The Essence/Energies Distinction in the Theology of St Gennadius Scholarios

by Fr Christiaan Kappes

In today’s installment, I hope to fully accede to Fr. Kimel’s request; namely, to figure out what the real Scholarios believes! Well, historically, there have been many “Scholarii” (viz., Scholarioses) to contend with (up to three!). In fact, before the late 1800s it was hotly debated as to whether or not the layman-Scholarios, who wrote the pro-union sermons in 1439, was the same monk-Gennadius-Scholarios, who blasted the filioque in 1445 or so. Well, happily Scholarios’s—or should I say the Scholarioses’?—split personality disorder had already been cured by a Frenchman of the 18th century, saving the scholarly world from resorting to Dr. Freud for aid in the next century. Still, the “old guard” of the day often enough couldn’t bear the thought of allowing the two Scholarii to fuse into one non-extreme personality (viz., either pro- or anti-Latin), so it took until the mid-1850s for the crushing weight of scholarly arguments to finally cause hold-out scholars to give up the ghost on the matter.

Interestingly, in Greece, there has been one last recent-abortive attempt to convince the world that Scholarios should again be diagnosed as a case of multiple personality. This first-edition book (1979), written by a Greek Orthodox theologian, was of extremely limited success and its major historical arguments were largely discounted.1 With apologetic verve, slinging many an epithet against the antichrist of popery, some helpful observations nonetheless managed to emerge out of the work, which was a originally a university thesis. Still, the world’s reigning experts on Scholarios (Blanchet, Demetracopoulos) dutifully put into print their adjudication of the scholarly inutility of this, for the most part, sectarian diatribe against the West. Sadly, this 300-page harangue of the latinophrôn Scholarios and his Roman Catholic sycophants, in defense of Orthodoxy as it is claimed, was met with sympathy by some Orthodox theologians such that they even wrote a few book reviews trying to excuse Zezes’ thesis based on some of its more elusive merits. While it is true that Latino-Western-minded literature has been historically distortive, uncharitable, and downright spin-doctorish about telling the story and glory of Byzantium, I am always disappointed to see that—for the sake of clannish allegiance—some scholar-theologians almost robotically fall into place and stand to be counted when an equally chimeric version of history and theology is leveled against the West. Well, in this atmosphere, i.e., a clubish exoneration of non-academic diatribes fit for the 18th century knowledge of Scholarios, it is difficult for us to read secondary literature and have any idea about who Scholarios was and what Scholarios believed!

The real Scholarios was a deeply complex man. Whereas he knew the ascetic, liturgical, and spiritual Tradition of the East to be balm of his soul and spirit, the Lotus flower that satisfied his embodied intellect was ever the systematically Scholastic musings on the faith as he found in Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, a principal source of his access to the Angelic Doctor, as a precocious young philosopher, had been through the translations of Byzantine-layman-turned-Thomist Demetrius Kydones (translations beginning in 1354), not to mention those of his brother, Orthodox hieromonk Prochoros (d. 1370). By 1432 we know that Scholarios had paid for a transcription of the Summa Theologiae and also about this time he was already producing his own translation of non-thomistic, but scholastic, works along with his own Greek translations of Aquinas. There is nothing like translating to get every jot and tittle of what an author is saying. Scholarios was quickly taken with the deep insights and meaningful distinctions that Aquinas proposed when thinking theologically. Still, Scholarios was not naïve, for he had early on accessed the more logically advanced “modist” school of Ralph Brito (d. 1320). Ralphie-boy was a poignant critic of Aquinas’ logic, rejecting the analogical concept of being, and even was at odds at other facets of Aquinas’ commitments on physics and metaphysics.

So, already in the 1430s Scholarios sometimes preferred the opinion of so-called modistae, what are often considered “anti-thomistic” positions, to those of his hero Aquinas? Well, Scholarios had read—in Greek initially—much more than just these two Latin authors. Among his many investigations, he encountered Hervaeus Natalis (d. 1323). Hervaeus’ name translates into English as: “Harvey Christmas.” Ole Harvey, too, was a self-described super-apostle of Aquinas (he proved it by getting him canonized!). Still, Harvey took the Aristotelian side of the Aristotle-Cicero archetypical debate. On one hand, Aristotle stated: “It is better to agree with truth than with friends (= Plato)” (Arist., Nich. Ethic. 1096a15).2 On the other hand, Cicero admired the side of friendship asserting: “It is better to err with Plato than to agree with these [not-so-cool philosophers] in truth!” (Cic., Tusc. 9).3

With Harvey, this was just such a case. In fact, the first generation of Thomists—self-described lovers of Thomas—tended to politely disagree with their lumen or sage, but they never lost sight of first going to their “Common Doctor”—before looking at anyone else—and what he had to say. This explains very well Scholarios’ own approach to all theology, but especially the essence-energies question. Scholarios understood exactly what the most famous Latin Thomist (who got Thomas canonized) was … a cherry picker. Scholarios followed suit. We see Scholarios picking and choosing opinions of Augustine, sometimes of a Greek Father, of Ralphie-boy, of Harvey, and even of John Duns Scotus (d. 1308).

Now, this last fella, Johnny-come-lately, was fairly lauded by Scholarios particularly in reference to his doctrine of the essence and energies of God. In fact, Scholarios went so far as to say the following:

Some in Italy, especially those of the habit of Francis, whose school, so to speak, I have often frequented, associate themselves more with later teachers, whom they allege in their opinion to surpass [Thomas Aquinas].  Nor are we ashamed of Francis [Mayron] or his teacher [John Duns Scotus], as long as we give first place to the one who is first [Thomas Aquinas], all the while admiring the subtlety of their intelligence, and even siding with them on many points of inquiry. […] But according to the designation of most of us, the more recent [schoolmen] are more orthodox than Thomas; being that they are closer to us and to the truth; i.e., those surrounding the Master John Scotus. (Oper. Omnia, VI.179-180)

Now, Scholarios never abandoned Thomism for Scotism in his method of research, or his starting point for talking about theological questions, or his desire that Thomas have the best of all possible opinions. Nonetheless, because Scholarios held Orthodoxy as a truth above academic philosophy and theology, and because he admired subtle truth more than even Thomas, he selectively rejected Aquinas’ metaphysics on the questions of the essence-energies and filioque questions. Still, Scholarios was too good of a philosopher and theologian to be satisfied with just repeating formulas of the past in Greek that gave no justification for Orthodox tenets and did little to show the Latins that Orthodoxy represents the “logical latria” (Rom 12:1) that has a claim on truth.

