Musings on Methodius of Olympus

All citations taken from Schaff’s Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 6

Pros of Methodius

  1. His prose often exquisite and always lyrical.  He occasionally approaches the talent of Gregory Nazianzus, the Christian Pindar.
  2. While he often gets off track of his topic, his “wanderings” are very interesting and usually more sound than his main point.


  1. I do not believe Methodius lost the gospel.  I do think he came within a razor’s edge of losing it.
  2. His use of excessive allegory is subject to the critiques of that position.  If allegory is true, it is impossible to falsify since there is no permanent standard to say “X is wrong.”

Banquet of the Ten Virgins

Like many ancient Christians, Methodius held perpetual virginity to be the summum bonum.  Unlike other ancient Christians, his defense of it, while suffering in terms of exegesis and argument, is the best-written defense (Augustine’s is confused and he knows it; Tertullian’s ranks as the worst treatise in the history of written thought).

  • “Virginity mediates between heaven and earth” (312-313).
  • Methodius bases much of his argument on legal analogies from Old Testament shadows: 327-329; 344.  Even though this is a form of the Galatian heresy, even here he is not consistent, for he knows that people can bring up another OT text: Genesis 1:27ff about procreating (and even worse, maybe enjoying it). Indeed, he calls such men “incontinent and uncontrolled in sensuality” (320).
  • “The likeness of God is the avoidance of corruption.”  A problematic statement, but not too bad.  It gets worse when he adds another premise:  virgins have this likeness (313).  This brings up a troubling conclusion:  can married people have the likeness of God?
  • Indeed, if you are married you need to work towards the goal of never having sex again.  Methodius writes, “Until it removed entirely the inclination for sexual intercourse engendered by habit” (312).  It gets worse:  if married people enjoy sex, “how shall they celebrate the feast” (347)?  What does Methodius mean by feast?  Probably not the liturgy in this section (though of course he would draw that same application); it could be either “the kingdom of God” or the “proper Christian life.”  The narrative isn’t clear.
  • He knows the prohibition against marriage is a demonic doctrine, so he hedges his bets: marriage is to produce martyrs (314).
  • He has a fascinating discussion on numerology (339) and his commentary on the Apocalypse, while wild and fanciful, is no less arbitrary than any other “spiritual” interpretation of it


It is not accidental that Methodius used OT legal shadows to buttress his argument.  He picked and chose from God’s law and supplemented it with the doctrines of man.   Gone is the freedom of the Christian life.  Indeed, the Gospel has become a New Law (348-349).

Concerning Free Will

This is an important text because it summarizes ancient thought on freedom and necessity.  What is the origin of a human action (357).  Methodius wants to make sure that God is not the author of evil, but without the categories of “ultimate and proximate causality,” it’s not clear he can avoid giving evil a semi-independent existence.

His larger point is worth considering, though.  The form of necessatarianism he fights is some mixture of astrology and fatalism.  Methodius wants to free God from the charge of evil by noting he is separate from matter.  (Nota bene:  in ancient thought matter and necessity were linked.  It makes sense if you think of it.  If the above two are connected, and the will is immaterial, then the will is free).


As a full treatise on freedom it is inadequate, but his suggestions on matter and freedom are quite interesting.

Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna

“and preserved his mother’s purity uncorrupt and uninjured” (385).  the last two words suggest Jesus was born miraculously without damaging Mary’s ‘lady parts.”  He “opened the virgin’s womb  and yet did not burst the barriers of virginity.”  While this sounds absurd, it is consistent. The evil for men, per Methodius and ancient Christians, is corruption.   The tearing of the vaginal canal, for example (forgive the rough illustration), is corruption.  Therefore, the Logos, the Incorrupt One, could not have caused it.

The only way to really combat this idea is to attack the original premise.

Minor Works and Fragments

Many of these are corrupted mss and/or lyrical panegyrics on deceased saints.  Not much of history except we see early Marian devotion.  While this is perhaps uncharitable towards Methodius, one wonders if the point of Jesus in our lives is so we can praise Mary.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Methodius is a good witness to Eastern Christianity before the Nicene Council.  He has some interesting suggestions on free will and determinism.  Unfortunately, he exalts man-made ideas of perpetual celibacy to the first-order level of the gospel.  It is instructive that we see why:  sex–assuming it to be married sex–is messy and smelly and arouses extreme passions between man and wife.  This is low on the scale of being and it does not become the one who wants to transcend finitude to the realms of the passionless.

