June 15, 2009

A Response To Errors About Fr. John Romanides in the Book "Orthodox Readings of Augustine"

By John Sanidopoulos

In the book Orthodox Readings of Augustine there is an essay titled "Augustine and the Orthodox: 'The West' in the East" by George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou of Fordham University. It is a helpful essay that traces the place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church from the patristic period into contemporary times. Though it is an overview of this history, they do go into some detail in areas such as the section they title 'Theology in Greece: The 1960s Generation'. In this section the authors critique the views of Fr. John Romanides regarding Augustine, though they provide what seems to be a biased misrepresentation of his thesis regarding the person and work of Augustine.

I will reference the following points from page 32 of Orthodox Readings of Augustine. On this page the authors critique Romanides' doctoral thesis The Ancestral Sin saying that by todays academic standards it "is somewhat superficial and anachronistic". To support their claim they accuse Romanides of "very little" engagement with the "actual writings" of Augustine, and in the few references provided "there are frequent mistakes and/or false attributions". Furthermore, they accuse Romanides of unfairly reading Augustine's teachings of grace and free will through the lens of the "Palamite" distinction between essence and energy almost a thousand years later.

It is disappointing that Romanides' influential and misunderstood views of Augustine are critiqued here merely on the basis of his doctoral thesis. This is especially disappointing when one considers the fact that his doctoral thesis was not meant to be a critique of Augustine either as a person or as a theologian, which may account for the fact that Romanides does not engage the writings of Augustine with much depth. Just because the thesis is titled The Ancestral Sin does not mean Romanides intended to solely take on Augustine on this issue. If the authors had understood the purpose of Romanides' thesis they would have offered a less "superficial and anachronistic" critique.

Regarding the purpose of The Ancestral Sin, Romanides makes it clear in his Epilogue:

"This study has undertaken to demonstrate as erroneous the idea that prior to Tertullian and Augustine no one had seriously dealt with the problem of the ancestral sin and that prior to Augustine no one had understood St. Paul in depth. Students of this subject make the fundamental error of assuming that the only possible solutions to the problems of the ancestral sin are those offered by Augustine and Pelagius." (The Ancestral Sin, p. 171)

The reader with presuppositions reads the name of Augustine three times here and immediately assumes the thesis is about Augustine. Romanides however makes it clear that the purpose of his thesis isn't to critique Augustine, but those who falsely assume that Augustine was the first person to deal with the doctrine of original sin as understood by the Apostle Paul. Who are these people? In the same paragraph he mentions one by the name of F.R. Tennant, "who is regarded as the leading authority in the study of original sin, [and] examines the concepts of the fall according to various denominations and passes over the Orthodox teaching on the ancestral sin without offering any information about it". An examination of the Bibliography of Romanides' thesis reveals that it was the theologians of the past two hundred years or so that he was critiquing and referencing. It was the hope of Romanides to demonstrate that Augustine was not the first to deal with the issue of the ancestral sin, but that there was a clear patristic synthesis on this issue from post-apostolic times among all the Greek-speaking Fathers and this was opposed to the Augustinian interpretation of Saint Paul. Though Romanides traces scholastic thought as the source of modern errors regarding the interpretation of the doctrine of original sin in the West, he makes no effort to hide the fact that Augustine is indeed the source from which scholastic thought was born. However, as Romanides points out in the Introduction to his thesis, the vastness of the subject made it impossible to enter into certain details due to his limited space.

It would be in Fr. Romanides' later writings that he would actually take on Augustine and when needed he gave the appropriate citations. One place he does this is in his paper titled, "Augustine Unknowingly Rejects the Doctrine of the Ecumenical Councils Concerning the Old Testament Lord of Glory Incarnate and His Vatican and Protestant Followers Do the Same". Further critiques of Augustine are found throughout many of his other writings as well. Which leaves one wondering, if you are going to examine an authors views on someone, would you skip over the writings of that author that specifically address the subject? Why don't the authors examine what Romanides says about the "silent" condemnations of Augustinian teachings by the Fathers of the Second Synod of Orange or the Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Synods for example? And what about the positive words Romanides had to say about Augustine? Surely a treatment of Romanides' views on Augustine would include some of these positive elements as well.

Having accused Romanides of not properly citing his sources, the authors make a point to apparently discredit Romanides as a scholar by pointing out that he provided false or mistaken attributions. The error they make however is by not referencing even to one of these false or mistaken attributions. Instead they merely acknowledge a doctoral student at Fordham for pointing this out to them. One is only left to wonder what these false and mistaken attributions are. Were they just told these existed or did they substantiate this research themselves with their own research? With their lack of evidence, I am amazed that they have fallen into the same trap which they are criticizing.

Lastly, both Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou make a grave error in their understanding of Orthodox theology regarding the doctrine of the supposed "Palamite" distinction of the essence and energies of God and hesychastic theology. They should know better as Orthodox theologians that this distinction of essence and energies and the spirituality of hesychasm was not created by Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but is a distinction and practice that Orthodox theology and also Gregory Palamas trace to the Prophets and Apostles as well as all the Greek-speaking Fathers of the Church. Romanides cites proof of this in the second chapter of his thesis titled "God's Relations With the World" and elsewhere throughout his writings. In fact, Romanides criticizes Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos for "casting aspersion on this tradition" by calling it "Palamism" when in fact "it is generally accepted that this was the practice of such earlier Fathers as St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Macarius of Egypt, St. John Cassian, St. Patrick of Ireland and all writers whose works on the subject are to found in the Philokalia" (From the lecture "The Theologian In the Service of the Church"). By calling the traditional teachings of the Orthodox Church "Palamite", it seems Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou presuppose a bias against the experience of the Saints through which their Orthodox theology originated as opposed to the philosophical speculations of Augustine. Ambrose of Milan knew to distinguish the essence and energy of God, so why didn't his pupil Augustine?

It should be emphasized that Romanides acknowledged the sincerity of Augustine. He acknowledged Augustine's humility in admitting that his theology on the Trinity was indeed speculation and possibly contained errors. And nowhere does he speak against the positive remarks in reference to Augustine by such Fathers as Photios the Great, Mark of Ephesus and Nikodemos the Hagiorite who based their positive remarks on the supposition that the works of Augustine were "tampered" by the Franks. Romanides, as opposed to these Fathers, actually studied Augustine and formulated that this tampering probably never took place (though no one can really tell since, for example, the minutes of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod show proof of tampering when they list Augustine among "the holy fathers of the Third Ecumenical Synod" even though he died ten months before this Synod). It was not Romanides' intention to condemn Augustine, because he understood Augustine was a victim of circumstance by being the father of zealous Frankish scholastics and this merely shined a light on his many errors. In light of this, Romanides would probably agree that had Augustine been brought before a synod for his errors, he would surely have repented as he did later in life of other speculations in his Retractions.