Oxford history of the christian church


Renewed contacts with the West under Andronicus II and Andronicus III



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6. Renewed contacts with the West under Andronicus II and Andronicus III.


Throughout Andronicus II's reign (1283-1328) violent anti-papal and indeed anti-western feeling persisted. Patriarch Athanasius for instance was as strongly opposed to union as his arch-foes the Arsenites and he castigated westerners as barbarous schismatics (he must have found Andronicus II's second marriage to Yolande-Irene of Montferrat highly unpalatable). But though Andronicus II had begun by repudiating the 1274 union with Rome he was inevitably in constant touch with Latin (as well as Slav) powers and the imperial registers show him bargaining through diplomatic channels for economic and territorial reasons. 121 This aspect of his diplomacy became even more important as Asia Minor slipped from Byzantine hands and Greek interests were now concentrated on extending control over central Greece and the Peloponnese. So much is freely admitted. But to imply that it was only at the very end of his reign that Andronicus II considered approaching the papacy over union is misleading. There was a constant awareness-at least at diplomatic levels — of the need to heal the rift between the two Churches, as is evident from surviving correspondence and other sources. 122 Though Andronicus II played for safety at the opening of his reign he had always realized the value of union as a bargaining counter. In 1311, when trying to arrange a marriage between his 'son' (perhaps his grandson Andronicus III) and Catherine of Valois, he apparently promised not only his own obedience to the Pope but that of his subjects. 123 gain in 1324 he started negotiations professing his readiness to become a Roman Catholic. From 1324 to 1327 the question of union was being discussed in papal and French circles, 124 while the well-informed Marino Sanudo Torsello expressed views on the possibility of a rapprochement, pointing out that in certain Byzantine quarters there was a strong desire to end the schism. 125 Andronicus II's hopes however foundered with his abdication in 1328, forced on him by the victory of his grandson's party.

Whatever the majority of the populace and the monks might think, the desire to achieve union steadily persisted. A few years later in 1334 Marino Sanudo again remarked that not only the Emperor(then Andronicus III) but a number of priests and monks with whom he had talked were ready to acquiesce in union. Andronicus III's wife was the Italian Anne of Savoy and according to a Franciscan Chronicle the Pope's hope that she might convert her husband was fulfilled through the efforts of Frater Garcias, a Franciscan attached to the Empress's circle (she herself was said to have been a member of the Third Order of St Francis though she died an Orthodox nun. 126 It is impossible to know whether or not Andronicus was converted 'ad veram fidem et ecclesiae unitatem. 127 If so, this was understandably not made public. And in 1339 when addressing Pope Benedict XXII the Greek envoy Barlaam stated that if the Emperor's desire for union were generally known his life would be in danger.

Andronicus III certainly made a series of overtures to the papacy, sometimes making use of two Dominican bishops who travelled to and from the Crimea by way of Constantinople. In 1333 John XXII charged these two to explore the possibility of union and it was on the occasion of this visit to Constantinople that the Patriarch was pressed to arrange an open discussion. Nicephorus Gregoras records that he himself was urged to act as the Greek spokesman. He refused — he had rather an awkward personality — and he said that mysteries such as the Trinity were beyond human dialectic and he also pointed out that there was nothing for the Orthodox Church to debate since it had never deviated from the true faith. 128 At that time, Barlaam, a South Italian monk of the Greek rite who had settled in Constantinople, was a staunch supporter of the Greek Church and persona grata in influential Constantinopolitan circles. It is possible that he may have taken part in the proposed synodal discussions with the papal legates. It was during this period that he was writing anti-Latin tracts on the filioque. 129

Later in his reign Andronicus III sent two embassies to the Pope led by Stephen Dandolo, one in 1337 to initiate further discussion 130 and a second in 1339 when Stephen was accompanied by Barlaam. The Latin record of the 1339 meeting at Avignon gives the full exposition of the Greek position as propounded by Barlaam. 131 He urged the value of generosity, pressing for immediate aid against the Turks before settling the question of union. Then he emphasized that it was only decisions taken in a general council which would be likely to win over the Greek majority. Like Marino Sanudo he pointed out that little could be gained by force. But on this occasion he never really faced the question of authority or the doctrinal issues and even suggested that in default of agreement each Church might retain its own views under 'a single shepherd'. In any case his over-simplification was rejected by the Pope, then Benedict XII, who took the line that instruction in Latin teaching was all that the orientals needed to convince them of the validity of the Roman faith. The mission failed but union still remained a living issue.




