Home / BOOK REVIEWS / BOOK REVIEW:Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1944), pp 7- 249.

BOOK REVIEW:Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1944), pp 7- 249.

In the above work, the term ‘mystical theology’ denotes no more than a spirituality which expresses a doctrinal attitude (p 1). Lossky begins his essay with the following statement: ‘In a certain sense all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the data of revelation’ (p 7). On the one hand mysticism is itself opposed to theology as a realm inaccessible to understanding, a hidden depth to be lived rather than known; on the other hand, theology and mysticism support and complete each other (p 236). Lossky explained that one must live the dogma which expresses a revealed truth, an unfathomable mystery, enabling one to experience it mystically by an inner transformation of spirit, instead of trying to assimilate the mystery to one’s mode of understanding (p 77, 212, 214). So, the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, while theology is an expression, to be experienced for the profit of all (p 221, 236). Hence, Lossky affirmed: ‘to be in tradition is to share the experience of the mysteries revealed to the Church’ (p 235). Lossky maintained that outside the truth (that is, the common faith) kept by the Church, personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity (p 9). Alternatively, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of the truth, granted in different measures to each one of the faithful (p 9). Thus, Lossky upheld his central theme: there is no Christian mysticism without theology and no theology without mysticism (p 14, 236)[1].

Lossky highlighted, that unlike Gnosticism in which knowledge is the aim for its own sake, Christian theology is always a means: a unity of knowledge sub serving an end which transcends all knowledge (p 9, 42, 238). This ultimate end is θέωςις of the Greek Fathers- union with God or deification (p 9, 39, 126, 133, 154, 196, 199, 202, 204, 213, 215, 227). The paradox according to Lossky is: that Christian theory should have an eminently practical significance; and that the more mystical it is, the more directly it aspires to the supreme end of union with God (p 9).

Throughout the whole book, Lossky’s discourse is somewhat apologetic as he raises historical issues whilst never loosing sight of the question concerning our union with God (p 154). In the first instance, he explained that all the dogmatic battles which the Church has waged, were for the safeguarding, at each moment in history and for all Christians, the possibility of attaining the fullness of the mystical union, thus defending the idea of deification as the universal end (p 10). For this reason, the theological doctrines appear as the foundation of Christian spirituality (p 21, 58, 61, 62, 69). In relation to the confused dogmatic issue between the Eastern and Western traditions, Lossky said: ‘it is never possible to understand spirituality if one does not take into account the dogma in which it is rooted’ (p 22). Lossky maintained that we must accept facts as they are, and not seek to explain the difference between Eastern and Western spirituality on racial and cultural grounds when a greater issue, a dogmatic issue, is at stake (p 14). Thus, Lossky insisted that when one should speak of the mystical theology of the East or of the West, they should stand within one of the two traditions which remained down to a certain moment, within the one Church, witnessing to a single Christian truth (p 12. 16, 235, 237) [2].

Lossky said that the rise of the different dogmatic attitudes was no more than a pretext for the breaking asunder once and for all of an ecclesiastical unity which had in fact long ceased to be a reality (p 13) [3]. For the ‘historian of the Church’, the religious factor disappears and finds itself displaced by the play of political or social interests, racial or cultural conditions as determining factors in the life of the Church (p 13, 16, 17). However, the ‘Church historian’ knows that the Church is an autonomous body, subject to a different law than that of the determinism of this world (p 13). Lossky insisted that if we are to minimize the importance of the mystical dogmatic question of the filioque[4] (which determined all the subsequent development of the two traditions) it is because of our insensitivity to dogma- considering it something external and abstract (p 13, 14, 21, 42, 43). Yet, as Lossky adamantly affirmed throughout the book, spirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked; the Eastern Church does not make a sharp distinction between theology and mysticism (spirituality) (p 8, 14, 22).

