Trinity College

Mediaeval Eastern Thought Doctrine and Theology: from Maximus to Palamas

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Fall 2020
Next Offered: 
Fall 2023

Throughout Christian history, controversy and dispute have played midwife to nearly all the Church's greatest theological and doctrinal insights. In this course, we will explore the intellectual legacy of the key controversies of the Medieval period, setting our attention on  only the most influential authors and focusing on the ideas at play (rather than, for instance, the politics which is explored in other courses).

The Medieval period in the East began to take shape during the Monothelite controversy of the 7th Century, a dispute centering on the question of whether it is proper to speak of two wills (divine and human) or just one will in the incarnate Christ. Into the fray of this discussion stepped one Maximus the Confessor—already among the most brilliant philosophical theologians in Eastern Church history—whose views on the subject would prove decisive for the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Maximus' brilliant theological anthropology, focused on the relationships between created human beings and the utterly transcendent God, is perhaps even more influential in our own day than it was in his.

Roughly a century after Maximus' time, the Eastern Church was again embroiled in controversy--this time over the question of icons. Among the many theologians and Church leaders weighing in on the controversy was John of Damascus, whose theological and doctrinal insight went far beyond the realm of icons alone, and set new standards for philosophical rigour in questions of Christology, Trinitarian theology, and anthropology, ultimately building a foundation for Eastern theological scholasticism that remains influential to the present day.

In the 9th Century, Photius rose to become patriarch of Constantinople, presiding over (and eventually helping to repair) one of the biggest rifts between the Eastern and Western churches—the 9th Century controversy over the filioque. Often characterized as cantankerous and cynically political, Photius was also a careful theologian and sensitive pastoral thinker whose interests were far ranging. His discussions of pneumatology and Trinitarian theology (especially surrounding the filioque) remain influential, if often criticized, and we will treat them here. We will also, however, seek to develop a sense of Photius' thought more broadly, reaching beyond the dispute for which he is most remembered.

The 11th Century marked a period of relative stability in the Byzantine Empire and eastern Mediterranean. Concerned about the perhaps too-comfortable situation of the Church and the clergy, something of a revivalist movement sprang up around the figure of Symeon the New Theologian. Probably dubbed a “new” theologian as a pejorative at first, Symeon stirred controversy of his own in and around Constantinople, becoming renowned for his lush and evocative theological style, his concern for religious vitality, and his remarkable accounts of encountering God in the form of Light. His thought eventually captivated the Eastern Church as a whole, and his originally pejorative title now stands as one of the great honorifics among canonized Orthodox saints.

In the 12th and 13th Centuries, this theology of Light would crystallize into a movement known as Hesychasm, originating especially in the monasteries of the East. Marked by intensive spiritual practice and repetitions of the Jesus prayer, Hesychasm had numerous detractors, along with one especially famous advocate. This was Gregory Palamas who would become famous for his masterful defense of the theological concepts at the heart of the Hesychastic movement. Through Palamas especially, Hesychasm was finally embraced by the Eastern Church, and the Hesychastic approach to religious life remains a dominant strand of the Orthodox Tradition to the present.

In this course, we will work through some of the key writings of these named figures to develop a deeper understanding of their profound and still influential insights about God and man. Our goal will be in part to develop a greater academic understanding of their thought and theology, its function and its stakes. But we will also seek to put these great thinkers into conversation with our own thought and spiritual lives as millions of Christians have done continuously over the centuries.