09 February 2010

St Mark of Ephesus on St Gregory of Nyssa

In my post for St Mark of Ephesus last week, I referred to the excellent chapters on the subject of St Mark and his confession at Florence in Fr Seraphim’s The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church [1] and Metropolitan Hierotheos’s Life After Death. [2] But reading these two books carefully, one notices an odd discrepancy between them. In the context of his study of St Augustine, Fr Seraphim is concerned to show that, according to the Orthodox Tradition, it is possible for a Saint and Father of the Church to err. On the subject of St Mark, he translates from the book of Archimandrite Ambrose (Pogodin), St Mark of Ephesus & the Union of Florence: [3]

. . . Here is what St Mark writes:

‘With regard to the words which are quoted of the blessed Gregory of Nyssa [by the Latins arguing for their doctrine of Purgatory], it would be better to give them over to silence, and not at all compel us, for the sake of our own defense, to bring them out into the open. For this Teacher is seen to be clearly in agreement with the dogmas of the Origenists and to introduce an end to torments.’ According to St Gregory (St Mark continues), ‘there will come a final restoration of all, and of the demons themselves, “that God”, he says, “may be all in all”, as the Apostle says. Inasmuch as these words have also been quoted, among others, at first we shall reply regarding them as we have received it from our Fathers. It is possible that these are alterations and insertions by certain heretics and Origenists. . . . But if the Saint was actually of such an opinion, this was when this teaching was a subject of dispute and had not been definitely condemned and rejected by the opposite opinion, which was brought forward at the Fifth Ecumenical Council; so that there is nothing surprising in the fact that he, being human, erred in precision (of truth), when the same thing happened also with many before him, such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Dionysius of Alexandria and others. . . . Thus, these utterances, if they were actually said by the marvellous Gregory concerning that fire, do not indicate a special cleansing [such as purgatory would be—ed. note], but introduce a final cleansing and a final restoration of all; but in no way are they convincing for us, who behold the common judgment of the Church and are guided by the Divine Scriptures, but not beholding what each of the Teachers has written as his personal opinion. And if anyone else has written otherwise about a cleansing fire, we have no need to accept it’ (‘First Homily on Purgatorial Fire’, ch. 11; Pogodin, pp. 68-9). [4]

Fr Seraphim goes on to note that in his ‘Second Homily on Purgatorial Fire’, St Mark ‘goes into great detail, with many citations from his works, to show that St Gregory of Nyssa actually did teach the error ascribed to him (which is nothing less than the denial of eternal torment in hell, and universal salvation)’. [5]

Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos seems to paint a significantly different picture. Pay attention to what His Eminence says about this very issue:

In their dialogue with the Orthodox about the purifying fire at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, the Latins used texts of St Gregory of Nyssa as well as other texts. Therefore St Mark Eugenicus, presenting the orthodox views on this subject in two speeches, overthrew the arguments of the Latins.

Among his other observations, he pointed out two relative passages of St Gregory of Nyssa. First, that when St Gregory speaks of the purifying fire he does not at all mean what the Latins teach. The purgatory of the Latins is in the intermediate state of souls and is created, while the purifying fire of St Gregory of Nyssa is eternal and uncreated. Secondly, St Maximus the Confessor too speaks of a restoration as St Gregory of Nyssa understands it. St Mark says: ‘But also what comfort St Maximus contrives with the wonderful Gregory’s doctrine of the restoration, we shall set forth completely’. And in what follows he quotes the text of St Maximus the Confessor. It is significant here to underline that St Gregory of Nyssa was called ‘wonderful’ by St Mark Eugenicus.

And after quoting St Maximus’ text, St Mark, interpreting the words of both saints, concludes that when in ancient teachings the purifying fire is spoken of, it means the eternal fire and not an intermediate state of souls. Clearly the term purifying fire means the eternal fire, that is, more allegorically, the eternal punishments, just as they call light the eternal vision of God in the righteous. Nor in the future life will there be worms and some kind of reptiles, venomous and flesh-eating, but ‘the torture of punishment by the conscience and that bitter regret’. And the gnashing of teeth is the more allegorical expression for the mania of those fighting fiercely, and the grief about it and the bitter lamentation.

