and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s
topic is Palamism Explained In Twelve Minutes Or Less.
days ago, a friend of mine sent me a blog entry from
some armchair theologian who thought he had refuted the
teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, by posting a quotation
from St. Basil the Great that had been taken completely
out of context. You know, there is a reason why the
internet is called the world’s biggest vanity press.
with the commemoration of St. Gregory coming up, I
thought this would be a good time to take a look at St.
Gregory’s theology. The first thing we must understand
about Palamism, is that there is absolutely no such
thing. Palamism is the invention of Roman Catholic
thinkers—I will not call them theologians—who wanted to
justify their own heresy by giving what is the undoubted
and traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church an
exotic label, turning it into an historically
conditioned “ism.” All St. Gregory did was to express
the age-old teaching of the Church within the framework
of the contemporary controversy over the nature of
Hesychast methods of prayer. Behind all of the talk
about naval-gazing and seeing lights lay a fundamental
distinction that Orthodox theologians have been making
since at least the time of St. Athanasius.
nutshell, the teaching is this: From the very beginning,
humans have had two very different experiences of God.
On the one hand, God is perceived as being so radically
different, so wholly other from ourselves, that we
cannot even refer to Him using words like being and
existence in an unequivocal and direct manner. “My
thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not your
ways,” says the Lord. The technical term for this sense
of God’s distance from us, is transcendence.
other hand, we humans, at least some of us, have also
experienced God as someone closer to us than our very
selves. Christianity is the religion of Emmanuel, which
means, “God with us.” St. Peter tells us that we are to
become, “partakers of the Divine nature.” The technical
term for the closeness of God is “imminence.”
Orthodoxy is the religion of both/and, not either/or. By
this, I mean that Orthodoxy has always affirmed both the
absolute and unbridgeable transcendence of God, and His
immediate presence and communion with man, even to the
point of making us partakers of His very life.
Heresy, on the other hand, is almost always the religion
of either/or. I have stated before that there are two
kinds of heresy. Enthusiast heresies are connected to
some charismatic figure who decides that he or she has a
special relationship with God and decides to play the
self-anointed prophet. Montanus was one such figure. His
followers were said to have baptized converts in the
name of the Father, the Son, and the Lord Montanus.
Joseph Smith, and most modern charismatics, would fall
into this category, as well.
second type of heresies, and these are far more common,
are the rationalist heresies. Most of the major “isms”
that have afflicted the Church over the centuries, from
Sabelianism to Calvinism, have been of this type.
all of these heresies have in common is the
determination on the part of their heresiarchs to make
the experience of God conform to some rational
structure. In other words, they all assume that God
is supposed to make sense to us.
illustrate with the history of the doctrine of the
Trinity. We know that from the beginning, the Church
confessed her faith in, and baptized, in the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also know that
the Church, being the new Israel, believed that there
was, and could be, only one God, not three. So the
Church confessed that we know the Divine, both as three
distinct persons, and as one eternal and all-powerful
this both/and did not compute with the Roman presbyter,
Sabelius. 1 + 1 + 1 does not equal 1. You see, he was
expecting God to conform to human reason and
mathematical logic. So he solved this logical dilemma by
treating the persons as mere modes of the one God,
rather like God playing different roles at different
times, but always the same God behind the mask.
little later on Arias had the exact same problem, but
since Sabelianism had been vanquished, he had to find a
different solution. So he demoted the Son and the Spirit
to created beings. This left the mathematically simple
unity of the Divine being intact. But, this made a lie
out of the Church’s experience. For she had always
worshipped Christ as God. Thus, Arianism was eventually
the famous homoousios clause of the Nicene
creed does is to affirm that Christ is both a distinct
person from the person of the Father, and is at the same
time, of one being, essence or nature, as the Father. In
other words, the Trinity is both three, and one.
the distinction between the essence and energies of God,
which Roman Catholics like to call Palamism, but
actually runs throughout the history of Orthodox
thought, is nothing more than linguistic convention for
affirming that God is both transcendent, and imminent.
The teaching concerning the uncreated light, which is a
corollary of this distinction, simply affirms that when
the saints experience the glory of God, they are
experiencing nothing less than God, Himself, though He
still remains utterly hidden and unapproachable in His
glory, indeed His grace, are not created intermediaries,
but God, Himself. When man partakes of this grace, he is
quite literally deified, but never, ever, neither in
this life, nor the age to come, does man become
transformed into the nature of God. God is both
participable (if that is a word) according to His
activities or energies, but wholly transcendent by
nature. Man, in turn, becomes deified by grace, yet
remains forever a creature. This is what St. Basil meant
when he said that man was a creature with orders to
who deny this distinction, however, do so on the basis
that it violates the Divine simplicity, which is a
disingenuous way of saying that it violates human
rationality—God must be either/or, not both/and. But the
Divine nature is not, and cannot be, the object of human
cognition. A God that can be comprehended by human
reason is no God at all. Or to put it another way, God
is not subject to the principles of non-contradiction,
or the excluded middle.
treatises, St. Gregory follows a method of argument that
St. Mark the Monk and others had used for centuries. He
asked rhetorically, “What if the either/or crowd is
right?” If the Divine energies or activities are not God,
Himself, but created things, then man can have no real
communion with God. Our relationship with him remains
purely extrinsic. This, of course, is the position of
the Muslims, and also of some forms of Protestantism. We
can never become Gods by grace, or partakers of the
Divine nature, or really joint heirs with Christ. We
remain merely servants.
other hand, if the Divine energies or activities are
identical to the Divine nature, then to participate in
them is to somehow participate in the Divine nature
itself. The only conceivable end of this line of
thinking is pantheism. Indeed, Western Christianity has
vacillated between both conclusions over the course of
the last thousand years.
both of these scenarios, to employ a phrase I used
earlier, make a lie out of the Church’s experience. The
saints knew they were experiencing God, Himself, not
some created intermediary, but they also knew, at the
very same time, just how inexhaustible and
unapproachable this God is, in His innermost self.
we have two choices. We can accept the both/and, and the
paradoxes and logical contradictions that come from it,
or we can sacrifice the living experience of the Church
on the altar of our fallen reason, making God conform to
our standards of rationality.
real problem here, as I have stated before, comes from
the fact that people insist on doing theology with books,
rather than with a prayer rope. There is nothing
esoteric, or even mystical, about the Church’s teaching
on the essence and energies of God. It is simply the
Church’s way of preserving the both/and, and thereby
preserving the possibility that we may discover this
truth for ourselves by following the ecclesial path of
repentance, obedience and prayer.
now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through
the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, of the
blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, and of St. Gregory
Palamas, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich
entrance into His eternal kingdom.