Was St Gregory Nyssen a Proto-Palamite?


The title is intentionally provocative, and I’m afraid the article will disappoint if you are hoping for a definitive answer to the question. While I have read a fair amount of the secondary literature about St Gregory Palamas’s famous distinction between the divine essence and energies, as well as Gregory’s own Triads, I am quite sure that I lack the competence to accurately articulate the theology of the saint himself. But I have read a goodly amount of the Cappadocians over the years, and I have noticed differences between them and Palamas (at least as he is popularly presented)—hence the title.

In this series on the Cappadocian brothers, we have observed that St Basil of Caesarea and St Gregory of Nyssa appear to operate not with an essence–energies distinction (at least not principally) but with a more fundamental essence–propria–activities distinction. Both saints believe that the ad extra activities of God derive from and reveal the essential properties of the divine ousia. Nor have I found anything in their writings that clearly suggests an ontological distinction in God between his inaccessible essence and his knowable energies. We can, of course, find verbal similarities between them and Palamas. The following sentence from Basil is often quoted:

The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. (Ep. 234.1)

But it is unwise to jump to the conclusion that Basil anticipated the famous 14th century formulation. Such a conclusion ignores both the polemical intent of Basil’s words and his fundamental understanding of the relationship between the divine essence and the divine propria. As Orthodox scholar Alexis Torrance acknowledges, Basil’s use of energeiai differs from later Byzantine usage:

God is known from his energies. But it must be noticed that the use of ἐνέργειαι here can by no means be coterminous with Palamite divine uncreated energies. Basil goes on to cite the example of the disciples, who recognised the Godhead of Christ from the obedience of the sea and winds: ‘therefore from the ἐνέργειαι is the knowledge, and from the knowledge is the worship […] We know God from his power. We, therefore, believe in him who is known, and we worship him who is believed in’ (§3). The ‘knowledge of God’ gained by observation of the ἐνέργειαι (the movements of the forces of nature) in this letter is belief in God, or faith. This is explicitly a preliminary stage to being a ‘true worshipper’ or believer, i.e. it is only the initial step of the Θεογνωσία process which continues with the kind of knowledge discussed in Ep 233. The reference to ἐνέργειαι is noteworthy, but it can tell us little vis-à-vis Palamite precedents apart from the fact that in this case the term was used differently by Basil than by ‘Palamism’. The term ἐνέργειαι is used by Basil in Ep 234 for awe-inspiring activities, and though not explicitly limited to them, the implication seems to be that the first stage of knowledge of God (belief in him/faith) is obtained solely through the observation of God’s activities in the created world. (“Precedents for Palamas’ Essence-Energies Theology in the Cappadocian Fathers,” Vigiliae Christianae 63 [2009]: 55; cf. J.-P. Houdret, “Palamas and the Cappadocians,” and the discussion of “Energy” in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa)

John Demetracopoulos concurs. Commenting on the above-quoted statement by Basil, he writes:

Contrary to a widespread Palamite and pro-Palamite reading of this passage, it should be noted that Basil does not say that we know God’s ‘energies’, but that we know Him “from His activities”, that is, we can infer His existence as well as some of His properties from His actions. In other words, according to Basil, there are three levels in God: i) essence, which is absolutely inaccessible (or, better, is defined as what is inaccessible in God); ii) properties, which can be known by means of His actions; and iii) actions, which testify to His existence as well as His properties. (“Palamas Transformed,” pp. 267-268)

Like his elder brother, Gregory Nyssen asserts that we properly know God only through his ad extra activities. In his sixth homily on the Beatitudes, Gregory declares: “For God who is by nature beyond our sight is visible in his activities (energeiai), being perceived in the characteristics (idiomata) that surround him” (Beat. 6). Gregory here employs the spacial metaphor of “around” the divine essence to speak of the propria, or essential properties, of the Godhead, made visible in God’s workings in the world. In his Letter to Eustathius, Gregory even goes so far as to claim that the word theotes (Godhead, divinity, deity) signifies God’s providential oversight of creation:

But I know not how these makers-up of all sorts of arguments bring the appellation of Godhead (theotes) to be an indication of nature, as though they had not heard from the Scripture that it is a matter of appointment, in which way nature does not arise. For Moses was appointed as a god of the Egyptians, since He Who gave him the oracles, etc., spoke thus to him, “I have given you as a god to Pharaoh.” The title therefore is indicative of a certain power, whether of supervision or of operation. But the divine nature remains as it is under all the names conceived for it, inexpressible, this is our doctrine. For in learning that he is benefactor and judge, and both good and just, and other such titles, we are taught the diversity of his operations—yet through our comprehension of the operations we are not in any way better able to come to a knowledge of the nature of the operator.

