Providence in the Byzantine Tradition: A Review on Matthew Briel’s “A Greek Thomist” [Part I]

Providence in the Byzantine Tradition: A Review on Matthew Briel’s “A Greek Thomist” [Part I]

While I have touched on providence here and there in my work, between Neoplatonists1 and Byzantine Christians2, I haven’t dived fully into the subject (at least as much as Antonio Vargas has).3 The topic has been a large, silent presence throughout my life—not so much questions of “Why does God allow evil?” (though also a serious question entertained), but more generally: How does God exercise care or providence over the world, the cosmos, the universe, or us? Does God, in fact, care? Does God exercise providence? If so, a related but distinct question follows: What is the significance of our actions—do they actually mean anything? Are our actions truly free (ala libertarian free choice), or are we just determined, whether mechanistically or dynamically (i.e. compatiblism- or hard determinism-wise)? (And so on.)

This set of questions especially interests me on the Byzantine side, where there was no major heretical controversy, like Pelagianism,4 which motivated the question of providence, and its species of predestination, as was the case in the Latin-speaking Western Christian world, from St. Augustine onward. In particular, there were no controversies in the Byzantine/Orthodox world like that of de auxiliis in the late 16th Century,5 over and over again raising the question of the respective domains of divine providential activity and human rational free choice. And yet the issue of providence was strongly on the minds of many in the Byzantine world, although in different ways and formulations. Given that both Byzantines and Latins were strongly influenced by early and later Neoplatonism (esp. Proclus), a fortiori providence as a major topic in Neoplatonism also features strongly in both East and West’s own frameworks. In what way the Byzantine world, esp. in the final twilight of the Empire in the 15th Century AD, understood providence has been a question of interest.

Matthew Briel’s book, A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios , is thus a welcome addition to the recent deluge of new work on this topic (e.g. Dylan Burns’ Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy , released this past July, and Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s Grace, Predestination, and the Permission to Sin: A Thomistic Analysis , released a year ago). Briel’s book fills a wide lacuna in the literature on the notion of providence in late Byzantine thought, especially where none has existed on Scholarios (c. 1400–1473 AD), a Byzantine scholastic who supported Mark of Ephesus and his party against the Orthodox Church’s union with Rome at the Council of Florence (1431–1449 AD). Despite his anti-unionist stance, Scholarios strongly advocated the use of Thomas Aquinas’s thought in Byzantine theology,6 as Briel makes evident in Scholarios’ position on providence.

My comments in this review must unfortunately be brief, partly because the topic merits further thought beyond one post, and due to Briel’s work split between the first part looking at the background to Scholarios, and the second on Scholarios himself. Hence, in Part I of this review, I will summarily outline Briel’s discussion in the book’s first part, and then mention some other brief questions and considerations.

Briel starts out by raising the natural question: why exactly was providence such an issue in Scholarios’ day, to the degree that Scholarios dedicated a treatise on the issue? As Briel develops in the first part’s prelude and two chapters (pp. 12–41), the final century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence was fraught with apocalyptic tribulation: between the amassing power of the Ottomans on the Empire’s doorstep, heralding its end, and the unusually high number of natural disasters in this period, especially a number of destructive earthquakes and the Black Plague. One theme one sees in these natural events is that they were often ascribed as «ἔπαθεν ὑπὸ θεομηνίας» (“it happened by the wrath of God”).

Combined with the Islamic Ottomans on the Byzantines’ doorstep, this created an atmosphere which caused several to question God’s presence in the thick of natural evils—where was God in the midst of suffering? As Briel points out in Chapter 2, common reasons given were either the imminent apocalypse, τύχη (i.e. chance), or qismet (a Turkish word for fate, pertaining to the day of death). While the apocalypse was a common interpretation, the ideas of chance or fate were particularly threatening for a traditional Christian stance affirming divine providence and care for rational choice, especially as was emphasized in the Byzantine tradition. Scholarios, in his defense of the Orthodox Christian position on the Trinity, is at particular pains to attack the idea that chance is responsible for the dark events of Byzantium in its final century—meaning that God exercised no providential care over good or evil (p. 37). At the same time, Byzantines seem to be aware of a common Turkish Islamic stance on fate (i.e. qismet) that suggests the futility of human agency: as Manuel II Palaiologos reports Mehmed I telling him in 1413, “But I say to you, everything on a man’s brow was written by the finger of God, and thus it will happen. Prayer changes nothing.” This other extreme, then, seemed also to be a pressing concern for Byzantines, especially Scholarios.