This is very good Hellenistic philosophy, but is an open attack on an earthy Hebraic Christianity.   Methodius himself suggests as much (see page 344).

He is worth reading for the occasional insight, but even where he is right (e.g., the Trinity) he has been surpassed by other luminaries.  Where is wrong, he is fatally wrong.


Engaging the doctrine of God (review)

The underlying theme in this book is how to appropriate the teaching that God is impassible in light of the many Biblical narratives that seem to suggest otherwise, alongside numerous theological reflections.  The contributor fall among the spectrum of those advocating a classical substance-metaphysics (Paul Helm) and those who are quite critical of substance-metaphysics (Bruce McCormack).   Others, such as Oliver Crisp, offer penetrating critiques of several Christian thinkers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  This review will not cover every essay, but will focus on the more notable ones.

Paul Helm (“John Calvin and the Hiddenness of God”) seeks to defend the reading of the extra-Calvinisticum and a contention of classical metaphysics that “God” stands behind, if only logically, the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.   Of interest, though not the central point of the article, is Helm’s fine summary of the “extra calvinisticum.”  Helm is specifically challenging Barth’s reading of Calvin and thus proposes two theses (68):

Is the second person logically prior to the decree to become incarnate?  Helm, pace Calvin, says yes.
Does this necessarily infer a hidden “God behind God”?  Helm answers no.

As an aside, and I don’t think it fundamentally changes his argument, I think Helm is either guilty of ambiguity or the editor overlooked a typo.  On p.68 Helm affirms, as would I, that the Logos is asarkos at the decree.  Yet on the next page he says that Calvin and Barth “held that there was no time when the Logos was asarkos.”   Nevertheless, I get the gist of his argument.
Helm then gives a helpful summary of what the extra-Calvinisticum entails. He develops this as a foil against Barth, yet Barth never fully rejected the “extra.”  He simply says it is very badly phrased, which it is.


I don’t want to seem like I am nit-picking, and I cannot help but note a certain irony:  Barthian scholars like McCormack and Jenson are accused of being soft on divine simplicity, yet I can’t help but think that their readings of Barth best preserve it.   If God is simple, and there is not multiplicity of ideas in the mind of God, since this kind of discursive reasoning implies division (diastasis, to use the Origenist term), then every other idea, and hence an idea to act x, y, and z, must inhere in that one initial idea/act.   The importance of this will be seen later.


Helm’s reading of Calvin rightly wants to preserve the freedom of God against some external force necessitating God.  Hence, Helm argues, “So the Logos Asarkos was free not to become incarnate.  [U] Any additional choice that the Logos was free to make[/U]…is of secondary importance” (emphasis mine 72).  The problem here, as noted above, is that the doctrine of divine simplicity precludes any real talk of the Logos reasoning discursively in pre-temporal eternity.  If by this Helm means by this “logical priority” (which he indeed states on p.68) then he can avoid the difficulty posed by simplicity.  However, terms like “any additional choice” are time-sensitive and seem to suggest otherwise than his argument.  Barth’s model of election as the event of the Trinity’s modes of being, whatever legitimate difficulties it may have, is much closer to preserving simplicity.

Helm rebuts Barth’s charge that this view of God leads to speculation, and quotes Calvin for support (73).  Surely, anyone who has read Calvin knows he is blessedly free from speculation.  For myself, I think Barth is using the wrong term–speculation–and Helm is not seeing the real difficulty.   Per Barth’s reading of Calvin, which I am not necessarily endorsing at the moment, the Logos asarkos already has a fully-formed identity before the decision to save the world.  To be fair, McCormack, whose essay Helm is reviewing, further expanded these ideas in [I]Orthodox and Modern[/I].  This is tied in with Barth’s claim that Jesus is both the Object and Subject of election.    Helm says this is simply “incoherent” (79).  How can an object of an act be present as the subject of that same act?  It is a fair question and probably the best raised against Barth’s program.  Helm notes, “The act of electing is the act of someone; it cannot be the act of no one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes a someone.” By way of response one can ask if the Trinity is incoherent, for how can the Son be present in the eternal generation of the Son?  For Helm would agree that the Son, in the eternal generation, doesn’t come from a state of non-being to a state of being, yet is present in the Father’s very giving of being.

