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“The image of Christ according to Theodore the Studite” by Fr. John Meyendorff (part 2 of 2)

I didn’t intend for it to take me over five months to translate the second half of this, but here we are. I have a nice long French article to read for a course this semester (70 pages or so, I think), so finishing this particular project seemed like a prudent refresher.

By the way, I don’t claim perfection by any means, and there were some passages here that had me tearing my hair out for a couple of hours. If there are any portions where you’re scratching your head thinking, “There’s no way that’s what the French says,” let me know and maybe you can help. I’d post a pdf of the original for comparison purposes, but I’m uncertain of the propriety of doing so.

Anyway, here’s part one if you want to remind yourself where our intrepid heroes were back in August. And now, finally, part two:

It is with Theodore Studite that one finds a constructive synthesis of these arguments and a truly creative solution of the problem of veneration of images.

Theodore notices first of all that the Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian Christology do not solely consider in Christ the existence of two natures, but also a hypostasis or “person”[1]: it is the doctrine of the hypostatic union which makes possible the image of the God-man. “Any picture,” he writes, “is a picture of a hypostasis and not of a nature”[2].

The humanity of Christ itself, per Theodore, is an individual humanity. This point was not always apparent with certain Byzantine authors of the sixth and seventh centuries who considered foremost Christ as the Word, having only human “characteristics.” With Theodore, the concept of the humanity of Christ is far more concrete:

Christ was not simply an ordinary man (ψιλὸς ἄνθρωπος) (he writes); and it is not orthodox either to say that he had accepted an individual among men (τόν τινα τῶν ἀνθρώπων), but the unity, the totality of the nature (human): it is necessary to say, however, that this whole nature was contemplated in an individual manner (ἐν ἀτόμῳ) – for otherwise how could it have been seen? –, in a manner which made it visible and circumscribable… which allowed him to eat and drink…[3]

Resolutely Aristotelian, Theodore refutes the position of the Iconoclasts whereby the humanity of Christ would have been “indescribable” (ἀχαρακτήριστος), because it was “man in general” (καθόλου ἄνθρωπος) as “New Adam.” In Christ, the humanity was not an “ideal” humanity. An ideal humanity is not, moreover, an abstraction; to deny to Christ a concrete and individual humanity therefore amounts to regarding him only as God. “The humanity [of Christ],” he wrote, “does not exist as it does in Peter and Paul”; if human nature was not a reality contemplated “intellectually,” the experience of Thomas, placing his finger in the wound of Jesus, would have been impossible.

The very name of Jesus makes him distinct, through his hypostatic natures, compared with other men.[4]

“An undescribable Christ would also be Incorporeal: and yet, Isaiah (VIII, 3) designates him as a male being (ἄρσην τεχθείς) and only the shapes of the body make man and woman distinct”[5].

Fully individualized in the human plan, the unique Person of Jesus was, however, no other than the pre-existing hypostasis of the Word, Son of God. The post-Chalcedonian Christological system is, in effect, inconceivable if one does not admit the real difference between the concepts of “nature” (or “essence”) and “hypostasis.” If the term “hypostasis” designates a simple “internal relationship” with the divine nature, in the Thomist sense, it would be inconceivable to say, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Fifth [Ecumenical] Council (553) did, that “the Word suffered in the flesh”: this expression necessarily meant that the divine nature itself was subdued in the Passion. And yet, the “Theopaschite” formulae, as well as the term Theotokos applied to Mary, became to Byzantium, in the fifth and sixth centuries, a criterion of orthodoxy: one could and should say that the Word truly suffered and that Mary had been truly Mother of God, not that the Divine nature, common to the Father, Son, and the Spirit, had been given birth to by a woman or would be dead in the human way, but because the hypostasis of the Word became fully the center, the source, [and] the conscience of the human life of Jesus. The hypostasis, [that is,] personal existence, is not therefore defined by the “nature” which it “hypostasizes,” but it is that [hypostasis], on the contrary, which gives existence to each “individual nature.” Thus, the humanity of Jesus was able to be fully “human” without having a human hypostasis: the post-Chalcedonian christology means thus a totally personalist concept of the hypostasis[6]. This concept sets up the keystone of the iconology of Theodore.

