Orthodox Survival Course, Class 11

Orthodox Survival Course

St. Irene Orthodox Church

Rochester Hills, Michigan


The notes below are just a brief summary of everything that we talk about.  For the most benefit, listen to the audio! (See below).  

Class 11 – The Latin High Middle Ages

A [Western]Christian of the fourth or fifth century would have felt less bewildered by the forms of piety current in the 11th century than his counterpart of the 11th century in the forms of the 12th. The great break occurred in the transition period from the one to the other century. This change took place only in the West where, sometime between the end of the 11th and the end of the 12th century, everything was somehow transformed. This profound alteration of view did not take place in the East, where, in some respects, Christian matters are still today what they were then – and what they were in the West before the end of the 11th century.-Yves Congar, O.P., After Nine Hundred Years (Fordham University Press, 1959, p. 39), quoted by Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), in the introduction to his translation of the Vita Patrum of St. Gregory of Tours (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988, p. 70)

Introduction – We are now beginning Part II of our course, in which we hope to trace the development of Western European thought and culture from the time in which the Western Church left the unity of Orthodoxy until now. Necessarily, this will be a sad story. You might say that the first part of our course was the really enjoyable part, in which we reviewed what Orthodoxy is. Now we will do the hard work of understanding what it is not, and how the subtle change from Orthodoxy to what can be called “papism” or “Latinism” in the 12th and 13th centuries began a process that became an avalanche of change that led to the drastic secularism and apostasy of today. One could summarize this entire process by saying that at the beginning, Western European Christians made a subtle shift from trusting in Holy Tradition to trusting in reason, and now, nearly a thousand years later, reason having made many twists and turns, and finally proving inadequate to deal with the greater questions of life, they have plunged into suicidal irrationality of all kinds. They fell from that which is above nature to nature, and now what we see today is hatred of nature itself, a demonic hatred and destruction of everything. Tonight we will examine how this started.

We are now entering the part of our course which is dealt with in Fr. Seraphim Rose’s lectures. Tonight’s subject is dealt with in Lecture 2, “The Middle Ages,” for those of you who want to study the transcripts of his lectures in tandem with our discussions. Fr. Seraphim divides his talk into an Introduction and four topics: Scholasticism, Romance, New Concept of Sanctity, Joachim of Floris (a teacher of a kind of chiliast utopian eschatology), Art, and Politics. We will follow his outline, and tonight we will try to cover three topics: Scholasticism, Romance, and the New Concept of Sanctity.

In his introduction, Fr. Seraphim quotes from two writers, the 19th century Russian Orthodox Ivan Kireyevsky, who with Alexei Khomiakov can be said to be the founder of the “Slavophile” movement, and the Dominican modernist theologian, Yves Congar. Kireyevsky traces the beginnings of the problems with the medieval schismatic papal church to a tendency in the [West] Roman mind from the beginning, to trust overmuch in logical deduction and to value the external aspect of the church over the interior, spiritual aspect. Congar, though his conclusion is not that the West should return to Orthodoxy but somehow create a “new theology” created by people like him, did accurately identify what happened in the transition of the 12th and 13th centuries, a transition from theology based on “…a predominantly essentialist and exemplarist outlook to a naturalistic one, an interest in existence,” and “…[a] transition from a culture where tradition reigned and the habit of synthesis became ingrained, to an academic milieu in where continual questioning and research was the norm, and analysis the normal result of study.”

A. Scholasticism – Scholasticism is the name given to the philosophical and theological thought of men like Albertus Magnus and, pre-eminently, Thomas Aquinas, in the period of the 12th through the 14th centuries, who applied the philosophy of Aristotle and the tools of dialectic to explaining and defending theological and philosophical positions acceptable to the Western church of that time. We have to realize that at the time, many Church authorities in the West were against the Scholastics, because they could see that they were overemphasizing the use of reason, and that this could lead to a break with Tradition. Finally, however, the Scholastics, having come close to being anathematized by the popes, were approved, and finally their method became the only one accepted by the Western church.

Even before the “classic” period of scholasticism, in the 12th and 13th centuries, we have the key figure of Anselm of Bec, or of Canterbury, (+1109) who in his famous Proslogion redefined the goal of theological thought as fides quaerens intellectum– “faith seeking understanding.” In other words, instead of the mind (the intellectus) seeking to know through faith, through being transformed by God’s Word and by spiritual life, faith is seen as somehow defective, lacking knowledge, and seeking more certain truth through intellectual effort. This is really the basis of the whole modern error of “faith vs. reason,” as if faith is “blind” and “fundamentalistic” and “reason” is real knowledge. We already see this error in the East with Barlaam of Calabria, the famous opponent of St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century.

Fr. Seraphim, in his lecture, goes into detail about one of Thomas Aquinas’s (+1274) demonstrations, but we don’t need to spend time on that now. The important thing to understand is that, for the Holy Fathers, Aristotle, Plato, and all philosophical method, are auxiliary to theology. The Church’s theology is revealed by God and testified to by the Apostles, Fathers, and saints. At the Ecumenical Councils, the Holy Fathers testified to what they had received, and they worked with the language of the philosophers strictly, in a limited way, as a tool, to bring out more precisely and beautifully the Tradition that everyone already believed in. The schoolmen would accept this basic idea, but in their efforts to defend the Faith they began to enclose the Faith in their syllogisms and arguments, and finally the popes began to dictate that only their explanations and definitions were the legitimate interpretation of Tradition. The problem here is that once you enter this process of dialectic, there is nothing to stop it – for every thesis there is an antithesis, and so forth, and you’ve let the horse out of the barn.

So Richard Weaver’s idea, in Ideas Have Consequences, that the degeneration of the West starts in the 14th century with nominalism, does not go deeply enough into the problem. The problem is that the scholastics invited Ockham’s critique by leaving the security of Holy Tradition and the authority of the Fathers for the uncertain project of dialectical criticism of all the Church’s teachings.

B. Romance – The high middle ages see the beginnings of romantic literature, and the romantic ideal. We see this in secular literature such as the French chansons, Arthurian literature, the mystery plays, and the highly romanticized ideas about chivalric love and so forth. But it also finds its way into church literature and, ultimately, into spiritual life. In Church literature, a pre-eminent example Fr. Seraphim talks about is The Golden Legend, and in spiritual life, the first and greatest example is the life of Francis of Assisi.

C. New Concept of Sanctity – This romanticism is exemplified in the career of Francis of Assisi (+1225), who is a key figure in the whole development of non-Orthodox Western Christian life and thought. Francis claimed to have received a revelation which commanded him to create an entirely new kind of monastic life which was not bound by the monastic tradition witnessed to in the Desert Fathers, St. Basil, St. Benedict, and so forth, a life of wandering “troubadours for Christ” who would go around and amaze everybody by their lyric, emotional, enthusiastic “love” for everyone and everything. Francis was the ultimate example, and he certainly thought he was something special. He had the hubris to ask to receive the physical wounds of Our Lord on his body, and, in a bizarre vision of extreme delusion, he did! Here we see the beginning of the whole Western church getting unmoored from the safe harbor of the teachings of the Fathers about sobriety and true prayer, and launching out into the uncharted and dangerous sea of emotionalism and fantastic, imaginative, and, frankly, carnal experiences taken as spiritual experiences.

So by the end of this period we have a “new church” of dialectical theology instead of traditional theology, and romantic, imaginative spiritual life instead of the authentic teaching of the Fathers on spiritual life. It is already really a new religion.

Listen to recordings of our classes here:



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