Martin Jugie, The Palamite Controversy (continued).

1. The two councils of 1341 and the synodal tome.

The first question we need to elucidate, before pursuing the history of the controversy about which we began to speak in the preceding article, is the provenance and the true bearing of a document upon which Gregory Palamas and his partisans relied in openly resisting ecclesiastical authority, from the end of the year 1341 and until the deposition of the patriarch John Kalekas (February 1347). What we are referring to is the synodal tome of 1341, ὁ συνοδικὸς τόμος, which, in manuscripts of Palamite origin, bears the following title: «Συνοδικὸς τόμος γεγραμμένος ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐξελεγξάσαις καὶ ἀποβαλλομέναις τὴν τοῦ Βαρλαὰμ καὶ Ἀκινδύνου δυσσέβειαν μεγάλαις συνόδοις, ἐν αἷς οὐχ ἡ Ἐκκλησία μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἡ σύγκλητος καὶ οἱ καθολικοὶ παρῆσαν τῶν ῾Ρωμαίων κριταί, προκαθημένου καὶ τοῦ θειοτάτου βασιλέως ἕως οὗ περιῆν» [Synodal tome, written at the great synods which refuted and cast out the impiety of Barlaam and Akindynos, which were attended, not only by the Church, but also by the senate and the universal judges of the Roman people, with the most sacred Emperor presiding until he passed away.] This title is curious in more than one respect. It presents the document as being the result of a number of synods, which rejected the impiety of Barlaam and Akindynos, and which were held during the life and under the presidency of Andronikos III Palaiologos. In fact, when one reads the document, it becomes clear that it has to do only with the synod held in the church of Saint Sophia, June 10, 1341, four days before Andronikos’ death (June 15th), and that Barlaam alone is named. The title is thus false, but, still, not completely. Let us shed light upon the mystery. And let us begin by speaking about this famous council of June 1341, at which the accusations of Barlaam against the hesychasts were rejected, and his opinion on the nature of the light of Tabor was condemned as contrary to the doctrine of the Fathers.

We have said that, upon his return from the embassy to Avignon (1339), Barlaam, after making a short stop at Constantinople to deliver a report of his mission, had returned to Thessalonica, and had revised his work against the hesychasts, and had given it the title Κατὰ Μασσαλιανῶν [Against the Messalians]. Without delay, Palamas had replied to this new edition with a third triad of discourses against the Calabrian monk. In then, the hesychast theologian accentuated his heterodox novelties, both as to fundamental doctrine as well as to its formulation. As soon as these had come into his possession, Barlaam set off again for the capital and proceeded to denounce his rival before the patriarch. He also went in search of Akindynos to ask his help in the fight against the hesychasts and their defender. That was a mistake on his part, for Akindynos, as he himself recounts in his Address to Patriarch John and his synod, written in 1344, sternly rebuked him, commenting to him that it was not for him, a foreigner, to busy himself with criticizing and reforming the abuses of the Byzantine Church: οὐ τὸν Βαρλαὰμ προσήκειν ἐρευνᾶν τὰ ἡμέτερα καὶ διορθοῦν, Monacensis græc. 223, fol. 51 vª. Then, along with some monks, this same Akindynos presented himself before the patriarch. Palamas’s writings, brought by Barlaam, were examined, and were found to contain such gross theological errors that it was hardly believed they were authentic. It was thought that the Calabrian had invented them. Moreover, the latter’s work against the monks was read and it appeared that it was not above all criticism. The patriarch charged Akindynos with the task of examining it and with writing, if necessary, a refutation of it. That is what was done. Akindynos found Barlaam at fault on two points: he spoke about the light of Tabor in a disrespectful manner in teaching that it was inferior in dignity not only to the angels, but even to the human mind and its concepts, whereas the Fathers of the Church had spoken such wondrous things about it; furthermore, his criticisms of the hesychasts’ method of prayer were greatly exaggerated, and these good καλογέροντες [monastic elders] did not deserve to be treated as Messalians or Bogomils. From being the accuser, the Calabrian monk was very much at risk of falling into the position of the accused, for Akindynos attacked him openly and defended Palamas. He went so far as to publish a number of works against him.

