The debate on Bekkos’s Epigraphs

June 1, 2009

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.

10 Responses to “The debate on Bekkos’s Epigraphs”

  1. bekkos Says:

    Since nobody else is commenting upon this text, I will do so myself.

    First, I should mention that the Greek text of Palamas’s Antepigraphae is available on the internet, at the following address:,en/. The site prints Palamas’s text together with the Greek text of the “headings” of Bekkos’s Epigraphs, but does not include Bekkos’s patristic references.

    Secondly, on the basis of a reading today of an article by Antonio Rigo (A. Rigo, “La Refutazione di Bessarione delle Antepigraphai di Gregorio Palamas,” in: M. Cortesi and C. Leonardi, eds., Tradizioni Patristiche nell’Umanesimo [Florence 2000], pp. 283-294), I need to correct what is said in this post about the dates of composition of these two works. Concerning the date of Palamas’s Antepigraphae, Rigo decides in favor of the date 1355. (Op. cit., p. 287.) As for Bessarion’s reply to this work, Rigo points out that Bessarion himself states (PG 161, 288 B-C) that he wrote it while he was still Archbishop of Nicaea and not yet a Cardinal. That would put the date of its composition before December 18, 1439. Furthermore, Bessarion seems to have first become acquainted with Bekkos’s Epigraphae in May, 1438, when, in the course of internal debates among the Greek delegation to the Council of Ferrara/Florence, Isidore, Metropolitan of Kiev, handed this work to Bessarion and asked him to read it. The importance of Bekkos’s Epigraphae for Bessarion is evident from the detailed use he made of it in composing his own Dogmatic Oration in favor of union, written in the middle of April 1439 (PG 161, 543A – 612D). Rigo thinks Bessarion wrote his reply to Palamas’s work directly after this, in April or May of 1439. (Rigo, p. 294.) He concludes his article with the following words:

    “La lettura di queste pagine fu di sicuro uno degli eventi che portarono il metropolita di Nicea ad abbandonare le sue posizioni antiunioniste. Le citazioni dei Padri orientali presenti nelle Epigraphai di Bekkos furono certamente uno dei fattori decisivi che spinsero Bessarione e altri membri della delegazione greca ad abbracciare la causa dell’unione.”
    “The reading of these pages was without doubt one of the events that led the metropolitan of Nicaea to abandon his antiunionist positions. The citations from the Eastern fathers presented in Bekkos’s Epigraphs were certainly one of the decisive factors that drove Bessarion and other members of the Greek delegation to embrace the cause of union.”

    Thirdly, Palamas’s essential claim in this passage seems to be that Bekkos, in pointing to patristic passages that speak of the Holy Spirit being “from the Son” and passages equating “through” and “from,” wishes impiously to demonstrate “the difference of the hypostases.” Since Bekkos in fact says nothing of the kind, one is left wondering what Palamas in fact means by this. Presumably, he does not mean that Bekkos is simply trying to demonstrate that the Father is Father and the Son is Son; such a “difference of the hypostases” is perfectly orthodox. Apparently, then, when Palamas speaks of Bekkos trying to show “the difference of the hypostases,” he means that Bekkos is trying secretly to import some difference of nature into the Trinity; by virtue of both the Father and the Son being a source of the being of the Holy Spirit, Bekkos (Palamas claims) is asserting that the Father and the Son are two causes of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is “from each of them in a different way.” Bessarion’s reply to this accusation is essentially the following: if Palamas sees Bekkos’s claims as implying division and difference among the persons, why is the same thing not also implied when the fathers of the Church speak of the Father and the Son together as a single cause in creating the world? Why does creation through or from the Son imply a single cause and yet allow for the distinction between the persons, whereas an assertion of the Holy Spirit’s procession through or from the Son is held to imply either two causes, or a confusion of the persons of Father and Son? Bessarion is here repeating an argument that Bekkos himself makes over and over again in his writings: the basic Photian dilemma, that holds that the Latin doctrine either divides the nature or confuses the persons, is a sophism. It supposes that the ancient doctrine of divine monarchy, of unity of divine cause, which holds that all divine causality is ultimately traceable to the Father although it operates through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, should have one meaning with regard to works ad extra and a radically different meaning in respect to the persons’ own internal relationships. Bekkos thinks that the assumption of such a radical difference is not supported by the evidence of the fathers’ writings; the textual evidence he gathered in his Epigraphs apparently persuaded Bessarion that Bekkos was right.

