Work on St. Maximus

April 28, 2009

Since Easter, I have been busy working for a woman who has finished a translation of a work by St. Maximus the Confessor, and who plans to publish it; I have been hired to check the translation. It probably is best not to mention the name of the woman or of the work. I have been finding the text (mostly a series of biblical and patristic comments) extremely interesting, although the translation has needed a lot of correction, and Maximus’s Greek is notoriously difficult. The work makes clear Maximus’s deep indebtedness to the Greek philosophical tradition, showing the very subtle ways in which he integrates that tradition with Christian theology and with a reading of Scripture. For instance, in his understanding of spiritual progress, he continually draws upon the distinction between ethics, natural philosophy, and theology (ontology) that Aristotle had made some eight or nine centuries earlier. Natural philosophy corresponds to a specific stage in spiritual life: in one place Maximus says that, although we were created so that we should start with the cause of all things and descend from there to understand things of experience in the light of their cause, we became entranced by the things of sense perception and took them as ends in themselves, as things no longer implying a reference to their transcendent source. What Maximus calls “natural contemplation,” φυσικὴ θεωρία, is the process of raising up the mind, through the things of sense perception, to their cause; it is a way restoring to the senses their right use.

In one difficult passage I was reading yesterday, Maximus considers a text from St. Gregory the Theologian, which asks how a word is begotten in one mind and yet begets a word in another mind. Maximus approaches the question, first by noting that only God is perfectly free and simple; everything else, having its being from God, exists as a combination of essence and quality (or potentiality, or accident). Then Maximus seems to speak of mind as, in some sense, unbegotten (or ungenerated) and, in another sense, as begetting itself, or begetting a word in itself; the passage is sufficiently obscure that the editor proposes an alternative reading for part of the text. But it occurred to me, in reading it, that what Maximus may be speaking about in the passage is what Aristotle called “active” and “passive” mind. In De anima, III.5, Aristotle distinguishes a sense in which mind creates the forms from a sense in which mind receives the forms of things. I have never been entirely sure what Aristotle means by this distinction — it is at least clear that Aristotle does not mean that the perceptual world depends upon human subjectivity for its reality* — but it does seem to me that that is the thought that St. Gregory’s question has raised in St. Maximus’s mind.

Anyway, if I have not been posting much to this blog, it is because I am supposed to be getting this work done by the end of April, i.e., in two or three days, and I still have a long way to go.

*My guess is that what Aristotle means is that the common intelligibility of things, and the common intelligibility of language, implies a transcendent source, something actively making the world intelligible.

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15 Responses to “Work on St. Maximus”

  1. Fr Paul Says:

    It is interesting to note that Maximus not only talks of divine simplicity, but that he does so in terms very reminiscent of Aquinas. For Thomas, God’s simplicity means that He is pure act, without any unrealised potency existing in Him. Maximus, as you read him, tells us that God is unlike creatures in that they, and not He, exist as “a combination of essence and quality (or potentiality, or accident)”.

    This is all the more interesting in that our friends over at Energetic Procession insist that the notion of divine simplicity is an erroneous, Western one, resulting from the baleful influence of philosophical categories of thought on Augustine, and through him on the Western tradition. Moreover, for them Maximus is not merely a theologian of impeccable orthodox credentials, but he seems to be their overreaching frame of reference, THE representative par excellence of Byzantine Orthodoxy. I would be interested to know what they make of this passage.

  2. bekkos Says:

    Fr. Paul,

    Of course, one problem is that they, and other readers of this blog, can’t yet read the passage, because the book I am revising is not yet published, and I doubt that the book’s author wants me to be putting her work onto the internet at this point. But, for the passage in question at least, I can supply my own translation. The original Greek goes like this:

    Ἐρώτησις ἀπόρου ἐκ τοῦ Περὶ εὐταξίας λόγου τοῦ ἁγίου Γρηγορίου τοῦ θεολόγου: πῶς λόγος νοῦ γέννημα καὶ γεννᾷ λόγον ἐν ἄλλῳ νοΐ; Περὶ ποίου ἄρα λέγει λόγου, τοῦ ἐνδιαθέτου ἢ τοῦ προφορικοῦ;

    Φασὶν οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν μὴ εἶναι τὸ ἄφετον καὶ ἁπλοῦν κατὰ τὴν οὐσίαν ἢ μόνον τὸ θεῖον, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα πάντα, ὅσα μετὰ θεὸν καὶ ἐκ θεοῦ τὸ εἶναι ἔχει, ἐξ οὐσίας καὶ ποιότητος ἤτουν δυνάμεως εἶναι, τουτέστιν ἐξ οὐσίας καὶ συμβεβηκότος. Εἰ δὲ τοῦτο. …

    Here is my translation of this:

    A question concerning a difficulty from St. Gregory the Theologian’s oration Concerning Right Order (i.e., or. 32, 27, PG 36, 205A): “How does a word, the offspring of a mind, beget a word in another mind?” What sort of word is he talking about, then, the internal kind or the expressed kind?

    Our fathers state that nothing is free and simple according to essence except the divine alone, whereas all other things, which have their being after God and from God, are from essence and quality (or potentiality), that is to say, from essence and accident. And if this….

    That’s about all I think I should put here, and, as I said before, I don’t think at this point that I should be identifying what work by St. Maximus this is from. There probably is little point in raising a debate over the meaning of the passage before the entire work is made available; I simply thought it was worth noting that Maximus is a philosophically very astute and self-conscious writer, who does not reject what is true in Greek philosophy but, rather, incorporates it into his Christian thinking in a remarkable way. In the brief passage translated above, he accepts, as a traditional Christian premise, the notion of divine simplicity and the non-simplicity of all that is not divine; he says this is a teaching that has been passed down from “our fathers” (by which, he certainly does not mean Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, but the fathers of the Church); nevertheless, in stating this teaching, he uses Aristotelian language.

    Perhaps at some point this book will be published, and I will be able to provide more precise citations. For the time being, I think I ought to leave it at that.


