A Note on Patristic Precision

I’ve just got back from Pusey House, where I heard the latest in their ongoing Recollections series, today on Maximus the Confessor. It turned out to have some interesting implications for our discussions on the blog. As is well known, Maximus argued that there are two wills and two operations in Christ, against the monothelites and monenergists. According to the talk,  however, this was not the whole of the disagreement. At stake were two very different attitudes to doctrine. The imperial opposition to Maximus (note the parallel with the Trinitarian controversies) was not so much committed to monothelistism and monergism as they were committed to doctrinal latitude for the sake of communion and peace. Maximus did not just favour the first-order doctrinal views referred to above, he favoured the higher-order view that doctrinal precision should be sought, and that precisely false views should be excluded as beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. I asked after the talk whether any had argued against precision out of a concern for safeguarding divine mystery: apparently, there is no evidence that this is so. Certainly, Maximus argues straightforwardly in favour of precision, and against compromising precision for the sake of communion. Assuming that the speaker (Phillip Booth) is correct here,  we have in Maximus Patristic precedent for the view that the pursuit of doctrinal precision need not yield before divine mystery.

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9 thoughts on “A Note on Patristic Precision

  1. Great little post here. I think that this observation about Maximos is true of a lot of patristic thinkers. Rarely do the fathers appeal to some vague higher order claim about the need to preserve mystery – when appeals to mystery are mad (eg the cappadocians on divine language) it is a precise and frankly quite analytic, technical argument about theological language and divine simplicity.

    Incidentally, I think much the same could be said about the later Wittgenstein, and indeed our Ed’s, objections to the analytic approach. They are effective insofar as they are grounded in quite precise and rigorous critiques of the way language works.

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  2. I’d definitely agree with that about Wittgenstein, Brendan: he never strayed from the idea that anything that can be said can be said clearly!

    On the note, which is v. good, I would say that I would never advocate the compromise of precision for the sake of better church relations, whether internal or external (which tbh is probably just counter productive). And Barth, who is unstintingly loyal to centrality of mystery, says repeatedly that mystery is no excuse to avoid precise formulations (it just reminds us that those formulations must always be relativised to mystery). My claim is just that we should sometimes thing of precision in terms of accuracy, over and above a particular fineness of expression or notation, and that sometimes a finely grained expression won’t accurately express a given phenomenon.

    I think we should all do a read of Augustine’s Trinity at some point: it’s a text which strives for the philosophical ideal of precision in accounting for the trinity, but eventually gives up on that striving in the face of mystery, written by someone who I think combined views quite similar to our collective beliefs.

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  3. Well, wait till I put up the frighteningly long post I’m working on atm! (Trying to lay out one potential distinction between analytic and continental styles of philosophy and how it informs different ways of approaching philosophical statements, hopefully suggesting some useful points of dialogue…)

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  4. Really interesting! Did he give any texts from Maximus about favoring doctrinal precision? This ties directly into something I’m working on for my Analytic Theology book, so it is very timely. I wish I’d been there!

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  5. That is, I’m working on a stretch of argument about how analytic philosophy an outgrowth of ordinary practices of reasoning, not anything to be frightened of or outraged by, and how analytic theology is recognizably on a continuum with patristic concerns and practices. Any thoughts or suggestions welcome.

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  6. ‘None of the emperors was able through equivocal pronouncements to persuade the God-conversing Fathers to be reconciled with the heretics of their age. They instead used ones which were clear and authoritative, that corresponded to the dogma which was being inquired into, clearly proclaiming that it was the prerogative of priests to make inquiries and definitions concerning the salvific dogmas of the universal Church’ Maximus, Record of His Trial 3, as quoted on page 310 of Booth’s Crisis of Empire.

    Maximus and his mentor Sophronius maintained the principle of akribeia, ‘a commitment to the explicit elucidation of dogma and the relegation of union to precision in regard of theological substance’. (327)

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  7. re: Bill – couldn’t agree with you more. And this is just what I think is going on with the Fathers. People keep trying to come up with meta level reasons why orthodoxy workout, but increasingly I’m beginning to feel that the orthodox fathers were just better interpreters of scripture and had better philosophical minds. Nothing more complicated than that. One day I would really like to write a paper entitled ‘patristic theology as analytic theology’ in which I could defend this sort of claim…

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