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Palamism Explained in Twelve Minutes or Less

Clark Carlton

Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is Palamism Explained In Twelve Minutes Or Less.

A few 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.

Well, 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.

In a 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.

On the 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 Emanuel, 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.

The 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 Sabellianism to Calvinism, have been of this type.

What 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.

Let me 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 being.

But this both/and did not compute with the Roman presbyter, Sabellius. 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.

A little later on Arias had the exact same problem, but since Sabellianism 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 worshiped Christ as God. Thus, Arianism was eventually rejected.

All 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.

Now 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 innermost nature.

God’s 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 become God.

Those 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.

In his 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.

On the 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.

Yet 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.

Thus, 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.

The 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.

And 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.

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