St. Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas: Between East and West

A talk given at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University Conference in Moscow on May 10, 2016. By Marcus Plested

My title is “St. Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas between East and West.” The notion of East/West opposition, as you are doubtless aware, has been a prominent feature of Orthodox theology since at least the time of the Russian Slavophiles in the early-to-mid 19th century. With this overall paradigm of opposition, one of the distinctive feature of 20th century Orthodox theology in particular, especially in the Russian diaspora, has been the elevation of St. Gregory Palamas to the status of a kind of archetype of the Christian East to set against Thomas Aquinas understood as an archetype of the Christian West. In other words, Orthodox neo-Palamism has emerged as a conscious counterweight to Catholic neo-Thomism. So what I want to do in this paper, which is based on the research I did for my book on Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, is to not only trace the contours of this development but also to demonstrate its inadequacy and inaccuracy.

As I say, the paradigm of East/West opposition within Orthodox theology goes back, it seems to me, no further than the 19th century and the Russian Slavophiles. Of course, while many Orthodox theologians before that time had fought against the errors of the Catholic and Protestant West, none, it seems to me, have done so with the sense of any fundamental opposition between the competing blocks of East and West. The Slavophiles argued for a radical dichotomy between the Graco-Slavic East and the Latin West, whether the Catholic West or the Protestant West. Nurtured somewhat ironically by German idealism and romanticism, the Slavophiles looked back to Russia’s past for the tools with which to resist the creeping Westernization that was a result of the policies of Peter the Great. To combat this Westernization which they saw as so evident in the theological schools of the Russian Empire, they tended to denounce scholasticism as a particular weakness of the West. For example, Ivan Kireevsky denounced western scholasticism as an endless, tiresome juggling of concepts over seven hundred years; a useless kaleidoscope of abstract categories that only served to blind people to living reality. What Kireevsky proposed instead was a theology based on the collective wisdom of the Slav peoples and nourished by a return to the patristic and ascetic inheritance of the Church. 

We see similar sentiments in Alexie Khomiakov, who singles out excessive rationalism as a defect common to all Western confessions whether Protestantism, Individualistic rationalism, or Catholic Authoritarian rationalism. To counter this rationalism, Khomiakov proposed an ecclesiology founded upon the innately conciliar nature of the Slav peoples with their instinct for love, unity, and freedom. This model of unity-in-freedom is held up as the antidote to the excess rationalism of the West of which Thomas Aquinas is a prime example.  

All of this anti-Westernism is deeply shaped by dialogue with Western sources, including Schlegel, Schelling, Möhler, Hegel, Fichte, and others. More to the point, it is something rather new – a dialectical or oppositional construct of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is defined by the Slavophiles as non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-individualistic, non-authoritarian  —  defined, in other words, by what it is NOT, not by what it IS. Romantic appeals to an imagined past cannot hide the fact that this is a conception of Orthodoxy governed by that which it proposes to reject. Having presented rationalistic scholasticism as the defining feature of Western theology and, of course, of the Western leaning theology of the Russian theological academies of the time, the only truly Orthodox theology for the Slavophiles is one which is anti-scholastic and anti-rational — in other words, anti-Thomist. 

The Slavophiles had little immediate impact and, indeed, were roundly ignored by the Russian theological and ecclesiastical establishment of the time. Nor did they have any great impact on the Greek thought-world. They were much despised by Vladimir Soloviev, for example, who denounced their dialect called “Orthodoxy” and attacked those who “supposed the Orthodox religion of the Graco-Russian Church in opposition to the Western communions to be the very essence of our national identity.”  

But the Slavophiles did bequeath a significant legacy, most notably to the theology of the Russian diaspora following on from the Bolshevik Revolution. Here the dominant figure is Sergius Bulgakov, certainly Orthodoxy’s most constructive theologian of the 20th century. Thomas Aquinas emerges as the great enemy of Orthodoxy in Bulgakov. In his essay on the Eucharistic dogma, Bulgakov presents Aquinas as the archetypal exponent of the Western theology of the Eucharist. Bulgakov argues that Aquinas’s teaching on the Eucharist represents the enslavement of theology to philosophy. Even in purely philosophical terms, transubstantiation is an “outright coercion of reason, a completely unnecessary and unjustified archaism.” He does not think that Orthodoxy has yet said its word on the matter. To do so, it needs “to return to the theology of the Fathers (a thousand years into the past), to the patristic doctrine, and to use it as a true guide to unfold it creatively and to apply it to our time. By relying upon the patristic doctrine, writes Bulgakov, we can exit the scholastic labyrinth – the scholastic labyrinth – and go out into the open air. In all this, Thomas Aquinas stands as a representative of a rationalistic and impersonal Western theology diametrically opposed to Orthodoxy. 

Vladimir Lossky adopts a very similar approach despite being a fierce opponent of Bulgakov’s sophiology. Although closely acquainted with some of the most exciting developments of the Thomist revival of the earlier 20th century, at least as a student of Étienne Gilson, Lossky displays little sympathy for Aquinas. For Lossky it is not so much the doctrine of transubstantiation but that of the Filioque that most fittingly encapsulates the rationalistic excesses of Western theology. Originating in Augustine and reaching some sort of peak in Aquinas, the doctrine of the Filioque is attacked as an unacceptable intrusion into the mystery of the Trinity. In his Essai sur la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church), Lossky contrasts the mystical and experiential character of Orthodox theology with the rationalism of Latin theology typified by Aquinas. Thomas is presented as excessively rationalistic even when appropriating Dionysius the Areopagite. Unlike Palamas, whom Lossky sees as fully grasping the radical character of Dionysius’s apophaticism, Aquinas is accused of reducing apophatic theology to simple negation, a simple negative. All this brings Lossky to the depressing conclusion that between the cataphatic and rationalizing approach of the West represented by Augustine and Aquinas and the apophatic and mystical approach of the East represented by the Cappadocian Fathers, Dionysius, and Palamas, there is really nothing in common. “The difference between the two conceptions of the Trinity determines, on both sides, the whole character of theological thought. This is so to such an extent that it becomes difficult to apply, without equivocation, the same name of theology to these to different ways of dealing with divine realities.” As in Bulgakov, only a creative return to the Fathers is seen by Lossky to offer any real alternative to the sterile impasse of Western theology represented by Thomas Aquinas.

