Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue III

[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:

XIV. . . . . [Orthodox] To proceed from the creations to the essence of God, and to perceive the uncreated essence from the visible creatures, is part of the misleading doctrine of Eunomius. Hence, both things necessarily have as a result that there is a diversity (of divinities) both by concluding impiously (in your fashion) (that there is one divinity) and by atheistically cutting up the one divinity of God. Therefore, the divine bishop of Nyssa says: “The essentially invisible God becomes visible by His energies. He is not visible in His essence, but in some of His characteristics.” [De Beatitudinibus 4] “None of the divine characteristics is acquired, even if they are not His essence.” [Cf. Cyril of Alexandria De adoratione in spiritu et veritate 9] In his books against Eunomius, the great Basil runs completely counter to you who hold to the doctrine of Barlaam; setting forth Eunomius’ written doctrines, who says: “By seeing the created things, a person can be brought from them to the essences, discovering the Son as a creature of the unborn and the Spirit as a creature of the only begotten Son,” he says: “I do not see how it is possible to arrive by reasoning to the essences from the created things; for the created things show His power and wisdom and craft, but not the essence itself. Nor do they necessarily demonstrate all the power itself of the Creator, because it is possible that the craftsman does not put all his strength into his energies, but often uses the weaker energies in the works of his craft. And even if he would put all his power into his work, even so it would be possible to measure his strength in his works but not to understand what his essence is.” [Against Eunomius 2] That is exactly what the divine Paul says: “Even since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made.” [Romans 1:20] . . . .

–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, 14 (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

What St. Gregory is getting at here is to show the problematic assumptions, and heretical Eunomian origins, of the Barlaamite doctrine. Part of St. Gregory’s critique is an intellectualist, or rationalist, paradigm for soteriology that Barlaam seems to have set. It appears that Barlaam advocated a rationalistic approach to knowing God—knowing him from his creatures though not from his essence—and apparently thought that the best way to apprehend the divine was through rational, platonic investigation.

But St. Gregory is also striving to demonstrate that the Barlaamite’s citations of the Fathers notwithstanding, the Barlaamite theological paradigm is not patristic but pagan. The saint cites the Fathers of the Church to show that God is complex in his simplicity and simple in his complexity. We cannot, indeed, get to the essence of God through a rational inquiry of God’s creatures (simplicity), but nonetheless, there is a distinction in God between his various attributes (complexity) that does not destroy that simplicity but is, in fact, predicated upon it. Or, perhaps it might be as good to say that God’s simplicity is predicated upon his complexity.

St. Gregory further clarifies what it is he is trying to say.

XVI. . . . . O[rthodox]. Obviously, my friend, the uncreated essence and the uncreated energy are inseparable from each other. For neither of them is ever seen separate from the other. And so there is in essence and energy one uncreated divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That was also the opinion of Maximus, wise in divine matters, when he wrote, “One divinity without beginning, simple, super-essential, without parts and indivisible.” [Capita theologica 2,1] He added: “For the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are the divinity. And there is one God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For one and the same are the essence and the energy and the power of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” [ibid.] that one divinity and the one God, “who is invisible by His essence becomes visible by His energies, when He is seen in some of the characteristic features around Him,” [De Beatitudinibus 4] according to Gregory of Nyssa, the speaker from God; and, according to the blessed Cyril, none of the divine characteristics is acquired.” [De adoratione in spiritu et veritate 9] Hence, what you yourself initially cited as evidence from the divine Maximus, even if he did not literally write it down in that way, could be a pious thought. For the distinction in the divinity is not contrary to its unity. [cf. Maximos the Confessor, Chapters on Love 3,28] But you did not understand that and you broke apart the one divinity into a created and an uncreated one, in a most impious manner, just as Arius had done. For that man had also broken up the One God into a created and an uncreated one, because he had not understood the pious distinction according to the divine hypostases.

Ibid., 16

That is to say, there is a real, if ineffable, distinction between what God is in his essence or nature, and those activities that are manifestations of that essence. In other words, part of the issues is the paradigm of essence as something of a stasis, or, if in motion, centripetal. But the Fathers understood God’s essence as dynamic, indeed, a hyperousia, or “beyond-essence” in which the category of stasis could not apply. Thus God’s essence is dynamic, active, and from that essence are the motive energies, the activities of God. God is love, to be sure, but that love is always acting, extended out from itself. It is not in stasis, or eternally turned inward forever contemplating itself, as in the Aristotelian god (or at least some interpretations of Aristotle’s god), but like the heat of the fire, always radiates and warms.

Indeed, the image of the fire is often used metaphorically to illustrate the essence-energies distinction. For just as there is not fire without heat, and just as the heat is an inseparable characteristic of the fire, and yet one can distinguish the fire itself from its heat, so God’s energies are simply one with his essence, and inseparable from it, while at the same time distinguishable from the essence.

Going further, this metaphor is often used to describe how it is that humans can participate in the divine, without taking on God’s essence or losing our own unique identities. We are, as it were, the iron in the fire, which absorbs the heat of the fire, without itself becoming fire, and yet, is energized by that heat, which itself is inseparable from the fire, although distinguishable from it. The heat is truly an inseparable aspect of the fire, and not some created thing, and therefore, we partake of the fire, not by way of its essence, but by way of its energy, acquiring more and more of the heat, the longer we remain suffused with that heat.

In this way, St. Gregory destroys two blasphemies against God: that he can be separated into created and uncreated parts, and that he can be known by sheer rationalism or the intellect. Rather, what is required is a full participation of the person in the energies of God, a participation that is experiential even if it is also intellectual.

One thought on “Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue III

  1. Great commentary. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this text.

    Just a little warning, there is an apparent mistranslation on page 73 (thankfully the Greek text is provided on the opposing page), because the translator uses the English word “essence” to translate the Greek word “upostasin,” which should probably have simply been transliterated instead.

    God bless,

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