The Shareable and Non-Shareable God According to Saint Gregory Palamas

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The endeavours and teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas were directed at ensuring that people could enjoy the possibility of participating in God, at demonstrating that God is not merely completely transcendental and beyond involvement but is also here with us in the world and welcomes our involvement with Him. Gregory correctly saw, in Varlaam’s views, the renewal of the theological heresies of the 4th century, those of Evnomios, Areios, and Makedonios, who, by accepting the Son and Holy Spirit as creations, deprived people of the chance of glorification [deification]. Because how could They glorify people if They Themselves were also creations and in need of deification, as Gregory the Theologian so succinctly and provocatively says about the Holy Spirit: “unless the Holy Spirit is deified first and thus deified with those of equal value”.

The same dangerous consequences for people’s salvation were present also in the views of Varlaam, who claimed that people communicated with God by created means, with the intellect and understanding alone, while on the part of God there was nothing that He could give to people as a gift in order to glorify them. Divine grace, for Varlaam, was not uncreated but created. Western scholars play down the significance of the theological efforts of Saint Gregory and the dangers of Varlaam’s heresy when all they see is mere differences within monastic circles regarding the best way of praying, and the observation and vision of the light.

These were simply the starting-points. The clashes arose later on a purely dogmatic, theological level and, as the Orthodox Church viewed the unanimous decisions of the Ecumenical Synods concerning the ancient heretics, it saw likewise in the resolutions of the Synods which justified Gregory Palamas, the authentic expression of its faith in God and in the glorification of humankind. In the third Synodal tome, which was published against the supporters of Varlaam and Akyndinos, the old and new heresies regarding the created or uncreated nature of divine grace are clearly linked.

The Tome states: “It has been shown that those who say that only the Son and Holy Spirit are uncreated energies of God and does not glorify the common natural energy of the three hypostases, which Akindynos denied, dares to reintroduce into the Church of God the heresy of Markellos, Foteinos and Sofronios, which once died and was banished”. Palamas himself makes a direct connection between the heresy of Varlaam and the ancient, anti-Trinitarian heresies of Areios and Makedonios.

He observes, however, that by claiming that the Son and the Holy Spirit are created, they trisected and divided the Triune Divinity into created and uncreated, as did Varlaam and his supporters, who claimed that the light of the age to come, which will shine abundantly upon the righteous, every energy and force of the Triune God, are created things: “they also impiously divide the Triune Divinity into created and uncreated”. He declared at the synod, in the presence of the emperor and his opponents that he was not battling over words and names. but over dogmas and realities.

The dogma affected was, on the one hand, the simplicity and indivisibility of God and, on the other, the very essence of God, which appeared without physical energy and action, while, as the VIth Ecumenical Synod [Constantinople, 680], had declared, on the basis of the teaching of Saint Maximos the Confessor and to oppose Monoenergetism that “it is impossible and against the laws of nature for there to be nature and energy without nature”. The realities that he was fighting for were overcoming the resistance to the concept that people could participate in God, so that they could be glorified.

In the second Synodal tome, against the Varlaamite Prokhoros Kydonis, the synod noted that with what he said, he claimed that “people could certainly not participate in God”, and that, since the energies of God are, in themselves, created, “it is clear that our glorifications, as the result of created things, are created and subordinate to those of the divine”. Saint Gregory’s incomparable formulation regarding the dangers to which Varlaam’s heretical views exposed people’s salvation is enough to place him among the great Fathers of the Church. Because he shows that the danger was not for things of no great importance, but salvation itself- something that, unfortunately, Western scholars are unwilling to accept, because, like their Churches, they are supporters of the views of Varlaam.

The problem as to whether God is shareable with us or unshareable was created by Varlaam and it is he who must be held to be the mover behind this conflict, the hesychast controversy as it is wrongly called. The picture which emerges from the sources as regards the responsibility for the appearance of this heterodox teaching is so clear that there is no justification for any reservations, far less for the impression to be given that the cause of the conflict was Saint Gregeory Palamas. As with the earlier tradition, when the heretics formulated their views first and then the Church came along with fathers and synods in order to confute them and express the Orthodox teaching, the same thing happened here.