A rather subtler opposition is adopted by Father Georges Florovsky. Florovsky’s vision of a creative return to the Fathers is encapsulated in his notion of a “neo-patristic synthesis.” In this he is often associated with Lossky but his vision of what a neo-patristic synthesis might actually look like is rather different in practice. Palamas and especially Dionysius are far less decisive figures for Florovsky than Lossky. Furthermore, and in sharp contrast to Lossky, Florovsky’s proposed synthesis explicitly embraces the Latin Fathers, especially Augustine. This positive embrace of Augustine is very different from Lossky’s estimation of the Bishop of Hippo. 

Florovsky is similarly removed from Lossky and Bulgakov in his constructive approach to Thomas and Thomism. In Florovsky, there is little hint to the caricatured vision of a rationalistic scholastic Thomist West that we find in his fellow Russian theologians. Florovsky explicitly denies that East and West are clearly delineated and opposing categories. He criticizes this idea as it appears in Le Zander’s work (Zander being a disciple of Bulgakov). Florovsky writes that the antithesis of West and East belongs more to polemical and publicistic phraseology than to sober historical thinking. Florovsky criticizes Lossky as well on the same point. Lossky, writes Florovsky, probably exaggerates the tension between East and West even in the patristic tradition. A tension obviously existed as there were tensions inside the Eastern tradition itself, i.e., between Alexandria and Antioch. But the author, that is to say Lossky, seems to assume that that tension between East and West, i.e., between the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians and the Trinitarian theology of Augustine, Lossky seems to assume that the tension was of such a sharp and radical character as to exclude any kind of reconciliation and overarching synthesis. 

Florovsky repeats the same point even more forcefully at the Inauguration at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, arguing that the East and West manifest “the offspring of the same root” in that they share the same Hellenic and Roman parentage. They should be regarded as sisters, or Siamese twins, or conjoined twins, dangerously and tragically separated and incomplete without the other. Neither is self-explanatory, neither is intelligible when taken separately. Florovsky’s envisaged neo-patristic synthesis is explicitly geared to the integration of East and West. 

Florovsky was, of course, deeply allergic to what he saw as the pernicious influence of Western theology and philosophy on Russian theology, from early Muscovy down to modern times. This is the master theme of his greatest work, The Ways of Russian Theology. This extraordinary work details the tragic story of the displacement of Russian theology from its proper patristic and Byzantine foundation and its steady malformation or pseudomorphosis under the baneful spell of Western doctrine and thought forms. But this tragic tale of decay and degeneration should not on any account be read as an attack on Western theology per se. 

Florovsky’s approach to Western theology in its own terms is conditioned by his distinctive understanding of “Christian Hellenism;” that is to say the Church Fathers remarkable and ever relevant marshalling of the resources of classical philosophy in the service of Christian revelation. Christian Hellenism is a broad category for Florovsky. He writes Christian Hellenism is much wider than one is prepared to realize. St. Augustine and even St. Jerome were no less Hellenistic than St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom. St. Augustine introduced Neoplatonism into Western theology. Pseudo-Dionysius was influenced in the West no less than in the East, from Hilduim up to Nicholas of Cusa. And St. John of Damascus was an authority both for the Byzantine Middle Ages and for Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. Thomism itself is surely Hellenistic. 

This recognition of Thomas and Thomism as representatives of Christian Hellenism underpins Florovsky’s criticism of Lossky’s denial of an authentically apophatic current in Thomas and Thomism. Lossky, writes Florovsky, dismissing the Thomism versions of the negative theology probably too easily. Elsewhere he remarks ruefully that many Orthodox may be even rather disappointed to find in Thomas a tangible, mystical, and apophatic dimension founded on his immersion in Dionysius. 

Writing to Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov about Lossky’s work in 1958, he cautions with respect to Western or Roman theology, “I myself prefer cautious judgment. First, we should not over generalize and lump all Latin theology together. In particular Duns Scotus deserves more attention than he was generally paid under the hypnosis of Thomism.” Orthodox theology has much to learn from the West. As he puts it at the conclusion of Ways of Russian Theology, the Orthodox thinker can find a more adequate source for creative awakening in the great systems of high scholasticism, in the experience of the Catholic mystics, and in the theological experience of later Catholicism than in the philosophy of German idealism, or in the Protestant critical scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries, or even the dialectical theology of our own day, thinking especially of Barth here.

So Florovsky’s vision of a neo-patristic synthesis expressly includes a sustained and sympathetic engagement with Western theology. Florovsky’s allergy to Western influence on Orthodox theology, also known as pseudomorphosis, does not entail a rejection of the Western theological achievement. On the contrary, Orthodox theology will only find its distinctive and authentic voice through an honest and constructive engagement with Western theology at its best — and most especially with the high scholasticism of Aquinas and Scotus. This is a very different vision to that which we encountered in Lossky and Bulgakov. East and West are not opposites for Florovsky but potential allies.

In this aspect, Florovsky’s treatment of Latin theology has rarely been appreciated. Indeed, Florovsky is often lumped in with Lossky as an exponent of the eternal opposition between East and West. Lossky’s approach, as we have seen, is more closely analogous with that of Bulgakov and forms part of a current of oppositional theology going back to the Russian Slavophiles and their campaign against the Westernizers. John Meyendorff stands squarely in this same current of thought, treating Aquinas as the archetypal representative of the West and raising up St. Gregory Palamas as a kind of anti-Thomas. 

