Alexandros

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Alexandros (the one nearest Konstantinos in the left-hand cluster) had presented his case before the gathering of overseers, explaining why Arios’ answer to his question was not acceptable. It had been long years since that fateful moment when the repercussions of Arios’ thoughts had come forth.

It all came out at the regular gathering of Alexandros and his elders. Alexandros took his role as overseer seriously. He knew that in earlier days the overseer would have been able to meet with the faithful individually. Now, though, the numbers of believers were too great, and that was the job of the elders under Alexandros’ charge. Nonetheless, he had had hands laid on him, and it was his threefold appointment to guide that flock, to uphold right teaching and theology, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[1] The elders did the last two things on a regular basis with most people for him. The Lord’s Supper was the normative occasion for worship, and at worship would the elders teach the people.

Thus, it was the responsibility of Alexandros to ensure that those into whose hands he had placed the spiritual health of his flock were teaching them the truth of the Anointed Jesus. It was also, he believed, part of the task of the overseer to pray with the elders and encourage them on their own spiritual journey. Alexandros took his spiritual authority and responsibility very seriously, for these were the matters of the greatest importance, never to be taken lightly.

And so they had gathered those long years before. After they had eaten the Lord’s Supper together, they sat down in a circle in the nave of the new basilica-style house of worship, serving the original congregation that Holy Markos had founded when he brought the Good News to Aigyptos. All eyes were upon Alexandros as he looked down at them.

“We believe in one God, and Jesus is the Word of that God, my brothers. As Holy Iohannes tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made; nothing that has been made was made without Him.’[2] Many who read the book of Proverbs see in the person of Wisdom this same Word of God. If this is the case, how can it be that Wisdom says, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of his ways, for his works’?”[3]

Konstantinos had told Alexandros in a letter that this was where he went wrong; that asking such questions was itself impious — and Arios had been wrong to answer. They ought, Konstantinos had told them, simply to make peace with one another.[4] Konstantinos was a politician and a warrior, just barely redeemed from darkest superstition and still minting coins with the Unconquered Sun on them.[5] He did not realise the deep import of these questions as the theologians pondered God and meditated on His great glory. Furthermore, the Assembly’s beliefs rested upon Scripture. Coming to an understanding of difficult passages of Scripture helped believers remain strong in the faith; if one could not trust the Scriptures, one could very well turn back to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.[6]

Furthermore, the young elder Arios was present; Arios had formerly been mixed up with Meletios,[7] and some Meletians who had an axe to grind had told Alexandros that Arios was teaching some unusual things regarding Jesus’ divinity.[8] Alexandros wanted to be sure his preachers would preach the faith handed down; he wanted to be sure that the rumours about Arios were untrue. Arios had a reputation for being a good preacher and expounder of the Scriptures at the Baukalis,[9] the house of God where he tended the flock.

Then Arios opened his mouth and formed words about the Word. He was determined at any cost to keep Jesus the Word subordinate to the Father and to do it all in a combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian divisions. The accusations of the Meletians were true.

“The verse from Proverbs means that there was when he was not, Father. The Word is the Wisdom of God, and this passage clearly states that the Wisdom of God is a created being. This makes sense, for as Origen taught, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each have a separate hypostasis.[10] If they each have a separate hypostasis, then they are distinct beings. If they are distinct beings, then only one of them can be God. God the Father is that one God, and He will never share his glory with another, as it says in Isaiah. The Word and the Spirit are, thus, creations; they are like God the Father’s hands, active in the creation and preservation of the universe. But they are not God Himself.”

“If they are not God himself, why does Holy Iohannes say that the Word is God?” the blessed servant Athanasios[11] had asked.

“This is a good question. Holy Iohannes is being rhetorical here, my brothers. He is not being literal. The Word is given the word God as a title only; he is not literally God. Being a creature, he is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free will He continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God, foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as man and in consequence of his virtue he afterward possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him become what he afterward was.”[12]

“Could not all three of them be, um, different manifestations of God?” asked one young elder.

Many eyebrows had risen at that. Alexandros shook his head slowly.

“No,” said another, “for they are mentioned as being distinct persons by Jesus Himself in the Good News according Holy Matthaios when He tells us to plunge people into water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[13] Therefore, since they all have distinct names, they are not simply manifestations of the one God. They are, as Arios noted, three hypostases.”

