Setting in Life for the Arbiter of John Philoponos, 6th Century
By: McKenna, John E.
Publication Date: 1997/11
Publisher: Wipf & Stock Publishers
Format: Trade Paper, 173pp.
Our Price: $22.00
Related Books: Christianity
and Hesychasm, Prophets,
Saints, Sages and Teachers
I remember when I first began to understand some of the
thought that I found in the theological work of Philoponus. I was
overwhelmed with the reality that we can lose vital concepts for the
development of our thought, that we must learn from the past in real
ways if we are going to discuss the future of the race upon the planet.
John Philoponus ought no longer to be condemned in the West. I have
published a supplementary article to the book with QUODLIBET, an online
journal of philosophical theology, for those who want to read more about
the Alexandrian scientist.
John McKenna has written a very compelling study on a little known
but fascinating 6th Century theologian and scientist, John Philoponus,
the Grammatikos (usually translated "the Grammarian" but
"the Professor" would probably be more accurate). Philoponus
was embroiled in the 6th Century controversies around the incarnate
nature of Christ--whether it was more correct to say Christ was of one
nature (as the monophysites heretically declared) or of two natures (as
the Chalcedonian or orthodox faction maintained). The difficulty was
that both parties considered themselves followers of St. Cyril of
Alexandria, who used the term "one nature" (mia physis) in a
way that superficially sounds monophysite but actually was grounded
entirely in the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of Divine
and human natures in Christ. John Philoponus was commissioned by the
Emperor Justinian to write a clarification that would unite the truths
on both sides of the argument into one orthodox statement that would end
the debate and bring theological peace to the Byzantine empire. The
result was Philoponus' The Arbiter. Unfortunately, for his pains John
was condemned by both sides, by the Chalcedonians as a monophysite, by
the monophysites as a tritheist or believer in three gods. He was
ultimately condemned by the 6th Ecumenical Council in 680, over 200
years after his death. Dr. McKenna's book makes a persuasive case for a
positive re-evaluation of The Arbiter on its true merits in its own
context. He argues that John was not a monophysite, and describes the
theological and political complexities of the situation in John's time,
his relationship with Justinian, why he wrote The Arbiter and how and
why both sides of the debate seemed to have misunderstood him.
Philoponus was a great scientist as well as a theologian, whose insights
and discoveries in an age of doctrinaire Aristoteleanism astonishingly
anticipate modern quantum physics. He developed a theory of impetus that
was so advanced the world would take a thousand years to catch up to it.
His kinetic theory of light anticipates not only the hesychast
understanding of uncreated light, but also post-Einsteinian light
theory. John Philoponus developed Cyril's use of physis, nature, in a
way that expanded the meaning of the word to mean not only nature as
essence (ousia) but also nature as reality or truth or unitive existence
(aletheia) so that one could legitimately talk of one nature/physis in
Christ, as long as it meant reality or aletheia, truth, not nature qua
nature in a static sense.
Mekenna portrays Philoponos convincingly as a great scientific and
theological genius, who was tragically misunderstood in his time.
Philoponus's greatness, as this reviewer sees it, is not just as a
precursor of modern science, but as a harbinger of a way of thinking
that transcends conventional science just as it transcends Aristotelean
philosophy, Philoponus realized the radical implications and impact of
the Christian theocentric cosmology developed by such Greek Fathers as
Sts. Athanasios, Basil and Cyril for the conventional Aristotelean
science of the time. This new cosmology and science, based on dynamical
and relational concepts of space, time and light was integrated in
Philopons' theology by his effort to realize the full potential of a
post-Chalcedonian Christology which made the hypostatic mysteries the
very core of Christian thinking in all dimensions, whether theological,
anthropological or cosmological.
John McKenna has written a fascinating study about a mysterious and
tragic figure, whose vision, thinking and inventions seem, in the light
of today's scientific and theological knowledge, more than a millenium
ahead of his time. One hopes that this book will contribute to awakening
a much belated appreciation of the achievements of John Philoponus, the
Grammarian, an appreciation that will not only help in the theological
re-evaluation of this great 6th Century thinker, but also open the door
to a creative understanding of the real relations between theology and
science. This is a 5 star book.