J.-P. Houdret on Palamas and the Cappadocians

January 30, 2011

Translation of: Jean-Philippe Houdret, O.C.D., “Palamas et les Cappadociens,” Istina 19 (1974), pp. 260-271.

In the course of this brief article, our aim is to bring up the vast problem of the relations that exist between the thought of Gregory Palamas and that of the Cappadocian fathers. The celebrated Byzantine theologian sought to be a faithful follower of the teaching of the saints, and the great Cappadocians are among the godbearing fathers to whom he frequently refers in his writings. This is why we prefer to limit ourselves here to the examination of a precise but fundamental question: Do we already find, among the Cappadocian fathers, the beginnings of the distinction in God between essence and energies, such as Gregory Palamas later would understand and defend it?

That the doctrine of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies was not an invention of the great hesychast theologian but had already been present among the Greek fathers — the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus — was the opinion of Myrrha Lot-Borodine [1] and, especially, of Vladimir Lossky [2]. More than anyone else in the West before the works of Fr. John Meyendorff, Lossky, by his influence, helped to bring to light the person and doctrine of this Byzantine teacher, misunderstood by Catholics and practically forgotten by the Orthodox. Rejecting the accusations of innovation formulated by most Western critics who had encountered the Palamite doctrine (from the time of Petavius up to that of Frs. Jugie and Guichardan), he sought to underline the traditional character of the essence-energies distinction within Eastern theology. He thus had the task of showing how, from the Golden Age of the Greek fathers, there appeared the first formulations of the distinction which Palamas would later passionately defend, and which the councils of the fourteenth century would solemnly canonize. This view of things was afterwards adopted by the majority of Orthodox theologians up to our own day [3] as well as by certain Catholic theologians, more sympathetic towards Palamas’s thought than their predecessors [4].

Various texts of the fathers are invoked to support the thesis of the rootedness of this distinction within patristic tradition. Among them, two significant passages of the Cappadocians are cited very frequently in favor of Palamas’s teaching. One of them, by St. Basil, is taken from his Letter 234; the other, by St. Gregory of Nyssa, is excerpted from his sixth homily On the Beatitudes. In his course On the Vision of God, Lossky presents them in this way:

“God manifests Himself by His operations or energies. ‘While we affirm,’ says St. Basil, ‘that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.’ This passage from the letter to Amphilochius together with other texts in Against Eunomius will have an importance of the very first order for the doctrine of the vision of God. Byzantine theologians will often quote this authority in formulating the distinction between the inaccessible οὐσία and its natural processions, the ἐνέργειαι or manifesting operations” (p. 65).

“Like St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between the negative and positive names applied to God. The negative names, without revealing the divine nature to us, set aside everything that is alien to it. Even names which seem positive to us have, in reality, a negative meaning. Thus, in saying that God is good, we are declaring only that there is no room in Him for evil…. Other names, having a truly positive meaning, refer to the divine operations or energies; they lead us to know God not in His inaccessible essence but in what surrounds Him. ‘Wherefore it is true both that the pure heart sees God and that no one has ever seen God. In fact he who is invisible by nature becomes visible by his ἐνέργειαι, appearing to us in the particular surroundings of his nature (ἐν τισι τοῖς περὶ αὐτὸν καθορωμένοις)'” (p. 71).

The two texts cited are particularly interesting with a view to our enquiry. Let us also begin by examining them, placing them, as is fitting, back into their original context and into the framework of their authors’ thought.

Let us take first of all the passage by St. Basil [5]. Letter 234, in which it is found, is part of a collection of letters, dogmatic in content, addressed by Basil to his friend Amphilochius, the bishop of Iconium. Like most of the others, it was written within a polemical situation, the fight against Eunomius of Cyzicus. This son of a small-time Galatian farmer, who became the leader of Anomoeanism, was an adversary all the more dangerous insofar as he placed at the service of his ideas all the quibbles of sophistic, transforming theology into “technology,” according to the saying of Theodoret of Cyrus (Haer. fab., IV, 3; PG 83, 420 B).

If we briefly call to mind some of his theses, this will help us to understand Basil’s argumentation.

Eunomius fully recognized that man cannot attain the essence of God by his own proper forces. On this point, he even goes so far as to refuse all value to the concepts which people form about God on the basis of worldly realities, something which leads him to a radical agnosticism.

On the other hand, he affirms that God has revealed to us his essence; it consists in agennesia, in the fact of being not generated. This concept properly expresses the divine essence in such a way that that essence no longer presents any obscurity to us, and we know God as God knows himself [6]. The fathers of the late fourth century oppose these errors by stalwartly defending God’s transcendence. They thus accentuate the radically incomprehensible character of the divine essence for our created intellects. Nevertheless, they do not fall into agnosticism. A positive knowledge of God is available to us — that of his existence and of his attributes, such as we are able to know them by the visible world.

