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Archive for the ‘Reflections on St. Gregory Palamas’ Dialogue’ Category

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

As will be noted below, this is the last in this series of reflections.

On Participation in God

XLIV. O[rthodox]. Hence, when we know His activity but not His essence, we do not commit an outrage to the supernatural character of His simplicity. And when we participate in His activity but not in His essence, do we make the undivided divisible? You heard him [St. Basil the Great] also say: “The activities of God are manifold, but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] Just as he who is manifold according to His activities is not manifold and divided according to His essence, so in the same way, He will not be participable according to His essence although He is participated according to His activities. And since we participate in Him differently—we will therefore participate in Him according to His activities, according to which He is also manifold. But we shall not participate in Him according to His essence; for according to His essence He is the least manifold in whatever way you look at it. No, but we kn ow His goodness and power and wisdom. How much can we know of each of them? For how can a limited knowledge grasp that infinity, or rather the infinities of that wisdom, that power, that goodness? But he says: “God also reveals Himself to people on the mountain itself, on the one hand by coming down from His proper watchtower, (and) on the other hand, by leading us up from our humble state here on earth in order that the Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”) is contained by a created nature in at least a moderate and most safe way.” [Gregory Nazianzus Orationes 45,11]
XLV. How then is He participated in and contained wholly when He is contained in a moderate way? And how is He not divided, when He is contained in a moderate way and remains altogether Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”)? . . . The great Basil stated well that “the activities of God are manifold but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] And again: “The holy Spirit is simple according to His essence but manifold according to His activities.” [On the Holy Spirit 9,22] For all those things belong to the activities of God. And according to them we participate in God in a moderate way and, according to them, we see and think of Him dimly, one person more, the other less, one by his intelligence, the other by a godlike power; each of us participates in them in agreement with his own purity and reflects on them and on the basis of them draws his conclusions about Him who is altogether imparticipable and unthinkable according to His essence. Nevertheless, one could well state that God as a whole is participate in and though of on the basis of those activities according to a pious insight; for the divine is divided in an undivided way and not as bodies. But His goodness and His wisdom are not a part of Him and the greatness or the foresight are not other parts. But He is wholly goodness and wholly wisdom and wholly foresight and wholly greatness. For because He is one, He is not cut up in agreement with each of those activities, but in relation to each of them He is properly whole; through each of them He is known as one and simple and undivided, as being everywhere present and active as a whole.

XLVI. In that way those who participate in the activity of God participate in God as a whole, but not because we also participate in His essence in itself which is imparticipable and simple and undivided, and (we do) that all at the same time, but everyone differently. . . .
XLVII. . . . the things which are only sensible do participate and they participate in God as a whole because He is undivided, but only according to their being. But they do not partake of the vivifying power of God in whatever way, lest, when their own proper being is taken away, heaven itself is done away with together with the foundation of everything under the sky; i.e., the four elements and the beings without soul and perception which come forth from them. And things which have the property to live only according to perception participate through that perception in God as a whole, God who is participated in in every respect in an undivided way, but not also on the level of reason or intellect lest the irrational beings become rational. But because they do not participate on the level of reason, it is not true, therefore, that they do not participate in God as a whole. And the beings which participate in God on the level of reason or intellect do not all participate on the level of spirit as well, lest the wicked continue to be divine and spiritual people although they still abide in their wickedness. In that way, too, divine and spiritual people, participating in the grace of God but not in His essence, also participate in God as a whole. As a whole, because God, being present and active in them as a whole through the proper grace in a unified and simple and undivided way, is also known by them as a whole. But they do not in the least participate in His essence because they do not continue to be gods by their nature.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XLIV-XLVI, XLVII (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

I began this series of meditations back in early 2007, some months before I was received into the Orthodox Church. It is not coincidental that my fulfillment of the plan of these reflections slowed to a halt after my chrismation. And I have struggled with whether or not to continue them at all. My struggle is not based on my (quite obvious) lack of capacity to handle these theological matters and the felicitous use of the technical terminology—though that is true enough—but rather with the obvious contradiction inherent in my penning them at all. That is to say, my struggle has always been my personal dichotomy of intellect and heart. So, for the last three or four of these reflections I’ve debated whether to write them at all, whether then to post them, and the relative usefulness of my continuing. I have, of course, answered those questions in the affirmative, though not without much uncertainty. That said, however, this is both the last of the planned reflections and given my decreasing conviction that I should continue, the last of these reflections in any case. And quite purposefully I have chosen to end on the topic at hand: the experience of God.

