- Can Palamism Be Accommodated to the Western Theological Tradition? A Few Considerations on “The Real Problem”
SCHOLARSHIP ON Gregory Palamas and Palamism often gives the impression that dismissing Western theology is the price that has to be paid in order to acknowledge the genius of the Orthodox tradition. One should therefore wholeheartedly welcome a book that has the explicit intention of bringing the teachings of Palamas one step closer to the Western Christian universe. From this point of view, one must salute Norman Russell’s approach in Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age.1 As the author goes in search of a “real Palamas” hidden behind denominational controversies, he scrutinizes a considerable amount of scholarship for the benefit of nonspecialists. Readers will find an abundance—sometimes an overabundance—of observations related to known but also to much less well-researched elements of historiography on Palamas and Palamism. The courage of an attempt at such a vast synthesis certainly deserves commendation. This does not mean that the results of this attempt are immune to criticism. As I set forth my reservations in the pages that follow, my hope is that this critical analysis of Russell’s book will eventually shed some more light on an ancient but still unsolved theological issue. [End Page 625]
The argument of Russell’s book could be roughly summarized as follows: modern historiography on Palamism has presented Palamas’s doctrine as incompatible with Western—mostly Catholic—theological tradition on biased ecclesiological grounds; actually, when examined in itself, this doctrine has much to offer that could be integrated into the Western theological tradition and enrich it. In the first part of the book, “The Historical Reception of Palamite Theology,” Russell recounts— or “deconstructs,” as it is no longer fashionable to say—the steps that have given the Palamite controversy its current configuration. In the second part of the book, “Raising the Larger Questions,” the author delves into the texts of Palamas himself, explaining them in the light of the controversies of the time, as he goes in search of a “real Palamas” who would be more acceptable to the Western theological tradition.
Russell’s narrative of Palamas’s Rezeptionsgeschichte consists of three moments. (1) After the definitive vindication of Palamas’s theology in Byzantium (Tomos of 1368), a long period of almost complete silence ensued, neither Orthodox nor Catholic theologians showing themselves keen on reading his works and discussing their content. (2) The “problem” was revived by Martin Jugie in his articles on Palamas and Palamism for the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, but it was instrumentalized because of considerations pertaining to Church politics. Jugie’s desire to see the “Greeks” come back into the Catholic fold “made” Palamism into a theology incompatible with the Western tradition, identified with the vessel of Truth. On the opposite side, Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky and John Meyendorff built on Jugie’s conclusions, arguing that this incompatibility proved the superiority of the Orthodox tradition over the Catholic one, and justified the rejection of Catholic efforts to assimilate “Oriental Christianity.” (3) More contemporary theologians and scholars on both sides seem to oscillate between two mutually exclusive positions: a rediscovery of the dimensions of Palamas’s theology that could eventually be received in the West, and a more radical interpretation of this teaching that continues to pit the Latin West and the Byzantine East against each other. [End Page 626]
Let us review Russell’s narrative step by step.
I. The Long Historical “Silence”
Russell takes the silence into which the discussions around the teaching of Palamas fell as a fact that does not require special explanation.2 Is it not natural that one would discuss a dogma before it is officially proclaimed rather than after? For instance, after the homousios-theology got the upper hand over Arianism at the end of the fourth century, the thrust of theological discussions shifted to Mariology and Christology in the fifth and sixth centuries. But is the silence that Russell has in mind this kind of silence, namely, the silence that follows a dogmatic victory?
Russell dedicates much attention...