Helm ends his essay with different challenges to Barthians.  Overall, this is a fine essay, even if I have some critical reservations.  I think Helm filled in several lacunae that were missing from his John Calvin’s Ideas.  His discussion of the extra-Calvinisticum was quite lucid.  My only concerns are that he didn’t realize that Barth actually held to the Calvinist line over the Lutherans on this point.   Other good questions he has raised have already been answered by McCormack and Eberhard Jungel.

“The Actuality of God:  Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” by Bruce McCormack.

McCormack gives us a very interesting critique of open-theism:  open-theism is simply parasitic on the very classical metaphysics it seeks to overcome.   True, it can find texts that posit a “moved God,” so to speak, but its opponents can do likewise to the contrary.  McCormack notes that open theists simply had no way of winning this debate:  they engaged in very little Christology and shared the same metaphysical presuppositions as their opponents.

To begin, it should be helpful to define classical metaphysics.  This these types of thinking “are all ways of thinking which would treat the ontological otherness of God as something that can be defined and established by humans without respect for the incarnate life of God and, therefore, as something complete in itself apart from and prior to all acts of God” (McCormack 201).  And Pinnock is very clear:  God doesn’t change in his essence (Pinnock 119).

The question for both sides to answer, and this is the brilliance of McCormack’s essay, is “Does the Logos undergo change?”  Answering this question is actually quite difficult.   No Christian tradition–even Open theism–is willing to say that the divine nature suffers (though I grant Moltmann and his disciples spoke this way).  This is also tied in with a discussion of claims about “God in himself.”  As McCormack notes, “Classical theologians wanted to say that God would have been the same in himself without his works–a claim that would make sense only if it could be known what God is in himself.  On the other hand, they wanted to say that what God is is essentially unknowable” (McCormack 203-204).  This problem found itself at the heart of the Christological controversies, to which we now turn.

For the fathers working in the Chalcedonian tradition, two values had to be preserved:  divine impassibility and divinization soteriology.  On one hand, God cannot suffer (even Arius agreed with this claim!), so the divine and human natures had to be kept far apart.  The clearest expression of this is found in John of Damascus, who, to borrow McCormack’s nice phrase, used the mind as a mediating principle between the two natures (219).  This is why Lutheran and Orthodox analogies of “fire and iron” fall short:   the fire never becomes “iron-ish.”

McCormack’s conclusion on this reading, which I think accurate, is that this commitment to impassibility inevitably drove even the more Cyrillene theologians to a Nestorian tendency.  Cyril, for example, might want to say that “God dies,” but even he won’t ascribe pathoi and suffering to the divine nature.  All of this reduces back to a classical ontology.  McCormack notes:  “To the extent that human predicates can be ascribed to the Person of the union without ascribing them at the same time to the divine nature, the person is being treated as something that can be abstracted from the divine nature and stand “between” the natures, mediating between them” (220 n.84).

Making it worse for the ancient tradition was its commitment to theosis.  In this model the Logos “instrumentalizes” the human nature and infuses it with life.  The problem, though, on this reading was that the communication goes only one way:  the divine is not humanized.

The above essay was perhaps not immediately relevant to McCormack’s larger argument; however, it does show that the problems open theists faced were there all along.  Even more, it shows that open theism’s project could not have gotten off of the ground without the very system it seeks to undermine.

Other essays:  D.A. Carson’s essay on the wrath of God is a helpful summary of key texts on the wrath of God.  He notes that for whatever problems critics of penal substitution may have, they all collapse on the fact that they really haven’t interacted with the idea of God’s wrath.  John Webster has a nice essay showing how the necessary doctrine of God’s aseity has been warped in recent years.  Instead of it being doxological in focus, it is defended–ironically!–by an appeal to contingent reality.  Donald MacLeod ends on a pastoral note, summing up the themes of the conference.

Review of Church Dogmatics I/2

This is not a full review, since I am not dealing with sections 15-18.  Those are important because of his discussions of asarkos/ensarkos, but since he takes up that theme elsewhere, I won’t worry about it.

I don’t think this is one of Barth’s more important contributions, but it is one on which most Evangelicals think he is “the bad guy.”  It is in this volume where he more explicitly denies that the text in your hands is the revelation of the Word of God.  Rather, it is a witness to that revelation.   What Barth is actually doing is making use of the divine/human model of Christology and applying it to Scripture.   

