From Sobornost, 4 (1961) 4, 165-176
‘Following the Holy Fathers’ . . . It was usual in the Ancient Church to introduce doctrinal statements by phrases like this. The Decree of Chalcedon opens precisely with these very words. The Seventh Ecumenical Council introduces its decision concerning the Holy Icons in a more elaborate way: ‘Following the Divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church.’ The didaskalia of the Fathers is the formal and normative term of reference.
Now, this was much more than just an ‘appeal to antiquity.’ Indeed, the Church always stresses the permanence of her faith through the ages, from the very beginning. This identity, since the apostolic times, is the most conspicuous sign and token of right faith-always the same. In the famous phrase of Vincent of Lerins, in ipsa item catholica ecclesia magnopere curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (Commonitorium, cap. 2.3). The Church holds fast to what has been always believed, everywhere and by all. Yet, ‘antiquity’ by itself is not an adequate proof of the true faith. Moreover, the Christian message was obviously a striking ‘novelty’ for the ‘ancient world’, and, indeed, a call to radical ‘renovation.’ The ‘Old’ has passed away, and everything has been ‘made New.’ On the other hand, heresies could also appeal to the past and invoke the authority of certain ‘traditions.’ In fact, heresies were often lingering in the past.(1) Archaic formulas can often be dangerously misleading. Vincent of Lerins himself was fully aware of this danger. It would suffice to quote this pathetic passage of his: ‘And now, what an amazing reversal of the situation! the authors of the same opinion are adjudged to be Catholics, but the followers-heretics; the masters are absolved, the disciples are condemned; the writers of the books will be children of the Kingdom, their followers will go to Gehenna’-Et o mira rerum conversio! Auctores ejusdem opinionis catholici, consectatores vero haeretici judicantur; absolvuntur magistri, condemnantur discipuli; conscriptores librorum filii regni erunt, adsertores vero gehenna suscipiet (Commonitorium, cap. 6). Vincent had in mind, of course, S. Cyprian and the Donatists. S. Cyprian himself was facing the same situation.’ Antiquity’ as such may happen to be just an inveterate prejudice: nam antiquitas sine veritate vetustas erroris est (Epist. 74). And again: Dominus, Ego sum, inquit, veritas. Non dixit, Ego sum consuetudo (Sententiae episcoporum numero 87, cap. 30). It is to say -‘old customs’ as such do not guarantee the truth. ‘Truth’ is not just a ‘habit.’
The true tradition is only the tradition of truth, traditio veritatis. This tradition, according of S. Irenaeus, is grounded in, and secured by, that charisma veritatis certum, which has been ‘deposited’ in the Church from the very beginning and has been preserved by the uninterrupted succession of Episcopal ministry: qui cum episcopatus successione chasisma veritati. certum acceperunt (Adv. haereses, IV.40.2). ‘Tradition’ in the Church is not a continuity of human memory, or a permanence of rites and habits. It is a living tradition-depositum it cannot be counted inter mortuas regulas. Ultimately, tradition is a continuity of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a continuity of Divine guidance and illumination. The Church is not bound by the ‘letter.’ Rather, she is constantly moved forth by the ‘spirit.’ The same Spirit, the Spirit of Ttuth, which ‘spake through the Prophets,’ which guided the Apostles, is still continuously guiding the Church into the fuller comprehension and understanding of the Divine truth, from glory to glory.
