by M.C. Steenberg
Three foundational aspects of the Theology of St Gregory Palamas
The theology of St Gregory Palamas, as expressed during the Palamite Controversy of the mid-14th century, is far too extensive to be addressed in its full breadth in a paper such as this. Rather than attempt a manifestly impossible task, then, we will limit the focus of this essay to three central points in that theology: first, the idea of knowledge as expressed in the conflict between Gregory and Barlaam; second, the matter of prayer and the body; and third, the notion of the divine vision, which will lead naturally into a discussion of the energies and the essence of God.
A Knowledge Beyond Knowing: Barlaam’s Objection to Apodictic Theology
One of the first objections raised against St Gregory Palamas’ theology was brought forth by Barlaam of Calabria, and dealt specifically with the issue of knowledge. Two fundamentally different views on knowledge were involved in this dispute: first was that which Barlaam and others held, and which might broadly be termed, following Meyendorff, as the Dialectic Method of knowing God.1 This was a largely philosophical view, based upon the position that knowledge of God might be gained by the use of discursive reason, dialectic, and rational investigation. As this very fact would suggest, the dialectic approach involved a strong element of kataphaticism. Yet, following the course of the great philosophers, it also readily admitted of the incapability of affirmative theology to truly apprehend the divine truths of God; and thus there was a strong, if not consuming trend towards apophatic theology present in this view. Barlaam himself seems to have based his own severe apophaticism on the model and example of Pseudo-Dionysius, with which he was quite familiar; yet his understanding of that writer was incomplete: where Dionysius was to stress certain positive elements of his apophatic reasoning (such as the positive experience of the divine darkness), Barlaam’s model seems to have been almost wholly negative—to the point of bordering on a certain agnosticism. God is transcendent, he taught, and thus to ascend to purer knowledge we must espouse negative theology and transcend our own perceptive reason; yet ultimately the Transcendent cannot be truly known, even with apophaticism used to its utmost. At the heart of Barlaam’s teaching is the significant idea that God cannot truly be perceived by man; that God the Transcendent can never be wholly known by man the created and finite.
Gregory, on the other hand, taught something quite different. This second conception of knowledge of God brought it out of the realm of mere dialectic—whether positive or negative, kataphatic or apophatic—and into the arena of demonstration; what Meyendorff terms Apodictic Knowledge of God.2 Natural knowledge, believed Gregory, is one aspect of man’s relationship to his Creator; and yet it is quite a different thing to know about God, than it is to actually know Him. The great divergence between this view and that of Barlaam, was that Gregory believed the latter aspect to be not only a hypothetical possibility (which Barlaam would have denied), but a fully attainable reality. It was not a question of whether or not man could know God by direct, immediate knowledge, but whether or not he would, given the life he was leading.
Gregory’s view should not be seen to undermine a positive view of philosophical thought as a whole, which was a continual accusation made by Barlaam. Taken as a tool for the progression of the human person towards a state receptive to divine grace, Gregory saw philosophy and discursive knowledge as a perfectly reasonable set of aids for the Christian. It was only when philosophy, whose created end is the furtherance of knowledge of God,3 was misused by the philosophers and turned, in effect, into God, that Gregory raised his voice in ardent opposition. This was the ‘fallen’ state of knowledge, which did not betray an evil inherent in knowledge itself, but simply the misuse made of it by certain philosophical schools. Gregory understood natural knowledge within the metaphor of the natural world revealing aspects of God; to which revelation God Himself would add the grace to know Him intimately. He writes:
There is a knowledge about God and His doctrines. (…) The use and activity of the natural powers of the soul and of the body do shape the rational image of man, but that is not the same as the perfect beauty of the noble state which comes from above; that is by no means the supernatural union with the more than resplendent light, which is the sole source of sure theology.4
Thus Gregory viewed natural knowledge, in all its philosophical forms, as a tool leading to something greater, yet every bit as real as that very knowledge: the divine grace which brings about union, the true source of contemplative knowing.
But this conception clashed harshly with that of Barlaam, who seems firmly to have espoused the neo-Platonic tradition as he interpreted it from Dionysius, and could not find common ground between his own rationalist views and those of Gregory. Much of the earlier arguments in the Palamite conflict centred in this very issue of knowledge, and apart from being an interesting debate in its own right, this dispute led Gregory into the formative stages of the theological conceptions he would bring forth later in the controversy. The relationship of apophaticism to human knowledge, and that to God’s nature as transcendent Being, would come into play with great importance a short time later, and, as we shall see, would have direct bearing on Gregory’s famous argument for the distinction of energies and essence.