St. Maxim the Greek and the Latins

Maxim (or Maximus, b. 1475) began his life in Greece and after completing some studies there, he traveled to Italy to further his education. There he was attracted to Neoplatonism and to the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. This led him to eventually (but briefly) becoming a Dominican, in 1501, leaving the order around 1504. He ended up returning to Greece, becoming a monk on Athos, and was later sent to Russia to fulfill a request by the Grand Prince to translate some texts. In his time in Russia, he never seems to have revealed his Dominican past (never, e.g., mentioning Aquinas), but he did show the extensive learning characteristic of the Order of Preachers and he was also much more moderate in his criticisms of the Latins than were most Russians. Due to his support of the Non-possessors and unfavorable political circumstances, he was eventually imprisoned and died in 1556.

Thus the Latins, although in many ways they have yielded to temptation and invented certain strange doctrines, having been tempted by their own great learning in the Greek sciences, nevertheless have not finally fallen away from faith, hope, and love for Jesus Christ, and therefore those among them who have dedicated themselves to the monastic life assiduously order their service to God according to His holy commandments, since their harmony of belief, brotherly love, non-possessorship, silence, lack of concern for worldly things, and care for salvation in many ways ought to be imitated by us, so that we would not show ourselves worse than they. This I say in respect of the assiduous fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospels.

The above is taken from Treadgold’s The West in Russia and China, vol. 1 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 15-16. Sadly the footnote pointing to the source in Maxim’s works is not available in the Google Books preview. Although his favorable observations of Roman Catholics were not really well received among the Russians, Treadgold reports that even after his imprisonment and death, Maxim was widely considered fully Orthodox. It might be added to this quote that he did criticize Western theology, but this was primarily aimed at the later Nominalist schools rather than writers like Aquinas (according to Marcus Plested in Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, he does disparage Scotus and Albert the Great but he never speaks about Aquinas). Additionally, he defended the Inquisition and believed the bishop of Rome to be the successor to Peter (though he believed post-schism popes to be in heresy).

The Trinity in 1 Cor 2

Not too long ago I made a post about various analogies for the Trinity given by many ancient and medieval Christian authors. I’ve also come to realize that something very similar is going on in 1 Corinthians 2:

It is of the mysterious wisdom of God that we talk, the wisdom that was hidden, which God predestined to be for our glory before the ages began. None of the rulers of the age recognised it; for if they had recognised it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory … to us, though, God has given revelation through the Spirit, for the Spirit explores the depths of everything, even the depths of God. After all, is there anyone who knows the qualities of anyone except his own spirit, within him; and in the same way, nobody knows the qualities of God except the Spirit of God.

I find that this passage is remarkable for being such a condensed statement of the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. By stating that the rulers of the age “crucified the Lord of glory,” the Apostle recognizes Christ’s divinity and also undermines Nestorianism. By referring to the Holy Spirit as God’s “own spirit,” analogous to the spirit within each of us, St. Paul confirms that the Holy Spirit is likewise consubstantial with God, as our spirit is not identical to us but nor is it a different thing from us – and this, further, makes clearer how the Holy Spirit can be God without being the Father and without being another God, as later theologians would make more explicit.


  • An article by our beloved Herbert McCabe OP critiquing the account of natural law in Veritatis Splendor (N.B., while the site hosting the article is pro-Church reform concerning, e.g., gay marriage and contraception, it would not be right to ascribe such an outlook to McCabe). The article is a nice summary of what “natural law” is and is not.
  • An old blog post from Neurology Update describes how an impurity in illegal drug synthesis led to extremely rapid-onset Parkinson’s disease in some patients. The good news, though, is that according to the chief scientific officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation, advances in Parkinson treatment “in the next 20 years will likely outpace the progress of the past 200.” As a side note, although nearly everyone associates Parkinson’s disease with motor difficulties, symptoms such as constipation, trouble sleeping, and a reduced sense of smell precede the onset of the disease’s characteristic motor symptoms by many years.
  • The Limits of Information” by the well-known neuropsychologist and philosopher Daniel N. Robinson, at The New Atlantis. Some of the arguments he uses (e.g., the Martian anthropologist) are not very new, but one passage stood out as having some importance: “Notwithstanding the progress in neuroscience, the elements of lived life yield a “folk psychology” without which the brain would be of no greater interest than the spleen. We are as good (or bad) at explaining ourselves to each other now as were our remote ancestors, including those who had no knowledge of brains at all. By ordinary standards and expectations, this suggests a fundamental gap between the character of lived life and the neural processes grounding such a life — and thus, again, between the various types of explanation.”
  • Recently a March for Life was held throughout Romania and Moldova under the slogan “Help the mother and child! They depend on you!” It was blessed by the Romanian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod. Romania has one of the world’s highest abortion rates. It’s good to see the equal emphasis on mother and on child.

Herbert McCabe on Holy Week

Then there are those who do see that our world is heading towards destruction, that its alleged unity is born out of fear and that it is based on violence, the violence built into its structures; that it is not the unity of love but of concealed hatred, a hypocritical pretence of fellowship. But of these less-deceived people there are many for whom the answer lies at least for the most part in simply dismantling the economic structures of injustice by which this deeply divided world maintains itself as a fake unity. They have not reached down to the mystery of sin, which will always seek new forms as old ones are dismantled. For these people the mysteries of Holy Week should be not so much a challenge as an invitation: an invitation to go further, to enter into the deeper mystery of sin, to realize that the transformation we need if we are to escape destruction is even more radical than revolution; it is forgiveness.