It is in this way that St Mark Eugenicus interprets the so-called purifying fire of St Gregory of Nyssa. It concerns the eternal fire which is neither temporary nor created. It is the punishing energy of God, which those who remain unhealed will experience, through their own choice.

Now we shall look at the way in which St Maximus the Confessor writes about the restoration, as St Gregory of Nyssa understands it. He says that there are three restorations. . . . And the third is the restoration of the powers of the soul to the condition in which they were before the fall. St Gregory of Nyssa means this third restoration, and indeed, as St Maximus characteristically says, he makes exaggerated use of it. It is not an error, but he developed it more than he should. [6]

Met. Hierotheos concludes, ‘It is within the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor that we must look at the teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa about the restoration of all things.’ [7] And finally:

The witnesses and teachings of both St Maximus the Confessor and St Mark Eugenicus, who are pillars of Orthodoxy, show that the teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa concerning the restoration of all things differs clearly from the view of the restoration of all things which we find in ancient philosophy and the Origenist conception, which the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned. [8]

So, His Eminence’s points seem to be:

1) St Mark interprets the purifying fire of St Gregory of Nyssa as referring to the eternal fire of hell.

2) St Maximus, whom St Mark follows, teaches that when St Gregory speaks of restoration he refers to the restoration of the powers of souls, which teaching he exaggerated but concerning which he did not actually err.

3) We can conclude that St Mark shows that St Gregory’s teaching on restoration differs from that of Origen.

Recall Fr Seraphim’s claim however that St Mark ‘goes into great detail, with many citations from his works, to show that St Gregory of Nyssa actually did teach the error ascribed to him (which is nothing less than the denial of eternal torment in hell, and universal salvation [i.e., precisely the errors of Origen!])’. [9] Here it looks to me as though Fr Seraphim directly contradicts each of these points Met. Hierotheos seems to be making.

I have a hard time determining which one is correct. I do not have access at the moment to the primary sources, nor even to a truly in-depth, scholarly study of the Council (if there is such a thing). I usually trust both of these writers. Obviously, Met. Hierotheos has access to the primary sources in their original language. But on the other hand Fr Seraphim, even if he is using a translation of St Mark, is actually quoting from the Ephesian Bishop himself and not merely attempting paraphrase or summarise him. I also can’t help but think that if there really was more of a defense of St Gregory than he has quoted, then Fr Seraphim would have been the first to pick up on this and rally to Nyssen’s side. Finally, and this is perhaps slightly impertinent, in Greece Met. Hierotheos does not seem to be treated as a serious theologian. Despite the value of his works to Anglophone Orthodox, which I am the first to admit, they may not always be as reliable as they seem. Certainly, his citations are often rather scanty.

Could Fr Ambrose somehow have altered the texts, whether deliberately or inadvertently? I know very little of him or his abilities or qualifications. Any further information or opinions are welcome! I will just point out that I am not broaching the question of whether in fact St Gregory of Nyssa was in error and taught the false Origenistic apokatastasis (despite a recent comment that ‘we all know he did’!), merely that of whether or not St Mark of Ephesus believed him to be in this error. Though I do believe the latter point to be relevant to determining the former.

[1] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998).

[2] Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Life After Death, tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Gr.: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998).

[3] Archimandrite Ambrose (Pogodin), St Mark of Ephesus & the Union of Florence (Jordanville, NY: 1963).

[4] Fr Seraphim, pp. 71-2.

[5] Ibid., p. 73.

[6] Met. Hierotheos, pp. 307-9.

[7] Ibid., p. 309.

[8] Ibid., p. 310.

[9] Fr Seraphim, p. 73.


Strider said...

It's a shame that more of St Mark's writings are not available in reliable English translations. Even his homilies on purgatory, included in Fr Seraphim's *The Soul After Death* are translations of the Russian translation, and I understand they are abbreviated, too.