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

On the Divine Simplicity

L. . . . B[arlaamite]. Why is God not composed when He has both an eternal essence and an eternal activity?
O[rthodox]. . . . the divine is one and simple in its essence; and that “one” is, in an appropriate way, a whole in relation to all the things which we properly think about it, and not divided in relation to each individual part of them. For it is, as a whole, goodness, and, as a whole, wisdom, and, as a whole, justice, and, as a whole, power in our thoughts. Not because it becomes such, not even when it is thought, but because it is such from eternity and because it manifests itself through His works to us who are born later. For we have come to understand that He has been moved to produce the universe by His goodness, and also that He accomplished it completely since He has the power, and that He composed it in wisdom, and holds it together and rules it with foresight. But that that “one” is according to His essence and what genuine name can get, in accordance with that essence, that which produces and arranges the universe in unspeakable wisdom and power and goodness—no one has understood that yet to this very day.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, L (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

We must begin here, on this topic of the divine simplicity with a saying often attributed to Fr. Thomas Hopko, “One cannot know God . . . but one has to know him to know that.” That is to say, we begin with a paradox, and we will struggle mightily all the way through to keep these things in tension. In a simple, perhaps simplistic way, we are speaking of God’s transcendence and his immanence, about the God who is wholly other and who comes near.

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These reflections seem on one level a farce. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me about these things, whether intellectually or ascetically. But I do want to struggle with these things for my own understanding, such that it can be. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

On the Signification of the Divine Names

XL. [Orthodox] That great Basil, however, has often said that “it is clear lunacy to claim that there is not a specific signification underlying each divine name.” [Against Eunomius I,8] And because he has been accused of introducing polytheism, on account of these words, by Eunomius with his false doctrines—just as we have been accused, and for the same reason, by those Eunomians who have only newly appeared on the scene—he says, for his defense as well as for ours: “Even if all the proper names of God on account of their own signification are many and various, and sometimes also admit of different reasonings, nevertheless for Him to whom they refer and to whom they belong, i.e., God, they are of equal honor one with another. For each of them does not lead the mind to different gods but the person who uses those terms indicates one God by all of them.” [Letters 189] And in the text after this, teaching how God is one around Whom are all the things which are signified by those terms, he says: “He is one according to essence, because He who underlies all those terms is one according to the essence.” [Against Eunomius I,7] For, he says, “just as grain is one thing according to its substance, it changes its names in relation to the various properties which are seen in it and it becomes seed and fruit and food and it gets as many names as the forms it takes, so it is approximately with the Lord; for He is in Himself whatever He is according to His nature, but when He is called after His various activities, He has not one name in all those cases, but He receives His name in accordance with each concept which arises in us from the activity.” [Against Eunomius I,6-7] . . . For mind is also each of the sciences and the human mind is judge and takes care of the weaker people. But according to essence it underlies all those activities since it is one according to that essence. Our mind, however, possesses thinking as an acquired characteristic by learning from experience or by instruction; that is the same as suffering, when the mind becomes thinking. But God does not get His characteristics from suffering for He does not acquire anything. However, since He is always so, He manifests Himself as such to us through His activities. Not only the Father, but the Son and the Holy Spirit as well. For all the things which the Father has also belong to the Son because He has the same things and He exists apart from the characteristics which belong to Him according to His substance; the same (is true) for the Spirit. And just as our mind, invisible for our perception and incorporeal because it does not undergo any addition or dimunition by those things, is not therefore composed, so God, being good and wise and foreseeing everything from eternity and not undergoing any change by those things, cannot be called composed on account of them.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XL (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

This text brings together two seemingly utterly incompatible experiences of God: God as incomposite and one in essence, and yet plural and ineffably distinct in his activities and names. We do not have here the philosopher’s god which takes in hand only one end of the stick and attempts to deny the other end. It is the philosopher’s god which attempts to answer the vexing human question of theodicy, but in answering creates a god no one can worship or love. This is the god of the question: if god is good and loving, how can he tolerate evil? And so we move on to this god’s lack of composition (parts), and how his attributes are his essence, and so forth. But this brings out the conundrum that a loving god allows evil.

