The Thomist and the Palamite

Palamite: “You make no distinction between the essence of God and his energy and you say that God gives himself to the creature in a finite mode. On your showing, this must mean that the divine essence is given in a finite mode, and this is plainly impossible. Either what is given is finite, in which case it cannot be God, or what is given is God, in which case it cannot be given finitely. In the former case there is no real deification of man; in the latter case man ceases to be a creature. Neither alternative is admissible, so your theory must be false.”

Thomist: “The whole matter is, of course, a profound mystery, but you have not been fair to my thought. I did not mean that God-in-a-finite-mode was given to the creature, but that God was received by the creature in a finite mode. The finitude is in the mode of participation, not in the object participated. And here is a dilemma for you, in return for that on which you tried to impale me. You say that the creature participates in the divine energy, though not in the divine essence. Now listen. Either the energy and the essence are identical, or else in participating in the energy the creature does not really participate in God. In the former case your own theory is false, in the latter it fails to provide for a real deification of man.”

Palamite: “No, now it is you who are being unfair to me. The energy is divine, and therefore in participating in the divine energy the creature participates in God. God is present, really present, in his energy as much as in his essence. The only difference is that the energy is communicable and the essence is not. Thus God is really communicated in his energy, though he remains incommunicable in his essence.”

Thomist: “Really, this is intolerable. God and his essence cannot be separated. If the energy communicates God it communicates his essence. And then you need my theory to explain how the creature can participate in God without losing its creatureliness.”

(The above is Eric Mascall’s reconstruction of a conversation that he and Valdimir Lossky enjoyed in the garden of Abingdon.)

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23 Responses to The Thomist and the Palamite

  1. Mina says:

    Thank you Father for posting this. I remember reading this a while back from the forums, and it really helps the complex divide of this situation. For some time interestingly enough, Thomas Aquinas in association with later generations of scholastics were accused of denying theosis or deification. But obviously we find out otherwise. I have always been intrigued and wondered if St. Gregory Palamas would have read Thomas Aquinas, would he really have disagreed. I would take a wild guess and say, “no”. He would probably say, “yes exactly, that’s what I’m saying. The distinction is how much a man can participate in.”

    One also can say is that St. Gregory did stress that grace is ultimately composed of the uncreated God acting in man, or “uncreated energy.” So he liked to stress God as the active component in all of this, whereas I think Thomas Aquinas stressed the active result of grace in man, which is “created”. All in all, I find both in the end to be complimentary, not contradictory as the polemic past thought.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mina, are you acquainted with A. Williams’s book The Ground of Union? She argues that despite differences St Gregory and St Thomas are fundamentally complementary. Some reviewers have stated that she is too irenic in her reading of the two theologians. I’m not in a position to judge.

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      • Mina says:

        I did get the book, haven’t cracked through it yet. But given recent controversies in the Coptic church that forced us to ask some questions on this issue, it made me see both as the same (hopefully).

        One controversy was how to describe dwelling in us. When we say the Holy Spirit dwells in us, does that mean His whole person (hypostasis and essence) or just His will? I believe based on the Scriptures and the early fathers there was no such distinction for the indwelling. So we must say even His divine essence can fully indwell. If the fullness of divinity is in Christ, which is in the Theotokos, it’s not impossible for God to do the same in our hearts.

        The difference is our reception (indeed, Thomas Aquinas resonates well here). St. Palamas would say that the energy is also the fullness of God, not a piece.

        So the next question is knowledge. Do we know or become God in His essence? The answer is no. Where St. Palamas gets credit is that there is a true “touch” (if we can call it such) or as St. Gregory the Theologian would say, mingling, of our nature with God. St. Athanasius would say we are “interwoven” into the Godhead. The essence is not “untouchable”, and yet is untouchable. In one way, God condescends to us because it is impossible for us to reach Him ourselves. In another way, there is never an instance where we cannot have access to God (unlike what Islam says).

        Both Aquinas and Palamas would agree we do not get a “piece” of God, and God does not undergo mitosis for everyone either. But we cannot be as God exactly is, and so we are not equal to, but can eternally partake of and become Him in both a real and limited way. Both to me seem to say this in their own systems.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          There’s something to be said for ambiguity and lack of theological precision. 🙂

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  2. Father Lev Smith says:

    Thanks, Father. As I said before, Mascall has always ben a favorite of mine, even if I switched from his Neo-Thomism to a “Burrellian” way of reading St Thomas. But Mascall was himself changing his views. I recall the palpable enthusiasm he showed for Lonergan’s transcendental Thomism in his second to last book, _Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?_.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It doesn’t appear that Lossky and Mascall made much headway in their conversation. 🙂

      I would liked to have asked these two theologians what they mean when they used the word “essence.” Does it mean the same for Aquinas and Palamas? I suspect it does not, but I’ve never been able to get a reliable answer from someone who knows what they are talking about. Do you have any opinions, Fr Lev?