The image is, for him, distinct, concerning the essence, compared with its Prototype. Whose essence is made the image of Christ – [be it] wood, colors [or] mosaic – is in effect different from the [essence] of the Model. But, concerning the hypostasis, the image and the model are not as one[7]. The icon of Christ is thus the image of the very hypostasis of the Word incarnate – the hypostasis of the Logos in his human existence – without being, in any way, an image of the indescribable and invisible Divinity.

It is thus as Theodore comments on the Byzantine tradition of writing on the cruciform nimbus surrounding the face of Christ the letters ὤν which are the Greek translation of the holy Tetragrammaton of the Hebrews, YHWH (cf. Ex. III, 14): Jesus is truly the personal God of the Bible, he appeared in the flesh, made visible through the authentically human traits of the Son of Mary[8]. It is thus impossible, according to Theodore the Studite, to write on the icons of Christ such impersonal terms as “Divinity,” “Lordship” or “Royalty”, which indicate the divine nature, common to the Father, Son, and the Spirit: only the inscription ὁ ὤν, “the one who is,” and not ὀντότης, “the being,” are suitable for the image of the Person of the Word incarnate[9].

*

* *

These few brief remarks do not in any way pretend to be an analysis of the Christological problem in its entirety, in the manner which it has put itself in Byzantium during the period of the Iconoclast dispute. The mind of Theodore would deserve for itself a whole monograph. Our aim, in this collection devoted to a Master who contributed so much to making understandable the problems of Byzantine art, and in particular that of the Iconoclast period, was solely to bring attention to the importance of the personality of Theodore in the purely theological development of iconology. He is known above all as one of the grand lawmakers of Eastern monasticism, as a hymnographer, as a man of action, as a personal enemy of Iconoclast emperors, and also of all those who, like the patriach Nicephorus, were tending to adopt in the life of the Church and the State a politics of “economy”; the abbot of Studium merits also our attention as a rigorous theologian. It is not only his zeal for the faith and his contempt for compromise which made to triumph the party of Iconodules in Byzantium, but also the decisive contribution which he achieved in making to a properly doctrinal problem, posed by the veneration of images.

New York. John Meyendorff.


[1] Two authors have briefly noticed the originality of Theodore on this exact point: N. Grossu, Prepodobny Theodor Studit, Kiev, 1907, p. 204, and V. Grumel, “L’iconologie de saint Théodore Studite,” in Échos d’Orient, XX, 1921, p. 258.

[2] Antirrh. III, col. 405 A.

[3] Antirrh. I, col. 332 D-333 A.

[4] Antirrh. III, col. 396 C-397 A.

[5] Ibid., col. 409 C.

[6] On this concept of hypostasis see in particular V. Lossky, Théologie Mystique de L’Église d’Orient, Paris, Aubier, 1944, pp. 52-53.

[7] Διαφορότης οὐκ ἐπὶ τῆς ποστάσεως, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸν τῆς οὐσίας λόγον, Ep. 212, P.G., 99, col. 1640; cf. also Antirrh. III, 1, 34, col. 405.

[8] Antirrh. III, col. 400 D-401.

[9] Lettre à Nancratius, II, 67, col. 1296 AB; cf. also Antirrh. III, col. 420 D.

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2 Responses to ““The image of Christ according to Theodore the Studite” by Fr. John Meyendorff (part 2 of 2)”


  1. 1 Esteban Vázquez 12 January 2009 at 2:39 pm

    HOORAY! Many thanks, kind sir. 🙂

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 12 January 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Sorry, was I keeping you in suspense? 🙂

    What I wish I had known before today, however, is that Windows Vista has a polytonic Greek keyboard! That (which seems to be the one reason for the silly operating system’s existence) would have been very helpful information three days ago. Alas.


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