We meet with this teaching in Basil’s letter (PG 32, 868 C – 872 A). From its outset, we hear an echo of the pitched battles which the orthodox fought against their adversaries [7]:

“‘Do you worship what you know, or what you don’t know?’ If we reply, ‘We worship what we know,’ then their response comes quickly: ‘What is the essence of what you worship?’ And if we acknowledge that we do not know its essence, they cast back at our teeth: ‘Therefore you worship what you don’t know.’ But we ought to say that ‘to know’ can have many senses. And, in fact, we affirm that we do know God’s greatness, his power, his wisdom, his goodness, the providence by which he takes care of us, the justice of his judgments — but not God’s essence itself. For this reason, their question is insolent. He who affirms that he does not know the divine essence does not thereby admit that he knows nothing about God, since a notion of God is formed in us on the basis of the numerous (attributes) which we have enumerated.” (868 E).

After having set aside an objection raised by Eunomius in the name of divine simplicity, Basil moves from there to assert the following:

“As for us, we maintain that we know our God on the basis of his operations, but we do not pretend to draw near to his essence itself. For his operations come down to us, but, as for his essence, it remains inaccessible.” (Αἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐνέργειαι αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἡμᾶς καταβαίνουσιν, ἡ δὲ οὐσία αὐτοῦ μένει ἀπρόσιτος) (869 A-B) [8].

Basil next recalls that “faith is contented with knowing that God is, not what he is,” and that “to know the divine essence is to perceive that it is incomprehensible” (869 B-C). In this passage, Basil’s thinking is clear: we cannot attain to the divine essence itself, but we know God from his operations [9]. This teaching is a commonplace with Basil and is based upon the testimony of Scripture. Let us briefly cite certain other texts marked by the same anti-Eunomian context.

“For faith in God, there first of all comes the idea that God exists. We conceive this idea from the things created (ἐκ τῶν δημιουργημάτων). For, from the creation of the world, we recognize his wisdom, his power, his goodness, and all his invisible (attributes) that our mind knows” (cf. Rom 1:20). (Letter 235; PG 32, 872 B).

“I think that comprehension (of the divine essence) surpasses not merely human beings but every rational nature. I mean, every created rational nature. For it is only by the Son and the Holy Spirit that the Father can be known…. It is natural that the divine essence itself should be incomprehensible to anyone with the exception of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that we, in elevating ourselves by God’s operations (ἐκ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν τοῦ Θεοῦ ἀναγομένους ἡμᾶς) and by means of his works representing to ourselves their author (διὰ τῶν ποιημάτων τὸν ποιητὴν ἐννοοῦντας), we acquire an understanding of his goodness and his wisdom (cf. Wisd 13:1). For, that which can be known of God, God has manifested to all men” (cf. Rom 1:19). (Adv. Eun. I; PG 29, 544 A-B.)

Let us summarize what these texts are saying [10]. For Basil, it is certain that we cannot know the essence of God; what it is in itself remains inaccessible to us. Does this mean that we do not know Him whom we worship, as the Anomoeans object? No, for God makes himself known to us by his operations. It is upon the grounds of these operations, which are grasped by us in their visible, accessible terminus, that we recognize God’s greatness, his wisdom, his power, his goodness and his other attributes manifested in the creation.

Let us move on now to the text by St. Gregory of Nyssa, taken from his magnificent commentary on the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (PG 44, 1264 B – 1277 A).

“The divine nature, with respect to what it is in itself, surpasses all comprehension by the intellect; it is inaccessible and unapproachable to our conjecturing thoughts. Never has there been found among men the power to comprehend the incomprehensible; never has anyone invented a way to conceive of the inconceivable. This is why the great Apostle calls his ways ‘past finding out’ (Rom 11:33), signifying thereby that this way that leads to the knowledge of the divine essence is inaccessible to our reasonings. Moreover, among none of those who have preceded us in this life do we find the least trace of them having comprehended a reality that goes beyond knowledge.

“Since the one who is beyond all nature is such, by his nature, it is according to a different principle that the invisible and infinite (God) is seen and known.

“Numerous are the manners of such an understanding. For, thanks to the wisdom that is manifested in the universe, it is possible to see by conjecture (στοχαστικῶς) him who with wisdom made all things.

“Let us take the objects fashioned by man; in a certain manner, one sees, by thought, the maker of the object in question, the one who put his art into the work. It is not the artisan’s nature that is seen, but solely the expertise which the artisan has put into the object. The same thing holds true when, observing the order in creation, we form for ourselves an idea, not of the essence, but of the wisdom of Him who in all things has worked wisely.

“And if we reflect upon the cause of our own life, namely, that God made the decision to create man, not out of necessity, but by a good forechoice, once again we say that, in this way, we have seen God, our mind having understood his goodness, not his essence.

