Dr. David Bradshaw argues, however, that the key to understanding the roots of the schism lies in the different understandings of the Aristotelean metaphysical concept of energia, and that the distinction between the two figures who come to dominate any discussion of Eastern and Western thought—Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas, respectively—comes down to how one defines the Divine Essence. Bradshaw believes that the root of the philosophic divergence drives the theological one, and this divergence begins in the West with Augustine and the development of the doctrine of the divine simplicity (Bradshaw, 3 April 2009).
Ultimately, the difference between the East and West does, I believe, lie within the problem of understanding the difference between the western doctrine of the absolute divine simplicity and the eastern doctrine of the distinction between the essence and the energies (energiai) of God. However, even understanding this conceptual difference brings us no closer to establishing a cause for the schism—it merely describes, accurately, the point of divergence. In this paper, I intend to provide a thorough examination of the divergence between the East and West, and then suggest a possible cause which seeks to unify the historical, philosophic, and theological roots of the schism.
Because of the complexity of its historical development, I will first give attention to defining the Eastern doctrine of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. To do this, we must first establish a meaning for the word energia. Bradshaw provides an entry point for the discussion, stating that the word energia “appears nowhere in extant Greek literature prior to Aristotle, and even for some decades after his death it is restricted mainly to philosophical writers, particularly those of Aristotle's own school” (Bradshaw 1). The meaning of Aristotle's original use of the word, based on the scant etymological evidence, would seem to be “activity, operation, or effectiveness” (Bradshaw 1). However, it is also clear from the text of Metaphysics 12.7, where Aristotle discusses the Prime Mover, that the energia of the Prime Mover is both pure actuality as well as being fully active, per the statement that the Prime Mover “moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (Metaphysics 12.7.25-27). From this we see that, as least as regards divine being, energia has two meanings which exist simultaneously: that of actuality and of activity.
The dual meanings of energia continues throughout the Hellenistic period in the writings of the later Peripatetics and the Neo-Platonists, but the use of the word outside of the context of philosophy become important during the later Hellenistic period, during which time the Holy Scriptures are translated into Greek and during which Greek becomes the de facto language of Judaism. In particular, Bradshaw notes that Diodorus Siculus uses the word energia to describe actions of the gods, taken in judgment against human beings (Bradshaw 55). However, the most important linkage to this development of energia with regard to Judaism comes from two sources: the books of the Maccabees and from Philo of Alexandria. It is in these sources that we see the definition of energia as “activity” become expressly personal—that is, there is an agent behind the action. In II Maccabees, the following story is told of the attempted robbery of the Temple treasury in Jerusalem by Heliodorus:
But when he [Heliodorus] arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror. For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien, and it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armor and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on each side of him and scourged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up and put him on a stretcher and carried him away, this man who had just entered the aforesaid treasury with a great retinue and all his bodyguard but was now unable to help himself; and they recognized clearly the sovereign power of God. While he lay prostrate, speechless because of the divine intervention and deprived of any hope of recovery, they praised the Lord who had acted marvelously for his own place. (II Macc. 3:24-29).It is obvious from the quotation that the activity of God in the passage is manifested by the “two young men” who are agents—or angels—of the Lord. From this, and from the miracles described in all three books of the Maccabees that are attributed to the divine energia, we can safely say that in the minds of the Jewish authors of these texts, energia did not describe the actions of an impersonal force, but the personal agency of God (III Macc. 4:21-5:28). This personal agency, however, is for God a kind of continuous activity; this is precisely the clarification Philo of Alexandria brings to Jewish theology. For Philo, this agency is manifested by God's self-revelation to Moses, giving His name as “I am He Who Is,” indicating that God's existence is one of eternal activity, and that this activity on the part of God is not work, but a kind of rest due to God's unique ability to make perfectly actual, through creating, the acts that He conceives (Bradshaw 60, 61)