The saint’s answer, and the answer of classic Christianity, is that God is simple, but not absolutely simple. God’s simplicity is iconographic: it is real, but complex. To say that God is Creator is true, and is essential to God’s being, but not in a way that is absolute. If it were absolute, God would have no freedom, but would be necessitated to create. And if he were necessitated to create, he could not create in love, because love is freely willed. The fundamental reality of God, then, if God is not absolutely simple, is not God’s essence, but his Person. And it is the foundational teaching of Christianity that God is a Trinity of Persons. God’s simplicity is irreducibly complex. God the Father in eternity begets the Son, and God the Son is eternally begotten, and is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. God the Father in eternity spirates the Spirit, and God the Spirit is eternally spirated. The nature of the Godhead derives from the Father, and thus the Persons of the Godhead are one nature, but they are three distinct Persons.

For the philsophers, a god who was one in essence but a triunity of Persons is simple nonsense. The only way the philosophers could reconcile the dichotomy is to assert that the Persons are modes of God’s being, and thus we move to modalist Sabellianism. In our specific context here, however, we are more properly referring to the attributes of God: God is love, God is merciful, and so on. If the philosopher’s god can only be conceived of in modalist terms, then these several (and infinite) attributes of God must ultimately be self-identical: God’s love is his mercy is his justice is his wrath. This soon degenerates into chaos: A god whose love and wrath are self-identical and yet who sends some souls to heaven and some souls to hell. How can the same self-identical attribute of god lead to different actions on god’s part? These impasses lead naturally, then, to nominalism: God’s love is not love simpliciter, but only the name we give for certain of God’s activities.

But we should not assume that St. Gregory is advocating nominalism here; note his appeal to Basil: “it is clear lunacy to claim that there is not a specific signification underlying each divine name” and “Even if all the proper names of God on account of their own signification are many and various, and sometimes also admit of different reasonings [logoi], nevertheless for Him to whom they refer and to whom they belong, i.e., God, they are of equal honor one with another. For each of them does not lead the mind to different gods but the person who uses those terms indicates one God by all of them.” In other words, on the classical Christian view, God’s attributes, his activities (in technical terminology, his energeiai, or energies) are in fact distinct from one another, but, being God’s activities are not separate from God (God has no parts), and therefore are ineffably his essence. That is to say, in ways similar to the fact that as the Persons of the Trinity are one in essence, so, too, the energies of God, though distinct, are one in essence. They are not self-identical to God’s essence—which is how God’s love and God’s omniscience are ineffably distinct from one another—and yet they participate in, indeed, are that essence in ways that are inseparable.

It is only the classical Christian understanding of God’s essence and energies, as exemplified here by St. Gregory, that enables us to preserve the revelation that God is both just and justifier. It is also this classical understanding that paves the way for comprehending the experience of God, and how it is that we can, as St. Peter says in his second epistle, become partakers of God’s nature, without also becoming self-identical with God (as many Gnostic and New Age advocates espouse). It is how we can be brought to full union with God in Christ (as Jesus himself prayed, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me”). In an iconographic way, it is how a man and a woman are made one flesh in the mystery of marriage.

It is this image of marriage, I think that helps us get at what the saint is saying with regard to God and the signification of names. A husband and wife are one flesh, not merely in name only, but in the children born into the home, each child bearing some of the essence of each parent, without being self-identical with either parent. So, too, when we call on God’s name as Father, or invoke his mercy, or appeal to his longsuffering, we are not naming fictions, but are, in fact, calling on God. God’s Fatherhood is not a mere metaphor by which he adjusts himself to our understanding. Rather, his Fatherhood is a reality that, when we name, brings us not simply sweet consolation but the almighty God himself. We do not ask for a sweet huggable daddy who beams magnamimously at us. No, when we name God the Father and invoke him, we invoke the eternal reality of all Fatherhood, the heavenly Father whose earthly image of sternness cannot touch the soul-shaking awe which sends us bowed to the ground in humility, the heavenly Father whom the earthly image of love and acceptance cannot approximate the utter silence engendered in us by such soul-searing embrace. We do not lightly invoke any of the names of God: Comforter, Prince of Peace, Creator, without invoking the universe-grounding reality that those names signify. And, similarly, we cannot casually jettison these revealed names, without also cutting ourselves off from that same reality. Do we invoke his wrath? God help us, for its fire will purge us in ways we cannot grasp, even as we direct it toward our enemies. Do we, tears streaming, invoke his mercy? No human experience can come near the effervescent joy which warms the heart with painful fire, and yet welcome and warming. Do we reject his Fatherhood? Then we reject the very fount of the Godhead, because he is eternally Father in the begetting of his Son, and this not mere metaphorical nominalism but a reality at once dreadful and happy.

