moment. He does not think his work should be considered heretical, even if it might be problematic in places. He refers to Barbara Newman's suggestion that Bulgakov's thought is not dissimilar to that of Teilhard de Chardin.

Discussing John Romanides work on Photius gives our author the opportunity to talk about the Filioque clause in the creed. As a Catholic theologian, he defends this and argues that it would be unthinkable for the Church to ever abandon it. In the chapter on Trembelas' work on Christology, he takes a slight detour and raises the debate in Catholic theology as to whether Chalcedon requires that we hold to the hypostatic union of Christ's natures, something never questioned in Orthodoxy. His discussion of aspects of liturgy in the chapter on Alexander Schmemann is very interesting. He has significant concerns about the congregationalist tendency in the ecclesiology of Nikolai Afanas'ev.

This is a really useful book from one of my favorite theologians. It is an helpful introduction to these Orthodox theologians and provides an insightful Catholic perspective on them.

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