“The same thing holds true for all the other (considerations) which raise thought towards that which is better and higher; we speak of them as an understanding of God, because each of these thoughts makes us to see God. For power, purity, self-identity, complete freedom from mixture with what is opposed to him, and all things of this kind imprint upon our minds the idea of a certain elevated conception of God.

“Our remarks therefore show that the Lord speaks truly when he promises that the pure hearts will see God, and Paul does not lie when he expressly declares that no one has ever seen God, nor can see him (1 Tim 6:16). For He who is invisible by his nature becomes visible by his operations, such that he is contemplated in certain of his attributes (Ὁ γὰρ τῇ φύσει ἀόρατος, ὁρατὸς ταῖς ἐνεργείαις γίνεται, ἔν τισι τοῖς περὶ αὐτὸν καθορώμενος) [11].

“But the meaning of this beatitude indicates not solely that we can know by analogy, on the grounds of an operation, that someone who operates has such and such a character (τὸ ἔκ τινος ἐνεργείας τὸν ἐνεργοῦντα δύνασθαι τοιοῦτον ἀναλογίσασθαι), since no doubt even the wise of this world are able, thanks to the harmony of the world, to arrive at an understanding of a superior wisdom and power. But it seems to me that something else must be understood by the surpassing greatness of the blessedness that awaits those who shall be able to attain a vision of the object of their desire…” (1268 B – 1269 B).

As for this “something else,” Gregory the mystic speaks about it in a wonderful way. It has to do with the knowledge of God in the mirror of the purified soul. “He in fact who has purified his heart from all attachment to what is created sees, in his own beauty, the image of the divine nature” (1269 C) [12]. We decided to cite this rich, profound page at length; in it one finds, with Gregory’s own particular emphases, the common teaching of the great Cappadocians. The divine nature, in respect of what it is by essence, is absolutely inaccessible to man, incomprehensible to his mind. But a knowledge of God by analogy, taking creation as one’s starting point, is possible [13]. In the text, Gregory employs a comparison: the knowledge one has of an artisan’s technical ability, based on the object that has been made. He provides examples: one’s knowledge of God’s wisdom from the order of the universe, one’s knowledge of his goodness, based upon his freedom in the creative act. For Gregory, it is clear that God is invisible, unknowable in his very nature, but that he becomes visible, makes himself knowable, by his operations. God’s operations permit us to have, by analogy, a certain knowledge of his attributes [14].

It is now time to make a preliminary assessment from our reading of the texts. Up to this point, we have merely sought to bring their meaning into focus as a function of their context and the author’s thought. We have sought not to superimpose a later problematic, so as to avoid distortions in interpretation.

What is it from these passages, which agree with one another in content, that we should keep in mind? Essentially, a twofold affirmation: God is unknowable to us in his very essence; he is knowable to us by his operations which manifest his attributes. We are thus in effect presented with a fundamental distinction between that which we cannot know — the divine essence itself — and that which we can know — God’s attributes, known through his operations. In the first place, we should note that this distinction between what, to us, is knowable about God and what is unknowable became the common property of all Eastern tradition after the Cappadocians. One finds it again in Palamas, but it presents nothing specifically characteristic of his personal positions.

Having stated this, we need to consider the distinction itself. It was drawn up from the point of view of our knowledge, that is, from the side of man. Thus the question arises: is this distinction situated solely on the human side, or is there in fact a corresponding distinction in God which would provide its objective foundation? Here we arrive at the heart of our subject, and the problem of what is specific to the Palamite doctrine can be raised. The initial question may thus be rendered more precise: Do we find among the Cappadocians an assertion of a distinction in God between essence and attributes which would be the beginning of the real distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies professed by Palamas [15]?

In attempting to reply to this, we would like to begin by citing three texts which provide a way of approaching the problem. The first is by Gregory of Nazianzus, whom we have hitherto seemed to have overlooked. It is taken from his Fourth Theological Oration, which, like the one that immediately precedes it, is devoted to the person of the Son; it occurs in a digression on the divine names.

“The divinity cannot be named (τὸ θεῖον ἀκατονόμαστον)…. For, just as no one has ever breathed all the air, so also no mind has ever grasped, no word has ever expressed in its totality the essence of God. But from his attributes we make a sketch of that which he is in himself (ἐκ τῶν περὶ αὐτὸν σκιαγραφοῦντες τὰ κατ’ αὐτόν), and we compose a certain obscure, feeble image deriving from it (ἀμυδράν τινα καὶ ἀσθενῆ, καὶ ἄλλην ἀπ’ ἄλλου φαντασίαν).

“Consequently, the best theologian is not, in our view, he who has discovered the whole, since our shackle (i.e., the flesh, cf. PG 37, 378 A) cannot receive the whole, but he who, better than another, shall picture to himself and more perfectly draw up in himself truth’s image, or its shadow, or what one might yet speak of in some other way” (Or. 30.17; PG 36, 125 B-C).

