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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 290-291
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St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition. By Hilarion Alfeyev. [Oxford Early Christian Studies.] (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. Pp. 338. £57.)
Alfeyev's monograph on the eleventh-century monk Symeon the New Theologian completes half a century of critical editions and studies devoted to this controversial figure by scholars of different Christian denominations. Alfeyev aims to show that Symeon's life and thought are in perfect harmony with modern Orthodox beliefs, defined as the natural continuation of the Greek patristic tradition. Whilst ostensibly integrating the visionary aspect of Symeon to his ascetic experience in the twofold division of the book, it is Symeon's mystical experience which is emphasized, since it is precisely his mysticism that Alfeyev considers Orthodox, describing his book as "a study of the mystical nature of tradition and of the traditional nature of mysticism, and of Symeon as both a highly personal and at the same time very traditional ecclesiastical figure" (p.4).
This is a book in which the a priori conclusion informs the handling of the material; its thesis is never posited as a hypothesis, but merely shown forth as a self-evident truth. Thus, despite the impressive apparatus, the scholarly value of the work is seriously questionable: the handling of the evidence is biased, with quotations having both significant and substantial silent omissions; the work of previous scholars is inadequately acknowledged or discussed, though often sharply criticized; and whatever is jarring in the argument is either left out, or, at best, relegated to footnotes.
To give an example. The question of Symeon's Messalianism is never addressed directly but mentioned only in scattered footnotes after a brief attack on scholars who regard Symeon's thought as close to that heresy (Mango and Garsoïan at p. 3, nn. 10-13). Turner's detailed article on this topic is not in the bibliography, and this scholar's nuanced views on Symeon's intellectual development and complex relation to his spiritual father are lightly brushed aside (p.123). In mentioning the recently published works of the eighth-century Nestorian monk, John of Dalyatha, Alfeyev limits himself to "a few parallels, without providing a list of corresponding points," declaring that, despite the striking similarity between the visions of light of this Syriac monk to Symeon's, a close study of this author "falls beyond the scope of the present study" (p. 230, n. 124). It may be open to question whether John's work was known to the Byzantines, but it is clear that a full-blown comparison would have entailed the conclusion that John's heterodox mysticism and Symeon's Orthodox visions are remarkably alike. For Alfeyev it goes without saying that, since "Symeon has [End Page 290] never been proclaimed a heretic," the problem of heretical visionaries is "fortunately [... ] not directly relevant to our main subject" (p. 275, no. 8).
Alfeyev's intent, therefore, is hagiographical and apologetic. Symeon's stance is defended by deploying a series of shifting standards, capable of accommodating anything from Symeon's total disregard for the catechetical appropriateness of his address for his audience, to doctrinal pronouncements such as that, in the Eucharist, "the reality of the sacrament depends not on the sacrament itself, but on the spiritual condition of the one who receives it" (p. 90). The ecclesiastical enquiry into this statement, or the vehement critique of Symeon's audience at the form and content of his sermons, are axiomatically denigrated before the mystic's irreproachability.
Despite his Western education, Alfeyev rejects a historico-critical methodology. Scholarly argument is replaced by a naïve enthusiasm at the self-proclaimed testimony offered by Symeon about his own visionary thought-world, nullifying the work of those scholars (from Combefis to McGuckin) who have questioned the reliability of the source material, painstakingly ordering its chronology and discerning its genres. Kazhdan advocated that "Symeons Werk steht nicht im luftleeren Raum, sondern ist nur aus einer bestimmten kirchlichen Situation heraus recht verständlich" (1982). Alfeyev has pushed Symeon back into...