‘Following the Holy Fathers’ . . . This is not a reference to some abstract tradition, in formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to holy witnesses. Indeed, we appeal to the Apostles, and not just to an abstract ‘Apostolicity.’ In the similar manner do we refer to the Fathers. The witness of the Fathers belongs, intrinsically and integrally, to the very structure of Orthodox belief. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogma of the Fathers. We may quote at this point an admirable ancient hymn (probably, from the pen of S. Romanus the Melode). ‘Preserving the kerygma of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers, the Church has sealed the one faith and wearing the tunic of truth she shapes rightly the brocade of heavenly theology and praises the great mystery of piety.’(2)
The Church is ‘Apostolic’ indeed. But the Church is also ‘Patristic.’ She is intrinsically ‘the Church of the Fathers.’ These two ‘notes’ cannot be separated. Only by being ‘Patristic’ is the Church truly ‘Apostolic.’ The witness of the Fathers is much more than simply a historic feature, a voice from the past. Let us quote another hymn-from the office of the Three Hierarchs. ‘By the word of knowledge you have composed the dogmas which the fishermen have established first in simple words, in knowledge by the power of the Spirit, for thus our simple piety had to acquire composition’ – Τω λόγω της γνώσεως συνιστάται τα δόγματα, α το πριν εν λόγοις απλοίς κατεβάλλοντο αλιείς εν γνώσει δυνάμει του Πνεύματος, έδει γαρ και ούτω το απλούν ημών σέβας την σύστασιν κτήσασται. There are, as it were, two basic stages in the proclamation of the Christian faith. ‘Our simple faith had to acquire composition.’ There was an inner urge, an inner logic, an internal necessity, in this transition -from kerygma to dogma. Indeed, the teaching of the Fathers, and the dogma of the Church, are still the same ‘simple message’ which has been once delivered and deposited, once for ever, by the Apostles. But now it is, as it were, properly and fully articulated. The apostolic preaching is kept alive in the Church, not only merely preserved. In this sense, the teaching of the Fathers is a permanent category of Christian existence, a constant and ultimate measure and criterion of right faith. Fathers are not only witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis. They are rather witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis. ‘The mind of the Fathers’ is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of the Holy Writ, and indeed never separated from it. As it has been well said recently, ‘the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a daughter of the Church of the Fathers -, she is and remains the Church of the Fathers.’(3)
The main distinctive mark of Patristic theology was its ‘existential’ character, if we may use this current neologism. The Fathers theologised, as S. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, ‘in the manner of the Apostles, not in that of Aristotle’ -αλιευτικώς, ουκ αριστοτελικώς (Hom. 23. 12). Their theology was still a ‘message,’ a kerygma. Their theology was still ‘kerygmatic theology’, even if it was often logically arranged and supplied with intellectual arguments. The ultimate reference was there still to the vision of faith, to spiritual knowledge and experience. Apart from life in Christ theology carries no conviction and, if separated from the life of faith, Theology may degenerate into empty dialectics, a vain polylogia, without any spiritual consequence. Patristic theology was existentially rooted in the decisive commitment of faith. It was not a self-explanatory ‘discipline’ which could be presented argumentatively, that is αριστοτελικώς without any prior spiritual engagement. In the age of theological strife and incessant debates, the great Cappadocian Fathers formally protested against the use of dialectics, of Aristotelian syllogisms’, and endeavoured to refer theology back to the vision of faith. Patristic theology could be only ‘preached’ or ‘proclaimed’-preached from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the words of prayer and in the sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life. Theology of this kind can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the exercise of virtue. ‘The climax of purity is the beginning of theology’, as S. John the Klimakos puts it: Τέλος δε αγνείας υπόθεσις θεολογίας (Scala Paradisi, grade 30).
On the other hand, theology of this type is always, as it were, ‘propaideutic’, since its ultimate aim and purpose is to ascertain and to acknowledge the Mystery of the Living God, and indeed to bear witness to it, in word and deed. ‘Theology’ is not an end in itself. It is always but a way. Theology, and even the ‘dogmas’, present no more than an intellectual contour’ of the revealed truth, and a ‘noetic’ testirnony to it. Only in the act of faith is this contour’ filled with content. Christological formulas are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have received and acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It is constancy appealing to the vision of faith. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you.’ Apart from this ‘announcement’ theological formulas are empty and of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas can never be taken ‘abstractly’, that is, out of total context of belief. It is misleading to single out particular statements of the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have been actually uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. It is a dangerous habit ‘to quote’ the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases; outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. ‘To follow’ the Fathers does not mean just ‘to quote’ them. ‘To follow’ the Fathers means to acquire their ‘mind’, their phronema.