The following passage is from Basil’s treatise Against Eunomius. In Book One, Basil refutes his adversary’s claim that the notion of agennesia perfectly expresses the divine essence.

“This is how things are. There is not one single name which, encompassing the nature of God in its entirety (πᾶσαν τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ φύσιν περιλαβόν), is able to express it in a satisfactory manner (ἱκανῶς ἐξαγγεῖλαι). But a quite large number of varying names, each having its own meaning, together provide an understanding, an understanding altogether obscure and very meagre in comparison with the totality (ἀμυδρὰν παντελῶς καὶ μικροτάτην), but sufficient (ἐξαρκοῦσαν) for us. Thus, among the names spoken about God (τοῖς περὶ Θεοῦ λεγομένοις ὀνόμασι), some indicate what does pertain to God, while others, on the contrary, indicate what does not pertain to him. From these two kinds of names, from the negation of what is not suitable to him and from the affirmation of what does pertain to him, there comes about in us, as it were, an imprint of God (χαρακτὴρ τοῦ Θεοῦ).” (Adv. Eun. I.10; PG 29, 533 C).

We find these lines echoed in Gregory of Nyssa’s summary of his positions, given in his second treatise Against Eunomius.

“We have thus stated … that we have an obscure and very limited (ἀμυδρὰν καὶ βραχυτάτην) comprehension of the divine nature by means of our reason. Nevertheless, we form a knowledge, sufficient (ἀποχρῶσαν) for the littleness of our powers, by means of the names which we piously attribute to it (διὰ τῶν ὀνομάτων τῶν περὶ αὐτὴν εὐσεβῶς λεγομένων). Concerning these names, we affirm that they do not all signify in the same manner, but some of them express that which belongs to God, while the others indicate what is not to be found in him….

“It is impossible to find any name encompassing the divine nature (περιληπτικὸν τῆς θείας φύσεως) that is employed in a manner suitable (προσφυῶς) for designating the subject itself. For this reason, by making use of a variety of names in keeping with the diverse apprehensions each one of us has, we form a certain conception specifically of God (ἰδιάζουσαν … ἔννοιαν); we name the Godhead, placing us in pursuit of certain names so as to grasp Him whom we seek, on the basis of the multiple, varied significance they give to their subject” (ἐκ τῆς πολυειδοῦς καὶ ποικίλης κατ’ αὐτοῦ σημασίας) (C. Eun., II (vulgo XII B); PG 45, 953 B, 957 D).

If we compare these different reflections by the three Cappadocians, we find they show a deep agreement. No name is able to express what the divine nature is in itself. But thanks to the multitude of names, which express our various notions about God, we form in our minds a knowledge of the divine nature, a knowledge that is very limited, but nevertheless sufficient.

Let us move on now to a more precise statement, which we find in a text by Gregory of Nyssa. With his remarkable intellectual penetration, he extended and deepened the researches of his brother Basil, and, in him, we find the most developed expression of the doctrine of the Cappadocians upon our subject. To specify the context: Gregory is attacking Eunomius’s thesis which says that names and concepts rigorously define the essence of things. For a given reality, one can therefore have only one single notion. Either an idea corresponds to an essence, or it corresponds to nothing at all. Now the term ἀγέννητος is the sole true name of God, that which belongs to him exclusively and expresses perfectly his nature. The multiple names attributed to God can thus signify the divine essence only by being synonymous with ἀγέννητος; otherwise, based on conceptions of reason, they are nothing more than mere subjective or verbal designations, with no real significance. Let us hear Gregory’s response:

“And if Eunomius decrees (the synonymy of the divine names), why do the Scriptures uselessly denote the divine nature by a great number of names (πολυωνύμως τὴν θείαν φύσιν ἀνακαλοῦσιν), naming it: God, judge, just, powerful, longsuffering, true, merciful, and many other, similar things? For if none of these names is to be understood according to its own proper meaning (ἐπί τινος ἰδιαζούσης ἐννοίας), and if all of them are found to be assimilated to one another on account of the confusion of their significations, it will be useless to employ multiple names for the same (subject), since no difference in meaning distinguishes one name from all the rest.

“Who can have so far lost his reason as to be unaware that the divine nature, in respect of what it is by essence, is one, simple, uniform, incomposite, and in no way contemplated in some synthesis of diverse elements (κατ’ οὐδένα τρόπον, ἐν ποικίλῃ τινὶ συνθέσει θεωρουμένη). The human soul, prostrate upon the ground and glued to this earthly life by the fact that it cannot clearly (τηλαυγῶς) perceive what it seeks, endeavors by multiple notions, in numerous and various ways, to attain the ineffable nature (πολλαῖς ἐννοίαις τῆς ἀφράστου φύσεως πολυτρόπως καὶ πολυμερῶς ἐπορέγεται); so far is it from pursuing what is hidden with one single notion. For comprehension would be easy if one single way of access for us had been discovered that leads to the knowledge of God.”

