Response to Jordan Parro’s Review of Origen’s Revenge

Response to Jordan Parro’s Review of Origen’s Revenge

Guest Post by Pdn. Brian Patrick Mitchell, Ph.D.

“Immanent critique” is a Marxist method of analysis arising out of the notorious Frankfurt School of subversive scholarship. In theory, the immanent critiquer enters intellectually into a targeted culture to develop its thinking along its own lines so as to reveal its inherent contradictions. In practice, the immanent critiquer simply caricatures an opponent’s argument, “problematizes” his caricature, then blames the supposed contradictions on his opponent.

That’s pretty much what Jordan Parro, doctoral student at Boston College, does in his two-part review of my book Origen’s Revenge: The Greek and Hebrew Roots of Christian Thinking on Male and Female (Pickwick, November 2021). I can barely recognize my own argument in Parro’s crude summary of it. He says less about what I wrote than about what he thinks I should have written and faults the book more for what it doesn’t say than for what it does: The book “could have anticipated objections … is unable to fully account for variations … never full explores … never addresses how … never addresses the implications … never considers the possibility … rings only a single note … does not take upon itself the burden … the absence of such a supporting argument is a conspicuous lacuna.” 

Parro demonstrates none of these alleged deficiencies, and his academic qualifications are not such that readers would be well advised to take him at his word. Indeed, had his review not appeared on the website of the Pappas Patristic Institute at Hellenic College Holy Cross, I would not have thought it worth much of a response. Because it did appear there, demonstrations of a few of the review’s deficiencies are in order.

Here’s a good example of Parro’s approach: He writes, “Mitchell is aware that the reception of Plato and Aristotle on the topic of sexual difference and marriage is diverse but never fully explores the ways in which that diversity might complicate his thesis. For example, …” He then says several unproblematic things about the first-century family-friendly philosophies of the Stoic Musonius Rufus and the Middle Platonist Plutarch, supporting them with citations in four separate footnotes. He then writes:

To Mitchell, these voices ultimately cannot characterize the Greek view, but the survival of these texts for centuries, through laborious scribal efforts, is already evidence of their lasting importance and, if nothing else, a witness to the diversity of Hellenic thinking on the topic.

At this point, a reader of the review but not the book will probably think the book overlooks Musonius and Plutarch, on account of either ignorance or dishonesty (an unwillingness on my part to admit counter-examples). But Parro is not finished with this alleged deficiency. His next words are:  

New Testament authors as well as later Christians echoed these deeply relational modes of thinking about marriage, a fact Mitchell tend to construe in Chapter 5 as fidelity to the Hebrew view. Mitchell is aware of thinkers like Musonius and Plutarch but never considers the possibility that the proto-orthodox Christians deployed their polemics against Encratism (i.e., the radical renunciation of sexuality) from within a Greek philosophical thought world and not exclusively from a contradictory Hebrew inheritance. The enormous diversity within the Greek philosophical tradition and its reception and transformation within Christianity warrant at least a modest discussion as to how this diversity comes to bear on Mitchell’s perspective that Greek and Hebrew views are diametrically opposed.

So now the reader of the review but not the book knows that I know of Musonius and Plutarch but believes I don’t say much about them and, also, that the thesis of my book is so simple, so anti-Greek, that it refuses to credit Greeks with contributing anything good to early Christian thinking about male and female, attributing everything good in Christian thinking to Hebrew inheritance “exclusively.”

Neither of these two beliefs is true. I say much more about Musonius and Plutarch than Parro does, right after a lengthy section on the very pro-family philosophy of Aristotle. I also note the well-known pro-family shift in Greco-Roman civilization beginning the late fourth century before Christ, listing seven non-philosophical changes preceding the pro-family turn taken by Musonius and Plutarch in the first century. I tell the reader that these changes lie beyond the scope of my book, reminding the reader of the notice given in the book’s introduction that the book is not a social history of the ancient world but an analysis of the influence of particular aspects of pre-Christian thought on Christian thought. I direct the reader to Marilyn Skinner’s Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture for more information about the pro-family shift. I furthermore explain that neither Musonius nor Plutarch succeeded in changing the generally anti-sexual direction of Greek philosophy, noting that Musonius was not followed on the matter by even his own student, Epictetus, and that Plutarch’s pro-sexual Middle Platonism was soon superseded by the anti-sexual Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Porphyry.  

Yet Parro tells his readers I failed to provide a “modest discussion” of the significance of pro-sexual Greek thinking.