Now, we have reached the crucial point. The name of ‘Church Fathers’ is usually restricted to the teachers of the Ancient Church. And it is currently assumed that their authority depends upon their ‘antiquity’, upon their comparative nearness to the ‘Primitive, Church’, to the initial ‘Age’ of the Church. Already S. Jerome had to contest this idea. Indeed, there was no decrease of ‘authority’; and no
decrease in the immediacy of spiritual competence and knowledge, in the course of Christian history. In fact, however, this idea of ‘decrease’ has strongly affected our modern theological thinking. In fact, it is too often assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that the Early Church was, as it were, closer to the spring of truth. As an admission of our own failure and inadequacy, as an act of humble self-criticism, such an assumption is sound and helpful. But it is dangerous to make of it the starting point or basis of our ‘theology of Church history’, or even of our theology of the Church. Indeed, the Age of the Apostles should retain its unique position. Yet, it was just a beginning. It is widely assumed that the Age of the Fathers’ has also ended, and accordingly it is regarded just as an ancient formation, ‘antiquated’ in a sense and ‘archaic.’ The limit of the ‘Patristic Age’ is variously defined. It is usual to regard S. John of Damascus as the ‘last Father’ in the East, and S. Gregory the Dialogos or Isidore of Seville as ‘the last’ in the West. This periodization has been justly contested in recent times. Should not, for instance, S. Theodore of Studium, at least, be included among ‘the Fathers’? Already Mabillon suggested that Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor mellifluous, was ‘the last of the Fathers, and surely not unequal to the earlier ones.(4) Actually, it is more than a question of periodization. From the Western point of view ‘the Age of the Fathers’ has been succeeded, and indeed superseded, by ‘the Age of the Schoolmen’, which was an essential step forward. Since the rise of Scholasticism ‘Patristic theology’ has been antiquated, has become actually a ‘past age’, a kind of archaic prelude. This point of view, legitimate for the West, has been most unfortunately, accepted also by many in the East, blindly and uncritically. Accordingly, one has to face the alternative. Either one has to regret the ‘backwardness’ of the East which never developed any ‘Scholasticism’ of its own. Or one should retire into the ‘Ancient Age’, in a more or less archaeological manner, and practise what has been wittily described recently as a ‘theology of repetition.’ The latter, in fact, is just a peculiar form of imitative ‘scholasticism.’
Now, it is not seldom suggested that, probably, ‘the Age of the Fathers’ has ended much earlier than S. John of Damascus. Very often one does not proceed further than the Age of Justinian, or even already the Council of Chalcedon. Was not Leontius of Byzantium already ‘the first of the Scholastics’? Psychologically, this attitude is quite comprehensible, although it cannot be theologically justified. Indeed, the Fathers of the Fourth century are much more impressive, and their unique greatness cannot be denied. Yet, the Church remained fully alive also after Nicea and Chalcedon. The current overemphasis on the ‘first five centuries’ dangerously distorts theological vision, and prevents the right understanding of the Chalcedonian dogma itself. The decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council is often regarded as a kind of an ‘appendix’ to Chalcedon, interesting only for theological specialists, and the great figure of S: Maximus the Confessor is almost completely ignored. Accordingly, the theological significance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is dangerously obscured, and one is left to wonder, why the Feast of Orthodoxy should be related to the commemoration of Church’s victory over the Iconoclasts. Was it not just a ‘ritualistic controversy’? We often forget that the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis, that is, actually, up to Chalcedon, was a Protestant formula, and reflected a peculiar Protestant ‘theology of history.’ It was a restrictive formula, as much as it seemed to be too inclusive to those who wanted to be secluded in the Apostolic Age. The point is, however, that the current Eastern formula of ‘the Seven Ecumenical Councils’ is hardly much better, if it tends, as it usually does, to restrict or to limit the Church’s spiritual authority to the first eight centuries, as if ‘the Golden Age’ of Christianity has already passed and we are now, probably, already in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigour and authority. Our theological thinking has been dangerously affected by the pattern of decay, adopted for the interpretation of Christian history in the West since the Reformation. The fullness of the Church was then interpreted in a static manner, and the attitude to Antiquity has been accordingly distorted and misconstrued. After all, it does not make much difference, whether we restrict the normative authority of the Church to one century, or to five, or to eight. There should be no restriction at all. Consequently, there is no room for any ‘theology of repetition.’ The Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times.
