- Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite, and: The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas
Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was a Byzantine monk who rose to become Archbishop of Thessalonica and a leading theologian of the Orthodox Church. He is best known for his role in the hesychast controversy. The hesychasts (from hesychia, silence) were monks of Mount Athos who claimed that through prayer and ascetic struggle they had been enabled to see God with their bodily eyes. More precisely, they claimed to see a kind of divine radiance permeating all things, including their own bodies. They insisted that this light was not a created reality but was God himself as he manifested himself to them.
When the hesychasts were attacked by an Italian monk named Barlaam, Palamas rose to their defense. The challenge he faced was that of explaining how the transcendent God could be visible to human eyes. His answer was to adapt two terms long in use in other areas of theology, ousia (substance, essence) and energeia (activity, operation). He held that whereas the ousia of God is unknowable to any created intellect, the divine energeiai can be shared in by creatures, who are thereby deified. The "uncreated light" of the monks is simply the divine energeia as it had become visible to the monks through the purification of the heart achieved by prayer, asceticism, and obedience to the divine commandments. Gregory's defense of the hesychasts was endorsed by a series of synods at Constantinople, and to this day he is commemorated in Orthodox churches on the second Sunday in Lent.
The importance of Palamas for the history of philosophy lies in the fact that he presents a version of Christian thought that is deeply rooted in tradition, and by most standards fully orthodox, yet owes nothing to western scholasticism. A quick comparison [End Page 586] with Aquinas reveals several points of divergence. (1) Whereas Aquinas holds that all the divine attributes and activities are identical with the divine essence, the distinctions among them being merely quoad nos, Palamas holds that the distinction between the divine ousia and energeia is not just imposed by our perspective but is truly present in God. (2) Whereas Aquinas says little about deification and explicitly reserves the vision of the divine essence to the afterlife, Palamas insists that deification is possible in this life and that the condition of those who experience it is similar (though of course not identical) to that of the blessed after the resurrection. (3) Whereas Aquinas allows that the blessed ultimately do attain a vision of the divine essence, Palamas holds that the divine ousia is intrinsically unknowable to creatures.
Whether these differences are as sharp as they seem is a matter that requires careful investigation. The first of the two works under review, Palamas's Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite, is to be welcomed for the clarification it provides of Palamas's views. It is the third of his major works to be translated into English, the others being Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts and One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. I confess to finding it less engaging than the other two; it lacks the freshness and vigor of the Triads (Palamas's earliest work) and the wide-ranging systematic character of the Chapters. Nonetheless, it does provide a helpful elaboration of the ousia -energeia distinction, particularly in the argument (88-90) that such a distinction does not compromise divine simplicity.
The second work, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas by A. N. Williams, is the first book-length comparison of these two pivotal figures. It is a revision of the author's doctoral dissertation, and has a certain plodding dryness characteristic of the genre; nonetheless, it is clear and well-informed, and Williams is...