Does Gregory directly name goodness and justice as energeiai? It’s ambiguous. As Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes, “Gregory’s point is not that God’s goodness or justice are activities or energeiai (if this means something else), but that we learn that God is good through the displays of this goodness in scripture and in the created order (which is in turn ‘read’ in light of scripture)” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 223). In his essay “Ad Eustathium De Sancta Trinitate,” Radde-Gallwitz reminds us of the polemical context of the letter: Gregory is addressing the claim of the Pneumatomachians that the title “God” must not be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. In response Gregory argues that “we cannot know the divine nature ‘on its own’, that is through some abstract a priori analysis. Rather, every title we have is derived from human experience with God’s action in the world” (Gregory of Nyssa: The Minor Treatises, p. 105). R-G concludes his analysis:

Theological attention to Ad Eustathium has focused on Gregory’s claim that the title “God” does not indicate the divine nature. At times, this has fed into a narrative in which the Cappadocians are portrayed as authors of an ontological distinction between God’s nature and God’s activities. We are now in a position to nuance this claim considerably. If Gregory is correct in distinguishing the denotation and connotation of terms, this title, like all titles based on some activity or authority of God, does denote the divine nature. However, again like all other titles, the word “God” does not by itself adequately convey the definition of God. Gregory opposes a particular way of taking “God” as indicative of the divine nature; this title does not define God. … In light of this belief, Gregory redirects attention to the activities of God which lead us beyond themselves, to search for God’s nature. And those activities are shared perfectly by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence by reasoning conjecturally, we can discern—however dimly—the divine nature shared by the three who are one goodness, power, and divinity. (p. 108)

The bishop of Nyssa offers a similar argument about the title “God” in his Letter to Ablabius:

We perceive, then, the varied operations of the transcendent power, and fit our way of speaking of him to each of the operations known to us. Now one of these is the power of viewing and seeing, or, one might say, of beholding. By it God surveys all things and oversees them all. He discerns our thoughts, and by his power of beholding penetrates even what is invisible. From this we suppose that “Godhead” (theotes) is derived from “beholding” (thea), and that by general custom and the teaching of the Scriptures, he who is our beholder (theates) is called God (theos). Now if anyone admits that to behold and see are the same things, and that the God who oversees all things both is and is called the overseer of the universe, let him consider whether this operation belongs to one of the Persons we believe to constitute the holy Trinity, or whether the power extends to the three Persons. For if our interpretation of “Godhead” is the right one, and the things which are seen are said to be beheld (theata), and that which beholds them is called God (theos), no one of the Persons of the Trinity could properly be excluded from this form of address on the ground of the meaning of the word. (p. 260)

Gregory is aware that his readers may disagree with his etymological interpretation of theotes; but he is eager to direct attention away from analysis of the divine nature in order to assert the full divinity of the divine hypostases based on their mutual, conjoint activities in creation. The Son and Spirit are divine, proposes Gregory, because they do the same divine things that the Father does. But more generally, by insisting that theotes signifies divine activity, Gregory decisively asserts the epistemological priority of God’s self-revelatory acts and manifestations in our knowledge of God. God reveals God. Or as modern theologians like to say, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. Thus Khaled Anatolios:

The foundational principle of Gregory of Nyssa’s account is that, contrary to a common misperception, the attribution of “divinity” does not actually name the divine nature (physis) in the same way that other “names” signify a subject (hypokeimenon). According to Gregory, it is the Scriptures that reveal to us that the divine nature is ineffable and cannot be named. All names that successfully refer to God, either by scriptural inspiration or human custom, are “explanatory of our conceptions (nooumenon) regarding the divine nature (peri ten theian physin)” but do not encompass (periechein) the nature itself. Attributes that are customarily considered as identifying tout court can be successful in attaining appropriate significations concerning the divine nature (peri tes theias physeos) but do not signify what that nature (physis) essentially (kat’ ousian) is. Our knowledge of God, therefore, is gained not from our capacity to identify and noetically “encompass” the divine nature but rather from our perception of the “activities” (energeiai) of the transcendent divine “power” (dynamis). Gregory proposes that the term theotes or “divinity” indicates the activity by which God manifests his lordship over creation. He offers some token scriptural passages as evidence that Scripture attributes the divine activity of overseeing creation to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is therefore equally “God,” an affirmation that we make not on the basis of a comprehensive perusal of the divine nature but on the basis of identifying the scriptural naming of the activities (energeiai) that constitute God’s own self-manifestation. (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 229)