  3. photios Says:

    It is not that Maximus uses the term. Pretty much all the Fathers use the term simplicity. The question is what they mean by the term. To assume they mean the same thing based on terminology is to make the word-concept fallacy. In Aquinas, simplicity operates, as if it were, a grand equal sign, where attributes are identical to the divine essence not only individually but also severally and with each other. Aquinas operating on a One-Many dialectical opposition regarding the oneness of the divine essence vis-a-vis the many divine attributes, has then, the synthesis or reconciliation of all distinctiveness as an epistemic pointer to the sameness in reality (God): They are all really the same thing IN God and only individuated in that which is really individuated creatures.

    Now, in Maximos he does not operate with such a dialectic of opposition and then synthesis. Rather he operates in a both/and dialetic. Simplicity does not have the same philosophical import as it does with Aquinas running congruent with Hellenistic philosophy. Simplicity is a theological symbol for God’s wholeness in divinity (whereas in humanity, each person does not exhaust humanity in its fullness). Every person of the Trinity is wholly or simply divinity without partition or diminution, and every Operation is wholly divinity without partition or diminution. But the difference is not that every operation or energy, or attribute is *really* the same thing. This is why men like Dionysios, Maximus, and John Eriugena talk in contradictions with respect to God (Hincmar and Ratramnus thought this with respect Eriugena, but they just didn’t understand the doctrine they were criticizing). Let me give you an example from Eriugena’s Periphyseon:

    “For just as God is both beyond all things and in all things — for He Who only truly is, is the essence of all things, and while He is whole in all things He does not cease to be whole beyond all things, whole in the world, whole around the world, whole in the sensible creature, whole in the intelligible creature, whole creating the universe, whole created in the universe, whole in the whole of the universe and whole in its parts, since He is both the whole and the part, just as He is neither the whole nor the part — in the same way human nature in its own world (in its own subsistence) in its own universe and in its invisible and visible parts is whole in itself, and whole in its whole, and whole in its parts, and its parts are whole in themselves and whole in the whole.”

    -John Scotus Eriugena Periphyseon, IV.759a-b

    Now Maximus,

    The logoi which are in beings, in the infinity of which it contemplates the energies of God, then, to speak truly, it reproduces the numerous and infinite differences in the divine energies which it perceives. Then, as regards the employment of scientific inquiry (episthmonikhs erevnhs) into that which is really true, for reasons that one may readily appreciate (eikotws), it (the intellect) will find the power of any such inquiry [to be] ineffective and its method useless, for it has no means of understanding how God Who is truly none of the things that exist, and Who in the strict sense is all things, and yet beyond them all, [exists] in each logos of all particular things and in all the logoi together whereby all things exist. If, therefore, in a proper sense, every divine energy properly signifies God indivisibly, wholly and entirely through itself, in each thing according to the logos—whatever it may be—whereby it exists, who is capable of conceiving and of saying exactly how, being wholly and entirely and altogether common to all and yet altogether particularly present in each of these realities, God is without part and division, without [thereby] being diversely distributed in the infinite differences of these realities in which He exists as Being, and without thereby being contracted according to the particular existence of each individual [logos], and also without fusing the differences of these realities into the sole and unique totality of them all, but on the contrary that He is truly all in all, He Who never abandoned His own simplicity [which is] without parts? — Ambigua 22, PG 91:1257A-B

    And Palamas,

    “Thus, neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause. But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential. As Basil the Great says, “The guarantee of the existence of every essence is its natural energy which leads the mind to the nature.” (Ep. 139, 6-7) And according to St. Gregory of Nyssa and all the other Fathers, the natural energy is the power which manifests every essence, and only nonbeing is deprived of this power; for the being which participates in an essence will also surely participate in the power which naturally manifests that essence…But since God is entirely present in each of the divine energies, we name Him from each of them, although it is clear that He transcends all of them. For, given the multitude of divine energies, how could God subsist entirely in each without any division at all; and how could each provide Him with a name and manifest Him entirely, thanks to indivisible and supernatural simplicity, if He did not transcend all these energies?…The superessential essence of God is thus not to be identified with the energies, even with those without beginning; from which it follows that it is not only transcendent to any energy whatsoever, but that it transcends them “to an infinite degree and an infinite number of times” (Cent. gnost. I.7), as the divine Maximus says.” –Triads III:2:7-8

    The reason that Eriugena speaks in this contradiction of a whole-part or part-whole God, is as Maximus says, that the human mind cannot comprehend how God is wholly in each and every operation. Whole because of the fullness of deity. “Partly” because each and every energy is not the same “thing” in God. The both/and dialectic serves as a transcendental pointer that God is beyond any concept of categorization. For Aquinas, the human mind can’t comprehend how what is differented in the human mind is the dialectical opposite and all the same thing in God.

    The difference is how they use the principle of distinction and dialectic. Dialectic for the West became the basis of categorization of this OR that based on the principle of non-contradiction. For the Orthodox Fathers dialectic was used as a transcedental pointer for all categorization. This is saturated in our hymnography (e.g. indivisibly divided).


  4. bekkos Says:

    Given that my work revising the lady’s Maximus translation is now overdue, and given that that work takes precedence over blogging, I will refrain from replying to this and other comments until such time as I get it finished. Others are free to pitch in.

    For the present, I would say, simply, that I do not see Maximus using the term “dialectic” anywhere, nor does Aquinas use that term so far as I know, and I would hesitate to posit a disagreement between these two theologians using such a notion as the basis of one’s analysis. It is not clear, to me at least, that divine simplicity in fact functions in Aquinas as a “grand equal sign,” negating any difference between divine attributes. At least, Aquinas goes to a great deal of trouble to explain what he means by divine justice, divine goodness, divine knowledge, etc., and one would think he would not bother to do this if all these terms had for him exactly the same meaning. It does seem clear that, for both Maximus and Aquinas, divine simplicity can be expressed in the Aristotelian terms of substance and attribute: for everything that is not God, substance differs from its attributes, for God, these do not differ. God is his own goodness, his own justice, and his own being. That is, I think, the simple point Fr. Paul wanted to draw attention to. What it means for God to be his own goodness, his own justice, and his own being, is a very large question, and not the sort of question I feel like entering into at a time when I have other work to do.


