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May 12, 2018

“The Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation” of St. Germanos of Constantinople

By Bishop Auxentios and Father James Thornton

The short commentary on the Divine Liturgy of St. Germanos of Constantinople is one of the most fascinating of Byzantine documents, if simply because it has been so widely used by commentators on the Liturgy. In fact, it was included in the text of the first printed edition of the Divine Liturgy. It enjoys great popularity today because it is thought to represent a synthesis of the Alexandrian interpretation of the Divine Liturgy (represented by St. Dionysios the Areopagite and St. Maximos the Confessor) and the Antiochian school. Next to the mystical texts of the Alexandrians, presumably permeated by hidden Origenistic presuppositions and an obfuscating emphasis on the ascended Christ over and against the Christ of salvation history, some liturgical scholars juxtapose the writings of Patriarch Germanos. In him, they find a fresh “synthesis” of the Alexandrian school with deliberate attempts to portray the Liturgy as it relates to the life and works of Christ, to an historical dimension, drawn from the more literal exegetical school of the Antiochian Fathers. Acknowledging both St. Germanos’ debt to the Alexandrians and his roots in a new Antiochian-inspired view of the Divine Liturgy, Paul Meyendorff comments that:

Germanus keeps much of this earlier Byzantine tradition, modifying it somewhat, and adds a more Antiochene perspective, far more historicizing and focusing on the human ministry of Christ. This is apparent from the very beginning of his commentary: ‘The Church is an earthly heaven in which the supercelestial God dwells and walks about. It represents the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ’ (Ch. 1). Immediately we are presented with this dual approach. As his readers would have been more familiar with the more traditional, eschatological approach, Germanus spends more time on the newer, less familiar interpretation.

St. Germanos’ use of the symbolism of Sts. Dionysios and Maximos is obvious, as Meyendorff notes. Even liturgical vestments take on mystical symbolism, the Priests, for example, representing the Cherubim and their epitrachelia the wings of the Angels, in keeping with what Meyendorff has called earlier Byzantine images. Thus, even though quotations from these two Fathers in Germanos’ text are assumed to be later interpolations, St. Germanos’ clearly sees the Divine Liturgy as a counterpart of the Heavenly Liturgy. He avoids a hierarchical model in putting forth this traditional view, but the Heavenly Liturgy is always and everywhere the prototype for his comments on the earthly Liturgy.

With regard to the Liturgy as a symbol and reenactment of Christ’s life on earth, Meyendorff clearly identifies this aspect of St. Germanos’ thought in his direct quotation from the Saint. There is no doubt that, with an emphasis not to be found in other Byzantine commentators, St. Germanos blends the life of Christ into his interpretation of the Divine Liturgy. That he saw this emphasis, however, as something new, or as a departure from earlier commentaries, as Meyendorff suggests, is a claim about which we should be careful. St. Germanos makes no such claim for his attention to these issues and, as we have pointed out earlier, an exegetical fervor is not absent in St. Dionysios the Areopagite, too, who states that his commentaries are nothing more than Biblical interpretations. That St. Germanos is more literal about the matter of the earthly mission of Christ and its role in the Liturgy is not an indication of some shift in a conceptual understanding of the Liturgy, but may simply represent a genre of interpretation or treatment. One suspects that an overly hasty identification of St. Germanos with the Antiochian school of exegesis by some contemporary observers accounts more for this perceived shift in understanding than any intentional attempt at reinterpretation by the pious Patriarch himself. Indeed we have a clue to this in contemporary thought about Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Many scholars feel that St. Germanos’ commentary on the Divine Liturgy was influenced by the liturgical theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who not only placed full emphasis, in his interpretations, on the historical image of the life of Christ in the Liturgy and on Old and New Testamental typologies, but who supposedly championed the Antiochian school of typological interpretation. For Mopsuestia, the entire Liturgy becomes a reenactment of the Passion of Christ, placing tremendous importance on “the man Christ.” As Meyendorff writes of Theodore’s view of the Liturgy, “...Here we see the man Christ Who, now risen, serves as our High Priest before the throne of God, but Who is still a man.” This hyperbolic anthropocentricity at times escapes them and, in their haste to draw parallels between St. Germanos and Theodore of Mopsuestia, they forget two important issues. Firstly, St. Germanos certainly does not use Biblical typologies, as we have demonstrated, without balancing them against the symbolic interpretations of Sts. Dionysios and Maximos. Nor does he overemphasize the historicity of the Liturgy or the humanity of Christ.

Secondly, St. Germanos remains silent about Theodore of Mopsuestia in his commentary. And this he does for a reason. He understood Theodore to be a heretic, condemned, as he was, by the Fifth Œcumenical Synod. And the reason for his condemnation? Nestorianism: an improper understanding of the nature of Christ — an unbalanced view of His humanity. There are, of course, those who have argued that Theodore of Mopsuestia was unjustly condemned by the Church. Such a view is not, however, universally held.

