Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue VII

[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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