On other areas he explores how is model impacts dogmatics within the Church and the proper limits of Church authority.  He makes an important point that is often missed by evangelicals:  he is adamant to deny that the church is in any sense the custodian of God’s revelation (and keep in mind on Barth’s gloss, revelation does not necessarily equal Scripture).  When churches do this (EO and Rome), they make themselves above God’s revelation and beyond any real critique.  Barth’s model, by contrast, can assign a lot of authority to the church while never fearing of an abuse of infallibility claims

Barth also advocates a role for the laity perhaps more than other communions.  He doesn’t develop the point, but his model could alleviate a lot of the problems associated with subjectivity in Scripture.  In fact, one can even develop a robust personalism on this point.  If what it means to be a “person” is an opening to the other, and if everyone is engaged in the reading and practice of Holy Scripture, then everyone’s so-called subjective interpretation is taken into the “other’s” interpretation.”

Subjectivity is only a problem when each man is an island unto himself.  This is a problem for congregationalist models.  For Reformed (and Anglican and Lutheran) this isn’t near a problem.  I think Barth makes some valuable suggestions, but they won’t impress everyone.  He talks about fear and bravery at the end of this volume.   If we allow dogmatics to become a lay enterprise, and each one has to bring his interpretation for correction and critique, then there will be the fear of “I don’t have complete control.”  This is perhaps why anchoretic communities love to rail on the “subjectivity” of sola scriptura.   It is scary, but it is also how we grow.  

§19, chapter 1 deals with Scripture as a witness to God’s revelation.   Resisting the urge to attack Barth because he “doesn’t believe the Bible is the Word of God,” let’s actually see what he is saying and what it means for our own situation.   A witness to a thing is not the same thing as the thing (and if anyone maintains it is, he or she will have to explain precisely why transubstantiation is wrong).  Further if we collapse the sign into the thing signified, is this not a movement towards nominalism?  The sign is pointing beyond itself to the “real.”  If we remove the “sign,” how can we have access to the real?  We are then saying that the “sign” is merely a “name” for the thing signified.  

Before people fear too much, Richard Muller, while perhaps not necessarily endorsing this view, does allude to several Reformed scholastics who said something similar.  

For whatever demerits Barth’s project may have, one cannot help but notice Augustinian themes.  If you attack Barth, then you must continue and attack Augustine.  

Chapter 2:  Canon
    Barth gives an unusually careful discussion on the nature of canonization.  Surprisingly, given his anti-Roman polemic throughout this series, he faults the position of Luther and Calvin and gives more weight to the role of the church.   However, this can only work when the Church submits to the same revelation.  

    Towards the end of chapter two he gets into why he doesn’t believe Scripture should be considered “inerrant.” I can’t follow him at this point, though Evangelicals really haven’t reflected hard enough on his concerns.  We believe the Word of God is self-attesting.  If we leave the discussion of “self-attesting” in the arena of the Triune God, well and good.  Because then self-attestation is truly a triune act, and if you deny it then you deny God.  If we maintain, however, so Barth reasons, that self-attestation is an act of the text of Scripture, then we open ourselves to lots of devastating criticisms by Anchorite traditions.  

    Barth tries to play the “Calvin vs. Calvinists” card.  Historically, such a claim is simply false.   However, even Richard Muller admits that the epistemology of later 17th century scholastics was such that they really couldn’t avoid the later criticisms of the Enlightenment.

    We should be all means reject Barth’s conclusions–at least, if we want to stay in good position in conservative, American churches–but be forewarned that Barth’s position can avoid all the pitfalls facing Evangelicals in their debates with anchorites.   The downside, though, is that it is particularly difficult on Barth’s gloss to say, “Thus saith the Lord.”  To Barth’s credit he emphasizes the preaching of the word.  However, at this point in Church Dogmatics Barth is not clear on how his view of the Bible can be authoritative for the church.

In §20 chapter 1 Barth gives a very thorough discussion of tradition and authority and its development in Roman Catholic history (warning:  this lasts for about ten small-font pages).  In the previous section I critique Barth for not giving any reason why one can take his position and say, “Thus saith the Lord” (which Barth admirably wants to do).   He does work out some of the weaknesses and reduces some of the subjectivity in Evangelicalism by anchoring the Bible in the Church.  However, he avoids leading us back into Anchoretic slavery by saying that the Church, like Holy Scripture, is a witness to God’s revelation.  Anchoretic communities make it an aspect of God’s revelation (and hence, above the ability of being critiqued).   This doesn’t alleviate all of the problems, but it is a better start.  