In the brilliant article by Father Romanides (See Romanides, Rev. John S., “Highlights in the Debate over Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Christology and Some Suggestions for a Fresh Approach,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, V [2], pp. 140-185.), we find evidence of a more empirical kind with regard to the condemnation of Theodore of Mopsuestia. In a stinging and compelling analysis of contemporary reassessments of Theodore’s theology, Romanides observes that:

The opinion generally prevails that Theodore’s Christology is based on an inductive historical-biblical method which begins by recognizing the full humanity of Christ and tries from this point to solve the problem of the unity of subject in Christ. This is clearly a myth. Theodore, like many others of the Oriental Diocese, is a moralistic metaphysician who applies concepts and definitions to the divine nature and in advance determines what is for God possible and what is not. According to his doctrine of divine relations it is impossible for God to unite Himself by nature to human nature. His starting point is not the human nature of Christ, nor is it the biblical witness as history, but rather a definition and limitation of divine nature in terms of a necessity distinguished from will. It is exactly because of this transcendental starting point that Theodore’s doctrine of the Trinity has no room for any real distinction between hypostasis and essence. In Cappadocian and Alexandrian Triadology, the reality of the Divine Hypostases as distinguished from the divine essence is grounded in the belief that the Second Hypostasis of the Trinity really and truly lived and willed and suffered as a real and complete man and that He really and truly was resurrected in the flesh to become the first-born from the dead. For Theodore there is no need to distinguish between the hypostasis of the Logos and the nature of the Logos because the one person effected by the union of natures not only is not the Only-Begotten Son of God..., but also cannot be an hypostasis of the Trinity. ...The dogmatic decisions of the Fifth Council are no different from those of Chalcedon and any claim that Theodore passes the test of chalcedonian Christology is unrealistic.

No less an authority than the late Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, in discussing the distinctions and similarities between the Alexandrian and Antiochian exegetical schools, also places Theodore of Mopsuestia in a very negative light:

Furthest from the Alexandrian tradition was Theodore of Mopsuestia, but as a result of his views on theology and his particular brand of humanism, his Biblical exegesis is almost devoid of religious significance. It was in his extreme doctrines that the Antiochene school was condemned.

A further observation should be made about the Alexandrian-Antiochian synthesis that we ostensibly find in the liturgical commentary of St. Germanos. Not only does it seem unwise to imagine that Theodore of Mopsuestia, in his liturgical understanding (or misunderstanding, as the case may be), represents the orthodox school of Antioch, or that he provides a link between the earlier liturgical commentaries and St. Germanos’ treatise on the Liturgy, but it seems equally incautious to accept prima facie the idea that the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools were at such great odds in their Patristic theology. The somewhat artificial polarity assumed by certain modern scholars is not necessarily representative of the differences that separate the two schools, and certainly it does not reflect the similarities in approach that more thorough students find between the two Patristic traditions. Let us once again turn to the words of Father Florovsky:

Both Alexandrians and Antiochenes alike tried to grasp and interpret the ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ significance of Scripture. Their disagreement was limited to their methods and did not extend to their goals. This divergence in methodology can be partially explained by the difference in the philological traditions from which they developed. The distinction and struggle between ‘allegorical’ and ‘historical-grammatical’ approaches can be observed even among the ancient interpreters of classical texts. However, this divergence is primarily connected with the difference in the way that the religious significance of history was perceived by them. ...Their ultimate goal always remained the discovery and explanation of the meaning of Scripture, whether that meaning was found in the word or in the event.

Finally, when we identify St. Germanos with an exegetical tradition or school, thereby suggesting that his predecessors in liturgical commentary, Sts. Dionysios and Maximos, were not exegetical in their approach, we run the risk of misunderstanding exegesis or of limiting its definition. As we have already said, an argument can be made that St. Dionysios, at least in terms of stated intent, is an exegete. More importantly, we can argue that the content of exegesis relates not only to a confessional affirmation or principle, but also testifies to a spiritual dynamic. That is, exegesis is not simply the study of the word, as Father Florovsky has noted; rather, it encompasses, we might argue, the extraction of a spiritual power, a dynamic and living spiritual “fact,” as it were, from the text itself. This is analogous to an Orthodox understanding of Patristics. One not only discovers arguments and ideas in Patristic texts, but within the very study of arguments and ideas he finds a “Patristic consensus,” the “mind” of the Fathers, that is contained in and yet supersedes mere study itself. To exegesis one might also apply such an understanding. And in that understanding, there is to be found a unity between our three liturgical commentators that rises above methodology, emphasis, and style.

Source: Orthodox Liturgical Issues, "Three Byzantine Commentaries on the Divine Liturgy: A Comparative Treatment".