Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God’:

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.

Evangelicals read the Fathers for ‘fresh’ readings of Scripture

The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.

When I queried Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?, the third response, from a friend doing a PhD in New Testament who was once a pastor, was ‘To learn how not to do exegesis.’ (The other two were ”Cause they’re awesome‘ and ‘Because they are relevant‘.)

When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even try Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)

To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).

My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.

I knew of the efforts of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I wished to make use of such things those few moments when people foolishly gave their pulpits to me. I also knew of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and its digital version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Not overfond of reading lengthy text online, especially if Victorian, I got my hands on St. John Chrysostom from NPNF and used him in preparing for homilies.

What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.

When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.

The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.

If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.

If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.

The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.

But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.

That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?

We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.

When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.

You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.

This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.

Further Explorations

If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP. This book was my introduction to Patristic ways of reading the Bible. Worth a read.

Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.

*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.

Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

We’ve just missed the feast day of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (or “the Theologian”, a title he shares only with St. John the Evangelist — although a case may also be made for St. Symeon the New Theologian), but he is a saint worth looking at.

St. Gregory (329-390) is one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, a trio of theologians from Cappadocia in modern Turkey who were an important influence upon the development of Trinitarian theology in the last stages of the Arian Controversy. The other members of this trio are the brothers St. Basil of Caesarea (Saint of the Week here) — a good friend of St. Gregory’s — and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Saint of the Week here).

St. Gregory’s father, a convert from paganism, was bishop of Nazianzus. He and Gregory’s mother had an impact upon the young Gregory, some of which psychoanalysts would probably love to get their hands on. Following the path of the Late Antique man of letters, Gregory went to school in Caesarea, Palestine (not the Caesarea of Basil which is Cappadocia), with Basil, for education. He and Basil met up again in Alexandria.

Gregory was headed on his “worldly” career path when he went from Egypt to Athens. When his ship was struck by a storm on the way, he chose to devote his life to the Gospel and the work of the Church. In Gregory’s case, this meant a life of quiet retirement and ascetic rigour back home in Cappadocia.

However, back in Cappadocia, he found himself being lassoed into a more active role in Church service by Basil. He rose to challenge, finding himself unwillingly bishop of what amounted to no more than a service station on the highway.

Yet from there his fortunes were truly to rise, as he was translated to the see of Constantinople, where he presided over the Second “Ecumenical” Council in 381 which produced this creed, commonly called “Nicene” and recited in churches around the world today.

Most Nicenes consider Constantinople I a great victory for the orthodox position. Gregory did not. He resigned partway through the event and went home to Cappadocia in disgust at Church politics, for that famous creed does not explicitly affirm the full deity of the Holy Spirit, one of the important dogmas that he and his fellow Cappadocians had fought for in the last stages of the Nicene controversy.

Not that his time in Constantinople was a total bust. It produced a good number of excellent sermons, including the Five Theological Orations that, besides simple statements like the Athanasian Creed, were my introduction to Trinitarian Theology and which Christopher A. Hall used as the basis for his discussion of the Trinity in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (reviewed here, with a discussion of Greg Naz here).

He spent his last years in quiet retirement writing poetry and refining his Orations. His poetry, when read in conjunction with his dogmatic theology, escorts us into the world of the mystical theology of the Eastern Church (to borrow the title from Vladimir Lossky).

In St. Gregory, we Western Christians have the opportunity to see the happy union of the apophatic — we can only speak of God by uttering what He is not — and the cataphatic — through revelation we are able to speak truths about God. We see that theology is a task that is not to be taken up lightly but soberly, that it is the ascent of the soul to the living God, into Whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall.

With Gregory, we see clearly the divinity of all three Persons of the Trinity, we see some of their attributes, then we ascend the Mount and enter into the Cloud of Unknowing where we fall down to worship the Triune God in the beauty of holiness.

And it is worship that binds all Christians together, for worship is our purpose. As John Piper says, mission exists because worship does not. So take some time to worship God with thrice-holy cry like the Seraphim; spend some time thinking on things heavenly; spend some time with the Fathers.

And then write about it in dactylic hexameter — or whatever your creative outlet is. Just like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory the Theologian.