Review of Lacugna’s God for Us

I did the first part here.

The Problem of Arius

Arius’s challenge was not so much that he had good arguments against the Son’s deity, but that the way he phrased the arguments seem to account for a lot of biblical passages. He did highlight key areas where talk of God’s economy had been eclipsed. The response to Arius was mostly successful: Christ is the economy of God come into the world. The metaphysical oneness of Father and Son, however, made it difficult to talk of God suffering for us.

The Cappadocians

In this section Lacugna gives some helpful clarifications of the philosophical jargon that the Cappadocians used. She sets forth the fundamental thesis of the Cappadocians as God’s ousia exists as three hypostases (54).

Stoic categories: a category is a predicate, a way of talking about being. There are four of these:
substance ←> matter
quality: that which differentiates matter
Disposition: being in a certain state of matter
relation: that which an object is defined by

Aristotelian categories:
Primary substance: a particular entity (this oak tree)
secondary substance: a generalized entity (oak-ness)
relation: a term is relative to another if it implies another (a Father is constituted by Son). Relation is the weakest (thinnest) of categories because it only says what a thing is with reference to another and nothing about the entity itself.

Relational categories work quite nicely when talking about Father or Son. Problem, though: “Spirit” is not a relational term. As Lacugna notes, “The distinction of hypostases is grounded in the relation of origins” (67).   This is one area where Zizioulas’s project falls flat.

Pros and cons of Cappadocian Theology

Saying that the three hypostases manifest the divine ousia lessens the gap between ontology and economy. However, this seems to cut against their likewise assertion that God’s ousia is so unknowable. One agrees that it is, but what is the point of saying that if the hypostases manifest the ousia? If they do, then in some sense the ousia is knowable.

Further, to the degree that hypostasis still connotes a concrete existent of the divine ousia, there is the spectre of tritheism. To speak of hypostases concretizing the ousia almost implies that the ousia is divisible (Sergius Bulgakov makes this point with much force, The Comforter, Eerdmans).


After Feurbach and the Enlightenment, the idea of an “in-itself” is viewed as an impossibility.


The main problem with Palamas is that he posited an essence-beyond-essence, or God in itself. Indeed, one can see the Palamite structure accordingly:



—————– (line of hyperousia)


the heart of the criticism: ousias do not have “interiorities.” In other words, there is not a subsection of ousia apart from the life of that ousia. As Heidegger reminds us, “ousia” is always “par-ousia,” being present. If Palamas wants to say that the energies make the ousia present, fine. But if he says that, then one really doesn’t have warrant to speak of a superessential, ineffable ousia by itself, for the very point of the energies and of ousia in general is that it is not by itself.
Perhaps the most damaging criticism of Palamas is the divorcing of economy and ontology. Related to this is that the energies seem to replace the role of the Persons in the divine economy. For example, the energies are not unique to a single person but common to all three who act together. This is not so different from the standard Western opera ad intra indivisible sunt. Lacugna, quoting Wendebourg, notes, “the proprium of each person…fades into the background” (Lacugna, 195). By contrast, the Cappadocians would say we distinguish the Persons by their propria–by their hypostatic idiomata. In Palamas, though, this role has been moved to the energies. This is further confirmed by the fact that Palamas has the persons as hyperousia. If we can no longer distinguish the persons by their propria, then Palamas is guilty of the same modalism that the East accuses the West of.

Part 2

Lacugna begins with an interesting observation. Pre-Nicene liturgy consisted of a lot of mediatorial prayers to the Father through Christ. While this was not denied by later Trinitarianism, neither was it affirmed as much. From a later vantage point it didn’t seem to make much sense to see Christ as a mediator when he was primarily thought of as sharing the same being as the father. Of course, one does not deny Christ’s consubsantiality, but the emphasis on theologia soon eclipsed the biblical witness to economia. Lacugna draws the conclusion: the saints were soon seen as mediators (210).