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      • Father Lev Smith says:

        I think they are talking past each other. But what about the conventional Western distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. Would not this be equivalent to the Eastern distinction between essence and energies?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I don’t think that the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities really approximates the distinction between the essence and energies, as the latter is concerned (as you know, of course) with creation’s gifted participation in the divine life of God, not with God’s self-revelation in creation. But I think I see why you have raised the comparison.

          I do not personally find the essence/energies distinction particularly helpful. I think I understand why, in the historical context, it may have been the best option St Gregory had in responding to Barlaam’s heterodox assertions; but at the level of preaching and liturgy, which is where most of us live, I can see no reason to invoke the distinction, just as I can see no reason to invoke a distinction between uncreated and created grace. After all, when the biblical and patristric writers wish to talk about humanity’s involvement in the divine life of God, what do they invoke? The gift of the Holy Spirit, the life of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit, etc.

          What do you think?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I probably should qualify one point that I mentioned in my above comment. I suppose that a distinction between uncreated grace and created grace is implied by the distinction between the indwelling Holy Spirit and the changes the Spirit effects in the concrete life of the believer.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Been thinking the past couple of days about the immanent/economic Trinities and the relationship between the essence/energies distinction. I think I understand better now why you have proposed their equivalence. Just as the economic Trinity is the revelation of God’s immanent trinitarian life, so the divine energies are the immanent communication of God’s being. Does that sound right?

          One difference, though, is that with the economic Trinity we are truly given to know the immanent Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit), but the Palamite doctrine insists that we can never know the divine essence. On the other hand, both insist that we can never transcend or step around God’s self-communication in order to know and experience God as he is in himself (a se).

          Am I stating this accurately, Fr Lev?

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          • Father Lev says:

            The first paragraph sounds right to me, Fr Aidan. I’m less happy with the second — it depends on what you mean. To make the immanent/economic distinction does not entail adopting Rahner\’s axiom that the immanent Trinity = the economic Trinity. I would follow Zizioulas in rejecting Rahner\’s claim, and insist that the economic Trinity does not exhaust the immanent Trinity.

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  3. Father Lev Smith says:

    The distinction is, of course, much older than Palamas (at least as early as St Basil). But as to my likening it to the distinction between the immanent/economic Trinity, I found the same comparison made by Francis Schussler Fiorenza in his _Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, vol. 1_: “After Nicaea, theology in both traditions shifted from the question of function (what God does) to ontology (what God is). Christian theology thereafter pondered the economy of salvation only indirectly, from an ‘immanent’ perspective. ‘Economic’ Trinity refers to the life and work of God in salvation history, and ‘immanent’ Trinity refers to this same life and work of God in the economy from from the point of view of their eternal ground in the being of God…. Orthodox theology prefers the patristic language of ‘essence’ and ‘energies.’ What God is (essence) can never be known, but the eseence is revealed and manifested through the energies, which are God’s actions in creation and redemption” [p. 171].

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr Lev, did you see my earlier article “Was St Gregory of Nyssa a Proto-Palamite?

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      • Father Lev Smith says:

        I did at the time. Just glanced at it again. I like the last paragraph. It seems to say that isn’t a problem with the essence/energies distinction.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting that Fiorenza should compare the economic/immanent Trinities distinction with the essence/energies distinction. I would have thought that the former distinction is best compared to the theologia/economia distinction of the Eastern Fathers.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Fr John Meyendorff writes: “The distinction in God between ‘essence’ and ‘energy’—that focal point of Palamite theology—is nothing but a way of saying that the transcendent God remains transcendent, as He also communicates Himself to humanity” (“Introduction” to Gregory Palamas: The Triads, p. 20). This sounds right to me. We are trying to find a way to articulate a mystery—viz., our incorporation into the divine life of the Holy Trinity—that probably cannot be philosophically analyzed.