But the most acutely polarizing account of East and West in modern Orthodox theology is that offered by Father John Romanides. Romanides traces all the ills of the modern West squarely back to Augustine of Hippo. He sets Augustine and his Franco-Latin epigones, Aquinas being the chief of these, in stark contrast to the biblical patristic line of thought represented by the Greek Fathers, all of whom are presented as Palamites before Palamas. Romanides’s sweeping denunciation of Augustine and all subsequent Franco-Roman theology produces an impossibly simple opposition between biblical patristic Palamite East and philosophical Augustinian scholastic West. 

All this is very different to Florovsky, who unambiguously recognized Augustine as a Father of the Church and for whom Latin scholasticism had an indispensable part to play within his proposed neo-patristic synthesis. Christos Yannaras represents a more sophisticated but essentially analogous form of anti-Westernism. Yannaras is less concerned with Augustine than Romanides is and focuses in rather more on Aquinas as his main target. Aquinas, for Yannaras, is the embodiment of Western rationalism, individualism, and legalism.

Yannaras’s approach here shares much with that of Philip Sherrard in his Greek East and Latin West. For Sherrard, the fissure between Greek East and Latin West comes across in the form of curious inner dialect with Western thought proceeding from Augustine through Aquinas to Descartes and in all this, reason is divorced from revelation and elevated to wholly autonomous status. This process is held accountable ultimately for many of the subsequent woes of Western society, most notably in contemporary environmental crisis. A similar account of rationalistic West versus mystical East is found in Zissimos Lorentzatos, articulated most clearly in his famous essay on George Seferis, “The Lost Centre.” 

Of course, modern Orthodox theology is not wholly enthralled to a paradigm of polar opposition between East and West. There are subtler treatments in figures such as Metropolitan John Zizioulas and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and I could mention other figures. But things are changing. Indeed, I would single out the beginning of a decline of the paradigm of opposition as one of the single most significant developments in 21st century Orthodox theology. I also see great hope in the contemporary Russian theological sphere, and I think this conference is a good example here for a revision of the oppositional theology that has characterized much of the theology of the Russian diaspora. 

But the notion of East/West opposition is certainly still widely present in modern Orthodox theology, and the idea that someone like Aquinas might be integrated into an Orthodox worldview has barely begin to register. In the final analysis, the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Ballad of East and West,” still ring largely true. “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Aquinas is still routinely treated as an archetype of a rationalistic West patently opposed to the mystical East represented by St. Gregory Palamas. 

But neither Thomas nor Gregory fit easily into such a simplistic paradigm of opposition. I shall in what time remains, offer sketches of certain aspects of Thomas and of Gregory that explodes such easy and simplistic dichotomies. So, moving on to Thomas now.

Much has changed in Thomas’s scholarship over the last century. The critical factor here, I think, has been the historical turn in Aquinas studies encouraged in the early-to-mid 20th century by figures such as Étienne Gilson, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and others. This approach was given great stimulus in Catholic circles by Vatican II with an effective de-emphasis of Thomism as the uniquely privileged theological and philosophical system. This de-emphasis was certainly a change in tack from the program envisaged in the Papal Encyclical of 1879, Aeterni Patris. The move away from syntheses and systems has opened the way for a deeper appreciation of Thomas as a theologian working in a specific historical context and within a tradition — a scriptural, patristic, liturgical, spiritual, philosophical tradition — and this deep appreciation has been particularly well expressed in the work of Jean-Pierre Torrell and Gilles Emery. Of course, I cannot possibly do justice here to all the nuances and dimensions of this fuller and more historically grounded picture of Thomas, but I can sketch its lineaments.

Firstly, Thomas’s status as, first and foremost, a theologian opposed to a philosopher, is now widely affirmed. Hand-in-hand with this theological emphasis has been an increased awareness of the scriptural basis of Thomas’s work — very evident in works such as the Commentary of John, but also underpinning the great Summae, the Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica. Thomas remained above all else a magister in sacra pagina, a master of the sacred page, charged with the exposition, interpretation, and proclamation of scripture. Thomas’s place as a great spiritual teacher, even a mystic, has been masterfully handled by Jean Pierre Torrell, and the importance of the principle of theosis or deification in Thomas has recently been given prominence in works by Luc-Thomas Somme, Anna Williams, and Antoine Levy. It should be clear even from these brief comments that any presentation of Thomas that paints him as a simple rationalist, philosophizing about God without recourse to scripture outside the context of the worshipping Church with little regard for mystical experience, will fall short of the truth.

It should also be obvious that many of the elements of the fuller picture I’ve sketched here have the potential to enhance Thomas’s generally dismal reputation amongst the Orthodox, but I’ve deliberately left out the last one factor that most emphatically expressed Thomas’s affinities with the Christian East: his love for and grounding in the Greek Fathers. Aquinas expressed an extraordinary and unusual devotion to the Greek Fathers. A telling anecdote has him expressing his preference for a copy of St. John Chrysostom’s Commentary of Matthew over the whole city of Paris, but we don’t quite know whether anyone ever actually offered him the city of Paris. In 1144, William of St. Thierry famously praised the Orientale Lumen, the light of the Eastern monastic tradition illuminating in his time the dark and dank places of the West. Thomas’s work, it seems to me, is bathed in this “orientale lumen.” He makes very extensive use of the Greek Fathers available to him, favoring original sources over florilegia wherever possible. He also took concrete steps to increase the volume of the Greek patristic and Byzantine literature available in Latin. 