Now, Martin Jugie in the 1930s was, as was obligatory in those days, every bit the dyed-in-the wool neo-Thomist. Neo-Scholastics had spent a lot of intellectual capital interpreting world history in a triumphalistic manner (a numinous historical progression impelling us toward apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas). In this story-telling venture, Scotus needed to be the red headed stepchild of philosophy. So, though Jugie meritoriously made some efforts to read Scotus, he dismissed him as someone near-heresy-incarnate, especially in his doctrine of God, divvying out the essence & energies into more-than-human-conceptual-distinctions. As I have catalogued in detail in a recent article, Thomists had long considered Bl. Duns to be a pantheist and downright wrongheaded on any number of doctrines,4 but I mention now that this was equally the case with the Immaculate Conception. This led to a public call by the second-highest ranking Dominican in Christendom (Juan Torquemada) for a conciliar condemnation of the doctrine at the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence before the very eyes of the Greek Orthodox representatives. Of course, such inglorious events are numerous and do not exactly help Neo-Thomist narratives upholding the supposedly ever-burgeoning theological trajectory or “inevitable” rise to glory that Thomism’s putative perpetual-orthodoxy has claimed for itself in recent times.

Returning to modernity, shortly after Jugie’s publication made headway, a young member of his order (Sebastian Guichardan, an Assumptionist) produced a study on Scholarios’ Palamism.5 Interestingly, whenever specialists cite this French study, it is pretty obvious that they’ve never read a single page of it. Firstly, most never provide a page number (hmmm…), while yet they consistently misrepresent Scholarios and have no idea about Scotus. The basic theory in the 1930s by both authors is that Scotus bridged the insurmountable gap between Palamas’ “heretical” real distinction of essence & energies by opting for Duns Scotus’ theology of the formal distinction (so far so good). What is interesting is that any Scotist of the time, or any nowadays for that matter, would find the terminology used by Scholarios (employing typically a literalist or ad verbum translation) strangely un-Scotus-sounding. Yes, the conceptual apparatus might be reduced to scotistic distinctions, but it’s not 100 percent correspondence in method or vocabulary. Why?

Well, enter our friend Harvey … Mr. Christmas fell on the Aristotle-side of the Plato debate  … better to leave friends behind in philosophy for the sake of truth than to uphold their doctrines just because of their awesomeness as cool dudes. In fact, Harvey left behind Aquinas or obliquely disagreed with him on any number of philosophical tenets. However, because of Harvey’s stealth, it was never obvious in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, save to the subtlest of metaphysicians and logicians who thought they smelled a rat in his logic and metaphysics of concepts. Though Harvey, as Master General, tried to impose “Thomism” on the order even before Aquinas’ 1324 canonization, what Harvey meant by Thomism was making Thomas an ever-respected first point of departure (but not necessarily a canon for agreement) on theological investigation. It is exactly this style of being a Thomist (= eclecticism rooted in Thomas as the point of departure) that embodies Gennadius Scholarios to the last detail. Even when Scholarios is clearly and essentially disagreeing with Aquinas, he pretends not to contradict him (e.g., when he supposes with Harvey that accidents are the principle of individuation … not prime matter as it arises out of a matter-form combo as in dimensive-matter). Even in instances where Scholarios is subtly and silently kicking Aquinas’ ideas to the curb (and there are several instances), Scholarios is nonetheless claiming to be a faithful mimic of Thomas. How? Well, we could think that it might be a character flaw, for Scholarios was (not unlike Nazianzen) a bit vain in his rhetoric and self-descriptions, and he was an exaggerator on his own accomplishments (sometimes more translating from Latin than actually commentating as he claimed). He did not lie when claiming to be a Thomist; but a Thomist meant being faithful to the memory and spirit of Thomas in every investigation, being a lover of “divine Aristotle” and desirous of doing “scientific” investigation into every nook and cranny of theology with methods that drew from the organon of Aristotle and that put this into practical effect by applying Aristotelian ethics to everyday Christian living. This was a bulk of what Thomas meant to Gennadius.

So it should come as no surprise that Scholarios imitated the strategy of Harvey, whom I have just recently discovered to be one of Scholarios’ sources for doing Palamite theology.6 Working with J. A. Demetracopoulos, I have just completed a few days ago the transcription of the first pages of Harvey Christmas’ Greek-translation commentary on the Sentences, as translated by Prochoros Kydones, likely dated between 1355/6-1366. Unsurprisingly, Scholarios not only adopted Harvey’s early eclectic-thomistic mentality, but also drew on Harvey’s cyptic use of Duns Scotus. Though Harvey spent considerable time defending his beloved Aquinas from Scotus’ attacks in the early 1300s, it is nonetheless true that he applied Aristotle’s idea: “better to be the friend of truth.” Harvey incorporated the formal distinction, while dressing it up in more thomistico-sounding language and context in order to talk about the essence & energies of God. Similarly, even obliquely citing “Master Christmas,” Scholarios himself got excited about Scotus, whom he read (and likely translated for Mark Eugenicus) in its original Latin. Now, just like Scholarios’ propensity to proclaim openly to Byzantines his love for Thomas (and to be punished for it among some of his contemporaries and in the 1940s until now), so too Scholarios managed to annoy Neo-Thomists by his praise of Scotus. At the time, in the 1930-1960s, it was generally unknown that Herveaus was indeed a crypto-Scotist on the essence-energies question. For these reasons, it was puzzling as to how Scholarios simply announced himself openly adopting Franciscanism when doing ad intra theology. Really, Scholarios knew—unlike the early 20th century—that some Thomists had been closet Scotists on a number of questions for years! So, in both camps, Scholarios’ real crime was not being ashamed of doing that dirty thing in the open that both Palamites and Thomists had been doing in secret … ecumenical theology!