Briel does a splendid job laying out the historical context in about 30 pages in Chapters 1 and 2. It is, however, somewhat disappointing that he does not go into as much depth in Chapter 3 (~20 pages) with the theological/philosophical background of both the Greek Patristic/late Byzantine tradition and that of Thomas Aquinas. Still, Briel highlights key points—ones which I will comment on below.

Briel begins with Origen (c. 184–253 AD), who sets the tone for much of the ensuing Patristic tradition on providence. Origen maintains that God’s providence extends to all that has been created, though “it is particularly concerned with rational creation” (p. 47, quoting Contra Celsum 6.71). Origen, on Briel’s account, cashes out providence in terms of foreknowledge—not in the sense that foreknowledge is the cause (αἰτία) of future events, but the opposite: the future event is the cause of foreknowledge (quoting Philokalia 23.8). In Origen’s commentary on Romans 8:30, Origen concludes that, “Something does not happen because God knows it will happen, but rather because it will happen it is foreknown by God before it happens” (Bammel 591, in p. 48). Yet given this, God is still involved in the event of human agency, though the latter is causally prior to God’s action (at least as I understand Origen/Briel here): God accordingly foresees human actions and gives or removes help depending on whether he/she does virtuous deeds (On Prayer 6.3, in p. 48).

On the one hand, this seems to make the human prior in virtuous/perfective action, as Briel acknowledges. On the other, Origen also emphasizes the pre-requisite of cooperation with God: the goodness of human acts are, in the end, also a cooperation with God’s activity. One sees this in Origen’s De Principiis (3.1.22): “The cause of each man’s activities goes back into the past and the fact that each was made by God either a vessel of honour or of dishonour in accordance with his merits. Each vessel has therefore, from its own self, provided the Creator with the causes and occasions in virtue of which it was formed by him either ‘unto honour’ or ‘unto dishonour’”. As Briel concludes from this, this becomes a central theme in the later Greek theological tradition: “human beings make themselves worthy to receive grace”. A corollary to this principle of cooperation is that, for Origen, God only foreknows good acts: God does not cooperate in evil, hence God does not know evil, and thus sinners are not foreknown by God. Origen’s influence in these core tenets were strong and felt widely, both into the Cappadocians and especially into Maximus the Confessor.

Maximus carries Origen’s principle of cooperation (i.e. συνεργία) further within his own framework of the Logos and logoi: though not spelled out in the chapter, presumably this is connected with Maximus’ idea that God’s providence encompasses the principles of beings, so that human beings who act in accordance with their logoi in turn cooperate with God in himself as the Logos (my interpretation at least). The theme of cooperation in Maximus is brought out more in a sacramental context, Briel observes: in baptism, for Maximus, the life and work of God are implanted in a person in a passive way, while that life is activated through asceticism and good works—i.e. the activity of the virtues. The activation of grace in this context then depends on active human cooperation with God, and in this regard making oneself worthy of the grace already dwelling in the person—a sharp contrast to an Augustinian framework, so Briel observes.

Briel additionally points out Maximus’ distinction between three forms of providence (pronoia) in Quaestiones et dubia 83, where Maximus claims that nothing happens outside God’s providence, but rather all things happen either (1) by God’s good will (κατ᾽ εὐδοκίαν); (2) by God’s economy (κατ᾽ οἰκονομίαν); or (3) by God’s permission (κατὰ συγχώρησιν). Though Maximus denies that evil is part of God’s providence (pronoia) in another text, Briel suggests that Maximus seems to mean only “providence” in the sense of (1), while there are certain passages that suggest God does actively foreknow evil acts according to (3)—in contrast to John of Damascus (as he next discusses, below). Hence with this picture, what we seem to find in Maximus is a refining of Origen’s framework of providence, where Maximus ascribes a closer connection of divine activity to human acts, yet like Origen still emphasizes the distinct causal domain of human agency.

