On Broken Clocks that Are Right Two Times a Day

In recent days, and as a result of a recent comment thread in Aaron Taylor’s blog, I have spent some time revisiting St 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, St 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 St Thomas’ arguments here, but rather taking my cue from the well-known saying referenced in the title, I will present two quotes from this treatise in which St Thomas is 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” (St 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 St 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, the dumb ox 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 here 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 teaching 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 startling about this is that, in certain contemporary Orthodox circles, it is the received wisdom that any perceived connection between the Filioque and Papal supremacy is on the whole an 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 St Thomas appears to agree 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 readers without Greek or Russian will 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: the dumb ox understands this; why can’t you?


7 responses to “On Broken Clocks that Are Right Two Times a Day

  1. Μπραβο! That second point is especially sharp!

    I’d’ve rephrased the conclusion: “…the dumb ox understands this; why can’t you?”

    I really think it’s time to make an effort to become fluent in later Byzantine Greek. It’s florid and heavily Atticized, but full of important documents that need a wider exposure, particularly those related to Orthodoxy. So that’s another something to add to the list of Things Waiting to Be Done….


  2. Kevin> I should probably mention that Thomas’ Latin here is a bit stronger than the English translation would suggest: Similis autem error est dicentium Christi vicarium, Romanae Ecclesiae pontificem, non habere universalis Ecclesiae primatum, errori dicentium, spiritum sanctum a filio non procedere.

    You’re quite right, it should have occurred to me to call him a “dumb ox” here. Oh, the precious irony — the “dumb ox” is still widely read today, while the names of his jolly and impertinent classmates have been forgotten by history! Anyway, I’m updating my text forthwith.

    Tackling Byzantine Greek is not nearly as hard one might imagine. I found very little difficulty with the grammar and syntax; what often threw me off was the semantic displacement. On the former matter, I count it a blessing that I took an independent study one semester to work through Apolonius Dyscolus’ Περὶ συντάξεως; this was an invaluable exercise given his later influence. And for help on the latter, well, there are lexica!


  3. I’m surprised that the founder of Anti-Grudemites International hasn’t brought out a further link here, between the tendency of some western Protestants also to teach the subordinationism within the Trinity and their tendency to over-emphasise hierarchical authority in the church and the family. Material for another post maybe.


  4. Nick> I know your pain: why, I don’t want to admit to agreeing with St Thomas any more than you do!

    Peter> Founder and Anti-Grudemite-in-Chief; don’t you forget it! ;-) Of course, the very charter of AGI condemns Grudem’s crypto-subordinationism, which as you note is closely tied to his complementarian ideological hermeneutics. Although I suspect that this is also the direct result of the heresy of the FIlioque (what isn’t?!), your guess is right that I was busy frying other fish in this post. Maybe one of these days, when I have the time to handle the flood of comments from the complegalitarian crowd, I will write a post on this subject — which, as you might imagine, is one of my chief sources of distress.

    Aaron> Okay, now that we have a second, let us vote on the motions.


  5. Yes, Esteban, it’s that gleeful late Byzantine “toss the words up in the air and let them fall where they may since they’ve all got case endings so someone’ll figure it out someday” aspect that’s so daunting. It really seems to have been a game of sorts—an evil Thucidydean game!


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