Varlaam was affronted, as we have seen, in the matter of theologizing, because Saint Gregory’s view was that we should employ the demonstrable rather than syllogistic method of the philosophers, and he sought a way to humiliate Gregory. He believed that he had found many weak points and many innovations in hesychast spirituality. He pretended to be a disciple, and when he reckoned he had learned enough about Orthodox mysticism, he began to castigate the monks and the tradition they represented.

Equipped merely with philosophical propositions and completely inexperienced as regards the world opened up by another kind of illumination, the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, he attempted to interpret Orthodoxy with secular philosophy, even though this had been condemned in both the New Testament and in the Patristic literature of the Church. The same is true today of those who attempt to judge the world of Byzantium, even though they are uninitiated and incompetent, alien to its spirit and ill-informed- outside observers rather than participants in its inspired structure and constitution.

What scandalized Varlaam was the claim of the monks that those who had cleansed themselves of the passions received shafts of illumination in their hearts, that is the presence of the divine light. It is well-known that, in the New Testament, the position is repeatedly stated that the pure in heart will see God, that Christ will make Himself known to those who observe the Lord’s commandments, and that He and the Father will reside and remain within them: “We shall come and make a dwelling-place in them”. Even the Holy Spirit resides within us and cries “Abba, Father”.

Of course, the final perfection of this vision of God, which it is possible for people to have, will take place in the future. Now there is only partial vision, in a looking-glass and enigma. But those who are worthy, who observe the commandments and are cleansed of the passions, are able from now to taste the blessedness of the last days; they can be transported from now into the condition of the angels and live from now in the kingdom of heaven. In the realm of theology, there is ample evidence of the character, the sweetness and the mystical attraction of Orthodoxy, which accepts and teaches that the new age, the kingdom of heaven, has already started, from the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Hence there are always new illuminations and visions of God in the Church, Pentecost continues without cessation. Christ Himself said that among His disciples there were people who would see the kingdom of God coming in nascent form [εν δυνάμει= potential], even before they died. And this prophecy of the Lord was fulfilled at the Metamorphosis, at which the three disciples saw the brilliant light of His divinity, and at Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire. There are examples in the New Testament of visions of the divine light, visions of God, such as that of Paul on the road to Damascus and of the Protomartyr Stephen at the time of his martyrdom.

 This certainty of the vision of God was a constant in the tradition of the Church; all the spiritual struggles of the great ascetics and saints were directed towards making them able, from now, to see the light of divine glory, as the righteous will do in the last times. There was always an awareness that the light of the Transfiguration and that which shines upon the saints is the same as that which will dawn upon the righteous at the last judgement. And so the spiritual life is not a suspended expectation, with no guarantees, of purely future and promised benefits, but the enjoyment of these good things in the here and now.

This explains the strength and endurance of the saints and ascetics in the face of their mighty struggles, and their determined stance towards the blandishments and charms of the world. It is not easy for anyone to defeat the world merely in the hope of some future enjoyment or the fear of punishment. It is easier to win when you have tasted the sweetness and attraction of the Holy Spirit; then that world is incomparably more fair than that of the present. This is why the Apostles, fearful, in denial and cowardly in difficult times, suddenly changed after Pentecost and became bold preachers before emperors and tyrants. This is why Paul changed from a persecutor into a fervent Apostle; the martyrs went to their deaths with joy; and monastics easily reject the joys of this world. Orthodoxy is the festival of the Holy Spirit, of the shedding of the divine light; everything exists and moves within the realm of the Comforter: “Everything is granted by the Holy Spirit”, as the inspired hymn of the Church says at the feast of Pentecost.