But Barlaam, who was certain about his claims, did not allow himself to be put off by this initial lack of success. He continued to denounce Palamas throughout the city and even represented him as holding illicit councils at Mount Athos and at Thessalonica, contrary to the holy canons: ὡς ἄρα ὁ Παλαμᾶς παρασυναγωγὰς ἐν τῷ ὄρει τῷ ἁγίῳ ποιεῖ κἀν τῇ Θεσσαλονίκῃ παρὰ τοὺς θείους καὶ ἱεροῦς κανόνας, ibid. Of these conciliabula of Palamas we know at least the one of which Philotheos speaks in his Panegyric, that is to say that meeting of leading Athonites at which another Palamite document, already mentioned, was composed, the τόμος ἁγιορειτικός. In the face of this accusation, which, even by itself, was specific and grave and had been brought to his ears, not only by the Calabrian, but by numerous others, John Kalekas finally decided to take action. A synodal letter, peremptory in tone, was sent to the archbishop of Thessalonica, that he should see to it that the monk Palamas be sent to Constantinople. Barlaam himself was charged with making sure that the letter reached its destination. Akindynos was apprised of this, and, finding these proceedings none too pleasant for his friend Palamas, had the boldness to write to the patriarch to protest against the letter’s severity. He then presented himself before the patriarch in person, adding that someone should at least have sent a copy of the letter to Palamas himself, so as not to wound his self-esteem. The patriarch allowed himself to be persuaded and resolved to address the synodal letter to Palamas alone. But he was too late. When Barlaam was asked to return the letter which he had been entrusted with to deliver to the metropolitan of Thessalonica, he answered that the expedition had already taken place. John Kalekas then pushed his condescension to the point of having a copy of the letter sent to Palamas himself, with Akindynos as the go-between. In this way, the blow would be softened somewhat for the defender of the hesychasts.

The mission had hardly set off for Thessalonica when Akindynos received from Palamas himself the famous letter in which he expounds at length his system on God’s essence and his operations, the uncreated light and grace. In particular, the following phrase was found in it: “The deifying grace of the Holy Spirit is an inferior deity, a gift of the superior deity,” ἡ θεοποιὸς δωρεὰ τοῦ Πνεύματος ἐστι θεότης ὑφειμένη, δῶρον οὖσα τῆς ὑπερκειμένης. At that point, the scales fell from his eyes; he realized that Barlaam’s accusations were not mere rumor, but the unvarnished truth. He nevertheless resolved to do all he could to spare his friend from a certain condemnation, and he earnestly stove to obtain from him the suppression of a terminology offensive to pious ears.

Indeed, a few days later, Palamas departed for Constantinople and took up lodgings with him. Barlaam’s accusations were brought up, as was, also, the letter which Akindynos had received a few days earlier. A discussion ensued. Akindynos observed to his friend that his doctrine was opposed to that of the Fathers, but he failed to convince him of this. All that he was able to obtain from him was the promise to delete from his writings the shocking expressions, after he should have succeeded in dispensing with Barlaam, that common enemy of all the society of the monks, κοινὸν ἐπηρεαστὴν ὄντα τοῦ σχήματος τοῦ ἡμετέρου. In the meantime, Akindynos pledged to keep silent concerning the doctrinal innovations of the new theologian, who presented to the patriarch only the portion of his writings that contained nothing objectionable with respect to dogma.

