David Hart on the Palamite Distinction and our Knowledge of God

Both traditions [Eastern and Western], when they talk about the knowability or unknowability of the divine ousia or essentia, are for the most part talking pious nonsense. There is no such ‘thing’ as the divine essence; there is no such object, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It is ultimately immaterial whether we prefer to use the term ousia to indicate the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God in himself or to use the term ‘incomprehensibility of the essence’ instead. God is essentially Father, Son, and Spirit, and … there is no other reality prior to, apart from, or more original than the paternal arche, which perfectly reveals itself in an eternal and coequal Logos and communicates itself by the Spirit who searches the deep things of God and makes Christ known to us. There is no divine essence, then, into the vision of which the souls of the saved will ultimately be admitted, nor even from the knowledge of which human minds are eternally excluded, and any language that suggests otherwise—whether patristic, Thomist, or Palamite—is an empty reification. The question of the knowledge of God, properly conceived … is the question of how we know the Father in the Son through the Spirit, even as the Father infinitely exceeds our knowledge.

~ David B. Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest,” in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, p. 214

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18 Responses to David Hart on the Palamite Distinction and our Knowledge of God

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    Maybe I’m just slow, but these comments seem to be nothing but pseudo-intellectual wordplay. They add nothing to the discussion of the immanence and transcendence of God. On that point, it would seem Hart and Palamas would be in violent agreement.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dallas, when you refer to “comments” I take it that you are referring to the Hart passage. It’s likely that the passage would take on more meaning for you within the context of the entire essay, but unfortunately the essay is not available on the net.

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  2. RVW says:

    I find this to be very helpful. It puts into words something that I came to believe a long time ago, but couldn’t find the words to express.

    My difficulty was trying to speak about what it was the Persons shared without making that communion a thing (like St Augustine does by making the Spirit the bond of love between Father and Son: he makes the Spirit the ousia without recognizing it). However, as an object, something that can be examined, etc., the ousia does not exist: it sounds Kantian to me, but maybe he was a blind squirrel finding his occasional acorn here. We need to use human terminology to talk about the communion of the Persons, but it must fall short as words are created and God is not. In other words, apophaticism.

    Sorry for the rambling.

    RVW

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      RVW, I felt the same way when I first read Hart’s essay and came upon this passage. I’ve really never understood what the Latin Catholics mean when they say that in heaven we will see and know the essence of God or what Losskyian Palamites mean when they distinguish themselves from the Latins by emphasizing the distinction between the divine ousia and the divine energeia. The way the language is used seems to reify or objectify divinity.

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      • Dmwallace says:

        Any thoughts, then, on Meconi’s recent book on deification in Augustine?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I’m not acquainted with it. Have you read it? What is Meconi’s major thesis?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          This afternoon someone sent me the following review of the Meconi book:

          David V. MECONI, S.J. The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2013. pp. xx + 280. $64.95 hb. ISBN 978-o-8132-2127-4. Reviewed by Jill RAITT, Professor Emerita, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65201

          A book for scholars, this fine study of the 18 occurrences of forms of the word deificare in the works of St. Augustine is beautifully written, well-argued and organized.

          Deification has been a subject of scholarly discussion for some time as Meconi’s references and notes testify. Meconi, however, begins his introduction with the flat assertion that “Deification of the human person is central to how St. Augustine presents a Christian’s new life in Christ.” No one disagrees that Augustine affirms the Christian’s incorporation into Christ, but can this be “deification”? Meconi’s careful analysis of relevant texts, not only in the works of Augustine, but of pertinent works of Augustine scholars, convinces me that Meconi has it right. He has both Gerald Bonner and Andrew Louth in his corner. Is theosis in Greek theology a model for Augustine? Or does Augustine use “deification” differently? A better question might be how one interprets Rom. 5:5. If the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, are we not deified? God is where God acts, so the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is actually an indwelling of the Trinity, certainly a mode of deification!