The Creator is not an inert thing we can objectively study and analyze. We can never grasp the depths of his transcendent being (see Robert Fortuin, “Reflecting the Mystery”). God is known only as he gives himself to be known, and he truly is as he gives himself to be known—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So the critical question is what it means for Gregory to speak of the impossibility of knowing the divine nature in light of his positive affirmations of the human capacity to know God. As with Against Eunomius, everything depends on how we interpret the category of “knowing the divine nature”; and the framework of nature (physis)–activity (energeia), which is much more prominent in this treatise, sheds significant light on this question. Along these lines, we can interpret the core of Gregory’s theological epistemology at this stage as encapsulated in the following proposition: we can only encounter the divine nature in its active outwardness, but we cannot supplant its own innermost act of self-standing, which is the source of its active self-presencing. … We can speak of “encountering the divine nature,” despite Gregory’s strictures against “knowing the divine nature,” because he himself allows for a knowing that concerns or is “around” the divine nature. The crucial qualification of this kind of knowing is not that it is hidden or indirect but that it can only be reactive to the prior activity (energeia) and outward self-presencing of God. God is not some inert object that can be passively spied on and encompassed by a creaturely knowing but an active subject who can only be encountered in relation to his own self-presencing. Given the definition of “the divine nature” as the “subject” (hypokeimenon) that underlies this active self-presencing, the claim to know the divine nature would amount to the claim that one can transcend or in some way go behind the effected self-presencing of God and reach to the very innermost cause of that effect. Clearly, such a claim involves a supplanting of God’s very self-standing, and that is why Gregory sees it as blasphemy. Positively, however, to know God through God’s self-presencing is in no way a matter of a lack of knowledge of God or a lack of directness but rather of knowing God as a God who is always lord of his own self-presencing, which is the only way to know God as God. Perhaps more profoundly than any modern theologian, Gregory of Nyssa offers the most thoroughgoing explanation of why it must be that we only encounter the Trinity through the trinitarian economy. It is a necessity of the divine nature itself and of the structure of the God-creature relationship that we have no access to the immanence of God apart from God’s economic self-presencing. To go further with Gregory, the divine economy is never left behind as we enter into a sphere of the absolute immanence of God. Ultimately, the only immanence of God to which we have access is God’s self-economized immanence. (Anatolios, p. 230)

Hence it would be a serious mistake to interpret Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians as proposing an unknown and unknowable Deity behind the back of the revealed God of Israel and Church, a God beyond the Trinity. Precisely the wrong way, explains Anatolios, to construe Gregory’s insistence that God cannot be known in his ousia but only in his energeiai is “to posit some kind of unbridgeable chasm between the divine operations and the divine essence, which the human mind can never pass over” (p. 239)—that would be the view of Eunomius. “The divine essence is unknowable in itself—which is to say, apart from its active operations—precisely because it is irreducibly and infinitely active. The operations, as it were, actively announce the essence, and the essence thus cannot be grasped apart from that active self-announcement” (p. 239).