Lossky examined the elements of theology[5] which form the basis of the doctrine of the union with God in the Tradition of the Eastern Church (p 11). He said that the Fathers identified the perfect knowledge of the Trinity with the Kingdom of God (p 44, 179, 232), and he supported the fact that the mystical theology of the Eastern Church is always Trinitarian (p 45, 49, 50, 54 239). Lossky declared that Eastern apophaticism guards the antinomy of the Trinitarian dogma- the mysterious identity of the Three-and One (p 45-46), by stressing the unity of nature without the detriment of the personal plentitude of the thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription of the title Lord and God (p 51, 64). This is the core of the Eastern Tradition, always soteriological in its intent, and forms a single spiritual family (p 18, 77, 110, 112).

Lossky repeatedly defended the central characteristic of the Eastern Church, that is, the apophatic approach, which draws attention to the divine incomprehensibility. Whilst paradoxically not being a prohibition upon knowledge, Lossky said: ‘apophaticism, so far from being a limitation, enables us to transcend all concepts, every sphere of philosophical speculation’ (p 28, 37, 39, 105, 220). In conjunction to this, he also said that apophaticism is a tendency toward an ever-greater plentitude, in which knowledge is transformed into ignorance, the theology of concepts into contemplation, and dogmas into experience of ineffable mysteries (p 34, 37, 42, 230, 232). It is, he claimed, an existential theology involving man’s entire being, which sets him upon the way of union, which obliges him to be changed, to transform his nature, that he may attain to the true gnosis, which is the contemplation of the Holy Trinity (p 202, 203, 218, 238). This apophatic way of Eastern theology is the striping away of bias and idols of the human person before the face of the living God, a μετάνοια or ‘change of heart/mind’, which means repentance (p 203-204, 219, 238-239). This is the constant transformation of the creature tending toward its completeness- since ‘Union with God cannot take place outside of prayer, for prayer is a personal relationship with God (pp206). Therefore, union with God which is brought about through divine grace ‘must be personal, conscious and voluntary’ (p 206-207).

Lossky expressed that the ultimate fulfillment toward which all created persons tend is the fullness of the Godhead which is revealed through the Holy Spirit (p 173, 177). Lossky said, without the Holy Spirit, dogmas would be but abstract truths, external authorities imposed from without upon a blind faith, reasons contrary to reason, received by obedience and afterwards adapted to our mode of understanding, instead of being revealed mysteries, principles of a new knowledge unfolding within us and molding our nature to the contemplation of those realities which surpass all human understanding (p 118, 239). Lossky insisted that, created being considered in itself will always be an implenitude, but considered in the Holy Spirit it will appear as the fullness of the deified creature (p 116, 165, 171).

Thus, the unity of the newly purified human nature is recreated and recapitulated by Christ, while the multiplicity of persons is confirmed by the Holy Spirit who gives Himself to each member of the body of Christ (p 165, 178). This new fullness, the new existential plane that entered the universe is known as the Church (p 185-186). It is uniquely in the Church and through the eyes of the Church that Eastern spirituality sees Christ. Thus, He is known in the Holy Spirit (p 159, 171, 173, 177, 214, 227, 243). According to Lossky, for the Eastern Tradition, Christ assumes that same glorious form which He appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor: ‘the humanity of the Son, manifesting forth that deity which is common to the Father and the Spirit’ (p 77, 174, 222, 223). Thus, the cult of the ‘humanity of Christ’ is foreign to the Eastern tradition (p 176, 180). The way of the imitation of Christ is never practiced in the spiritual life of the Eastern Church (p 124, 176, 196). It would seem to imply an attitude somewhat external in regard to Christ (p 124, 215). For the Eastern spirituality, the only way which makes us comfortable to Christ is that of the acquisition of the grace which the Holy Spirit confers (p 182-183, 243) being the fount of richness and freedom (p 162, 164, 174, 178, 185-186, 201, 207, 216).