Nor does the scriptural underpinning stop with the deuterocanon of the Old Testament. St. Paul makes explicit use of the concept of energia, and, most interestingly for our discussion, he uses the word to exclusively describe the activities of God (or, in a few instances, the work of the devil). The context, however, makes it clear that energia is exclusively the work of supernatural agents, acting according to their persons. Perhaps the most interesting example, for purposes of this discussion, of St. Paul's usage of energia comes in the Epistle to the Colossians, where he tells the local church there “[...] This mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory […] This is what I also work for, struggling with his [Christ's/God's] energy which is powerfully at work in me” (Col. 1:27, 29). St. Paul is here teaching that the “hope of glory” of Christ is something that personally works in us, in precisely the miraculous way that we see the working acts of God, in a broader historical context, in the Maccabees. The Eastern Church Fathers take this teaching of energia as being something at work in us, but with which and for which we also work. This participatory understanding of the experience of salvation is clear in St. Gregory of Nyssa's homilies on the Lord's Prayer:
[…] for the words of the prayer outline what sort of man on should be if one would approach God. Such a man is almost no longer shown in terms of human nature, but, through virtue, he is likened to God Himself, so that he seems to be another god, in that he does things that God alone can do. For the forgiving of debts is the special prerogative of God, since it is said, No man can forgive sins but God alone. If therefore a man imitates in his own life the characteristics of the Divine Nature, he becomes somehow that which he visibly imitates” (Gregory of Nyssa, 71).Having established the scriptural understanding of energia, however, we must turn again to developments in the realm of philosophy, and, in turn, the mystical interpretations of this doctrine in the East.
This preceding discussion of energia has so far made use, exclusively, of the fact that the energia are intelligible; that is to say, because the actuality precedes the potentiality, the actions brought about by the divine energia are observable operations. In thinking about the divine, both the tradition of the Holy Scriptures and the philosophic tradition insist, however, on the ultimate transcendence of God. Plotinus, considered the founder of the Neo-Platonic school of pagan philosophy, conceived of this apparent dichotomy between the knowable operations of the divine and absolute transcendence of the divine as explainable through his theory of two acts: the internal and the external. The internal acts of God are, ultimately, completely unknowable to his creatures, whereas the external acts are visible and observable to the creatures whose being derives from the ultimate being of God. This is stated directly in the Fifth of Plotinus' Enneads:
In two ways the Intellectual-Principle enhances the quality of the soul, as father as as immanent presence; nothing separates them but they fact that they are not one and the same, that there is succession […] but this recipient, Matter to Supreme Intelligence, is also noble as being at once formed by the divine intellect and uncompounded. […] there [the archetypal realm] we are to contemplate all things as members of the Intellectual-eternal in their own right, vested with self-springing consciousness and life—and presiding over all these, the unsoiled Intelligence and the unapproachable Wisdom (Enneads V.3-4).Thus Plotinus makes it clear that there are two methods of describing the works of God—both the affirmative (in the case of the “unsoiled Intelligence”) and the negative (that is, “the unapproachable Wisdom”). The negative, or apophatic understanding, becomes the dominant one in the Christian East, while the affirmative, or cataphatic, becomes dominant—through St. Augustine—in the West (Bradshaw 3 April 2009). This distinction is essential to understanding the nature of the difference between the Eastern and Western doctrines.
