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N. Kavvadas, Isaak von Ninive …, bespr. von A.

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dass man sie als „only Byzantine church in Sardinia to possess an inscribed cross
plan“ bezeichnete (S. 74).
Zusammenfassend lässt sich feststellen, dass Johnson einen faszinierenden
Überblick über eine Reihe von spätantiken und mittelalterlichen Kirchen auf
Sardinien bietet, die bisher zu wenig Beachtung gefunden haben.Verdienstvoll ist
darüber hinaus der Verweis auf die Bedeutung des „Byzantinischen“ für die Ge-
schichte und Kultur dieser Insel, woraus sich aber die Bezeichnung „byzantinisch“
für die besprochenen Kirchen nicht zwingend ableiten lässt.

Prof. Dr. Michael Altripp: Theologische Fakultät, Am Rubenowplatz 2/3, 17489 Greifswald,

Nestor Kavvadas, Isaak von Ninive und seine Kephalaia Gnostika. Die Pneuma-
tologie und ihr Kontext. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 128. Leiden/Boston,
Brill 2015. ix, 193 p. ISBN 978 – 90 – 04 – 28440 – 1 (hardback); ISBN 978 –
90 – 04 – 28483 – 8 (e-book).

This book is a synthesis of Nestor Kavvadas’ previous interests in Isaac of

Nineveh, which have so far led to the publication of several articles⁵⁹ and of a
Modern Greek translation comprising Isaac’s Second Part. ⁶⁰ The study focuses on
Isaac’s pneumatology as laid out in his Kephalaia Gnostika and was presented as
a doctoral thesis in Theology at the University of Tübingen (2011). In light of the
renewed interest for kephalaia and other “minor genres” in Byzantine theo-
logical literature,⁶¹ Kavvadas’ research should be seen as an appeal to scholars

 See N. Kavvadas, Some observations on the theological anthropology of Isaac of Nineveh and
its sources. Scrinium  ()  – ; idem, Theology of language and liturgical prayer in Isaac
of Nineveh. Scrinium  ()  – ; idem, On the relations between the eschatological
doctrine of Isaac of Nineveh and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Studia Patristica  ()  – ;
idem, Theodore of Mopsuestia as a source of Isaac of Nineveh’s pneumatology. Parole de l’Orient
 ()  – ; idem, Der Geist Gottes und die Vergöttlichung des Menschen bei Isaak von
Ninive, in D. Bumazhnov/ H.-R. Seeliger (eds.), Syrien im .–. Jahrhundert: Akten der . Tübinger
Tagung zum Christlichen Orient (Tübingen, June  – , ). Tübingen ,  – .
 N. Kavvadas (transl.), Ἰσαὰκ τοῦ Σύρου ᾿Aσκητικά, μετάφραση ἀπὸ τὰ συριακά. Thira  –
 See A. Rigo (ed.), Theologica Minora: the minor genres of Byzantine theological literature.
Turnhout , especially the articles by P. Van Deun and P. Géhin.
250 Byzantinische Zeitschrift Bd. 109/1, 2015: II. Abteilung

to draw comparisons, in terms of both style and theological contents, between

seventh-century Byzantine writers of theological “chapters” (e. g. Maximus the
Confessor, Thalassios the Libyan, John of Karpathos, etc.) and their East Syrian
Isaac’s four hundred Kephalaia are preserved in the Second Part of his
corpus, and were discovered in 1983 by Sebastian Brock in the manuscript
Bodleian syr. e. 7 (10th/11th c.). While Brock has since then edited chapters IV–XLI
of this collection, chapters I–III (the last of which includes the Kephalaia) are
still in preparation by Paolo Bettiolo.⁶² Therefore, readers interested in the
Syriac text must, for now, rely on Kavvadas’ transcription of numerous (but,
understandably, not all) gnostic chapters, conveniently provided in the foot-
notes. However, given the complex textual history of Isaac’s corpus, I think a
brief overview of the different collections and manuscripts would have been
helpful. Unfortunately, Kavvadas limits his treatment of this philological aspect
to a few passing remarks (e. g. p. 18, note 32), a fact that might confuse readers
less acquainted with Isaac’s Syriac works.
The book is divided into two parts, each consisting of several chapters. Part
One (p. 5 – 51) is an attempt to uncover the “group identity” of Eastern Syriac
mystical authors, which the author sees as representing a “distinct tradition”, i. e.
as a self-conscious line of theological thought, separate from the one endorsed
by the official structures of the Apostolic Church of the East. Kavvadas high-
lights some of the main differences between these two trends and confronts, for
instance, the church’s anti-Messalian rhetoric with the firm position against such
allegations taken by several mystical writers, including Isaac of Nineveh (p. 12–
24). Another point of contention concerns the epistemology of Isaac and the
mystics on one hand, and that of the schoolmen at the School of Nisibis on the
other (p. 38 – 45, esp. p. 38, note 35). Here, Kavvadas takes up the argumentation
of previous scholars (C. Stewart, A. Becker), who had contrasted, for example,
the dismissive attitude of Evagrius towards the role of mental representations in
(mystical) cognition, and the positive attitude of a “scholastic” like Barḥad-
bešabbā (6th c.) towards such mental “idols” (syr. ṣalmē). However, there need
not be a direct opposition between the two groups here, rather an expression of
different epistemological interests: the first seeking an unmediated vision of
God, the second an understanding of God’s wisdom in creation. The two are not
mutually exclusive. Other examples presented by Kavvadas also suggest a more

