February 4, 2020

The Life, Work and Thought of Isidore of Pelusium (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky

It is also possible to include the venerable Isidore of Pelusium among the ascetic writers, although he was more a moralist than a teacher of spiritual life in the narrow sense of the word.

Isidore was born in Egypt, in Alexandria. He died about 435. His spiritual style was, however, closer to that of the Antiochenes. He respected St. John Chrysostom very much, and took the side of St. John Chrysostom against Theophilus and St. Cyril. Isidore was not an actual disciple of St. John Chrysostom — as Nicephorus Callistus writes in his Church History (14,53) — and he did not travel to Constantinople to study with him. In many things, however, he was close to him in spirit.

While still in his youth, Isidore withdrew to the monastery near Pelusium and was subsequently the abbot and priest there. Some scholars do not accept Isidore's being the abbot of the monastery. They base their conclusion on a statement by Severus of Antioch and the works of Isidore. Severus wrote that in a letter by an ascetic Isidore was described as "the venerable priest Isidore, the altar of Christ, the vessel for the service of the churches, the treasury of Holy Scripture." That there is no mention of Isidore being an abbot is taken as conclusive proof that he was not. But in the Apophthegmata Patrum we find him described as the "abbas Isidore of Pelusium." It is true that this term could mean that he was an "abbot" in the sense of being a "Father of the desert" or a "Father of monks." But it also could mean that he was in fact an abbot of a monastery. The fact that the Menologium of Basil II and the Synaxarium do not use the title "abbot" proves nothing. The first time Isidore is referred to specifically as an abbot is in the sixth century by the Roman deacon Rusticus. It was Rusticus who selected forty-nine letters by Isidore, translated them into Latin, and appended them to the Acts of the Third Ecumenical Council. Here Isidore is referred to as a doctor ecclesiae and abbas monasterii circa Pelusium. There is no solid reason for discarding the information of Rusticus.

What is clear is that Isidore was a priest of Pelusium, and widely known for his spiritual life and his knowledge of Holy Scripture. His own works testify that he was a monk, that he led a monastic life and acquired quite a reputation among the ascetics. Whether he was in fact an abbot becomes to a great extent a meaningless question. He was at least recognized as being an abbot in the spiritual sense. St. Photius includes Isidore of Pelusium in the same rank as St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus as a master of writing. St. Photius considers Isidore as a model of the priestly and ascetical life.

Isidore's 2,000 letters still exist. This rich body of correspondence reveals his personality, his theological knowledge, and his education. He not only knows Holy Scripture but also knows the early writers of Christian literature well. Isidore had a great respect for the secular sciences, provided they are illumined by Divine truth. There is nothing to prevent Christians from being nourished from the writings of pagan philosophers, for the Christian knows what to take that is authentic nourishment and what to reject. He quotes extensively from Demosthenes, Plato, and Aristotle. He was also fond of Homer. Isidore had a wide-ranging interest in everything secular and Divine, in everything that concerned the world in which we live and in everything that concerned the Church into which we are baptized. His judgment is passed on the secular world as well as the world of the Church.

His 2000 letters cover approximately four decades, from about 393 until 433. Numerous persons and subjects are referred to. All presently existing editions of Isidore's letters are based on the collection made by the Acoemetae monastery in Constantinople from 450 until about 550, a collection known as the Corpus Isidorianum. Facundus, the bishop of Hermiana, refers to this corpus in his Pro defensione trium capitulorum (Migne, Patrologia Latina. 67, 573). Severus of Antioch writes that Isidore composed "almost three thousand letters." There is obviously the need for a new critical edition of Isidore's letters.

His influence spread very far and his authority as very great. His letters bear witness to this. In Isidore's letters one is struck by the independence and boldness of his judgment. He occupied an entirely independent place in the Nestorian dispute. He immediately rejected Nestorius but was also dissatisfied with St. Cyril's actions. He reminded St. Cyril that "partiality is not vigilance and that aversion is blind." The issue had to be discussed calmly and impartially. Isidore was not certain that such was the case at Ephesus.

Isidore held fast to the Christology of the Church and defended it against a variety of heresies on different occasions. He wrote against the Arians, whom he considered the most dangerous enemies of the Church. He refutes the Arians by a detailed analysis of the Holy Scripture, by philology, and by a thorough exegetical methodology. Isidore refers to the Council of Nicaea: "That holy council which took place at Nicaea must be followed without adding or subtracting anything because, filled by the Spirit of God, that council taught the truth." He constantly uses the terms homoousios and homoousiotes.

Isidore also wrote against the Manichees, defending the true humanity of Christ against their teachings. "Our Lord chose his mother from the line of Abraham and he assumed flesh from her. Hence, our Lord in truth became man, like us in all things except sin."

Approximately eight of Isidore's letters are addressed to St. Cyril of Alexandria. In one letter he reproaches St. Cyril for his behavior at Ephesus. "Partiality is not vigilance and aversion is blind. If therefore you are to avoid both types of blindness, do not indulge in vehement negations but submit any accusations made against you to a just judgment. God himself, who knows all things before they come to pass, vouchsafed to come down and see the cry of Sodom. He thereby taught us the lesson to look closely into things and to weigh them well. Many of those who were present at Ephesus speak satirically of you as a man bent on pursuing his private animosities, not as one who has at heart the cause of Jesus Christ." Despite this warning, Isidore writes elsewhere to admonish St. Cyril not to relent from his doctrine, not to sacrifice the slightest aspect of his doctrine. Isidore also wrote to Emperor Theodosius to stop court interference in the matter. Isidore rejected both a "mixture" of natures and a “separation of natures” in Christ. He writes of two natures — δύο φύσεις — and uses the terms one “person” and one hypostasis — εν πρόσωπον και μία υπόστασις.

In his letters Isidore refers to two works that he wrote. His Against the GreeksΛόγος προς έλληνας — is lost. His On the Non-Existence of FateΛογίδιον περί τον μη ειναι ειμαρμένην — appears to be the same as his lengthy letter to Harpocras.

Isidore's distinctive traits were calmness and impartiality. In his letters he touches upon the most varied themes, primarily exegetical ones. His interpretation of Scripture reminds one of St. John Chrysostom. He does not reject the allegorical method — and uses it himself more than once — but he insistently cautions against extremes and passions. One must begin with the direct and literal sense of Scripture and explain the texts in the connection between speech and thought. The two Testaments are harmonious with one another, but one should not read the New Testament into the Old. They are different stages of Revelation. The law and the prophets are less than the Gospels. The Old Testament is heavy and also picturesque. Fullness of truth and the law of the Spirit are in the Gospels only. Therefore it is wrong to seek Christ in the Old Testament. This means instilling mistrust in the Holy Scriptures through a forcible application of the texts. "And not everything about Christ has been said, and if it has not been said, then it is incorrect to assume it has been said."

Isidore also frequently touches upon dogmatic themes. He may not be an original thinker but his thinking is always strict and precise, and he skillfully finds precise words for it. Most letters are on moral themes. He answers questions on particular issues, always simply and clearly. He says much about the inner struggle and repentance.

The venerable Isidore's image is very impressive. He was a teacher first of all, and he testifies with power. But his was a free and inner authority, not an external authority.

From The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers.