Friday, March 4, 2022

The Eastern Church, Aquinas, and Morality


Matt Fradd, of Pints with Aquinas, had a conversation with Dr. Matthew Minerd.  From Minerd’s profile page:

We all have many identities, arranged in a kind of hierarchy. For my part, I am a Ruthenian Catholic, raised Roman Catholic in a mixed American-Slavic and Appalachian cultural context in Southwestern PA, a husband and father, a seminary professor, a translator.

Professor of Philosophy and Moral Theology, Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius

The Byzantine Catholics are an Eastern Church under the authority of the pope.  To make a long story short – and such things are, to put it simply, complicated: at the time of the schism in 1054, this was an Eastern Orthodox Church.  Several hundred years later, in the mid-seventeenth century, about five dozen clergy from this tradition were accepted into the Catholic Church.  They continue to utilize the Byzantine rite.

A few of the questions raised and answers offered in this discussion are worth exploring.

Why no Aquinas in the East?

Minerd, despite belonging to a church within the Eastern tradition, has a love for Thomas Aquinas.  Fradd asks: why does the East have such a problem with Aquinas?

There are two things: first, a fundamentally different idea of what theology is.  The West tends to use the word theology to refer to something like theological science – an academic theology.  It has much to do with the reception of Aristotle in the thirteenth century – a huge sea-change, from a monastic idea to this scholastic model.

While there is also some of this in the East, it is not nearly as pronounced.  In the East, the coin of the realm is mystical theology.  Minerd sees this as an outgrowth of the university culture in the West – the West has become wealthy and urbanized by this point.

I recall something from Jonathan Pageau, citing an Orthodox deacon, who said something along the lines of: Catholics view the elements as real; Protestants view the elements as a symbol.  The Orthodox view the elements as real because they are a symbol.

It is clear that, on the whole, the Orthodox Church is more comfortable with mystery than is the Catholic Church (to say nothing of most Protestant denominations).

If you ever read the later scholastics, it is so technical.  This can only exist in a high-level society.

Continuing, and after saying, under his breath: “you’re going to get me in trouble”:

There is a kind of insecurity [in the Eastern Church] that you are going to get swallowed up if you start talking in a Western way.  So, you have to push against Aquinas totally, or against scholasticism totally.

There is a fear of getting lost in scholastic precision, although, in his view, this is not at all a problem regarding Aquinas so much as it is a problem with later scholastics. 

What neither of them mention – and this has been true of most people who I see engaged in this discussion – is the move to nominalism in the scholastics that came after Thomas.  This continues to strike me as having a profound impact, but I am wondering if I am the only one who believes this…which maybe means I am wrong.  But I don’t think so – many non-Catholics certainly have noted this as a significant change.

He made an interesting point – that the Eastern Church sees the Western Church as doing little more than “let’s look at what Aquinas has said.”  I say interesting, because it brings to mind my recent post of Fr. Michael Butler, an Orthodox priest, speaking of the lost history of natural law in the Eastern patristics.

In this, he notes St. Maximus the Confessor, who is to the East what Thomas is to the Catholics and what Luther and Calvin are to the Protestants.  I noted at the time: Per Butler, Maximus synthesized everything that came before him in the Eastern Church, and on whom everything is built after him.  And he was on the scene hundreds of years before Aquinas, so the Eastern Church has been saying “let’s see what XXX says” far longer than the Western Church has.

But, to sum it up, the West is seen as too much of a thinking Church; the East is more of a feeling Church – and the Eastern Church will tell you that this is as it should be.

What is morality?

Some version of the standard reply is first offered:

Moral questions are how are acts should be measured, or what is the standarding of our acts – how should we be living?

But he wants to pull back from this, instead offering: are we living our destiny, the destiny for which we were created? 

We are created to be graced and to live quite literally through grace the divine life of God.  We are adapted in our souls to live the trinitarian life through the grace that comes to us from Christ in our life as Christians.

What does that look like?  Can it be described in words?  My purpose for these questions will be made clear shortly.

Fradd then asks, via a statement: I don’t see how you get objective morality if you don’t have a god (clearly, he hasn’t heard of Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethics!).  Minerd offers:

It’s hard, because you don’t have a transcendent grounding.

The source of morality must be something above, or outside, of the reach of man.  Natural law certainly is transcendent, above or outside of man’s reach.  But it lacks two things that seem to me as essential.  First, it isn’t embodied.  It strikes me as necessary that the transcendent “thing” is objectified in a being, rather than a free-floating concept.  Second, there is no eternity, hence no concern about some form of reward or punishment after one departs from this earth.

The two then discuss the possibility of objective morality arising via evolutionary means.  But eventually Minerd offers:

The moment you start on the path to acknowledging moral norms, you are already walking down a path that leads you ultimately only to God.  Because you are presuming that there is something transcendent.

How do you think many Catholics understand morality in an inappropriate or improper way?

It’s a list of rules.  The precepts of the Church or the precepts of the natural law or something like that.  That morality is a discussion about “what are the rules that I have to follow at certain times, or the guidance that I should follow?”

Wait a minute, cowboy.  The Ten Commandments are a list of rules to follow… But let’s give him a chance to expand:

Which is not wrong, but its sort of like the lowest part of morality – not to kick it away.  But it’s so derivative in the fact that morality is ultimately…moral theology unpacks everything involved in the claim that all of our acts are to have as the principles these virtues, which ultimately – and in their most profound place – are the theological virtues.

Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor as yourself.  Still a list, but the pinnacle of the theological virtues – I checked with the Apostle Paul.

I Corinthians 13: 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And once one accepts this (along with some other foundational points from Scripture), natural law can be derived.

Morality is not merely moral philosophy with a golden Christ topping on it.  We take the natural law, we take some of the discussions we have been talking about now, and then we say “Christ is the model for us.”  No!

Well, that pretty much blows my last several years of work….

Because it’s actually just part of theology, and theology is just one thing: the discursive unpacking of the mystery of God – God in Himself, or God with us.  But it’s all God, all the way down.

But how can we understand that?  Can our minds and our hearts comprehend God?

The two great things we believe: that God exists as the Holy Trinity, and that God is a merciful and provident God, and that’s most fully seen in the greatest gift that was given – the Incarnation of Christ.  And everything else just falls under that.

Isn’t that “greatest gift” the point (for this discussion)?  That we see, in the Incarnated Christ, something we can comprehend, something that answers the question of how we should then live?

So, to do moral theology is just to ask the question, what does God in us, in our action, look like?  Because that’s what the Christian moral life is.

Isn’t Jesus the answer to that question – what God in us should look like?

Minerd states that this means the move to divinization – and this is certainly an Eastern view, but he says it is also a Thomist view, even more than happiness or beatitude.  But it is deeper than that, that it is the gift of grace that we are living God’s life.

The very object of faith, hope, and charity – which are the soul, then, of every other act that we have, is God in His Trinitarian mystery.  Everything else downstream of that is just changed.

Charity = love.  Man’s highest purpose is beatitudo: fulfillment through other-regarding action.  Or, in shorthand, love.  Once man’s purpose – or as Minerd earlier put it, living our destiny – is identified, then natural law flows from this.

And people will want this put into words.  Call it the precepts of the natural law.


I am only about a third of the way through this three-hour discussion, but this post is long enough.  I understand what Minerd is saying, but in the end, doesn’t this still result in some recognition of how we should treat others, of our relationship with God, etc.?  In other words, some rules or precepts (call them guidelines, if this is preferable)?

Do we throw out “thou shalt not steal”?  Is loving our neighbor optional?  Am I now free to covet my neighbor’s wife?  Do we not work to fulfill our purpose on this earth?  Is that a rule to follow, or merely something to consider?

Perhaps as the discussion continues, this will be further explored.  If so, I will come back to it.


  1. I wonder - haven't Westerners been trying the whole "feelings over reason" thing for a while now, at least in the secular domain? The results are in, and they're not good.

    Reason applied to the world, on the other hand, pursued by men who had no particular reason to seek the Christian God, ended up leading them in the direction of that God.

    It's a matter of personal inclination, sure, but... I'm deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to reach me by tapping into my feelings. It's something I associate with manipulation. I can see how others can be touched by a tradition that's more on the "feels" side, but I feel aversion towards that, in much the same way that an Eastern Orthodox might feel towards Scholasticism, I suppose.

    1. I find danger in each, taken to extreme. I count it as a blessing that God has offered different ways to reach different people who have different inclinations and personalities.

      However, to avoid the danger of extremes requires godly, pious clergy. In this, every tradition demonstrates some lack.

