Orthodoxy as Orthopraxy in Late-Antique Christianity – By Iuliana Viezure

Iuliana Viezure on David Michelson’s Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug

David A. Michelson, The Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Oxford University Press, 2014, 272pp., $105
David A. Michelson, The Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Oxford University Press, 2014, 272pp., $105
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Philoxenos, the bishop of Mabbug in Syria between 485 and 519, is one of the most important late-antique witnesses to the development of the West-Syrian Christian tradition. His incredibly rich literary corpus (over 500,000 words in David A. Michelson’s estimation) is preserved in numerous manuscripts, some dating as early as the sixth and seventh century. The breadth of Philoxenos’ works is equally impressive. He composed theological treatises, collections of proof texts used for argumentation in the Christological debates, biblical commentaries, works of ascetic instruction, letters, and homilies. His manifold preoccupations revolve around his deep commitment to the spiritual life and his relentless championing of the one-nature Christology in the debates of the late-fifth and early-sixth century. The gradual and steady revival of interest in Syriac studies that began in the early twentieth century has led, in the case of Philoxenos, to many of his works receiving modern editions and translations (his Discourses, a work of instruction in ascetic practice, received a notable new English translation by Robert A. Kitchen in 2013). The standard guidebook to Philoxenos’ life and works remains André de Halleux’s monograph, Philoxène de Mabbog: Sa vie, ses écrits, sa théologie, published in 1963.

In recent research, Philoxenos is endowed with a double persona. First, he is studied as one of the most vocal opponents of the Council of Chalcedon and important author of polemical texts on Christology. His name is linked to those of the more famous anti-Chalcedonian leaders, the bishops of Antioch Peter the Fuller and Severus, and his position in the Christological controversies is often criticized as uncompromising to the point of pure stubbornness. Second, scholarly interest focuses on his contributions to the development of the Syriac monastic tradition, namely, on his voluminous writings on the ascetic life, the Discourses, and on his correspondence with monastic communities under his episcopal jurisdiction.

David A. Michelson’s new book, The Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug, redeems Philoxenos from what he convincingly argues to be an artificial division of his literary corpus. This division was initiated and driven by a long tradition of scholarship which, on the one hand, oversimplified the understanding of orthodoxy in Late Antiquity as bearing singly on doctrinal theology and, on the other hand, was largely biased against the one-nature tradition of Christology, which it presented as falling outside the boundaries of Nicene theology. Michelson’s book takes a stand against both of these scholarly trends. He compellingly argues that behind Philoxenos’ one-nature strictness lies a strong concern with maintaining the Nicene equality between Son and Father. For in Philoxenos’ view division of natures would either introduce a fourth person into the Trinity or otherwise break the union between humanity and divinity to such a degree as to make the restoration of humanity through the Incarnation impossible. Michelson also redefines Philoxenos’ involvement in the Christological debates as being about much more than mere doctrinal definitions. Taking an original, integrative approach to Philoxenos’ Chistological polemics, he argues that, for Philoxenos, fighting for the success of correct doctrine represents one aspect in a complex set of interrelated religious practices, which include asceticism, reading scripture, and participation in the liturgy, all intended in the divine plan of salvation to lead Christians to knowledge of God. Orthodox Christological formulations are important to Philoxenos not because of an overly-zealous intellectual rigor or his inflexible personality, but, rather, as a sine qua non in any attempt at spiritual progress toward knowledge of God.

Michelson’s ample discussion of the deep integration of Christian theology and practice is a fresh and welcome addition to studies of late-antique Christianity. Moreover, this same focus on the integration of theology and practice makes the book relevant beyond a narrow audience of specialists. Non-specialists with an interest in the history of Christian thought will find the theological subtleties of the Christological controversies to be well explained and the controversies themselves redeemed from an otherwise not unlikely characterization as obscure squabbles over words. Those interested in the development of Syriac Christianity will also appreciate Michelson’s success in avoiding the unsympathetic vantage point provided by the later outcome of the Christological debates, a vantage point from which non-Chalcedonian forms of Christianity were marginalized as heretical deviations from the Nicene tradition. It is in fact one of this book’s strengths that it presents sixth-century Syriac Christianity as not only deeply rooted in the Nicene tradition, but also actively engaged with working out fundamentally Nicene solutions to contemporary theological problems.