Now that we have arrived precisely at his method of doing theology—the “Christmas method” of talking about essence & energies. What scary things lie ahead with respect to Scholarios? Well, the first scary thing for an Orthodox—who might psychologically need to believe that Palamas is completely “unadulterated” with Latin-thinking (even if we keep finding him using more & more of Augustine!)—is to consider that Palamas’ insights in later life, leading to influence Scholarios, might have actually come from Prochoros Kydones!!!

At this time I think this proposition is a remote possibility, but nonetheless an increasingly tantalizing prospect. You see, Prochorus entered the monastery at about 17 yrs. old on Mt. Athos around 1340. The testimony we have of Prochoros was of someone who was an indefatigable bibliophile, studying constantly. Before he was mature enough to grow a beard, he had gotten permission—as an advanced monastic—to go off and live in the desert on his own. What is supremely important for us is our knowledge of dates. Prochoros got in trouble for his own original thomistico-anti-palamitico writings and had to abjure his theology on Athos in 1367. Sometime before that he had had his room ransacked and his writings and literary materials seized, likely no earlier than 1366. He had already been causing dissension since 1365, flowing from his new-fangled theological thinking. It would appear, then, that his translations from Latin date before this period, since they served as sources for his ideas on God against Palamas before he began to pen his ideas in Greek. Mostly he drew from Augustine and Aquinas. Despite Prochoros’ relatively infrequent contact with his brother Demetrius, he still seems to have acquired information on his Demetrius’ literary activity so that Prochoros picked different parts of the Summa Theologiae to translate than did his brother. This puts Prochoros’ thomistic translation activity as far back as 1357—the year of Palamas’ death! The unanswerable question, at this time, is whether or not Prochoros’ Latin-learning came from Dominicans in Thessalonica or from someone on Mt. Athos. This is rather important because the general trend among Italians (who colonized Byzantium) in Dominican studia/schools was still to prioritize Aquinas’ Sentences commentary (over the Summas) when studying. Demetrius was not trained in a Dominican studium, but rather by a non-university trained Dominican as a private tutor of Latin. They used the Summa contra Gentiles, since it was such an easy straightforward Latin text that did not need Lombard’s Sentences side-by-side to understand what was being said.

The story is different for Thessalonica. As others (e.g., Palaiologus) in the Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus project have discovered,7 and I have complemented and further solidified,8 Lombard’s Sentences were circulating in a Greek translation in Thessalonica, as attested by Barlaam, Nicholas Cabasilas, Matthaios Blastares & Symeon of Thessalonica. This is propitious, for it helps explain why Prochoros had gotten hold of a copy of Harvey Christmas’ commentary on the Sentences. The Dominican studia held copies to help profs with their lectures to interpret Lombard in class according to the mind of Thomas and his most famous champion. However, if Prochoros had been instructed to study Aquinas on the studium/Dominican-school model, he would have first encountered Aquinas’ or Hervaeus’ commentary on the Sentences. Only afterward would he have studied the two Summae. This could conceivably push Prochoros’ translation work of Harvey back to the mid-1350s! Might this mean that Palamas’, or his followers’ strange arguments, that coincide with Harvey on the separation between the essence & energies are possibly under the influence of a Greek crypto-scotistic Thomist?

Truly, it is highly unlikely, but as I am comparing Palamas’ singular vocabulary and phraseology (not found in Greek philosophy or in the Fathers) to Hervaeus’ Greek translation by Prochoros, there have been some strange parallels where only Palamas and Hervaeus use terms together unknown to the Fathers and Greek Philosophers!

Now I don’t want to be too exuberant. Right now the most likely solution is that Prochoros had read Palamas’ dialogues with the Philosopher Gregoras, and that some of Prochoros’ unique vocabulary that he chose for translating Hervaeus into Greek reflects the terms of debate that Prochoros had in his mind from Palamas’ earlier works read on Mt. Athos. Also, by this time, Palamas was a pastor in Thessalonica (not so far away) and was less likely to have access to Prochoros’ translation as he would have had if there had been a translation in the 1330s-early 1340s. Lastly, Scholarios tells us that Palamas did not explicitly call the energies “attributes” or “perfections,” in the Scholastic way of speaking. This observation will likely prove accurate. So, Scholarios had to graft this Christimas language onto Palamism. It will likely be found, then, that Palamas was writing a little too early to have been influenced by Harvey, but not so for Palamas’ followers. More exciting, and more likely, is the fact that several arguments of early Palamites, such as: “If the persons are quite distinct in the essence and do not thereby threaten it, all the less do distinct energies threaten divine unity,” follow exactly Harvey’s Scotistic way of speaking about the essence and energies of God. Once we see that some of these analogies are uniquely “Christmas-y,” parsimony should force us to arrive definitively at the odd idea that Palamas’ early disciples were inspired to defeat the philosopher Gregoras and subsequent Thomists by recourse to Christmas-theology! Still, quite a bit of research is underway, not at its terminus. What I can say is that Scholarios was such an attentive reader of his predecessors, especially Palamas, that he correctly assessed their potential to be perfectly integrated with his version of (ad hoc) Scotistico-Thomism.

