A postscript

June 29, 2009

I wish to acknowledge publicly that my language towards Photios Jones in the exchange over my last post was intemperate and uncalled-for. I do not presume to know who is saved and who is damned; that is a judgment which belongs only to the Lord Jesus Christ to make. If I in fact believed that Mr. Jones were eternally reprobate, I would not pray for him, as I have done and shall continue to do. I do strongly reject his ecclesiastical position; but it may well be that the Lord will account him a more righteous man than myself. If he is in schism, it is possible that I am as well, and with less justification.

For some time now, I have come to think that Rome’s claims to Petrine authority are essentially legitimate. I also think that the Orthodox Church is a true Church, and in many ways preserves more of genuine Christian life and piety than I am able to perceive elsewhere. It has nurtured my life in Christ, and I am unwilling to leave it for something that I would only perceive as a pale substitute and that might leave me feeling spiritually lost. Such a position might be condemned as cowardly and hypocritical and inconsistent, and in fact is condemned as such by Photios Jones, and probably by others; but I hope that, at least, I have been up-front about it. I would like to see a union between the Churches, in truth and peace; I do not want to see a union that results in reducing the Orthodox Church to something it is not. I have thought that the approach John Bekkos took to this issue centuries ago deserves, at least, to be understood, and perhaps to be emulated.

Last year, around this time, I discontinued this blog for a period of several months; the thought has occurred now to do the same, or to hang it up altogether. I need to get a real job, and to finish this book on Bekkos; the discussions which I have had with Photios Jones, although they make for good spectator sport, are soul-destroying, and are largely a distraction from my real work. I will probably take some time off from the blog during the coming weeks; there is much sorting out of things I need to do. I ask the readers’ prayers.


In the discussion to a recent post (The debate on Bekkos’s Epigraphs), some skepticism has been expressed concerning an identification, made by theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Bessarion of Nicaea, between God’s will and God’s being. For this reason, I thought I would present here a couple of passages which show St. Cyril of Alexandria asserting this very identification; i.e., he explicitly states that God is whatever he has, and that will and being in God are the same. A strong view of divine simplicity is traditional Christian theology, not a medieval, Latin invention or a Platonizing corruption.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Dialogues on the Trinity (Ad Hermiam), book V; SC 237 (de Durand, ed.), p. 290; PG 75, 945 C.

Hermias. And how, they say, is the divine simple if, in existence on the one hand and in will on the other, it is conceived of separately? For then it would be composite and as though it existed, in a way, out of parts that had come together into a closer unity. Β. Καὶ πῶς ἂν εἴη τὸ θεῖον ἁπλοῦν εἰ καὶ ἐν ὑπάρξει νοοῖτο, φησί, καὶ ἐν θελήσει διωρισμένους; Σύνθετον γὰρ ἤδη καὶ οἱονεί πως ἐκ μερῶν εἱς ἓν τὸ ἀρτίως ἔχον συνδεδραμηκότοιν.
Cyril. Therefore, since, in your view, the divine is simple and exists above all composition (and this view of yours is correct), his will is nothing other than he himself. And if someone says “will,” he indicates the nature of God the Father. Α. Οὐκοῦν, ἐπειδήπερ ἁπλοῦν τὸ θεῖον καὶ ἄμεινον ἢ κατὰ σύνθεσιν εἶναί σοι δοκεῖ (δοκεῖ δὲ ὀρθῶς), οὐχ ἑτέρα παρ᾽ αὐτὸ εἴη ἂν ἡ βούλησις αὐτοῦ. Θέλησιν δέ τις εἰπών, τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ Πατρὸς κατεσήμηνε φύσιν.
Hermias. So it would appear. Β. Ἔοικεν.
* * *

St. Cyril, Dialogues on the Trinity, book VII; SC 246 (de Durand, ed.), pp. 200-202; PG 75, 1109 B-C.