          A philosophical approach relies on Greek philosophy’s assertion that friendship can only occur between equals and yet surely Christians are friends of Christ who calls his disciples not servants, but friends? How else can a human become God’s friend except by God’s action bestowing a participated form of godliness? And Meconi is insistent, throughout One in Christ, on deification as participation through “the Son’s descent into the human condition” so that Christians “become other “gods” able to participate in and live in accordance with the divine nature.” (235).

          Meconi begins with creation that Augustine analogously presented as “as a conversio ad Deum. That is, all creation must imitate the Word’s (eternal) turn toward the Father in order to receive existence and definition.” (234) Adam and Eve’s turn from God to themselves required the Son’s incarnation and sacrifice to allow a re-turn to the Father. It is that journey that this book spells out in terms of the gift of deification. The last chapter explains the church as first, the chorus of good angels, then the Hebrews and finds its fulfillment in Christ, man and God, who is the head of the totus Christus, in which the church is the body.

          Reading this book was a challenge; I took copious notes, and found my prayer life deepened as well, especially by the chapters on the Holy Spirit and on the Church.

          I found only one weakness in the text: although Meconi confidently repeats “Eucharistic sacrifice”, he supplies no citations to support this contested affirmation. Catholics argue for it; Protestants generally argue against Augustine having a theology of Eucharistic sacrifice. Meconi would have done well to refer to this literature or better, cited those places in the works of Augustine that support the Roman Catholic reading.

          The book consists of five chapters, each with a succinct conclusion, and closes with a 10-page “Conclusion” containing a summary and a section titled “Possible Advantages of this Study”. The well-integrated chapters are: 1) Creation as the Unifying Prologue, 2) Made to be Godly: The Divine Image Bestowed and Broken, 3) The Son’s Descent, 4) The Holy Spirit’s Indwelling, 5) Ecclesial Reception of the Divine Life.

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  3. Mina says:

    I pretty much have come to a certain understanding that what we partake of is the Godhead, or the divinity, uncreated, in its fullness. And yet because the Godhead is unimaginable, ultimately unknowable, and even “imparticipatable” in the same exact way as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identified as, there seems to exist that distinction in every tradition, albeit with nuances. I think the clearest way to put this together that I think all may agree is that the divinity presents Himself to us fully to be participated in (to the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit), but because we are limited beings, we can only take in so much as we can handle as we grow into the Godhead, even if what we take in is still the fullness of the divine nature.

    This is something I feel transcends any Palamite or Thomistic notion, just something simple and yet profound like this I feel unites both traditions in a manner that does away with such complicated notions to only confuse minds and allow us to accuse one another of heresies that do not apply. I feel Dr. Hart also saw a lot of these divisions as extraneous and unnecessary when delving into the essence of the beliefs.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mina, I find myself in full agreement (I think) with this comment. Clearly, everyone would agree, that in deification we do not become Divine Persons in the Trinity, yet as you point out, we truly are incorporated into the divine life of the Trinity and share and participate in this divine life in maximal degree (which I think is the driving Orthodox concern). Perhaps the formulation of St Gregory Palamas is the optimal and best way to express this. I do not know; but I suspect that we need to be fluid and flex in our terminology and conceptuality. The mystery of theosis surpasses our understanding and words. At least that is how I approach the matter (for good or ill).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I also wonder whether Zizioulas’s understanding of deification might be profitably brought into conversation with Hart: http://goo.gl/2kubXO.

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      • Mina says:

        I was introduced to Met. Zizioulas through Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck’s “His Broken Body”, which I think is an excellent book on ecclesiology. The “personist” idea of Met. Zizioulas seems to be a very consistent system that unites all aspects of theology, including ecclesiology, soteriology/deification, Christology/Trinitarianism, sacramental theology, etc. The concept of person as union avoids the tendency of deification through energies to be an impersonal force or power, and gives us a sobering account of having a relationship with God, where He communicates to us Himself, and we gain from Him His life. I truly believe his idea of communion as being is an essential part of Orthodox theology that needs to be complemented with Palamism. Otherwise, Palamism may be misused and misunderstood.