For example, Scholarios had admitted already in 1445 that Thomists were essentially Barlaamites and Akindynists in how they thought of the divine attributes. In modern terms, like Richard Cross’ assessment of Thomism, Scholarios admitted that Thomists were selective “nominalists” when talking about attributes in God, but they became moderate realists when speaking about creatures. Dominicans would not like this, but my translation of Scholarios sufficiently relays the fact that he made this judgment in sync with modern analytical philosophers.9

So, Scholarios’ solution was to “reform” Thomism by introducing it to “the formal distinction.” He knew that historically the “formal distinction” was something that was not really available to Thomas and early Thomists, and that its development was a phenomenon that came from logical precisions directly after Thomas’ transitus from this world. Scholarios bridged the gap, as per my translation, by noting that contemporary Thomists of his day wrongly call the Scotistic distinction “real,” and that Thomas himself would have accepted it and placed it under the “distinctions according to reason.” There is a certain genius in this, in that both the distinction between esse-essentia in Thomas led to a certain conceptual but really inseparable union between two really distinct items: a thing’s what-ness (horse-ness) and its act of existence (being continuously a real horse vs. a notionally abstract one). In only a certain analogous way, this Thomistic doctrine was admitting the existence of metaphysical quasi-parts in an otherwise “simple” item (e.g., in an angel). In some Franciscans the distinction between esse-essentia was even admitted, but often as yet another instance of “the formal distinction.” What this effectively meant, however, in admitting the validity of Scotism’s notion of being—for any knowledgeable Scholastic or analytic philosopher—is abandoning the thomistic commitment to an “analogical concept of being” as wrong when talking about God. Strangely, however, Scholarios continued to reproduce Aquinas’ works and never corrected him on his doctrine of analogy (as he sometimes did on other items) well into the 1460s. What does it all mean???

Well Ockham, arguably the best logician of the Middle Ages, was not unlike this. His theological commitments made him sell his soul to the devil (otherwise known as Scotus) and admit the formal distinction in God, so as to maintain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but on everything else in life he was an unabashed nominalist (Akyndinst!). These kind of inconsistencies are not blotches on Scholarios’ acumen. They demarcate his willingness to ignore the threat that Scotism posed to Aquinas’ logic and godly metaphysics in order to satisfy the need to be a faithful proponent of Orthodox doctrine. It may sound naughty, but patristic philosophical commitments were no less hodge-podge so that, in this, Scholarios was almost following “patristic tradition.”

For his part, Scotus’ principal appeal to justify the claim of a “formal distinction”—like Palamites—is not philosophical. Scotus argues that the divine emanations of the Son and the Holy Spirit are just the sorts of examples that justify his claim for the divine energies. They are not mental “fictions,” they are not mere “beings of reason” (ens rationis tantum; τὰ τοῦ λόγου μόνον ὄντα). They are said to be irreducible distinctions of different sorts of causal activity of the Father.10 One does not understand these sorts of divine properties as nominalistic properties.11 The name for each hypostasis is naming real differences that are neither mentally nor altogether identical with the divine essence.12 Scotus, therefore, proposes an a fortiori argument that will become famous too among the Palamites:13 “If the persons are really distinct from each other in the divine essence, all the more do the distinct divine energies not threaten the simplicity of the divine essence.”

However, Scotus is not satisfied with only a theological explanation. He also wishes to show in the creaturely realm of real beings why this is the only meaningful way God can be spoken of. He reduces his argments to the following:

1.) Because the mind knows that something that has goodness is not the same as something that has wisdom, and wisdom is not goodness, they cannot be the same thing (in re).

2.) If this is not true in God (like Thomists say), then mentally formed concepts of infinite wisdom (in God’s mind) and infinitely formed concepts of infinite goodness would look the exact same in God’s mind.

3.) But this is impossible. Wisdom (as a concept) doesn’t destroy its own meaning or concept just because it is multiplied by infinity. It is just understood to be possessed in greater or lesser degree. The common idea of goodness is simply different than wisdom.

4.) Now if the general concept of wisdom is irreconciliable (mentally) with the concept of goodness in general, then every time the general concept is applied in all particular cases, a particular wisdom is not particular goodness, and vice versa.

5.) Now this is because either the mental definitions or terminological/conceptual parts of the definition (genus, species, difference) must match up mentally in order to be the same. They are really of the same essence only to the extent that they are possessed of something that does differ formally-mentally.

6.) This means that between “goodness” and “wisdom” their is some degree of non-formal (non-mentally-abstracted) identity (i.e., parts or all of their definitions do not match mentally).

7.) These are all terms taken from the quiddities (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι) of things. All the same, it is a true proposition to say: “Wisdom is not formally/mentally goodness.”

Several important points are developed by Scotus here on his quest to justify the divine energies as distinct items from the divine essence. The most important (and perhaps famous) is the formal distinction (distinctio formalis ex parte rei; πραγματικὴ διάκρισις ἐκ τῆς τοῦ πράγματος φύσεως).14 Above the expression is more classically “Scotistic”. Duns’ followers more often liked to talk in terms of formal distinctions, while Scotus himself seems to have thought of it more often along the lines of a “formal non-identity”. This terminology is more descriptive than technical. It denotes that what is mentally contained by goodness is not mentally contained by wisdom, but it is still possible that both are quasi-parts (συμβεβηκός πως, εἰδηκότης, ὀντότης) of the same one thing (like the divine essence).

Secondly, Scotus’ account of the energies in God and man makes it possible to have both an accurate notion of man’s energetic participation in any one of God’s energies.15 This does not imply that one actually possesses them in oneself in an infinite mode, but in a mode that is proper to a creature. This mode will always be limited by one’s non-infinity. Nonetheless there is not a great divide between God and man such that humans only participate in a “deficient” perfection of the divinity.16 The perfection may not be infinite, but it is everything that is meant by what is this/that energy in the divine being. However, such perfection is only imitable (participated) by a creature according to its approach to the divine being (in both grade/intensity in creation and divine access given through mystical revelation).