The plea devised by Akindynos to have Barlaam condemned succeeded. We learn, in fact, from an as-yet unpublished document, preserved in the manuscript Vatic. græc. 2335 and composed around 1370 in the form of a plan for a council against the Palamite doctrine, under the name of the Patriarch of Antioch, that, in a private meeting, held before the public synod, the emperor, the patriarch, and various distinguished members of the senate decided to give to the upcoming assembly a purely disciplinary character. All discussion of a dogmatic nature was to be systematically kept off the table. The impression was to be given that nothing more was seen in the affair than a simple quarrel between monks, and they were to adjudicate the disagreement in a friendly way. Barlaam was to lose his case against the hesychasts, which would be treated as a defamation; and he would be invited to reconcile himself with Palamas. As for the doctrinal debate, it was to be postponed till later. A new synod would be held, at an opportune time, to decide it. Until then, the agitating of dogmatic questions was to be prohibited, under the severest penalties. It was hoped that the affair would thus die out, and that a controversy highly dangerous for the peace and unity of the Church would, in this way, be handled according to the principles of economy: Βουλὴν βουλεύονται (says our document) οἰκονομῆσαι τὰ τοῦ πράγματος καὶ τὴν ὑπονοουμένην ἔριν διαλύσασθαι δι᾽ εἰρήνης. The account of Nikephoros Gregoras, Hist. byzant. XI, 10 (PG 148, 764), presents the same scenario, and gives the reasons which caused this plan to prevail: τὰ μὲν τῆς ἐηκαλουμένης θεολογίας σιωπῇ κρύπτεσθαι δεῖν ἐνομίσθη ["It was deemed expedient that the specifics of the accused theology be hidden in silence."]

This plan was carried out to the last detail. Held at Hagia Sophia on June 10, 1341, with the emperor presiding in person — for Barlaam had refused to make an appearance before the patriarchal synod in the absence of the sovereign, having no doubt gotten wind of the plot that had been framed against him (cf. the τόμος συνοδικός, PG 151, 680-681) — the synod, with the whole senate present as well as numerous curious onlookers, brought the business to a close in a single day. Barlaam was, to begin with, invited to lay out, against Gregory Palamas and the hesychasts, the accusations he had formulated against them in his communiqué to the patriarch. Instead of directly beginning with the exact point he had been instructed to do, he thought it would improve his case to address first the dogmatic question concerning the nature of the light of Tabor. He was abruptly told to stop. He would have done well to insist upon the point. Permission for him to develop his arguments against Palamas’s theology was denied. So he chose to keep silent, and, for his edification, it was directed that the texts be read aloud of Canon 64 of the Council in Trullo and of Canon 19 of the Council of Chalcedon, prohibiting private individuals, whether clergy or laity, from concerning themselves with the teaching of religious truths and with stirring up questions of dogma, on the grounds that it is the bishops alone who have legitimate power to teach in the Church. Notice was then given of his accusation written against the monks, to which Gregory Palamas was invited to respond. Palamas briefly recounted the history of his quarrel with the Calabrian monk and took care not to compromise himself by speaking of his θεότητες [deities]. To bring about the defeat of the accuser of the hesychasts, certain passages of his book Against the Messalians were read. In opposition to his teaching concerning the light of Tabor were presented, not all of the patristic texts which are found in the τόμος συνοδικός,  but only extracts from the discourses of St. John of Damascus and of St. Andrew of Crete on the Transfiguration. (Cf. the Explanation of the τόμος by Patriarch John, PG 150, 900D.) This simple presentation sufficed to establish the temerity of his language. Moreover, the weakest passages of his accusation, touching the hesychasts’ method of prayer, were read. Everyone saw how unfounded they were. Finally, the emperor dealt the Calabrian the final blow by refuting, in person, certain of his arguments, in particular concerning the Jesus Prayer.

Barlaam, who was clear sighted, perceived what was going on. He discerned the economy, as the Greeks call it, of which he was being made the object, and he had the good sense to cooperate with the peaceful aims of the emperor and the patriarch. He promised to cease his attacks against the monks, and thus avoided excommunication. But the prohibition that had been made against his continuing his polemics was directed also to Gregory Palamas, to those of his party, and to all the faithful. It was forbidden for anyone, under pain of excommunication, to dogmatize concerning new questions. A subsequent synod, if it took place, would settle the doctrinal issue raised by Barlaam.