(There follow various examples of these multiple notions: God is wise, powerful, not caused, separate from evil, immutable, immortal, incorruptible.)

“We do not divide (οὐ … συνδιασχίζοντες) the subject by these notions, but, believing that what he is by essence is one (ὅ τί ποτε κατ’ οὐσίαν ἐστίν, ἓν εἶναι πεπιστευκότες), we hold the view that the object of our thought has its own, close relationships (οἰκείως ἔχειν) with all these apprehensions.” (C. Eun. II [vulgo XII B]; PG 45, 1069 A-C.)

We should be clear about Gregory’s position in these great lines. The different divine names are not synonymous; even if they point to the same reality, they all have, severally, their own proper meanings [16]. The divine nature is perfectly one and simple. In it, there is no composition of elements (to which the different divine names would correspond). This nature, one and simple in itself, we neither can immediately attain to, nor can we conceive of it or express it by one single notion, but solely by a multiplicity of notions. This multiplicity arises from the infirmity of our mind (thus, it is not known in reality, but in our limited and imperfect mode of knowledge); it has its foundation in the eminence and the ineffability of the divine nature [17].

It follows from these investigations that, with Gregory of Nyssa as with the other Cappadocians, we have a doctrine that is already stable and precise, even if it still necessitates certain elucidations. The multiple names correspond to a unique and simple divine essence, of which they afford us a certain knowledge, very limited but real; no name, on the other hand, can express what the divine essence is — in itself, it remains absolutely unknowable to us. Consequently, there is, with the Cappadocians, no thought at all of making a real distinction in God, as Palamas will do, between what is unknowable (the inaccessible, incomprehensible, invisible, imparticipable essence) and what is knowable (the uncreated, visible, comprehensible, nameable, participable energy or energies, distinct from the essence)…. Upon this vital point, we ought to note the profound disagreement that exists between the thought of the Cappadocian fathers and that of Gregory Palamas. Consequently, it does not seem to us possible to speak of a beginning of the Palamite distinction among the fathers of the fourth century.

Having come to the end of our enquiry, we would like to recall the steps through which we have passed and to present certain remarks.

  1. Among the Cappadocians, we find expressions concerning the knowledge of God which, taken in isolation, admit of a properly Palamite interpretation (an enunciation of the essence-energies distinction in God). This is true of the two passages which we chose.
  2. When placed back in their context, these expressions do not show a specifically Palamite content. They affirm the distinction between that which is unknowable of God (his essence in itself) and that which is knowable (his attributes) thanks to his operations. This is what a study of the texts in question reveals.
  3. Far from constituting a precedent for it, the doctrine of the Cappadocians on the divine names appears rather to be opposed to the Palamite thesis of a real distinction in God, since it bases the distinction rather upon the order of our knowing.

Under these conditions, if the results of our inquiry are well-founded, we find it difficult to accept that the adherents of the Palamite distinction can legitimately invoke the authority of the Cappadocians and claim to represent their thought upon this precise point: the theological distinction as providing a basis for the gnoseological distinction.

To be sure, the doctrine of Gregory Palamas upon the divine energies receives its framework from the great doctors of the fourth century. But it integrates two more, decisive components, which arose subsequently to the Cappadocians. On the one hand, the hesychast theologian borrows from Pseudo-Dionysius, and from his very dynamic vision of a universe of participation, the distinction between the transcendent, absolutely unknowable and imparticipable Deity, and his processions (πρόοδοι), his powers (δυνάμεις), which are knowable and participable (goodness, being, life, wisdom…). On the other hand, he retains from christological dyoenergism the affirmation of the existence of a divine operation (θεῖα ἐνέργεια), according to the acknowledged principle, No nature without its natural operation (φυσικὴ ἐνέργεια) (cf. Maximus the Confessor, PG 91, 96 B; 200 C; 205 A-C; 340 D…).

Thus one gets Palamas’s celebrated distinction between the absolutely imparticipable ousia (or superessentiality, ὑπερουσιότης) and the participable ἐνέργεια or ἐνέργειαι.

The Palamite energies are laden with the content of the Dionysian processions or powers. They are distinct from the essence, but Palamas envisages them as having an uncreated character (something doubtful in Dionysius’s emanationist conception), referring them to the teaching of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. But the Council, in contrast to Dionysius who was a source of inspiration for the Monoenergists, did not see them as antinomically distinct from the divine essence.