Conclusion and Critique

My critique will also include a lot of the later material in her book. While I think her initial thesis is sound (a hard divorce between economy and theology posits an irrelevant Trinity), I think she is rather haphazard in applying it. She correctly notes that on the Cappadocians’ model, God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, yet she downplays problems for the Cappadocians (they came very close to concretizing the essence; their mysticism made much of their Trinitarianism irrelevant, and so they are prey to Lacugna’s critique). Further, while her take on Zizioulas is appreciated, and though she offers a brilliant and brutal critique of Palamas, she doesn’t really take into account Palamas’s virtual dogmatic status in the Orthodox world. This makes it rather problematic for her to say we should look to the East on the Trinity.

Further, regarding the word “Person.” In her discussion on Barth she does note that that the definition of “person” shifted from the ancient world to the modern.. She accuses Barth of modalism because Barth defined “person” as tropos huparxos and that God is one divine subject who exists in three modes of simultanaeity. There is a certain irony in Lacugna’s rejection of Barth: Barth used the exact same definition, literally word-for-word, as Gregory of Nyssa, to whom Lacugna says we ought to return! The problem, as Bruce McCormack has noted, is that the word person in the post-Enlightenment world simply doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in the ancient world. He notes,

Second comment: as Bruce indicated, the problem repeatedly in the nineteenth century was the assumption that the patristic hypostasis and prosopon could be translated into the English ‘person’, with all the connotations of those words in a post-Romantic age. Strauss, for instance (a quotation Bruce used): ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to speak of a single self-consciousness, for what else could a single person mean?’ However, it is clear that in the patristic construction of Trinity and Christology such ‘personal’ characteristics as ‘self-consciousness’, if considered at all, were attached to natures not persons—this was, for instance, the whole point of the orthodox solutions to the monoenergist and monothelite controversies. (This is why Barth preferred ‘mode of being’ to ‘person’ for the three hypostases of the Trinity; in post-Romantic terms, all that is ‘personal’ in God is one.)

Translation: Person in modern-speak means a situated self-consciousness, implying, among other things, a mind. This is most certainly not what the Patristics meant, to the degree they had a coherent definition of person, anyway. “Self-consciousness” and “mind” for the Fathers was located in the nature, not the person (otherwise we would have three or four minds in the Trinity). Lacugna simply hasn’t reflected enough on what person can mean. To say we should go back to “personalism” is not helpful at all. You can’t say you want to go back to the robust personalism of the Cappadocians if you mean person = self-consciousness, for that’s precisely what the Cappadocians rejected! I have my own reservations about Barth’s project, but he knew exactly what both he and the Cappadocians were saying and avoided all the problems that Lacugna’s project succumbs.

A Trinitarian Ethic

This is where he project comes close to self-destruction. Despite being a Roman Catholic and teaching at Notre Dame, Lacugna is a feminist. To be fair, though, she blunts a lot of her feminist critique and actually raises good points. My problem in this section is her use of vague language that will likely provide fodder for later mischief.


Despite being published by Harper San Francisco, this is a surprisingly good read. The historical analyses on the Cappadocians and Augustine are superb. She corrected a lot of my own misreadings of Augustine. I don’t think she has fully reflected either on how the modern world forced Trinitarian dialogue to mutate nor does she really understand what the Cappadocians were saying.

Palamas: A Critique

Part One.

Some questions:

  1. If the breathing technique is so important to prayer, how come none of the apostles ever mentioned it?  Granted, one can agree that Scripture doesn’t say everything, but still, this is a rather important omission.  The disciples asked Jesus a very specific question on how to pray and Jesus gave them a very specific answer.  It didn’t include anything about breathing techniques.

  2. To the degree that the hesychasts follow in the best of the Evagrian tradition (Meyendorff, 2-3), one must ask if this would have ever gotten off of the ground were it not for Origen.  If this genealogy is true, then we are faced with the troubling implication that not only is this tradition of prayer not apostolic, but it comes from a rather suspect source!

  3. If both Persons and Nature are hyper-ousia (cf. Triads III.iii.17-20, which this text doesn’t include), precisely how is it possible to know them?

  4. If grace is already inherent in nature, then what was originally wrong or inadequate with nature that it required grace?  (And the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian man is irrelevant.)