The Western Church, on the other hand, has let the spiritual life wither and, instead of the freedom of the Holy Spirit, has constructed a system of commands and demands, the fruit of which will be enjoyed in the future. There is no certainty or conviction of any real communion with the Divinity, such as would strengthen and give wings to their attitude during spiritual struggles. Communication between people and God is not achieved through the presence, energy and action of the Holy Spirit, but with human, created means, with the mind, reason and knowledge.

Even Augustine’s teaching on inner illumination has been rejected and the entry of Aristotelianism into theology marked the end of the metaphysics of illumination, as one of the best dogmatic theologians of the Church of Rome Cardinal Ratzinger [later Pope Benedict XVI] observes. People can enjoy nothing of God in the here and now. Only in the future, in the last times, will they see the divine essence. The theological ground for any mystical experience is not the grace of the Holy Spirit, but a faith of an intellectual nature.

So it was because of this difference between Western and Eastern spirituality that Varlaam misunderstood the claim made by the monastics that those who had been cleansed received mystical and intimate enlightenment and illumination and hence he accused them, too, of teaching that the very essence of God was shareable, as did the ancient Massalians. For the humanist Varlaam, the most perfect way towards enlightenment and illumination was secular knowledge and education, especially that of the ancient Greek Sophists: no-one can become perfect and holy without this education, which banishes evil from the soul and leads us to the knowledge of God. Gregory Palamas replied to these views of Varlaam’s at great length. He demolished the Humanism based on ancient wisdom, which continues to be supported to this day by those who enlist into their arguments the legendary and much-misunderstood attitude of the Three Hierarchs towards the ancients.

Gregory replied to Varlaam’s accusation of Massalianism by observing that no-one had ever claimed that that which was seen and shared was actually the essence of God. This essence really is transcendent, inaccessible and sublime. Scripture refers to the absolutely inconceivable and unshareable essence of God: “No-one has ever seen God”. God is not only inapproachable, however, but also approachable. He is not an essence which is inactive and closed in on itself, but He also has energies. These are the means, the channel, the bridge that links the uncreated, transcendent God with His creatures. This distinction between the essence and the energies in God was not something that Saint Gregory invented: it was already formulated as part of the preceding tradition and all he did was use it in a wonderful way, to lay the foundations for the possibility of “sharing in” God.

Thereafter, Varlaam accused Gregory of accepting two realities in the Godhead, essence and energies, and so of falling into the trap of dualism. Varlaam himself accepted divine energies¸ but considered them created. From this, the problem arose as to whether the divine energies of God or Divine Grace were created or uncreated. The question revolved around the light of the Transfiguration, which would resolve the question of whether Divine Grace was created or uncreated. In complete contradiction to the whole of Patristic tradition, Varlaam claimed that the light of the Transfiguration, as well as the light of personal illumination was created, accessible and of this world. It was even inferior to the light of knowledge.

The refutation of the views of Varlaam as regards the light of the Transfiguration was the fundamental issue in the teaching of Saint Gregory. Also among his basic themes was that of the prayer of the heart, which began from a misunderstanding on the part of Varlaam of the technique applied by monastics in order to assist the concentration, intensification and return of the intellect in the heart. The inclusion of the body, too, in the divine transfiguration, the transformation of the elements of the body as well as the translation and alteration of the changeable part of the soul towards a greater energy, rather than to mortification, as Varlaam taught, were the bases on which a host of other themes were founded.

The key to theology is held by those whose eyes are truly opened by the Holy Spirit, those who, with the Holy Spirit as their eyes and their sensitivity, attempt to embrace the divine, which is accessible only through the Holy Spirit, and not through human thinking or any other kind of activity or intention of the human brain. Of course, not everyone reaches this point, nor do all people see God, but they can still believe, with certainty, that “they are following not reasoning but those who are well-versed in the matters of God”, when they believe in the initiates, those who have seen and felt the things divine.

Fr. Theodoros Zisis, Professor Emeritus of the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki,  Saint Gregory Palamas, IMAGO, pp. 67-77).

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