One of the immediate results of our careless periodization is that we simply ignore the legacy of Byzantine theology. We are prepared, now more than only a few decades ago, to admit the perennial authority of ‘the Fathers’, especially since the revival of Patristic studies in the West. But we still tend to limit the scope of admission, and obviously ‘Byzantine theologians’ are not readily counted among the ‘Fathers.’ We are inclined to discriminate rather rigidly between ‘Patristics’ -in a more or less narrow sense- and ‘Byzantinism.’ We are still inclined to regard ‘Byzantinism’ as an inferior sequel to the Patristic Age. We have still doubts about its normative relevance for theological thinking. Now, Byzantine theology was much more than just a ‘repetition’ of Patristic theology, nor was that which was new in it of an inferior quality in comparison with ‘Christian Antiquity.’ Indeed, Byzantine theology was an organic continuation of the Patristic Age. Was there any break? Has the ethos of the Eastern Orthodox Church been ever changed, at a certain historic point or date, which, however has never been unanimously identified, so that the ‘later’ development was of lesser authority and importance, if of any? This admission seems to be silently implied in the restrictive commitment to the Seven, Ecumenical Councils. Then, S. Symeon the New Theologian and S. Gregory Palamas are simply left out, and the great Hesychast Councils of the fourteenth century are ignored and forgotten. What is their position and authority in the Church?
Now, in fact, S. Symeon and S. Gregory are still authoritative masters and inspirers of all those who, in the Orthodox Church, are striving after perfection, and are living the life of prayer and contemplation, whether in the surviving monastic communities or in the solitude of the desert, and even in the world. These faithful people are not aware of any alleged ‘break’ between ‘Patristics’ and `Byzantinism.’ The Philokalia, this great encyclopaedia of Eastern piety, which includes writings of many centuries, is, in our own days, increasingly becoming the manual of guidance and instruction for all those who are eager to practise Orthodoxy in our contemporary situation. The authority of its compiler, S. Nicodemus of the Holy Mount, has been recently recognized and enhanced by his formal canonization in the Church. In this sense, we are bound to say, ‘the Age of the Fathers’ still continues in ‘the Worshipping Church.’ Should it not continue also in our theological pursuit and study, research and instruction? Should we not recover ‘the mind of the Fathers’ also in our theological thinking and teaching? To recover it, indeed, not as an archaic manner or pose, and not just as a venerable relic, but as an existential attitude, as a spiritual orientation. Only in this way can our theology be reintegrated into the fullness of our Christian existence. It is not enough to keep a ‘Byzantine liturgy’, as we do, to restore Byzantine iconography and Byzantine music, as we are still reluctant to do consistently, and to practise certain Byzantine modes of devotion. One has to go to the very roots of this traditional ‘piety’, and to recover the ‘Patristic mind.’ Otherwise we may be in danger of being inwardly split -as many in our midst actually are- between the ‘traditional’ forms of ‘piety’ and a very untraditional habit of theological thinking. It is a real danger. As ‘worshippers’ we are still in ‘the tradition of the Fathers.’ Should we not stand, conscientiously and avowedly, in the same tradition also as ‘theologians’, as witnesses and teachers of Orthodoxy? Can we retain our integrity in any other way?
All these preliminary considerations are highly relevant for our immediate purpose. We are gathered here in these days to commemorate S. Gregory Palamas. What is his theological legacy? S. Gregory was not a speculative theologian. He was a monk and a bishop. He was not concerned about abstract problems of philosophy, although he was well trained in this field too. He was concerned solely with problems of Christian existence. As a theologian, he was simply an interpreter of the spiritual experience of the Church. Almost all his writings, except probably his homilies, were occasional writings. He was wrestling with the problems of his own time. And it was a critical time, an age of controversy and anxiety. Indeed, it was also an age of spiritual renewal.
S. Gregory was suspected of subversive innovations by his enemies in his own time. This charge is still maintained against him in the West. In fact, however, S. Gregory was deeply rooted in the tradition. It is not difficult to trace most of his views and motives back to the Cappadocian Fathers and to S. Maximus the Confessor, who was, by the way, one of the most popular masters of Byzantine thought and devotion. Indeed, S. Gregory was also intimately acquainted with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. He was rooted in the tradition. Yet, in no sense was his theology just a ‘theology of repetition.’ It was a creative extension of ancient tradition. Its starting point was Life in Christ.