These technical distinctions, while a part of the discipline of theological discussion, are not and cannot be divorced from the human experience, which is to say, cannot be divorced from prayer, for it is this God at once simple and irreducibly complex, whose name is joined ineffably and inseparably with his essence, and yet not reducible to that essence, this God who loves and warms and purges and cleanses and provides all good and perfect things for our joy and salvation, this God with whom we have to do, and in whom we live and move and have our being.

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

The following citation from St. Greogry’s Dialogue encapsulates one of the fundamental points of theology in Orthodoxy. While there is dispute as to whether this energies/essence distinction has Ecumenical Conciliar backing, it has been dogmatized in two Local Councils and is accepted throughout Orthodox theology and experience, with a heavy emphasis on the experience of God.

Its patristic lineage is long, although the terminology has not been codified, and if one does not grasp the substance of the distinctions the Saint lays out here, one cannot accurately engage Orthodox faith and life. Indeed, these distinctions make it possible for life and dogma to be ineffably united, to grasp, however imperfectly, that Truth is a Person.

XXX. . . . O[rthodox]. Those who say that in God the activity is not different from His essence contend that He does not have essence and activity but only activity or only essence. For if there is no difference whatsoever between those things, why do they say that God not only has this but that as well unless they say that those things belong to God as empty names which have nothing to do with real things? In this way, they lead their followers astray by this tautology, pretending that they accept both ideas, whereas in fact they themselves believe that God is essence without activity or activity without essence.

B[arlaamite]. They claim that God is active essence but that he has no other activity besides His essence lest He be a composite being.

XXXI. O[rthodox]. Take caution that they do not bestow upon God “active” as an empty sound of a word, while they contrive precisely by that fact to lead astray those who are in dialogue with them. For the divine Maximus says: “Just as it is impossible to be without being, so is it not possible to be active without activity.” [To Marinus 200C] Hence, by taking away the divine activity and by fusing it with essence by saying that the activity does not differ from that essence, they have made God an essence without activity. And not only that, but they have also completely annihilated God’s being itself and they have become atheists in the universe [a world without god]; for the same Maximus says: “When the divine and human activity is taken away, there is no God, nor man.” [To Marinus 96B; cf. 201AB] For it is absolutely necessary that the person who says that the activity in God is not different from his essence falls into the trap of atheism. For we know that God is only from His proper activities. Hence, for him who destroys God’s activities and does not admit that they differ from His essence, the necessary consequence is that he does not know that God is. Furthermore, because the great Basil has revealed everywhere in his writings that “no activity can exist independently,” [Against Eunomius 4] those who contend that the essence of God does not differ from His activity, have surpassed even Sabellius in impiety. For he made only the Son and the Spirit without existences (hypostasis), but those people make the essence of God, which has three hypostases, without existence (hypostasis).

–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XXX-XXXI (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda)

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

In this reflection, I will first quote an extensive section from the dialogue—the thought of which, once I began to grasp the distinctions, forcefully revealed to me that Orthodoxy is the truth. My fumbling grasping of this one truth is what solidified my conversion to Orthodoxy.

