Conference Synthesis - The Antiochian Schools' Symposium 2012

Critical Summary of the 5th International Conference of the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the Balamand Monastery

At the beginning of the conference, His Grace, Bishop Ghattas, Dean of the Institute of Theology, and Abbot of the monastery, presented the relation between the theme of this conference, and the vision and mission of His Beatitude, Patriarch Ignatius IV, about the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology, at the University of Balamand.  Then, the letter of His Beatitude pointed out the important position that Antiochian theology has played in the history of the Church, and expressed his view that  the University of Balamand, specifically the Institute of Theology, is a worthy heir of the Antiochian legacy.

The conference began with a well-structured history of the various Antiochian schools – both the Greek and Aramaic/Syriac speaking.  These schools combined studying with ascetic life towards a wholistic theological formation.  The merits of this model encouraged the Patriarchate of Antioch to found its institute of theology next to the Monastery of Balamand. But the peak of the historical introduction was the provided evidence of the existence of the Antiochian school much earlier than Diodoros of Tarsus.

Diodoros, however, was the first to join between teaching the faith, and methodologically interpreting scripture.  He preferred the literal interpretation of scripture according to “history and word.”  This is why his writings were seen as lacking spirituality.  Nevertheless, he did not reject spiritual interpretation, yet warned against the result of an exaggerated allegorical interpretation. The importance he gave to discernment through the two principles of theoria and akolouthia to find the meaning of scripture was highlighted.  He was a genuine pioneer of many biblical exegesis due to some principals and methods that he applied, that are still valid today.  It was pointed out that Diodoros did not have a knowledge of Hebrew, and that had led to technical and linguistic errors in some remarks he made. This lack shows the merits of cumulative knowledge and collective collaborations, which we possess today, in order to achieve deeper understanding in any field of study.

    Diodoros was considered an important teacher in his time, and had great influence on those who were instructed by him, some of whom became prominent Church Fathers and writers.  The justness of Diodoros’ condemnation was debated in the conference; whether it was from a theological point of view, or if Church politics was the main factor behind this decision.  Unfortunately, the proper research was not available at the conference to examine this issue. 

A great deal of the studies focused on St John Chrysostom, and his legacy was unanimously praised.  Both the Greek and Aramaic/Syriac speaking groups of the Antiochian school hold St John Chrysostom in high esteem.  His writings became very popular throughout the Christian world, being copied in huge numbers, and translated into many languages.  The wide acceptance of the Greek-speaking Chrysostom, together with the Syriac-speaking St Ephrem, across cultural borders of the Antiochian territory, illustrates the oneness of the faithful in Antioch during this time, prior to the tragic schisms that occurred at a later time.

Especially enriching were the treatments of the principles of interpretation and understanding the Bible according to Saints Chrysostom, Ephrem, and Isaac. It made clear that although they are necessary prerequisite for grasping the meaning of biblical texts, the interpretation of the word of Scripture and its intellectual content remain handicapped and significantly lacking, if not crowned with reaching the spiritual sense. This trichotomous perspective is relative to the Pauline trichotomous view of man, as made of flesh, soul and spirit. Only the spiritual man reaches the full knowledge, when he becomes able to receive the warmth of the spirit of the Divine authors.

The commentary of Saint John Chrysostom according to saint John which was published in Migne 59 : 42 - 482  in the year 1863, is an insightful exegesis of the Johanine text, a pastoral edification of the flock, and a repudiation of heresies that reject the divinity of Christ. His exegetical method is characterized by showing the superiority of revelation over the Scriptures, by breaking insightfully into the meaning of the text, and by carrying the letter and its meaning in our minds, to elevate the listeners to the ultimate meaning of the text. Seeking to refute the heresy of Eunomius, he used thoughtful methods to reveal the divinity of Christ expressed in the text.

Chrysostom’s interpretation of Romans, and his understanding of the Pauline teaching about Justification by faith, in general, was studied thoroughly. We received an analysis of Chrysostom’s explanation of the main aspects related to this issue. It was important to show that he correctly interpreted God’s righteousness as an attribute of God, in some instances, and as a free gift of God, that is the forgiveness of sins, in other instances. Chrysostom discussed the prevalence of faith over the works of the Mosaic Law. He emphasized the free will of man in his faith, which is not passive, but active through the deeds of love. The act of being buried with Christ in baptism constitutes the expression of personal faith in Christ. The death to sin that starts in baptism, must be preserved and must continue with much faith. Being justified by faith does not mean that Christians do not abide anymore to any law. They are under the law of Christ that can be summarized by charity or love towards the neighbor. And in order not to misunderstand the soteriological teaching of St Paul, one has to distinguish Justification by Faith from eschatological salvation. The discussion of all these issues was very relevant to current dialogues among Christians. Most importantly, it gave a brief account of the Orthodox fundamental premises of salvation. 

The conference has illustrated essential dimension of Chrysostom, besides that of the exegete, preacher, and orator. It underlined as well activity as Archbishop, namely, the work of Chrysostom as supporter of Divine services and of the good participation in them, the introducer of the practice of “antidoron,” the Hierarch with ecumenical spectrum of his pastoral zeal, and the one who fixed and introduced the feasts of Nativity and Ascension. Chrysostom was also the developer of liturgical music, and the brilliant theologian who commented on it, as it is the bridge between the worlds of matter and the spirit.