Lastly, and important for concluding this section, is the argument of Duns Scotus on divine simplicity. Aristotle’s standard account of accidents (as repeated and adopted by Aquinas) is not relevant for Scotus’ analysis of divine attributes. Duns’ way of looking at things seems to assume that accidents (attributes) don’t have to inhere in matter. Matter is an entity, not just Aquinas’ (objective) potentiality. It may have a relationship with forms, but accidents are really active attributes within a being (i.e. energies). They seem to flow out of the identity of the being’s individuating perfection (haecceity), and as such aren’t the types of things that just inhere. They actually have a causal role in nature, and as such are another rich instance of interplay among themselves. God’s energies, in parallel fashion, are simply necessary to give a full account of the actuality of divine essence.17

In short, if infinity can be combined with any attribute that is due to God (e.g. wisdom, goodness, unity, omniscience) without being a paralogism, this energy is correctly said of God. The formula might look like the following: attribute (x, y, or z) × ∞ = divine attribute.18 Because God’s being (as above) is also really an infinite being, and there can be only one infinite being by the fact that it cannot be surpassed, then anything else that exists in an infinite mode must necessarily belong to this infinite being. God Himself, therefore, is perfectly the same with any attribute (essentially) that he possesses, but both his essence (infinite being) and his energy (e.g. infinite wisdom) are different formally (mentally) in definition. This points to the fact that though they both exist in a modally infinite way, they are two infinites. One is essentially infinite, the other is something that is compatible with what is essentially infinite items by identity, namely attribute “x”, “y”, “z”.19 Because all the attributes due to God are necessary to Him on account of all of them either explaining or justifying the activity of an infinite being, they are co-essential. If an infinite being lacked any of these powers, he would presumably not be infinite or perfect. Initially, when arguing the existence of God, Scotus spent a fair amount of time trying to show what kinds of activities can be expected from any being that truly possesses such an eminent degree of existence.

To support my claims in the contemporary period of this debate, I refer you to two, among several, theologians and authors who already recognize, intuit, or suspect that Scotism is the panacea for bringing East and West together. NB, although many respected authors have noticed: “Scotism is the bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism on the essence-energies,” psychological indisposition of modern theologians and philosophers—I adjudge—causes them to knee-jerkedly pass on to a more pleasant topic. To say that Scotus is doing the same theology as Palamas is “a priori” an impossibility because of anti-Scotistic prejudice and sheer laziness. The famous and highly respected Thomist De Halleux is perhaps the weightiest authority that has already admitted this thesis.20 One respected theologian attempted to propose a “new perspective” in order to resolve the East-West debate. However, from the perspective of the present work, some underlying presumptions of the author have doomed his and similar Roman Catholic attempts that seek to find common ground between Thomism and Palamism. David Coffey exemplifies this fact by making a series of propositions in St Vladimir’s Theological Review. He asserts:

According to a now famous editorial of Istina, for the majority of Orthodox theologians in Europe and North America the heart of the doctrine of St. Gregory Palamas is ‘the real distinction in God of the essence and the (uncreated) energies,’ and this has become for them the touchstone of Othodoxy over against Catholicism, replacing the filioque as the most serious obstacle in the way of union between the two churches. […] Palamas nowhere goes so far as to characterize his distinction as ‘real,’ in so labelling it Istina categorizes his doctrine in a way that makes it all too easy to dismiss as philosophically and theological absurd.21

After this series of claims, Coffey continues to argue his case and, at first, seems to show some familiarity with Duns’ formal distinction. After all, he names the distinction and even mentions that Duns’ distinction might very well explain what Palamas meant to say. However, he warns, Palamas himself would not have been very happy with such a technical description of his mystical insight. This, of course, is the prejudice that always comes to the fore, since nobody is sympathetic to Scotus. So Coffey is apparently unaware that for Scotus the formal distinction is a very real distinction (especially vis-à-vis Thomism’s categories). Though Coffey also criticizes Guichardan (the common anti-palamite enemy of Orthodox from 1933 on), he equally misunderstands Scotus’ distinction. For all Thomists of note, Scotus is really and truly guilty of making a thomistically “real distinction” in God. At the very best, a Thomist can understand this distinction as if analogous to esse-essentia or the difference between the existing activity and the genus-species in an object. This means that God’s unity is always threatened, no matter what when Neo-Thomists look at Scotus. Coffey, for his part, doesn’t seem to get it that Palamas was both affirming that Aristotelian dialectical and metaphysical arguments did not contradict his thesis, while also affirming that a really non-separable (even by divine power) distinction between God’s attributes and essence are the case. This is precisely and to the detail the professed position of Scotus in his exegesis of John Damascene. The distinct item (energy) is both inseparable from the essence and is a distinct item within the essence independently of any considering mind. This is because the distinction structurally (naturâ; ἐκ φύσεως) “predates” any sort of thought about it. Thought, as it were, depends on the thing as a whole, not vice versa.

Notably, Scotus criticized one kind of thomistic distinction as being a mere distraction technique. It is a myth, according to the mind of a Scotist, that the distinctio rationis rationatae (διάκρισις ἐπινοίας ἐκ τοῦ θεωρουμένου) is in any sense a “real distinction”. This is because the point of reference (cause of thinking ‘a’) for the discerning mind is not in the object considered in itself (certainly not with God’s essence), but the human mind is responsible for the distinction only after it considers the real differences of accidental and/or essential attributes of other created beings (ens commune) that exist in the world.

Presumably, for the Thomist, the human mind is incapable of directly seeing the divine energies, if God were to directly reveal Himself to a human mind. For Thomas, whatever is accessible in such a vision (e.g. the divine essence itself), is accessible by virtue of an accident or additive (lumen gloria; τὸ τῆς δόξης φῶς) that God makes to adhere to the weak human intellect. This is necessitated by the fact that the intellect can only comprehend by abstraction from physical things and needs a phantasm and essences produced by the agent intellect. This makes perfect sense within the Thomist system, since all perfections (e.g. wisdom) are only defectively understood by the soul, in comparison to the perfection as existing and understood in and by God. The primary referent and perfect concept (of wisdom) is only identical with the essence of God. No human can know this divine energy. Therefore this energy cannot be seen when one is given the “naked” vision of the Holy Trinity. On the contrary, for Scotus, the mind is naturally able to see all such things since it is made to know “being” not exclusively “essences”. The essence of God is ineffable and incomprehensible. Yet, if the mind is given the “presence” of any intelligible object (e.g. an energy as a concept that is indifferent to infinite or finite existence), the soul—due to its dignity and deiform nature—is argued to be able to see the energies immediately without any abstraction necessary.