XXV. . . . [Orthodox] So we venerate one divinity with three hypostases but not as if it would be devoid of grace and power and activity, so that which does not proceed from God is the same as and similar to that which proceeds from God and that manifests itself is the same as that which remains hidden. For such is the talk of idiots. And just as we say that power and wisdom are common to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, and contend also that the Son is the power and the wisdom of the Father [1 Corinthians 1:24], but existing independently [authupostaton], and nevertheless venerate wisdom and power as one in the highest and venerate trinity—for the enhypostatic [enupostatos] power and wisdom of God is one; and when you speak about the common power and wisdom of the three hypostases, that one is also one—in the same way we honor the divinity of the three (hypostases) as one. For which one you speak about, the three have only one. The essence is existing independently [authuparktos] and is, in all respects, unthinkable; but the power which is around it in a physical way [phusikos] and which is understood by us according to our faculties on the basis of the creatures and which is named and praised appropriately on the basis of those things which are created from non-beings and which are composed and improved in agreement with that (essence), as foreseeing, creative and theurgic, is contemplating and directing everything. “For,” the great Basil says, “the creatures demonstrate the power and wisdom and skill, but not the essence itself.” [Against Eunomius 2, 32]

XXVI. B[arlaamite]. But you say that also that common theurgic power and grace are enhypostatic [enupostaton].

O[rthodox]. But not in the sense of independent [authupostaton]. Come on! In that respect too we once again follow the fathers. For they say that the light of the deifying grace is enhypostatic [enupostaton], but not in the sense you wrongly understand it. But since “enhypostatic” [enhupostaton] has many meanings, just as “anhypostatic” [anupostaton], they believe that the grace of deification is enhypostatic [enupostaton], not in the sense that it is completely independent (authypostatic), but that it remains together with the persons in which it comes; it is not, like lightning and thunder, born at the moment of passing away, and abolished together with its manifestation in the objects. “For,” he (Basil) says, “the light works in those for whom it shines, continuously and uninterruptedly.” But let us add a few words more to the unicity of the divinity. What do you think? Is the Spirit, one part of the trinity, not to be venerated by us? But we also call the grace of the Spirit which is a common characteristic of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, “spirit.” And God Himself, too, who is worshipped in the trinity, is spirit. Will we, on that account, be hindered from worshipping one spirit? And will someone because of that accuse us of saying that there are many spirits to be venerated?

XXVII. B. Not at all.

O. So then we know that both God’s essence and His activity are called divinity and nevertheless we are worshippers of one divinity. For Isaiah also said there are seven spirits which another prophet (Zechariah) called the seven eyes of God. [Isaiah 11:2; Zechariah 3:9; 4:10] And the divine Maximus says that these exist in a physical way [phusikos] in God the Son and Word of God. [Against Thalassius 63] Just as the seven spirits do not take away the oneness of the spirit—for they are the emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of the one holy spirit—so the oneness of the divinity is not annihilated by its manifoldness. For the divinity of the three hypostases is one, namely a superessential nature and essence, simple, invisible, imparticipable, in all respects unthinkable. . . . All these things, then, are emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of that one divinity; they are with that divinity in a physical [phusikos] and inseparable fashion. The person who separates them from it and drags them down to make them creatures also drags the divinity down along with them . . . .

-–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XXV-XXVII (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

It is not easy to overestimate what the concepts the Saint presents here did, and have done, for the theology I now espouse and the life in which I strive. I can, without hesitation, affirm that my beliefs about God have changed in light of the things the saint here presents. These changes are not mere fashions, or affectations, but are, indeed, such that I cannot return to previous mores without a change in identity. And the differences between the former and the present are not subtle.

I will be speaking of my experience, and will be critical of it. I am well aware that those who identify themselves by that which I criticize may think that my criticisms of my former beliefs, with which they may identify, are rightly called “straw man” and “unfair.” In another context, they may well be right so to do. But here I wish to trace the differences in my own thoughts, and, more importantly, the effects on my living.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

XX. . . . . [Orthodox] A little while ago we introduced the great Dionysius and the divine Gregory of Nyssa, saying that the essence of God is without a name because it is above all names and transcends all manner of signification by words. They also say that everything that is said about God denotes something that surrounds the essence and that the word “divinity” does not signify genuinely [kurios] its nature but the power of God to see. That also the essence of God which is above all names is called divinity but not with the genuine name [kurionumos]. That which is above all names stands in fact above all that which is named, and the essence is higher than all the things around it. Therefore the great Athanasius says: “Being God is second to His nature.” [Dialogue with a Macedonian I,14] . . . Would, then, the essence of God—which is above all names, unutterable, around which are the powers and activities which are before all ages, which has its name “divinity” from its proper activity–(would that) not be above the divinity, namely the power of seeing which is before all ages and the activity of God who knows everything before its birth of which the great Basil has said that it is below the Spirit while the great Athanasius (called it) second to the nature, the divinity which rightly has that name, being around the divine nature, as Gregory of Nyssa has revealed?
St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XX (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

There is a frequent failure in much popular discourse on God, a mistaken understanding and application of apophatic theology. It is a nominalism about God, a mistaken leap from the principle that who and what God is cannot be fully expressed in human tongue and therefore we can refashion what we say about God as cultural tastes and sociopolitical convictions dictate. So, since the human (and English) “Father” does not adequately capture who and what God is, we may just as well also refer to the first Person of the Trinity as “Mother” or even more androgynously as “Parent.”

