Palamism & Patristics 1

Originally posted 2/8/2011.

Here is a translation of part Fr. Martin Jugie, A.A. (1878-1954), “Palamas, Grégoire,” in: M. Vacant et al., eds., Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, tome XI/2 (Paris 1932), cols. 1761-1763. Many thanks to Dr. Peter Gilbert of De Unione Ecclesiarum for sending me the French text. I added some references, e.g., to St. Thomas Aquinas.

N.B. This translation is finished, thanks be to God!

Did Palamas have a good game in the field of positive theology? Certainly not. But he could fight more easily there than in the field of philosophy, where he was beaten in advance. He could at first, as we said before, hide behind the anthropomorphisms of common language that the Fathers, just like everyone else, have employed, without always explicitly applying the correctives that they put in place. Also, he and his party composed Patristic florigelia full of vague and meaningless passages, which they pulled together by a sophistic and entirely subjective exegesis. These florigelia have no probative value for the system they are intended to support. We are astonished, when browsing through them, by the exegetical blindness of their authors and the aplomb with which they list a [large] number of texts that have nothing to do with their theories. Without doubt, certain Fathers spoke in a rather obscure manner about the Taboric Light. There are, for example, in the homilies of St. John Damascene and St. Andrew of Crete, in the writings of St. Maximus, and in others expressions which, at first glance, appear to favor the new theology in some way; but is only in appearance, and anti-Palamite theologians have had no trouble in dispelling these verbal ambiguities. They all could assemble a great number of passages in which the absolute simplicity of God is expressly taught and the Palamite distinctions are explicitly condemned. Note, for example, an extract from St. Nicephorus, given in the First Refutation of Constantine Copronymus, 41, P.G., t. C, col. 304305, falsely attributed by both parties to St. Theodore Graptos, which recurs constantly in the polemical writings of the period and subjected to tortuous exegesis by Palamas and his followers; several passages from St. Maximus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and others, which Nicephorus Gregoras assembled in his discussion with Nilus Cabasilas, Hist. byzant., b. XXII-XXIV, P.G., t. CXLVIII, col. 13281433.

Palamas especially abused the authority of the Fathers, when he sought to establish a real distinction between the divine essence and its energy from the passages where the Fathers prove, against the heretics, the real distinction of the divine persons among themselves. For him, in fact, the two distinctions go hand in hand and are of the same order. He reasons as follows: if the simplicity of God is not destroyed by the real distinction between the divine persons among themselves, it is no more ruined by the real distinction between the divine essence and its energies and attributes. This reasoning implies another affirmation of our theologian: it is not only the case that the persons differ from each other, but each of them is really distinct from the essence. There is, between the essence and each person, the same distinction and difference that there is between the essence and the energy; cf. the dialogue Theophanes, P.G., t. CL, col. 929A, and Capita theologica, 135, ibid., col. 1216C [Sinkewicz 241]: “τῶν ὑποστάσεων ἑκάστη μήτε οὐσία ἐστὶ μήτε συμβεβηκός;” cf. also his Confession of Faith, P.G., t. CLI, col. 766BC. According to him, just as we say, “ἄλλο ἡ οὐσία καὶ ἄλο ἡ ἐνέργεια”, we must also say “ἄλλο ἡ οὐσία καὶ ἄλλο ἡ ὑπόστασις”. This is the confusion of the absolute and the relative, and further compromises the simplicity of the divine being.

The Hesychast theologian will also find, in the Fathers, texts proclaiming the incomprehensibility of God and conclude therefrom that the divine essence is completely invisible, inaccessible, and imparticipable to creatures, even those deified by grace. He juxtaposes the Scriptural texts that sometimes say that no person has seen God [Jn 1:18], at other times promising face to face vision with Him as He is [1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2]. He deduces from this that God is absolutely invisible in His essence, but that He is visible in His energy. He understands the face to face vision of God as contemplation of something that comes from God, not of God’s essence itself. By this doctrine, he satisfied the aspirations of mystics and promised them the vision of God on earth, that is to say, His light and glory, without falling into Messalianism. From these considerations he deduced the following hermeneutical rule, which he applied equally to texts from Scripture and the Fathers: “When you read that God is incommunicable and inaccessible, understand this of His essence. When you read, however, that He is communicated to creatures, that He is seen face to face, understand this of His energy.” Cf. Theophanes, loc. cit., col. 937D, 938B; Capita theologica, 149, 150, ibid., col. 12241225 [Sinkewicz 255-257]. As we said above, the invisibility of the divine essence, even for the good angels and the elect, is an axiom for Palamas, which a great number of Byzantines uncontroversially admitted with him. This opinion he based on several texts of the Greek Fathers, which one must, without doubt, understand of vision by only natural powers, or of the incomprehensibility properly said of the divine being. As our theologians say, God is seen as a “whole” by the blessed, because He is simple; but He is not seen “wholly” by any creature: totus videtur, sed non totaliter [cf. St. Thomas Aquinas. ST I, q. 12, art. 7, ad 3]. The Byzantines of which we are speaking do not seem to have made this necessary distinction. Palamas drew some support for his theory, and could embarrass those of his opponents who accepted his premise.

He also believed he found support for his theories in the definition of the Sixth Ecumenical Council proclaiming the existence of two natures and two energies [operations] in Jesus Christ, and we saw that the Council of 1351 presented the new doctrine as a development, ἀνάπτυξις, of this definition. This was their reasoning: the Council proclaimed two natures and two energies: if the human energy is really distinct from the human nature, it must also be the case that the divine energy is really distinct from the divine nature; otherwise, the terms of the definition would be meaningless. This argument especially is repeated in Palamite writings.

Finally, our theologian never failed to use other theological rationales sewn from subtle sophistries. He said, for example: “If, in God, the energy does not differ from the essence, then in Him generating, γεννὰν, will be the same thing as creating, ποιεὶν. There will be no difference between the Son and the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, and creatures on the other.” Capita theologica, 96 et. sq., loc. cit., col. 1189 [Sinkewicz 197]. He also triumphed over his opponents by portraying them as pure nominalists, and in saying that they denied that God is an active nature. But St. Maximus had said: “A nature without activity is pure non-being.” Acindynus and Barlaam were therefore atheists. They were also polytheistic, because in saying that the energies of God were created, they united the created and uncreated in a monstrous whole.


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