One should now reread the two passages of the Cappadocians with these Dionysian notions in mind. If one does so, there will be no doubt that Basil does not teach the distinction between the inaccessible essence and the multiple, knowable energies, and that his brother Gregory does not take for granted this same distinction between the invisible nature and the visible energies which surround it. In short, the Byzantine theologian’s doctrine would have us view it as supported from the time of the great era of the fathers, and would make the Cappadocians appear as Palamites before the letter. In reality, as this inquiry has shown, the facts of the case are no doubt otherwise.


NOTES

[1] In her well-known articles, “La doctrine de la ‘déification’ dans l’Église grecque jusqu’ au XIe siècle” [“The doctrine of ‘deification’ in the Greek Church until the 11th century”] and “La doctrine de la grâce et de la liberté dans l’orthodoxie gréco-orientale” [“The doctrine of grace and of liberty in Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy”], which date respectively from 1932-33 and from 1939, reproduced in La déification de l’homme [The Deification of Man] (Paris: Le Cerf, 1970), especially pp. 29-32, 38-40, and pp. 232-33. In the same collection, see also p. 244 (on beatitude in the Christian East).

[2] In his classic work, Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Église d’Orient (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1944) [Eng. tr., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: James Clarke, 1957)], pp. 68-69; the article appeared in Dieu vivant 1 (1945), on “The theology of light in St. Gregory Palamas,” reprinted in A l’image et à la ressemblance de Dieu (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967), pp. 46-48 [Eng. tr., In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 45-69]; the course given at the École des Hautes Études (1945-1946), published as La Vision de Dieu (Neuchâtel: Delachaux et Niestlé, 1962) [Eng. tr., The Vision of God (London: The Faith Press, 1963)], pp. 65, 71, 104, 131…

[3] We shall cite only two recent examples: the Greek theologian Christos Yannaras, in his study On the Absence and Not-knowing of God (Athens 1967) [De l’absence et de l’inconnaissance de Dieu (Paris: Le Cerf, 1971)], with regard to the distinction between God’s essence and his energies, does not hesitate to assert that “this distinction had been formulated throughout all of Eastern patristic literature (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas)” (p. 99). Professor P. Scazzoso, in his book La teologia di Gregorio Palamas (Milan 1970), is much more nuanced and prefers to speak of “an antinomical, prepalamite sensibility” in the Cappadocians (p. 89; cf. p. 84).

[4] Numerous references will be found in the remarkable “Bulletin sur le Palamisme” written by Fr. D. Stiernon and published in the Revue des Études Byzantines, 1972, pp. 231-241. He presents all the works devoted to Gregory Palamas since John Meyendorff’s thesis, between 1959 and 1969.

[5] This text (PG 32, 869 A-B) was well known to Palamas, who refers to it frequently. For example, in his dialogue titled Theophanes (PG 150, 909-960), he cites it explicitly at least three times (925 B, 932 B, 944 C). Palamas and his adversary Gregoras opposed each other on the meaning of this text during their public debate in 1355 in the presence of the emperor and of the papal legate (see Gregoras’s version in his Roman History, Book 30, §§ 16 and 23; PG 149, 264 D and 282 C-D).

[6] The church historian Socrates reports in a literal manner (as he informs us) some of the theses held by Eunomius: “God does not know anything more about his own essence than we do; it is not better known by him, less well known by us. But everything that we know about it, he also knows totally, and everything that he knows, it will be found altogether likewise in us” (Hist. Eccl. IV, 7; PG 67, 474 B). One can understand the passionate opposition of the fathers of the fourth century to such pretensions. This reaction deeply and definitively marked the tradition of the Greek Church. One needs to keep this context in mind when one approaches the anti-Eunomian literature.

[7] St. John Chrysostom, in his 5th Homily On the Incomprehensible, replies to the same Anomoean objection: “But what is this clever argument? ‘You do not know what you worship,’ they say….” (PG 48, 742 D – 743 B; coll. Sources Chrétiennes 28, Paris, Le Cerf, 1950, pp. 284-285). The Eunomians replied to the Orthodox with Jesus’ word addressed to the Samaritans (Jn 4:22). See, again, Gregory of Nyssa’s refutation of this objection (C. Eun. III, PG 45, 601-604).

[8] We translate the term energeia as “operation.” As Fr. de Régnon already noted (Études sur la Sainte Trinité, III, 2, Paris, Victor Retaux, 1898, Étude XXVI, esp. pp. 425-235) — quite apart from all question about Palamism — the fathers of the fourth century understand the word ἐνέργεια in the most ordinary and widest sense of the term: that of operation, of efficient action. To be sure, this general sense grows more precise in its employments. When the term refers to the unique divine nature (μία φύσις), to the unique power (μία δύναμις), one speaks of the unique operation (μία ἐνέργεια), one argues, even, on the grounds of the unity of operation. When the term refers to the effects of the operation, to the realities that are operated (ἐνεργήματα, ἔργα), one speaks of the operations that are multiple and varied (ἐνέργειαι … πολλαί, ποικιλαί) and, according to the remark of John of Damascus, the term energeia can be equivalent to energêma (PG 94, 1048 A).