  5. “It is not clear, to me at least, that divine simplicity in fact functions in Aquinas as a “grand equal sign,” negating any difference between divine attributes.”

    Of course Aquinas thinks that they are formally distinct in the mind of the individual so conceived, but they are not formally distinct in God. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states: “and that while truth, goodness, wisdom, holiness and other attributes, as we conceive and define them express perfections that are formally distinct, yet as applied to God they are all ultimately identical in meaning and describe the same ultimate reality — the one infinitely perfect and simple being.”

    That is precisely what I wish to highlight. And this is where Maximus and Aquinas are not saying the same thing with regards to simplicity. A much better comparison could be made between Scotus and Maximus, with some very notable differences still: Scotus thinks that although the attributes are formally distinct in God, individually they are identical to the divine essence. For Maximus, they are not identical to the divine essence, either individually or severally. Some of your presentation regarding simplicity (on your comments and other posts) also equivocates on ‘is’. This can be used as the principle of identity or it can be used as the principle of predication. The two are not the same.


  6. Fr. Maximus Says:


    Is this work the Ad Thalassium? Because I have been working on a translation of it as well. If this is the case, maybe we should get in touch (no point in redundancy.)

    In Christ,
    Fr. Maximus

  7. Fr. Maximus Says:

    Actually, it looks more like the Ambiguum. In any case, I would be interested in if you can comment on that.

  8. photios Says:

    Surely you understand what I mean by ‘dialetic.’ It doesn’t really matter if they use the term, because everybody uses dialectic. When we say an orange is not an apple, we are engaging in dialectic: the use of the principle of non-contradiction.

    What I mean by how the Fathers use dialectic (and very carefully so) is nicely paraphrased by you here:

    “The character of true theology preserves the antinomy of knowing and not-knowing that characterizes man’s dealings with God. God is unknowable and ineffable, yet He has revealed Himself and we speak His name. The antinomy of apophasis and kataphasis reflects that of knowing and not-knowing, and is itself necessarily a part of true theology.” — Peter Gilbert

    You seem like a man that loves music and I am sure that you are aware that in our hymnography we use paradoxical and antinomical statements to profess what we believe is unexplainable with human language, hence the both/and dialectic: God is indivisbly divided, glory and glories, Ancient of Days and Wellspring of Youth, etc. like statements.


  9. bekkos Says:


    Now that my revision of the lady’s translation of St. Maximus is finished, I will attempt to address some of your points.

    First, with regard to “dialectic.” You overestimate my powers of apprehension if you assume that I “surely” understand what you mean by the word. Although you say that it is dialectic by which we assert that an apple is not an orange, for my own part, I do not usually see myself as employing dialectic when I go to buy my groceries — perhaps you have a different experience. If you claim that “dialectic” is present in any use of the principle of non-contradiction, you seem to take the word as simply synonymous with “reason and judgement”; that is not, I would suggest, the way the term is normally used, nor is it the way you yourself seem to be using it when you claim that Aquinas operates with a dialectic of “opposition and synthesis” and a “One-Many dialectical opposition regarding the oneness of the divine essence vis-a-vis the many divine attributes” whereas Maximus operates with a “both/and” dialectic. If there is any discernible meaning to your use of the term “dialectic” in these phrases, it seems to mean something like an “overarching argumentative principle,” something that affects, not only the conclusions, but also the manner in which reasoning takes place. If I objected to your use of the word, it was because it seemed to me that, by relying on such descriptions, you allow yourself to assert whatever you like about the agreement or disagreement of holy men without taking the trouble to read them carefully or pay attention to their own language. Since neither Aquinas nor Maximus claims to be using either a “both/and dialectic” or a “dialectic of opposition and synthesis” or, indeed, any sort of “dialectic” at all, and since the word bears more than a slight odor of ill-digested Hegelianism, I suggested that, in attempting to understand what these Christian writers are teaching about God’s being and activity, we refrain from using the term.

    Secondly, I admit that Maximus and Aquinas are different people and have different ways of thinking and expressing themselves. But, from my limited understanding of both of these writers, I cannot claim, as you seem to wish to claim, that the difference between them amounts to a fundamental disagreement over God’s being and relationship to his creation. Maximus is certainly not given to “both/and” thinking when it comes to his disagreement with the Monothelite party, which in his day had political dominance in Constantinople and which was so unhappy with Maximus’s opposition to them that they deprived him of his right hand and his tongue. Nor, on the other hand, is Aquinas someone who has no feeling for the divine mystery, who thinks that God’s being can be rationally explained in the way that a computer program or a chemical formula can be explained. Both of them see God as transcending human understanding; both of them also see the approach to God through the human mind as a legitimate response to God’s gracious activity that draws us to return to him; and both of them, finally, think that Christian teachers have a responsibility to differentiate between true and false doctrine concerning God, and that reason — even using, it seems, Aristotelian conceptions — has a part to play in making this differentiation.

    So far as I can see, the passage from the Ambigua of St. Maximus that you cite contains nothing that Aquinas would find reason to object to. Maximus is saying at least this much, that God is wholly present in all his activities (energies) although, in being so, he neither melds all these activities into one undifferentiated thing nor is he himself in any way divided in being actively present in things in an infinitude of ways. Maximus exclaims that this undivided activity in diverse things surpasses human understanding; surely that exclamation is not an implied condemnation of the theological enterprise Aquinas is engaged in, of faith seeking understanding, any more than is St. Paul’s exclamation concerning the “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33). Are you claiming that Aquinas teaches that God is not actively present in his operations?

    Evidently what you are claiming is that, whereas for Maximus these activities remain separate and distinct, for Aquinas they become secretly merged into one thing, because divine simplicity operates for him as “a grand equal sign.” Your claim seems to be that, for Maximus, both the simple sense of God’s activity and the multiplied sense, in which God has many activities, are equally real, whereas for Aquinas only the simple sense is real, since the divine attributes are for him only formally distinct, whereas “applied to God they are all ultimately identical in meaning and describe the same ultimate reality — the one infinitely perfect and simple being” (as you cite from the Catholic Encyclopedia).

