Nadal Cañellas on Meyendorff

May 30, 2009

The following passage is translated from Juan Nadal Cañellas, La résistance d’Akindynos à Grégoire Palamas. Enquête historique, avec traduction et commentaire de quatre traités édités récemment. Volume 2: Commentaire historique. (Leuven 2006), pp. 93-96. Nadal Cañellas’s book gives an historical introduction to his translation of Gregory Akindynos’s four Antirrhetic Treatises against Gregory Palamas (the Greek text of which he also edited, Corpus Christianorum series graeca, vol. 31). The book, a work of great erudition, deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world. Nadal Cañellas frequently takes issue with the late Archpriest John Meyendorff’s reading of the Palamite controversy; the following paragraphs are presented as a brief specimen of his argumentation.

For many authors, the climactic moment of opposition between the humanists and those who have come to be called hesychasts coincides with the polemics surrounding Gregory Palamas. The person who insisted most strongly upon this opposition, presenting it as two permanently irreconcilable positions, was Fr. John Meyendorff. His intention was clear: to reassert the value of the theology of Gregory Palamas, the inheritor and possessor, in his view, of the great spiritual values of the Christian East, faced with what Meyendorff at least took to be the rational, nominalist, paganizing thought of the Byzantine humanists, precursors of a laicizing thought which, in the West, led to the Italian renaissance:

“Byzantine humanism, if it had been free to develop, would probably have carried Byzantine culture in the same direction as that followed by Italian and thereafter all Western culture. It was the fate of this humanism to nourish the Renaissance in Italy, but, at Byzantium, to run up against the fierce opposition of the monks.” [1] “Moreover, Byzantine humanism was not completely drowned under the Palamite waves, and it was able to produce in the fifteenth century such an astonishing phenomenon as the neo-paganism of Gemisthos Plethon. Nevertheless, there were at stake principles already heralding the advent of the modern world in the dispute between Barlaam and Palamas, and, very often, it was those principles which divided the supporters of Palamism from his adversaries. The humanists, in fact, started from the assumption of a sort of autonomy for human reason, and its independence in relation to a God whom they conceived as some impenetrable and inaccessible Essence. The union of God and man, realized once for all in the person of Christ, and divine action, effective and real, among humanity regenerated by baptism, played no decisive part in their thought. The hesychasts, [on the other hand,] were defending a conception of Christianity inherited from the Fathers, which left no form of human activity outside the sphere of God’s action. The idea of a complete ‘collaboration’ (συνεργία) between these two activities was indeed the special message of Palamism.” [2]

While we do not disregard the real conflict between the two spiritualities in question, we nevertheless do not believe that such categorical assertions can command assent. We are convinced that the truth obliges us to differentiate shades of meaning. Once again, it is Fr. Meyendorff who asserts:

“Akindynos’s letters give us a vivid picture of the … adversaries of Palamism; … none of them was a Latinophron, still less a Byzantine Thomist. As we shall show later, they were recruited partly from the advocates of profane humanism, and partly from the defenders of a Byzantine neo-scholasticism; for the latter every living expression and every dynamic thought, even if it had a solid Patristic basis, was suspect of heresy. Barlaam and Akindynos were very characteristic representatives of these two attitudes.” [3]

Many authors have taken an interest in the Palamite dispute and have spoken about it without having gained a deep acquaintance with it; on this unstable basis, Meyendorff’s apodictic assertions have seemed to carry considerable authority. It is nevertheless dangerous to speak ex cathedra when one’s assertions cannot be sustained in the light of the facts. For Meyendorff, for example, the humanists’ characteristic trait, as we have just heard him say, was to start from “the assumption of a sort of autonomy for human reason, and its independence in relation to a God whom they conceived as some impenetrable and inaccessible Essence” [4]; “the union of God and man, realized once for all in the person of Christ, … played no decisive part in their thought.” [5] One may ask if traits such as these truly characterize Akindynos or even Barlaam. How well-founded, in fact, are Palamas’s accusations against them, and Meyendorff’s more recent ones, which charge them with being quintessential representatives of these attitudes?

Antonio Fyrigos, in the introduction to his edition of Barlaam’s Letters to Palamas, already noted that there are prejudices that are difficult to overturn. [6] It does not seem possible to affirm, purely and simply, that Barlaam placed reason above revelation or that he accorded more authority to pagan authors than to the Fathers of the Church. It was Palamas who said this, and it was a calumny; Barlaam, in reply, wrote to him:

“The wrongs of which you accuse me, most unjustly — and I fail to understand how your priestly soul was able to contrive such things against a Christian and a friend — are the following: while, for my own part, I spoke about divine things with all devotion, veneration, and godly fear, as befits all those who know themselves, and while, in particular, all things I spoke concerning demonstration were spoken in defense of the Fathers, since I found it hard to bear if anyone placed a higher value on demonstrations than on [the Fathers’] words, you, for your part, interpreted my whole discourse as though, having premised a comparison between our holy Fathers and the philosophers and asked which of them one ought to follow, I had preferred to devote my mind to the pagans, whereas you had thought it necessary that argument be made on behalf of the Fathers, giving the view that one must hold to them more than to anyone else. And, because of these things, on the one hand you place me among the ranks of the pagans whom you condemn, on the other hand you represent me as being opposed to those Fathers for whom you claim to fight, and you make pretense of being moved with divine zeal to anger for their sake, as though they had been injured by me. Having interpreted in this way my whole discourse, from start to finish, as far as in you lay you removed from me all possibility of appearing a pious man. For all those who have been won over to an opinion of your righteousness, when they read your letter and have not yet bothered to examine my own writings, will be led to believe deplorable things about me as far as concerns my faith. In fact, even now, upon my arrival in Thessalonica, I have found no small number who, upon your word, have been persuaded to condemn me as an enemy of religion.” [7] “In saying these things, you are well aware that all those who, in the future, will read your treatise will have of me the idea that this Italian Barlaam was an oddball who, pretending to believe in the Christian doctrines, was in reality a pure pagan, since he considered the thesis of the Greeks concerning the indemonstrability of the divine as more devout and pious than the view of its demonstrability maintained by the Fathers.” [8]

Barlaam can hardly be accused of profane humanism or of rationalism and neo-scholasticism; Akindynos and the Princess Irene-Eulogia and, in turn, their disciples and all those who were unwilling to accept Palamas’s doctrines were even less deserving of this accusation.


[1] J. Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY, 1974), p. 27.

[2] Ibid.; translation slightly revised.

[3] Op. cit., p. 48.

[4] Op. cit., p. 27.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “In fact the greatness of Gregory Palamas creates, for someone who would approach questions concerning Barlaam, prejudices against the Calabrian philosopher, which only now are beginning to be overcome through objective research. Among these prejudices, one of the most undying ones holds that Barlaam was an odd personality who, preferring the pagan philosophers to the Fathers of the Church, fell into a radical agnosticism.” A. Fyrigos, ed., Barlaam Calabro: Epistole a Palamas (Rome 1975), p. v.

[7] Second Letter to Palamas, 24; Fyrigos, Epistole a Palamas, 124, 501 – 126, 520.

[8] Ibid., 27; Fyrigos, Epistole a Palamas, 132, 602-607.

4 Responses to “Nadal Cañellas on Meyendorff”

  1. bekkos Says:

    I came across today a book review of Nadal-Cañellas’s translation and study of Akindynos, by the Byzantinist Ioannis Polemis, in the October 2007 issue of Byzantinische Zeitschrift, pp. 241-247. The first page of this review is accessible on-line at I will quote the first paragraph of Polemis’s review:

    “This is a work of primary importance for the study of the Palamite controversies. Nadal (N.) offers a most accurate translation of the refutation of the palamite Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite by Gregory Akindynos (published previously in CCSG, 31), as well as a painstaking analysis of the main documents relating to the early period of Akindynos’ disputes with Palamas, correcting many errors of previous scholars and helping to redress the balance in favor of Akindynos, an important theologian, who had been unjustly treated in the past by J. Meyendorff, and those influenced by him. The objective and thorough examination of the relevant documents undertaken by N. reveals the extent of Palamas’ machinations against his opponents, who were unwilling to share his highly unconventional, to say the least, theories concerning the distinction between divine essence and divine energies. I think that no serious scholar will be in a position to dispute the interpretation of this crucial episode of Byzantine intellectual history, put forward by N.”

  2. bekkos Says:

    I also now find that large samples of Nadal-Cañellas’s French translation are to be found on-line in Google Books, at the following address:

  3. evagrius Says:

    I was hoping to obtain the two books at my library but, alas, they are not available and, as further searching revealed, don’t seem to be available in any library outside Germany.

    I did read a review in The Journal of Theological Studies by Andrew Louth, ( vol 58), 2007, where Louth is in substantial agreement with the review referred to above. He points out some interesting facts. It seems that Akinydos was himself a hesychast and a spiritual director to some of the Imperial Court. From that, it seems to me that the dispute between him and Palamas is not about hesychasm per se but its interpretation or perhaps its raison d’etre. According to Louth,Nadal-Cannellas seems to think Palamas was influenced by a “Messalian” interpretation of theology which stressed experience over doctrine, as it were. Louth is somewhat skeptical. On the other hand, Louth does see value in the work in that it is one more piece of evidence that will require scholars to reevalute Meyendorff’s interpretation of the hesychast controversy.
    I wish to thank you for bringing up this somewhat obscure information since it makes one reflect once more on some very deep questions about prayer and theology.

  4. bekkos Says:


    See if your library is able to obtain them on interlibrary loan from Princeton Theological Seminary. That’s where I first found them.


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