So what ought we to think about Scholarios’ doctrine? Is it Scotism? Yes, he is a Scotist on the essence & energies of God. Does he think that Palamas is a Scotist? Well, he thinks that Palamas’ insight through grace was easily defended by the bulwark of Scotism that gave the skeletal structure of Palamism the brick & mortar it needed to fend off attacks from the Thomists, whom he identifies as being of the type of Armandus of Bellovisu. Is Palamas really a Scotist? Well, it depends on what we mean. If we mean, Do Palamas and Scotus hold some uncannily similar descriptions and rules on how the divinity acts and functions?‘ … then the answer is yes, Palamas and Scotus are the same. If we ask, Are Scotus and Palamas guilty of the same theological “crimes”? … then the answer is again, yes, in every way. If the question is, Does Palamas depend on Scotus? … the almost certain answer is, not at all. Finally, Does Palamas coincide on Scotus’ approach and conclusions 100 percent? The answer is … no, not really; but they share more than a half-dozen major areas of method and approach. So when we talk about Scholarios being unique among Palamites, what are we saying?

We are really saying that he was brighter than pretty much all the Latins and Greeks of his century, and that he was able to use a nuanced form of Thomism—through Scotus—that was already modeled for him in Hervaeus Natalis to strike the balance between being a faithful son of Thomas and to be a faithful child of Holy Mother Church. “Will his solution satisfy the modern and contemporary Orthodox?” Likely, not most, nor certainly everyone. Most theologians choose to ignore his giant carbon footprint on history and Orthodox theology. Scholarios is so subtle, talented, and knowledgeable of both Latin and Greek theology and philosophy that average theologians—even the savant—cannot equal his acumen. Because they lack the capacity to understand the merits and weaknesses of Scholarios in his own right, they disguise their condemnatory hubris by appealing to supposedly overarching spiritual or ethnocentric values in order to try, judge, and condemn him. If it be objected that this is a fine thing for me to say, considering that I am arguing for my own specialty, I would prefer to appeal to the entire Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus team (who enjoy possessing several recognized experts on Scholarios), and appeal especially to faculties of Medieval Studies, who have made their life’s bread the search for nuance, individualism, and idiosyncracy in the great (and not-so-great) theologians of the Middle Ages. I am just happy to be lucky enough to use their collected studies and wisdom as my guide on how to approach Scholarios with reverence and awe.


[2] “τὸ δὲ καθόλου βέλτιον ἴσως ἐπισκέψασθαι καὶ διαπορῆσαι πῶς λέγεται, καίπερ προσάντους τῆς τοιαύτης ζητήσεως γινομένης διὰ τὸ φίλους ἄνδρας εἰσαγαγεῖν τὰ εἴδη. δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν ἴσως βέλτιον εἶναι καὶ δεῖν ἐπὶ σωτηρίᾳ γε τῆς ἀληθείας καὶ τὰ οἰκεῖα ἀναιρεῖν, ἄλλως τε καὶ φιλοσόφους ὄντας: ἀμφοῖν γὰρ ὄντοιν φίλοιν ὅσιον προτιμᾶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν.”
[3] “errare mehercule malo cum Platone…quam cum istis vera sentire.”
[4] “Palamas Among the Scholastics
[6] “Latin Sources of the Palamite Theology of George-Gennadios Scholarios
[8] “A New Narrative for the Reception of Seven Sacraments into Orthodoxy
[9] “Defense of Palamas’ Essence & Energies against Aquinas’ ‘De ente et essentia‘”
[10] ex parte rei or τό τι τοῦ πράγματος
[11] Here the nominalism lies in the fact that each “name-property” (e.g. goodness, wisdom) is just a meaningless term (flatus aeris), since there is no corresponding object for each mentally understood distinct thing, this means that no meaningful correspondence exists between terms and objects.
[12] Guichardan is aware of this Scotistic analogy and cites from it explicitly in chapter three of his work. Gregory Palamas’ early defense is an appeal by Byzantines (e.g., David Dishypatos) to this principle. I have not looked yet to see if Palamas himself knew of this argument! See Guichardan, Le Problème de la simplicité divine en orient et en occident aux xive et xve siècles: Grégoire Palamas, Duns Scot, Georges Scholarios, 82–83. It is also significant that Scotus’ argument is based on the divine psychology of Blessed Augustine. In the De Trinitate, memory, intellect and will are the Scotistic basis of a theological argument for the distinction of persons (PL 42 1004-1057). Both Palamas and Scholarius approvingly seem to cite Blessed Augustine in their own use of ψυχοθεολογία. Cf. John Demetracopoulos, Αὐγουστῖνος καὶ Γρηγόριος Παλαμᾶς. Τὰ προβλήματα τῶν ἀρεστοτελικῶν κατηγοριῶν τῆς τριαδικῆς ψυχοθεολογίας, Athens: Parousia, 1997 & Scholarios, Premier traité du la procession du Saint-Esprit, in Oeuvres Completes de Georges Scholarios 2, 48.
[13] Scotus, Ioannis Duns Scoti Doctoris Subtilis et Mariani opera omnia 4, 246 (infra).
[14] Although Gennadius Scholarius uses several descriptions, this seems to be the most ad litteram. However, he also employs: εἰδηκὴ διάκρισις and εἴδει τε καὶ τῇ τοῦ πράγματος φύσει διακριθήσονται. See M. Jugie, Theologia dogmatica christianorum orientalium ab ecclesia catholica dissidentium 2, Parisiis, Letouzey et Ané 1933, 127.
[15] This is an aside observation meant only to anticipate both Palamas’ and Scholarius’ application of univocal predication in divinisation.
[16] See Scotus, Ordinatio,, n. 213 (Vatican, IV, 271). This is a different emphasis than Aquinas. In chapter three he emphasized man’s defectiveness in both having an accident and any attempt to understand God by some reference to that accident (e.g. wisdom).
[17] Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 20–22.
[18] This presumes that it is “compossible” to think of something being infinite, since it need not be limited in its mode of existence. “Red” or “big” would imply limitations by being modifications of matter.
[19] Scotus, Ordinatio,, n. 213 (Vatican, IV, 271).
[20] André de Halleux forty years later: “Palamisme et scolastique: exclusivisme dogmatique ou pluriformité théologique?” Revue théologique de Louvain 4 (1973): 409–442.
[21] David Coffey, “The Palamite Doctrine of God, SVTQ 32 (1988): 329