  5. How coherent is it to call the energies “hypostatic” (p. 57, II.iii.8) while insisting that hypostasis does not mean what hypostasis means when it refers to the Trinity?  I realize that Meyendorff glosses “hypostatic” to mean “real existence” (p. 131 n .2), but in the context of the Trinity we now have nature, hypostases, and hypostatic energies (which are not the same as hypostases.  Is it any wonder that Latin critics drew the inference of a “fourth hypostasis?”

    True, Palamas explains this by saying the light is “enhypostatic” .  Robert Jenson has suggested that Palamas places the divine energies outside the gospel narrative (Jenson 157).  I do not think Palamas’s move is as crass as Jenson suggests, but the problems are there. Following Maximus, it appears that Palamas sees the events in the gospel narratives as symbols of higher reality (3.i.13, p. 74).

  6. Does it really make sense to say that God is both beyond knowledge and beyond unknowing (p. 32; 1.iii.4)?   I realize Meyendorff glosses this as a Ps. Dionysian move, which it is, but that only raises further problems.  If God is ineffable (Meyendorff, 121 n.9), then what’s the point of even speaking of God?  I simply do not accept that the “knowledge-which-transcends” apophatic and cataphatic knowledge is not merely another form of cataphatic knowledge, for it ends with positive descriptions of God.  That’s not a problem, but we need to call it what it is.

  7. And a common criticism of Palamas:  If God’s essence is unknowable, how does Palamas know that it is unknowable (Lacugna)?  To be fair, Palamas does anticipate this criticism.  Palamas notes that any answer he gives must be “tentative.”  He then gives a very important answer–we know God “by the disposition of created things” (2.iii.68, p. 68).  In other words, we know God by his works, not by peering into his nature.   There is an important truth to this, and Palamas would have done well to finish the thought:  if we are truly to know God by his works then we must look to his covenant and to the finished work of Christ.   Of course, such a move is counter to any talk of apophaticism and essence-beyond-essence.  Palamas does not continue the thought.

  8. Can simplicity be maintained?   A common Thomist critique of Palamas is that it compromises God’s simplicity.   Palamites are quick to respond that they do not hold to the Thomistic version of simplicity.  However, Palamas himself thought he held (and one should hold) to simplicity.  He asserts, quoting Maximus:  “These realities, though numerous, in no way diminish the notion of simplicity.”  They may not, but it’s hard to see how they don’t beyond merely asserting it.

  9. Strangely, Palamas break with the Pseudo-Dionysian ontology at a key point:  Said model posits a number of descending hierarchies from The One.  Each hierarchy mediates to the one below it.  And for the most part Palamas, and much of East and West at this time, do not challenge this model (for a very beautiful application of it, see John Scotus Eriguena).  Barlaam raises an interesting question, though:  If the divine energies are fully God, then how can they appear to the saint without the mediation of hiearchies?  Palamas answers with an analogy:  An Emperor can speak to a common soldier without raising him to the rank of general (3.iii.5; p. 103).   Palamas’ analogy shows us that we can’t simply accuse the essence/energies distinction of being fully neo-Platonic.  It’s not.  Still, if Palamas is right, and I think he actually makes a perceptive point here, it’s hard to see how he can simultaneously affirm Pseudo-Dionysius’s model.  If fact, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t completely negate it.  This is indeed Colin Gunton’s argument in The Triune Creator.

  10. Now to the heart of the criticism:   ousias do not have “interiorities.”  In other words, there is not a subsection of ousia apart from the life of that ousia.   As Heidegger reminds us, “ousia” is always “par-ousia,” being present.  If Palamas wants to say that the energies make the ousia present, fine.   But if he says that, then one really doesn’t have warrant to speak of a superessential, ineffable ousia by itself, for the very point of the energies and of ousia in general is that it is not by itself.

  11. Perhaps the most damaging criticism of Palamas is the divorcing of economy and ontology. Related to this is that the energies seem to replace the role of the Persons in the divine economy.  For example, the energies are not unique to a single person but common to all three who act together.  This is not so different from the standard Western opera ad intra indivisible sunt.  Catherine Lacugna, quoting Wendebourg, notes, “the proprium of each person…fades into the background” (Lacugna, 195).  By contrast, the Cappadocians would say we distinguish the Persons by their propria–by their hypostatic idiomata.  In Palamas, though, this role has been moved to the energies.   This is further confirmed by the fact that Palamas has the persons as hyperousia.