Lossky upheld that the tradition of the East, in confessing the procession of the Father alone, and the hypostatic independence of the Spirit in relation to the Son, asserts the personal fullness of the work of the Paraclete who comes into the world as a divine person who communicates to each human hypostasis a new fullness (p 167, 192-193). This mystery enables created persons to unfold and confess freely and spontaneously the divinity of Christ made plain in the Spirit: thus the true liberty of the persons; not minimally blind members within the unity of the body of Christ, and not annihilated in this union, but who acquire their personal fullness; each one of them becomes a whole in the Church, for the Holy Spirit descends separately upon each human hypostasis (p 165, 167, 169, 173, 178, 181, 183, 193, 214)[6].

According to Lossky, the apophatic mystical theology of the Eastern Church appears as a witness to the fullness of the Holy Spirit- to this Person who, though He fills all things and brings all things to their ultimate fulfillment, yet remains unknown[7] (p 25, 34, 36, 37, 80, 81). He said: ‘Since God is beyond all that exists, in order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is’ (p 36). In the Holy Spirit all becomes fullness, the very principle of a consciousness which opens up ever more and more in the discernment of the divine realities (p 124, 197). In the Holy Spirit, the will of God is no longer external to us: ‘it confers grace inwardly, manifesting itself within our very person in so far as our human will remains in accord with the divine will and co-operates with it in acquiring grace, in making the will of God ours’ (p 173). God created man by His will alone, but He cannot save Him without the co-operation of the human will (p 10, 89, 97, 124, 153). This is what Lossky calls ‘the way to deification’ (p 224) leading to the kingdom of God which is introduced into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (p 39, 65, 87, 90, 102, 110, 134).

To close, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church is written in a generous and holistic spirit. For the author there is no separation between theology and spirituality, between dogma and personal experience, between faith and prayer; all of them form together a single, undivided whole. Lossky is not concerned merely to provide a factual description, in an abstract ‘scholastic’ style, of what Orthodox Christians believe. He wants to encourage doctrinal teaching in personal, practical, dynamic terms, as a way of life. A bibliography, detailed index, and perhaps an introduction by a contemporary Lossky scholar would have enhanced the value of the publication. Furthermore, in chapter eight, while Lossky describes the fact that Christ returns to the Father in order that the Spirit may descend (p 158-159), he doesn’t specify that the Spirit was always present, such as in the prophets. That minor quibble aside, Losskys’ work is an indispensable source for a comprehensive account of the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. True theology, for Lossky is impossible without a sense of wonder (p 224-225, 242-249).

[1] Mysticism is accordingly treated in this present work as the perfecting and crown of all theology (p 9). Therefore, the Eastern Church has reserved the name of ‘theologian’ particularly for three sacred writers: St John, the most mystical of the four Evangelists; St Gregory Nazianzen, writer of contemplative poetry; and St Symeon, called ‘the New Theologian’ (p 9, 11).

[2] Lossky pointed out that the Orthodox Church would not be what it is if it had not had St Cyprian, St Augustine and St Gregory the Great (p 12). No more could the Roman Catholic Church do without St Athanasius, St Basil or St Cyril of Alexandria (p 12).

[3] Political disputes over the issue of Jurisdictional power are still a major issue plaguing ecclesiastical unity.

[4] ‘That the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son’.

[5] They are the dogmas which constitute the foundation of mysticism.

[6] Therefore Lossky said that the tradition of the Eastern Church overcomes the limitation of the ‘individual’, (a particular being resulting from confusion between person and nature) (p 57, 63, 124, 143). The fullness of nature demands the perfect unity of humanity, one body, which is realized in the Church (p 38, 122,143).  Within the unity of the common nature, the persons are not parts, but a whole, finding fullness in union with God (p 118, 121, 123). The two pole of human being- nature and persons – find their fullness the one in unity the other in absolute diversity; for each person is united to God according to the mode which is proper to him alone (p 124, 196).

[7] It still remains true to the ‘Unknown God’ of the Philosophers (Act 17:23).

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