Was St. Gregory Palamas a Traditionalist or an Innovator?

St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), archbishop of Thessaloniki (1347-1359), was and is a controversial figure. His experience and teachings of the Uncreated energies of God was severely attacked by Barlaam the Calabrian (who accused him of following the supposedly innovative teachings of St. Nicephorus of Mt. Athos [d. c. 1300]),[1] Gregory Akindynos, Nicephoras Gregoras, and others in his own time. Although his theology was vindicated by several councils in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351, and he was canonized just nine years after his death in 1368, it remained a topic of disagreement. His theology and influence fell into nigh-obscurity from the late sixteenth century practically until the twentieth century, and today there is still disagreement within the Orthodox Church over how to understand his theology and interactions with his opponents, as well as continued debate from outside the Church.[2]

However, for the faithful Orthodox Christian there is no such question: St. Gregory Palamas is undoubtedly a great Father of the Church, fully within the Orthodox Tradition. His theology is a seamless whole with that of all the Fathers who came before and after him. Whereas the Church recognizes heretics to be such because they innovated, She recognizes St. Gregory Palamas to be one of the three great Pillars of Orthodoxy, and his hymns connect him with the three Theologians and the Three Holy Hierarchs.[3] His commemoration on the Second Sunday of Great Lent is understood as a continuation of the First Sunday’s celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In placing him between the Sundays of Orthodoxy and the Cross, the Church “underlines the fact that, in his life and teaching, St. Gregory stands as an unsurpassable witness to the Orthodox Christian faith and a supremely skilled guide to the mystery of the Cross, the vision of Christ in glory.”[4] The Council of 1351 which proclaimed Palamite theology holds ecumenical status and is widely regarded as the Ninth Ecumenical Council.[5] And his troparion leaves no doubt as to his position within the Church: “O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation/ O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians/ O wonder working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace/always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.”

However, it must be emphasized that St. Gregory Palamas was no mere “traditionalist” in the sense of one who simply repeats theological formulae that came before him, but rather he is one who truly entered into the living stream of the Orthodox Tradition, that is, into the Life of the Holy Trinity. Although his writings are replete with Scriptural and Patristics quotations, he did not intellectually develop his theology of the essence and energies in God from a synthesis of those who came before him. To theologize, even based on the great Fathers of the Church, apart from personal experience would ultimately be an exercise in philosophical speculation, but St. Gregory’s beginning point was precisely his own personal experience of the divinizing grace of God. Archbishop Basil Krivosheine makes exactly this point: “He was not a mere compiler if only because the starting point of his theologizing was his own spiritual experience and not only the study of the books of the holy Fathers.”[6] Commenting on the view that monastics must study secular wisdom because knowledge of God comes through the mediation of creatures, the great saint himself does not offer a rebutting philosophical argument, but speaks from a place of experiential intimacy: “I was in no way convinced when I heard such views being put forward, for my small experience of monastic life showed me that just the opposite was the case.”[7]

And not only did St. Gregory’s theology begin with his own experience within the Church, but it is the possibility and reality of this experience which he directly defended against the blasphemies of Barlaam, Akindynos, and Gregoras. Ultimately the very theology and life of the Church was at stake in the Palamite controversy—for theology is, at its height and center, not a collection of dogmatic statements, but it is the Person of Jesus Christ—our great God and Savior, Whom we may know by Divine illumination, to which dogmatic statements point the way. True theology, true spiritual life, is the vision of Christ in glory, and so at the heart of the Orthodox faith also stands the Cross-bearing Christian who has beheld Christ in glory. Of such, St. Gregory states: “We believe what we have been taught by those enlightened by Christ, which they alone know with certainty.”[8] His experiential theology is that of the saints preceding him because they experienced the same Christ. The centrality of such personal experience of the glory of God is underlined by St. Symeon the New Theologian’s statement that whoever does not desire to attain to the vision of Christ is possessed by the devil,[9]and St. Gregory’s own statement that the vision of God “is the only proof of a soul in good health.”[10]

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