    In spite of the great authority of the Catholic Encyclopedia as a source of contemporary Thomistic interpretation, I would venture to say that its comment about divine attributes being “ultimately identical in meaning” is susceptible to misinterpretation, and you seem to have misinterpreted it.

    One passage from Aquinas that seems pertinent to what you are arguing is the Summa Theologiæ Q. 13, art. 3, which addresses the question, “Whether any name can be applied to God properly?” Probably it is best first to quote him.

    “According to the preceding article, our knowledge of God is derived from the perfections which flow from Him to creatures; which perfections are in God in a more eminent way than in creatures. Now our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and as it apprehends them thus does it signify them by names. Therefore, as to the names applied to God, there are two things to be considered — viz., the perfections themselves which they signify, such as goodness, life, and the like, and their mode of signification. As regards what is signified by these names, they belong properly to God, and more properly than they belong to creatures, and are applied primarily to Him. But as regards their mode of signification, they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification befits creatures.”

    The first thing that I would point out here is that Aquinas sees names such as “goodness,” “life,” etc., when applied to God, as deriving, according to their mode of signification, from our experience as created beings. In our experience as creatures, we see some things as better, more perfect, than others; and we make use of the words gained from our experience of these perfections when speaking of God, from whom we understand these perfections to flow. In saying this, I think Aquinas is effectively saying the same thing St. Basil had said nine hundred years earlier in his quarrel with Eunomius: Eunomius had thought that we have an innate knowledge of God’s essential being, which he defined as ἀγένητος, “ingenerate” or beginningless; Basil, on the contrary, thought that the meaning of the terms we apply to God is derived for us from experience, that we gain through experience what he calls an ἐπίνοια, a concept, of a certain quality, that we then attribute to God, and that, because all our language about God is rooted thus in human experience, we cannot give a word like ἀγένητος a privileged, exclusive place, as though it alone were a complete and adequate designation of God’s being and as though every other term, if it means “God,” must really mean ἀγένητος. Note that Basil neither denies that God is ἀγένητος, nor does he deny that God is “good,” “wise,” “just,” and all the other predicates that are employed to speak of God. What he denies is that any of these terms, or all of these terms together, suffice to designate God’s transcendent being — we cannot state a “definition” of God. Because we cannot state a definition of God’s essential being, we cannot claim, as Eunomius claims, that, because the Son has the Father as his eternal source, the Son accordingly does not share in the Father’s essential being. We have to rely on those things which God has actually revealed to us, one of which is that Jesus Christ is the true Son and image of the Father, that he is God in truth, which implies that he and the Father share one, common nature and essence.

    In none of this does Basil deny the simplicity of God, or the real identity of God with his attributes. A passage from Adversus Eunomium II. 29 illustrates this:

    “But moreover, as to the objection that God would appear manifestly composite if one did not take ‘light’ to be the same as ‘ingenerate,’ we can say this in reply: if we were to take ‘ingenerate’ as a part of substance, there would then be room for the reasoning that says that that which is constituted of various elements is composite. But if we posit light, or life, or the good as the substance of God (since he is in fact wholly light, and wholly life, and wholly good), and if life has ‘ingeneracy’ as a corollary, why would he not be incomposite, he who is simple in substance? For the modes indicative of his particularity do not, in fact, adversely affect the rationale of simplicity.” (SC 305, p. 123; PG 29, 640B.)

    Note here what Basil is saying. God, because of his simplicity, is wholly light, wholly life, and wholly good. The terms “light,” “life,” “good,” do not denote a part of God’s being, but denote who God is (“I am the Life,” Jesus says, not simply “I have Life”). In one sense, therefore, to the extent that all of these terms denote who God is, they all “mean the same thing” — i.e., they mean God. But that does not mean that “life,” “light,” “good,” “wise,” “just,” “immortal,” and all the rest are all synonymous terms. They “mean the same thing” in the sense that, applied to God, they have the same, divine referent — the one, simple, divine essence, shared coequally by the three divine Persons. But neither Basil, nor Maximus, nor Aquinas maintains either that these attributes carry all the same meaning in terms of the words’ content, nor do they maintain, or imply, that, because these words have a proper, transcendent application to God, therefore their use when applied to creatures is deprived of reality or distinctness. For all of them, when a created being exhibits light, life, goodness, justice, and so on, it is participating in God’s perfections, and these perfections are genuinely many. Every good gift comes down to us from the Father of lights.

    I suspect you will answer all this by saying that I have completely missed your point. If you do think that I have completely missed your point, please be so good as to state clearly what your point is, and how you understand what St. Maximus says, when he states that God is not compounded of essence and quality, or potentiality, or accident. As for myself, I think I have said enough for one day.


  10. photios Says:

    I’m not sure why you mention Hegelianism (though that idea is impossible without Platonism before him), since what I know about dialectic is from reading Greeks. Namely this one:

    Enneads I:3:4:2-9, , Loeb Classical Library, p. 158-159: “[Dialectic] is the science which can speak about everything in a reasoned and orderly way, and say what it is and how it differs from other things and what it has in common with them; in what class each thing is and where it stands in that class, and if it really is what it is, and how many really existing things there are, and again how many non-existing things, different from real beings. It discusses good and not good, and the things that are classed under good and its opposite, and what is eternal and not eternal, with certain knowledge about everything and not mere opinion.”

    In other words, to use your grocerey shopping analogy, dialectic is descriptive of what happens when you have the perception (ennoia) of differentiation of things. We can say what something it is and what it is not based on that perception.

    Notice that Plotinus views dialectic as classing things in an either/or opposition and that dialectic is a science, and for Plotinus, this science of dialectic, if employed correctly is not mere opinion. Of course, I agree with all that as far as “science” goes.

    Now onto Aquinas. Aquinas raises in the first article of the Summa that “sacred doctrine” is a science, so it is not surprising that we would find dialectic being applied in understanding theology (theoria). In fact, we do,

    “Things which are opposed in idea, are themselves opposed to each other. But the idea of “one” consists in indivisibility; and the idea of “multitude” contains division. Therefore “one” and “many” are opposed to each other.”