    A fourth and final point. Towards the end of his refutation, Bessarion raises the much-debated question of divine simplicity. The paragraph seems to betray some influence upon Bessarion of Thomas Aquinas’s writings, which had been translated into Greek in the fourteenth century by the Kydones brothers. According to Aquinas, will and being in God are really identical; nevertheless, this does not imply that God wills all things by a natural necessity. At Summa Theologiæ I, q. 13, art. 3, Aquinas explains why this is so. Just as human beings necessarily will their own happiness, so God necessarily wills his own goodness; moreover, God wills things other than himself (i.e., creatures) insofar as they are ordered to his goodness as an end. But God does not will things other than himself with the same necessity with which he wills his own goodness, since his own goodness does not depend upon the existence of other things; unlike the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Holy Spirit, which are willed necessarily, the production of the world, and of the things in it, is contingent; God is free to will these things or not to will them (although, once he decides to will them, he does not change his mind). The whole issue of the necessity or contingency of God’s willing depends upon the necessity or non-necessity of what is willed to the end of God’s goodness; that is precisely the way Bessarion envisages the problem in this paragraph.

  2. (1) The modality of the will is identical to the divine essence.

    (2) The divine essence is not contigent.

    Ergo, (3) The divine will to create is not contigent.

    Review the Enneads book VI, it’s all very clear and irrefutable. Your just trying to assert (a free creation) what it is that you have to prove.

  3. Veritas Says:


    Great post! I’ve been wanting ever-so-badly to read these text in their entirety. Hopefully, time-permitting, you may be able to provide more translations of this kind? Your work is invaluable to poor-minded fellows such as myslef, who are handicapped by the understanding of a single language. Hopefully with time and a little concentration, this too will pass. Thanks again.



  4. bekkos Says:


    Thanks for the encouragement. If I ever get the book on Bekkos finished and published, I expect the debate between Palamas and Bessarion will be included in it. At present, my translation of it is only partly finished. But I do think it serves as a kind of essential commentary on Bekkos’s Epigraphs.


    Plotinus’s sixth Ennead is a rather large work, occupying a full volume of the Loeb Classical Library (vol. 445). Please be a little more specific in stating what tractate and passage I should look for there that you think confirms your point that Christian theology must hold God’s substance to be metaphysically distinct from God’s will. While you are at it, you might explain why Plotinus’s opinions on the matter, pro or con, should be a deciding factor for Christian thought. Christians agree with Plotinus about various things, e.g., that there are three divine hypostases, and that God is good or the Good; they strongly disagree with him on certain things he says about these hypostases, e.g., his view of them as a ladder of ontological descent. If Christian theology is able to disagree with Plotinus on this point, why is Christian theology obliged to agree with Plotinus on the supposed necessitarian or emanationist consequences of an assertion of absolute divine simplicity?

    For Aquinas, the discussion of God’s willing follows upon the discussion concerning God’s knowing. God knows all things, and he knows them necessarily; but from God’s necessary knowledge of all things it does not follow that all things that he knows are necessary; divine omniscience does not remove contingency from the course of created events, the possibility of their being, or having been, otherwise. The issue of future contingents was first raised by Aristotle, De interpretatione ch. 9; he notes the problem presented by the claim, “There will be a sea-battle tomorrow.” It would seem that that claim has to be either true or false now, before the battle does or does not take place, so as to remove all real potentiality from this and other future events; thus, grammar would imply fate (as it did for the Stoics). Aristotle disagrees; he differentiates the necessity of the disjunctive proposition from the necessity of either alternative. “A sea-fight must either take place tomorrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place tomorrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place; yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place tomorrow.” It seems to me that Aquinas follows Aristotle’s analysis of the problem to the extent that he can; but he faces the additional problem of an omniscient knower, who sees all events as present. Aquinas’s answer to this problem seems to turn upon a differentiation between a thing as known to God in its presentness and the same thing as known in time in its futurity and in its dependency on proximate causes (see esp. ST Ia, q. 14, a. 13, “Whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things?”). Perhaps one will say that this is a dissatisfying answer, that it amounts to saying that God knows an event’s necessity, sub specie aeternitatis, and we don’t. Probably Aquinas would reply that this is not quite what he is saying; it is not just that we don’t know the necessity, but that what we do know, the possibility of things being otherwise, which is what contingency after all means, is real and not illusory.