Cyril. How then can that by which and in which God accomplishes his operations with regard to the creation and makes himself known as Creator of all things be a creature, subject to becoming? For perhaps it is already time for us to make this claim. If they pretend that such is the state of things, they will be obliged, even unwillingly, to confess the created character of the divine energy. And what is the consequence? An odious blasphemy, opinions opposed to good sense, good for bringing an accusation of the height of stupidity. For if one is not too poorly endowed with the decency which befits wise men, one will say that the divine being is properly and primarily simple and incomposite; one will not, dear friend, venture to think that it is composed out of nature and energy, as though, in the case of the divine, these are naturally other; one will believe that it exists as entirely one thing with all that it substantially possesses. Thus, if anyone says that his energy, that is, his Spirit, is something created and made, even while it belongs to him in a proper sense, then the Deity, surely, will be a creature, given that his operation is no other thing than he himself. Isn’t the claim abominable and hateful, and one which has a great tendency towards practical impiety? Α. Πῶς οὖν ἄρα τὸ δι᾽ οὗ καὶ ἐν ῷ Θεὸς ἐνεργὸς περὶ τὴν κτίσιν καὶ τῶν ὅλων ὁρᾶται δημιουργὸς γενητὸν ἂν εἴη καὶ ἐκτισμένον; Ὥρα γὰρ ἤδη πως ἡμᾶς εἰπεῖν ὡς, εἴπερ ὧδε ἔχειν ἐροῦσι τὸ χρῆμα, κτιστὴν εἶναι τοῦ Θεοῦ τὴν ἐνέργειαν καὶ οὐχ ἑκόντες ὁμολογήσουσι. Καὶ τί τὸ ἐντεῦθεν; Θεομισὴς δυσφημία, παλίμφημοι δόξαι, καὶ τῆς εἰς ἄκρον ἡκούσης ἀμαθίας ἐγκλήματα. Ἐρεῖ γάρ, οἶμαι, τὶς τῆς ἀνδράσι πρεπούσης σοφοῖς εὐκοσμίας ἠφειδηκὼς ἁπλοῦν καὶ ἀσύνθετον κυρίως τε καὶ πρώτως τὸ Θεῖον, ὦ τᾶν, οὐκ ἐκ φύσεως καὶ ἐνεργείας ὡς παρ᾽ αὐτὸ φυσικῶς ἑτέρας συντεθεῖσθαι νοούμενον, ἀλλ᾽ ἕν τι τὸ σύμπαν ὑπάρχειν μεθ᾽ ὧν ἂν οὐσιωδῶς ἔχοι πεπιστευμένον. Οὐκοῦν εἰ λέγοιτο κτιστὴν καὶ πεποιημένην τὴν ἐνέργειαν ἔχειν, ἰδίαν οὖσαν αὐτοῦ, τουτέστι τὸ Πνεῦμα, καὶ αὐτό που πάντως ἔσται κτιστόν, ἐπεὶ μὴ ἕτερόν τι παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ ἐνεργὲς αὐτοῦ. Ἆρ᾽ οὐ στυγητὸς καὶ ἀπεχθὴς ὁ λόγος, καὶ πολὺ διανενευκὼς εἰς τὸ πεποιῆσθαι δυσσεβῶς;

A visit to Brooklyn

June 11, 2009

Near Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a place I have often visited, and which I visited again some weeks ago on my way back to New Jersey at the end of a brief trip to Long Island: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Since my return to the Northeast in 2005 after seven years of teaching in New Mexico, I have probably spent more time at this garden than at any other place in New York City, with the possible exception of the New York Public Library; at one point I contemplated moving to Brooklyn and taking a job there, which I have not done and probably shall not do, chiefly because my horticultural skills are nonexistent. But this has not prevented me from enjoying the garden; and since it was a bright spring day, and my birthday was approaching, and I had not been to the garden in some time, I made a point of stopping there.

The scriptures, of course, speak of the first man as a gardener, someone whose original task was “to dress and keep” the garden in which he had been put (Gen 2:15) — more literally, “to work it and to keep it,” לעבדה ולשמרה, le-ovdha ve-le-shomrha, LXX ἐργάζεσθαι αὐτὸν καὶ φυλάσσειν. The same verb עבד occurs, for the first time in the Bible, at v. 5 of the same chapter, where it says that “there was not a man to till [to work, le-avod] the ground”; man is there presented as a being whose essential activity, as his name adam suggests, is to work the ground, ha-adamah, to get it to do the thing it is meant to do, i.e., produce beautiful and healthful plants. From the verb עבד is derived the feminine abstract noun עבודה avodah, “service,” which, in the Septuagint, usually gets translated by the Greek word λειτουργία, from which we get the English word “liturgy.” So it might be inferred that liturgical prayer is itself a form of gardening, a working of the ground of the heart, although, admittedly, such an inference would not hold up in a book of logic.