By contrast, when looking at John of Damascus—who ends up exercising a predominant influence on the question of providence for all later Byzantines—one finds a much stronger emphasis on human freedom than that found in Maximus, and to some degree even Origen. One can see this in passages like John’s De fide orthodoxa 43.27–29, where John clarifies in what respect God exercises providence over “all things”: “When I say all things, I mean those things that do not depend on us (τὰ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν); for that which depends on us is not a matter of providence, but for our own free will.” For Briel (among others, like Andrew Louth), this seems to put a strong constraint on divine providential oversight over human affairs. In making this delimitation, John of Damascus affirms, like Origen, that God is involved with human good acts, to the degree that humans cooperate with God’s goodness. Briel mentions John’s three-fold distinction for God’s will, similar to Maximus’ own for providence: between (1) primary will (προηγούμενον θέλημα), (2) consequent will (ἑπόμενον θέλημα), and (3) an “allowing” will (παραχώρησις)—i.e. not a positive action of the will. Hence, on the premise that God knows what he wills, for John this means that God only properly foreknows good acts, i.e. under (1) and (2); on the flip side, God hence “foreknows” evil acts under (3). In this sense God does not actively foresee evil, but merely allows it. Yet God still actively accounts for sin by guiding human beings away from sin, i.e. by blocking them at critical points, like at moments of temptation. For John and many later Byzantine theologians, God is then actively providential over the natural world and human beings—albeit only in respect of good acts.

The legacy of John’s position becomes clear, as Briel points out at the end of Chapter 3, in the long-running Byzantine theological dispute (between 700–1500 AD) on the limit of life (ὅρος τῆς ζωῆς): i.e. whether God/nature has pre-established a specific time at which one dies. Towards the end of the Byzantine empire, the question became more vigorously disputed and connected to the question of God’s involvement with nature. As Briel shows, Mark of Ephesus between 1425–1437, developing a position from Anastasios of Sinai, put forward his own view: the laws of nature apply to those who are not friends of God, i.e. who are not counted among the saints, so that the majority of the human race, as falling under nature, does not have a predetermined hour of death. For Mark, nature is established by God in its principles and character, while God “set it free” in creation: God then exercises providence over evils, both natural and human, only in virtue of producing nature, which is then in turn directly responsible for the conditions and outcomes of those evils. On the one hand, this position ends up affirming human freedom, once more, along pastoral lines; on the other hand, divine involvement seems even more constrained. As Briel concludes, Scholarios will find himself deeply dissatisfied with this explanation of nature and providence.

Finally Briel quickly reviews Aquinas’ position on providence in Chapter 4, only highlighting points that have already been well-discussed in the scholarship and which directly pertain to Scholarios’ discussion. Contrasting to what we saw between Origen and John of Damascus, Aquinas strongly affirms God’s positive foreknowledge of all things—including evil actions as well as good. Hence God pre-determines all things: that is, God does not force future contingents, but “he foreknows them in a necessary way according to their nature”. God’s guidance (gubernatio) of all things then implies not that God alone does all things (e.g. the heat in the fire is not from the fire, but really from God), but rather in a way that respects the particular aspects of each thing’s nature (i.e. God acts in the heat’s, as well as fire’s, existence—while the heat really is caused by the fire, not by God alone)—in other words the distinction between primary and secondary causality, as Thomists (and Procleans) may indeed well know. As Briel recognizes, Aquinas’ conception goes back to his Platonist-influenced position of participation: creatures have their existence only by participation in God. Humans are then free in their agency inasmuch as they act as secondary causes according to the primary causality of God.

One can then see the foundation set for what Scholarios attempts to address, integrating both Eastern and Western influences: Byzantine theologians strongly emphasize the role of human agency in free cooperation (σύνεργια) with God, in large part connected to asceticism and the sacraments (esp. in Maximus the Confessor); in turn, Aquinas attempts to unify human freedom and the Augustinian emphasis on divine omniscience and omnipotence within a Platonist-inspired model, following on Ps.-Dionysius and (not mentioned by Briel) Aquinas’ newfound discovery of Proclus in the Liber de Causis. As we will next see summarized and discussed later on in Part II of this review, Scholarios attempts to combine the best of both worlds: both the Byzantine/Eastern emphasis on human freedom, to an even greater extent than in Aquinas, and Aquinas’ model of primary and secondary causality for providence.

For now I wish to raise a few questions that Briel does not get around to asking, yet I think are very crucial when we look at the Byzantine discussion of providence (especially in Maximus) as well as Aquinas.

First, although Briel treats providence primarily (if solely) in the theological tradition, especially considering that the latter is Scholarios’ primary (if also sole?) source on the question of providence, it is still unfortunate that Briel does not bring up the late antique pagan philosophical background on providence—especially where, it seems, we find many parallels to the different issues laid out in both the Byzantine and Latin Christian traditions. For example, in many respects Aquinas’ position on providence tracks very closely with Proclus’ own view: for Proclus, providence extends to all particulars, including rational human agents, both in their good and evil actions—in almost exactly the same way Briel summarizes Aquinas’ view. Arguably one could construe Aquinas’ position as simply a restatement of Proclus, albeit Christianized.