Thomas’s interest in the Greek Fathers seemed to come to the fore from the 1260s, being especially evident in that massive work of patristic erudition, the Catena Aurea. Composed at papal command between 1262 and 1268. This collection of patristic commentaries on the four gospels neatly indicate the seamless connection between scriptural and patristic authority for Thomas. The Fathers are valued above all else as guides in the reading of scripture. St. John Chrysostom is the single most often cited author, pushing even Augustine, who is Thomas’s usual more preferred patristic source, into second place. Among other Greek authorities, a substantial place is given to Origen with smaller contributions from Athanasius, Eusebius, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Dionysius the Areopagite, John of Damascus, and others. In total, 57 Greek writers are cited alongside with 22 Latin. But perhaps the most striking feature of the Catena Aurea is the prominence given to Theophylact of Ochrid. Theophylact was one of Byzantine’s finest scholars, bishops, and exegetes but was virtually unknown in the West in Thomas’s time. It was Thomas Aquinas who ordered the translation of Theophylact’s Biblical Commentaries. The evident admiration that Thomas had for a near contemporary Byzantine author speaks eloquently of his positive attitude toward the Greeks of his own time. Production of the Catena Aurea provided Thomas with a wealth of material to draw upon in later works.

It is also in the 1260s that Thomas began making extensive use of the acta of the Ecumenical Councils. Here again we see Thomas as something of a pioneer. None of his immediate predecessors had made substantial use of this material. Still less made it central to their Christology. Thomas’s concern to found his arguments on direct use of conciliar sources is striking testimony to his commitment to a mode of theologizing rooted in Church tradition. Indeed, this is a commitment which seemed to have grown and intensified throughout the 1260s and into the 1270s. Martin Marard has demonstrated Thomas’s use of the acta of Constantinople II (553), a wholly new development in medieval Latin theology. He dates Thomas’s first acquaintance with this material to 1264 or 1265. Marard has also, in more recent works, drawn attention to Thomas’s knowledge to the Constantinople III (681), and this is evident in Thomas’s work from 1271 or thereabouts.

Thomas’s increasing use of conciliar material went hand-in-hand with the thorough growing and ever intensifying engagement with the Greek Fathers, not only in his exegetical works, but also in his more overtly theological works. The prominent role of Dionysius the Areopagite has long been recognized. Dionysius’s legacy is abundantly evident not only in the Commentary on the Divine Names, but throughout Thomas’s works. John of Damascus also impacted decisively on Thomas’s theology, opening to Thomas by way of synthesis virtually the whole Greek patristic tradition. Coupled with his ongoing engagement with conciliar materials, Thomas’s Christology emerged as distinctly Greek in character and emphasis.

From his resolute dismissal of Nestorianism and Monophysitism to his keen appreciation of the hypostatic union and the instrumentality of Christ’s humanity, Aquinas’s profound commitment to Greek patristic and conciliar sources and the practical steps he took to extend the volume of this material available in Latin stood out by comparison with his contemporaries. 

Now, let’s look at Thomas’s attitude to the Latin/Greek schism. It seems to me that there’s an appreciation of Thomas’s patristic, and especially Greek patristic, roots are essential if one is to understand his attitude to the Orthodox of his own time. He had an acute sense of the shared tradition of Greek East and Latin West. And it is this sense of commonality that underpins the relative equanimity with which he viewed the situation. The question is not so much one of competing heterogenous etiologies but of competing interpretations of a shared tradition. Thomas addressed the question of differences with the Greeks in a number of works, most obviously in the Contra errors Graecorum (1263-1264). The Contra errors Graecorum (Against the errors of the Greeks) is not as it might appear from the title, a systematic treatise by Thomas on the question. Rather it is Thomas’s expert opinion on a rather poor collection of texts, many of which are distorted or of dubious authenticity produced by one Nicholas of Crotone. But for all the textual inaccuracies of the source document, the text furnished some fascinating insight into Thomas’s approach to the Greek/Latin schism. The prologue to the Contra errors Graecorum advised that the Fathers are to be expounded in a reverential manner, recognizing that the challenges posed by various heresies will elicit different responses at different times. Thomas also recognized that linguistic differences could exacerbate the divergences between Greeks and Latins. But he affirmed that Latins and Greeks professing the same faith do so using different words. Occasionally, Thomas would comment on the superiority of the Latin language over the Greek language when it came to Trinitarian theology. And, of course, there are many in the Greek East who did the same in reverse. 

But Thomas’s patristic engagement is a properly catholic enterprise founded and concerned very much to encompass the universal patristic tradition. We see the same estimation in the De Potentia. Here we see again the crucial affirmation, writes Thomas, “if we take careful note of the statements of the Greeks, we shall find that they differ from us Latins more in words than in meaning.” Thomas is concerned to penetrate beyond the inevitable limitations of the language and to read his opponents with a hermeneutic of Orthodoxy. This does not mean that he read them indulgently. The Greeks, say Thomas, failed to affirm clearly the procession of the Spirit either, he wrote, through ignorance, or obstinacy, or sophistry, or some other cause. Thomas was so angry precisely because there is, he saw, in the Greek theological tradition an undeniable connection, I say no more than that, between the Son and the procession of the Spirit.

In closing this section, we must, of course, take account of the Summa Theologica. This crowning achievement confirmed the position established in the works we have already discussed. We encounter the same regard for the Greek Fathers and the contention that the Greek Fathers do, indeed, recognizing that the procession of the Spirit has something to do (aliquem ordinem) with the Son. But in many ways, it’s his discussion of liturgical diversity that is most revealing. At the end of the third part of the Summa Theologica, Thomas makes a series of comparisons with contemporary Greek liturgical practices that leaves us in no doubt as to their sacramental validity. He discusses various customs with regard to Baptism affirming that although Greeks and Latins have different customs in relation to Baptism, both confer the sacrament validly. The case is similar with the Eucharist. The Greek use of leavened bread is deemed both reasonable and appropriate. In each case it is clear, for Thomas at least, that the customs of the respective traditions are equally legitimate and equally valid.

