Papist Orthodoxy

October 14, 2009

Gregory Palamas: Knowledge, Prayer, and Vision

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.

September 22, 2009

Palamas: Dormition of the Theotokos

Filed under: Doctrine, Liturgy, Sacred Scripture and Theology — Tags: , , , , , — Antiochian-Thomist @ 12:23 am

A Homily on the Dormition of Our Supremely Pure

Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

by St. Gregory Palamas

Both love and duty today fashion my homily for your charity. It is not only that I wish, because of my love for you, and because I am obliged by the sacred canons, to bring to your God-loving ears a saving word and thus to nourish your souls, but if there be any among those things that bind by obligation and love and can be narrated with praise for the Church, it is the great deed of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The desire is double, not single, since it induces me, entreats and persuades me, whereas the inexorable duty constrains me, though speech cannot attain to what surpasses it, just as the eye is unable to look fixedly upon the sun. One cannot utter things which surpass speech, yet it is within our power by the love for mankind of those hymned, to compose a song of praise and all at once both to leave untouched intangible things, to satisfy the debt with words and to offer up the first fruits of our love for the Mother of God in hymns composed according to our abilities.

If, then, “death of the righteous man is honorable” (cf. Ps. 115:6) and the “memory of the just man is celebrated with songs of praise” (Prov. 10:7). How much more ought we to honor with great praises the memory of the holiest of the saints, she by whom all holiness is afforded to the saints, I mean the Ever-Virgin. Mother of God! Even so we celebrate today her holy dormition or translation to another life, whereby, while being “a little lower than angels” (Ps. 8:6), by her proximity to the God of all, and in the wondrous deeds which from the beginning of time were written down and accomplished with respect to her, she has ascended incomparably higher than the angels and the archangels and all the super-celestial hosts that are found beyond them. For her sake the God-possessed prophets pronounce prophecies, miracles are wrought to foreshow that future Marvel of the whole world, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The flow of generations and circumstances journeys to the destination of that new mystery wrought in her; the statutes of the Spirit provide beforehand types of the future truth. The end, or rather the beginning and root, of those divine wonders and deeds is the annunciation to the supremely virtuous Joachim and Anna of what was to be accomplished: namely, that they who were barren from youth would beget in deep old age her that would bring forth without seed Him that was timelessly begotten of God the Father before the ages. A vow was given by those who marvelously begot her to return her that was given to the Giver; so accordingly the Mother of God strangely changed her dwelling from the house of her father to the house of God while still an infant . She passed not a few years in the Holy of Holies itself, wherein under the care of an angel she enjoyed ineffable nourishment such as even Adam did not succeed in tasting; for indeed if he had, like this immaculate one, he would not have fallen away from life, even though it was because of Adam and so that she might prove to be his daughter, that she yielded a little to nature, as did her Son, Who has now ascended from earth into heaven.

Find the rest of the homily here.

September 21, 2009

The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas. By A.N. Williams

I’ve been asserting this for years. Now someone has done a scholarly work supporting it. God bless A.N. Williams! — Antiochian-Thomist


THE GROUND OF UNION: DEIFICATION IN AQUINAS AND PALAMAS. By A.N. Williams. New York: Oxford University, 1999. Pp. 222.

(Partial Review)

Any effort toward understanding and union between Christian Churches of the East and the West involves an objective examination of the central issues and theological concepts. Williams explores the main writings of two representative medieval thinkers and theological spokesmen whose image and method have generally been misinterpreted or misused, whether out of sincere ignorance or deliberate polemics. Conventional academic scholarship and ecumenical dialogue have sharply differentiated between the “Palamite” and “Scholastic” ways.

From an Orthodox perspective, it is improper that certain authors employ the term “heart” as a stick to brandish against the allegedly “rationalistic” West. Aquinas contrasts “cordis affectus” with “intellectus,” but it would be unfair to attribute to him a narrow use of “affectus.” Furthermore his use of “intellectus” implies the Greek “noesis,” which is certainly not identical with discursive reasoning. Whether the heart is or is not neglected in the West, it should not be used as an antonym for “reason.” The charge of “rationalism” leveled against Western theology, in contrast to the alleged “heartfulness” of Eastern theology, is as tenuous as it is paradoxical. Any simplistic condemnation or justification of one theological method over or against another will invariably reveal deeper complexities and essential exceptions.

W. obliges both Orthodox and Western theologians to review their critical attitude and apologetic approach toward one another’s methodology. She offers a sharp criticism of contemporary writers whose tone is negative, even “bitter,” often “determined to misread the texts and authors [they] purport to analyze” (14). She is even critical of “more nuanced and sophisticated [theologians, who are] no less hostile to what they suppose to be Western theological method” (18). She has read and researched numerous monographs and articles by modern theologians, and her access to more remote writers and publications is admirable.

W.’s purpose is to address in a comparative fashion, even to challenge “the charges of opposition of East and West in the doctrine of deification” (33). She has selected one or more major texts from each of her authors: the Summa theologiae of Aquinas, and the Triads and Capita physica of Palamas. Though aware of the dangers of a selective …



“Williams makes a significant contribution [towards] enabling [. . .] a recognition of the extent to which the theme and sometimes the language of deification recur throughout the history of Christian theology. [This] could prove to be a major step in overcoming misunderstanding between East and West, [. . .] an invaluable service [. . .] well worth the effort of careful reading.”–St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly

Product Description
This book attempts to resolve one of the oldest and bitterest controversies between the Eastern and Western Christian churches: namely, the dispute about the doctrine of deification. A. N. Williams examines two key thinkers, each of whom is championed as the authentic spokesman of his own tradition and reviled by the other. Taking Aquinas as representative of the West and Gregory Palamas for the East, she presents fresh readings of their work that both reinterpret each thinker and sho an area of commonality between them much greater than has previously been acknowledged.

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