gregory-palamas_zps043bc15e.jpg~original.jpegWe return to the question posed in the title: Was St Gregory of Nyssa a Proto-Palamite? Noting verbal similarities between the two thinkers is insufficient. Each employed the language of essence and energies to different purposes. The Nyssen was seeking to defend the Christian belief in the divinity of the Son and Spirit. St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, was responding to Barlaam’s denial of the possibility of experiencing in this life authentic and maximal union with God (theosis). According to his philosophical presuppositions, if human beings were to participate in the divine essence, they would become divine hypostases, thus destroying the Holy Trinity; but given that believers do participate in the uncreated life of the Trinity (contra Barlaam), then we must posit a way to participate in this life that respects human creaturehood—and that is where the uncreated energies come in. Palamas inferred that the hesychastic experience of deification points to a subsistent distinction within the Godhead between the divine ousia and the divine energeia (see Norman Russell, “Theosis and Gregory Palamas“; David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies“; Walter Sisto, “Encountering God“). When believers are brought into the life of the Triune God, they are given to share in the divine energies but not the divine essence. Gregory Nyssen, however, knew of no such distinction within the Godhead, at least not if that distinction is construed as real as opposed to notional or formal. When he speaks of the divine energeia, he has in mind God’s freely determined operations toward and within the cosmos: the Father acting through the Son in the Spirit. Hence it would be anachronistic to project the medieval Byzantine distinction into the Bishop of Nyssa. Moreover, Gregory develops the theme of theosis differently than does Palamas, focusing on baptismal incorporation into the divine Sonship, the acquisition of virtues, and partaking of Christ’s eucharistic flesh (see J. A. McGuckin, “The Strategic Adaptation of Deification in the Cappadocians,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, pp. 95-114; Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, pp. 225-232; Lewis Ayres, “Deification and the Dynamics of Nicene Theology”; Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Activity and Participationpp. 159-169). But perhaps Nyssen would have been sympathetic to Gregory Palamas’s theological project nonetheless. As John Meyendorff puts it: “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” (Gregory Palamas: The Triads, p. 20). Surely the “Father of Fathers” would have agreed with this driving concern of the great fourteenth-century hesychast. Tollefsen proposes that the concept of participation lies at the heart of Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of deification:

We should say, then, that man is deified by participation, not in the essence of God, but in His activity. Participation means that man receives more and more of God’s activity into his being. It seems quite obvious that Gregory operates with the idea of an ontological distinction between essence and activity in God. The tri-hypostatic being of God is one thing; the activity by which the Trinity relates to created otherness has its source in the essence, but is not identical with this essence. In the immanent activity of God the divine persons communicate with each other; in the external activity God communicates with creatures. Such a distinction between essence and activity must be observable in created beings as well. There is a difference between being human and doing human things, even though the second depends upon the first.

On the other hand, the activity could never be considered an entity or a subsistent being in its own right, even if it is, i.e., exists. The divine activity should not be understood as a lower divinity, a fourth hypostasis or something of that kind. It is rather to be compared with a field of energy that is manifested from the divine being. But this is an image, because the divine activity, in the precise sense, is the divine nature or essence qua being active. The activities are ‘around’ God, and are a movement of His nature. If we say that the distinction between essence and activity (to be God and to be active as God) is a real distinction, all these qualifications must be included. However, I do not feel quite comfortable with the term ‘real distinction’, since it seems to make a sharper division between essence and energeia than admitted by the doctrines I have examined. Whenever something has being or achieves deification, it participates in the divine activity in such a way that it begins to exist in a graciously instituted mode. In creation an entity is moved into the mode of being, in deification the creature is moved into the mode of likeness and near-equality with God. From being man, a human being becomes God by the never-ending movement in accordance with a divine mode of being in the Holy Spirit. (pp. 168-169)

I find Tollefsen’s argument here somewhat confusing, probably because even after all these years of reading about this topic, I remain confused. My enduring confusion may suggest that both divine activity and theosis resist finite analysis (the other possibility is that I’m just obtuse). I’d love to bring Tollefsen into conversation with Anatolios—and both of them with David Bentley Hart. (And let’s not forget the doctrine of divine simplicity!) The two Gregories, in any case, have no doubt ironed out their differences at the banquet table of the Lamb.

(5 May 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Are Trinitarians Polytheists?”)

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3 Responses to Was St Gregory Nyssen a Proto-Palamite?

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. 407kwac says:

    It seems to me the bottom line of all these attempts to explain how we may know God as He reveals Himself to us, but never fully circumscribe Him, is that knowing God is analogous to knowing another person. We do not truly know another person by knowing all about them or distilling them down to the sum of their various parts, but we may come to know another truly (never exhaustively) through intimate encounter and conversation. We may genuinely come to participate in another’s life (as in marriage/family and intimate friendship). Still, we will never know that person quite in the same way they know themselves. God, on the other hand, knows both Himself and us entirely. In the economy of His love and overflowing goodness, He condescends to meet me, His finite creature, where I am. He fills my emptiness with as much of Himself as I can bear. It is enough for me to know our Tradition affirms both these Saints sought to affirm this truth. That it is this truth they sought to affirm and describe is more than enough for me.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Karen, your comment, for some inexplicable reason, got stuck in the spam queue, which I only check infrequently. Sorry for the delay!


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