To sum up this section on Thomas, we may conclude that through his deep and searching engagement with the Doctors of the Greeks, both patristic and Byzantine, Thomas came to a profound conviction of the fundamental Orthodoxy of the Greek tradition as a whole. Certainly the Greeks are seen to be in schism by Thomas but not in heresy. Their unity with Rome was impaired and with this, their own capacity to refute heresy. For some unfathomable reason, they were refusing to recognize the united witness of the ecclesiastical tradition, Latin and Greek, on the principle issues of contention, especially the Filioque and papal primacy. There was to be no room for relativism on such matters. But the Greeks were undoubtedly to be seen as Church, as possessed of grace, and as inheritors of a shared tradition.

In the broader arena of the Latin/West schism, Thomas is a fine example of one who without doctrinal compromise sought to bridge the gap between the competing traditions through greater knowledge, understanding, and respect. The conscious pursuit of catholicity and consistent hermeneutic of Orthodoxy evidenced in Aquinas provides a paradigm for any serious approach to healing the on-going schism. Now we will move on to Gregory Palamas and the Latin West.

Having sketched a picture of Thomas’s sympathies with the Greek East, we may now turn to St. Gregory Palamas’s reception of the Latin West. As with Thomas’s reception of the Greek East, this is an aspect of his theology that has received serious attention only in relatively recent scholarship. Palamas’s reception of the Latin West represents a significant dimension of his thought, recognition of which runs not only counter to the dominant neo-Palamite’s narrative of modern Orthodox theology, but also calls into question some of the presuppositions of Palamas’s contemporary Western critics.

The key development in recent scholarship has been the widespread recognition of a significant encounter with St. Augustine in Palamas’s work. Martin Jugie was the first to draw attention to this possibility, observing some interesting parallels between Gregory and Augustine, most especially in Gregory’s One Hundred Fifty Chapters. Jugie’s claims were never fully substantiated and had little impact on immediately subsequent scholarship. Indeed, the classic 20th century accounts of Palamas positively rule out the possibility of any significant Augustinian elements in his thought. According to the dominant neo-Palamite narrative, there is a great gulf fixed between Latin (essentialist) and Greek (personalist-existentialist) doctrines of the Trinity. The Latins, in this view, have fallen prey to a static ontology in which the abstract notions of being have obscured the mystery of actual existence. The Greeks, on the other hand, have remained fully alive to the primacy of personal existence. These polar oppositions are found in, on the one hand, Augustine and Aquinas and, on the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers and Palamas. We see this in Lossky’s famous essay, Essai sur la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient.

The finest 20th century student of Palamas, John Meyendoff, follows this line closely from his classic, Introduction à l’étude de Grégoire Palamas onwards. This polarity is a given in Meyendoff’s work. As one of his later articles puts it, “Indeed as all scholars today would agree, the real difference between the Latin  —  Augustinian  —  view of the Trinity as a single Essence, with personal characters understood as relations and the Greek scheme, inherited from the Cappadocian Fathers which considered the single divine essence as totally transcendent and the persons or hypostasis —  each with unique and unchangeable characteristics — as revealing themselves in the Tri-personal divine life was the real issue behind the debates on the Filioque.” He rounds off the Orthodox side, however, from Blemmydes to Gregory of Cyprus and to Palamas — gradually transcending a purely defensive stand by discovering that the real problem with the Filioque lies not in the formula itself but in the definition of God as actus purus as finalized in the De ente et essentia of Thomas Aquinas. This would be the more personalistic Trinitarian vision inherited by the Byzantines from the Cappadocian Fathers. So, Augustine’s essentialism reaches its apogee in Aquinas just as the personalism of the Cappadocian Fathers receives its perfect expression in Palamas. This analysis represents a kind of apex of East/West polarity in modern Orthodox theology with Palamas and Aquinas presented as equal and opposite archetypes. 

The great irony here is that many of the most potent critiques of Palamas in recent years have berated him precisely for essentialism, his inability to distinguish properly the personal existence of the three divine hypostasis. Catherine LaCugna, for example, finds the Palamite essence/energies distinction positively dangerous, going so far to assert that it “breaks the back of all Orthodox Trinitarian theology.” She finds particularly troubling the affirmation that the multiple energies of God are the single operation of the Trinity, concluding that this erases the particular characteristics of the persons, breaks the properly inseparable connection between economic and immanent Trinity, and overall sounds “suspiciously similar to Augustine and Aquinas.” Here LaCugna sides with Dorothea Wendebourg for whom Palamas emerges as a functional modalist quite unable to account for the distinction of persons. Wendebourg too finds Palamas deeply reminiscent of Augustine and characterizes the triumph of Palamism as the “defeat of Trinitarian theology.” Robert Jensen has also attacked Palamas along similar lines, calling the essence/energies distinction a disaster that amounts to a bluntly modeless doctrine. 

A further irony is that those who criticize Palamas for his essentialism, persist in taking him as an archetypal of an Eastern theological tradition quite distinct from that of the West. LaCugna, for example, presents Palamas and Aquinas as exemplars and culminations of the “central ethos” of their respective traditions of East and West. These traditions are, she maintains, separated by a great gulf on nearly every significant doctrinal point; the differences between East and West are decisive and probably irreconcilable. Though it should not have escaped notice that LaCugna’s vision of East and West is uncannily like that of Lossky and Meyendoff. Palamas and Aquinas are presented as twin peaks of their mutually opposing traditions, with the West tainted with essentialism and the East (at least until Palamas) more alive to the distinction of persons. The dichotomy between East and West is virtually an article of faith for LaCugna as it is for Lossky and Meyendoff. Such a dichotomy would certainly seem to preclude any but merely accidental parallels between Gregory Palamas and Augustine. But substantive parallels and even direct citations there certainly are. 

