In recent days, and as a result of a recent comment thread in Aaron Taylor’s blog, I have spent some time revisiting Thomas Aquinas’ treatise Contra errores græcorum. Thomas composed this treatise in 1263/4 at the request of Roman Pope Urban IV, and it he engages the Orthodox Faith on the Most Holy Trinity on the basis of treatise compiled by one Nicholas, the unionist Bishop of Cotrone in Sicily. In spite of the revisionist readings of such modern ecumenically-minded writers as the late Dominican scholar Yves Congar, it is clear that, while not entirely unsympathetic to the concerns of the Orthodox, Thomas clearly and unambiguously regards the Orthodox confession of Faith in the Holy Trinity (particularly on the matter of the procession of the Holy Spirit) as, at best, imperfectly expressed and conducive to greater errors. In this post, however, I do not wish to discuss Thomas’ arguments, but rather taking my cue from the well-known saying referenced in the title, I will present two quotes from this treatise in which Thomas is, amazingly, right!
I. On Translation
“It is, therefore, the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning, but to adapt the mode of expression so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating. For obviously, when anything spoken in a literary fashion in Latin is explained in common parlance, the explanation will be inept if it is simply word for word. All the more so, when anything expressed in one language is translated merely word for word into another, it will be no surprise if perplexity concerning the meaning of the original sometimes occurs” (Contra err. græc., Prologue).
Yes, Thomas, obviously indeed! And this is not only true when it comes to translating “materials dealing with the Catholic faith” (Thomas has in mind here the well-known difference between the Greek hypostasis and the Latin persona, which he has discussed immediately prior to this), but also when translating the Holy Scriptures themselves. As Thomas aptly recognizes, the Holy Grail of Accuracy is no more tied to literal translation (“essentially” so or otherwise) than it is to the aberration commonly known as concordant translation: both can be, and often are, the source of considerable (and oft times unnecessary) “perplexity regarding the meaning of the original.” A good translator, then, will strive “to adapt the mode of expression so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.” A shocking concept for some, I’m sure! See, even Thomas understands this; why can’t you?
II. On the Filioque and Papal Supremacy
“The error of those who say that the Vicar of Christ, the Pontiff of the Roman Church, does not have a primacy over the universal Church is similar to the error of those who say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son.” (Contra err. græc. II, 32).
Now, this is a very interesting snippet, because in it and in the extended discussion that follows, Thomas seems to suggest that there is indeed a connection between Trinitarian theology and ecclesiology, and specifically, between the Latin dogma of the double procession of the Holy Spirit and Papal supremacy. Of course, he states the point negatively, suggesting that there is a connection between the Orthodox confession of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone and the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Churches, which categorically rejects Papal supremacy.
What is so interesting about this is that, in militant Americanist Orthodox circles, it is the received wisdom that emphasizing what is thought to be the connection between the Filioque and Papal supremacy is a 20th-century development. This notion is most clearly articulated by His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, in the 3rd edition of his book The Orthodox Church:
“[Stricter] Orthodox writers also argue that these two consequences of the Filioque — subordination of the Holy Spirit, over-emphasis on the unity of God — have helped to bring about a distortion in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church. Because the role of the Spirit has been neglected in the west, the Church has come to be regarded too much as an institution of this world, governed in terms of earthly power and jurisdiction. And just as in the western doctrine of God unity was stressed at the expense of diversity, so in the western conception of the Church unity has triumphed over diversity, and the result has been too great a centralization and too great an emphasis on Papal authority.
Such in outline is the view of the Orthodox ‘hawks’. But there are Orthodox ‘doves’ who have significant reservations about several points in this critique of the Filioque. First, it is only in the present century that Orthodox writers have seen such a close link between the doctrine of the Double Procession and the doctrine of the Church. Anti-Latin writers of the Byzantine period do not affirm any such connection between the two. If the Filioque and the Papal claims are in fact so obviously and integrally connected, why have not the Orthodox been quicker to recognize this?” (page 216).
But it turns out that no less a Latin authority than Thomas agrees with the so-called Orthodox “hawks” on this point! And of course, it can be easily argued that so does St Mark of Ephesus, though unfortunately English-speakers without Greek or Russian have very little (if any!) access to his writings, which by-and-large have not been translated into English (but see here and here). And so we come once again to this: even Thomas understands this; why can’t you?