[9] An example, in the last part of the letter, further illustrates this knowledge on the grounds of the operations: the episode of the tempest calmed by Jesus. “When did the disciples worship (the Lord)? Was it not when they saw that the creation was subject to him? For from (the spectacle) of the sea and the winds obeying his voice, they recognized his divinity. Thus, from the operations, knowledge (was effected), and, from knowledge, adoration (Οὐκοῦν ἀπὸ μὲν τῶν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ γνῶσις, ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς γνώσεως ἡ προσκύνησις)” (PG 32, 869 B).

[10] Whether Letter 189 is by Basil or, as it would seem, is in fact by Gregory of Nyssa, it reflects the same teaching, common to the two brothers. “If it were possible to contemplate the divine nature in itself and to discover, thanks to its appearances, that which properly belongs to it and that which is foreign to it, we would have had absolutely no need for reasonings or for other inductions (λόγων ἢ τεκμηρίων) to attain what we are seeking. But, since it surpasses the scope of our investigations, we reason from inductions upon (realities) that escape our knowledge. It is therefore wholly necessary that we allow ourselves to be guided by the operations (διὰ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν ἡμᾶς χειραγωγεῖσθαι) when seeking to know the divine nature” (PG 32, 692 C-D).

[11] The term “attribute” is doubtless more precise than the expression employed here, ta peri auton, but it is certainly attributes which are being talked about in this passage, as also at PG 45, 1105 C: τὰ περὶ αὐτὴν (αὐτὴ = the divine nature) θεωρούμενα, as distinguished from the nature itself, αὐτὴ ἡ θεῖα φύσις. The expression is found in Gregory of Nyssa (cf. again PG 45, 121 A-C) as also in Basil (e.g., PG 29, 524 D). Gregory of Nazianzus (e.g., PG 36, 125 B, 317 B) distinguishes ta peri auton (the attributes) and ta kat’ auton (the essence). Similar expressions are found in Maximus (PG 90, 984 A, 1049 A-B: τὰ κατ’ αὐτὸν / τὰ περὶ αὐτὸν) or in John of Damascus (PG 94, 800 B-D, 840 A: [αὐτὴ] ἡ φύσις (οὐσία) / τὰ περὶ τὴν φύσιν (οὐσίαν) and in later Byzantine tradition.

[12] “God has imprinted the image of the goods of his own nature upon the creation. But sin, when it spread over the divine likeness, made this good to disappear in covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a careful life, you wash the mud that is upon your heart, the deiform beauty will shine anew in you. In fact, that which is like to the good is good. Thus, when he observes himself, he sees in himself the one whom he seeks. And it is in this way that the one who is pure in heart deserves to be called blessed, since, in regarding his own beauty, he sees in it its model. Just as, in fact, someone who sees the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes upon the heaven itself, sees nevertheless the sun in the clarity of the mirror, so you too, even if your eyes do not allow you to perceive the light, possess in yourselves that which you desire, if you return to the grace of the image which was placed in your from the beginning” (PG 44, 1272 A-C). Fr. Daniélou gives a commentary on this text in his Platonisme et Théologie mystique (Paris: Aubier, 1944), part 3, ch. II, 1, “The Mirror of the Soul,” pp. 223-235.

[13] This theme of the analogical knowledge of God is frequent in Gregory. We may cite the following text which refers specifically to the Book of Wisdom (13:4-5): “It is our view that nothing among beings, whether sensible or intelligible, has a spontaneous and fortuitous existence, but that all that which is known among beings depends upon the nature that is superior to all beings, and that it therefore has a cause for its existence. Again, when we consider the beauty and the greatness of the wonders of creation, from all this and things similar, we conceive of other thoughts about the Godhead and, by appropriate names, we interpret each of the thoughts born in us, following the counsel of Wisdom. It states, in fact, that from the greatness and the beauty of the creatures one must contemplate, by analogy, the Author of all things” (ἐκ μεγέθους καὶ καλλονῆς κτισμάτων ἀναλογῶς δεῖν τὸν πάντων γενεσιουργὸν θεωρεῖσθαι)” (PG 45, 1105 C-D).

