Monday, September 24, 2018

The anthropomorphite controversy

This is a festschrift presented to Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, to a broader audience mostly known for his book “The Orthodox Church”. I've only read one of the articles, “The Vision of God and the Form of Glory” by Alexander Golitzin, an Orthodox bishop and scholar based in the United States. Golitzin wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dionysius the Areopagite under Ware's supervision, which may explain why a text by him has been included here. “The Vision of God and the Form of Glory” doesn't deal with Pseudo-Dionysius, though, but with the so-called anthropomorphite controversy in Egypt circa AD 399. The details aren't given in the article, and it seems to have been an usual entanglement between the theological and the merely political, with the notorious Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria right in the thick of it. At one point during the controversy, an angry group of desert monks attempted to lynch Theophilus due to his denial that God had a human form! While few people like Theophilus (no stranger to violence and intrigue himself), the angry monks are usually depicted as unsophisticated and rustic, since “everyone” knows that of course God doesn't have a human form…

Golitzin takes a more sympathetic view of the erratic monks, indeed, he might even agree with them. In contrast to the “heretical” Audians (never heard of *them* before – any relation to the ubiquitous Messalians?), the desert monks didn't believe that all persons of the Trinity were anthropomorphic. Only the Son was human-like, but he was human-like not just when incarnated as Jesus Christ, but also pre-incarnation and post-ascension. (You could also say the opposite: humans are Son-like, created in the image of God.) The Son has a heavenly body accessible to mystics during dramatic visionary experiences. In the NT, Paul's visit to the third heaven is of this character. Golitzin argues that the idea of God as a kind of macro-anthropos goes back to pre-Christian times in the form of Jewish throne mysticism. At one point, he implies that the idea might be even older, without elaborating. (He is right – compare Purusha, Ymir, and so on.) In the Bible, throne mysticism comes to the fore in the Book of Ezekiel. Outside the Bible, the Enochian corpus is the most well known example. Golitzin argues that “Glory” is often used as a technical term for the supernatural light emanating from God's heavenly body. The author believes that Pseudo-Dionysius played a positive role by disciplining the Christian mystics, who otherwise had a tendency to repudiate the need for the sacraments and a visible Church hierarchy. (Messalians!)

It's important to appreciate what Golitzin is saying here. He isn't simply suggesting that God has deigned to become human-like while actually transcending such things. No, he is saying that God (or at least the Son) *really is human-like*, which suggests not merely anthropomorphism but also a very radical anthropocentrism. The most vociferous opponents of this view were the Origenists, most notably Evagrius Ponticus, who presumably regarded God as pure spirit.

Possible tie-in authors to this work: Margaret Barker, Michael Heiser, Guy Stroumsa, Gershom Scholem. As I said, I haven't read the other contributions to the festschrift, although I'm sure they are interesting. Three stars.

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