The flowering of the Eastern tradition comes in the person of St. Gregory Palamas, who, drawing on the sources already mentioned, as well as the works of St. Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite, defends the practical application of the Eastern doctrine which comes in the hesychastic practices of certain monks. The Hesychasts practice a form of prayer that includes certain bodily actions which seeks to discipline the body so that the mind and heart may achieve the injunction of St. Paul to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Through this practice, the Hesychasts believe that one comes to participate, fully, in the life of God by direct experience of His energia, or energies, and that this experience often comes in the form of apprehending the “light of Tabor”–that is, the uncreated light of God. St. Gregory Palamas elucidates this wonderfully in a sermon on the subject of the Transfiguration of Christ:
The light of the Lord's trasfiguration does not come to be or cease to be, not is it circumscribed or perceptible to the senses, even though for a short time on the narrow mountain top it was seen by human eyes. Rather, at that moment the initiated disciples of the Lord “passed”, as we have been taught, “from flesh to spirit” by the transformation of their senses, which the Spirit wrought in them, and so they saw that ineffable light, when as much as the Holy Spirit's power granted them to do so. Those who are not aware of this light and who now blaspheme against it think that the chosen apostles saw the light of the Lord's transfiguration with their created faculty of sight, and in this way they endeavor to bring down to the level of a created object not just that light—God's power and kingdom—but even the power of the Holy Spirit, by which divine things are revealed to the worthy. (“On the Transfiguration I” 43).So it is observed that from the Eastern point of view, to say that the light seen by Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor—which is understood as the same spiritual experience had by the Hesychasts—is a created light, mediated by human sensation and intellect, is a monstrous abomination, because it would ultimately “materialize” the Holy Spirit, and thus, the Godhead of the Trinity itself.
Curiously, as we turn to the West, it is precisely the charge of “materializing” God which Barlaam of Calabria, a representative of the developing Western Scholasticism, would make against the Hesychasts. Barlaam, drawing from the elements of Western theology—and, if not directly quoting Aquinas, certainly engaging in Aquinian methodology—contended that “Every visible being […] is created; the light of Tabor became visible to bodily eyes, and therefore, it cannot be at all uncreated. It is a creature, 'describable,' and does not differ from the light we see with our senses; it is something which is lower than the mind” (Tatakis 158). This reasoning is explicitly Aquinian, and is reminiscent of his section in Quæstiones Disputatæ de Potentia Dei on the Divine Essence. There, Aquinas reasons that “As quantity is the cause of equality, and quality the cause of likeness, so is the essence the cause of identity” (Q. 7.v.10). In the same section, he also comments that “since […] creatures have not always existed, it follows that we could not say that God was wise or good before the existence of creatures. For it is evident that before creatures existed he did nothing as regards his effects, as neither good nor as wise” (Q. 7.v.14). Here we have two statements about God that are eminently western, and stand in ultimate contradistinction to the Eastern tradition: first, that God is identical to his essence, and second, that the attributes of God are the result of creaturely attribution.
Leaving the implications of these statements aside for the present, it seems beneficial to see where any antecedents to this kind of thinking can be found. The answer is that the struggle to understand the fundamental unity of God, who exist in three persons, goes far back into the historical past of Christian thought. In effect, the problem is how to understand the various anthropomorphisms of God that exist in the scriptures, even to the point where, in Genesis 6:6, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart,” while at the same time preserving the statement of St. James that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there can be no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17). So, the question boils down to a simple one: how does one reconcile a personal God who has personal attributes and, for lack of a better word, personality, while simultaneously holding that this same God is not subject to variation, passions, or change? Aquinas states, when trying to understand the imputation of personal characteristics of God, that the descriptions of God being “angry” or “wise” or “good” or so on, would mean that “There would be no difference in saying God is wise, or God is angry, or God is a fire” if these characteristics were part of God's essence (Q. 7.v.14). St. Augustine has similar problems, when describing how the Father and the Son can be of the same essence, if they have different attributes—for example, that the Father is unbegotten and the Son is begotten (On the Trinity XV.iii.5). In resolving this difficulty, St. Augustine reaches the conclusion that Aquinas appropriates centuries later: “it is demonstrated that not everything predicated of God is predicated according to his substance […] He is called Father in respect to the Son, or the Lord in respect to the creature that serves Him” (On the Trinity XV.iii.5). Here again, it is obvious that to St. Augustine, and to the later theologians who followed him (particularly Aquinas), the only rational solution to this problem is to posit that God is not his attributes, but that created, human intellects are the source of the apparent dichotomy. Here lies the root of the formulation of the uniquely western doctrine of the absolute divine simplicity, which holds that God is identical to his essence, and his essence is identical to his will. In such a framework, it is obvious that no creature could apprehend God in any way that was not created and therefore mediated through the mind. For the westerner, to assert that created human eyes could behold anything that is uncreated, is to blaspheme—because such an assertion violates the principle of the absolute simplicity of the essence of God, which is alone uncreated and unoriginate.
