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The Palamite Doctrine of God

The Palamite Doctrine of God

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Published by akimel
by David Coffey
by David Coffey

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Published by: akimel on Jan 04, 2013
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06/09/2014

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THE
PALAMITE DOCTRINE OF GOD:
A NEW
PERSPECTIVE
David CoffeyAccording to a now famous editorial of 
Istina,
for themajority of Orthodox theologians in Europe and NorthAmerica the heart of the doctrine of St Gregory Palamas is"the real distinction in God of the essence and the (uncreated)energies," and this has become for them the touchstone of Orthodoxy over against Catholicism, replacing the
filioque
asthe most serious obstacle in the way of union between the twochurches.
1
This is the doctrine to which we refer in the titleof the present article.While the statement of 
Istina
bears witness to the importance of our subject for both Orthodoxy and Catholicismand therefore for the ecumenical movement as a whole, wecannot proceed without immediately challenging the words just quoted, for it can be said with justice that, as Palamasnowhere goes so far as to characterize his distinction as "real,"in so labelling it
Istina
categorizes his doctrine in a way thatmakes it all too easy to dismiss as philosophically and theologically absurd. John Meyendorff, in his well-known study oPalamas,
2
speaks of the latter's "hesitations" in giving a preciseaccount of the distinction, quotes his statement that "in acertain sense essence and energy are identical in God, but inanother sense they are different," and summarizes Palamas'sposition by saying that "they (essence and energy) involve acertain distinction in the divine Being, but they do not divide
 ostina
(1974, no. 3) 257.
2
John Meyendorff,
A Study of Gregory Palamas
(London: The FaithPress) 1964, translated from the French,
Introduction à Vétude de Grégoire Palamas
(Paris: Editions du Seuil) 1959.
329
 
330
ST VLADIMIR'S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY
it."
3
Nor is
Istina
alone among Western commentators, evenwell disposed ones, in describing the Palamite distinction as"real" or "ontological." It is clear that, in this, Westerntheologians are succumbing to a fault characteristic of theWest,
viz
of trying to impose its own constructions on Easterntheology in order to judge it, either well or ill, by its ownstandards.In this study, therefore, we shall be at pains not to repeatthis mistake. If we are able to present a new perspective onPalamas's doctrine of God, we shall not be suggesting that thisis what Palamas really meant. Rather, we shall be mindful of André de Halleux's admonition that "the Eastern traditionconstitutes a fundamentally harmonious ensemble whose
dif-
ferent aspects and parts find their ultimate intelligibility andsurrender all their richness only at the interior of the pleromaand in relation to it."
4
Accordingly, from within the systemof the Catholic West, of which much the same could be said,we shall be offering what we shall show to be an approximation of Palamas's thought, thereby at the same time demonstrating that his preoccupations are shared in the West, and,I hope, arousing a more sympathetic reaction to his dogmaticsolution where this remains to be done.Accordingly, we shall proceed in the following way. First,we shall offer a brief account of what Palamas hoped toachieve by his distinction. Secondly, we shall give a summary, together with a critique, of the reasons for the rejectionof the Palamite doctrine by some Catholic theologians. Thirdly,we shall indicate the more positive response emanating fromcertain other Catholic theologians. And finally, we shall presentour new perspective, which, we claim, goes beyond this, evenapproaching in some respects the thought of Palamas.IIt needs to borne in mind above all that Palamas was a
religious
thinker. He was suspicious of all attempts to order
^Gregory Palamas
225.
4
A. de Halleux, "Palamisme et Tradition,"
Irénikon
48 (1975) 492-3.
 
The
Palamite Doctrine
of 
God:
A New
Perspective
331the data of divine revelation according to a human scheme of thought or a philosophical system, as he saw such efforts asreductions and impoverishments of what God has to tell usof himself in the Bible. He was especially concerned, asMeyendorff informs us, "to free theology from Aristotle'sphilosophic categories, which were clearly inadequate worthilyto express the Mystery."
5
Like other theologians, he foundhimself faced with the problem of the transcendence and theimmanence of God, but for him it was sharpened by the contextin which it occurred, namely the Hesychast controversy, whichdemanded an answer to the question: How can the utterlytranscendent God, who lives beyond all possibility of beingnamed, of being experienced and of being participated in,enter into a real and personal relationship with human beings,so that they can justly claim that they know him and live inunion with him and indeed that they are "deified"? This question arose out of a dispute about the nature of the light of which the Hesychasts claimed that the deified person wasgranted the vision, the light surrounding Christ on MountTabor. Was this merely a created light, or was it truly a divineand uncreated light?Confronted with this question, Palamas turned to his ownGreek tradition. There he found in the writings of the Cap-padocian Fathers the basis for his answer. St Basil, for instance,had written, "We know our God from his energies, but we donot claim that we can draw near to his essence, for his energiescome down to us, but his essence remains unapproachable."
6
Thus, taught Palamas, the distinction of essence and energiesis a distinction within God
himself,
the first pole, the essence,guaranteeing the transcendence of God and the whole apophatictradition, and the second, the energies, guaranteeing God'simmanence and validating the mutual relations between himand human beings claimed by the Hesychasts, relations whichcome to expression on the human side in deification and thevision of uncreated light.Reading Palamas, one is struck by the fact that he speaksof divine "energy" sometimes in the singular and at other
^Gregory Palamas
225.
^Letter
234, 1
(PG
32, 869).

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