February 16, 2021

IOTA Forum: Thomas Cattoi reviews Human Perfection in Byzantine Theology: Attaining the Fullness of Christ, by Alexis Torrance

The goal of Torrance’s monograph is to explore the Christocentric character of Orthodox spirituality, tracing its historical development in Byzantine theology from the late conciliar period to the era of the Palamite controversy, and offering it as a starting point for contemporary systematic reflection.

Torrance observes that several tendencies in modern Orthodox theology have severed anthropology from Christology, thereby “leaving open the possibility of theological shipwreck” (1). In light of this consideration, his monograph is a call for a paradigm shift in exploring various areas of Orthodox theological anthropology. These areas are the notions of personhood and communion, which have been a central concern for many Orthodox thinkers in the twentieth century; the doctrine of deification; and the Palamite teaching on the divine energies.

Torrance claims that his study is historical as well as systematic, and observes that only an adequate historical understanding of the development of these notions can help contemporary Orthodox thought avoid all sorts of theological dead ends. One such speculative impasse, for instance, is the controversy between systematic theologians claiming that the writings of the Fathers contain a full-fledged theological personalism, and historians contending that it is simply not there. For Torrance, the solution is to reconsider what Orthodox theology has had to say over the centuries about the ultimate goal of the Christian life, reassessing certain themes—such as deification—whose meaning is often just assumed, “confusingly expressed” (2), and hardly ever problematized or discussed in conjunction with other competing “organizing principles” of Orthodox thought such as Palamas’s essence–energies distinction. Torrance believes that a critical reappraisal of what the Byzantine tradition had to say about human perfection—together with a reappraisal of its fundamentally Christocentric character—will also enable contemporary Orthodox thinkers to contribute in a significant way to the ongoing contemporary debates on the relationship between theology and anthropology.

Read Thomas Cattoi's full review here.

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