Furthermore, Aquinas’ position on primary and secondary causality goes back to the anonymous, (likely) Islamic compiler of the Liber de Causis and, of greater import to Aquinas, the Christian Pseudo-Dionysius—both effectively monotheisizing mediums of Proclus. One wonders whether and how much the picture of providence from Proclus changes in these two figures, if in any substantive way, in what we find in Aquinas.

But more relevant to Briel’s study: given that Ps.-Dionysius was also read by the Byzantine East—especially in Maximus, who first made Ps.-Dionysius famous for the Byzantine world—how did we get a distinct picture of providence between Maximus and Aquinas? Is it simply due to the influence of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian echoes in Aquinas, and/or the strong emphasis of the early and Eastern Christian ascetic tradition, esp. with Origen, in Maximus—and/or is it something else? In any case, tracking how Maximus and Aquinas used the same central source on providence, yet went in different directions (or however much they parallel each other), would be a worthwhile question to pursue.

Finally, with the “limit of life” (ὅρος τῆς ζωῆς) controversy, Mark of Ephesus’ answer to the issue is very reminiscent of the Peripatetic vs. Stoic/Middle Platonist responses on providence: Peripatetics—i.e. Alexander of Aphrodisias—maintained that God (or the gods) exercised providence over the eternal processes of the world, i.e. the eternality of universals, like the preservation of eternal species, the necessary process of coming-to-be and corruption in the sublunar world, and so on; consequently God’s providence does not extend to particular, small details, and hence to rational human choices. This is very close to Mark’s position on God establishing nature, while nature by itself is directly responsible for the actions and outcomes of particular humans not under divine grace. One then wonders whether Byzantines, including up to this era, ended up reviving the Peripatetic position—which was reported by Nemesius of Emessa and conveyed through Maximus the Confessor, and so on. (And in turn, given that Maximus strongly rejects the Peripatetic view of providence (cf. Amb. 10, PG 91: 1192D), advocating for God’s providence over particulars, it is striking that later Byzantines like Mark of Ephesus seem to end up reverting to a view that a Church Father strongly critiqued.)

There are various other questions, but these stand out in my mind as I have been reading Briel’s account. To Briel’s defense, the scope of his book is tied mainly around Scholarios and the sources directly influencing him, so I cannot fault him for this. Yet it is very much worthwhile to keep this broader, philosophical background in mind, especially to see how much earlier answers to these same questions pop up—and become transformed—in the figures leading up to an intriguing scholastic synthesizer like Scholarios—coming especially at the end of the long-running Byzantine tradition.

  1. It gets a mention in pages 110–111 in my book, e.g., in Proclus/Damascius. 

  2. It features a bit more in a forthcoming paper, next year, on Proclus’ influence in Maximus the Confessor’s theory of logoi in Ambiguum 7. 

  3. See e.g. his An Introduction to Proclus and esp. Proclus and the Problem of Theomachy (I)

  4. “Pelagianism”, generically speaking, is the claim that human actions exercised toward the good are not in need of divine grace for attaining the good—i.e. God: hence achieving man’s perfection lies primarily, if solely, in the power of human agency. A concomitant aspect of this tends to be an emphasis on “libertarian free choice”—i.e. one has the power to choose alternative options, and is not limited in that choice.  

  5. This was the controversy of the late 16th- to early 17th-century between Jesuits supporting Luis de Molina and Dominicans supporting Dominigo Bañez, which raged over the question of human free choice in relation to divine grace. The controversy was never settled, with Pope Paul V in 1607 declaring that neither side was heretical, hence imposing a ban on further publication on the issue—a decree that still holds to this day in the Roman Catholic Church. For a recently published sketch on the controversy, see R.J. Matava’s “A Sketch of the Controversy de auxiliis

  6. Yet, characteristic of many Byzantines, Scholarios was also very interested in Duns Scotus, eclectically weaving Scotus into his reading and use of Aquinas. On this see e.g. Pantelis Golitsis’ 2017 article, “ἐσέντζια, ὀντότης, οὐσία: George Scholarios’ philosophical understanding of Thomas Aquinas’ De ente et essentia and his use of Armandus de Bellovisu’s commentary”. Already it should be clear that Scholarios is a very, very qualified “Thomist”—which Briel implicitly concedes. 

Header image credit: History of John Skylitzes: The Arabs drive the Byzantines to flight at Azazion

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


Providence Byzantine Philosophy Byzantine Theology Thomas Aquinas Platonism

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