John Meyendoff knew well in Chapter 36 of the One Hundred Fifty Chapters, that there is a striking “psychological” image of the Trinity, with the Holy Spirit presented as the mutual love of Father and Son. This image Meyendoff describes as “unparalleled” elsewhere in Byzantine theological literature and even “somewhat similar” to that of Augustine, allowing this to be a sign of Gregory’s general openness to the West. A later estimation, however, ruled out any direct acquaintance with Augustine and downgraded the parallelism to merely “quite superficial.” But in any case, any substantial connection between Palamas and Augustine was deemed out of the question.

But more recent work has demonstrated that Gregory’s encounter with Augustine was considerably more extensive than Meyendoff, or others, could allow. Reinhard Flogaus and John Demetracopoulos have separately put together a persuasive case that Palamas made frequent use of Augustine, drawing directly and at time verbally on the translation of De Trinitate made by Maximos Planoudes in the late 13th century. Gregory’s encounter with Augustine is especially evident in Chapters 34-37 and 125-135 of the One Hundred Fifty Chapters and in other works from the mid-to-late 1340s onwards. In one very revealing case from the late 1350s, Palamas introduces a quotation from Augustine with the words, “For as one of the wise and apostolic men has said.”  He does not give the name; he simply refers to Augustine as one of the wise and apostolic men. This reluctance to name the source speaks volumes not only of Gregory’s conviction of the authority of Augustine but also of the need for certain discretion in appealing to that authority. Other instances uncovered so far encompass a wide range of subjects: from the motives of the Incarnation, to the meaning of death, the four kinds of logos within man, and to God’s possession of goodness and wisdom not as quality but as essence.

Given the prevalence of an essentialist versus personalist paradigm in Palamas’s scholarship, East/West, it is intriguing to find Palamas himself countenancing Augustine even at his most essentialist. This calls for a little more discussion beginning with Chapter 36. Here the Holy Spirit is likened to an ineffable love of the begetter toward the begotten. The Son possesses this love, writes Palamas, as co-proceeding from the Father and Himself, and as resting co-naturally in Him. The Spirit is not only of the Father but also of the Son, and the Son possesses the Spirit as the spirit of truth, wisdom, and word. The Spirit is, moreover, intimated in Proverbs 8:30 when the Logos declares, “I was she who rejoiced together with him.” This verse leaves Palamas to conclude that this pre-eternal rejoicing of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit who is, as has been said, common to both. But this does not, he is careful to note, detract in any way from the fact that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father alone according to his being.”

So Palamas is clearly ruling out any hint of the Latin Filioque in respect to origination. But he is equally clearly not confining co-procession to the temporal mission of the Spirit: he is certainly speaking of the immanent divine life of the Trinity. There are antecedents for this kind of language in the Byzantine tradition:  Maximus the Confessor’s intuition of the fundamental congruity of procession “through” and “from” the Son; St. John of Damascus’s eternal “resting” of the Spirit in the Son; or Gregory of Cyprus’s eternal “shining forth” of the Spirit through the Son. But such precedents cannot explain away the astonishing parallels with Augustine’s notion of the Spirit as the “mutual love” of Father and Son. The fact that Palamas proceeds immediately to propose a Trinitarian image in man in terms of the operation of mind, knowledge, and love only serves to make the connection with Augustine unmistakable.

This sympathetic but not uncritical reception of some key features of Augustine’s Trinitarian teaching is, at first sight, puzzling. Palamas is known to have been a fierce opponent of the Latin Filioque and it seems very strange to find him embracing some of the key images of Augustine, the foremost expositor of this doctrine. In his anti-Latin Apodictic Treatises of 1336, Palamas insists in no uncertain terms on procession from the Father alone. But upon closer inspection, Palamas reveals himself to be rather more than an uncompromising monopatrist unable to think, that is, beyond the purely temporal mission or sending of the Spirit by the Son.  Perfectly aware that some Greek patristic texts, such as Cyril of Alexandria’s Thesaurus involve the Son in the eternal procession of the Spirit in some way, Palamas produces a remarkably constructive approach to the whole problem. 

Palamas is very clear that there can be no talk of the procession of the hypostasis of the Spirit from the hypostasis of the Son. The Spirit has his particular mode of being from the hypostasis of the Father alone. But we can speak of the Spirit as being from the Father and from the Son, or from the Father through the Son, in terms of nature. Because of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, the Spirit may be said, and this is a quote from Palamas, “to be naturally from the Son and from his essence,” manifesting thereby the Spirit’s own consubstantiality with the Father and the Son. This eternal divine movement has a temporal counterpart:  The Spirit, writes Palamas, eternally flows-forth from the Father into the Son and becomes manifest in the saints from the Father through the Son. So, it is nothing new to say that the Spirit goes forth from the Son and from his nature. Alongside this procession from the nature of the Son, the Spirit is also given, sent, poured out, and goes out through and from the Son to the worthy.

To sum up this section, while scarcely sympathetic to or especially when informed about the contemporary Latin position on the Filioque, Palamas nonetheless offers in the Apodictic Treatises a very constructive Orthodox take on this difficult question. He allows for what we might call an “Orthodox filioque” both in respect to the eternal divine life and the manifestation of the divine energia among creatures. But he remains adamant that the hypostasis of the Father is the sole originating principle of the divinity. So, there can certainly be no question of adding the offending word to the Creed or of accepting the Filioque in terms of origination. Nonetheless, Palamas’s capacity to embrace co-possession on both eternal and temporal planes helped prepare the ground for the remarkably positive reception of Augustine’s Trinitarian teaching evident in subsequent works as the One Hundred Fifty Chapters. This is not the case of a simple Easterner being so impressed by Augustine as to embrace some of Augustine’s ideas at the expense of the coherence of his own doctrine. No, Augustine appealed to Palamas precisely because of the underlying similarity of their approaches to the mystery of the Trinity. Palamas has an acute sense of the unity of the Godhead that is quite as essentialist as anything one might find in Augustine but remains, like Augustine, properly alive to the distinction of persons. 