Some years before Augustine's work, however, St. Basil the Great, one of the three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, had addressed this same problem with respect to the heresies of Eunomius—a rather extreme Arian, who professed a doctrine similar to (although distinct from) the doctrine of the absolute divine simplicity. Eunomius asserted that God's essence is simple and undivided, and therefore, God's attributes are identical with his essence. Although Eunomius, apparently, took this in a different direction than Augustine or Aquinas, it should still give one pause to see that Aquinas' reasoning that “essence is the cause of identity” is being echoed among the extreme Arians. Indeed, if Aquinas is an accurate representative of the western theological tradition which, at least according to Bradshaw, had its boundaries set by Augustine, then it is not too difficult to conclude that Augustine would not have, necessarily, disagreed with Eunomius' statement, except to assert that some attributes are relatively predicated to God by creatures that are, in some sense, part of God, but at the same time not essential or substantially God (On the Trinity XV.iii.5). However, it is clear that St. Basil's solution to the problem of God's apparent changeability is not rooted in an understanding that explains away the changes or personal attributes of God by making them relative to human—that is, intellectual—perception, but by holding to the doctrine of the distinction between the essence and energies of God. Basil clearly and succinctly explains that “The energies [energiai] are various, and the essence [ousia] simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach” (Basil 249). Basil here makes use of the understanding developed by Plotinus, in the pagan philosophic tradition, and Dionysius the Areopagite, in the Christian mystical tradition, of the difference between God in His essence—which is unknowable and absolutely transcendent—and God's energies, His energiai—which are knowable and comprehensible, and, more importantly, capable of being experienced and participated in by human beings.
The disconcerting fact that the fundamental assumption of the extreme Arians lies within the argument of the West has some relevance to the discussion at hand, as I hope to demonstrate. Arianism, while initially an Eastern heresy, spread quickly all over the Roman world and the outlying areas. It finds its most ardent adherents, however, among the barbarian peoples who lived on the outskirts of the empire during the years of the Arian controversy, but who, by Augustine's time, in the Fourth Century, had established a presence within the empire's borders—mostly in the west. These barbarian adherents to Arianism—the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and the Vandals—came to rule over most of the lands that had been the western empire. It is in this context that the Western fear of Arianism becomes part of the equation of understanding the schism. While it has been demonstrated, amply, that there is a significant metaphysical division that created the theological divergence; and while philosophers and theologians like to point to ideological constructs as the starting points for inquiry into a subject, in reality, there few historical events are decided purely on the choice of one abstract position over another—even if what is at stake is the true faith or heretical innovation.