One of the reasons for this misrepresentation of my argument is Parro’s apparent impatience with identifying bad ideas as “Greek.” Were Greeks anti-sexual? Oh, but look, here are some Greeks who were pro-sexual. That’s the point of his words quoted above. My point in the book is that most Greek philosophy was anti-sexual, and in contrasting that influence on Christian thinking against the influence of Hebrew Scripture and tradition, it is useful to label one influence “Greek” and the other influence “Hebrew.” This is hardly unreasonable, but to Parro it smacks of “the notorious ‘Hellenization of Christianity’ construct most often associated with Adolph von Harnack, who saw the influence of Hellenistic thought as a threat to a pure and unadulterated (Semitic) Christian theological imaginary [sic].” These words begin the second paragraph of the first part of Parro’s review, preemptively inviting readers to dismiss me the way they might dismiss Harnack, as if assuming that Harnack has been so thoroughly refuted that all allegations of ill effect by Hellenism on Christianity are essentially Protestant attacks on Orthodox Christianity.

Some Greeks today do tend to talk that way, seeing Orthodoxy as just the cultification of Hellenism, the religion of the civilization. But early Christians did not talk that way. They used the word Hellēn to mean “pagan” and vigorously resisted the influence of Hellenic philosophy on many common Christian beliefs, including beliefs about the body, about marriage, about male and female and whether men and women would remain men and women in the afterlife. These issues surfaced in the earliest attacks on Origen by St. Methodius of Olympus as well as in later attacks by St. Jerome, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and others. These attacks resulted in the condemnation of Origen, Didymus the Blind, Evagrius Ponticus, and many Origenist works and doctrines by later councils. They also resulted in the suppression of overt expressions of the more controversial Origenist ideas about male and female by Church Fathers, the sole exception being St. Maximus the Confessor’s Ambiguum 41. St. John of Damascus did not follow Maximus on the eradication of male and female in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, an authoritative summary of patristic teaching written in the early eighth century. Neither was the unfortunate “division” of male and female and its eradication included in any later Christian catechism in either the East or the West. The ninth-century Neoplatonist John Scotus Eriugena translated Ambiguum 41 into Latin and did follow Maximus on male and female in his Periphyseon, writing that the disciples failed to recognize the risen Christ because “it was not in the bodily sex but simply in man [homo] that He rose from the dead.”[1] John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, II (PL 122, 537D–538A), 138. But that work was condemned as heretical by two popes, Honorius III in 1224 and Gregory XIII in 1585.

Only in the late twentieth century did even Orthodox scholars begin paying much attention to what Maximus wrote about male and female, and one of their reasons for doing so is that his argument for “shaking off” both the “division” and the “difference” of male and female so that “instead of men and women” we are all “simply human beings” is quite popular with feminists, homosexuals, and transgenders—feminists because it justifies treating women just like men, homosexuals because it places heterosexuality in the same category as homosexuality as unintended consequences of the Fall, and transgenders because it frees men and women from the obligation to live as men or women. Origen’s Revenge provides examples of Orthodox scholars who use Maximus toward those ends in its introduction and first chapter. Such scholars are the reason Origen’s Revenge was written. They are Origen’s revenge upon the Church. They are also why other Orthodox scholars need to take a hard look at St. Maximus and St. Gregory of Nyssa and explain how what they wrote does or does not fit with everything else the Church has always taught about male and female.

Readers of just Parro’s review would never know this about Origen’s Revenge because Parro is silent on the subject. He jumps to the defense of Hellenism and St. Maximus but does not dare tell his readers why they need defending, lest readers should realize the danger and rally to the wrong banner.

He is also silent on the ways in which “Hebrew Christian” does not mean merely “Hebrew” in the book, ignoring the book’s arguments for significant differences between Christians and Jews on marriage and virginity, probably because the mention of such differences would weaken his special pleading for Hellenism by positioning early Christians between Greeks and Jews, as they saw themselves, and not all on the side of the Greeks.

He is silent as well on what constitutes the “Hebrew Christian” view of male and female, a whole chapter of the book, providing no discussion whatever of the chapter’s survey of authoritative Scriptures, canons, counsels, and customs that obliged Christians to practice living as men or women every day, even while praying (women covered, men uncovered).

He is furthermore silent about the theological basis of male and female offered in the last chapter, building on the Apostle Paul’s analogy of the man and the women to God and Christ in 1 Cor. 11:3 and the understanding of many Church Fathers that the “image of God” was essentially relational, a matter of how one acts toward others, in contrast to the “Greek Christian” view that the “image” is strictly ontological, with the “image” identified as the soul and the soul said to be strictly sexless.