(Return to first article)

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Fr Christiaan Kappes, SLD, PhL, is the Academic Dean of Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius, as well as Professor of Liturgical Theology and Professor of Dogmatic Theology

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13 Responses to The Essence/Energies Distinction in the Theology of St Gennadius Scholarios

  1. Matt Briel says:

    First time I’ve heard him called Harvey Christmas. Very good.


  2. Hello, Father, very interesting and well put-together article as usual. It is a bit coincidental, since recently I was thinking about the links between Scotus, Palamas, and Scholarios. One thing from the Demetracopoulos article that stuck out to me was this: “I will also omit George Scholarios Gennadios II, since his interpretation of the Palamite distinction under discussion is so idiosyncratic that it can hardly be taken for Palamite at all.”
    Yet, if
    1. For Scotus the formal distinction is a distinction in the thing, although the two quasi-parts are in reality inseparable (“The Scotist position is that a fully real distinction in general is one to which the separability criterion applies (with a very few special exceptions), and that the formal distinction is a species of lesser real distinction to which the separability criterion does not apply”,
    And if
    2. Scholarios uses the Scotist/Christmas formal distinction to define the relationship of the divine energies to the divine essence.

    Then I have a hard time understanding how Demetracopoulos classifies Scholarios’s position as hardly Palamite. For Palamas seems to believe that there is a real distinction between the divine essence and energies, which are “inseperable” (see chapters 81 and 93 of the 150 Chapters). And this is, as stated above, is what a Scotist would call a formal distinction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GS,
      Great question. Your analysis of the situation is not at all off…I consider J. Demetracopoulos a good and faithful friend but he would tell you that “Chris’ job is to worry about Scotus.” From Demetracopoulos’ perspective, he is interested in the terms of the debate until the first verificable-historical introduction of citations of Scotus into Byzantine theology (= 1437 by Scholarios and Eugenicus in their Study of Scotus. Sent. Comment. before the Council of Florence). So, in his analysis of all prior Palamites he is willing to omit Scotus from the debate since there is no reason (so far) to include even Christmas. The Problem, that John D. sees, is that the MS. 609 & 1102 that contain Hervaeus have not been show yet to be cited by Palamites. John himself is hopeful that his, as yet, incomplete version of Prochoros’ De essentia et operatione has some unidentified Scholastic sources. Once I finish transcriptions of 609&1102, we can finally decide if Scotism existed somewhere pre-1437 by comparison to all authors from about 1355+.

      On your exact point, note that my paper (given summer 2012 and published 2013) post dates Demetracopoulos’ 2011 study. When he invited me on his own to give the talk on Scholarios (2012), he remarked to me (as one of the world’s leading experts on Scholarios), “Wow, I learned something about Scholarios that I did not know.” For this reason John D. has been pushing me (dragging my feet) to finish my thesis on Scholarios’ essence-energies for Thessaloniki (due this spring). He believes that I have in fact the potential to fill in the questions he hesitated to definitely answer.

      However, that said, John D. is still suspicious that Scholarios may have been trying to diminish the Scotistic distinction into what is more like the “distinction of reason in the object considered” (rationis rationatae). His disagreement with me has to do with context: Scholarios in every other part of his metaphysical life seems to be gung-ho Thomist. So, John has a wait n’ see attitude on whether I can demonstrate that ALL THREE of his essence-energies treatise are really Scotistic (in metaphysics of essence-attributes). He is correct to be cautious in that Thomas never abandons positive summations of Thomas’ doctrine of analogy in the S.T. and refers to it approvingly in other works. This might be just a case of selective love of “analogy of the concept of being” as a philosopher but the dogmatic abandonment thereof in theology since…alas…he can’t find a way to make it work with Orthodoxy.

      Lastly, John’s own predilections are for Aquinas and he -because he is general editor and researcher and full-time prof- has not had a sabbatical to spend either on Bonaventure or Scotus. I currently share my work with him and act as his connection to the Bonaventuro-Scotistic school.

      Hope this context helps it become clear why he provisionally asserted some lesser distinction that Scotus, qua Scotus in “Palamas Transformed”. If you read Iribarren’s thesis (directed by Richard Cross) on Christmas (and Durandus), you’d see that Harvey was actually distinguishing his Scotism in more ambiguous terms and potentially thomistically interpretive ways in his Sent. Commentary. It is only in his later Quodlibet. that Christmas boldly changes to a more recognizable Scotistic terminology (partially). So, that Scholarios sounds quasi-Thomistic in his last 2 essence-energies treatises is deceptive, since Harvey too fooled not a few orthodox Thomists from the 14th-16th century!


    • BTW,
      The Smithy is a great blog for Scotism…I’ve learned a lot by reading it here and there over the years…good choice!


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Fr Kappes, thank you again for this article and your contributions to Eclectic Orthodoxy. I first would like to ask you to elucidate on the differences between Palamas and other Late Byzantine thinkers (excluding Scholarios) on the essence/energies distinction. In “Palamas Transformed” Demetacopoulos asserts that Palamas himself understood the distinction as real, as opposed to many of those who came after him who softened the “harsh distinction” and instead adopted the Patristic idea that God is simple ex parte objecti but multiple ex parte subjecti (katˆ êpínoian, i.e., conceptually or by reason).