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  5. Michael Bauman says:

    Just a question of an ignorant man: Is it fair to say that the essence is the unknowable being of the I AM while the energies are that of Himself which He can reveal to us, His creatures without frying us? Even then it is done gradually and carefully.

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  6. William says:

    Palamas in several places emphasized that the energies cannot be separated from the essence, but I seem to recall a passage in which he specifically says that what is communicated in the energies is precisely the essence, and that in its entirety. However, I cannot find this passage anywhere and am beginning to wonder if I remembered wrongly. Does anybody know of the passage I’m thinking of? If it exists, it would seem to challenge the palamite’s words above that “God is present, really present, in his energy as much as in his essence. The only difference is that the energy is communicable and the essence is not. Thus God is really communicated in his energy, though he remains incommunicable in his essence.” (In that passage, God himself is distinguished from his essence and from his energies by being described as equally present in each — I always understood the essence to mean God himself.) And it would seem to suggest that the Thomist’s response to this get more to the heart of what Palamas himself was getting at.

    It seems to me that Palamas’ primary aim in emphasizing the distinction between essence and energies was not to posit a difference between what is communicable or incommunicable in God or to talk about finite giving or finite receiving, but really to distinguish what can be named in genuine human experience of God himself and the reality of what/who God is in himself, which cannot be named. It seems that neglecting this leads us into all kinds of theories about the distinction that people find “unhelpful.” I often find people’s talk about the distinction between essence and energies to be unhelpful but when I read a passage from Palamas himself, it seems more helpful to me. None of this is to suggest however, that I have any firm grasp of Palamas!!!

    In any case, I always feel a bit uneasy about comparisons between Palamas and Aquinas, especially those that seem to think that each is one side’s answer to the other.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      William, I skimmed through Anna Williams’s The Ground of Union to see if I could find a citation similar to the one you remember (figuring that if anyone might reproduce it, she certainly would), but I didn’t find anything. Palamas certainly states the inseparability of essence and energies, but he also sees emphatic on the imparticipability of the essence. But I’ll keep my eyes open.

      I recall an email exchange with an Orthodox theologian a few years back in which we discussed the Palamite distinction. He admitted upfront that he did not know what what either “essence” or “energies” means for Palamas, though he certainly was able to state why Palamas developed the distinction as he did—namely, to speak of the very real participation of the saints, even in this life, in the uncreated life and nature of God.

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      • Mina says:

        Certainly, some of the Eastern Orthodox scholars and most loyal venerators of St. Gregory Palamas, like Fr. John Meyendorf and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (this is his favorite saint he said in a lecture, and the one he seeks intercession from) interprets him in a manner that I find in no essential disagreement with Thomas Aquinas’ ideas.

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      • William says:

        I think I may have found what I was remembering. Here are two passages, not far from each other:

        “But since God is entirely present in each of the divine energies, we name Him from each of them, although it is clear that He transcends all of them. For, given the multitude of divine energies, how could God subsist entirely in each without any division at all; and how could each provide Him with a name and manifest Him entirely thanks to indivisible and supernatural simplicity, if He did not transcend all these energies?” (Triads III, 2:5)

        “Essence and energy are thus not totally identical in God, even though He is entirely manifest in every energy, His essence being indivisible.” (Triads III, 2:9)

        These passages don’t really say what I was suggesting above, and my mistake was equating “God himself” with the essence. But, as Palamas says, “When God was conversing with Moses, He did not say, ‘I am the essence,’ but ‘I am the One Who is.’ Thus it is not the One Who is who derives from the essence, but essence which derives from Him, for it is He who contains all being in Himself.”

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      • fatherlev says:

        Is this possibly such a passage? ‘The deifying gift of the Spirit thus cannot be equated with the superessential essence of
        God. It is the deifying energy of this divine essence, yet not the totality of this energy, even though it is indivisible in itself. Indeed, what created thing could receive the entire, infinitely potent power of the Spirit, except He who was carried in the womb of a Virgin, by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing of the power of the Most High? He received “all the fulness of the Divinity”.’ Triads, 3.1.34

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I’m wondering if the essence/energies distinction is mandated, if you will, by the Dionysian “beyond Being” framework in which St Gregory thought about these matters. If we cannot speak of God as “Being,” i.e., as the source of creaturely being, and if we wish to state that this Beyond Being God still communicates Himself without in any way violating or compromising his radically transcendent reality, perhaps the only way to do so is to speak of his communicable self-communication, i.e., energies. Just ruminating.

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