  12. Apropos (11), and echoing Robert Jenson, if the Persons are eclipsed by the energies and remain in the realm of hyperousia and “above” the biblical narrative, in such case that we can no longer identity the persons by their hypostatic propria, we can only conclude that Palamism, despite its best intentions, is a more frozen form of modalism than anything Augustine or Aquinas ever dreamed of.

Without endorsing his theology, Paul Tillich made a pertinent comment regarding East and West.  For the former, reality and salvation is vertical–union with the divine.  For the latter it is horizontal–the kingdom of God in history.   Perhaps an overstatement, but certainly a warranted one.

Opening post on Palamas Series

I finished reading The Triads (or the Classics of Western Spirituality version).   Rather than doing a long, drawn out essay.  I am just going to post my observations.

Part 1:  Philosophy does not save.

In this first chapter (and by chapter that is the division that Pelikan and Meyendorrf are using, and so I will use) Palamas critiques the Baarlamite notion that we have to know in order to be saved.  Or more precisely and better put, we have to have a good grounding in philosophy before we can understand God.

Part 2: The Body and Prayer

Mostly good section on how the body is good.  I wish he would have taken it a step further and noted, if the body is good, and marriage is good, then is sexual intercourse a good?  Here the anchoretic tradition has struggled in giving a hearty “yes.”  The Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss capably documented the problem here.  I also agree with Palamas that the heart is the rational faculty (I.2.iii; p. 42).

Further, I also agree that “the divine” (my words, not his) has penetrated all of created reality (1.ii.6; 45).

Hyperousia:  The essence is beyond the Godhead (2.iii.8; p. 57).   This is key to his whole construction


Admittedly, Palamas does not go for a full apophatic theology.  He writes, “Let no one think that these great men are here referring to the ascent through the negative way” (p. 37; 1.iii.20).  This kind of makes sense.  Anybody can merely deny propositions of God with no view towards holiness.  Palamas is clear that apophatic theology is necessary to liberate the understanding, but it is not enough for union with the divine.

Palamas says the energies are en-hypostatic (3.i.9, p. 71).  This saves him from the immediate charge of Neo-Platonism.  It raises the question:  which hypostasis(es)?  He answers:  The Spirit sends it out in the hypostasis of another (ibid).

With which we agree with Palamas:

To a certain extent I can accept his conclusions about the reality of the divine light.  I just have problems with calling it a “hypostatic energy.” Further, he gives a very moving description of Paul’s own vision (p. 38; 1.iii.21).

We agree with Palamas, and contra Barlaam and the Thomists, that in the eschaton we will not know God by created intermediaries.

Potential problems:

transcending human nature:  Palamas is suggesting something akin to knowing God beyond sense perception and discursive reasoning.  The saints have “an organ of vision that is neither the senses nor the intellect” (p. 35, I.iii.17).

Open criticisms:

I don’t know how seriously I can take Palamas’s claim that he isn’t dependent on philosophy like the West is.  His doctrine of essence, energies, motion, salvation as transformation are all highly technical philosophical concepts.  Even if “hyper-ousia” is a valid theological concept, it is taken from Plato’s Republic (Plato 549b).  Further, on p. 105 Palamas refers to God as “Prime Mover.”   How is this not using Aristotle?  I am not saying he is an Aristotelian, but his project could not have gotten off of the ground were it not for Aristotle,

Review Pannenberg Intro Systematic Theology

Pannenberg, Wolfhart.  An Introduction to Systematic Theology.  Eerdmans.

An Introduction to Systematic Theology by Wolfhart Pannenberg

A fantastic read, but ended in a let down. Pannenberg rightly suggests that a lot of our categories for doing systematic theology are not only outdated, but a few are contradictory and wildly at odds with the Hebrew narrative. Our understanding of God, for example, owes more to the quasi-heretic Origen’s definition of God-as-mind (that is how Origen glossed “pneuma” in John 4:24ff), which raises problems when we discuss God’s immutability, infinity, and other doctrines. Interestingly,  John of Damascus and essentially everyone else in the ancient world followed Origen on this point. Glossing pneuma as spirit in the Hebraic sense solves all these problems.

The take on Creation was good.

The Christology section was a let down. He did a great job emphasing the Hebraic-ness of Jesus but conceded to much to neo-Protestantism and didn’t deal with the potential tensions in Chalcedonian ontology.