It is my proposition that the influence and reaction to Arianism in the West is, more than anything, responsible for the development of the schism, by forming Augustine and Ambrose's theology in reaction to Arianism. One of the classical devices of rhetoric is to take the common position with one's opponent, and then, shift the argument to own's one position—thereby convincing the opponent of the veracity of one's own position. While Augustine is pointed at by some—among them, it seems, Dr. Bradshaw—as being the fountain from which all following flawed western theology flows, this is not necessarily the case. It seems at least possible that Augustine, in attempting to combat Arian tendencies and influences in the West, began his theological speculations on the nature of the Trinity with certain philosophic assumptions that could be demonstrated as common between an orthodox position and that of the heretics, then demonstrating that, even from the common position, that Nicene orthodoxy was the valid conclusion. In refuting that other notorious western doctrine, the Filioque, to which it appears, from On the Trinity, Augustine ascribed, St. Photios asserts the following:
Augustine and Jerome said these things. But perhaps they spoke out of the necessity of attacking the madness of the pagans or of refuting another heretical opinion or of condescending to the weakness of their hearers, or out of the necessity of any one of the many other reasons that human life daily presents. If such a statement escaped their lips because of one or more of the above reasons, why do you make a dogma and law of what was not spoken by them with dogmatic significance” (Photios 72).Indeed, St. Photios goes on to mention that, in dealing with a powerful heretical sect that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, even St. Basil assented to the gradual proclamation of the truth, rather than causing outright division by preaching the whole orthodoxy of trinitarianism all at once—suggesting that, at diverse times and places, it is best to bring those who oppose the truth (especially those who oppose it out of their own ignorance) to the truth by steps, gradually getting them to agree with the position of the true faith (Photios 77). But, if one were to impose upon the Church these teachings which were taught for the salvation of a particular people in a particular place in time (through economia) as if they were ontological, universal dogma, that would be a crime against the Church and the witness of these great Church fathers. It is by this same reasoning that I would suggest that the doctrine of divine simplicity, originating with Augustine, was never intended to be a universal doctrinal statement—which was not within his purview as bishop of the local church in Hippo to pronounce—but as a stop-gap measure to arrest the further spread of Arian heresy in the West. That this teaching became dogmatized as a fundamental tenet of the Church in the West is due, largely, to the rapid decline of Greek learning after the fall of Rome, and the random selection and generally poor translation of the writings of the Eastern Church Fathers into Latin. Having but one hugely prolific native son, in the person of St. Augustine, the West naturally looked to him as the pre-eminent Church Father, and forgot the truly conciliar aspect of theological dogmatization in the governance of the Church.
The root of the schism may, indeed, lie within the metaphysical differences, based on divergent understandings of the Aristotelean metaphysics of the energia as relates to the divine. I do not doubt that this is the case, and Bradshaw's scholarship is certainly a wonderful beginning attempt to show the fundamental errors in the assumption that generally underlie any discussion of the Great Schism between the East and the West. At the very least, it establishes that the often-repeated position that the philosophic differences between the East and West can be explained by the Greek fascination with Platonism and the Latin embrace of Aristotle is, on its face, an absurdity (Louth 318). And, while there is a great deal of truth in Philip Sherrard's claim that “Christians have no need of Greek philosophy […] Christianity itself is a manifestation of the eternal Logos. It is therefore, ipso facto, a complete tradition, and its doctrine embraces consequently a full metaphysical perspective,” it is also the case that the very vocabulary of metaphysics was established by the Greek philosophers (Sherrard 112). While it is tempting in the extreme to push the Eastern tradition in the direction of anti-intellectualism, especially when reading seemingly provocative statements from certain Eastern theologians, especially one such as St. Gregory Palamas who states with certainty that the experience of holy contemplation beings with the “cessation of all intellectual activity,” it is also manifestly certain that the tradition which formed St. Gregory was itself steeped in the philosophic tradition established through Aristotle's invention of the word energia, its use throughout pagan philosophy, its use in the Holy Scriptures, the understanding and interpretation of this use through the writings of the Church Fathers, and ultimately, culminating in an ability to describe the metaphysical reality of salvation as becoming a “partaker of the divine nature” (The Triads 35; 2 Peter 1:4). Therefore, while the salvation offered through the participation in the divine energia does not rely on philosophy for its existence, Christianity has made great use of the established philosophic vocabulary to describe the experience. However, the introduction of philosophic vocabulary seems to have been, from the very beginning, a temptation to the unwary or those who would set the philosophy above the reality. Knowing this, it would behoove all who strive to understand these great spiritual mysteries through the imperfect use of the intellect, to keep in mind the words of St. Gregory Palamas: “The mouths of evil, disreputable men, are full of deadly poison which, when mixed with the words of life, makes even them lethal for careless listeners” (“On the Transfiguration I” 39-40).
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