 Prof. Bettiolo has already published a full annotated Italian translation of the Kephalaia;
see: P. Bettiolo, Isaaco di Ninive: Discorsi spirituali: Capitoli sulla conoscenza, Preghiere,
Contemplazione sull‘ argomento della gehenna, Altri opuscoli. Magnano .
N. Kavvadas, Isaak von Ninive …, bespr. von A. Pirtea 251

complex relationship between the scholastic and the mystical positions (see e. g.
p. 41, note 48), one that would, in fact, allow for their coexistence and
Kavvadas makes a much more convincing case for the existence of a conflict
between scholastics and mystics in the subsequent chapter (ch. 4, p. 46 – 51). The
two groups are shown to hold diverging views on pneumatology, more specifi-
cally on the mode and degree of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Christian
community. Kavvadas adduces a conspicuous passage from the Second Part,
where Isaac places the life of the church as a whole (“our mother, the Catholic
one”)⁶⁴ on the “level of the soul in its fulness”,⁶⁵ with the implication that the
few individuals who reach the superior “level of the spirit” would possess a
higher authority than the church itself (p. 48). Isaac’s intriguing claim, if cor-
rectly interpreted, would certainly call for a comparison with the position of
Theodore of Mopsuestia and others, on the “pneumatic primacy” of the church
vs. the ascetic individual. These considerations however, to which Kavvadas
immediately adds the caveat that the ascetics only sought “theological and in-
dividual freedom” within the confines of the church (p. 50 – 51), are not seriously
taken up again later.
Having addressed the problem of pneumatology, the author makes a neat
transition to Part Two of the book, in which Isaac’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit
enters into focus. In a first step (ch. 5, p. 58 – 66), Kavvadas sets out the cosmo-
theological background of Isaac’s pneumatology, esp. his indebtedness to The-
odore of Mopsuestia’s “two-world theology” and the same author‘s doctrine of
original sin. The present world is understood by both Theodore and Isaac as a

 Shim’on d-Taibuteh (th c.) is said by Kavvadas to protest explicitly against “schoolmen”
(p. , n. ). However, the passage in question seems to allow for a more conciliatory inter-
pretation as well. Consider, for instance, the following sentence: “As the knowledge of honey
draws us near the delight of its taste, so also the knowledge of the teaching of wisdom of the
world precedes the knowledge of the spiritual teaching of the [Holy] Books, which itself precedes
the mysteries of grace, and each of them helps the other in the study and exertion of labours” (A.
Mingana, Woodbroke Studies VII. Cambridge , ; my emphasis, AP). In another text,
which strongly resembles Sergius’ of Resh’ayna’s Memrā on Spiritual Life, §  (ed. P. Sher-
wood, Mimro de Serge de Reshayna sur la vie spirituelle. L’Orient syrien , , ), Shim’on
also appears to appreciate the mathematical sciences as a preparatory stage for mystical
knowledge (see Mingana, ).
 The Syriac is somewhat unclear at this point. The text reads: qtwlyqws ʾmn, lit. “our mother,
the Catholicos” (Isaac, Second Part XX, , transl. S. Brock, ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV–LI.
CSCO, . Louvain , ). Brock adds: “Since the accompanying verb is feminine, perhaps
qtwlyqy (not ‐qws) is meant, i. e. ‘Catholic (Church)’.”
 Isaac, Second Part XX,  (Brock, ).
252 Byzantinische Zeitschrift Bd. 109/1, 2015: II. Abteilung