St. Gregory the Theologian, in his poem On the Soul, interprets man’s original employment as a gardener in a particular way. The poem speaks of God having created man to be a being partaking in both the material and the spiritual worlds, a being of a mixed constitution who, because of this dual nature, exhibits a longing directed towards both heaven and earth. Having given man this evenly balanced nature, God also gave him an internal law, and placed him “in the vales of an ever-verdant paradise, … observing which direction he’d incline” (Poem 1.1.8, De anima, vv. 101-103; PG 37, 454). As for the paradisiacal garden, Gregory says, “it is the heavenly life, it seems to me. So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words,” λόγων δρηστῆρα γεωργόν (ibid., vv. 105-106). The word δρηστῆρα, in one sense, implies that Adam was placed in the garden to be a doer of God’s words, to live a life of practical virtue. But I have translated it as “cultivating” God’s words, his λόγοι, in keeping with what St. Gregory states in his Oration 38.12 (PG 36, 324B): Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is perhaps meant the Divine Conceptions (θείων ἐννοιῶν), both the simpler and the more perfect.” Man’s original, Edenic activity was, on St. Gregory’s view, to contemplate the divine reasons of things, and, by perceiving them, to catch a reflection of the glory of God.

Perhaps it was this original Adamic task that drew me to the garden in Brooklyn on that bright afternoon some weeks ago, although I confess that, in recent months, my ability to perceive the divine reasons of things has been very sporadic and limited. Perhaps I have had too many other things on my mind to fulfill that Adamic task in the proper way.

I stayed at the garden only about an hour and a half, having arrived there in the middle of the afternoon and not wanting to get caught in rush-hour traffic. In driving there, I passed by various examples of New York life and death: vast marble cemeteries; some Hispanic men playing baseball; a car with a bumper-sticker that read “Islam is the answer”; a Torah scholar, gaunt, black-clad, with a long black beard, looking strangely other-worldly, sitting on a park bench in front of a yeshiva.

At the garden, I bought three cheap books (two on recycling and one on composting), had lunch (a bowl of split-pea soup), and then walked around, observing the plants and the people. The boughs of a dark Canadian hemlock hung down over the walkway: a beautiful tree, but poisonous (remember Socrates). Two women in the rose garden wore hats that reminded me of those seen in photographs from my grandmother’s day. Mothers pushed their baby-carriages and talked on their cellphones. I stopped for awhile at the Japanese pond, one of the most beautiful spots in the garden, a place where people invariably take pictures and have their picture taken; a wooden, covered shelter there extends over the water, from which one can gaze down upon the goldfish swimming below, which gather when they see a tourist, knowing from experience that tourists frequently ignore the sign that tells them not to feed the fish. Some visitors there were speaking Modern Greek; a Spanish woman, who pronounced her “c”s as “th”s, was telling her young daughter, in Spanish, to behave.

I also took a walk through the “Shakespeare Garden,” a small enclosure that apparently contains specimens of all the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was in that garden, some two decades ago, that I bumped into the elder sister of a friend of mine from college. Elaine Gluckman always impressed me as a kind and gentle person, a sort of Leah to her sister’s Rachel. She told me there, with evident joy, about her upcoming marriage. About a year later I learned that she had died in childbirth; her son survived, and has been raised by his father. Perhaps she was actually the Rachel (cf. Gen. 35:16-20).

There are many things I do not understand. Perhaps the greatest attraction of a botanical garden is that plants do not say anything. They challenge one’s assumption that all of life is susceptible to analysis and explanation. If one is to perceive the λόγοι of plants, their speech, in which they declare their nature and show the divine glory, one clearly has to go about it in a different way than is usually done in this world of instant information and constant self-assertion. One has to learn great patience, something I still lack.

God willing, at some point I will attain that necessary patience and humility, so as to perceive God’s reasons, and God’s glory, in plants and people. For the present, much of what I ought to understand seems strange and inexplicable.

Gregory Palamas, Antepigraphae, with rebuttals by Bessarion of Nicaea

Translated from the text in Hugo Laemmer, ed., Scriptorum Graeciae Orthodoxae Bibliotheca Selecta, tomus primus (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1866), pp. 445-483.

The following comments by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and Bessarion of Nicaea (1403-1472) on John Bekkos’s first Epigraph were written something like a hundred years apart; Palamas wrote his criticism of Bekkos in the 1340s; Bessarion, most likely, wrote his defense of him in the 1440s, sometime after the Council of Florence. Bekkos put together his patristic dossier, the Epigraphs, in the mid-1270s. The three texts are often printed together; I have tried to do something like that here with the present translations, by providing a hypertext link. Note that I have only provided a translation here for the first of Bekkos’s thirteen Epigraphs, and the discussion connected with it; there are twelve more. But these three documents will, I hope, suffice as a brief introduction to the debate.

