skip to content

Joseph Bryennios’ Twenty-One Homilies on the Trinity: Critical Edition, Introduction, and Commentary

Icon of the New Testament Trinity (c. 1450), housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art

Joseph Bryennios’ (ca. 1350-1432) career was coextensive with the decline of Byzantium, an age of incertitude and struggle, constantly consumed with endless theological debates and desperate political schemes. The period of Latin hegemony (1204-1261) on the Bosporus and the tribulations following Michael VIII’s recapture of Constantinople in 1261 reduced the once magnificent empire to a pale, almost improbable polity. Paradoxically though, Byzantium ‘stubbornness’ to exist did not boil down domestically to a spiritual inertia or a hopeless expectancy, but was in fact complemented by a hitherto unparalleled cultural revival and intellectual flowering. The Byzantine scholars became increasingly aware of the unvaluable philosophical heritage of Antiquity and the interplay between ἔνδοθεν φιλοσοφία and ἔξωθεν φιλοσοφία, sometimes though at the cost of polemics and doctrinal controversies.

Ideologically considered, the status of ‘Roman’ (Ῥωμαῖος) was doubled in Byzantium by a ‘spiritual’ citizenship, i.e., the quality of being Orthodox (< gr. ὀρθοδοξία: ‘righteous/correct opinion’). Yet, as of the late 13th century, this self-consciousness has been increasingly defined in an antagonistic manner and amounted to being ‘non-Westerner/non-Latin’. This profound polarization was reflected by the two schools of thought emerging at that time in Constantinople: the Latinophrones (gr. Λατινόφρονες; “the Latin-minded”), i.e., Greek humanists or converts to Rome seeking the unconditioned union and dogmatic submission to the Apostolic See, and the conservatives (or anti-unionists) advocating for the defense of the Eastern Orthodox dogmata at the expense of the political conformism espoused by the bulk of the Byzantine statesmen.

Doctrine-motivated divisions were and still are phenomena as early as Christianity itself. However, unlike the Trinitarian (2nd-4th centuries) and Christological (5th-8th centuries) crises of the first millennium, which put forward for the most part the clash of the ‘official’ Church with poorly organized, diverging factions (gr. αἱρέσεις), the centuries-long dispute (starting with the so-called Photian schism [863-867]) between Constantinople and Rome witnessed the encounter of two fully developed and autonomous organisms, with common roots, yet separate fates. The most appropriate term to describe the identity and scope of the two above-mentioned actors is tradition. Both the Western traditio and the Eastern παράδοσις stem from a mutual heritage and are manifested though two fundamental vectors, namely ‘dogma’ and ‘ethos’. In a Christian context, dogma represents the unanimously accepted codification of contents of faith based upon the data of the Revelation and the ecclesial conscience of the Church. By ethos is to be understood the practical metabolization and actualization of doctrine via worship, devotion, sacred art, hagiographical productions, and standards of conduct. Bryennios was well aware of these nuances and of the fact that the fervently desired ‘Union’ of the Churches meant nothing but the harmonization of two entities defined by doctrinal and cultic conformism and, therefore, spent his energy and outstanding erudition to put an end to a paradoxical conflict, which by its very nature admitted neither losers, nor victors.

The renowned Twenty-One Homilies on the Trinity that Bryennios composed and delivered in 1420-1421 represent an outstanding dogmatic synthesis which fruitfully incorporates both the patristic tradition and the dialectical peculiarities of the epoch. The main goal of the present research is the critical editing by modern standards of the abovementioned corpus. The textual edition is projected to be accompanied by an introduction and a comprehensive commentary designed to spotlight the key position Joseph held in the midst of the union discussions with the Western theologians. In doing so, I shall endeavor to put forward a new way of problematizing the intellectual struggle between East and West in the period preceding the fall of Constantinople (1453). As noted above, this back-and-forth between the two main poles of Christianity, rendered exceedingly intricate as it was by the political schemes devised by both parties, was doomed to remain barren, as the protagonists involved obstinately persisted in the ‘orthodox-heterodox’ model of reconciliation. Owing to his erudition and the decades-long apostolate in Latin-occupied Crete and Cyprus, Bryennios was highly knowledgeable about the ‘other’ side and comprehended that the dynamic between two traditions could not be regulated through formal professions of faith or unilateral acts of anathematization. My investigation will be geared towards emphasizing the profound dialectic orientation of Bryennios’ thought: while remaining totally faithful to the patristic consensus on doctrinal issues, the author not rarely adopts more flexible approaches shaped to meet the opposing party halfway through the dogmatic argumentation.

An equally promising area I intend on carefully exploring consists in Bryennios’ reception and use of Aristotle and various dialectical devices. Though he was well versed in Aristotelian philosophy and Thomas Aquinas’ works (whom he cites on several occasions, once even in Latin), but also a skilled user of syllogisms (no less than 90 deductive demonstrations in the Trinitarian Homilies alone) and diagrams/schematic theorems (four in the Trinitarian corpus), Joseph vehemently refutes the employment of logic for dogmatic purposes. I consider this apparent contradiction to be crucial for understanding the author’s modus operandi and the real stake of the dispute.

Bryennios was an encyclopedic scholar and an avid user of scriptural, patristic, literary, and documentary texts (after a preliminary examination, I was able to identify in his Trinitarian Homilies approximately 920 citations, allusions, references, or paraphrases). I will evaluate the rhetorical function of the sacred and profane sources featured in the corpus and specify the didacticism professed by the author through the abundant occurrence of proverbs and gnomic sentences.