7. Palamite problems.


This same Barlaam who put the Orthodox view to the papacy at Avignon had already opened a controversy in Byzantium which had far-reaching effects and at the same time revealed the vitality of Byzantine spirituality and theology. While defending the Orthodox Church during the 1333-4 union negotiations in Constantinople Barlaam had written on the filioque controversy. He asserted that the Latins could not prove their case by means of human reasoning since God in his essence was unknowable (which cut both ways in the controversy). He also took exception to practices which he found on Mount Athos. Here hermits living in asceticism and holy stillness (hesychia) claimed that repetition of the Jesus prayer and certain psychosomatic techniques helped them to experience the divine light which had shone round Christ on Mount Tabor, that is, they could know God while in this life. Barlaam's contention that God was in essence totally unknowable and his subsequent fierce condemnation of the Athonite hesychasts were challenged by a monk Gregory Palamas who had himself lived on Mount Athos. Palamas also took exception to Barlaam's view that non-Christian philosophers of antiquity might have had some 'enlightenment by God'.

Palamas wrote nine treatises arranged in groups of three and called Triads. 132 In these he defended and developed θέωσιζ, the deification of man. He maintained that, though the uncreated essence of God was unknowable, both here and in the next world man could share in God through uncreated energies bestowed by deifying grace. Barlaam took the offensive. He replied to Palamas's second Triad with a Tract Against the Messalians implying that hesychast practices were heretical. He then accused Palamas to the Patriarch John Calecas. A synod was held in Constantinople on 10 June 1341 at which Barlaam found himself condemned. The hesychasts had defended themselves in a hagioretic (monastic) Tome brought from Athos by Gregory Palamas and subsequent synodal sessions that year confirmed the Palamite position but further discussion was prohibited. 133 Barlaam returned to Italy, but within Byzantine circles the controversy continued.

At the same time following Andronicus III's death on 15 June 1341 civil war broke out. His heir John V was a minor and the regency of the Empress Mother Anne of Savoy and the Patriarch Calecas was successfully contested by the Grand Domestic John Cantacuzenus who was crowned as co-Emperor John VI in Constantinople in 1347. Cantacuzenus supported the Orthodox position of the Palamites and he deposed the Patriarch John XIV Calecas who had imprisoned Palamas for continuing the controversy contrary to the synodal ruling. 134 Isidore (May 1347-February/ March 1350), a pro-Palamite and bishop-elect of Monembasia, was chosen patriarch and he soon afterwards appointed Palamas archbishop of Thessalonica. 135 It is clear that there was a body of opinion which followed Gregory Acindynus who had originally tried to mediate between Barlaam and Palamas. Acindynus's criticism was directed not to the hesychast techniques — this was a minor matter in the controversy — but to what he regarded as Palamas's wrong use of patristic writings. He saw him as 'an innovator' and not as a theologian building on a long-established tradition. Yet another synod was held in May-July 1351 in the Blachernae palace. 136 This is generally regarded as definitive in the Orthodox world. Palamite teaching was reaffirmed and anathemas against condemned opponents such as Barlaam and Acindynus were added to the Synodicon of Orthodoxy. Nicephorus Gregoras, who was certainly not pro-Latin, died in prison. He thought that the 'uncreated energies' implied more than one God. An Athonite monk Prochorus Cydones who took the Thomist view was excommunicated in 1368. Palamas († 1359) was canonized in this same year, 137 and one of the most notable fourteenth-century patriarchs, Philotheus Coccinus, wrote his encomium. 138

Perhaps 'hesychast' — a word with various meanings — is an unfortunate description 139 of what was a development of significance both in the fourteenth century and in the continuing life of the Orthodox Church. This development in Orthodox teaching has on occasion been underrated or misunderstood by modern historians. In recent works which enjoy a high reputation it appears to be regarded as 'a purely domestic issue', 140 or worse still, 'a retreat into an ivory tower of spiritual and cultural nationalism' under 'obscurantist Palamite leadership'. 141 This is to convey a wrong impression of what was in fact a development and reaffirmation of the spiritual experience of deification, the underlying basis of Christian life in the Orthodox Church. It is true that it came at a time of internal rivalries, patriarchal resignations and depositions, territorial contraction, and mass conversions to Islam, of gloom and pessimism in intellectual circles, all of which some scholars like to stress. Such a picture has to be balanced by an understanding of the long-term significance of fourteenth-century Byzantine spirituality (by no means confined simply to Palamite teaching). This is admirably brought out by J. Meyendorff's emphasis on the influence of Palamas and his theology on the Slav countries, particularly Russia. 142 The whole question did of course raise major issues, not only in its own day but for later generations, and the place of human reason in Christian epistemology is still being debated by western and Orthodox theologians. 143 But unlike some secular historians the theologians are at least more constructively assessing the significance of Palamite teaching. And deification, or divinization, is found in the western as well as the eastern tradition. It is implicit in the Offertory of the Roman Catholic mass, as well as in prayers and hymns in use in the West, all of which speak of 'sharing in', or 'being transformed into', the divinity of Christ. This is the 'participation' of which St Augustine spoke, meaning, as the Orthodox would say, participation through the grace of the Holy Spirit in the divine energies but not in the unknowable essence or substantia of God. 144






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