Such, in short, was the synod of June 10, 1341. It was oriented wholly towards matters of practice and discipline, and did not bring up the fundamental question which had set Barlaam and Palamas at odds. Its entire goal was to shut the accuser’s mouth and to stop all further discussion. It issued no dogmatic tome, and the τόμος συνοδικός is not its work. The sole official document which resulted from its deliberations was the encyclical letter by which the patriarch John ordered the destruction of Barlaam’s writings against the monks. This letter, which we still possess (cf. PG 152, 1241), unfortunately bears no date. In all probability, it was published a few days after the synod, by which time Barlaam had already set off again for the West, if it is true that he departed the very next day after the synod, as the tome of the Palamite council of February 1347 affirms: τὴν δ᾽ ὑστεραίαν ᾤχετο φεύγων ἀδήλως. (Codex Dionysianus Athonensis 147, fol. 265.)

Four days after this council of June 1341, Emperor Andronikos died without leaving any precise instructions concerning the make-up of the regency council that would have to assume oversight, given that the legitimate successor, John V, was still a child. Competitions and intrigues began to occur around the Empress-mother, Anna of Savoy. The ambitious John Kantakouzenos sought to take in hand direction of affairs. The patriarch opposed his projects, and the near prospect loomed of a rupture, together with civil war. Nevertheless, Palamas and the monks who had accompanied him to the council were still there. Since Barlaam had taken flight, they celebrated clamorously, awaiting the second synod which was to rule on the dogmatic question. Instead of keeping the promise he had made to expunge offensive expressions from his writings, and forgetful equally of the prohibition imposed by the synod, Palamas openly preached his theology in its most undiluted form. Lively altercations followed between him and Akindynos. The patriarch managed, initially, to reconcile them. But the quarrel became embittered. The wrath of the innovator’s friends was now turned against Akindynos, whom they treated as a Barlaamite. Death threats were made against him, and two monks from his monastery were very nearly lynched. The patriarch sought again to halt the dispute by making the two antagonists appear before his synod. He had someone read to them a pertinent passage from St. Basil, deriding those foolhardy men who would search into the essence of God while they remain incapable of explaining the simplest phenomena of nature. It did no good. The demon of disputation had entered into the mystics’ soul. With hue and cry they demanded the promised synod, which would, in their view, sanction with its authority the theology of their patron, Palamas.

The ambitious Kantakouzenos heard their complaints. At the very moment when he dreamed of playing the emperor, a suitable occasion presented itself to him to make a public demonstration of his authority. A council, equal in all respects to the first, would be convened at Saint Sophia under his presidency. At it, Akindynos would replace Barlaam, and the hesychasts would have their appeasement. The dogmatic question would be brought up there and resolved. That is, indeed, what happened. A second synod was convened by Kantakouzenos at Saint Sophia, and took place in that part of the building that was reserved to catechumens, in the month of August of the same year, 1341. But it was a conciliabulum, not a council, for the patriarch refused to appear at it, and the assembly was gathered against his will. (Explanation of the τόμος by John Kalekas, PG 150, 901A.) This goes to explain why the majority of contemporary sources are silent with regard to this council. The sly Kantakouzenos conflates it, in his account of it, with the first council, of June, and is not afraid represent it as being convoked by the patriarch himself (History, book II, ch. 11, PG 153, 676-689). The tome of the Palamite council of February 1347 also speaks of it, as does the anonymous tome of the patriarchate of Antioch, noted above. The metropolitans and the senators thought they had better show up at it. We lack details concerning its deliberations. All that we know about it is that there was a discussion there concerning Palamas’s theology. Akindynos was present and openly attacked the doctrine of his old friend. Palamas defended himself, and probably gave a reading of the famous “hagiorite tome,” ὁ τόμος ἁγιορειτικός, composed by Philotheos in 1339 and signed by the leading representatives of Athonite monasticism. We mentioned, in the article “Palamas,” col. 1749, that this document was a summary of the principal Palamite theses. If one were to credit what Kantakouzenos says (loc. cit., col. 673B), Palamas would have already presented it at the synod of June. This is plainly an error, as follows from what was said above. Akindynos was condemned as infected with the Barlaamite heresy, τελέως καταδίκῃ καθυποβληθέντος ὡς δυσσεβοῦς καὶ τῷ Βαρλαὰμ σαφῶς ὁμοφρονοῦντος δειχθέντος, says the synodal tome of February 1347. In all likelihood a dogmatic tome was drawn up, teaching Palamism in its most unvarnished form, and was brought before the patriarch for his signature. He, for his part, refused to sign it, and considered all that had taken place as null and void. A number of prelates, moreover, had protested against the hesychast theologian’s doctrinal novelties, and had sided with the teaching of Akindynos.

