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.

Barth and the End of Classical Metaphysics

McCormack, Bruce.  Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.  Baker.

Bruce McCormack suggests that the best model for understanding Karl Barth’s theology is Realdialektik–God is indirectly identical with the medium of his self-revelation.  It is dialectical in the sense that it posits both a veiling and unveiling of God. God is unveiled in Jesus’s flesh, but since it is in Jesus’s flesh, God is in a sense veiled (McCormack 145).   This is another way of using Luther’s Deus absconditus.  Interestingly, this dialectic solves the postmodern problem of “Presence-Absence.”

What is Classical Metaphysics?

Barth’s project is in many ways an attempt to overcome the limitations of classical metaphysics.  Among other things, classical metaphysics (and it doesn’t matter whether you have in mind Eastern and Western models) saw the essence of God as an abstract something behind all of God’s acts and relations (140).  This view is particularly susceptible to Heidegger’s critique of “Being.”  It is also susceptible, particularly in its Cappadocian form, to Tillich’s critique:

The Cappadocian “Solution” and Further Problem

According to the Cappadocians, the Father is both the ground of divinity and a particular hypostasis of that divinity.  Taken together, we can now speak of a quaternity.  Secondly, the distinctions between the relations are empty of content.  What do the words “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “proceeding” mean when any analogy between the divine essence and created reality is ruled illegitimate, as the Cappadocians insist (Tillich 77-78)?  The Augustinian-Thomist tradition at least tried to move this forward, even if its solution was equally unsatisfactory.

Further, with regard to the Person of Christ, essentialism connotes an abstracted human nature which is acted upon (McCormack 206).  Further, in essentialist forms of metaphysics the idea of a person is that which is complete in itself apart from its actions and relations (211).  A wedge is now driven between essence and existence.  Christologically, this means that nothing which happens in and through the human nature affects the person of the union, for the PErson is already complete anterior to these actions and relations.

Election and the Trinity

Barth navigates beyond this impasse with his now famous actualism.  Rather than first positing a Trinity and then positing a decision to elect, which necessarily creates a metaphysical “gap” in the Trinity, Barth posits Jesus of Nazareth not only as the object of election (which is common to every dogmatics scheme), but also the subject of election.  How can this be?  How can someone be both the elector and the elected?

For Barth the Trinity is One Subject in Three Simultaneous Modes of being (218).  To say that Jesus Christ is the electing God is to say that God determined to be God in a second (not being used in a temporal sense) mode of being…this lies close to the decision that [Election] constitutes an event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being (218).  Election is the event which differentiates God’s modes of being…So the event in which God is triune is identical with the event in which He chooses to be God for the human race” (ibid.)

Participation, not Theosis

Barth’s actualist ontology allows him to affirm the juridicalism within the Scriptures (which is markedly absent from many Eastern treatises) and the language of participating in the divine but without recourse to the theosis views so dependent on classical metaphysics.

Barth is historically-oriented, not metaphysically.  The divine does not metaphysically indwell the human so as to heal the potential loss of being.  Rather, the exaltation occurs in the history of Jesus Christ.  “The link which joins the human and divine is not an abstract concept of being, but history” (230).

For Barth, God’s ontology is the act of determining to enter human history (238).  God’s essence and human essence can be placed in motion–they can be actualized in history.

Exaltation, not indwelling

The terms describing Jesus’s history are agreement, service, obedience–they speak of the man Jesus standing before God, not being indwelt.

Reworking the Categories

If Barth’s criticisms of classical ontology hold, then a humble reworking of some categories is in order.  Instead of hypostasis, Barth uses the term “identification.”  The identification in question is an act of love.  Jesus is God, but God as self-differentiation.

This may seem obscure, but it bears great promise.  Both East and West have struggled with defining “person.”  A good Eastern theologian will not even define it, since, as John Behr notes, you cannot give a common definition to something which is by definition not-common.  Eastern Orthodox like to say how “personal” their theology is, yet ask them to define “person.”   The West actually does define it, but the problems aren’t entirely gone.  If person = relation, then how come the relations between the persons are not themselves persons, and ad infinitum all the way back to Gnosticism?  Given these huge problems, we should not so quickly dismiss Barth’s proposal.

Review Paul Tillich History Christian Thought

Tillich, Paul.  History of Christian Thought.

As far as histories of Christian thought go this is actually one of the better ones.   A number of issues, though, prevent it from a fully recommendation.