The Apocatastasis Project (as if I have time on my hands to do this)

I have blogged about Origen (184/5–253/4, on his impact see here) and the concept of Apocatastasis before (here), in the context of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the debate surrounding universalism. At the time, I was unaware of the use of the word apokatastasis by St. Peter in Acts 3:21, and I boldly declared regarding this theological doctrine, ‘No, it’s not in Scripture.’ My flawed research has been taken to task, for which I am grateful, and now I am going to be thorough, sort of for the fun of it.

First, the terms. When referring to the theological concept as espoused by Origen et al., I shall use the Latinised spelling Apocatastasis, capital A, no italics. When referring to the Greek lexical term, I shall use the Hellenised spelling apokatastasis, lower case a, italicised.

Second, the method/outline of this project on Apocatastasis. First, I shall discuss what doctrine it is that we are discussing, exactly. What is Apocatastasis? We shall investigate the teachings of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) in particular; one of the questions we shall investigate is why their teachings of this name were condemned in the sixth century and suspect in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries. Two other illustrious Origenists shall be considered, the Cappadocian Fathers St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389/90) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335–394, Saint of the Week here). We shall see to what extent their eschatological teachings and understanding of Judgement Day align with the “Origenist” teaching on Apocatastasis condemned in later years.

Once we have come to understand what the ancients understood theologically about Apocatastasis, we can consider modern writers and their contemplation of “universalism”. We shall look at Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Madeleine L’Engle (herself a reader of the Cappadocian Fathers), and George MacDonald (Saint of the Week here, discussion of his “universalism” here).

Met. Kallistos is a living Eastern Orthodox Bishop (website here) and patristics scholar who, like most Eastern Orthodox, could easily be considered “conservative”. Madeleine L’Engle was a popular Anglican author of the last half of the twentieth century (website here), most famous for her children’s/young adult novels such as A Wrinkle in Time. The only reason anyone has ever called her heretic is over the question of universal salvation; she is, nevertheless, very popular amongst Christians with a firm belief in eternal damnation. The third is George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Congregationalist pastor and novelist, the grand inspiration and “teacher” of popular “conservative” Anglican novelist, literary critic, and amateur theologian C S Lewis.

I have chosen these three because I believe they highlight different approaches to the question of universal salvation and Apocatastasis as well as pushing us to question the borders of orthodoxy, for all three are popular amongst conservative, orthodox believers, despite the unpopularity in such circles for theology of universal salvation (as we saw in the furor over Rob Bell).

We will then have set the stage for understanding this doctrine and how it has persisted to this day in differing guises. Having a clear understanding of Apocatastasis, we can then turn to the Scriptures and see whether or not Apocatastasis is in Scripture. This will be time to play with the writers of the Patristic, Mediaeval, and Reformation eras, part of the point of this blog.

We shall look at the occurrences of the word apokatastasis in Scripture, especially in Acts 3:21, but also in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the writers of the Apostolic and Patristic ages, including not only Sts. Peter and Paul, but also Origen (who composed a document called the hexapla that put various editions of the Septuagint in parallel columns with the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew) and the Cappadocians, as well as our friend Met. Kallistos.

Our interpretation shall at one level be lexical, giving the basic definition and nuances of the word bare of any text. Then we shall approach each text using the Talmudic exegetical method outlined by Weekend Fisher here. This approach is not entirely suited to the New Testament but will not be profitless. We shall also consider the ancient grammarians’ technique of textual interpretation that believes that the text interprets itself; taking holy Scripture as the entire text – something done early by the Fathers (as recounted by Lewis Ayres in a paper given at the University of Edinburgh in Autumn of 2010) – we shall consider what apokatastasis means both in its immediate context and in the rest of Scripture.

Having thus sought to understand the question and passages at hand in their own right, we shall turn to our forebears in the faith. What do they say about the passage? For the Acts passage, we shall look at St. John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, and others, relying in part on IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture because life is short and I don’t necessarily have time to scour the library for resources. The relevant Medieval commentators shall be considered as well as the famous Reformation commentators Calvin and Luther. From these considerations, we shall sound out the mind of the Great Tradition as to what St. Peter envisages when he refers to apokatastasis.