    (1) How do you under the katˆ êpínoian as employed by Late Byzantine theologians?

    (2) Do you agree with Demetracoupolos that these theologians have significantly modified the distinction as advanced by Palamas himself?


    • Dear Fr. Al,
      There was indeed per D a transfer from talking about God’s essence+energies as an object under the microscope (with distinct items) and a shift to admitting (by Kokkinos, Katakuzenos, etc.) that the division-distinction was mentally created from humans imperfect intellects listing attributes in God that exist unitively in Him.

      Second, I am actually working on “epinoia” as we speak. I have a sense that epinoia, taken in isolation, doesn’t exclude but neither does it commit one to show one’s cards on what they think the nature of the object really looks like. If epinoia means something like – rational-process-thought…then it is completely intra-mental. Whether it actually has anything to do with widgets outside my head (pragma/pragmata) depends -in some theologians- on the nature of the abstract concept (logos). Does the logos get taken from sense experience (or for Palamas direct contact with some aspect of the divinity) or does logos in question come from my storehouse of memories-phantasms where I take an old experience (my momma’s acts of love) and try to apply some aspect/act of momma-love to talk about God-love (since I can’t say I’ve had a Palamite-direct-Pappa-love experience)? If the logos is abstracted from the object, then it is a first intention (in 14th-15th century Greco-Latin Scholastic speak). However, Palamas wants to bypass this, saying that the experience isn’t a logos-abstract universal from the normal process of 5-senses giving me info to abstract…but it is the direct presence of ‘a’ to the soul that make the soul experience ‘a’. Franciscans thought of this (Thomists denied it) as intuitive non-abstracting cognition. Strictly speaking, there is no logos-abstract concept! There is only presence-as-felt here and now of ‘a’. So, if we can experience God’s love/light/wisdom as ‘it is present to my soul immediately and acting on it without an abstractable thingy to my 5 senses’, then Palamas is right, it is seen ex parte objecti. However, only Bryennios, Mark Eugenicus, and Scholarios seem to affirm this kind of distinct-object-knowing. Everybody else -whom I can think of- was a Thomist-thinker (at least they cited him or some prior Byzantine Thomist!).

      I do think that have distracted themselves from the metaphysical question as D. says. They don’t assert: here, let me show you in a step-by-step way how God can really be compartmentalized or express in himself in a “seeable” way to himself and to other intelligent being his various activities. Instead, they tended to use ambiguous patristic language (PsBasil’s epinoia) and then paste Greek-Thomas on top of it as the interpretation.

      Mark studied Scotism (as early as 1437). So his presentation of the Trinity (1439 Florence), prime matter (letter 1440) are due to this (D.’s “naive” parallelism between reality and concepts). However, before this, Mark was less precise in the early 1430s on what he wanted to say (no Scotism!). Once he read with Scholarios Duns’ Sent. commentary (the anti-Aquinas-metaphyiscal-handbook) he was able to deliver a knock out punch to his Thomist interlocutor at the filioque debate in 1438 Ferrara (if I remember the date). Bryennios…I haven’t studied Bryennios enough to know what he was doing. D. is the only guy in a position to say…nobody has done real metaphysical work on him with the essence-energies!

      Hope this helps

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Fr Kappes, I’ve been away for several days and only now have been able to read your comment. Thank you!

        I confess that I find it difficult to grasp and hold on to these various distinctions.

        Would it be accurate to say that Aquinas would have rejected Palamas’s views on the basis of his understanding of divine simplicity?


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I came across this article this morning while surfing the net: “Lost in Translatio” by Antoine Levy. Those who are following this thread may find it of interest. Fr Kappes, are you acquainted with it? (Heck, I’m sure you are!) How do you assess Levy’s argument?


    • Levy and I have presented (and concelebrated!) together,

      He’s a bit of an odd duck…He tends to write articles as if other peer review works just somehow don’t exist. Some of the points on Katacuzenos are quite familiar when you’v read D. “Palamas Transformed”.

      Levy could have greatly benefited from Demetracopoulos’ work. For example, D. did a whole Palamite-sensitive study on epinoia in Basil. One could criticize this article of Levy for claiming that Basil is sort of -who knew!- a proto-thomist, for his distinction actually per Levy = Distinctio rationis cum fundamento in re! That Basil had such distinction-appartus on hand, or that he invented this distinction is fairly not worth investigating. Basil used what was available. Stoicism provided some of his tools. As D. shows by textual dependencies and historical context, the weirdo-Stoic distinction does really help us much, for “epinoia” distinction in Stoic-talk (where they are reducibly materialists anyway) it somehow means that the concept (using a seed) has many aspects to it. So a seed has dimension, shape, color. So the Stoic descriptive concept might be thought of as all the tropes/numerically countable items that accompany concept “a”. So Stoic-widget-concept might be something like: “Widget+dimension+color+activity”. This isn’t a classic Platonic form, nor is it a genus+species+difference definition of a thing as in Aristotle and Neo-Platonists…nor is it (contra Levy) at all just the minds activity combining the (a.) fact that realities are virtually within something (e.g., Fatherhood is virtually within a fertile man) + (b.) the use of outside idea to plug and chug its meaning; namely, I don’t experience potential-Father-a as “Father” but I know that he is virtually Father in-so-far-as he is spermatically productive…So, I use the term Father as drawn from my concepts of real Fathers and apply it to potential-Father-a insofar as they fit. In a better example, with God, I apply Good to him from my experience of yummy ice-cream, since God must virtually contain the yumminess of ice-cream as cause-of-all-icecream. Hence, I borrow my creaturely concept of yumminess-good and apply it to God (taste and see the sweetness of the Lord). Once I claim that there really is some super-duper good virtually in God that is way-yummier than this really yummy ice-cream, then I have a fundamentum in re but no distinction concept of God’s goodness-yummines, only the not-inaccurate-knowledge that he is the cause and thus source of the concept in my head that is somehow validly applicable to him as a container of yumminess.

      Don’t think Basil’s saying that, btw.

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