Source: Herbert McCabe OP. “Holy Thursday: The Mystery of Unity.” New Blackfriars, 67, no. 788, p. 60.

Immediately prior to this paragraph, McCabe describes those who hold a different opinion: the people who think that, since the Enlightenment, the disunity of mankind (which McCabe calls ‘sin’) has been “abolished.” There are still problems, of course, but progress (through, e.g., better schooling) will eventually overcome them. Funny how one can still very clearly see these two groups which McCabe described in a sermon written in 1986. Those who believe the world is essentially good can still be in seen in organizations like the UN. Meanwhile, those who believe the current structures of the world are inherently violent remind me of communist social justice types (even the language is the same). And this latter group still are not heeding McCabe’s wisdom that “the transformation we need if we are to escape destruction is even more radical than revolution; it is forgiveness.” I have seen some of them portray forgiveness as a tool of oppression. While it is true that forgiveness is often used as an excuse to forget injustice, our Lord did set us an example when he prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers; and I find it hard to imagine how one can hope to build a just society while ignoring the deepest form of charity.

Early Miscarriage Arguments against Immediate Hominization

One class of arguments which is sometimes seen from pro-choice advocates relies on the fact that a large number of embryos die very early in pregnancy. From this they extrapolate that inducing abortion is permissible. Henry Morgentaler, the well-known Canadian abortion practitioner, makes this argument:

If abortion is always viewed as “intentional murder,” why isn’t miscarriage viewed in similar terms? After all, almost half of all embryos are spontaneously shed in what is called “miscarriage” or “spontaneous abortion.” If spontaneous abortions are an “act of God,” to use the common religious expression, is it not strange that God has so little concern for fetal life that He allows so much of it to go to waste without intervening? Is it not possible to then conclude that God does not mind or object to spontaneous abortions? Why is it that the Catholic church has no ritual to mark the abortion of so much fetal life when it occurs spontaneously, yet becomes so vociferous and condemnatory when it is a conscious decision by a woman or couple?
Source: “The Moral Argument for Abortion,” Free Inquiry 16, no. 3 (1996): 18.

A more recent example was made by Bill Nye in a BigThink video, which was panned in the National Review by two Catholic ethicists, Robert P. George and Patrick Lee. What is interesting about this is that arguments in the same class have been made by Catholic theologians in the past; not, of course, to show the permissibility of abortion, but to argue against immediate hominization. Karl Rahner, for example, wrote:

For a few centuries Catholic moral theology has been convinced that individual hominization occurs at the moment of the fusion of the gametes. Will the moral theologian still have today the courage to maintain this presupposition of many of his moral theological statements, when he is suddenly told that, from the start, 50% of the fecundated female ova never reach nidification [i.e., implantation] in the uterus? Will he be able to admit that 50% of the “human beings”—real human beings with an “immortal” soul and an eternal destiny—do not, from the very start, get beyond this first stage of a human existence?
Source: cited in Joseph F. Donceel, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization,” Theological Studies 31, no. 1 (1970): 99-100. Donceel gives the source as “Schriften zur Theologie 8 (Einsielden, 1967) 287″ in the corresponding footnote; Schriften zur Theologie is better known in English as Rahner’s Theological Investigations.

What is more, Anselm of Canterbury makes a similar-sounding argument:

Anselm wrote that it is inadmissible that the infant should receive a rational soul from the moment of conception. This would imply that every time an embryo perishes soon after conception, a human soul would be damned forever, since it cannot be reconciled with Christ, “quod est nimis absurdum.”
Source: Donceel, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization”: 78. Donceel sources the quote from “Liber de conceptu virginali et originali peccato 7 (PL 158, 440)”.

There is, however, a difference between the arguments made by the modern authors and the one made by Anselm. According to Rahner, for example, what is absurd is that God would allow so many people to die at the very first stage of existence. Anselm, meanwhile, argues that it is absurd that God would allow so many people to die without possibility of baptism. This I think highlights a flaw in the argument that many moderns miss, which is that for most of human history, infant mortality has also been extremely high, at times rivaling even the figure of 30%-50% of embryos which are said to die very early in pregnancy (even today, in certain countries the infant mortality ratio is 10%). It would of course be ridiculous for ancients to argue that since so many infants die, perhaps infants are not yet people. It would be even more absurd if they used this to argue for the permissibility of infanticide. But since Anselm’s position is about salvation more than it is about death, no such reductio objection is possible, as infants can be baptized, and so the high mortality of infants (with which Anselm was presumably aware) poses no problem for his argument.

While Latin theologians, following Aristotle, typically favored delayed hominization, Eastern theologians, including the Cappadocians and Maximus the Confessor, have typically favored immediate hominization upon conception. I’ve had to rely pretty heavily on secondary sources for what Catholic theologians have historically made of the high incidence of miscarriage, so what I can present is pretty limited. It would be interesting to see how much ‘air-time’ arguments in this class got among ancients or medievals outside of Anselm.