“Exactly,” said Arios. “And a difference of name means that there is a difference of substance. An apple is not a tree, is it? The Father is, thus, not the Son. If the distinction between apple and tree were false, we could give them both the same name. But if we call Father and Son by different names, they are not the same thing. And if they are not the same thing, and if the Father is God, then the Son cannot be said to be God in the same way. I do not deny that he is a divine being, but his divinity is not inherent to his being; his divinity comes from the Father and is only partial. He is not truly God in his substance and essence.”[14]

“You would dare say that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, whom the Scriptures themselves call God, is not eternal with the Father?” Alexandros had asked. He could say nothing more. He could not argue. He could only stare in shock at this man.

“Yes,” answered Arios. “As I said at the beginning, there was when he was not. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. As he dwelt among us, subordinating his will — as, indeed, his own being was so subordinated — to the Father’s, he improved, he resisted temptation. This divine Word came to mediate to us the grace of God the Father, for creation itself, so weak, fallen, feeble, sinful, cannot endure direct relationship with God Himself.”[15]

“Well, we see that you do not believe that Jesus is fully God,” said Athanasios. “Now it sounds that as some semi-divine being enfleshed he is not fully human.”

“This is true,” said Arios, sitting tall.

“If He is not fully God, He cannot redeem us or save us,” said Athanasios. “If He is not fully human, He cannot live a perfect human life and serve as a ransom for many; He cannot offer us a model to live by. His perfection is useless if He is not fully man. His sacrifice is empty if He is not fully God. What you offer us cannot conquer sin. It cannot conquer death. All it can do is feebly tackle philosophers’ questions. The true Anointed One, however, can tackle the philosophers’ questions with might and strength, as well as standing astride sin and death. We eat the flesh of the real man, Jesus. We drink the blood of the real God, Jesus. He is alive, and He is eternal with the Father, true God of true God. I shall not quote the Scriptures to you, impious preacher. You have read them; you know them. Reread them and meditate upon them!”

Once Arios’ teaching became public, it spread beyond Alexandreia. Two years before Nikaia they had excommunicated him and condemned his teachings in Alexandreia. The next year, Antiokheia did likewise, also condemning Eusebios of Kaisereia as a follower of Arios pernicious teachings. And now they were at Nikaia to bring down Arios’ teachings once and for all.

Alexandros was drawn from his reverie by Alexandros of Byzantion, next to whom he was sitting.

“Alexandros,” he whispered, “what is your vote?”

“About what?” he asked, looking about at the assembled crowd.

“Do you agree that an overseer should be chosen by all the overseers of his province, with a minimum of three present if they cannot all make it, but the consent of the others being sent in by letter?”

“What?”

“The statement we’re voting on is: It is by all means proper that an overseer should be appointed by all the overseers in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent overseers also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.”[16]

“Sure. Yeah. Otherwise we’d have Donatos or Meletios all over again or something, wouldn’t we? There are rogue overseers in Aigyptos, men consecrated by Meletios.”

“Then raise your hand,” the overseer of Byzantion said, gesturing at his own raised hand. “Did you think I was just blessing everyone with this upraised arm?”

Alexandros chuckled and raised his hand to show his assent.


[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Peguin: 1963), p. 253.

[2] John 1:1-3.

[3] Proverbs 8:22.

[4] Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall trans. and commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 118.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, Penguin: 1967), pp. 126-127.

[6] Chadwick notes that a bishop of Troy had done just that but fails to mention which one, p. 127. Emperor Julian the Apostate would do so as well.

[7] Meletius of Lycopolis was a schismatic in the early fourth century who was ordaining people in Alexandria against the current bishop’s wishes. His actions were dealt with at Nicaea as well. (For more, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

[8] Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 237. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 136.

[9] Drobner wonders if Arius’ church got its name due to its shape, a baukalis being ‘a sturdy earthenware vessel with a narrow bottleneck’, p. 236.

[10] You try to find a good English word for hypostasis. Drobner, 236.

[11] The chances of St. Athanasius being at the event in question are very slim; if he was there at all, his participation in it would also be slim.

[12] From the words “is capable…” onwards, quoting Athanasius quoting Arius as recorded by W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, pp.135-136.

[13] Matthew 28:19.

[14] This development of Arius’ logic is from Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 107.

[15] Frend, 135.

[16] Canon IV of the Council of Nicaea.

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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.