Of all themes of S. Gregory’s theology let us single out but one, the crucial one, and the most controversial. What is the basic character of Christian existence? The ultimate aim and purpose of human life was defined in the Patristic tradition as θέωσις. The term is rather offensive for the modern ear. It cannot be adequately rendered in any modern language, nor even in Latin. Even in Greek it is rather heavy and pretentious. Indeed, it is a daring word. The meaning of the word is, however, simple and lucid. It was one of the crucial terms in the Patristic vocabulary. It would suffice to quote at this point but S. Athanasius. Γέγονεν γαρ άνθρωπος, ιν’ ημάς εν εαυτώ θεοποιήση (Αd Adelphium 4). Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν (De Incarnatione 54). S. Athanasius actually resumes here the favourite idea of S. Irenaeus: qui propter mmensam dilectionem suam factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod est ipse (Adv. Haeres. V, Praefatio). It was the common conviction of the Greek Fathers. One can quote at length S. Gregory of Nazianzus, S. Gregory of Nyssa, S. Cyril of Alexandria, S. Maximus, and indeed S. Symeon the New Theologian. Man ever remains what he is, that is -creature. But he is promised and granted, in Christ Jesus, the Word made man, an intimate sharing in what is Divine: Life Everlasting and incorruptible. The main characteristic of theosis is, according to the Fathers, precisely ‘immortality’ or ‘incorruption.’ For God alone ‘has immortality’ -ο µόνος έχων αθανασίαν (I Tim. 6: 6). But man now is admitted into an intimate ‘communion’ with God, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is much more than just a ‘moral’ communion, and much more than just a human perfection. Only the word theosis can render adequately the uniqueness of the promise and offer. The term theosis is indeed quite embarrassing, if we would think in ‘ontological’ categories. Indeed, man simply cannot ‘become’ god. But the Fathers were thinking in ‘personal’ terms, and the mystery of personal communion was involved at this point. Theosis meant a personal encounter. It is that intimate intercourse of man with God, in which the whole of human existence is, as it were, permeated by the Divine Presence.(5)
Yet, the problem remains: How can even this intercourse be compatible with the Divine Transcendence? And this is the crucial point. Does man really encounter God, in this present life on earth? Does man encounter God, truly and verily, in his present life of prayer? Or, is there no more than an actio in distans? The common claim of the Eastern Fathers was that in his devotional ascent man actually encounters God and beholds His eternal Glory. Now, how is it possible, if God ‘abides in the light unapproachable’? The paradox was especially sharp in the Eastern theology, which has been always committed to the belief that God was absolutely ‘incomprehensible’ -ακατάληπτος- and unknowable in His nature or essence. This conviction was powerfully expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially in their struggle against Eunomius, and also by S. John Chrysostom, in his magnificent discourses Περί Ακαταλήπτου. Thus, if God is absolutely ‘unapproachable’ in His essence, and accordingly His essence simply cannot be ‘communicated’, how can theosis be possible at all? ‘One insults God who seeks to apprehend His essential being’, says Chrysostom.
Already in S. Athanasius we find a clear distinction between God’s very ‘essence’ and His powers and bounty: Και εν πάσι μεν εστι κατά την εαυτού αγαθότητα, έξω δε των πάντων πάλιν εστι κατά την ιδίαν φύσιν (De Decretis 11). The same conception was carefully elaborated by the Cappadocians. The ‘essence of God’ is absolutely inaccessible to man, says S.Basil: Απερινόητος ανθρώπου φύσει και άρρητος παντελώς η ουσία του Θεού (Adv. Eunomium 1: 14). We know God only in His actions, and by His actions: Ημείς δε εκ μεν των ενεργειών γνωρίζειν λέγομεν τον Θεόν ημών, τη δε ουσία προσεγγίζειν ουχ υπισχνούμεθα αι μεν γαρ ενέργειαι αυτού προς ημάς καταβαίνουσιν, η δε ουσία αυτού μένει απρόσιτος (Epist. 234, ad Amphilochium). Yet, it is a true knowledge, not just a conjecture or deduction: αι ενέργειαι αυτού προς ημάς καταβαίνουσιν. In the phrase of S. John of Damascus, these actions or ‘energies’ of God are the true revelation of God Himself: η θεία έλλαμψις και ενέργεια (De Fide Orth. 1: 14). It is a real presence, and not merely a certain praesentia operativa, sicut agens adest ei quod agit. This mysterious mode of Divine Presence, in spite of the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence, passes all understanding. But it is no less certain for that reason.