    Summa Theologiae Ia. Q.11 A.2

    Now this is significant because it is in the section on divine unity before we’ve even gotten to those sections of the summa on the concept of person or the Trinity. If I were an Avicenna or Moses Maimonides, I’d be content in stopping right there.

    You’ve raised the question of my ‘misunderstanding’ of the Thomists in the Catholic Encyclopedia. I would assert the contrary, since I learned from my Catholic eductation that analogical predication falls out from the idea that God is absolutely simple and not the other way around (as you seem to suppose). You are correct to note that the divine attributes as predictated of God are all true, and the section you quote from the Summa proves that Aquinas believes our mode of employment of the attributes is faulty because “they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification befits creatures.” This is so because God’s essence is wholly One and the divine attributes are many. They are opposed; One vis-a-vis Many. The reconciliation of that opposition is that they are all the same thing in God, and only epistemically distinguished in the mind of rational creatures. *Simplicity serves to explain analogical predication and not the converse.* Fr. David Balas beat that into my head until I understood it. Where Balas and I debated was whether or not, THAT understanding is in Gregory of Nyssa, and I think exegetically I had the better argument that it was not.

    Both/And dialectic: This is another description of when we affirm terms that are contradictions (opposed) about something. Like when we state that God is “indivisibly divided” we are affirming two terms that are in opposition about God. There is no reconcilliation in making that differentiation into absolute unity, but to express that God must be beyond that opposition: “He is both the whole and the part, just as He is neither the whole nor the part” – Eriugena. God is ultimately beyond any affirmation and negation.

    “In none of this does Basil deny the simplicity of God, or the real identity of God with his attributes.”

    I think you are contradicting yourself here and what you had said previously that “we cannot state a “definition” of God.”

    To use the principle of identity is to make that kind of paragraph or circumscription of God, and that is precisely what Eunomius did:

    (1) The divine essence is identical to ingenerate.

    (2) Only the Father is ingenenerate.

    (3) Ergo, the Son is not ingenerate.

    Hence, the Son is not the same essence as the Father.

    I see nothing wrong with that argument given (1) and (2). I submit, this is why you have to be careful with identity claims or you will box yourself into a corner or perhaps lessen the impact of the meaning of identity (but then identity no longer means identity).

    I do not see your point from the Basil quote, nor do I see the principle of identity being used in the text amongst the divine names and the divine essence. Eunomius’ objection is if you don’t take ingeneracy and life as identical you are left with the idea of a composite God. But that is same objection used of my view of simplicity.

    I’ll need to look at the Greek text here more clearly, since Basil (and Nyssa) state very clearly in other places that as far back as we can epistemically touch God in the schema of erga — energeia — dynamis — ousia is dynamis.

    “In one sense, therefore, to the extent that all of these terms denote who God is, they all “mean the same thing” — i.e., they mean God.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by God here. Does this mean Father is the same thing as life? Does this mean that the divine essence is the same thing as life? Is person the same thing as life? Is divine essence the same thing as life? By the transitive rule, is divine person the same thing as divine essence? It’s helpful to know as to avoid equivocation.

    “please be so good as to state clearly what your point is, and how you understand what St. Maximus says, when he states that God is not compounded of essence and quality, or potentiality, or accident.”

    That issue has never been the basis of my dispute on divine simplicity. I do not believe that the divinity is or has any accidents. This perhaps is where your language about all the attributes as being the “same thing” with God as a referrent can be used (barring the clearing up of equivocal language). God does not acquire attributes in the sense of becoming. The statement “I have life,” has that sense of becoming. “I am life” or “Jesus is life” does not have that sense. But that does not therefore mean that The Son and Life are identical. I submit that they are not and this is why I make the argument here and elsewhere that St. Maximus does not make Persons and attributes identical, or persons and essences identical, or operations and essences identical.


  11. bekkos Says:


    With respect to what you learned from Fr. David Balas, who beat into your head the axiom that simplicity explains analogical predication and not vice versa, that is, I think, true in one sense and not true in another. It is true in the sense that all perfections come from God and exist unitedly in him, as not being other than what he is. But it is not true if it is meant to describe the empirical process of coming to know God. Aquinas is adamant that our knowledge of God begins with experience — that is, indeed, the basis for his rejection of Anselm’s ontological proof. We cannot, for Thomas, start with an a priori definition of the word “God” and prove God’s existence out of it — not because existence is not in fact implied by what God is, but because, as finite creatures, we lack the kind of intuitive understanding of what God is that God himself possesses (ST I, Q. 2, a. 1). Reflection about God necessarily begins with reflection upon one’s creatureliness; it begins by recognizing that the existence and motion of things, and the beauty and goodness perceivable in things, the moral and natural order perceivable in the world, are not self-explanatory, but require an originating and exemplary cause. Aquinas, as a good Aristotelian, knows that one has to begin with sense experience, although he also knows that one must not end there. In any case, my point was that this a posteriori order of theology that is seen in Aquinas is seen also in St. Basil the Great, and has, indeed, much to do with how Basil counters Eunomius. Both Basil and Aquinas affirm divine simplicity, but they also know that we necessarily speak of God in a human language, not in a divine or angelic one. The meaningfulness of any words we use to speak of God’s transcendent being has to be drawn from our human and partial experience; it derives from what we see of God’s activities, from which we infer both that he is and what sort of a being he is.