Palamas: Refutation of Bekkos’s first Epigraph

When, in theology, “from” and “through” are equivalent with each other, they indicate neither division nor difference in the Holy Trinity, but rather the Trinity’s unity and invariability which is according to nature and oneness of will; for from this it is shown that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of one and the same nature, and power, and energy, and will. But he who has here copied down the sayings of the saints, and thus prefaces them, attempts to demonstrate, wickedly and impiously, the difference of the divine hypostases through the equivalence of such prepositions and because the Holy Spirit, one of the three hypostases worthy of worship, has existence from two hypostases, and from each of them in a different way. Plainly, therefore, the statements of the saints are, in themselves, pious and good; but they are taken in a wicked and impious manner by the man who has collected them and introduced them here.

But that this preposition “through,” when it has the same force as “from,” indicates the union and inalterableness in everything, the divine Maximus shows clearly concerning certain people who were saying that the Spirit is from the Son, when, writing to Marinus, he demonstrated that they were not making the Son out to be a cause: “for they know one cause of the Son and Spirit, the Father; but so that they might show the coming forth through him, and might make clear by this the coherence and the inalterableness of the substance.” Therefore it is clear from this that this Bekkos takes such statements in an impious way; for he attempts to infer from these things, not the coherence and inalterableness of the hypostases, but their difference. Nor does he believe Basil the Great. For, in one of the chapters of his book to Amphilochius, he says, “The fact that the Father creates through the Son neither constitutes the Father’s creating as imperfect, nor does it signify the Son’s activity as inefficacious; but it shows forth the united character of their will. Thus, the expression ‘through the Son’ involves an acknowledgment of the primary cause; it is not assumed as an accusation against the creative cause.” He, therefore, who says that the Spirit comes forth from the Son and through the Son according to the bestowal and common counsel of the Father and the Son shows this rightly; for it is the good pleasure of the Father and the Son, and, with the common good pleasure of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is supplied to those who are worthy. But these Latinophrones, inferring in their drunkenmindedness that “through the Son” and “from the Son” indicate existence, impiously construe the Holy Spirit to exist necessarily as a work and creature of good pleasure and of will, but not as the fruit of the divine nature; for, according to the holy Damascene, the creation is a work of the divine will, but the Godhead is not, God forbid. For neither, again, are the preeternal and everlasting begetting and procession, according to him, of the divine will, but of the divine nature.

Bessarion, archbishop of Nicaea, against Palamas’s arguments against Bekkos

This fine gentleman is completely unable to look square in the face of these texts which affirm the Holy Spirit to be from the Son and to proceed from the Father through the Son, nor at what has been inferred from them. How could he, given that they are so many and of such clear truth? Wrongly and without any reason he gets stuck on the equivalence of “through” and “from”; and by constructing his refutation out of insults, he thinks that he has done something to the purpose, when all he has done is to give a “wicked and impious” interpretation of the mind of the saints, and to malign the wise man who collected these sayings and affixed to them their inscriptions. But, as for rendering a reason for what he says, of this he is incapable.

But, although he recognizes that, when the word “through” is equivalent to “from” in matters of theology, it makes known the union and invariableness and unanimity which are found in the Holy Trinity, he supposes that this word “through” cannot apply, in this sense, to the procession from the Father through the Son. Or else he presumes that we think the word does apply in this sense, but not for aforesaid reason, but, instead, to introduce discrimination and division and opposition and disharmony. From the things he says, it is pretty clear that that is what he thinks; or rather, he plainly states that he shows us, in this way, to hold the view that the Spirit has existence from the two hypostases, Father and Son, in different ways. I don’t know where and when he has heard this thing said, “in different ways.” (This is how he thinks he can attack us in theology.) But perhaps he thinks this thing himself, when he says that the world exists from the Father through the Son. For I fail to see the reason why, in the case of the creation, the word “through,” which carries the same force as “from,” exhibits the persons’ identity while at the same time manifesting their distinction — for this is something he himself will not deny — yet in the case of the Spirit the term indicates otherness and distinction, purely and simply.

