On the Cappadocians and Eunomius

February 23, 2008

I apologize for neglecting this blog over the past couple of weeks; in part, this has been due to family business (a funeral), and, in part, it may be ascribed to the fact that I need to start making a living, and have been looking at various ways of doing that; I took on a small editing job this past week, which is likely to preoccupy me for much of the coming month. But I have been meaning in particular to reply to the postings of the authors of the Energies of the Trinity blog, which have been accumulating for some time now at the bottom of my notes about St. Maximus on the filioque. The great question on my mind, in considering how to reply to them, is how to avoid empty polemics. The authors of this blog, Photios Jones and Perry Robinson, present a Photian and Palamite reading of the fathers, and argue that anyone who reads the fathers differently has misread them; I disagree with them. The grounds of my disagreement are complex, because the fathers are complex and their meaning is often difficult to unravel; at the same time, these complex grounds of disagreement center upon the question of divine simplicity. The claim made by Jones and Robinson is that a doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, such as one finds it in St. Augustine and later in Aquinas, is inconsistent with the traditional trinitarian teaching of the Church and in fact represents a surreptitious importation of pagan emanationism into Christian theology. To put it in other words, if Augustine and Aquinas are right in what they say about divine simplicity, then (according to the Neo-Palamite critique) God is not free, and the world is not contingent.

Defenders of the Palamite doctrine, who maintain an eternal, real distinction in God between essence and energies and assert that this provides the only true ontological basis for understanding divine freedom, routinely appeal to the witness of certain patristic texts. Of these texts, probably the most famous is that of St. Basil in his Letter 234 to Amphilochius of Iconium. In this letter, St. Basil answers a dilemma of the radical Arian Eunomius (“Do you worship what you know, or what you don’t know?” Compare Plato’s Meno) by distinguishing between God’s essence, which remains beyond our comprehension, and the activities or “energies” of God, on the basis of which we predicate of God that he is wise, good, powerful, just, and so on. Basil says:

“The activities are various, and the essence simple; but we say that we know God from his activities, but do not undertake to approach near to his essence. His activities (“energies”) come down to us, but his essence remains beyond our reach.” Ἀλλ᾽ αἱ μὲν ἐνέργειαι ποικίλαι, ἡ δὲ οὐσία ἁπλῆ. Ἡμεῖς δὲ ἐκ μὲν τῶν ἐνεργειῶν γνωρίζειν λέγομεν τὸν Θεὸν ἡμῶν, τῇ δὲ οὐσίᾳ αὐτῇ προσεγγίζειν οὐχ ὑπισχνούμεθα. Αἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐνέργειαι αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἡμᾶς καταβαίνουσιν, ἡ δὲ οὐσία αὐτοῦ μένει ἀπρόσιτος (PG 32, 869 A-B).

The fact that St. Basil distinguishes here between essence and energies is plain; what he means by this distinction, and how far he is pushing it into the heart of divine being itself, is debatable. My own considered opinion, as a student of the fathers, is that the basic Palamite reading of this text, which arose from the concern to defend the ascetic practices of hesychast monks, bears little relationship to the ends to which St. Basil is directing his argument in this letter. Basil is not denying divine simplicity in this or the subsequent letter, but he does deny the adequacy of our complex, discursive reason to express and know that simple God in his inmost reality. His account of how we know God in Letters 234 and 235 says nothing about mystical visions of light, and a lot about making valid inferences from everyday experience. (Not that Basil would deny mystical visions of light, but that is not, in any obvious sense, what he is talking about here.) And there is absolutely no assertion, whether in these letters or, to my knowledge, in any other text of the Cappadocian fathers, that a strong doctrine of divine simplicity compromises divine freedom and creaturely contingency.

Rather than pursue this argument further, since, unlike Messers. Jones and Robinson, I am not writing a dissertation on divine simplicity and I have other business to attend to, I thought it would be useful, and shed more light upon the subject, to present in this blog the analysis of someone more learned than me, who has looked into this matter in some detail. So yesterday I translated a few pages from an encyclopedia article written in French about a hundred years ago by a man named X. Le Bachelet, about whom I know next to nothing, but whose account of the theological issues at stake in the Cappadocian debate with Eunomius is as succinct and insightful as any I have come across in my years of studying this subject. It should be read as a balance (if not a corrective) to those recent books, like David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West, that give the Cappadocians a strictly Palamite reading. In any case, I give this translation below; I would only note that it is part of a much larger article, and does not comprise the whole even of Le Bachelet’s treatment of the Cappadocian critique of Eunomius. But something of the essentials is there, and something, I think, that is missing from most internet polemics.