    The essential issue seems to be what is meant when one speaks of God. This is a difficult and subtle question, and probably not one that is best dealt with in an internet exchange. I think that, when Basil speaks of God being “in fact wholly light, and wholly life, and wholly good,” he does identify God with his attributes, although he does not claim that speaking of God as “wholly light, and wholly life, and wholly good,” provides a definition of God’s being, just as he does not see Eunomius as providing a definition of God’s being when he says that God is “ingenerate” (although Eunomius thinks that he does, in this way, give a definition of “God”). These terms do not define God, not because they do not apply at all to the divine essence, but because God’s being transcends created understanding and therefore no human speech gives an adequate, complete statement of the divine being. As St. Paul says, “We know in part” (1 Cor 13:9). Or, to cite the Pseudo-Dionysius (who certainly had read the Cappadocian fathers, and who was read, in turn, by both Maximus and Aquinas):

    “…we apprehend these things here and now by way of analogy (ἀναλογῶς) through the sacred veils of that lovingkindness which, in the Scriptures and hierarchical traditions, enwraps intelligible realities in things of perception and superessential truths in things of Being, clothing with shapes and forms things shapeless and formless, and making manifold and broad the imageless and supernatural simplicity by the variety of separable symbols.” Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite, De divinis nominibus I.4 (PG 3, 592B); tr. adapted from that of C. E. Rolt.

    To put it briefly, a term like “good” does not define God’s essence, not because it does not name the divine essence, but because it is predicated analogously. I think that that way of understanding speech about God holds true, not only for Thomas Aquinas, but also for the Cappadocian fathers, for Ps.-Dionysius, and for St. Maximus the Confessor. That is, I think that Aquinas is, in this regard, a faithful interpreter of the main lines of Greek patristic tradition.

    You, by contrast, seem to think that, when St. Basil speaks of God as “in fact wholly light, and wholly life, and wholly good,” he affirms nothing at all about God’s essence, but (as you say) “as far back as we can epistemically touch God in the schema of erga — energeia — dynamis — ousia is dynamis.” This is like saying that, if one speaks of God as “wise,” then God’s dynamis is wise, but, on the basis of that wise dynamis, nothing at all can be said about God being wise in his essential being. This notion of predication about God being limited to what we can “epistemically touch” is, I think, very dangerous. It seems to imply the meaninglessness of any language about the divine essence. If our affirmations about God only extend to what we can “epistemically touch,” then why assert that the Father and the Son are homoousios with each other? — their ousia goes beyond our episteme, and we cannot touch it.

    I would strongly affirm that, when Jesus says, “I am the Life,” he is not merely claiming to have unchanging life, but is affirming that Life is what he is — he is naming his own essence. Merely having life unchangingly would not constitute him to be, to others, the source of life.

    The idea that God’s being wise names only an activity or power of God and cannot apply to God’s essence because we are limited to speaking of what we can “epistemically touch” is directly contradicted by St. Maximus in a passage from his commentary on the Pseudo-Dionysius’s On the Divine Names:

    “The ‘More-than-Goodness Itself’, being mind, and entirely actuality, in being turned to itself, exists in actuality — not in potentiality, [as though] it had first been stupidity, and only later became mind in actuality. For this reason, again, it alone is mind in the pure sense, not having intellection as something coming to it from without; but it understands wholly through itself. For if its essence is one thing, and the things which it knows are other than it, then it itself, that is, its essence, will be mindless. But if it has something, it has it from itself, not from another. But if [it has what it has] from himself, and it knows from itself, it will itself be the things it knows. For this reason, being mind, it knows beings, in all reality.”
    ἡ αὐτοϋπεραγαθότης, νοῦς οὖσα, καὶ ὅλη ἐνέργεια, εἰς ἑαυτὴν ἐστραμμένη, ἐνέργείᾳ ἐστὶν, οὐ δυνάμει, πρότερον οὖσα ἀφροσύνη, εἶτα νοῦς ἐνεργείᾳ γιωνομένη· ὅθεν καί ἐστι νοῦς μόνον καθαρός, οὐκ ἐπείσακτον ἔχων τὸ φρονεῖν, ἀλλὰ παρ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ πάντως νοεῖ. Εἰ γὰρ ἡ μὲν οὐσία αὐτοῦ ἄλλη ἐστίν, ἃ δὲ νοεῖ ἕτερα αὐτοῦ, αὐτὸς ἀνόητος ἔσται, ἤγουν ἡ οὐσία αὐτοῦ· εἰ τι δὲ ἔχει, παρ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ ἔχει, οὐ παρ᾽ ἄλλου· εἰ δὲ παρ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ ἐξ αὐτοῦ νοεῖ, αὐτός ἐστιν ἃ νοεῖ. Οὐκοῦν νοῦς ὤν, ὄντως νοεῖ τὰ ὄντα ὡς ὤν. St. Maximus, Scholia in librum De divinis nominibus (PG 4, 320B).

    The passage supports, I think, the point that Fr. Paul made when he originally opened this discussion, that, for Maximus as for Aquinas, God “is pure act, without any unrealised potency existing in Him.”

    To quote again the Pseudo-Dionysius:

    “We do not regard the Good as one thing, the Existent as another, and Life or Wisdom as another” (Οὐκ ἄλλο δὲ εἶναι τἀγαθόν φησι, καὶ ἄλλο τὸ ὄν, καὶ ἄλλο τὴν ζωὴν ἢ τὴν σοφίαν). De divinis nominibus V.2 (PG 3, 816 C).

    That seems to be the very thing you are decrying in Thomas Aquinas, what you call his “One-Many dialectic” or his use of divine simplicity as a “grand equal sign.”

    Let me address one more issue that you raise. You ask if, by the transitive rule, divine person is the same thing as divine essence. In one sense, obviously no; in another sense, obviously yes. When St. Gregory the Theologian says at at or. 39.11, “For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or to speak more accurately, who are the Godhead” (PG 36.344D; St. John of Damascus says the same thing), he is saying exactly what you dogmatically deny: that there is a genuine sense in which the persons are the Godhead, in which they are identified with it — although, clearly, there is also a sense in which they are not identified with it. The persons are both really distinct from each other and really identified with the essence which they share, identified in the sense that the essence is the whole content of what they are, except insofar as they differ by their idiomata: that one is unbegotten, one is begotten, and one proceeds.