This text of St. Gregory’s, however, is a robust challenge to that notion, even if St. Gregory didn’t quite have modern theist linguistical revision in mind. The saint is not indicating that since our understanding of God is always already incomplete and none of our words do more than circle around God, approximating, at best, an accurate understanding, that we may say whatever suits us, or whatever finds purchase in our cultural landscape. Rather he is indicating that the reality of God’s being may indeed be spoken about, but must always be graced with humility, in that there is that about God which cannot even be named, which is above naming, and even that which is inaccessible to us, a divinity that is “above” divinity. When St. Gregory is citing St. Athanasios that “being is second to God’s nature,” he is, as I understand it, indicating that even the activity that is that reality which is God, is, still, not that which God most truly and really is. God’s nature or essence is eternally hidden from us, and nothing we say about God can ever, in any way, full contain or delimit all that God is. God is indefinable, ineffable.

As I said, this text functions, in our present-day context to burst the swelling balloon of our hubris. What we know about God is infinitesimally small. God is always receding beyond the horizon of our knowledge. Our reason can give us little of any value in understanding God, because that capacity by which we modern people comprehend our world is sorely limited and lacking in coming to know God. We do, indeed, have touchstones, boundary markers if you will, which help us to speak about God rightly. God is a Trinity of Persons, Jesus is God incarnate, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. We reject Arius, Sabellius, Nestorius et al, not because they violated theological linguistical formulae. We reject them not because their doctrines were wholly irrational (though, it is true in a sense to affirm that their doctrines were not wholly rational). Rather, we reject them because the God they spoke of was not the God the Church knew from its experience of God. “That which we have seen with our eyes, that which our hands have touched . . . we declare unto you.”

That is to say, for our purposes, what St. Gregory is guarding is the God, not of definitions, but the God who is Person. And personal knowledge is not susceptible of comprehension by the mind. One knows persons from the heart. This is, in part, why the theology St. Gregory contests, and so much of modernist academic theology, fails. It is a theology of the mind, and not one of the heart.

By heart, of course, I do not mean the bare and empty emotivism of much of popular religion, but, rather, that center of our being coterminus but not identical with that physical organ we call the heart. That place in us that aches when away from the persons we love, or that is full of joy, deep, deep joy, at the birth of our child. It is the place from which we pray, from which we will to do good or evil, in which we know God. It is the seat of the Lordship of Christ, and that place “down” to which the mind must descend in obedience. Because only from the heart can the mind, our reason, speak adequately about the God whose being God is second to his nature.

As I say above, these reflections are not an attempt at sophisticated theological reflection but an attempt at an ascetical appraisal of the Saint’s writings. This is what I attempted to express above: academic theology cannot speak about a theology from apophasis because modernist academic theology has no heart. It lacks that integration so necessary to theology. Arius’ first principles were philosophical, not ascetical. He was bound by the chains of his rational definitions. St. Athanasios, on the other hand, was freed from such rationalistic bonds, because his first principle was to start from the worship of the Son. That is to say, he started from the heart bowed in adoration. And because he started there, he was in so less danger of going wrong–and his reason, properly ordered to and by his heart at worship, could then properly get at, though never fully comprehend, this divine mystery of the Incarnation.

It would be just as wrong to turn from a nominalism of the mind to a nominalism of the emotions. If it is wrong to subject God and “God speak” to the whims of our rationalism, it is just as wrong to subject God the passing fancies of our emotions, to excuse false speech about God by excesses of emotion. By emotion, I’m thinking here not merely of the bare feelings of sadness, sorrow and so forth, but something more full, that part of the person labeled the thumos, that part of the soul, in Plato’s well-known metaphor of the chariot, that is spirited, and often manifested in anger. That is to say, that sort of activity one finds expressed in our present day world in “activist causes.” And there is no doubt that much of modern academic theology is fueled by just this sort of thing: the re-imaging of God to suit “peace and justice” issues or to further social causes. This sort of nominalism is founded upon the bare rational sort, but is given impetus by a different sort of hubris.

