Palamas: The Dispute With Barlaam

by Metrpolitan Hierotheos Vlachos

His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos serves the Metropolis of Nafpaktos in the Church of Greece. His study of the patristic texts and particularly those of the hesychast Fathers of the Philokalia, many years of studying St. Gregory Palamas, association with the monks of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos), and many years of pastoral experience, all brought him to the realization that Orthodox theology is a science of the healing of man and that the neptic fathers can help the modern restless man who is disturbed by many internal and existential problems. In his books, he conveys the Orthodox spirit of the Philokalia to the restless and disturbed man of our time. This is why they have aroused so much interest.

This is an excerpt from his book β€œSt. Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite.”

His “dispute” with Barlaam

It was with difficulty that the saint began this “dispute”, because he did not wish to abandon the stillness of his life on the Holy Mountain. But when he was asked by his spiritual brothers, and when he himself realised that the faith was in danger of being altered, which would also have resulted in altering the means of man’s cure, of losing the way of salvation, then he began his struggle.

At first he did it with great humility and discretion. He finished one of his letters to Barlaam by saying that in spite of the reproach that he felt against Barlaam for his erroneous ideas on serious theological questions, he still maintained the same love for him. He called him a very wise man, the best of those who loved and were loved, and he emphasised that in spite of the dispute, the state of peace would be maintained. At the same time he expressed the desire that they should meet to embrace with a holy kiss.

All these things imply a soul that has peace and stillness. Because of this hesychastic life he could criticise the erroneous belief and at the same time keep peace and love.

But also on the matters which were in dispute with Barlaam we can see the hesychastic life of St. Gregory Palamas. He expresses the whole Tradition of the Orthodox Church. At this point we would like to look at several characteristic views taken from the first triad of his well known work “On the holy hesychasts”. Three topics are raised. The first one is the relationship between the two wisdoms, worldly and godly. The second is about noetic prayer, the return of the nous to abide in the heart, and the third is about vision of the uncreated Light.

In the first part he opposes Barlaam’s view that human knowledge is a gift of God, and indeed of equal or higher value than the knowledge of the Apostles and the Prophets. This was why Barlaam had come to wrong conclusions. One of these was that the monks should pursue human education and human knowledge in order to be perfected.

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In answer to this view, St. Gregory maintains that man’s aim is to progress from the image to the likeness of God. In his fall man lost his direction toward the likeness, and the image was darkened. Therefore he must now purify the image. But this does not come about through “carnal wisdom”. Since the darkening of the image happens through sin, this means that when sin is removed, when man attains inner prayer, when his life is harmonised with Christ’s commandments, and when he attains vision of God, then he is in fact in the image of God. Therefore the philosophers’ teaching is different from that of the Christians.

St. Gregory emphasises particularly that man purifies the image through Christ’s commandments and the power of the Cross of Christ. He refers to the cases of St. John the Forerunner and of Christ Himself. The Forerunner, he who is greater than the Prophets, lived from his early years in the desert, where, he points out, there was no education nor any of what Barlaam called saving philosophy.

There were no books there, and no teachers of worldly wisdom.

And we find the same thing in the life of Christ.

When a young man asked what he should do to attain salvation and eternal life, he did not say: “If you want to be perfect, take up outward education, hasten to assimilate the sciences, acquire for yourself the science of beings”, but he said:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor, take up the cross and be willing to follow me”.

Therefore in order to shame the outwardly wise the Lord took on uneducated fishermen.

At this point St. Gregory refers to passages from the epistles of the Apostle Paul, mainly from the first letter to the Corinthians, where it says that Christ took unlettered men “in order to shame the outwardly wise”, that God made foolish the wisdom of the world, that “the world through its wisdom did not know God” and that “through the foolishness of what was preached He was pleased to save those who believe”.

Then, taking passages from Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, he makes the distinction between demonic human knowledge and knowledge from the Holy Spirit, and naturally he prevents the monks from acquiring that worldly wisdom and knowledge. He ends his first section by saying that outward wisdom, meaning philosophy, “appeared futile and contemptible to our holy Fathers and especially to those who had had experience of it”.

In the second part he refers to the vast subject of prayer, and especially to what is called noetic prayer, where the nous is centred in the heart. Barlaam and his followers had said that it was not right to take our nous into the body, particularly into the heart. They said that the right thing was to take the nous out of the body.