Absorption into “The One”

Tillilich’s most important contribution in this volume is his lucid discussion of Neo-Platonism.  Going beyond traditional accounts, Tillich describes it as “the abyss of everything specific.”  Neo-Platonism, as it relates to the “One,” says that the One is beyond all distinctions, beyond the difference between Subject and Object (it’s hard to define what Neo-Platonism means by “the One.”   Loosely-speaking, we will call it the “God-concept” for lack of a better term).  It is not purely negative but is rather positive: it incorporates everything into itself.

This might seem like an arcane discussion, but it is crucial to understanding not only the rest of Christian thought, but Tillich’s own ethics and theology.  Tillich will identify God, or more importantly, our experience of God, as the “ground of being.”  Salvation, thus, for Tillich, is entering into the “New Being.”  Sin and evil are, obviously, nothing, no-thing, the dissolution of being.  Readers will certainly recognize Augustine’s discussion of evil as a privation of Good.


Tillich gives a particularly good analysis of the recurring realist-nominalist debate.  He goes beyond the mere textbook descriptions which say that realists believe that universal ideas exist, whereas nominalists do not.  That’s true, but fails to capture the power of the movement.  Tillich notes that for the realists, universals were dynamic powers of being arranged in a hierarchy where the one universal above mediated below, and so on.    When I read this, all of a sudden Platonism made perfect sense.  Interestingly, Tillich notes that when Greek paganism became Hellenized, the pagan gods were simply transposed into universal mediations.   This is particularly insightful when we apply this same analysis to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox syncretism ala Mary and the saints.

High Points Through History

Not every thinker is going to be consistently good in analysing church history.   Tillich’s particular strengths are Augustine, Anselm, and Luther.   I do not buy into Tillich’s apologetics, but his discussion of the ontological argument was good.   While risking some oversimplification, he notes a number of differences between Eastern and Western thought.  Salvation for the former was absorption into the One, a vertical movement, whereas the primary reality for the latter was a horizontal movement, eschatology.  This is a terrible oversimplification, but there is some truth in it as it relates to Origen’s influence on Eastern theology and Christology.  Western thought, by contrast, was able to better develop a kingdom of God eschatology.  Tillich, though, does not develop this point in greater detail.

The Bad Parts

Tillich, despite his protests, is a liberal.  He relies on outdated scholarship which makes the silliest claims (he thinks Daniel got his material from the Persians, which is silly even on Tillich’s own analysis since the Persian religion was ontological absorption, whereas Daniel spoke of the horizontal movement of the Kingdom of God in history–Daniel 2, 7, and 9).  Further, while Tillich himself gives a good criticism of Eastern ontology, it’s difficult to see how his own view isn’t similar

Depraved Sexual Ethics

Tillich makes a number of strange claims that do not make sense unless one is aware of Tillich’s own life.  (Tillich, while there was no official diagnosis, likely suffered from satyriosis).  He accuses Calvinist countries of having a repressed sexual ethic.  This is strange since it was the Puritans and Reformers who delighted in sexual love between husband and wife.   The Romanist Thomas More accused the Reformers of drinking and “lechering.”  What does Tillich mean by this claim?   According to his wife’s biography of him, and his son’s own memory,

And I am saying that at the beginning they agreed sexual involvement with others was permitted and that this arrangement got out of hand. He wouldn’t stop and she didn’t like it anymore, perhaps after the trauma of emigration and adjusting to a new world and a new child” (p. 14)

This quote is one of the rather tame ones and I won’t cite more for propriety reasons.  It gets a lot worse, including Tillich’s frequenting of brothels.  How can Tillich justify this?  Simple.  It goes back to his “ground-of-being” theology.  Salvation is finding actuality in “the New Being.”  Tillich, thus, would seek sexual experience in other women, even prostitutes, but rationalized this by saying he wasn’t seeking “actuality” in these encounters.

Unfortunately, even by Tillich’s own ethical theory, I think he fails.  We must bring up the uncomfortable likelihood that he risked (if not openly caught) venereal diseases from these encounters.  This would have a destructive side-effect on his existence.   Would this not, accordingly, be a slide into non-being and dissolution?  Indeed it would, and so by his own existential standards he is condemned.

I think this explains his anger at the Calvinist sexual ethic.   The Reformers and Puritans saw joy in married sex–something Tillich rejected in his own life–and denied sexual encounters with strange women, something Tillich openly sought.


Is this book worth getting?  It’s hard to say.  The philosophical analyses were superb, but knowing Tillich’s own background I’m uneasy recommending it.  I bought my copy at a garage sale for about ten cents (and the previous owner bought it from a public library book sale for about the same price.  No profit or royalties were made by anybody).  I wouldn’t spend more than that on it.