    2. Yes... it always boils down to the quality of men, doesn't it? Every institution and tradition needs to deal with the many facets of human existence, though their emphasis may vary, and many have flaws or gaps that are problematic in themselves. But thoughts and words can only go so far. It's those who translate tradition into action who ultimately decide if it will turn out to be a success or a failure. One reason why I increasingly believe that succession planning is a very underrated thing!

  2. Hello,
    Have only been following your posts for about a week now.
    Really good conversations.
    First off my self am no scholar so to even respond here gives me some humbleness.
    Seems like there are a couple ideas on this one. On the one hand there are the ones who study and on the other there are the ones who feel.
    Then there is the Cross.
    That to me is like God himself staking His claim on the planet. Just like Man planting his flag on the moon or when ever folks laded somewhere they plant their flag and claim it for themselves or who ever hired them.
    Jesus when He was on the earth before his death amazed even the scholars of his day at a young age. Some of the common folk remarked at his teachings ,saying he is not like the scholars he speaks with authority , like this guy really knows.
    One thing He did tell the scholars was that they did search the "scriptures" and all the scriptures point to me and you do not recognize me.
    So there is the one side of a written set of rules and the other side of feel your way through it. But in fact the both may be correct if you put them together.
    Christ was not his last name but a title. The annointed one.

    Moses went into the Tent of meeting and heard the voices of God speaking to him ,from between the two gold cheribums.
    Mary stood weeping outside the empty tomb .
    She peeked inside and saw two angels in white sitting where the Body of Jesus was put.
    God wants fellowship with his people.
    The old problem of His Holiness and our sinful nature creates a great Chasm that can not be crossed by us or anything we do.
    What is called the "old Testament" God made a provisional system for atonement.
    The whole tabernacle and inside was the Most Holy place.
    The Ark of the covenant or sometimes called the Ark of Testimony was in there behind a curtain.
    Only the High Priest went in there and only once a year on the day of atonement.
    They also made many sacrifices throughout the year.
    But only on this day would the high priest enter in and sprinkle blood 7 times.
    Why? hmm ,not to clear on that but here goes.
    In Leviticus He said the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you on the alter to make atonement for your souls.
    So ok the high Priest went in there with blood once a year.
    But God just said I have given it to you on the alter.
    Seems backward?

  3. continued:

    In Hebrew It speaks of the Law being a shadow of things to come, not the reality.
    For endless sacrifice can never make perfect those who draw near.
    But those sacrifices are a reminder of sins because it is impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins.
    It seems that through the perpetual animal sacrifice if may have had the purpose of reminding the people the cost and seriousness of their rebellion.
    So finally He came the Messiah, the Lamb of God who does take away the sin of the world.
    He ate a final passover and took the cup of wine, the cup of redemption and told them .
    This cup is the New Covenant in MY blood poured out for you.
    We know the story of his arrest ,how he suffered and died.
    His body prepared and laid on a slab in a tomb.
    We also know He did not stay dead.
    Can not helped to see a likeness in what Mary saw when she looked in and saw the 2 Angels.
    They told her he was not there but He is Risen.
    Later he told her not to touch him because he had not been to His Father in heaven yet.
    Also in Hebrews it talks about how He did not enter by the means of the blood of goats and calves but He entered once for all by His own blood.
    He became the great high priest who went into Heavens Holy of Holies.
    He sprinkled His own blood and freed us from the consequences of sin(s).

  4. He is the great high priest and the lamb of sacrifice.
    Also in Mark it mentions the fact that the veil was torn open.
    Back in Hebrews it tells us We can boldly enter the Most Holy place.
    His death opened the New and life giving way through the curtain.
    We have a high priest who rules over God's house let us go right into His presence (pre sense) with sincere hearts fully trusting him.
    All The Father ever wanted was to be in a loving relationship with us.
    All things are fractal, as the are in the big picture they are in the small picture.
    The big picture Jesus entered the most Holy place in Heaven.
    Small Picture, We are made in His image and likeness.
    We have a Most holy place inside of us.
    We have an outer wall of flesh, an inner wall of soul and an empty spot inside for a spirit.
    Since in Adam we all died we were left to depend of temporary shadows.
    We now have God's spirit sent here to us by Our great High priest to indwell us and guide us into all truth.
    We can do all kinds of things, build temples building even make law documents on paper .
    But Nothing other than What God has done will save us .
    And to be clear am not saying what has been sold to us for generations that say the majik sinners prayer and all is done.
    No but Rather if we indeed Have this life giving spirit within us to lead us into all truth.
    A well of water that springs up to eternal life.