S. Gregory Palamas stands in an ancient tradition at this point. In His ‘energies’ the Unapproachable God mysteriously approaches man. And this Divine move effects encounter: πρόοδος εις τα έξω, the phrase of S. Maximus (Scholia in De Div. Nom., 1.: 5).
S. Gregory begins with the distinction between ‘grace’ and ‘substance’: η θεία και θεοποιός έλλαμψις και χάρις ουκ ουσία, αλλ’ ενέργεια εστι Θεού (Capita Phys., Theol., etc., 68-9). This basic distinction has been formally accepted and elaborated at the Great Councils Constantinople, 1341 and 1351. Those who would deny this distinction were anathematised and excommunicated. The anathematisms of the council of 1351 were included in the rite for the Sunday Orthodoxy, in the Triodion. Orthodox theologians are bound by this decision. The essence of God is absolutely αμεθεκτή. The source and the power of human theosis is not the Divine essence, but the ‘Grace of God’: θεοποιός ενέργεια, ης τα μετέχοντα θεούνται, θεία τις εστι χάρις,αλλ’ ουχ η φύσις του Θεού (ibid, 92-3). Χάρις is not identical with the ουσία, It is θεία και άκτιστος χάρις και ενέργεια (ibid., 69). This distinction, however, does not imply or effect division or separation. Nor is it just an ‘accident’, ούτε συμβεβηκότος (ibid., 127). Energies ‘proceed’ from God and manifest His own Being. The term προϊέναι simply suggests διάκρισιν, but not a division: ει και διενήνοχε της φύσεως, ου διασπάται η του Πνεύματος χάρις (Theophanes, p. 940).
Actually, the whole teaching of S. Gregory presupposes the action of the Personal God. God moves toward man and embraces him by His own ‘grace’ and action, without leaving that φως απρόσιτον, in which He eternally abides. The ultimate purpose of S. Gregory’s theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release of certain natural energies implied in man’s own creaturely being, but by the ‘energies’ of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion ‘with Himself. In fact; the teaching of S. Gregory affects the whole system theology; the whole body of Christian doctrine. It starts with the clear distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘will’ of God. This distinction was also characteristic of the Eastern tradition, at least since S. Athanasius. It may be asked at this point: Is this distinction compatible with the ‘simplicity’ of God? Should we not rather regard all these distinctions as merely logical conjectures, necessary for us, but ultimately without any ontological significance? As a matter of fact, S. Gregory Palamas was attacked by his opponents precisely from that point of view. God’s Being is simple, and in Him even all attributes coincide. Already S. Augustine diverged at this point from the Eastern tradition. Under Augustinian presuppositions the teaching of S. Gregory is unacceptable and absurd. S. Gregory himself anticipated the width of implications of his basic distinction. If one does not accept it, he argued, then it would be impossible to discern clearly between the ‘generation’ of the Son and ‘creation’ of the world, both being the acts of substance, and this would lead to utter confusion in the Trinitarian doctrine. S. Gregory was quite formal at that point.
‘If according to the delirious opponents and those who agree with them, the Divine energy in no way differs from the Divine essence, then the act of creating, which belongs to the will, will in no way differ from generation (γεννάν) and procession (εκπορεύειν), which belong to the essence. If to create is no different from generation and procession, then the creatures will in no way differ from the Begotten (γεννήματος) and the Projected (προβλήματος). If such is the case according to them, then both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit will be no different from creatures, and the creatures will all be both the begotten (γεννήματα) and the projected (προβλήματα) of God the Father, and creation will be deified and God will be arrayed with the creatures. For this reason the venerable Cyril, showing the difference between God’s essence and energy, says that to generate belongs to the Divine nature, whereas to create belongs to His Divine energy. This he shows clearly saying, «nature and energy are not the same». If the Divine essence in no way differs from the Divine energy, then to beget (γεννάν) and to project (εκπορεύειν) will in no way differ from creating (ποιείν), God the Father creates by the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Thus He also begets and projects by the Son and in the Holy Spirit, according to the opinion of the opponents and those who agree with them.’ (Capita 96 and 97.)