Someone needs to take on the task of translating his works into English.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, this situation was roundly lamented in the comments on last week's post on St Mark. The problem as always is the time and difficulty coupled with the lack of financial support for such a project. If a bunch of people like you could pool their money, perhaps they could pay a translator to get to work. I know more than enough people who could do the job, but they're having to work day jobs and raise children!

The Hermit said...

Aaron--I am both grieved (because it apparently troubled you) and delighted (because it provoked such an interesting post) by my flippancy in referring to St. Gregory of Nyssa. I in no way meant the "we all know he taught universalism" comment to be taken too terribly seriously; it's just that, these days and among most Orthodox people I know, St. Gregory is regarded with some suspicion because of his 'universalism.' Quite frankly, he never mentions such a thing in the works of his that I own (which are, admittedly, scant--and, moreover, in translation). And, as I mentioned, I find him a source of great inspiration and grace, particularly with his homilies on The Lord's Prayer. The comment was more to illustrate the point that I was making that, real or imagined, the Cappadocian Fathers did have some flaws; but that makes them more endearing, not less.

aaronandbrighid said...

Justinian> Don't worry, I was only reacting a little bit to the apparent decisiveness of the comment, which is natural given that not only all patristics scholars, but even Fr Seraphim regard him as teaching universalism. I have never given any great attention to the matter, although my own reading of St Gregory suggested to me that he is inconsistently universalist if at all, but the post on St Mark reminded me of this discrepancy between two writers I respected and I thought I would get it out there to provoke some discussion. I had actually written the entire thing prior to your comment, so I had only to throw in my remark about that just before posting (though without naming you or linking to it so as to temper any potential friction). I'm sorry if the post came off as a broadside directed against you!

Taylor said...

There are other studies of the Council of Florence available. I've seen J. Gill referenced recently, though I've forgotten where.

As to translations, day jobs and children are two reasons why monks have traditionally done most of the translation work!

Mark Montague said...

Dear Aaron - Greetings! Another excellent post. Thank you.

Constantine N. Tsirpanlis' fascinating study "Mark Eugenicus and the Council of Florence" (Thessaloniki, 1974) weighs in as follows: "Mark's eschatology is in agreement with that of the Greek Fathers, except St. Gregory of Nyssa, who was tainted with the Origenist heresy, which taught that the fire of hell is not eternal, and therefore tended to relax the vigilance and morality of the faithful. Mark, however, tries to lighten Gregory's responsibility and heterodoxy in this respect, by stressing the possibility for any human being, even for a doctor, to be in error, particularly on a doctrine like Purgatory, which in Gregory's times was still undefined, unclarified and unsettled. Since Gregory's teaching supports the Origenist ἀποκατάστασις, which was anathematized by the fifth ecumenical council, his views on purgatorial fire—if indeed they are his own genuine beliefs—cannot be held as authoritative and orthodox, according to Mark Eugenicus." (pp. 80-1) I've left out the extensive footnotes to the original texts. I take Tsirpanlis and Fr. Seraphim to be in agreement, and, given their references to the texts, I'm inclined to believe them.


aaronandbrighid said...

Taylor> I had had the same thought about monastic translators. Unfortunately, it seems like most of the monks I know are either not qualified or too busy themselves! Their 'dayjobs' seem to be building churches, cooking meals, and visitors.

Mark> How wonderful to hear from you! Thank you very much for the passage from Tsirpanlis, and I think you're right to trust the combined witness of him and Fr Seraphim. It sounds like St Mark really was prepared to admit St Gregory was an Origenist on this point.

Tsirpanlis's name is familiar to me. What else has he written? And has he been translated into English?

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, on that last message I meant to say 'helping visitors'. As it is written, it's rather disturbingly ambiguous, isn't it?

Mark Montague said...

Aaron, I can't tell you much about him; he's one of those familiar names in Greek theological circles. Some works in English listed here: Barnes & Noble. The work I quoted from was published in English. Just from web searching, he seems to be an extremely prolific theologian and byzantine historian, still active. Interesting that we didn't intersect with him in Greece.

