Monday, October 16, 2006

St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers (part 3)

Archpriest George Florovsky

St. Gregory Palamas and Theosis.

All these preliminary considerations are highly relevant for our immediate purpose. What is the theological legacy of St. Gregory Palamas? St. Gregory was not a speculative theologian. He was a monk and a bishop. He was not concerned about abstract problems of philosophy, although he was well trained in this field too. He was concerned solely with problems of Christian existence. As a theologian, he was simply an interpreter of the spiritual experience of the Church. Almost all his writings, except probably his homilies, were occasional writings. He was wrestling with the problems of his own time. And it was a critical time, an age of controversy and anxiety. Indeed, it was also an age of spiritual renewal.

St. Gregory was suspected of subversive innovations by his enemies in his own time. This charge is still maintained against him in the West. In fact, however, St. Gregory was deeply rooted in tradition. It is not difficult to trace most of his views and motives back to the Cappadocian Fathers and to St. Maximus the Confessor, who was, by the way, one of the most popular masters of Byzantine thought and devotion. Indeed, St. Gregory was also intimately acquainted with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. He was rooted in the tradition. Yet, in no sense was his theology just a "theology of repetition." It was a creative extension of ancient tradition. Its starting point was Life in Christ.

Of all themes of St. Gregory's theology let us single out but one, the crucial one, and the most controversial. What is the basic character of Christian existence? The ultimate aim and purpose of human life was defined in the Patristic tradition as θεωσις [theosis, divinization]. The term is rather offensive for the modern ear. It cannot be adequately rendered in any modern language, nor even in Latin. Even in Greek it is rather heavy and pretentious. Indeed, it is a daring word. The meaning of the word is, however, simple and lucid. It was one of the crucial terms in the Patristic vocabulary. It would suffice to quote at this point but St. Athanasius. Γεγονεν γαρ ανθρωπος, ιν ημας εν εαυτω θεοποιηση. [He became man in order to divinize us in Himself. (Ad Adelphium 4)]. Αυτος γαρ ενηνθρωπησεν, ινα ημεις θεοποιηθωμεν. [He became man in order that we might be divinized (De Incarnatione 54)]. St. Athanasius actually resumes here the favourite idea of St. Irenaeus: qui propter immensam dilectionem suam factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod est ipse. [Who, through his immense love became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself (Adv. Haeres. V, Praefatio)]. It was the common conviction of the Greek Fathers. One can quote at length St. Gregory of Nazianzus. St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Maximus, and indeed St. Symeon the New Theologian. Man ever remains what he is, that is — creature. But he is promised and granted, in Christ Jesus, the Word become man, an intimate sharing in what is Divine: Life Everlasting and incorruptible. The main characteristic of theosis is, according to the Fathers, precisely "immortality" or "incorruption." For God alone "has immortality" — ο μονος εχων αθανασιαν (I Tim. 6:16). But man now is admitted into an intimate "communion" with God, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is much more than just a "moral" communion, and much more than just a human perfection. Only the word theosis can render adequately the uniqueness of the promise and offer. The term theosis is indeed quite embarrassing, if we would think in "ontological" categories. Indeed, man simply cannot "become" god. But the Fathers were thinking in "personal" terms, and the mystery of personal communion was involved at this point. Theosis meant a personal encounter. It is that intimate intercourse of man with God, in which the whole of human existence is, as it were, permeated by the Divine Presence. [5]

Yet, the problem remains: How can even this intercourse be compatible with the Divine Transcendance? And this is the crucial point. Does man really encounter God, in this present life on earth? Does man encounter God, truly and verily, in his present life of prayer? Or, is there no more than an actio in distans? The common claim of the Eastern Fathers was that in his devotional ascent man actually encounters God and beholds His eternal Glory. Now, how is it possible, if God "abides in the light unapproachable"? The paradox was especially sharp in the Eastern theology, which has been always committed to the belief that God was absolutely "incomprehensible" — ακαταληπτος — and unknowable in His nature or essence. This conviction was powerfully expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially in their struggle against Eunomius, and also by St. John Chrysostom, in his magnificent discourses Περι Ακαταληπτου. Thus, if God is absolutely "unapproachable" in His essence, and accordingly His essence simply cannot be "communicated," how can theosis be possible at all? "One insults God who seeks to apprehend His essential being," says Chrysostom. Already in St. Athanasius we find a clear distinction between God's very "essence" and His powers and bounty: Και εν πασι μεν εστι κατά την εαυτου αγαθοτητα, εξω δε των παντων παλιν εστι κατά την ιδιαν φυσιν. [He is in everything by his love, but outside of everything by his own nature (De Decretis II)]. The same conception was carefully elaborated by the Cappadocians. The "essence of God" is absolutely inaccessible to man, says St. Basil (Adv. Eunomium 1:14). We know God only in His actions, and by His actions: "Ημεις δε εκ μεν των ενεργειων γνωριζειν λεγομεν τον Θεον ημων, τη δε ουσια προσεγγιζειν ουχ υπισχνουμεθα αι μεν γαρ ενεργειαι αυτου προς ημας καταβαινουσιν, η δε ουσια αυτου μενει απροσιτος." [We say that we know our God from his energies (activities), but we do not profess to approach his essence — for his energies descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible[Ημεις δε εκ μεν των ενεργειων (Epist. 234, ad Amphilochium)]. Yet, it is a true knowledge, not just a conjecture or deduction: αι ενεργειαι αυτου προς ημας καταβαινουσιν. In the phrase of St. John of Damascus, these actions or "energies" of God are the true revelation of God Himself: η θεια ελλαμψις και ενεργεια (De Fide Orth. 1: 14). It is a real presence, and not merely a certain praesentia operativa, sicut agens adest ei in quod agit [as the actor is present in the thing in which he acts]. This mysterious mode of Divine Presence, in spite of the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence, passes all understanding. But it is no less certain for that reason.

St. Gregory Palamas stands in an ancient tradition at this point. In His "energies" the Unapproachable God mysteriously approaches man. And this Divine move effects encounter: προοδος εις τα εξω, in the phrase of St. Maximus (Scholia in De Div. Nom., 1: 5).

St. Gregory begins with the distinction between "grace" and "essence": η θεια και θεοποιος ελλαμψις και χαρις ουκ ουσια, αλλ’ ενεργεια εστι Θεου [the Divine and Divinizing illumination and grace is not the essence, but the energy of God; Capita Phys., Theol., etc., 68-9]. This basic distinction was formally accepted and elaborated at the Great Councils in Constantinople, 1341 and 1351. Those who would deny this distinction were anathematized and excommunicated. The anathematisms of the council of 1351 were included in the rite for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in the Triodion. Orthodox theologians are bound by this decision. The essence of God is absolutely αμεθεκτη [incommunicable]. The source and the power of human theosis is not the Divine essence, but the "Grace of God": θεοποιος ενεργεια, ης τα μετεχοντα θεουνται, θεια τις εστι χαρις, αλλ’ ουχ η φυσις του Θεου [the divinizing energy, by participation of which one is divinized, is a divine grace, but in no way the essence of God; ibid. 92-3]. Charis [χαρις] is not identical with the ousia [ουσια]. It is θεια και ακτιστος χαρις και ενεργεια [Divine and uncreated Grace and Energy; ibid., 69]. This distinction, however, does not imply or effect division or separation. Nor is it just an "accident," ουτε συμβεβηκοτος (ibid., 127). Energies "proceed" from God and manifest His own Being. The term προιεναι [proienai, proceed] simply suggests διακρισιν [distinction], but not a division: ει και διενηνοχε της φυσεως, ου διασπαται η του Πνευματος χαρις [the grace of the Spirit is different from the Substance, and yet not separated from; Theophan, p. 940].

Actually the whole teaching of St. Gregory presupposes the action of the Personal God. God moves toward man and embraces him by His own "grace" and action, without leaving that φος απροσιτον [light unapproachable], in which He eternally abides. The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory's theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man's own creaturely being, but by the "energies" of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion with Himself. In fact, the teaching of St. Gregory affects the whole system of theology, the whole body of Christian doctrine. It starts with the clear distinction between "nature" and "will" of God. This distinction was also characteristic of the Eastern tradition, at least since St. Athanasius. It may be asked at this point: Is this distinction compatible with the "simplicity" of God? Should we not rather regard all these distinctions as merely logical conjectures, necessary for us, but ultimately without any ontological significance? As a matter of fact, St. Gregory Palamas was attacked by his opponents precisely from that point of view. God's Being is simple, and in Him even all attributes coincide. Already St. Augustine diverged at this point from the Eastern tradition. Under Augustinian presuppositions the teaching of St. Gregory is unacceptable and absurd. St. Gregory himself anticipated the width of implications of his basic distinction. If one does not accept it, he argued, then it would be impossible to discern clearly between the "generation" of the Son and "creation" of the world, both being the acts of essence, and this would lead to utter confusion in the Trinitarian doctrine. St. Gregory was quite formal at that point.