In all this, it must be remembered that our speech about God is founded on, delimited by, and ordered to the personal revelation of God in Christ. Apart from Christ, and generally of God’s self-disclosure, we would have no way to know God or to speak about him. But because the Son of God became man, we do know God. But we know him as Person. And that sort of knowledge is only facilitated in, by and through the heart.

“Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up unto the Lord.”

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

I remember, when I was younger, probably not even yet ten years old, my maternal grandfather, himself a minister, illustrating to me the great mystery of God by asking me the unanswerable question: God can create a rock heavier than he can lift? My first instinct of course was to say yes, after all, God is the creator. But half-a-second later I realized that if I said yes, to affirm his attribute of creator, I must ultimately deny his omnipotence by affirming that there was something he could create that he could not lift (assuming of course that such an anthropomorphism even applies to God). Grandpa, with a smile and a wink, saw the thought processes working themselves out visibly in my facial expressions. We affirm, he said, that God is a creator, and that he is omnipotent. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.

I open with this illustration, not only because it has obviously influenced my thinking about God, but because there is another version of this question at play in the Protestant Christian world: Can God both foreknow the future and grant humans true freedom? Some Protestants, of course, answer no. And of those who do, some we call Reformed Calvinists. For those Reformed Calvinists who answer “no,” God’s foreknowledge must, if God is truly sovereign, determine every alternative possibility toward one end, namely, that end which is already foreknown by God. If God knows one particular reality, that knowledge must necessarily be true, which means that the future is already determined. And if the future is already determined, then humans are not free to choose or to do otherwise than that which God already foreknows.

Other Protestant Christians answer yes to the compatibility of foreknowledge and human freedom, and these we call Arminians. But the Reformed Calvinists have always felt that the Arminians were cheating, equivocating on terms or begging certain questions. And so, some Protestant Christians have developed the theology of “open theism” as a result. They want to affirm that human beings are truly free, but to do so they must acknowledge that God’s foreknowledge is limited by that which it is possible to know (God cannot know that which is not real). Since the future for humans is not yet real, therefore cannot yet be known, God does not truly foreknow the future. He might be able somehow to grasp all the pertinent possibilities of human choices and acts, but he does not, strictly speaking, know them until they come to be. God is, to be sure, above and beyond time, and there are some things which God wills to foreknow (certain Christological prophecies, say, or the eschatological realities of the Church), but if human beings are, indeed, truly free, God cannot foreknow the choices they have not yet made.

This summary of open theism, of course, does not do justice to it. And I examine open theism with a bit more detail in an earlier post. But this summary highlights the one problem many Western Christians have, and which St. Gregory addresses in his Dialogue: a confusion between God’s essence and his attributes (or energies), and, correlatively, a confusion between God’s nature and his Person.

The problem arises, of course, from a mistaken understanding of what is meant by God being simple. The simplicity of God is taken to mean that God has no parts, that is to say, that God cannot be divided up into his constituent characteristics. It would be a contradiction in terms that the infinite God was composed of finite parts: here his love leaves off and his judgment begins, neither encroaching upon the other. As a result, to avoid such a blasphemy, some proponents of divine simplicity went beyond the patristic consensus on God’s simplicity and employed a sort of platonic rationalism to the question. God’s simplicity became a definitional sort of simplicity, or, absolute simplicity. God, indeed, had no parts, he was utterly simple, and if God was the holy and invisible Creator, then creatures could have no access to his essential nature. If God’s simplicity meant that God was all essence, with no remainder, and if that essence was wholly inaccessible to us, then it further followed that we could have no participation in the divine.

But there is another related implication. If we can have no participation in the divine essence, then it remains to be explained how is it we can be saved? One answer is that the grace God extends to us is not his essence (for that would divide up God’s simplicity), but rather a created thing God gives us. This however, rather than preserving the divine simplicity, divides God into uncreated and created entities, a rather polytheistic conundrum for Trinitarians.