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In reply to this view, which presupposes Plato’s philosophical conceptions that the body is the prison of the soul and man’s salvation is the soul’s liberation from the body, he first uses the Apostle Paul’s three passages:

“Through Holy Baptism the body became the temple of the Holy Spirit in us”;

the body is the

“house of God”,

and finally God gave his promise

“I will live with them and walk with them, and I will be their God”.

He emphasises that the body is not evil, but it is the carnal attitude that is evil. When a person purifies his body through self-control, and the irascible and appetitive parts of the soul with self-control and love, and when he further makes his intelligence secure with prayer, then he sees divine Grace in his heart.

In what follows he makes excellent anthropological analyses. He analyses just what man’s nous is, that the heart is the place of the rational faculty, the first rational organ of the body, that the nous is in the bodily organ of the heart, not as in a receptacle, but as in an organ which directs the entire body. Thus we must struggle to bring the nous back into the heart, where its natural place is. Being a great and holy hesychast the saint brings into the soul that which also exists in God. Just as God has essence and energy, so also the soul has essence and energy. The soul’s energy which finds itself in the rational part and is flowing out through the senses towards creation must return to the heart. Beginners in the spiritual life can succeed in this by controlling their breathing.

When Barlaam and those who agreed with him scoffed at this method used by beginners, St. Gregory made very correct and very theological observations. The circular motion of the nous, that is to say its return from the outside world to the heart and its ascent from there to God, is the unerring method and the only way for man to acquire pure knowledge of God. But St. Gregory also made orthodox observations about the body’s participation in prayer, as well as in the path to sanctity.

The circularity of the body too is essential for the return of the nous to the heart. He says all these things because the Barlaamites mock the hesychasts, who at the beginning of their spiritual life also make use of the circular pattern of the body (omphalopsychoi). The saint cites the case of the Prophet Elijah, who used the circularity of his body to bring his nous back into his heart and thus relieved the drought.

In the third part he refers to the fruits of prayer, which are the uncreated Light and divine Knowledge. Barlaam maintained that any light which is accessible to the senses is created and therefore is lower than thought, man’s rational faculty. So, with his view that all external light is created and symbolic, he went so far as to consider the philosophers superior to the Prophets and Apostles, who saw the uncreated Light.

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This part touches on many other topics as well that relate to this and other accusations by the Barlaamites. First he cites various patristic passages according to which at the beginning of the spiritual life the study of Holy Scripture is reduced, not in disparagement of it, but because we must first be purified through prayer, and then we will understand the spirit of the Scriptures.

He cites other patristic passages as well, in order to show how the body participates in noetic prayer, because often the heart itself leaps with joy at the coming of Grace, and frequently a pleasant taste is created in the mouths of those who pray and sing, and this is the energy of divine Grace.

Then he makes the distinction between the light of natural knowledge and the Light of the uncreated energies of the Holy Spirit. He concludes that natural knowledge is not the light of the soul. Thus when the saints see the uncreated Light, they see the garment of deification. He cites many patristic passages -and he surely interprets them within his own spiritual experience, which is the same as that of the holy Fathers- that say that man can attain vision of the uncreated Light.

This Light is not symbolic and created, but the shining of hypostatic light; it is divinity itself. The light on Mt. Tabor is not a third hidden nature in Christ, but divinity itself. And towards the end of the third section he refers to the great difference between the theologian and one who has seen God. A theologian can also be said to be one who speaks about God without even having his own personal experience, but a ‘theoptis’ is one who sees God. Theology differs from the vision of God in the same way as the knowledge of a thing differs from the possession of it.

There are other places as well in the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas where he refers to the great subject of the knowledge of God. He affirms that vision of the uncreated Light is union with God. Union is communion, and this communion offers knowledge of God.

True knowledge of God is superior to human created knowledge.

And the saint demonstrates that in the Orthodox Church we teach that the Prophets are incomparably higher than the philosophers, for the Prophets of both the Old and New Testaments attained the vision of God, while the philosophers were making conjectures about God.

In this analysis of the first triad of St. Gregory’s work “On the holy hesychasts” he is clearly shown to be a hesychast father, expressing the genuine hesychasm which is experienced on the Holy Mountain.

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