[14] In spite of the relationship that unites them, we see no reason to identify the operations and the attributes in the Cappadocians as Vladimir Lossky tends to do by bending the meaning of the “attributes-energies” (according to his expression) of the Palamite doctrine. We see the texts rather as affirming that the divine attributes are known thanks to the operations and that “the human mind gives names to the extent that it understands, being taught by the operations” (PG 45, 961 B). “Those who call upon God do not name him that very thing that he is (οὐκ αὐτὸ ὁ ἔστιν), since the nature of He Who Is is ineffable. But from those things which, as we believe, he operates in our life (ἐξ ὧν ἐνεργεῖν … πεπίστευται), so he receives denominations…. We conceive in our mind by means of those things which we learn from his operations (νοοῦμεν δὲ δι’ ὧν ἐκ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν διδασκόμεθα)” (PG 45, 960 C). In identifying energeiai and attributes, Fr. Daniélou’s notes in Platonisme et Théologie mystique, op. cit. (pp. 147 and esp. 148) are marked by the influence of the articles on Pseudo-Dionysius that were written by Lot-Borodine and Lossky before the war.

[15] The question is important. According to Lossky, it establishes a veritable dividing line: “Two kinds of theology exist. One, wanting to see in God an eminently simple object, narrows all possible knowledge about the attributes of God to this primordial simplicity, by reason of which the nature of God can be known only by means of analogies, which refer to an essence surpassing our understanding — our understanding naturally being dedicated to the knowledge of things complex and multiple. But there is another theological attitude for which the unknowable character of God has a more radical value. This unknowability cannot be founded upon the eminent simplicity of the divine Being; in effect this would suppose an essence, if not knowable, then at least capable of being seen imperfectly with the aid of analogical concepts: a simple essence, identical to its attributes” (In the Image and Likeness of God, p. 51). This second theological attitude is notably that of Gregory Palamas who distinguishes in God the totally inaccessible, unknowable essence and the communicable and participable energies. This is what Fr. John Meyendorff calls an “existential theology” (using here a terminology for which some Orthodox have reproached him). He underlines “the irreconcilable character of an essentialist metaphysic, deriving from Greek philosophy, with the personalist and existentialist metaphysic which Palamas inherited from the Bible and the Fathers” (Introduction à l’étude de Grégoire Palamas, Paris, Le Seuil, 1959, Part 2, ch. 5, “An existential theology: Essence and Energy,” p. 310).

[16] In a very beautiful passage, which Gregory would later expand, Basil develops this same idea concerning Christ. Using multiple names, Christ termed himself the Door, the Way, Bread, the Vine, the Shepherd, the Light…, each of these names having a different signification, being applied to the same subject, without dividing it, and corresponding to differing, beneficent operations (PG 29, 524 C – 525 B).

[17] As Fr. Daniélou has in fact noted, following Basil, “Gregory poses with an admirable firmness the doctrine of the divine attributes and of their value. The essence of God is perfect, simple and implies no multiplicity. But this unity of divine essence is inaccessible to the human mind. Our mind can only conceive of it through multiple concepts. Such concepts do not express the divine essence. But, nevertheless, they have a value. They are the knowledge of God which is proportionate to an intellect given to what is multiple. They designate no other reality than the divine essence. In this sense, their distinction does not have correspond to something in that essence. But, as concepts, they are really distinct and designate one single reality under diverse aspects. Thus the divine simplicity is compatible with the diversity of the attributes by which we name it” (Course of the Institut Catholique de Paris, Le quatrième siècle: Grégoire de Nysse et son milieu, p. 39. What follows this text (pp. 39-40) rapidly surveys, by contrast, the conception of Palamas). Already, on this point, Hans Urs von Balthasar had underlined, in a very penetrating manner, the radical distance separating Gregory’s position from that of Plotinus: “While, with Plotinus, the Nous, as the totality of intelligibles, remains the primary object of knowledge, behind which stands freely the unsearchable depth of the Hen (One), adequately distinguished from the intelligible world and thus absolutely transcendent, super-intelligible, super-existent, these two realms constitute, for Gregory, but a single one. We grasp here the profound difference between Plotinian theology and Christian theology. For Plotinus, the Ideas are of objects, of ‘things,’ above which, by ‘a separation’ or supreme χωρισμός, is raised the One, the Hen. For Gregory, ideal knowledge has no other object than the Supreme Being himself. The multiplicity of ideas correspond, in the knowing soul, to its powerlessness to grasp this unique object, the divine object with its richness of infinite life” (Présence et Pensée, Essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse, Paris, Beauchesne, 1942, “Introduction,” p. xix).

3 Responses to “J.-P. Houdret on Palamas and the Cappadocians”

  1. Mary Says:

    You post infrequently but..good Lord…when you do!!!…

    Thank you, Dr. Gilbert!!

    Of course I still think that St. Gregory is not well understood in his own right…but…I await further illumination when the time comes for it.

    Mary

  2. Fr Alvin Kimel Says:

    Peter, you may find of interest this article by Alexis Torrance: “Precedents for Palamas’ Essence-Energies Theology in the Cappadocian Fathers”: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/brill/vc/2009/00000063/00000001/art00003.

  3. bekkos Says:

    Fr. Alvin,

    I find it very much of interest. Thanks for the link!

    Peter


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