Nevertheless, the Athonites continued their agitation. Their standing in public opinion began to diminish. Akindynos informs us that people at large condemned them and were saying unfavorable things about them, ἅτε παρὰ πάντων ἤδη κατεγνωσμένοι καὶ κακῶς ἀκούοντες. With Kantakouzenos as their patron, they insisted on getting an official document that would guarantee their orthodoxy and their reputation: ἐγκείμενοι ᾐτοῦντο γράμμα αὐτοῖς γενέσθαι, ὥστε μὴ ἀπόβλητοι εἶναι δοκεῖν, Akindynos, loc. cit.. Cf. John Kalekas, Explanation of the τόμος, loc. cit., col. 901B: Ἐζήτησε ἔπειτα καὶ ἠνάγκασεν, ἵνα ποιήσωμεν γράμμα τοῖς μοναχοῖς. In the end, the patriarch gave in to their demands; he agreed to the publication of an official decision, issued in the name of the synod of June 10th and relating what had taken place there, that is to say the condemnation of Barlaam’s writings and the absolute prohibition against stirring up dogmatic questions. But who put this document together? The task was committed to the Palamite faction, with the assistance of certain bishops who had been present at the conciliabulum of Kantakouzenos. From their mutual understanding resulted what has been called the Συνοδικὸς τόμος that commences with the words Ἐπαίνετος ἀληθῶς ὁ εἰπών (PG 151, 679-692). This presents itself as an official account, prepared by the patriarch, of what took place at the synod of June 10th. In it, one finds not the slightest reference to the pseudo-council of August. Nowhere in it is the Palamite doctrine formally discussed or approved, but everything is skillfully arranged and presented so as to give the impression of a tacit, indirect approval. For example, it starts by noting that Barlaam accused the hesychasts of teaching that God’s essence is participable and that the monks defended themselves by replying that it is not God’s essence that is participable but the uncreated, eternal, and deifying grace of the Holy Spirit, οὐ τὴν οὐσίαν, ἀλλὰ τὴν ἄκτιστον καὶ ἀΐδιον καὶ θεοποιὸν χάριν τοῦ Πνεύματος. Then, when it comes to refuting the Calabrian’s opinion on the nature of the light of Tabor, instead of simply reporting the extracts of the homilies of St. John of Damascus and St. Andrew of Crete that were actually read at the council of June, it strings together a long array of patristic texts, all that Palamas had been able to find that seemed especially to favor his doctrine concerning the eternal, uncreated divine light. This long series of passages thus constitutes a veritable interpolation. Undoubtedly none of them explicitly teaches what Palamas wishes to find there; but there are vague, ambiguous expressions, metaphors and synecdoches which appear to support Palamas’s thesis. No doubt also the entirety of this is cited with the direct aim of combatting Barlaam, who construed the light of Tabor to be a material phenomenon, a transitory apparition of a light miraculously produced by God and vanishing immediately thereafter, which was consequently inferior in dignity to the intellectual light of an angel or of the human mind. But, taken as a whole, this patristic dossier naturally tends to support the doctrine of the hesychasts.