My hypothesis is that St. Peter’s apokatastasis, his “restoration”, will be similar to St. Irenaeus’ anakephalaiōsis, his “recapitulation.” If so, we shall move the discussion of Apocatastasis into a discussion of Recapitulation and what exactly the difference is. By so doing, we shall re-cover the ground concerning Origen/Origenism, the doctrine of Apocatastasis, and the modern adherents to related ideas.

Having done all of this, we will be able to make conclusions about Apocatastasis and whether it is in Scripture, and whether, if not in Scripture, it is compatible with Scripture. By so doing, we shall see what all the fuss was about in the old disputes and what the fuss is about in the new disputes, and we shall get to try out the older ways of reading the Bible advocated on this website. It will be Classic Christianity in action.

It will also take up a lot of posts; I have thus created a new category called “Apocatastasis Project” to be able to check them out quickly.

Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).

The Essence and Energies of God: Seeking to Understand Gregory Palamas

When a Western Christian first encounters talk of the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God, this concept seems bizarre, foreign, silly, even heretical.[1] However, if we examine the writings and ideas of St. Gregory Palamas within the great tradition of theologians and mystics within which he stands, we find that, rather than being heretical, his ideas are, in fact, sensible. They are a synthesis of the dogma of the theologian and the experience of the mystic, steering a course that is able to maintain both the transcendence and immanence of God; such a task is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, as we may be tempted to fall off the horse of orthodoxy in either direction, making God the transcendent creator of deism or the immanent spiritual force of pantheism. Palamas gives us a holy, transcendent, immanent, loving God — a God to believe in.

One of the fundamental realities about the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God is the ultimate transcendence of the divine Person(s). Since God is transcendent, Palamas tells us that our understanding of Him is not, cannot be contingent upon secular, pagan learning[2] — be that learning Greek philosophy or postmodern physics. Rather, our understanding of God is based upon our own initiation into His self-revelation to humanity through the Scriptures, tradition, and the spiritual, mystical experience of the individual believer. Palamas shows us this reality of the unknowable God’s ‘knowability’ through consistent reference to the Scriptures and the sayings of the Fathers, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century to John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor of the seventh.

If we begin with the proposition that God is incomprehensible and his essence unknowable due to the vast gulf that separates Creator from creature, then a paradigm for interpreting the mystical life becomes of paramount importance, for mystics throughout history claim to have encountered this inaccessible, transcendent God. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition stretches at least as far back as Moses who saw the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (Ex 33:18-23), and includes Isaiah (Is 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1) as well as the experiences of the disciples upon Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-9, Lk 9:28-36), and Paul who was ‘taken up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:1-5) — these last two being of great importance for Palamas in The Triads. Finally, Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8). The biblical roots of the mystical encounter with God, then, are strong.

The ascetic, hesychastic tradition within which Gregory stands is also focussed upon the mystic’s vision of and union with God. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian,[3] is the goal of all ascetic discipline, the end of which is the vision of God. This mystical, ascetic tradition runs in the East through John Climacus (d. c. 649) to Gregory Palamas to Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), and the twentieth-century Athonite hesychasts Joseph (d. 1959) and Paisios (d. 1994), while in the West it runs through John Cassian (d. c. 435) to Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Lady Julian (d. c. 1416), St. Teresa of Avìla (d. 1582) and moderns such as Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968). The goal of all of these contemplatives and mystics is, as stated above, union with God; the experiences of many of them are reflected in Palamas’ writings.[4] Palamites sought this union through silence and quiet (hesychia), uniting their hearts with their minds so that as purified, psychosomatic unities they could see God Himself through the uncreated light[5] — a potential impossibility, as becomes clear.

Gregory’s chief opponent in the Hesychastic Controversy of the fourteenth century was a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that God, the uncreated Creator, was completely inaccessible, making no distinction between His ‘energies’ and ‘essence.’[6] The visions of the prophets, apostles, and saints had merely been of things created by God. The light seen by the contemplatives of the ages was created at best, or a ‘fantasy of the imagination’[7] at worst. St. Gregory accordingly made the important distinction between essence and energies, keeping God transcendent as Barlaamites wished yet immanent as hesychasts had experienced. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

Papademetriou puts it most succinctly when he writes, ‘The energies of God as conceived by St. Gregory Palamas are “manifestations” and “exteriorizations” of God Himself. They are uncreated.’[8] In other words, what Palamas calls ‘energies’ are not some sort of spiritual electricity coursing through the universe into which the mystic can tap — as they sounded to me when I first heard of them. No, they are the actions, attributes, and movement of God throughout the created order, emanating from his very essence and tripersonal self. Those who, like the cherubim, have become all eye,[9] catch a glimpse of these uncreated ‘energies,’ but not of the essence of Him whose ‘energies’ they are.