place of instruction (syr. ʿālmā d-mardūtā, p. 64), in which man is supposed to

learn by experience and comparison about the eternal goods he will partake of in
the “new world”. As such, Kavvadas argues that for Isaac the entire purpose of
creation is to mediate the knowledge of God to human beings, an activity es-
sentially carried out by the Holy Spirit. A further point on which Isaac seems to
rely on Theodore is presented in Chapter 6 (p. 67– 76), which includes an in-
teresting discussion on the distinction between God’s (the Spirit’s) “essence” and
His “activity”, enabling Isaac to explain how the Spirit can act within individual
persons while remaining impassible and omnipresent.
The following two chapters (Ch. 7, p. 77– 138 and Ch. 8, p. 139 – 168) are
undoubtedly the centrepiece of the entire book, as they offer a thorough dis-
cussion of Isaac’s theory of knowledge and the mediation of knowledge by the
Holy Spirit, specifically on the basis of the Kephalaia Gnostika. Among the key
concepts discussed here is “contemplation” (theōria). Kavvadas argues that
theōria refers to a mode of non-discursive cognition, which the ascetic can attain
through diverse forms of “meditation” (syr. hergā, μελέτη), e. g. on God’s Prov-
idence, on Scripture, etc. Ultimately, the purpose of these activities is to “in-
teriorize one‘s belief in the Resurrection” (p. 87– 89) and thus to be gradually
initiated in the mysteries of the “new world”. An important distinction is drawn
in this chapter between theōria (and any other types of knowledge for that
matter) and “spiritual knowledge” (Geisterkenntnis) per se, that is to say
knowledge directly imparted by the Holy Spirit. The author then isolates four
different aspects which are meant to clarify the distinction between theōria and
Geisterkenntnis: a) content; b) form/medium; c) the structure of the act of im-
parting knowledge; d) subjective prerequisites for acquiring knowledge (p. 93).
With respect to these points, Kavvadas’ most salient conclusions are the fol-
lowing: a) for Isaac, the highest form of gnōsis does not entail knowledge of the
Divine Essence itself, but that it is the ultimate form of “knowing God through
His works”, since after the Resurrection we will know God by means of His
greatest work, the “new world” itself (p. 96 – 97); b) even though Geisterkenntnis
is direct and unmediated, there are certain media which can facilitate the ac-
quiring of such knowledge, e. g. the spiritual interpretation of Scripture, which at
times can even be at odds with its literal sense (see p. 107– 119); c) with regard to
the “structure of the act”, Kavvadas insists on the utter passivity of the human
receiver in the act of knowing God (see p. 127– 132); d) the capacity of the ascetic
to receive the Spirit’s revelations is further conditioned by what Kavvadas calls
the “intellect’s focusing on itself”, refering to the mind’s detachment from sense
data, thoughts, etc., again essentially an act of the Spirit and not of the human
N. Kavvadas, Isaak von Ninive …, bespr. von A. Pirtea 253

Finally in Chapter 8, Kavvadas convincingly argues that Isaac’s under-

standing of “becoming spiritual” (Geistlichwerden) is not so much in line with
Evagrius’ protological approach to theōsis, but rather with Theodore’s focus on
the eschatological dimension of partaking of the Holy Spirit. In combining the
Evagrian and the Theodorian position, Isaac brings together protology and es-
chatology by way of a “dialectical relationship” (p. 151– 152). The chapter goes on
to address other dialectical features of Isaac’s thought, such as the relationship
between law and freedom (p. 155 – 158) or between human and divine wills
(p. 158 – 168). Kavvadas subsumes these features under the “encompassing di-
alectics of the Spirit’s mediated and immediate activity”, present throughout
Isaac’s writings (p. 158). These two modes of the Spirit’s activity correspond not
only to our two ways of apprehending God (indirect in this world and direct in
the next), but also more generally, again, to Theodore‘s “two-world economy”
(Zwei-Welten-Ökonomie). Kavvadas is therefore surely right to stress, in his
concluding remarks (Ch. 9, p. 169 – 177), the paramount importance of this con-
cept for explaining Isaac’s pneumatology, theory of knowledge, and mysticism
(see p. 173 – 175).
To sum up, Kavvadas’ monograph represents the first comprehensive at-
tempt to work out the specific theology of Isaac‘s unpublished Kephalaia
Gnostika. Despite the challenging complexity of the four hundred chapters
preserved in Bodl. syr. e. 7 and the sheer vastness of Isaac’s “spiritual world” (to
quote H. Alfeyev), Kavvadas has, I think, successfully singled out and pre-
sented Isaac’s most defining ideas: the primacy of the Holy Spirit in mediating
divine knowledge to human beings, the centrality of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s
“two-world economy” for Isaac’s view on spiritual transformation, Isaac’s dia-
lectical approach to some of the controversial aspects inherited by his theo-
logical tradition. Although some aspects would have deserved a fuller treatment
(the different views on the pneumatic nature of the church, the textual history of
Isaac’s kephalaia, etc.), Kavvadas’ study will prove indispensable for any stu-
dent of Syriac asceticism and mysticism. Moreover, I would recommend the book
to scholars of Byzantine theology with an interest for non-Chalcedonian ap-
proaches to pneumatology and theōsis, for Theodore of Mopsuestia’s rich legacy
in the Orient, and for the background and reasons behind Isaac’s tremendous
Nachleben in Byzantium.

Adrian Pirtea: