St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), archbishop of Thessaloniki (1347-1359), was and is a controversial figure. His experience and teachings of the Uncreated energies of God was severely attacked by Barlaam the Calabrian (who accused him of following the supposedly innovative teachings of St. Nicephorus of Mt. Athos [d. c. 1300]), Gregory Akindynos, Nicephoras Gregoras, and others in his own time. Although his theology was vindicated by several councils in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351, and he was canonized just nine years after his death in 1368, it remained a topic of disagreement. His theology and influence fell into nigh-obscurity from the late sixteenth century practically until the twentieth century, and today there is still disagreement within the Orthodox Church over how to understand his theology and interactions with his opponents, as well as continued debate from outside the Church.
However, for the faithful Orthodox Christian there is no such question: St. Gregory Palamas is undoubtedly a great Father of the Church, fully within the Orthodox Tradition. His theology is a seamless whole with that of all the Fathers who came before and after him. Whereas the Church recognizes heretics to be such because they innovated, She recognizes St. Gregory Palamas to be one of the three great Pillars of Orthodoxy, and his hymns connect him with the three Theologians and the Three Holy Hierarchs. His commemoration on the Second Sunday of Great Lent is understood as a continuation of the First Sunday’s celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In placing him between the Sundays of Orthodoxy and the Cross, the Church “underlines the fact that, in his life and teaching, St. Gregory stands as an unsurpassable witness to the Orthodox Christian faith and a supremely skilled guide to the mystery of the Cross, the vision of Christ in glory.” The Council of 1351 which proclaimed Palamite theology holds ecumenical status and is widely regarded as the Ninth Ecumenical Council. And his troparion leaves no doubt as to his position within the Church: “O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation/ O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians/ O wonder working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace/always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.”
However, it must be emphasized that St. Gregory Palamas was no mere “traditionalist” in the sense of one who simply repeats theological formulae that came before him, but rather he is one who truly entered into the living stream of the Orthodox Tradition, that is, into the Life of the Holy Trinity. Although his writings are replete with Scriptural and Patristics quotations, he did not intellectually develop his theology of the essence and energies in God from a synthesis of those who came before him. To theologize, even based on the great Fathers of the Church, apart from personal experience would ultimately be an exercise in philosophical speculation, but St. Gregory’s beginning point was precisely his own personal experience of the divinizing grace of God. Archbishop Basil Krivosheine makes exactly this point: “He was not a mere compiler if only because the starting point of his theologizing was his own spiritual experience and not only the study of the books of the holy Fathers.” Commenting on the view that monastics must study secular wisdom because knowledge of God comes through the mediation of creatures, the great saint himself does not offer a rebutting philosophical argument, but speaks from a place of experiential intimacy: “I was in no way convinced when I heard such views being put forward, for my small experience of monastic life showed me that just the opposite was the case.”
And not only did St. Gregory’s theology begin with his own experience within the Church, but it is the possibility and reality of this experience which he directly defended against the blasphemies of Barlaam, Akindynos, and Gregoras. Ultimately the very theology and life of the Church was at stake in the Palamite controversy—for theology is, at its height and center, not a collection of dogmatic statements, but it is the Person of Jesus Christ—our great God and Savior, Whom we may know by Divine illumination, to which dogmatic statements point the way. True theology, true spiritual life, is the vision of Christ in glory, and so at the heart of the Orthodox faith also stands the Cross-bearing Christian who has beheld Christ in glory. Of such, St. Gregory states: “We believe what we have been taught by those enlightened by Christ, which they alone know with certainty.” His experiential theology is that of the saints preceding him because they experienced the same Christ. The centrality of such personal experience of the glory of God is underlined by St. Symeon the New Theologian’s statement that whoever does not desire to attain to the vision of Christ is possessed by the devil, and St. Gregory’s own statement that the vision of God “is the only proof of a soul in good health.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Who became incarnate for us, that we might share in His very Life, becoming heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17), and partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). As the great Cappadocian Fathers and St. John Chrysostom ably defended against the Eunomian heresy, the essence of God is incommunicable and is known only by the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and so our own partaking in the divine “nature” is accomplished through the energies of God, which are by nature divine and communicate to us the divine Life. This distinction between the unknowable essence of God and the knowable energies is absolutely essential for maintaining a proper understanding of the Person of Christ and the spiritual life. If in God there is only essence, and His energies are merely created, then there can be no true unmediated union and communion with God, for creation cannot impart to us the Uncreated. Such theology calls into question the entire Incarnate economy of Christ and is akin to Nestorianism in which the Divine and human persons in Christ are united merely by good pleasure, or will, leading to a moralistic soteriology.
But the true Orthodox vision is incomparably greater than this, for the Church has always refused to reduce the perfection of and in Christ. St. Maximus the Confessor writes: “the person who has been deified by grace will be in every respect as God is, except for His very essence.” Commenting on this, Dr. Christopher Veniamin writes: “This means that we have been created to contain the very Life of the Holy Trinity.” Likewise, St. Gregory writes in the Hagioritic Tome: “By means of it (of grace) the entire Godhead is contained in all those who are worthy and all the saints are entirely contained in the Godhead.” Thus, although it is essential to unite our will to God’s, the fullness of theosis, being filled with the Life-giving energies of God, for which God created mankind, is far beyond this, and it is this which St. Gregory ably defended against Barlaam, Akindynos, and Gregoras who all rejected the Orthodox distinction of the essence and energies in God, arguing that divine illumination is either created or it is the substance of God.
St. Gregory’s opponents were concerned with preserving the unknowability of God, which of course St. Gregory agreed with to a point, but they were also concerned with preserving the traditional teaching of God as a simple and non-composite Being in Whom there are no distinctions other than that of the three Hypostases, thus excluding, as they believed, the possibility of eternal, uncreated energies in God. Archbishop Basil Krivosheine writes that this was the main concern of Akindynos and Gregoras, and St. Gregory ascribes it to Barlaam as well in chapter 81 of his 150 Chapters. Of these St. Gregory writes: “They are unaware that it is not acting and energy but being acted upon and the passivity which constitute composition. But God acts without being acted upon and without undergoing change. Therefore, he will not be composite on account of the energy,” and elsewhere “But how does the energy observed in God avoid composition? Because he alone possesses an energy completely void of passion, for by it he is active only but is not also acted upon, neither coming into being nor changing.” Thus, as the three Hypostases in God do not introduce composition, neither does the distinction of the uncreated energies.
In his 150 Chapters St. Gregory demonstrates that the failure to distinguish between the essence and energies in God leads either to atheism or polytheism. He argues that if the energies of God are created then they of necessity belong to a created nature, for as St. John Damascene writes, the energy distinct from the divine substance is a natural one. St. Cyril writes that creation belongs to the divine energy, and so if the energy in God is itself created, then we must seek out an uncreated energy behind it which gave rise to it. If there is but substance in God, then there is no creation, operation, or relation to be found, which means He is not the principle and Lord of the universe, and destroys the trihypostatic Godhead, “And one who is not trihypostatic nor master of the universe is not even God. Therefore, those who thus hold the opinions of Barlaam and Akindynos are atheists.”
And again he writes that if essence and energy are to be conflated then generation and procession, which belong to the essence, will in no way differ from creation, which belongs to the will, and so all of creation will be shown to proceed from God and will be divine as are the Son and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, if the many energies are equated with the essence then there must needs be a multitude of substances—“an opinion which no one of the Christian race has ever uttered or held!” St. Gregory also demonstrates that the theology of Barlaam and Akindynos even leads to the heresy of Eunomius, which had been defeated a thousand years prior! St. Paul writes in Romans 1:20 that the invisible realities of God, namely, his eternal power and divinity, are perceptible to the eye of the mind in created things. If “power” and “divinity” be equated with the divine substance then St. Paul is saying that the substance of God is knowable: “This is the sort of thing you find in the delirious thinking of Barlaam and Akindynos and in the madness of Eunomius before them.”
Furthermore, Barlaam accused St. Gregory of Messalianism—the heresy that God’s substance can be seen, and in this life. Denying the essence-energies distinction, he believed, that to behold a vision of the energies of God, which often manifested as Light, as on Mount Tabor, was in fact a claim to beholding the substance of God. He even went so far as to call the hesychastic contemplation of the Uncreated Light “a sensuous and alluring vision of evil powers.” On this point, all that has been said about the truth and necessity of the distinction of the energies from the essence of God applies, as the Light is a manifestation of God’s energies, and St. Gregory was able to produce many Patristic witnesses to the Uncreated nature of the Light, many of which are provided by Krivosheine, and most notably St. John Damascene’s Homily on the Transfiguration, which Krivosheine notes is remarkably similar to the exposition of St. Gregory.
In the second phase of his attack Barlaam also claimed that the repetitive use of the Jesus Prayer and the bodily and breathing techniques that sometimes accompanied hesychastic prayer relegated the experience of God to the material realm which is unbecoming of the Church’s spiritual teachings. St. Gregory had no patience for any degradation of the body and argued that humans possess the image of God to a greater degree than the angels precisely because they have a body. With a body, humans are able to imitate the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so the participation of the body in prayer is natural, for the height of noetic prayer is nothing less than the vision of Christ in glory, which is the Mystery of the Cross. Bodily techniques, such as uniting in-breathing with the Jesus prayer and confining one’s gaze, support the retention of the mind within the body, which, following St. John Climacus, St. Gregory argues is the mark of true hesychasm. He mainly wrote about these methods simply because they were under attack by Barlaam, but he is clear that they are merely suggestions, mainly for the novice, and they are decidedly secondary to the mind’s ascent to God, and so Barlaam’s claims are seen to possess no true substance.
It is clear from their inability to understand and give assent to the Palamite teachings, that St. Gregory’s theological opponents were not beginning from a point of personal experience but rather were engaged in philosophical exercises. St. Gregory, and all the saints before and after him, know with certainty that the energies of God are eternal and divine because they are divinized by them, which can be accomplished by no creature. The overly-cataphatic approach of the Christian West prevented their understanding and experience of the antinomic God proclaimed by the Christian East. In his second homily on the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies, St. Gregory paints a powerful contrast between theology and philosophy:
Let us consider from a theological and philosophical point of view, things completely free from matter, a subject which the Greeks … called the first philosophy, being unaware of any higher kind of contemplation. Even this, although it contains some truth, is as far removed from the vision of God, and as different from converse with Him, as possessing is distinct from knowing. Saying something about God is not the same as encountering Him. Speaking of God requires that you pronounce words … It also requires all sorts of logical reasoning, compelling arguments, and worldly examples … They may be acquired by the wise men of this present age, even though their lives and souls may not be completely pure. It is absolutely impossible, however, to truly encounter God unless, in addition to being cleansed, we go outside, or rather, beyond ourselves … [and] attain to that unknowing which lies beyond knowledge, that is to say above every kind of much-vaunted philosophy.
Unfortunately the defeat of Barlaam, who ended his days as a Catholic Cardinal, did not bring western theology any closer to the east in this regard. In modern times we see the same attacks, stemming from the same philosophical speculation being leveled against St. Gregory and his theology. Krivosheine refers to a Sébastien Guichardan and an M. Jugie who argue along lines similar to those of Akindynos and Gregoras in regards to the simplicity of God, and in response to Archimandrite (now Met.) Kallistos Ware’s God Hidden and Revealed: The Apophatic Way and the Essence-Energies Distinction both the neo-Thomist Dom Illtyd Trethowan and the future Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offer decidedly philosophical and cataphatic responses.
The main thrust of Trethowan’s article seems to be: “why should God transcend logic?” He rejects the antinomy of the unknowable yet knowable God put forth by Ware because “to say that revelation requires us to hold at the same time two contradictory propositions would be to say that it is meaningless,” and because our awareness of God “is a matter of experience, it cannot be contradicted by the conclusions of logical arguments.” Following Aquinas, Trethowan rejects the essence-energies distinction and identifies God as Pure Act. It is our awareness of God as identical with His activities that unites us to Him and so we know the Creator in the same way we know creation. He asks why then, should there be a “problem” of the knowledge of God, and “why should it be so often assumed … that our grace-union with God must be a quite peculiar affair, requiring some quite peculiar explanation over and above that union which is the basic character of human experience?” In the face of the Palamite heights, the poverty of his approach and conclusions is obvious, for he presents a Christian experience that seems to be little more than a titillated mind.
Likewise, Rowan Williams, in a rather philosophically technical article that bears the strong feeling of an exercise in self-aggrandizement, attempts to take St. Gregory to task for his many supposed philosophical blunders. He states that Palamas’ poor understanding of Aristotelianism leaves him floundering almost in a state of a-logic, and argues that he uses the terms ousia and energeia inconsistently and thus incoherently. He ends, “Let us be grateful to Palamas for witnessing to his own vision of God as self-sharing love; and let us at least do him the courtesy of not canonizing the confusions of its expressions.” In an article responding to both Trethowan and Williams, Ware notes the error of considering St. Gregory to be a philosophical theologian, for, as we have seen, his beginning point was not philosophy but experience. He also points to St. Gregory’s own admission that his polemical works are not always exact in their verbal expressions, and they need not be, but this is why he has also drawn up a confession of faith which everywhere observes exactness. And responding to William’s claim that Palamas’ theology of “participation” is dangerous for rational theology, Ware offers a clear statement that is a pertinent response to both Trethowan and Willaims: “The Greek Fathers did not aim to expound a ‘rational theology’ … They did, however believe that their theology was founded on the nous or spiritual understanding, and likewise that it was founded on Holy Scripture,” thus drawing them back to the experientially-defined theology of St. Gregory and all the saints.
As aforementioned, St. Gregory Palamas was discovered anew in the twentieth century thanks in large part to the work of scholars such as Krivocheine, Crestou, and Meyendorff. But it is in response to Fr. John Meyendorff’s works on St. Gregory in French: Introduction a l'etude de Gregoire Palamas and his translations of the Triads, that Fr. John Romanides wrote his work Notes on the Palamite Controversy which corrects many of the errors of Fr. Meyendorff and places St. Gregory in his proper hesychastic context. Although Fr. Meyendorff certainly is quite favorable towards St. Gregory, and considers him no innovator, Fr. Romanides believes he is presenting him as an original thinker over and against the stale repetitions of Akindynos and Gregoras. For Meyendorff, the debate between St. Gregory and Barlaam was not one between East Roman and Franco-Latin theology but rather one between Byzantine humanists and a sizable segment of Byzantine monastics. He refers to Barlaam as a humanist, Platonist, and nominalist, although, as Fr. Romanides points out, Platonism and nominalism are mutually exclusive, and Fr. Meyendorff unfortunately makes no attempt at explaining how Barlaam could be both, although he believes that the supposed neo-Platonism of St. Dionysius is the basis for his nominalism! In this light, he believes that St. Gregory was actually correcting the Areopagite, which implies that Barlaam was actually fairly close to understanding St. Dionysius.
For a full corrective to Fr. Meyendorff’s admirable attempt it is best to read the entirety of Fr. John Romanides’ work, but it does provide an occasion for Fr. John to properly speak about the heart of Palamite theology—the vision of Christ in glory and union with God. For St. Gregory, in the state of actual prayer, the noetic faculty is liberated from the influences of the body and discursive thought by the Holy Spirit, but these faculties are themselves dominated by the hesychast's unceasing prayer “in such a fashion that they are spiritually cleansed and inspired and at the same time may engage in their normal activities.” This is precisely what Barlaam contended strongly against, for for him spiritual things do not transcend human reason, and the transcendence of the body and soul in ecstasy remains a thing of the intellect, whereas for Palamas it is supra-intellectual. Here we again see that the Orthodox vision of theosis is no mere union of wills but rather involves the transfiguration of the whole man. That this is God’s will for us is made known by Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Fr. Romanides points out that, against Barlaam’s claim that the glory on Mount Tabor was seen merely by the Apostles’ senses and is therefore inferior to intellectual revelation, St. Gregory argues that this vision in fact transcends both the senses and intellect, being simultaneously a knowing and an unknowing in which the entirety of the human person participates. Whereas Christ’s body, as the source of glory by virtue of the Incarnation, illumined the Apostles from without, it now illumines the initiated Christian from within. Following St. Dionysius, St. Gregory argues that this vision of the glory of Christ is synonymous with union with Christ and theosis, which is the participation in His Life. This is the height to which our great God and Savior calls, which St. Gregory nobly and ably defended.
Fr. John Romanides writes that the basis for Latin theology is the belief that every level of knowledge of God is rational. But as we have seen, those who begin with rational philosophical speculation, from the time of Barlaam until today, end in denying the crucial distinction between the essence and uncreated energies of God, which preserves both the transcendence and unknowability of God, and the Christian’s possibility at experiencing direct and unmediated participation in the very Life of God. It is from this point that St. Gregory began, and it is this point which he ardently defended against a multitude of attacks. The Christian is not called simply to know about God or to behave in a moral way, but is called to be literally filled with the Life-giving energies of God and to thus take on the Life of the Godhead, in all respects save for nature. Speaking of the Most Holy Theotokos, whom he identifies as the first hesychast who combines and multiplies every virtue within herself, and in whom is no deficiency at all, St. Gregory writes:
Through Him who provides for the angels you have fed us on the true heavenly and incorruptible food. You have made men live the same life as angels, or rather, you have made them worthy of greater privileges, in that you conceived, of the Holy Spirit, the theandric Form, and mysteriously gave Him birth, linking man’s nature to the divine nature and rendering it, as it were, equally divine, in inexpressible fashion.
To such may we all attain by the indwelling grace of God.
* * *
* Krivochéine, Archevêque Basile. ‘The Ascetic and Theological Teaching of Gregory Palamas.’ Eastern Churches Quarterly 4 (1938, reprinted 1954), 1-67.
* Mantzarides, George. ‘Tradition and Renewal in the Theology of Saint Gregory Palamas.’ Eastern Churches Review 9,1-2 (1977), 1-18.
* Pseudo-Dionysius. "Mystical Theology." Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem. New York: Paulist, 1987. The Classics of Western Spirituality.
* Romanides, John S. ‘Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics.’ Greek Orthodox Theological Review 6 (1961/62), 186-205; and 9 (1963/64), 225-70, also available online at http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.15.en.notes_on_the_palamite_controversy.01.htm.
* St. Maximus the Confessor, Letters to Thalassius 22, PG 90:320.
* St. Gregory Palamas, Hagioritic Tome, PG 150, 1229D, available in translation at https://sites.google.com/site/thetaboriclight/hagioretic.
* —Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. Edited and translated from the original Greek, with an introduction and notes by Christopher Veniamin. Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009.
* —Saint Gregory Palamas: The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. Edited and translated by Robert Sinkewicz, Studies and Texts 83. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1988.
* —The Triads. Edited with an introduction by John Meyendorff, and translated by Nicholas Gendle. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press: Mahwah, New Jersey, 1983.
* Trethowan, Dom Illtyd. ‘Irrationality in Theology and the Palamite Distinction.’ Eastern Churches Review 9,1-2 (1977), 19-26.
* Veniamin, Dr. Christopher. Patristics 2 class lecture 11/7/12, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
* —‘Saint Gregory Palamas: His Theological Perspective,’ Delivered at the Clergy Continuing Education Symposium, St. Tikhon’s Theological Journal, Vol. 3 (2005, actually published 2007), 1–16.
* Veniaminov, V. "On the Life and Theological Heritage of St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica" Part Two. Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate no 3 (1985): 70-76.
* Ware, K. T. ‘God Hidden and Revealed: The Apophatic Way and the Essence-Energies Distinction.’ Eastern Churches Review 7,2 (1975), 125-136.
* Williams, R. D. ‘The Philosophical Structures of Palamism.’ Eastern Churches Review 9,1-2 (1977), 27-44.