Gregory gives us a good image to compare with this distinction, that of the human mind, although in my recent readings he does not make explicit the comparison between our minds and God, a comparison going back at least to Basil the Great.[10] Palamas says, ‘the essence of the mind is one thing, its energy another.’[11] This statement is made in explanation of how exactly one can call the mind back to the heart;[12] in its energies, one’s mind can be all over the place, worrying and fretting about things, thinking and considering various realities. The energies of the mind can become externalised. Yet wherever these energies go, the essence of the mind continually resides in the heart. God is similar to the mind, but his energies can go further and do more, given their uncreated and boundless existence.[13] Thus, God is able to communicate to us his properties, his actual ‘glory and splendour,’[14] while remaining inaccessible to us in terms of his essence. The mystics truly encounter the real God, contrary to Barlaam; however, their encounter is with the energies, not the essence of God. We can see a true, uncreated light that is part of God’s uncreated, ongoing, eternal action in this world, yet we cannot see God Himself and the fullness of His glory. This is the distinction Palamas makes, and it enables the dogma of the theologian to dovetail with the experience of the mystic, keeping Byzantine theology from driving a wedge between the two.

St. Gregory Palamas gives his readers a framework for understanding God as both immanent and transcendent. His theology, on the one hand, affirms the apophatic tradition running from Gregory of Nyssa, the tradition that can only describe God in negative terms — i.e. what God is not, e.g. immutable, infinite; God in His essence is unknowable. It also makes room for the cataphatic tradition running from Gregory of Nazianzus,[15] the tradition that can speak about God in positive terms — e.g. God is three prosopa with a single ousia; God in His energies is accessible to the pure in heart. The point of the hesychastic life is to purify the heart through prayer and ascetic ordeal, thereby coming to the beatific vision and the grace of the uncreated light, a wonder so glorious that those who have beheld it often have shining faces to reflect that light.[16] Palamite theology is not heresy, and it is not nonsense. It is a synthesis that enables us to make sense of the undeniable presence of the transcendent God.


[1] Re Palamas and heresy, see George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas (New York 1973), 20.

[2] The Triads, ‘Philosophy does not save,’ I.

[3] Cf. Conference 1; Cassian is the only Westerner in the Philokalia. See also Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27,70, who argues that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the greatest thing one could ever achieve. On the influence of Evagrius on Byzantine monastic theology, see John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York 1979), 67-69.

[4] One example of many is Palamas’ statement that ‘the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves,’ reflecting the heart of the experience of St. Teresa of Avìla’s Interior Castle.

[5] This is the system of prayer laid out by Palamas in section C of this week’s readings, and it is one of the types of monasticism practised by the monks of Athos today, as seen in Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Monastic Wisdom (Florence, AZ 1998).

[6] George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 22-24.

[7] Cf. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ II.ii.9. This phrase shows the common western Christian bias towards the rational intellect as the only valid road to God.

[8] Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 43.

[9] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.21. Cf. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo 1975), Bessarion 11, p. 42.

[10] Cf. Letter 233.

[11] The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ I.ii.5.

[12] That Palamas believes the mind to reside in the heart, not the brain, is evidence of his extensive reading not of pagans but of Christians, since pagans had established the residence of the mind in the brain in the writings of ‘Hippocrates’ in the fourth-fifth centuries BC.

[13] Cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, II.13.4 on God’s boundlessness as well as on His uncreated light.

[14] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.23.

[15] Both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus could be said to make use of both the apophatic and cataphatic tradition. Nyssa, however, is most famous for his postulation of knowing God in the darkness.

[16] Besides  the biblical precedents of Moses, the Transfiguration, and Stephen, Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1963), draws our attention to St. Seraphim of Sarov (pp. 131-132) and Evelyn Underhill (p. 239n.) who both underwent similar experiences.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.