Taylor said...

Hi Mark - Don't be tempted by logismoi to neglect that thesis of yours.

Aaron - Maybe the monks should stop cooking visitors and use that time to translate patristic texts! In all seriousness, the solution to our problem is probably to encourage real monasticism as much as we can - in our children, our family and friends, our parish, etc. We don't simply need texts translated from one tongue to another, we need holy men and women to show us the proper way to read and understand these texts. I think Fr. Seraphim did an excellent job of this, and was marvelously productive during his short life.

aaronandbrighid said...

Mark> What's your thesis topic?

Taylor> Hear, hear!

Mark Montague said...

"Hypostasis, Nature, and Energies According to St. John Damascene"

aaronandbrighid said...

Mark> Wow, that's some difficult stuff. I like that you picked St John Damascene. Who's your advisor?

Isaac said...

What an interesting question, and an interesting possibility put forward by the beloved Met. Hierotheos Vlachos. You know, if he's not appreciated in Greece, perhaps one of the Phanariot jurisdictions here in America should try to get him transferred to us.

I have been continually impressed by the wisdom of the Nafpaktian and hope that perhaps your question will someday be settled conclusively by a more exhaustive study. This is the problem with your blog, Aaron: far too many interesting subjects!

aaronandbrighid said...

Isaac> Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say +Hierotheos is not appreciated in Greece at all. Certainly, his prolific output is available in all of the bookshops there, so somebody must be buying them!

I just mean that Met. Hierotheos doesn't seem to be mentioned in the Greek theology schools or the writings of their professors (although there is a brief summary of what he says about the person in one of my advisor's books). In fact, I've been told that Fr Nicholas Loudovikos, by whom I was quite impressed both personally and as a theological writer and teacher, has been rather dismissive of His Eminence (maybe Mark can confirm this, since he attended quite a few of Fr Loudovikos's lectures).

My comment about his value to Anglophone Orthodox was meant to suggest that while the translations of His Eminence's works have done much to fill a lacuna in Orthodox sources in English (specifically on ascetic theology), the Greeks, having many more and perhaps superior sources available to draw on, have not found them as valuable as many of us have.

Perhaps Mark would care to weigh in on this?

Mark Montague said...

Aaron > My advisor is Dr. Tselengidis. I very much enjoy and appreciate St. John Damascene's works, so I'm happy to have arrived at this topic. I'm nearing the end of the writing now. Aaron, if you have particular interest in this topic, I'd be happy to discuss it with you offline. I do seek knowledgeable feedback on it, but I'm not yet ready to proclaim my oddball findings to the world, since they haven't yet received approval by anyone qualified.

Isaac and Aaron > I can't be of much help here; I haven't read Met. Hierotheos' works myself, so I didn't pay particular attention to his reception in Greece. I don't recall Fr. Nicholas mentioning him, but that may be due to the weakness of my memory. I can confirm in a general way that, in my limited experience, his works are not much used in scholarly dialogue in Greece, at least not directly. But I myself wouldn't infer too much from this; after all he is a pastor, not a academic, and since the two communities have somewhat different goals and methods, it is natural enough. There is some intersection—I recall that he presented a paper at the academic conference on Ecumenism (2004?). And I would agree that he is very influential in Greece on the whole.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

On Metropolitan Hierotheos, I don't see his works as really belonging to the scholarly realm at all. (That is not, O readers, intended even remotely as any kind of insult!!!) The ones that I have, anyway, are primarily pastoral in nature. This certainly fills a need, though! I do know among Greek laity, he is indeed popular, because he is a kind of bridge to deeper subjects, relaying to them the asceticism that all seem to hunger for in their daily lives. The gentle plain-spokeness of his writing is very effective.

But this is, of course, a separate realm from any academic theology. It is hermeneutics in action, the pastoral care, in writing, of a shepherd for the flock. And as such a popularizing writer, as one might call His Eminence, he is doing a splendid job.

Lupambulus Berolinen. said...