So Palamas’s use of Augustine emerges as perfectly consistent with his broader theological program. Before his encounter with Augustine, Palamas had already established a very constructive approach to the aporia of the Filioque that enabled him to adopt a remarkably tolerant approach to the Latin tradition and to Latin formulae when viewed outside the context of East/West disputation. Allowing for some form of co-procession both in terms of essence and in terms of energeia. Palamas was predisposed to look favorably upon Augustine when he read him. This sympathetic reading does not amount to any sort of decisive influence, and still less did it effect any form of doctrinal compromise. Palamas’s theological vision was well developed and well-articulated before he happened upon the Planoude’s translation. The De Trinitate serves rather as a confirming of aspects of Palamas’s own theological vision even including, with some essential caveats, the disputed matter of the Filioque

This remarkable encounter stands not only as a sign of an underlying congruity but also as a marker of Palamas’s openness to Latin theology. In this respect, the encounter serves to foreshadow the capacity of many Palamites (and many anti-Unionists for that matter) to be ardent admirers of Thomas Aquinas, one of Augustine’s most important epigones.

But the basic fact that an archetypal Easterner (Palamas) should embrace an archetypal Westerner (Augustine) is strange only if one begins with an assumption of an East/West dichotomy in opposition in the first place. What is puzzling is the fact that so many observers across the theological spectrum in East and West alike have approached the issue under precisely such an assumption. A serious engagement with Augustine is out of the question for virtually all critics and admirers of Palamas. But a serious engagement there was, and one which must press us to question further the hackneyed dichotomy of East and West.

Another way in which the opposition between East and West is commonly presented is in terms of methodological incompatibility. We see this especially in the work of Gerard Podskalsky. For Podskalsky, the triumph of Palamism represents the abandonment of reason and the defeat of any properly systematic or even coherently ordered approach to theology. Byzantine theology in this view becomes at best an ad hoc response to particular problems based on the monastic experience alone. Faced with the more sophisticated Latin theological tradition, the Byzantines had only two options before them: amazed wonder or complete rejection. 

This idea of a methodological impasse is not peculiar to Podskalsky. Many Orthodox writers have found such an approach without, of course, Podskalsky’s assumption of Western superiority. Deeply congenial, happily contrasting the apophatic and mystical East with the rational and scholastic West, and this approach was, as we have seen already, unforgettably proclaimed by Vladimir Lossky and widely embraced by writers such as John Meyendoff, Philip Sherrod, and Christos Yannaras. Some more nuanced voices, those of Kallistos Ware, André de Halleux, and others have questioned the sense of a stark opposition between the theological methodologies of East and West but without seriously questioning the methodological otherness of the two traditions. It is this assumed “otherness” that I intend to probe in this section, beginning with an account of the shape of the Byzantine theological tradition inherited by Palamas.

The question of the methodological otherness of East and West turns on the issue of the innovatory and unwantedly rationalistic character of Western scholasticism as opposed to the apophatic and experiential traditions of the Christian East. This is a contrast which has been much overblown. If by scholasticism we understand not some caricature of unfettered reason but rather the careful and ordered use of reason to explicate and define revealed truth, bolstered by an appeal to patristic and philosophical authority (strictly in that order). It is then undeniable that this method, this scholastic method, is perfectly proper and indeed rooted in Byzantine East. Byzantine theology has never been the preserve of apophaticism and mysticism alone. 

I think we see a discernible shift setting in between the more immediately scriptural and rhetorical style of the Fathers of the 3rd and 4th century and the distinctly more forensic and authority-led character of the theological endeavors from the time of the Christological controversies of the 5th century onward. In the 4th century, the appeal to the authority of non-scriptural writers is still almost negligible as a criterion of theological truth. Only in the 5th century does the appeal to the authority of the Fathers become normative, most particularly through the work of St. Cyril of Alexandria.  

The Christological controversies brought with them a concern for careful definition that rivals in its philosophical sophistication any debate at the high scholastic period. Whether this is Leontius of Byzantium on the enhypostasization of the human nature of Christ or Maximus the Confessor on the gnomic will, there is care for philosophical and terminological exactitude that can scarcely be denied the label of “scholastic.”

The post-Chalcedonian period also witnessed an increasing reliance on patristical authority. Many of the decisive moments of the Christological controversies were to hinge around the interpretation of particular patristic utterances. Maximus the Confessor’s Ambigua deals with a number of these. A young contemporary of Maximus, Anastasius of Sinai produced a set of Questions and Responses on an extraordinary range of spiritual and topical matters that enjoyed great popularity at the time. Anastasius’s approach has a distinctly scholastic flavor with its probing objections and solutions, its definitions, and appeal to authority. Such works, and we can mention many others, foreshadow the whole system of questions and disputations so fundamental to medieval Western scholasticism. 

The theological shift of the post-Chalcedonian period is perhaps best exemplified in the person of John of Damascus, a powerful and immediate authority of Palamas as for Aquinas. John of Damascus’s work stands as an ordered and systematic compendium of the whole patristic tradition, a distillation of the wisdom of the Fathers that was to be of inestimable value to later theologians down to the present day. Palamas fittingly conveys John’s brilliant achievement of synthesis, hailing him as the inspired and common tongue of the divine theologian. The fact that John of Damascus was steeped in the monastic traditions of the Christian East and a fine liturgical poet should in no way inhibit us from characterizing his theology as scholastic, and as an important forerunner of the developed scholasticism of the Latin Middle Ages. 