        It reminds me of one of our own, the Coptic theologian, Fr. Tadros Malaty (sorry I keep referencing him; as you can tell, I have been reading him lately and I have a newfound appreciation of this man’s existence within our contemporary Coptic tradition, who is under-appreciated, probably due to the sloppy editing of his translated writings), who defines grace as essentially “God’s self-giving to man”. He neither enters into explanation of “energy” or “created effects”, but hits the essential element of grace, where he gets from Origen’s ideas. Grace becomes centered not on the character of what is given (uncreated) or on the effect (the rewards, the growth), all of which are good and necessary, but the essential element is that relationship, that personal relationship with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. He recognizes the uncreated characteristic in partaking of the divine nature and the effects it means for us and how we are made more human and more whole, but he (and I suspect he probably read Met. Zizioulas as he was translated into Arabic by Dr. George Bebawi) wanted to concentrate as well on that personhood of grace.

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  4. William says:

    Calling language of essence “pious nonsense” or “empty reification” seems needlessly provocative. I don’t know anything about the Thomistic tradition, but I haven’t read in Palamas or any church father or great spiritual writer the idea that the divine essence is a “thing” or an “object” or a reality distinct from or “behind” the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, those writers found great utility in language of essence, as Hart himself does in language of “being” in his latest book.

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  5. I’ve seen something kind of similar in Eckhart–that behind the Trinity there is (of philosophical and mystical necessity) an absolutely undivided essence and unity– but I also know that this teaching was challenged by the ecclesiastical authorities. In this quote, Hart seems inevitably to be oversimplifying some things. Regardless, I appreciate Hart’s point that the eternal divine essence is not some “thing” we can see or not see. We enter the divine life by knowing the persons. But I may not be fully understanding; this is not a subject I have seriously studied.

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      I think Eckhart intentionally tried to provoke people – perhaps needlessly so – although I have seen at least one writer defend his orthodoxy. If you haven’t, I would recommend “Trinity and Creation: An Eckhartian Perspective” by Stratford Caldecott and his “Face to Face: The Difference Between Hindu and Christian Non-Dualism.” He proposes that “God Beyond God” refers to the dynamism of each Person taking rest in the Other instead of Himself so that there is nothing besides Love brought to each Person. It is one possible reading, I suppose, but I have not done an in-depth study of Eckhart either.

      May he rest in peace.

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      • brian says:

        Caldecott’s chapter on Eckhart in The Radiance of Being is excellent. What a fine fellow and a good life.

        I was largely influenced by Balthasar in my understanding of Eckhart. Hence, I was wary of him. Also, this isn’t fair, but I didn’t much like a lot of people who seem to be drawn to Eckhart. Hart also holds a fairly negative judgement — at least from what I recollect in The Beauty of the Infinite.

        Caldecott’s reading was different. His Eckhart is less an anticipation of German idealism and more a paradoxical provocateur. This Eckhartian view of identity is much more amenable to an orthodox understanding of eschatology. I kept thinking of Zizioulas notion of “remembering the future.”

        Following Yannaras, I rather dislike that phrase, “rest in peace,” though I know it is well-meaning. Flourish in divine life is better.

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  6. Thank you for this paragraph from DBH. It exhibits one of the more important rhetorical divisions that the East and West (more the former) have used to negatively define themselves. Barlaam was hardly the best representative of the West, and Gregory’s main interest was in apology for the symbolic presentation of monastic asceticism. It seems that their argument calcified a discussion into unnecessary historic demarcations.

    I was not aware that Dante Alighieri was still writing. I shall heed his commendation of the 2books by the late (and lamented) Stratford Caldecott.

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  7. Ben Mann says:

    I saw this reposted on Facebook (in the “Theology” group), and made two responses, one of which was as follows:

    Notably, even DBH here finds himself reliant on the word “coequal.” But how is the “coequality” of Father and Son to be explained, in an unambiguously correct way, without the use of a term signifying “that which is proper to both Persons”? And what term is to be used for that, other than “Divine Essence” or something which means exactly the same thing?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ben, Hart is in on way denying the use of “substance” or “essence” to speak of the equality of the divine persons. At least as I read him, his critique is directed against the implied reification of essence that he sees in the Thomist/Palamite debate on the apprehension of the divine essence in the beatific vision.

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