St. Gregory disputes this Barlaamite heresy as he discusses the unity and ineffable distinction between God’s essence and energies in his Dialogue:

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[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

The one thing that Orthodoxy has given to me, that I did not have in the Restoration Movement churches, or in the Anglican churches, was a means to, as St. Peter puts it, become a partaker of the divine nature. That is to say, my notion of salvation was that of being in a right relationship with God, with being declared righteous, with becoming able to consistently do good works. My understanding of union with God was one of externals: he had a favorable disposition towards me, I had been given the label of righteous, and through his Holy Spirit I was going to become more and more righteous in my actions. It was my conformity to God’s norm of holiness, a norm external to myself, however, that was the paradigm.

But through the Orthodox Church I was given back such Scriptures as 1 Corinthians 10:16-17–“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”–and 2 Peter 1:3-4–“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” I now understand that this transformation is radically deep within me, and not just external. True, there is that relational aspect, but more than that God, by grace, allows my participation in himself, my union with him. And from that union flows my transfiguration.

St. Gregory speaks about that transfiguration, that, as it is called, deification, in his Dialogue:

VII. . . . . [Orthodox] For God has created us for that purpose, he says, to make us partake in His own divinity [2 Peter 1:4] and for that purpose he came on earth. And as the divine Gregory of Nyssa says to Harmonius, Christ put on our nature for the reason that “He received the rejected into sonship and the enemies of God into partnership with His divinity.” [On Perfection 280B] And again, “the purity which we see in Christ and in the person who has part in Him is by nature one. But Christ is the source and he who takes part draws the water.” [ibid. 284D] And again, “Christ will bring each one to union with the divinity; if he carries nothing unworthy of the kinship with the divine.” [ibid. 277CD] For the divinity of him who has truly been divinized belongs to God to whom he has been united and by whom he has been divinized in grace; he has not thrown away his own nature but by that grace he has transcended nature. . . .
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, 7 (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

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This is the first in a series of reflections on several quotations from St. Gregory Palamas’ Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite.

At the beginning of this year, I lamented the lack of serious posts on my blog, particularly in the last seven or eight months of last year. One thing that I knew that could help that is by more intentionally blogging on the stuff that I’m reading. And since one of the goals I have this year is to intensify my classical and patristic reading, one would think that I should have plenty of opportunity to blog on these serious topics.

And such has been the case. Having read through St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Holy Icons, I was pleasantly surprised to find an almost one-to-one corresponding refutation of a modern (Protestant) iconoclast’s criticism of icon veneration, and was happy to share my ruminations on the interplay between the iconoclast critique and St. Theodore’s defense. (And here in a somewhat more focused way.)

In addition to St. Theodore, I have read St. Ephrem’s Hymns, and Egeria’s Diary of a Pilgrimage. And while each of them have interesting things to reflect on, there is a bunch of meaty stuff to chew on in two of the other works I’ve read: St. Gregory Palamas’ Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite and St. Photios the Great’s Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit.  I have posted several quotes from St. Gregory’s work on my other blog, and will be doing so with St. Photios’ work as well.  I will use the St. Gregory postings on my other blog as the basis for my reflections.

Let me add this disclaimer: These are the reflections of a man particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of these specific Church Fathers.  There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. Rather, what I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

First a little taste of history to locate St. Gregory and his Dialogue in his time, go to OrthodoxWiki. Barlaam of Calabria, among other of his teachings which were condemned, held a confusion between the Trinitarian Persons and the divine nature. Whereas the hesychasts asserted that God could be experienced personally and in our bodily existence, including, as do the three Apostles on Mt Tabor, that of the uncreated divine light, Barlaam and his followers argued for a version of absolute divine simplicity: that God was utterly simple and since his essence could not be known, we could not so directly experience God.  The difference is that while the hesychasts agreed with the Barlaamites that God’s essence could not be known, that God, in his activities (or energies), could so be known.  In St. Gregory’s Dialogue the discussion between the Orthodox speaker and the Barlaamite, gives something of a recapitulation of this disagreement. It is thought that this Dialogue was written by St. Gregory after the series of synods known as the V Constantinople, and by some Orthodox (though not all), as the Ninth Ecumenical Council.  (Even though not all Orthodox recognize the ecumenicity of this Council, its judgments are universally accepted throughout Orthodoxy.)

Now to my reflections.
 

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