If according to the delirious opponents and those who agree with them, the Divine energy in no way differs from the Divine essence, then the act of creating, which belongs to the will, will in no way differ from generation (γενναν) and procession (εκπορευειν), which belong to the essence. If to create is no different from generation and procession, then the creatures will in no way differ from the Begotten (γεννηματος) and the Projected (προβληματος). If such is the case according to them, then both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit will be no different from creatures, and the creatures will all be both the begotten (γεννηματα) and the projected (προβληματα) of God the Father, and creation will be deified and God will be arrayed with the creatures. For this reason the venerable Cyril, showing the difference between God's essence and energy, says that to generate belongs to the Divine nature, whereas to create belongs to His Divine energy. This he shows clearly saying, "nature and energy are not the same." If the Divine essence in no way differs from the Divine energy, then to beget (γενναν) and to project (εκπορευειν) will in no way differ from creating (ποιειν). God the Father creates by the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Thus He also begets and projects by the Son and in the Holy Spirit, according to the opinion of the opponents and those who agree with them. (Capita 96 and 97.)

St. Gregory quotes St. Cyril of Alexandria. But St. Cyril at this point was simply repeating St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius, in his refutation of Arianism, formally stressed the ultimate difference between ουσια [ousia, essence] or φυσις [physis, substance], on the one hand, and the βουλησις [boulesis, will], on the other. God exists, and then He also acts. There is a certain "necessity" in the Divine Being, indeed not a necessity of compulsion, and no fatum, but a necessity of being itself. God simply is what He is. But God's will is eminently free. He in no sense is necessitated to do what He does. Thus γεννησις [gennesis, generation] is always κατά φυσιν [kata physin, according to essence], but creation is a βουλησεος εργον [bouleseos ergon, energy of the will] (Contra Arianos III. 64-6). These two dimensions, that of being and that of acting, are different, and must be clearly distinguished. Of course, this distinction in no way compromises the "Divine simplicity." Yet, it is a real distinction, and not just a logical device. St. Gregory was fully aware of the crucial importance of this distinction. At this point he was a true successor of the great Athanasius and of the Cappadocian hierarchs.

It has been recently suggested that the theology of St. Gregory, should be described in modern terms as an "existentialist theology." Indeed, it differed radically from modern conceptions which are currently denoted by this label. Yet, in any case, St. Gregory was definitely opposed to all kinds of "essentialist theologies" which fail to account for God's freedom, for the dynamism of God's will, for the reality of Divine action. St. Gregory would trace this trend back to Origen. It was the predicament of the Greek impersonalist metaphysics. If there is any room for Christian metaphysics at all, it must be a metaphysics of persons. The starting point of St. Gregory's theology was the history of salvation: on the larger scale, the Biblical story, which consisted of Divine acts, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and His glorification through the Cross and Resurrection; on the smaller scale, the story of the Christian man, striving after perfection, and ascending step by step, till he encounters God in the vision of His glory. It was usual to describe the theology of St. Irenaeus as a "theology of facts." With no lesser justification we may describe also the theology of St. Gregory Palamas as a "theology of facts."

In our own time, we are coming more and more to the conviction that "theology of facts" is the only sound Orthodox theology. It is Biblical. It is Patristic. It is in complete conformity with the mind of the Church.

In this connection we may regard St. Gregory Palamas as our guide and teacher, in our endeavour to theologize from the heart of the Church.


1. It has been recently suggested that Gnostics were actually the first to invoke formally the authority of an "Apostolic Tradition" and that it was their usage which moved St. Irenaeus to elaborate his own conception of Tradition. D. B. Reynders, "Paradosis: Le proges de l'idee de tradition jusqu'a Saint Irenee," in Recherches de Theologie ancienne et medievale, V (1933), Louvain, 155-191. In any case, Gnostics used to refer to "tradition."

2. Paul Maas, ed.. Fruhbyzantinische Kirchenpoesie, I (Bonn, 1910), p. 24.

3. Louis Bouyer, "Le renouveau des etudes patristiques," in La Vie Intellectuelle, XV (Fevrier 1947), 18.

4. Mabillon, Bernardi Opera, Praefatio generalis, n. 23 (Migne, P. L., CLXXXII, c. 26).

5. Cf. M. Lot-Borodine, "La doctrine de la deification dans I'Eglise grecque jusqu'au XI siecle," in Revue de l'histoire des religions, tome CV, Nr I (Janvier-Fevrier 1932), 5-43; tome CVI, Nr 2/3 (Septembre-Decembre 1932), 525-74; tome CVII, Nr I (Janvier-Fevrier 1933), 8-55.

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