Finally, he is silent about his silence, failing to advise his readers that he has focused his review very narrowly on issues of personal interest and declines to comment on crucial aspects of the book that might reveal too much of his personal prejudices and weigh against his quite negative conclusions.

He does at least commend the book’s treatment of Origen and extensive bibliography. And he is right that I was wrong in relating polis etymologically to polemizō and polemos, although, as I say in the book, polis did originally mean not simply “city” but “citadel,” and for a long time the politai of the polis were all armed men. This, with much more in the book, is evidence of the bellicose beginnings of Greek civilization, which contributed significantly to the Greeks’ troubled regard for male and female.

But Parro himself is not right that I am “incorrect in claiming Maximus merely tolerates marriage and the ‘beastly and inhuman’ phenomenon of sexual reproduction, ‘never actually saying that [marriage and procreation are] not evil.’” What I actually wrote is that Maximus never actually says marriage is not evil, without mentioning procreation. Parro inserted “and procreation” into the brackets to make his point, substituting a plural are for my singular is. But procreation (paidopoiia) is not marriage (gamos), and while Maximus does declare paidopoiia blameless, he never quite says the same of gamos, never goes as far as the Apostle in saying “marriage is honorable in all and the marriage bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4). Maximus rarely even mentions gamos, preferring to speak instead of paidopoiia.

This is not a quibble, for two reasons: First, a main point of the book is that male and female is not just about marriage, and marriage is not just about procreation. Sexual intercourse itself is not just about procreation, as every married couple knows but which some philosophers miss. Second, Maximus takes from Nyssa the notion that God intended man to procreate but man himself chose his beastly, sexual means of procreation, preferring it to some angelic means imagined by Nyssa. Maximus goes even further, saying that man himself is responsible for the difference of male and female, which was not intended by God and came about only after and because of man’s fall. The book explains how Aristotle enabled Maximus in this belief—something new for scholars of either Aristotle or Maximus.  

Thus, while Maximus was obliged by Christian orthodoxy to view procreation as good and marriage as allowable, he may still have regarded the bestial binding of male and female in marriage as unavoidably shameful. (Nyssa certainly did.) This is why Hans Urs von Balthasar called marriage for Maximus a “sacrament of sin.”

A final fault worth mentioning is Parro’s claim that “Mitchell contends” that in Ambiguum 41 “the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ refer to literal bodily differences.” They might, but I don’t. I nowhere “contend” that male and female include or are limited to bodily differences; I merely quote Maximus saying that Christ “removed” the “division,” the “difference,” and the “property” of “male and female” from human nature, so that “instead of men and women” we are shown to be “simply human beings … bearing His image intact and completely unadulterated, touched in no way by any marks of corruption.” I note that some people, ancient and modern, have understood this to affect the physical appearance of the human body, but I also note that most scholars have other explanations without quite agreeing with each other on them. The problem is not with the scholars; the problem is with Maximus: He doesn’t define his terms; he doesn’t tell us what he means by “male and female” in Ambiguum 41; he forces us to guess. I myself do not guess; I only show that what he writes in Ambiguum 41 and elsewhere is inconsistent with common Christian belief that God made us male and female and expects us to live as either male or female all our lives, never actually throwing the distinction off.  

The focus on bodily differences in the second part of Parro’s review is therefore entirely Parro’s, and it’s a strawman. Parro uses it to pretend to refute me while ignoring bigger issues, including the various ways Maximus is being understood today, some of them quite radical.

Protodeacon Brian Patrick Mitchell, Ph.D., is the author of seven books on politics and religion. His personal blog is brianpatrickmitchell.com.

References

References
1 John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, II (PL 122, 537D–538A), 138.
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3 thoughts on “Response to Jordan Parro’s Review of Origen’s Revenge”

  1. Ironic that the author wants to throw St Maximus under the bus, and he chooses to post his self-defense on a site called “patristic” faith.

    1. Are you Orthodox? It isn't Orthodox to say that you have to accept everything a Church Father says. That is not how Orthodoxy works. Do you accept everything St. Augustine says? Does rejecting certain things about St. Augustine's soteriology mean you are throwing St. Augustine "under the bus"? Not to be rude, but your argument is ridiculous and a strawman. It turns out, as much as we love St. Maximus and believe he is solid on all his theology, he is not infallible and this might be the one thing that he gets wrong, which is relevant to the overall argument presented by Protodeacon Patrick. On your line of reasoning, to be Patristic Faith, one would have to accept everything every Church Father has said, even if they contradict other Fathers. That is absurd.

  2. Pingback: Special Pleading for Helenism » Brian Patrick Mitchell

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