And he lacks all shame when, in opposition to himself, he produces Basil the Great testifying that the expression “through the Son” involves an acknowledgment of the initial cause. But as for us, we most definitely affirm that the Holy Spirit possesses existence from these two hypostases, the Father and the Son. For nothing operates, except insofar as it is particular and individual; and, in respect of this, the Father and the Son are two. But that the Holy Spirit comes forth from them in different ways, this we will not admit, so long as we hear the saints calling the Spirit the “natural energy” of the Son, just as he is the energy of the Father. And by all means we believe that there is one energy of the Father and the Son; otherwise, he who says that the world exists from the Father and the Son and the Spirit — or, from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit — would not say that it has been created from the three hypostases in a single way; rather, he might well say that it has been created [in different] manners by each of the three.

But if he wonders why, if the term “through” makes known their identity and oneness of will, we wish to show through this term that the Son is cause of the Holy Spirit’s existence, let him first wonder at himself, why, when he says that the world has come to be through the Son, he then supposes the Son to be the cause of the world’s production, in view of the meaning of this word “through” — or else let him say that the Son is not cause of the things that are, and let one bad error cure another.

But then he brings in the testimony of the divine Maximus, a testimony without any bearing upon the subject at hand. For we, too, might say that the term “through” makes known the unity and the invariableness of the substance of the Father and the Son. For we know that a certain order and relationship is shown, and rightly shown, through the term “through,” which is the grounds for which the term is spoken, in addition to the grounds for which we use the term “from.” Now this very thing, the identity and invariableness, is the cause, both of the Son’s sharing this ability with the Father, and of the Spirit’s coming-forth through him. For according to the divine Cyril it is from both, i.e., from the Father through the Son — and according to this same Maximus, it is from the Father and the Son, and so accordingly from the Father through the Son — that the Spirit proceeds, that is, has existence [huparxis]. For he himself would say that “to proceed” means “to have existence,” and especially according to those who choose to apply this word for the existence of the Spirit. But if the teacher [i.e., Maximus] says he does not make the Son, but the Father, to be the Spirit’s cause, you would not be surprised if you would bear in mind the Greek language, and what it is that this language customarily means when it employs this word “cause.” For, plainly, it is the initial and primary cause and fountain and root of each thing which is chiefly called its “cause”; and that only the Father exists as such a cause, who would dispute? And this is clear from the following consideration: no mature Christian would deny that both the Son and the Spirit exist as cause of the creation. But Gregory the Theologian says:

“God subsists in three who are Supreme: in the Cause and the Creator and the Perfecter — I mean, in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit.”

But when you hear that the Father is the primary cause, do not then suppose that even those who do not wish to do so say that the Son puts forth the Spirit differently, because he is not the primary cause: for this is something that applies also in the case of the creation, and, absolutely, of all things which the Son possesses. For, although the Son is not the primary cause of the creation, nevertheless — if in fact all things that the Father possesses in a paternal, uncaused way the Son possesses in a caused way and filially— he himself is cause, and, together with the Father, one cause of the things that are; and the term “through” makes known his sameness and oneness of will, no less than it shows the distinction of the persons.

But as to what he says, that we say that the Spirit is a work of divine will and therefore a creature, because we present to the mind the identity of will, I cannot tell if anyone other than himself would be persuaded by this. For if he thinks that, because the word “through” indicates will, the Spirit will be inferred to be a creature, why will the Spirit not be rather a divine nature, and glorified by us, because the word “through” presents to the mind the identity of substance? And indeed, the expression, which he has taken from the great Maximus, teaches us to show rather their substantial identity; for he says, “so that they may exhibit before the mind the coherence and the invariability of the substance.” And even if “through” only showed the identity of their will, even in this case nothing absurd would follow, when it is understood that, in God, will and substance are the same. For no one would not agree that this power is more simple and higher than all others. And who does not know that every power so far is accounted the greater, by the degree to which it is simpler and higher? And from this, also, it follows that the will of God, in relation to the Son and the Spirit, has the character of nature, while, in relation to the creation, it has the character of will. For it is evident that every will, and the divine will itself, stands, as nature, in relation to an end, willing it in a definite way, just as nature also tends towards a single, definite thing which is proper to it. But the end of the willing of God the Father is the Son and the Spirit: towards these, as nature, it is necessarily directed. But, in the case of those things which exist in relation to the end, and especially those things without which the end can be reached, such as are the creatures (for these contribute nothing either to the being of God or to God’s being better), towards these the will is directed, not in a defined way, and for this reason it has, in this case, the status of will: for it can both will these things and not will them. Thus, both the things said by Damascene are preserved, and we are free from all accusation, and the argument against us states nothing necessary. Thus, in thinking that he says something, he ends up speaking against himself.