Moreover, there were studies which dealt with Theodoros of Mopsuestia. We heard about the problems in his methodology of interpreting the Scriptures, such as the principle of correcting the verbs. His diligence in studying and teaching the Scriptures is widely recognized, yet he started to project his own convictions on biblical passages, and over-applied principles he developed, without the consensus of the whole Church. These principles led to forced conclusions. Exaggerations in holding some principles in an absolute way often lead to odd contradictions. Furthermore, reading and understanding the meaning of Scripture should not be done with one’s own perspective; on the contrary, one ought to hear Scripture speaking. With regard, however, to the issue of evaluating the condemnation of Theodoros by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the question was beyond the objective of the conference, since it necessitates a very careful and precise study. Sophism, simplifications, and hasty generalizations are not an adequate method to shed light on what happened in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Theodore was also a case study in examining the relationship between theology and exegesis. Exegesis never was only about the explanation of Scripture. In Nisibis, there was a unity of exegesis and theology referred to the fact that the text contains theological meanings as well as the manifesting theological comprehension. Then the submission of both disciplines under the divine education relates them to each other, yet without further defining.
Decades before Theodore, St Ephrem had warned from approaching Scripture with rigid principles set a priori, and independently from the experience of the Church over the ages. His advantage was that he knew the limits of some exegetical principles he used. St Ephrem was fully aware that God reveals His Glory and majesty in the manner He chooses. Therefore, it is inappropriate to use our own expressions to explain the Divine majesty. He also illustrates in a very significant way the different ways of reading Scripture. He precisely compared Scripture to a mirror; when someone looks at it with an honest eye, then one will see everything light and good, however, when one’s eye is evil, one will see all evil.

While St John Chrysostom used rhetorical principles to make his audience in the Church understand the message of the Biblical text, St Ephrem made use of poetry. Through his poetic compositions, he could explain a key dialectic principle of his theological synthesis; namely, the principle of Kasya and galya, that were translated as “the hidden God” and “the revealed God.” He found this principle beneficial to his apologetic struggle against Arianism in defending the one God, homoousios and co-eternal with His Son.

Attention was given to specific theological themes. A vivid and deep discussion over Priesthood and Pastoral Ministry according to Saints Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom was a part of the conference. A similar study dealt with the beauty of confession according to St Chrysostom. Firstly, Chrysostom’s clear and literal presentation on Priesthood relies on the Book of Hebrews, relating the priesthood of Christ to Melchisedek, its Old Testament type and figure, who combines all three functions of the Messiah: priesthood, royalty and prophethood. From another viewpoint, St Ephrem the Syrian presents the Lord Jesus Christ as a descendant of the Levitical priesthood contrary to the Pauline opinions written in the Book of Hebrews, and to the writings of St John Chrysostom. Secondly, It was also shown, that both fathers developed their own pastoral views on spiritual life, social care, family care and even a well thought out political philosophies. Finally, Chrysostom explicates the importance of confession to clear and clean conscience and comfort hearts. He speaks of conscience in terms of reinstating Christians to their superior call, to the Righteousness they lost, to reconciliation with God, the source of strength and life.

Furthermore, Eschatology was deeply examined as it can be traced in the teaching of the Antiochian Fathers of the first five centuries. Special attention was given to the shift from kerygmatical eschatological teaching to a systematized theological discourse reflecting the evolution of patristic thought in the Antiochian and Eastern setting. Particularly, the peculiarity of Antiochian eschatology both realized and awaited was shown, by deriving the common links between different writers.

The relevancy of Antiochian exegesis was also challenged, when its affinity with the historical – critical methods was questioned. The proof of that was taken from the cosmological declarations and opinions. It was stated however, that the modern biblical hermeneutics substitute for what the allegorical method stood for in the age of the Fathers. Nevertheless, the Antiochian theologians that were quoted, to provide an example of this interpretation, belonged to an era later than that with was the focus of attention of the conference. One would question again, if the more appropriate opinions from Alexandria owed their relevancy to the tools of the allegorical method, or rather the tools of the famous astrologists there.

We were informed about the exegetical approach of Isho’dad’s of Merw that enabled him to elucidate difficult passages and obscure words of Scripture. He has produced commentaries on the entire Old and New Testament. And as an Antiochene exegete, his work represents faithfully the tendency to pay attention, above all, to the “materiality of the text,” in the first place, but also went clearly beyond the text. According to him, everything can be found in the text. Sometimes passages are clear sense; others veiled, and still others allegorical, etc. Thus, Isho’dad ‘s exegesis too, is another example of comprehensive Antiochene exegesis, and so, questions seriously the exaggerated emphasis in modern time between Antiochene and Alexandrine exegesis. This is a fact that was often repeated during the conference.

Along studying Theologians and Writers that were active and influential in Antioch during its Golden centuries, certain anonymous works were presented. Great attention was given to the Liber Graduum, and especially the 19th Memra. This book moves with an ascetical agenda, in the direction of the later Antiochene school, but is not to be fully identified with it, since it precedes it. This book, while respecting the context and the text, is characterized by its eisegesis, by reading into the texts, its main intuitions, i.e. the distinction between perfection and uprightness. The book is considered as almost unparalleled in reflecting Jesus’ uncompromised maximalism and radicalism.

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