    In any case, I think Aquinas is wrestling with a genuine problem that has to be faced by anyone who asserts the existence of an omniscient and all-powerful God, which presumably you and other Palamites also want to assert. The Palamite position seems to hold that, by asserting a real distinction in God between essence and energy, one avoids the metaphysical issue of necessitation entirely. I fail to see that. Whether there is or is not an “ineffable distinction” between what God is and what God does, doesn’t one have to face the problem that God eternally, and necessarily, knows, both what he himself does and what creatures are going to do, and address how that necessity of knowing leaves open the freedom for his own and others’ doing? The Christian assertion of divine and creaturely freedom has to take the reality of divine omniscience into account; God does not change his mind, nor move into a state of knowledge from a state of ignorance; nor does he change his mind regarding his own activity of will, moving from non-willing into willing (although, in the created objects of God’s knowledge and will, there is indeed change and real possibility, and this is part of what God knows and wills). Aquinas sees it as necessary to hold the claims of divine and creaturely freedom together with both the claims of divine omniscience and divine simplicity; you seem to be claiming that, if divine and creaturely freedom are to stand, divine simplicity, in the strict, metaphysical sense, has to go. I don’t think you have the weight of Christian tradition on your side; and your little reductionist syllogism will not, I think, convince anyone who sees the complexity of the issue.


  5. […] 22, 2009 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 […]

  6. photios Says:

    “If Christian theology is able to disagree with Plotinus on this point, why is Christian theology obliged to agree with Plotinus on the supposed necessitarian or emanationist consequences of an assertion of absolute divine simplicity?”

    Because it follows *logically* from the view…that’s why I said Plotinus is irrefutable on this point. If Christian theology agreed with him on this presupposition of simplicity, Christian theology would be bogus, but alas, it doesn’t and never did.

    Even if St. Cyril held to the view (not surprising if he did being from Alexandria), that in no wise refutes the argument. Remember, my view is that the full divorce from philsophy and rejection of Origenism doesn’t culminate until the 9th century with the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the anathematization of philosophy as the root paradigm of all heresy with St. Justinian closing the Academy as the typological reference of this refutation. The paradoxical point being that philosophy is competent in its own sphere.

    “I don’t think you have the weight of Christian tradition on your side.”

    I don’t? It is not a doctrine that is in the Church until the intrusion of Middle and Neoplatonism that starts with Origen. It is a doctrine no where in the Apostolic Fathers or Irenaeus. Actually, I don’t think that your view has anything to do with the simple faith of Christianity. In fact, I don’t think the ‘One’ has anything to do with ‘metaphysics’ and ‘religion’ either but rather with ‘sacred science’. As Photios recognized, that stuff was useful for evaluating ‘sensory things,’ i.e. physics.

    “The Christian assertion of divine and creaturely freedom has to take the reality of divine omniscience into account”

    Eriugena has the best account of how to explain divine foreknowledge. Besides, even on a contemporary account, knowledge of a thing is not a cause of a thing.


  7. photios Says:

    “Please be a little more specific in stating what tractate”

    Ennead VI starting with tractate 7 and following the argument to tractate 9. If you think you can refute Plotinus, go for it. I’ve seen nothing but failure in those who have tried.

  8. evagrius Says:

    Origen wasn’t a NeoPlatonist nor influenced by Plotinus.

  9. Konstantin Mallat Says:

    Do you finished your works on the translation of the Epigraphs?

  10. bekkos Says:

    Hello Konstantin.

    I had some time to work on Bekkos this summer, and one of the things I worked on was the Epigraphs; I have put my translations of Epigraphs I through VIII on this blog (see the sidebar). I also have translations of the rest of them (Epigraphs IX-XIII), but I still have work to do to identify all the patristic references and clean up obscurities. When I get done with that, I will put the other Epigraph translations also online.

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