    I would conclude by simply saying that your large generalizations about a “dialectic” in Aquinas that is supposedly incompatible with what is found in Greek fathers like St. Maximus or the Cappadocians are contradicted, as I have tried to show, by a great deal of textual evidence that suggests that all these theologians understood divine simplicity and human speech concerning God in very similar ways. On both hands, there is an affirmation both of a real simplicity in God, who properly transcends human understanding and speech, and of a necessary complexity in the ways in which we know God and speak of God. Speaking of God is both dangerous and difficult — getting it wrong has serious consequences. (Cf. James, ch. 3.) Before you assert an absolute contradiction between Aquinas and the Greek fathers and make that supposed dialectical contradiction the basis for claiming that unity between the churches can never occur until the West changes its doctrine, you ought to attend to the real possibility that your reading of both Aquinas and the fathers has serious shortcomings.


  12. photios Says:

    “But it is not true if it is meant to describe the empirical process of coming to know God. Aquinas is adamant that our knowledge of God begins with experience — that is, indeed, the basis for his rejection of Anselm’s ontological proof. We cannot, for Thomas, start with an a priori definition of the word “God” and prove God’s existence out of it — not because existence is not in fact implied by what God is, but because, as finite creatures, we lack the kind of intuitive understanding of what God is that God himself possesses (ST I, Q. 2, a. 1)”

    This much is true and you are correct that for Aquinas we have knowledge of God through the experience of creatures. What we say *of* God is not predicative but rather God *is* whatever is said of him. But where you are missing the point about simplicity serving as an explanation for analogical predication is that all our statments: God is life, love, will, etc. must be *corrected* because they properly apply to creatures and not to God. Simplicity serves as this *correction* for Aquinas. There is an ontological identity between each of these *is* statements. I’m not at all saying that in Aquinas’ episteme that he starts with the reality of creatures and moves to God.

    But this whole methodology is fraut with difficulties anways–*especially* from a Christological standpoint. Aquinas is transfering (perichoresis) the properties of a nature to another nature without going first through the hypostasis (dia ten hypostasin). This hints that there is a problem with Aquinas’ order of theology and how he wishes to answer and solve theological questions.

    “Or, to cite the Pseudo-Dionysius (who certainly had read the Cappadocian fathers, and who was read, in turn, by both Maximus and Aquinas):”

    ..Or perhaps the Cappadocians had read *him.* No reason for Orthodox christians to uncritically accept the higher textual criticism in the west and its deconstructive tendencies (it has some very dubious origins). It is said that some of these texts are lifted right out of Proclus without an engagement and examination of whether or not the converse might be true. Porphyry commented that parts of Daniel *must* have been written by a contemporary — much later writer because of how accurate the texts was. This is a clue that German idealism and its 19th century scholars may be reading with similar presuppositions of approaching the texts as that of the Neoplatonist. The safer route — and that goes for the Byzantine text of scripture vis-a-vis other manuscripts — is to go with what we have liturgically worshiped as these being the authentic writings of the Areopagaite. You can call me crazy or whatever you like about that. I do not care.

    “…we apprehend these things here and now by way of analogy (ἀναλογῶς) through the sacred veils of that lovingkindness which, in the Scriptures and hierarchical traditions, enwraps intelligible realities in things of perception and superessential truths in things of Being, clothing with shapes and forms things shapeless and formless, and making manifold and broad the imageless and supernatural simplicity by the variety of separable symbols.” Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite, De divinis nominibus I.4 (PG 3, 592B); tr. adapted from that of C. E. Rolt.”

    What do you think Dionysios means by Be-ing? In commenting on Divine Names 5.1 “we do not intend to hymn (hymneo) the hyperousios ousia….” the Scholia on this text notes say this: “Dionysius does not present what the essence of God is for ‘essence’ is not properly predicated of God insofar as he is beyond being.” (PG 4 308D. See also 229C)

    So let’s go into what Dionysios means by Be-ing:

    It is my contention that Aquinas fundamentally misunderstand Dionsyios on the hyperousios ousia (Beyong be-ing Being), other scholars have pointed this out too as well (see John D. Jones’ phil. chair at Marquette work on St. Dionysios, as well as Fran O’Rourke book on Aquinas and Dionysios).

    Dionysios says,
    “It is not the intention of our discourse to manifest the beyond-being being (hyperousios ousia) as beyond be-ing being, for this is ineffable, and unknown and completely unable to be manifest and surpasses unity itself, but to hymn the being-producing (ousiopoios) procession of the divine source of being into all beings.” DN 05.01, 816B

    So the context of Be-ing for Dionysios is not the essence of God, which is beyond any concept whatsoever, but rather the being producing processions. The natural going forth (exodus) of the essence employed by the Persons, i.e. God’s energeiai.

    To quote Jones, “Grammatically, of course, ousia is a noun modified by hyperousious. The ousia in this case is the divine ousia which when considered as hyperousios is considered in itself and, thus, as ineffable to all created beings. This is the way in which Aquinas and Albert understand the text. But Palamas draws on Dionysius to support a view that properly neither ousia nor nature are said of God except in the sense that God is productive of ousia and nature in things. On this view, despite the grammatical form of hyperousios ousia, ousia is not a noun referring to a divine ‘essence’ characterized as hyperousios in one sense and as ousiopoios (being producing) in another. Rather, hyperousios “indicates” the Godhead as uncoordinated with all and, thus, beyond all names whatsoever; ousia, however, refers to God as manifested … in the divine energy.” Jones, “Manifesting Beyond be-ing Being (hyperousios ousia):The Divine Essence-Energies Distinction for Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite”

    You say,
    “It seems to imply the meaninglessness of any language about the divine essence. If our affirmations about God only extend to what we can “epistemically touch,” then why assert that the Father and the Son are homoousios with each other? — their ousia goes beyond our episteme, and we cannot touch it.”

    The converse is true. This idea of simplicity as everything being the same thing ‘in God’ results in the ultimate breakdown in language. My view is a much stronger form of realism. My language about God doesn’t need to be corrected by the principle of identity.

    I would submit that homoousios offers no positive philosophical content in Chruch’s tradition. It simply means “whatever the Father is, the Son is.” When we say that the Father is wise, will, knowledge, etc these are God’s energies (his being producing operations) and then when we witness that tthe Son has the same operations (the Son doeth nothing that He sees the Father doing) this points to a singular power (dynamis). The ‘essence’ serves as a causal designator.

