I’m almost 3/4 through The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, and I’m very impressed with the circumspection and depth of research that Fr. Seraphim Rose put into this study towards the end of his life on this earth. This is the first book I’ve read directly by him as my other acquaintance with his thought is from Father Seraphim Rose, His Life and Works by Hieromonk Damascene. As I recall of that work, Father Seraphim’s personal attitudes and opinions were detailed. In this book on Blessed Augustine, I am seeing Fr. Seraphim practice what he preached. Namely, a submission to the Patristic witness permeated by the savor of Orthodoxy.
Fr. Seraphim does not gloss over the Church Father’s errors, but instead gives perspective of them through what other Church Fathers said about him. It seems that despite the errors, which are the only things explained so far, he was greatly loved and respected. It is interesting to me to see how fondly and delicately St. John Cassian, St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Photius, St. Mark of Ephesus and others talked about him amidst disagreement. Blessed Augustine was not denounced as a heretic, but was instead characterized as having certain “imprecise” views of grace, free will, predestination and purgatory.
Even the greatest thinker does not exert influence in an intellectual vacuum; the reason why extreme predestinarianism broke out at different times in the West (and not in the East) was due first of all, not to Augustine’s teaching (which was only a pretext and a seeming justificaton), but rather to the overly-logical mentality which has always been present in the peoples of the West: in Augustine’s case it produced exaggerations in a basically Orthodox thinker, while in the case of Calvin (for example) it produced an abominable heresy in someone who was far indeed from Orthodoxy in thought and feeling. If Augustine had taught his doctrine in the East and in Greek, there would have been no heresy of predestinarianism there, or at least none with the widespread consequences of the Western heresies; the non-rationalistic character of the Eastern mind would not have drawn any consequences from Augustine’s exaggerations, and in general would have paid less attention to him than the West did, seeing in him what the Orthodox Church today continues to see in him: a venerable Father of the Church, not without his errors, who ranks rather behind the greatest Fathers of the East and West. (p. 50)
Father Seraphim characterizes condemnations of Blessed Augustine as a heretic by modern Orthodox as being “western” in nature.
Then St. Photius presents an objection typical of the all-too-often narrowly-logical Latin mentality: “If they taught well, then everyone who considers them as Fathers should accept their idea; but if they have not spoken piously, they should be cast out together with the heretics.” [Fr. Seraphim later brings this out as leading to the doctrine of Papal Infallability.] The answer of St. Photius to this rationalistic view is a model of the depth, sensitivity, and compassion with which true Orthodoxy looks on those who have erred in good faith: “Have there not been complicated conditions which have forced many Fathers in part to express themselves imprecisely, in part to speak with adaptation to circumstances under the attacks of enemies, and at times out of human ignorance to which they also were subject?… If some have spoken imprecisely, or for some reason not known to us, even deviated from the right path, but no question was put to them nor did anyone challenge them to learn the truth – we admit them to the list of Fathers, just as if they had not said it, because of their righteousness of life and distinguished virtue and their faith, faultless in other respects. We do not, however, follow their teaching in which they stray from the path of truth…. […] but we embrace the men. (p. 66)