X. Le Bachelet

God: His Nature According to the Fathers. The Cappadocians.

Translated from X. Le Bachelet, “Dieu: Sa nature d’après les pères,” in: A. Vacant et al., eds., Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, tome IV (Paris 1911), 1023-1152 (translation of cols. 1082-1085).

d) Cappadocian fathers: St. Basil (✝ 379); St. Gregory of Nazianzus (✝ 389 or 390); St. Gregory of Nyssa (✝ c. 395). –– The special importance of these three doctors of the Church is tied to the role they played in the Anomoean controversy over the divine names and our knowledge of God here in this life. They supplement and complement each another, for there occurred a development in the opposing attack. The adversary was Eunomius, bishop of Cyzicus (✝ 396), the leader of the Anomoeans. (See vol. I, cols. 1322 ff.) Around 360, he published his Ἀπολογητικός (PG 30, 837 ff.) in defense of the fundamental Arian thesis regarding the difference of nature or of essence between the Father and the Son. He takes as his point of departure these opening words of his creed: Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεόν, πατέρα παντοκράτορα, ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα [“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, from whom are all things”] (§ 5, col. 840). But to the confession of one God he then attaches — expressly invoking natural reason and the doctrine of the fathers, κατά τε φυσικὴν ἔννοιαν καὶ κατὰ τὴν τῶν Πατέρων διδασκαλίαν — this qualification: μήτε παρ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ, μήτε παρ᾽ ἑτέρου γενόμενος, “who came into being neither by himself nor by someone else” (§ 7, col. 841). This is, periphrastically, the famous term ἀγέννητος, which he introduces with the goal of establishing that this notion expresses the very essence of God. It is not a mere verbal appellation, like those which correspond to conceptions of the human mind, κατ᾽ ἐπίνοιαν; prior to all our conceptions, and independently of them, God is in reality that which is, ὅ ἐστιν. It is not a privative name; the idea of privation does not accord with God and, besides, presupposes something positive. This term cannot be taken to mean a determinate part, different from some other, in God, who is simple and indivisible. This is why it expresses God’s very essence (§ 8, cols. 841 ff.).

Eunomius next opposes the γεννητὸς Son to the ἀγέννητος Father, alleging that simplicity, immutability, incorruptibility and other properties of the uncreated nature do not allow for the generation of the Son to be understood otherwise than as a creation or production, properly so called (§§ 9 ff., cols. 844 ff.). From this point on, the cause of Arianism is won. If ἀγεννησία, if the fact of being innascible, constitutes the very essence of the Father, the Son, who is not innascible, is necessarily differentiated from the Father, who is; he cannot be God in the same sense. The diversity of names makes manifest the diversity of nature (§ 12, col. 848). Further on in his book (§ 20, col. 856), Eunomius endeavors to support this conclusion with the help of the two distinct methods we possess for judging beings, the first of which consists in considering their essences, the second, in examining their operations [activities, “energies”]. This is not to say that words that differ materially cannot signify the same thing, as, for example, when one says “Being” and “the only true God,” ὡς τὸ ὂν καὶ μόνος ἀληθινὸς Θεός (§ 17, col. 852). Inversely, words which have the same sound are able not to signify the same thing; so, e.g., the words “light,” “life,” or “power,” applied to the Father (uncreated light, etc.) or to the Son (created light, etc.) (§ 19, col. 853).

From this analysis of that which, in Eunomius’s apology, relates most directly to the nature and the knowledge of God, we can see what his fundamental thesis was, and what were its consequences. The thesis was found in this affirmation, that innascibility or aseity, τὸ ἀγέννητον εἶναι, constitutes the very essence of God and that, consequently, the word ἀγέννητος is the true name of God, that which expresses adequately his essence. It would follow that, in knowing this name, one would fully know the divine essence; and this in fact was, as we have seen, the Anomoeans’ pretension. (Cf. Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica, IV.7, PG 67, 473.) As regards the names we give to God, we are faced with the following alternative: either they can truly signify him only by being synonymous with ἀγέννητος, or else, being founded upon conceptions of reason, they are nothing but mere subjective or verbal appellations, without any objective application. On this latter score, Eunomius prefigures the nominalism of the Middle Ages, as Schwane remarks (Histoire des dogmes, tr. Degert, vol. 2, Paris 1904, p. 40). But nothing, whether in the Apology of this heresiarch or in the refutation by St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa, justifies the claim of Cardinal Franzelin, Tractatus de Deo uno, th. X, §1 (Rome, 1876), p. 129, refuted elsewhere by Fr. J. M. Piccirelli, De Deo uno et trino (Naples, 1902), p. 335, namely, that Eunomius’s error was ultimately rooted in a confusion of God with abstract, universal being. The contrary seems rather to follow from the fact that this heretic admitted in God the positive perfections that are found in Holy Scripture, e.g., those of light, life, power, etc., although he did so, as we have seen, while co-opting them into his own conception of things, by adjoining his favorite epithet: uncreated light, uncreated life, uncreated power.