When the document had been completed, it was presented to the patriarch for his signature. He, for his part, already clearly perceived the falsification, and at first refused to give it his approval, declaring that the document failed to present a true picture of the council of June 10th, and had, from a doctrinal point of view, an intentionally misleading character: οὐκ εὔλογον εἶναι προβαλλόμενος ἐφ᾽ οἷς οἰκονομικῶς ἡ σύνοδος διεπράξατο, τόμον προβῆναι συνοδικόν, says the tome of the Patriarch of Antioch. Furthermore, Akindynos was there, able to expose for him the Palamites’ perfidiousness, he who, three years later, wrote: “The tome was written, and into it Palamas deceptively inserted his heresy, in part at least against the patriarch’s will: γέγονε τοίνυν ὁ τόμος, καὶ παρεμβλήθη δολίως παρὰ τὴν σὴν γνώμην ἐν τῷ τόμῳ ἐκ μέρους τὰ ἑαυτοῦ παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ… Loc. cit., fol. 53 vº. John Kalekas, nevertheless, in the end gave way before the demands of Kantakouzenos’s secret partisans and, as though in spite of himself, give it his signature. He thought he could remedy the work’s doctrinal equivocation and the misuse that the adherents of Palamas would be able to make of it by adding, at the end, a strict prohibition against future dogmatic discussion on any and all subjects, whether expressed verbally or in writing, under pain of excommunication. He later said that, in his own thought, the tome had no other end in view than simply to repel Barlaam’s accusation against the monks and his doctrine on the light of Tabor. The patristic texts cited were all directed to that end, and no official interpretation had been given to them, ὑπὲρ ὧν δὴ κεφαλαίων καὶ τὰ ῥητὰ τῶν ἁγίων ἐτέθησαν ἐπεξεργασίας πάσης χωρὶς καὶ ἐπεξηγήσεως, Explanation of the tome, loc. cit., col. 901 C.

Along with the patriarch, several metropolitans signed the document; but others refused, among them Athanasius of Cyzicus, who did not sign until 1346, at the point when he joined the discontented prelates who were about to rebel against the patriarch and would soon depose him. Other later signatures, which the manuscripts report in an appendix to the tome, can be accounted for in the same manner, and certain historians, basing themselves on these later additions, have mistakenly contested the authenticity of the document. This authenticity, nevertheless, is entirely relative. The work is authentic in this sense: it was signed by the patriarch and by several metropolitans. But: (1) It was not drafted by the synod of June 10, 1341; (2) It gives a skewed and interpolated account of what took place at that synod; (3) It breathes the atmosphere of the Palamite conciliabulum of August, after which Palamas and his followers composed it. This accounts for the title given by the manuscripts: Συνοδικὸς τόμος γεγραμμένος ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐξελεγξάσαις καὶ ἀποβαλλομέναις τὴν τοῦ Βαρλαὰμ καὶ Ἀκινδύνου μεγάλαις συνόδοις.

Continued …

2 Responses to “1. The two councils of 1341”

  1. As far as the “superior” and “lesser” deity quotation is concerned, A. N. Williams, in her book “The Ground of Union,” states that the authenticity of the quotation is questioned by some scholars (see page 14).

  2. Stan Ziobro Says:

    Unless any progress has been made in determining the authenticity or falsity of this phrase and settling the matter the reservations of some scholars can be prudently accepted simply as reservations based on some degree of probability. This caution in itself does not really prove anything. That said, I wonder if this Palamite articulation might be grounds for some other theological doctrine, namely, an indicator of some concept of created grace?

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