Palamas is heir to this long tradition of Byzantine scholasticism as much as he is an heir of the earlier patristic tradition and to the whole mystical, apophatic, and monastic tradition of the Christian East. Praised for his mastery of Aristotle in his youth and instructed in logic by Theodore Metochites, Palamas went on to draw upon that philosophical expertise in his dispute with Barlaam of Calabrian, the first in a series of talented critics of certain beliefs and practices of the Hesychast monks of Mount Athos. This dispute began not over techniques of prayer or the vision of the divine light, but over the correct application of Aristotle. Appalled by Barlaam’s theological agnosticism (and incidentally Balaam’s agnosticism was developed in opposition to Aquinas or at least reported elements of Aquinas’s teaching), Palamas asserted in unmistakably Aristotelian terms the admissibility of apodictic or demonstrative argumentations in theology. Palamas severely criticizes philosophy when removed from its subservient status but embraces philosophy with enthusiasm when rightly ordered in the service of theology. He’s quite frank about his use of certain methods of Greek philosophical argumentation in this way. In fact, it’s Gregory’s opponents who exhibit the anti-logical and anti-rational theological mentality all too commonly and wrongfully associated with Palamas and his circle. Barlaam, for example, although a student of logic himself, was deeply skeptical about the possibility of any rational argumentation in relation to God and scornful of the Latin dependence on the syllogism. In stark contrast, Palamas explicitly defends the Latin use of the syllogism, declaring, writes Palamas, that we have in truth been taught by the Fathers to syllogize about theological matters and no one would even write against the Latins because of this. Palamas insists on the necessity of rational discourse and will not hesitate to use the syllogism in defense of revealed truth, after the pattern of the Fathers. Palamas’s radical apophatism in no way entails an abandonment of cataphatic theology. Nikephorus Gregorus, another anti-Palamite, displays a positive allergy to Aristotle and refuses all utility to the syllogism, seeing it as a tool fit for only feeble minds, like those of the Latins.

So, in contrast, reason and philosophy have an integral place in Palamas’s methodology albeit strictly in the service of the revelation of God, manifested in scripture and in the lives and teaching and experience of the saints. In appealing to the tradition, Palamas does not just pile up patristic citations but demonstrates a capacity to critique and expand upon his sources that show him to be a thinker both creative and properly original, much like Aquinas. Palamas’s approach to theological argumentation may be less structured and less rigorous than that of Aquinas, but there is absolutely no methodological impasse between them. In terms of the use of reason and the appeal to patristic authority, there is precious little to separate them.

None of this is intended to undermine Palamas’s deserved reputation as an apophatic and experiential theologian but rather to emphasize that this picture does not tell the whole story. The fact that he was a monastic theologian has in no way stopped him from embracing the methods and presuppositions of Byzantine scholasticism. Indeed, it is one of Palamas’s chief glories that he recapitulates so much of the Eastern Christian tradition: Marcarium and Evagrius, Dionysius and Maximus, Athonite Hesychasm and Aristotelian scholasticism. 

In this section of the lecture, I’ve attempted to sketch Palamas’s roots in this long tradition of Aristotelianism and his own disciplined use of reason and logic to bolster his appeal to scriptural and patristic authority. In this respect, there is something distinctly scholastic about him too.  

To conclude, there is no sense in his theology which may justifiably be characterized as a defeat of reason (against Podskalsky) or as the triumph of an anti-scholastic mystical theology (against Lossky or others), or indeed in any way as anti-Latin. So, having poured cold water on the suggestion that Palamas’s theology represents some sort of antithesis to the scholasticism of the Latin West, I will now turn briefly and lastly to the attitude of Palamas and his circle to the Latin/Greek schism.

Here again we shall see that it is not Palamas but rather his opponents that exhibit most open hostility to the Latin West. Few slurs in Byzantium were deadlier than the charge of being Latinofrone or Latin-minded. To be in theological sympathy with the Latins could be seen as tantamount to treason, a betrayal both political and cultural of the embattled Empire. But while charges of Latin-mindedness and Latin sympathies were often thrown around with some abandonment in the course of the Hesychast controversy, the dispute was never a question of East versus West but rather an internal dispute conducted largely within the traditional parameters of Byzantine theology. 

Barlaam of Calabria had only a slight acquaintance with medieval Western theology at least at the time of his dispute with Palamas. Indeed, Barlaam first found fame as an implacable opponent of the papal claim, the Filioque, and of the Latin methodology, in particular in the use of the syllogism as we have mentioned. Nikephorus Gregoras was actively and implacably hostile to Latin theology throughout his career. For Gregoras, logic has no place in the higher realm of theology and represents a departure from strictly patristic theology. Any debate with the Latins, says Gregoras, even within the setting of an Ecumenical Council, was bound to be futile, given their persistent heresy and their pernicious reasoning. 

Palamas displays no such animosity toward the Latin West. While Palamas attacks certain theological conclusions of the Latin West, he maintained noticeably friendly relations with the Latins. He fostered contact with the Latins of Galata in Pera and sent his works to the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, and these facts for which his enemies, Akindynos in particular, turned against him. Palamas himself has no sense that his teaching was in any was contradictory to the theology of the Latin West, holding to be simply an unfolding of the patristic teaching. 

So, to conclude, I hope in the course of this paper to have cast serious doubt on the whole notion of theological opposition between Greek East and Latin West, especially when it comes to their supposed archetypes St. Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas. It’s been the main purpose of this lecture to suggest that Palamas is not as Eastern nor Aquinas as Western as had previously been widely supposed. Each has substantial interest in the other’s tradition. Each shares a complimentary approach to the theological endeavor and displays an unusually irenic approach to the Latin/Greek schism. In each case, they stand out among their contemporaries for the breadth, depth, and openness of their theological vision — a theological vision that encompasses the best of both East and West. And this is surely the kind of vision we desperately need today. Thank you.