Friday, November 15, 2013

St. Gregory Palamas and the Place of Paradox in Christianity

Yesterday, for Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians, was the feast day of St. Gregory Palamas.  Though he is little-known in the West, in the East he is a pre-eminent theologian on par with such greats as St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus.  In his lifetime, he defended what is known as the essence/energies distinction in God, something very controversial to Western ears; essentially, this means that "God's powers, energies and attributes are uncreated...though it might be possible for a philosopher to conceive of a transcendent One or First Essence without attributes, the data of revelation make it impossible for the Christian God not to be creator and redeemer.  Hence, the divine attributes must always have subsisted in the essence, since by nature God is changeless."1 (John Meyendorff)    For the scholastic West of the time, this appeared to be a dangerous teaching that struck at the very oneness of God.

I ruminated on this teaching of the Christian East for some yesterday.  For myself, I have always had great difficulty in understanding St. Gregory and the whole essence/energies issue, though I have poured over the theologians famous work entitled The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts several times.  However, as I thought about it all, I was reminded of the paradoxical nature of both his teaching and of Christianity as a whole.  Christianity, unlike pretty much every other religion I have ever encountered, seems to have always been highly paradoxical.

C.S. Lewis writes about the Christian teaching on God that "It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits so well with all things we know already."2  Though the teaching of the East on God's essence and His qualities/energies/attributes etc. is hard to understand, once it has been encountered, it gradually makes sense.  I began to think how paradoxical the other great doctrines on the Holy Trinity throughout the history of the Church have been - not only that there is one God in three Persons, but that Jesus was both man and God, that Jesus had two wills not one, and all the rest.  When one really sits down to think upon these things, one immediately encounters their paradoxical nature.

But just because they appear as paradox does not mean that they are non-sense, as though they were merely oxymorons.  Faith is not always defined by what seems most reasonable to us, or fits in a rational box.  It is precisely because of this paradoxical nature that I think they speak to such Truth.  "If Christianity was something that we were making up, of course we could make it easier.  But it is not.  We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions.  How could we?  We are dealing with Fact."3 (C.S. Lewis)

1 - qtd. in Palamas, The Triads, pg. 147
2 - Mere Christianity, IV:2
3 - ibid.


  1. St. Gregory Palamas follows the argument of St. Maximus (the Confessor) accepted at the 6th Ecumenical Council. Rejected (implicitly), therefore, were the teachings of Augustine and Boethius, and, later, Thomas Aquinas. There are many excellent commentaries on St. Gregory Palamas available on the web.

  2. Yes, I saw that the two are linked (Sts. Maximus and Gregory) when I read St. Maximus on the subject in my Philokalia Vol. 2 this is interesting to note. Palamas is certainly as difficult of a read for me as someone like Scotus...are there any easier to read commentaries on the web that you could recommend to someone like me?

    Blessings in Christ!

  3. Below are two useful commentaries that balance the view of Meyendorff.

    Georges Florovsky, “St. Gregory of Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers,” Bible, Church, Tradition. An Eastern Orthodox View. Collected Works of Georges Florovsky. Vol. I . Nordland. Belmont, Massachusetts. 1972.
    John Romanides, “Notes on the Palamite Controversy I,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 6: 186-285 (1961) , and John Romanides, “Notes on the Palamite Controversy II,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 9:225-270 (1963-4).