At the heart of Philoxenos’ activity as a bishop, a theologian, a polemicist and a fervent promoter of the monastic life lies a fundamental concern with preparing the soul for knowledge of God and union with God. Michelson uses the concept of oikonomia as a unifying thread in Philoxenos’ worldview. “Economy,” for lack of a better translation, oikonomia designates broadly God’s activity in the world (and, particularly, the Incarnation of Christ) for the purpose of human salvation. For the divine oikonomia to unfold unimpeded, every aspect of human activity, theological reflection included, should be integrated with this divine plan of salvation. Thus, far from being merely or even primarily about doctrinal precision, theological polemic functions for Philoxenos as a spiritual exercise meant to prepare the soul for knowledge of God.

Following a tradition developed by the Nicene Fathers, Philoxenos extends the application of the term oikonomia into the realm of church governance, where bishops ought to emulate God’s right government. To Philoxenos, therefore, the human and divine planes are integrated, as the oikonomia of episcopal governance strives to reflect God’s oikonomia of providential acts aimed at saving humanity. The ultimate purpose of God’s oikonomia is to bring humanity in unity with and to a profound understanding of the divine. Ideal episcopal governance, to Philoxenos, ought to model the divine oikonomia, and the bishop ought to practice strictness or lenience as required by particular circumstances in order to lead his community the best he can to knowledge of God. Thus, Michelson points out, Philoxenos acted leniently toward repenting dyophysites who appeared to be taking the first steps on the path toward knowledge of God. The same view of episcopal oikonomia dictated certain compromises on Christological formulations, an example of which is Philoxenos’ acceptance of Emperor Zeno’s edict on faith, the Henoticon. The same lenience could not be shown in dealings with vocal proponents of dyophysite Christology (of heresy, in Philoxenos’ view), since he saw doctrinal deviation as undermining all attempts to seek divine knowledge, and so ultimately undermining God’s oikonomia. In Michelson’s convincing reading, both Philoxenos’ striking lenience toward those who showed themselves receptive to the one-nature Christology and his infamous inflexibility toward the dyophysites are subsumed by the bishop’s task to prepare the ground on which God’s oikonomia would unfold its mysterious workings.

Further unifying Philoxenos’ thought, Michelson argues, is a set of principles meant to produce this alignment of humanity with the divine oikonomia. These principles form a theological epistemology solidly grounded in the patristic tradition. The importance of Cyril of Alexandria to the miaphysite tradition, and to Philoxenos in particular, has been identified and studied in recent research. Michelson, however, sees the influence of Cyril as a “culmination rather than origin” of miaphysite Christology, and he discusses the importance of several fourth-century patristic sources for Philoxenos. Michelson’s analysis reveals Philoxenos’ Christology to be grounded in the Nicene tradition of the Cappadocians (specifically Basil of Caesarea’s anti-Eunomian polemics), in the writings of Ephrem the Syrian, and in a modified Syriac version of Evagrius Ponticus’ works on ascetic practice. Rooted in these sources and foundational to Philoxenos’ theological epistemology is a rejection of speculation on and, more broadly, rational inquiry into divine matters. Fear of God, humility, and contemplation compensate for the human inability to comprehend knowledge of God through natural reason. Speculation, by contrast, leads one to a state of arrogant self-reliance and ultimately to deception and a complete inability to pursue knowledge of God. This epistemological distinction between contemplation in humility and speculation is, in Philoxenos’ view, what separates miaphysites and dyophysites in a more essential manner than doctrinal formulations. Dyophysite claims to explain the “how” of the incarnation in rational accounts put them unavoidably on a road to perdition.