Around the year 364 or 365, St. Basil responded to Eunomius’s Apology with his Ἀνατρεπτικὸς τοῦ Ἀπολογητικοῦ τοῦ δυσσεβοῦς Εὐνομίου λόγος, Adversus Eunomium libri tres (PG 29, 497-669). Ten years later, in 375, he wrote to St. Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, a number of letters, two in particular, which stand as a complement to the earlier work. Eunomius in turn replied with a new apology, Ἀπολογία ὑπὲρ ἀπολογίας, published probably shortly before St. Basil’s death (1 January 379). It is known only by the fragments cited by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the refutation he immediately made of it, Contra Eunomium libri duodecim (PG 45, 243-1122); the fragments are collected, for the most part, by C. H. G. Rettberg, Marcelliana (Göttingen, 1794), pp. 125 ff. They are apologetic in tenor and add few new elements to the doctrine expounded above; but they provide the bishop of Nyssa an occasion for defending the teachings of his venerated brother, and for explaining them more fully on certain points. Finally, around the same period, St. Gregory of Nazianzus pronounced at Constantinople, in 381, his famous Theological Orations, of which the second treats of God and relates directly to the Anomoean controversy. The doctrine that results from this collection of documents can be grouped around four points, touched on successively by St. Basil in his Ἀνατρεπτικός.

a) Ἐπίνοια. “Conceptions” and rational distinctions in God. —— Eunomius had opposed the name innascible (ἀγέννητος) to appellations κατ᾽ ἐπίνοιαν, that is to say, founded upon the conceptions of the human mind. He denied to these appellations all objective value; purely verbal, they have no real existence except in the sounds produced. St. Basil finds himself forced to elucidate the delicate question of conceptions or notions of reason (Adv. Eunom., bk. I, §§ 5 ff., cols. 520 ff.). He starts by asking his adversary what he means by this operation of the mind that is called ἐπίνοια [epinoia]. Does he mean the imagination that creates unreal fictions, like centaurs or chimeras? Even then, Eunomius’s claim would be excessive, since these gross fictions, these beings of pure reason, do not necessarily pass away with the production of their sounds; the memory of them can remain in the mind. Furthermore, one sees here only an imperfect and inferior acceptation of ἐπίνοια; in the usual, and more relevant, sense of the word, it is understood of an operation of the mind that applies itself to a real object, so as to consider it in a more penetrating and more precise manner, τὴν λεπτοτέραν καὶ ἀκριβεστέραν τοῦ νοηθέντος ἐπενθύμησιν (col. 524). It turns out, in fact, that, when presented with an object that first appears to us simple in its concrete reality, our mind then perceives multiple aspects; in a body, for example, it perceives color, form, duration, size, etc. Whence the conceptions and the distinctions of reason, κατ᾽ ἐπίνοιαν (§ 6, cols. 522 ff.). Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself is named door, way, bread, vine, shepherd, and light — notions distinct in their signification, distinct likewise in their foundation according to the diversity of the operations which they presuppose, and according to the Savior’s manifold relationship with the beings that have enjoyed his benefits (§ 7, cols. 524 ff.).

It is these principles which St. Basil applies to the divine names: first to ἀγέννητος, then to the terms “incorruptible,” “infinite,” “immense,” showing the different aspects under which divinity is thus conceived. “Why then deny that one may legitimately form such names, and that they correspond to something real in God,” καὶ ὁμολογίαν εἶναι τοῦ κατ᾽ ἀλήθειαν τῷ Θεῷ προσόντος (ibid., col. 525)? If one rejects these conceptions and these distinctions of reason, it will be necessary to say that all the appellations attributed to God signify equally his substance; that the idea of immutability suggests immediately to the mind that of innascibility, or the idea of indivisibility that of creative power. What could be more absurd than such a confusion? What more opposed to common sense and to revealed doctrine (§ 8, col. 528)?