    “You ask if, by the transitive rule, divine person is the same thing as divine essence. In one sense, obviously no; in another sense, obviously yes.”

    Again contradicting yourself. If you are going to use the principle of identity between the persons of the Trinity vis-a-vis the divine essence, then you are providing a DEFINITION of God and circumscribing God. To say that you are not is nonsensical. You can’t say that will = Father, Father = essence, will = essence, Son = will, Son = essence, and then turn around and say that the transitive principle is faulty (e.g. Father = Son). The Neoplatonist rejects the differentiation of the Trinity, because the One is simple, differentiation is OTHER than the One. And against the scholastic they have A LOT better argument. The solution is to break the back of identity between person and nature. You want antinomy (it seems) but then you want identity. Language is losing any kind of meaning on this view.

    Notice Gregory doesn’t use the principle of identity here, that’s because semantics outruns syntax. ‘Is’ or ‘are’ need not mean identity and reducibility. Rather, I take him to mean that the fullness of Godhead exists in Them both severally and individually.

    “that unity between the churches can never occur until the West changes its doctrine,”

    That issue has already been decided. Long ago. The Church has already spoken, how dare I stand in judgment of HER decrees. The only judgment I can make is to attempt to understand why she judged the way she did or reject them altogether. There are no two ways about it. You’ll have to make up your own mind. From where I stand, how I honestly see these issues, I’d rather burn at the stake then to compromise the cultural autonomy of the Church and her doctrine and that is exactly what this is all really about. The Church and her Christology will tell you what simplicity means, so “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” – Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum c.7, 9


  13. bekkos Says:


    Except for what you say in your last paragraph, which is serious, your reasoning in the above response is as sloppy as your spelling and grammar. You plainly have ceased to care what any of the patristic citations I supply may actually say, and would rather misrepresent my arguments than engage with them intelligently. It is obvious that evidence makes no bit of difference to you, and if I supplied more I would only be wasting my time.

    You make much of the notion of “Beyond be-ing Being,” and claim that it was Aquinas’s misunderstanding of this that was the source of all his errors. Let me ask you: Is this “Beyond be-ing Being” the cause of those activities/energies which derive from it? If so, then the reasoning of St. Maximus the Confessor, in the passage which I cited, fully applies: you make the source of mind to be mindless. (And note that Maximus is speaking here of the “Beyond,” the “More-than-Goodness Itself” — undoubtedly, the “Beyond be-ing Being.” Unlike you, he thinks the one divine essence is more than an empty cipher.) If, on the other hand, you claim that the “Beyond be-ing Being” is not the cause of those activities/energies which derive from it, then you fall into a kind of gnostic worship of a super-deity who has nothing to do with the actual creation and providential care of the world.

    You ask, “What do you think Dionysios means by Be-ing?” The question, like your previous one, “I’m not sure what you mean by God here,” is what might be called loaded. I do not deny that both Maximus and the Pseudo-Dionysius and many other fathers speak of God as hyperousios, as (in some sense) above Being and Essence and all that can be named. Nor do I deny that God is the cause of being in the things that are, that he is the cause of wisdom in the things that are wise, that he is the cause of goodness in the things that are good. Yet, if you had attended to the things I cited previously, you would have observed that it is the Pseudo-Dionysius himself who denies that the Good is one thing, the Existent (“Be-ing,” τὸ ὄν) is another, and Life or Wisdom is yet another. He plainly is not saying that the activity or energy of causing good, causing existence, causing life and causing wisdom is one self-identical activity. He is saying that the source from which these activities flow is one and the same, and he designates this source as Good, Existent, Life, and Wisdom, according to the various perfections that flow from him. He is speaking about the essence, although, in some sense, the essence is unspeakable.

    I would submit that Aquinas recognizes this. As the Pseudo-Dionysius says that our language about God predicates terms of the divine essence, not properly, but by way of analogy, so Aquinas says the same thing. Christianity is more than Neoplatonic contemplation of the unspeakable One; it is worship of a God who acts, and it necessarily speaks of that God — not only of his actions, but of the source of the actions. It speaks of who He is, not only of what He does. It speaks of who He is on the basis of what He does, on the basis of His outgoing activities (or energies), but it speaks of, and worships, the source of those activities, not them. You, by contrast, apparently make the energies or activities into the object of your worship; they are what you are talking about when you say, “God be merciful to us” or “Savior, save us!”, since you cannot talk about that divine essence which (according to St. Gregory the Theologian) the persons are; that divine essence is to you a meaningless cipher, “with no positive philosophical content.”

    As for your final paragraph, that is, as I say, the one point where you show any Christian seriousness. You may be right, that, if it is the doctrine of the Orthodox Church that the divine essence is a meaningless cipher, and Jesus is not himself Life, but only has Life in an unchanging way, and the new mystagogues of the Church are longwinded ideologues like yourself who lay down the law for believers out of your own philosophical self-conceit, overriding and negating beforehand any contrary evidence or any possibility of seeing historical reality as more complicated than you make it out to be, as a way of ensuring that Christian division lasts forever — then, yes, it is very likely that I should be someplace else. You surely do well to quote your St. Tertullian (who, like you, was also too impatient to listen to what anyone beside himself had to say, and ended up outside the Church) as a witness to your love of pure, philosophically-uncontaminated Orthodoxy, with your talk of “Beyond be-ing Being” and the like. May God preserve me from your form of religion.


  14. I didn’t say that hyperousios ousia was the source of all of Aquinas’ errors. All of Aquinas’ errors are summed up rather in the ‘Augustinized’ Ordo Theologiae. What I did say, rather, was that Aquinas misunderstood Dionysios.

    I contextualized your quotes and gave them a framework. If that’s not an engagement to your satisfaction, sorry, I don’t subscribe to the “see Jesus run” hermeneutic.

    I worship Persons and what they have done for me (energeia, operations). For the essence, I worship that which I do not know as Basil says. Good day.


  15. bekkos Says:

    To my Readers:

    I think Photios Jones is theologically wrong, but I apologize to you, and to him, for making a pompous ass of myself in the course of telling him so. This feed is, mercifully, closed to further discussion.

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