There are serious consequences of breaking this theological epistemology of humility. For Philoxenos, the dyophysites’ excessive reliance on human reasoning in explaining the “how” of the Incarnation destroys the simplicity of faith. The exercise of rational explanation obliterates the mystical function of scripture, the liturgy and ascetic practice, and their salvific power. Philoxenos’ engagement with Bible translation and commentary is shown by Michelson to have been driven by a practical concern with proper access to the knowledge of God contained in scripture. In Philoxenos’ view, reading scripture with a simple mindset of faith and humility enhanced contemplation. Any other epistemological approach to scripture hindered all attempts to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation contained therein. Philoxenos intended his work on the Bible as a correction to what he perceived to be a misguided tradition of commentary going back to Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose very approach to scripture, grounded in rational inquiry, threatened to undermine the faithful’s access to God. Michelson explains that, to Philoxenos, the commentary tradition of Theodore, which attempted to explain through reason the mysteries of scripture, was bound to disturb contemplative life and to drive monks away from simplicity, humility, faith, and fear of God. Moreover, Philoxenos seems to believe that dyophysite interpretations of scripture were dangerous not only for undermining the effectiveness of scripture in conveying knowledge of God, but also because they brought with them the risk of immorality, as improper interpretation of scripture results in an inability to follow the advice of scripture. Thus, Philoxenos may have linked some of the decisions of synod of the Church of the East in 486 with moral decay, and intended to present them as a consequence of following the commentary tradition of Theodore of Mopsuestia. As a result of the dyophysites’ loss of moral compass, the synod “condemned miaphysite Christology and condemned wandering monks, whom it charged with spreading the miaphysite heresy” and loosened “ascetic regulations concerning episcopal marriage.”

Speculation in divine matters and the resulting endorsement of incorrect doctrinal formulations also affect one’s participation in the liturgy and the effectiveness of the work of the Holy Spirit in the rites, and prevent the mystical union of man with God in the liturgy and in the mysteries of Eucharist and Baptism. Like scripture, the liturgy is efficient when one approaches it in simplicity of faith. When approached properly, the liturgy provides access to the most unadulterated form of doctrine. Tinkering with what Philoxenos saw as traditional liturgical formulations (Michelson discusses here the arguments between miaphysites and dyophysites over the proper wording of the Trisagion hymn) was proof of the dyophysites’ allegiance to Satan and their participation in his plans to undermine God’s oikonomia of salvation.

Michelson takes his analysis of Philoxenos one step further and argues that to the bishop of Mabbug a speculative approach to theology, together with the resulting inadequate attitudes to scripture and the liturgy, invalidate one’s efforts to make progress in the ascetic life. Opposition to the devil and his plans, central to monastic practice, as well as an attitude of undisturbed faith and simplicity, becomes impossible once so many links to God have been severed. Ultimately, Michelson writes, “Philoxenos subsumed his doctrinal polemics within his vision of the ‘contest of the spirit’.” Thus Philoxenos’ exhortations that monks should actively participate in doctrinal controversies and oppose the Council of Chalcedon are derived from his understanding of participation in the Christological controversies as “a form of ascesis.”

Michelson’s book contributes much more than a persuasive recontextualization of Philoxenos’ doctrinal polemics to the study of late-antique Christianity. It offers fresh and promising angles on the construction of heresiological discourse in Late Antiquity. It provides original insight into (and valuable future research directions on) the reception of fourth-century Greek sources in the West Syrian tradition, and, in particular, the reception of the works of Evagrius of Pontus. It opens up exciting new possibilities for the reinterpretation of the miaphysite opposition to the Council of Chalcedon, and, more generally, of what motivated participants in the Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries. What emerges at the end of this book is an image of West-Syrian Christianity as a tradition that is neither monolithic nor solely focused on dogmatism, but very much alive, constantly attuned to the need to integrate theology and practice, and constantly and creatively revisiting its biblical and patristic past in order to strengthen its identity.