Divine simplicity would be impaired if, by these multiple names, one claimed to designate diverse parts of God; but we know that, for his own part, God is entirely life, entirely light, entirely goodness. It is therefore only a question of expressing the properties of the divine nature, which is otherwise simple in itself. Otherwise, everything that we speak about God in a distinct manner, in calling him invisible, incorruptible, immutable, creator, just, etc., would all backfire and become an argument against his own proper simplicity (bk. II, § 29, col. 640). Elsewhere, St. Basil insists upon the unity of the [divine] subject, τὸν αὐτὸν ἐνεδείξω, but without taking anything away from the proper notion which attaches to each of the divine names, διὰ τῆς ἑκάστοις ἐνθεωρουμένης ἐμφάσεως (Epist. 189, 5; PG 32, 689). Such is also the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa, when one abstracts from certain ad hominem arguments, as discussed in Petavius, De Deo Deique proprietatibus, bk. I, ch. 7, §§ 5 ff. The unity and the absolute simplicity of the divine nature are not in question; but this nature, which is one and simple in itself, is beyond our power immediately to grasp, nor can we conceive of it or express it by a single notion. Multiplicity arises therefore directly from our mode of understanding, but it has its basis in the eminence and the ineffability of the object (Contra Eunomium, bk. XII; PG 45, cols. 1069, 1077, 1104 f.).

The reply of the heresiarch forced the bishop of Nyssa to revisit certain other points, in particular the concept of ἐπίνοια. Eunomius agreed that it was possible for there to be something else besides simple sounds in the designations of reason, but he limited the force of ἐπίνοια to the mind’s imaginary creations, in its ability to frame for itself monstrosities, pygmies, centaurs (ibid., col. 969). Gregory, taking advantage of this concession, had no difficulty in showing the arbitrariness and illegitimacy of the restriction. Is not ἐπίνοια, above all, this noble and fecund faculty of the mind (a comprehending or interpreting faculty, ἢ τῆς καταληπτικῆς διανοίας, ἢ τῆς ἑρμηνευτικῆς δυνάμεως, col. 1104), which allows one “to discover what one does not know, taking as the starting point for further knowledge that which is associated, by connection or by consequence, to the initial notion one has of a thing?” (col. 970). Thus, when we observe that God, the first cause, cannot come from another, we form a term to express this idea, and we say, concerning that which has no cause above itself, that it exists “without beginning” or “without being produced,” ἀνάρχως εἴτουν ἀγεννήτως (col. 973). Similarly with the other divine names: they correspond to the multiple and various conceptions that we form in order to acquire the knowledge of that which we seek, πρὸς τὴν κατανόησιν τοῦ ζητουμένου θηρεύοντες (col. 957). If these names are without meaning or have but one identical signification, why do the Holy Scriptures give these enumerations where God is called judge, just, good, longsuffering, trustworthy, merciful, and so on? (col. 1069; cf. bk. I, col. 396). Is it not that the Holy Spirit willed that, by this variety and this multiplicity, the sacred writers should guide us to the knowledge of the incorruptible nature? (De professione christiana, PG 46, 241).

These testimonies, whose number it would be easy to augment, give us grounds for taking issue with an assertion advanced by W. Meyer, (Die Gotteslehre des Gregor von Nyssa, p. 16), according to which all our appellations pertaining to God can only be, for the Cappadocian doctor, subjective reflections of the human mind, without metaphysical significance. The passage appealed to, Quod non sint tres dii, PG 45, 121, far from proving this assertion, establishes the opposite. The bishop of Nyssa there maintains, in truth, that none of these names signifies the divine nature itself, but he says at the same time that these names, whether they be of human institution or be furnished to us by Holy Scripture, express one or another of the things one can conceive regarding the divine nature, τῶν τι περὶ τὴν θείαν φύσιν νοουμένῳ ἑρμηνευτικὸν εἶναι λέγομεν, that they have the goal of conducting us to the knowledge of God, and that to each of them attaches a particular meaning, a meaning that concerns what has to do with the divine nature, ἀλλά τι τῶν περὶ αὐτῆς διὰ τῶν λεγομένων γνωρίζεσθαι.

In sum, who would not recognize, in this doctrine of St. Basil and his brother, that which would later, in the language of the scholastics, be called distinctio rationis ratiocinatae or virtualis, cum fundamento in re? And, in Eunomius’s attempt to turn back upon the divine essence itself the formal distinction which is found in our rational conceptions, who would not recognize the error of Plato, noted by St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 84, a. 1, that the form of the concept is the same as that of the object known? Cf. Petavius, op. cit., bk. I, chs. 7-9.

One Response to “On the Cappadocians and Eunomius”

  1. Wei-Hsien Wan Says:

    Dr. Gilbert,

    Your modesty and erudition combine to make your posts both instructive and enjoyable, especially for a beginning student like myself. Thank you for your commitment to the unity of the Body of Christ!


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