Studia Patristica. Volume LI. Including papers presented at the Conference ‘The Image of the Perfect Christian in Patristic Thought’ at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine, under Taras Khomynch, Oleksandra Vakula and Oleh Kindiy in 2009. Edited by A. Brent, T. Khomych, O. Vakula and M. Vinzent. Leuven, Paris and Walpole, MA.: Peeters, 2011. I-XV, 216 pages.
This volume presents selected papers from an international conference held on September 11-12, 2009, at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. The conference was jointly organized by the Departments of Theology of the Ukrainian Catholic University and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA. The topic of the conference was patristic notions of Christian perfection. The presentations discussed all epochs of patristic thought and literature or explored the use of patristic ideas of perfection in modern ecumenical dialogue and church social teachings. Contributors came from the USA, Europe, the Ukraine, and Russia.
Fourteen papers from this conference appear in this volume. They concern Christian texts and authors from the early Christian through the late Byzantine eras. The presentation is divided chronologically into five sections: the first two centuries (the Didache and the Martyrdom of Polycarp), the third century (Clement of Alexandria and Origen), the fourth century (Gregory of Nazianzus and the Syrian Fathers), the fifth century (Augustine, Leo the Great, and Pseudo-Macarius), and the sixth century and Byzantium (Maximus the Confessor, Theodore the Studite, Gregory Barhebraeus, and Theophanes of Nicaea). Each essay features an abstract, a discussion, and a summary, is documented with footnotes, and varies in length from seven to nineteen pages. This aim of this review is to provide a summary or an idea of the contents of each contribution.
Many patristic authors discussed in these essays see Christian perfection as a process. In her study (pp. 45-59), Oleksandra Vakula argues that Origen of Alexandria considers Christian perfection to be the return of the individual to God through Christ and the scriptures. Self-knowledge of the logos is the beginning of this process which is continuous and never-ending. The only ‘perfect Christian’ is a ‘disciple of Christ’ who has grown spiritually more than other Christians and who can teach Christ to them. Dariusz Zagórski in his contribution (pp. 63-75) shows that Gregory of Nazianzus carefully outlines in his writings a process for Christian perfection that is based on his own attempt to balance the active and the contemplative lives. This process is divided into three stages: praxis negativa, or the renunciation of sin and false belief about God; praxis positiva, or the practice of virtue; and contemplation of God, which brings union with Him. Although few Christians attain full perfection, Gregory believes that pastoral direction, the sacraments, and charity advance a Christian through the stages of perfection.
Patristic Syrian commentators also consider Christian perfection to be a process. Sebastian P. Brock in his essay (pp. 77-94) discusses two Syriac authors who describe a process toward Christian perfection: the creator of the late fourth century Book of Steps and the early fifth century author John of Apamea. The first writer provides a bipartite and the second a tripartite system of Christian perfection; both are based on New Testament notions of spirituality. In her contribution (pp. 149-70), Mariya Horyacha presents the method of Pseudo-Macarius which begins with baptism and continues through various degrees by asceticism and by the grace of God. For this Syrian author, Christian perfection involves the creation of a new Adam and ultimately full union with Christ.
Other Christian authors discussed see Christian perfection as mystical union with God. Herman Teule’s essay (pp. 195-203) argues that Gregory Barhebraeus considers Christian perfection to be based on intimate knowledge of and union with God rather than ascetic preparation. Dimitry Makarov in his study (pp. 205-16) demonstrates that Theophanes of Nicaea believes in a three stage process of union with God: practice, which consists of prayer, the Eucharist, and the exercise of virtue that prepare humans for union with the divine; synergy, which involves a transcendent union with God through divine grace; and interpenetration, which is the everlasting experience of God’s glory. All humans have access to practice and synergy, but the only human to achieve interpenetration in this life is the Theotokos.
