_Aristotle East & West_ (review for _WTJ_)

The story of the development of the Christian doctrine of God, beginning with the doctrinal disputes of the fourth century, is long and complex. Certain key themes, however, emerge again and again: ousia, hypostasis, energeia among the most important. In this book Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw lucidly and compellingly deals with all of them, focusing particularly, however, on the ancient concept of energeia (i.e., the “energies” of God), genealogically tracing its evolution from Aristotle through the Medieval Greek speaking theologian Gregory Palamas.

Readers will find the book immensely relevant to such discussions as the relationship between faith and reason (which, according to Bradshaw, has been rent in the West but held intact in Eastern Christianity); the pervasive influence of ancient Greek thought upon Christian theology; the origins of modern, western nihilism; and the nature of the theological issues dividing Eastern and Western branches of the Christian church.

The primary thesis of the book, attempting to indict central streams of Western Christianity in one grand sweep, is that the West, beginning with Augustine, has failed to assimilate the Greek understanding of God’s energeia, a failure due in part to the exigencies of language (none of the major Latin renderings of this term – operatio, actus, and actualitas – fully capture its semantic nuances), in part to historical accident (e.g., Augustine had access only to certain “Neo-Platonist” philosophers), in part due to more pernicious reasons such as Augustine’s absolutization of Plato’s version of divine simplicity unique to his middle dialogues.

Of particular interest is the way in which Greek and Latin theology received the classical heritage. It is perhaps tempting for many to assume that the Greek speaking East is somehow more saturated with Greek thought, but this is not the case: “It is only by seeing both the eastern and western traditions as developments out of a shared heritage in classical metaphysics that they can be properly understood.” (xii)

The book is divided into five parts: the development of energeia from Aristotle through Plotinus (chs. 1- 4; note that this includes Paul’s letters, in which ten occurrences of the term are treated in the book); preliminary developments in the West (ch. 5); preliminary developments in the East (ch. 6); the growth of the Eastern tradition (chs. 7 – 8); and a systematic comparison of Augustine, Aquinas, and Palamas (ch. 9).

Beyond the general point that Christian notions of teleology have their roots in Aristotle, Bradshaw’s articulation of Aristotle’s doctrine of God (i.e., the Prime Mover) already foreshadows how the West has (allegedly) impaired the right use of ancient thought. For Bradshaw shows us how Aristotle’s theos is not simply transcendent (as he is usually viewed in the West) but also radically immanent in his relation to the world (the first heavens, for example, being moved as objects of the Prime Mover’s love). Bradshaw rehearses various other modes of participation between the creation and the divine (with energeia acting as a connecting thread) in the thought of the Hellenistic schools, Philo of Alexandria, and especially Plotinus, whose theory of two acts proved to be formative for subsequent thought. Of particular note here is the development of the concept of theurgy beginning with Porphyry but truly coming into its own in the philosophic outlook of his disciple Iamblichus, those thought – significantly – remained virtually unknown in the West.

Moving to a treatment of these ideas in a specifically Christian context, the influence of energeia is exerted most fully in the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. Among the most important examples is the Neo-Platonist logic behind Athanasius’ theological critique of Egyptian bishop Serapion’s denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit. Well known is Athanasius’ affirmation that “the external works of the Trinity are undivided” (in Latin, Opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt.). Less appreciated is that this doctrine relies on a philosophical presupposition of Neo-Platonism: that energeia is revelatory of essence implying in this case that if we know that the three persons of the Trinity perform their works (Greek energeiai) in unison, then we know (or so Neo-Platonist thinking would hold) that their ousia must be unitary as well. In this way Serapion’s theology is demonstrated to fall short of Scriptural implications.

Here lies the primary benefit of this book. Modern western Christians of an orthodox persuasion readily accept Athanasius’ conclusions here (and elsewhere), but ought we to embrace the Greek presuppositions upon which these conclusions depend? For these presuppositions, Bradshaw shows, lead to some rather far reaching consequences, most of which center on the ancient understanding of methexis or participation (at this point the book traffics in the domain of the theological development known as Radical Orthodoxy, with its insistence on the centrality of participation in the Christian life). God mysteriously interacts with his creation in ways that shed new light on such things as the body’s role in prayer (just as the energies mitigate against a God / world dualism, so also do they mitigate against a mind / body, or even a soul / body dualism), the nature of the sacraments (the main connection here being that of theurgy), and the meaning of sanctification (hence the Orthodox understanding of theosis).

Critical reaction to this book centers on three basic points:

First, Bradshaw’s (indeed that of the mainstream Orthodox tradition) reading of Neo-Platonist teaching in the writings of St. Paul needs justification. To load, for example, Paul’s use of energeia in Ephesians 1:19 with classical philosophical meaning seems a bit suspect. What might be the Hebraic background of this idea? Even if such a query lies outside the scope of Bradshaw’s book, this is a question that must asked when grappling with these issues. (To say this is not to totalize authorial intent at the expense of other interpretive postures: such ecclesial and corporate “reader response” may well be legitimate, especially given the dual authorship of Scripture, but such a move ought at least to be explicitly articulated and examined.)

Second, Bradshaw’s genealogy of western nihilism as stemming from Augustine is tenuous (although shared with other compelling Orthodox theologians such as Christos Yannaras). It is true that Western theology and practice is more centralized, monarchical, and centered on the impersonal ousia of God (seen in the papal tendencies of Rome) than the Eastern commitment to the equal ultimacy of the tri-personhood of God. And yet, one must strain to trace modern nihilism in the west all the way back to a supposed Augustinian source. More plausible, it seems to me, is the genealogy of nihilism put forth by Radical Orthodoxy, beginning as it does with Duns Scotus and late medieval nominalism.

Third, the same objections to this account of the divine energies tend to crop up over and over again throughout the history of the church: that this view of God’s energeia reifies what are properly merely logical distinctions, that it compromises the simplicity of God, and that it comes dangerously close to pantheism. To his credit Bradshaw does not avoid these criticism, engaging as he does in a lengthy response to one of the more recent critiques of this Neo-Platonist heritage, that of Rowan Williams. And despite the fact that Williams has modified his views on this particular issue, Bradshaw does overcome several real objections.

However, Bradshaw does not sufficiently bring out the fact that, in all likelihood, important figures usually associated with Eastern Orthodoxy would likely have objections to this view, wanting to protect the simplicity of God. In particular, to say that God decides something other than what he is does not seem to be consistent with the Cappadocian Fathers or Maximus. This, of course, does not mean that it is not true, but nevertheless full context here would be helpful.

This book is the product of a lucid mind and a faithful imagination engaged with his tradition and is worthy of deep respect.


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