S. Gregory quotes S. Cyril of Alexandria. But S. Cyril at this point was simply repeating S. Athanasius. S. Athanasius, in his refutation of Arianism, formally stressed the ultimate difference between ουσία (or φύσις), on the one hand, and the βούλησις on the other. God exists, and then He also acts. There is a certain ‘necessity’ in the Divine Being, indeed not a necessity of compulsion, and no fatum, but a necessity of being itself. God simply is what He is. But God’s will is eminently free. He in no sense is necessitated to do what He does. Thus γέννησις is always κατα φύσιν, but creation is a βουλήσεως έργον (Contra Arianos III. 64-6). These two dimensions, that of being and that of acting, are different, and must be clearly distinguished. Of course, this distinction in no way compromises the ‘Divine simplicity’. Yet, it is a real distinction, and not just a logical device. S. Gregory was fully aware of the crucial importance of this distinction. At this point he was a true successor of the great Athanasius and of the Cappadocian hierarchs.(6)
It has been recently suggested that the theology of S. Gregory should be described in modern terms as an ‘existentialist theology’. Indeed, it differed radically from those modern conceptions, which are currently denoted by this label. Yet, in any case, S. Gregory was definitely opposed to all kinds of ‘essentialist theologies’ which fail to account for God’s freedom, for the dynamism of God’s will, for the reality of Divine action. S. Gregory would trace this trend back to Origen. It was the predicament of the Greek impersonalist metaphysics. If there is any room for Christian metaphysics at all, it must be metaphysics of persons. The starting point of S.Gregory’s theology was the history of salvation: on the larger scale, the Biblical story, which consisted of Divine acts, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and His glorification through the Cross and Resurrection; on the smaller scale, the story of the Christian man, striving after perfection, and ascending step by step, till he encounters God in the vision of His glory. It was usual to describe the theology of S. Irenaeus as a ‘theology of facts’. With no lesser justification we may describe also the theology of S. Gregory Palamas as a ‘theology of facts’.
In our own time, we are coming more and more to the conviction that ‘theology of facts’ is the only sound Orthodox theology. It is Biblical. It is Patristic. It is in complete conformity with the mind of the Church.
In this connection we may regard S. Gregory Palamas as our guide and teacher, in our endeavour to theologise from the heart of the Church.
* A lecture delivered at Thessaloniki, Greece, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Dormition of S. Gregory Palamas, at which time the University of Thessaloniki conferred upon the author an honorary doctorate in theology.
1. It has been recently suggested that Gnostics were actually the first to invoke formally the authority of an ‘Apostolic Tradition’ and that it was their usage which moved S. Irenaeus to elaborate his own conception of Tradition. D. B. Reynders, ‘Paradosis: Le progrès de l’idée de tradition jusqu’a Saint Irénée,’ in Recherches de Théologie ancienne et médiévale, V (1933), Louvain, pp. 155-191. In any case, Gnostics used to refer to ‘Tradition.’
2. Paul Maas, ed. Frühbyzantinische Kirchenpoesie, I, Bonn 1910, s. 24.
3. Louis Bouyer, ‘Le renouveau des études patristiques,’ in La Vie Intellectuelle, XV, Février 1947, p. 18: ‘L’Église catholique de tous les temps n’est pas seulement la fille de l’Église des Pères, mais elle est et demeure l’Église des Pères.
4. Mabillon, Bernardi Opera, Praefatio generalis, n. 23, Migne, P.L, CLXXXII, c. 26.
5. Cf. M. Lot-Borodine ‘La doctrine de la «déification» dans l’Église grecque jusqu’au XI siècle,’ in Revue de l’histoire des religions, tome CV, Nr:1 Janvier – Février 1932 pp. 5-43; tome CVI, Nr 2/3, Septembre -Décembre 1932, pp. 525-74; tome CVII, Nr @, Janvier – Février 1933, pp. 8-55.
6. Cf. my article: ‘The Concept of Creation in Saint Athanasius,’ to appear shortly in The Acts of the Third Conference on Patristic Studies, held at Oxford in September, 1959, as well as my earlier study: ‘The Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy,’ in the Eastern Churches Quarterly, Vol. VIII, 1949, Supplementary issue: ‘Nature and Grace.’