Many contributors to this edited collection discuss an aspect of Christian perfection. In his study (pp. 95-111), Boudewijn Dehandschutter outlines fourth and fifth century Syrian writers’ views on the expulsion of lust from the Christian on his or her way to perfection. For Aphrahat, Ephrem Syrus, and the author of the Book of Degrees, lust should be overcome by a moderate asceticism and by the restoration of the purity that Adam enjoyed before his sin. In her essay (pp. 115-32), Marcela Andoková sets forth the view of Augustine of Hippo as presented in his sermones ad populem that Christian perfection involves toleration of sinners within the Christian community until the Day of Judgment. Krzysztof Tyburowski presents in his paper (pp. 133-47) the importance that Leo the Great gives in his sermons to fasting and almsgiving in attaining Christian perfection. George C. Berthold in his communication (pp. 173-9) explains the role of the Lord’s Prayer in the thought of Maximus the Confessor on Christian perfection. For Maximus, this prayer helps Christians overcome temptation and establish the proper relationship to the Father which ultimately admits humans to the mystery of deification.
The author of the first paper in the collection (pp. 3-13), Taras Khomych, finds two aspects of Christian perfection in the Didache. The first, found in Did. 1.4 and 6.2, concerns ethical admonitions, while the second, appearing in Did. 10.5 and 16.2, relates to the holiness of the eschatological community of the faithful. Khlomych contends that this second meaning of perfection should be understood in the sense of John 17:23 that the perfected Christian community represents Restored Israel. Since both aspects of perfection are based on ethical personal behavior and proper relations between community members, the two views of perfection are compatible.
Some of the included essays develop subtle aspects of Christian perfection. Jan M. Kozlowski argues in his contribution (pp. 15-22) that the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp presents Polycarp as the ideal Christian gymnosophist who, like contemporary Indian gymnosophists, overcame a painful death by fire. This is a variation of the ideal of the martyr as the perfect Christian. For Kozlowski, this presentation is a device to win the text’s pagan readers to Christianity. Oleh Kindiy’s essay (pp. 25-43) examines the views of Clement of Alexandria on Christian service. Through a semantic study, Kindiy establishes two categories of service in Clement’s writings: menial, or regular physical service based on ethical attainment, and theological, which involves biblical vocations such as preaching, the three regular divisions of the church’s ministry between the deacon, priest, and bishop, and a soteriological understanding of Christ’s ministry. For Kindiy, service is an aspect of Christian perfection (p. 25). Thomas Cattoi’s paper (pp. 181-94) outlines Theodore the Studite’s theology of icon veneration. This concerns the understanding of the nature of Christ and the Incarnation upon which the perfection of human nature is based.
These papers are worthy additions to patristic studies. But some stand out as having special interest. Taras Khomych’s description of the eschatological aspect of Christian perfection in the Didache is an important argument for the existence and importance of this aspect of the text that often is not recognized. Oleh Kindiy’s discussion of Clement of Alexandria’s views of service is an original contribution to understanding early Christian notions of service; the essay’s footnote references to Clement and other early Christian topics also make this essay valuable. Sebastian Brock’s paper continues his decades-long research of Syriac literature and culture. The second half of Brock’s contribution discusses imagery found in Syriac sources touching on Christian perfection. A virtue of Boudewijn Dehandschutter’s discussion is its overview of earlier Christian views of lust and the passions with appropriate documentation before the essay’s discussion of Syrian authors’ views. Mariya Horyacha’s essay on Pseudo-Macarius is a well-structured presentation of the identity of the writer (a Syrian ascetic who wrote in Greek c. 375 A.D.) and his views of anthropology, Christian perfection and its attainment, and false notions of Christian perfection. The essay’s footnotes provide excellent bibliography on Pseudo-Macarius and topics associated with him. A particular interest of Herman Teule’s study of Barhebraeus is the author’s argument that the Syrian scholar borrowed from Islamic sources for his notions of mysticism (pp. 196, 202). Thomas Cattoi’s essay on Theodore the Studite and Dimitry Makarov’s essay on Theophanes of Nicaea are good introductions to Middle and Late Byzantine theology.
Thomas Brauch, Mount Pleasant, MI