    Not saying the law is bad ,as Paul wrote God forbid.
    But my keeping of the law as in following a written set of instructions is not enough.
    Sure it can give an appearance of Godliness but it lack Power.
    Just pondering these things because for many years have sought out to find out what is wrong in me?
    Done many things followed many who say Jesus is the Messiah.
    None of it works.
    In these last days am discovering that God is Love.
    It is His love in me that is trying to spring out.
    We can be caught up in in the big picture but where we live is the small picture.
    Start, do try so hard to Educate people with more data but let the Well inside run.
    Love people with actions even seemingly small ones.
    Love your neighbor , Love your enemies.
    This is Impossible for me to do, sure not so hard to love people that love me back everyone does that.
    Go to a pub on football sunday, a biker rally, any gathering of like minded people and everyone can be happy.
    But to bless them that despitefully use me ain't so easy.
    But Nothing is impossible with God.
    So it is true for me a wretched man that i am but am being delivered from this body of death.
    Christ in me the hope of Glory.
    A treasure in and earthen vessel.
    Grabbing hold of the New reality Not only entering into the Holy of Holies but being indwelt by the Holiest of Holies.
    He did the work now we finish up what is lacking
    Believe, delight in His goodness, embrace His victory and live in His fathomless love.

    1. Kevin, thank you for these extensive and thoughtful comments. And welcome to this community.

  5. I found two links that explain natural law in understandable words.

  6. "I recall something from Jonathan Pageau, citing an Orthodox deacon, who said something along the lines of: Catholics view the elements as real; Protestants view the elements as a symbol. The Orthodox view the elements as real because they are a symbol."

    Going back to my college days and my year long "Western Civ" class(which was actually decent back in the mid 90's, before my college was corrupted by wokeism)- I remember learning the simple difference between viewpoints on "transubstantiation" in said class....which I think aptly characterizes the differences noted above between the churches.

    I remember thinking to myself, having spent time in both Catholic and Protestant churches, "Why didn't either church spend time discussing this with me?"

    Even in my Catholic catechism there was no reference to such. (but a lot of discussion on the lake of fire, ha! )

    The irony of learning it via secular means says something in and of itself.

    "Can our minds and our hearts comprehend God?"

    I've heard it asked before and I'm sure several here have heard it, but it bears repeating(paraphrasing):

    Is a "god" you could understand actually then a god? (and the follow up question: If you could understand a "god", would it be worth doing so?)

    The follow-up question might seem heretical or hostile, but it's really not(from my perspective)...and if you think about it, it's an important question and not quite as surface level as it appears initially.

    As I mentioned before, I believe the "prime mover" argument of Aquinas's is logically solid, but the questions after accepting such an argument are numerous, accepting said logical proof doesn't lead one to the "god" of the Bible, just a "god".

    I love Socratic questioning...truly.

    1. "Is a "god" you could understand actually then a god?"

      Nick, this is one of the things that bothers me about inter-tradition / denomination fights. For example, to split over the precise definition (as if humans are capable of doing this) of Christ's humanity and divinity and how these two come together... Why? Can we comprehend such a thing? Even if God spelled it out for us, could we understand it? I hope not. We would then be left with nothing but a man behind a curtain.

  7. « Does the Bible call the Holy Ghost a second or third person in the Godhead?12. He Is Antichrist That Denieth The Father And The Son (1 John 2:22) »
    Hebrews 1:3 The Express Image

    The Express Image

    The image of Christ
    The Image of The “Invisible” God, Displays God’s Character Not His Physical Appearance!

    There are those who say the wording in this passage “the express image of his person” proves Jesus is God. They say “express” means exact copy or precise.

    While correct in part, (this is one of the definitions), the application is not. There are two ways in which this phrase “Express Image can be used, (Ref. Strongs G5481 Express image– an exact copy or [figurative] representation.) Christ was understood as reflecting the “character” of God, not the literal appearance of God. See also: (Colossians 1:15-20 – Image of the Invisible God & The Firstborn)

    Hebrews 1:3
    Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high
    Too much debate over things like straining over gnats and swallowing camels .Rather do what He said Love God with All your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.