by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
The “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” is a text contained in the “Triodion” and read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of Lent.
It is well known that through the ages various heresies have appeared which deny the experience of revelation and in fact make use of philosophy and conjecture, doubting the Church’s truth on various dogmatic topics. The Fathers who formed the Synods opposed these errors. The decisions of the Synods on dogmatic topics are called “provisions”. More generally speaking, each decision of the Synods is called a “Synodikon”. Thus we have the synodical tome and the synodical provision, and moreover, each synod has its own synodikon.
The “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” is the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which refer to the veneration of holy icons. The reading of them on the Sunday of Orthodoxy gave the title “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”. Of course it must be said that later there was also added to the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” the definition of faith of the hesychastic Councils of the fourteenth century. Thus the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” comprises the decisions of both the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the Councils of the fourteenth century, which, as will be said below, have all the elements to characterise and regard as a Ninth Ecumenical Council.
An analysis will be made of the “Synod of Orthodoxy” in its central points. There will not be a broader analysis of the whole Council, but what I consider to be the main points will be emphasised, because they express the ethos of the Church. And this is necessary, because the mind of the Church is linked to, and in harmony with the decisions of the Fathers of the Church as it has been expressed with conciliar authority.
l. Church and Synods
However, before proceeding to analyse the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”, I think it well to examine briefly the large subject of the relationship of the Church with the Synod.
When some heresy springs up, the holy Fathers confront it at the place where it appears. Arios, who proclaimed that Christ is the first creature of God and essentially denied the divinity of Christ, was confronted by the Council of Alexandria. But then, when his heretical opinions began to be disseminated beyond the borders of Alexandria as well, the subject was confronted by the First Ecumenical Council. The holy Fathers were called together to make a common decision about the formulation of the orthodox teaching. In the Councils the holy Fathers did not seek to find the truth, making conjectures by reasoning and imagination, but in order to confront the heretics they attempted to formulate in words the already existing revealed Truth, of which they also had their own personal experience.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite divides the Councils into Ecumenical, Local and Rural. This division is not according to subjects, but according to the persons who brought them together, for it is possible that the subjects of the Local Councils can refer to serious dogmatic questions.
A Rural Council is a meeting which is convoked by the Bishop, Metropolitan or Patriarch alone with his own Clergy, without the presence of other Bishops.
A Local Council is a meeting in which the Metropolitan or Patriarch joins with his own Bishops or Metropolitans. This takes place when the Bishop of a district or the Bishops of two districts come together to confront various burning questions of the Church.
An Ecumenical Council is the assembly of many Bishops from all districts in order to discuss and decide about a question of the Church. The Ecumenical Council has four distinguishing marks according to St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite. The first is that it is convened
“by order, not of the Pope nor of such and such a Patriarch, but by Royal orders”.
The second is that there should be discussion of topics of faith
“and afterwards a decision and a dogmatic definition should be published in each one of the Patriarchates”.
The third is that the dogmas must be correct in their orthodoxy and in agreement with the divine Scriptures, or the previous Ecumenical councils”. The words of Maximos the Confessor are characteristic:
“The right faith validates the meetings that have taken place, and again, the correctness of the dogmas judges the meetings”.
And the fourth is that it must have universal recognition. All the orthodox Patriarchs and Archbishops of the catholic Church must
“agree and accept the decisions and canonisings by the Ecumenical Councils, either through their personal presence or through their own delegates, and in their absence, through their letters”.
These characteristic marks mentioned by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite are noteworthy. But I must clarify two of them, the first and fourth, which are those most characteristic of the Ecumenical Councils and distinguish them from the other, Local Councils.
One is that the Ecumenical council was convened by the emperors, when Christianity had become an official religion of the Empire, and the emperor wanted to make the definition of the Ecumenical Council a law of the Empire for the peace of the Citizens. Fr. George Florovsky observes:
“In a certain sense the General Councils as inaugurated at Nicaea, may be described as “Imperial Councils”, die Reichskonzile, and this was probably the first and original meaning of the term ‘Ecumenical’, as applied to the Councils”.
The other was that the authenticity of the Ecumenical Councils as well as that of the other Councils was given chiefly by the deified and god-bearing Fathers. Fr. Georges Florovsky observes also at this point:
“the ultimate authority –and the ability to discern the truth in faith– is vested in the Church which is indeed a ‘Divine institution’ in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council and no ‘Conciliar institution’ is ‘de jure divino’, except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself”.
Then he says:
“The claims of the Councils were be accepted or rejected in the Church not on formal or ‘canonical’ grounds. And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church, this was the attitude of the ancient Church”.
In the foregoing chapters we explained in brief who are the true members of the Church, who are the living and who the dead members of the Church. So we can say that the mind of the Church is expressed by its deified saints. Therefore, finally, all the Ecumenical Councils rest upon the teaching of the saints of the past. The reader can find this view developed in an earlier study of mine. Here I want only to mention Georges Florovsky’s opinion that
“both a few and solitary confessors of the faith were able to express this experience, and this is enough… the holy worthiness of the meeting does not depend on the number of members who represent their church. A great “general” synod would be able to be proven a synod of thieves (latrocinium) or even of apostates… But it is possible in a synod for the minority to express the truth. And most significant, the truth could be revealed even without a synod. The opinions of the Fathers and ecumenical Teachers of the Church often have greater spiritual value and explicitness than the definite decisions of synods. These opinions are not necessary to confirm and to be demonstrated by “ecumenical agreement”.
Likewise, I would also like to mention the opinion of Fr. John Romanides, that all the holy Fathers followed the same method and had personal experience of the truths of the Faith. Their meeting in an Ecumenical Council gave them the opportunity to agree on the same terminology for the same revealed experience. He writes characteristically:
“Neither illumination nor glorification can be institutionalised. The sameness of this experience of illumination and glorification among those having the gifts of grace, who have these states, does not necessarily require sameness of dogmatic expression, especially when those gifted are geographically far apart over long periods of time. In any case when they meet, they easily agree about the same form of dogmatic formulation of their identical experiences. A great impetus towards identical dogmatic expression was given at the time when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire and satisfied the Empire’s need to distinguish the genuine healers from the pseudo-physicians, in the same way in which the governing officials are responsible for distinguishing genuine members of the medical profession from the quacks and embezzlers of medical science, for the protection of their citizens”.
With these basic preconditions the Ecumenical Councils are unerring and express the consciousness and the life of the Church. And of course the terms of the Ecumenical Councils have value, because, on the one hand, they assure the possibility of salvation, and on the other hand they indicate the true way for man’s cure, for attaining deification. We can say that the terms of the Ecumenical Councils are not philosophical nor do they serve philosophy, but they are theological, that is to say therapeutic, and they aim at the cure of man. Therefore we owe great thanks to the Fathers who formed the Ecumenical Councils and acted as ecclesiastic personalities.
2. The two Ecumenical Councils
In the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” there is reference to all the Fathers who formed the Ecumenical Councils, but mainly it was limited to mentioning and referring to two Councils with great authority and great authenticity. They are the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which ruled about the veneration of the holy icons, and the one taken to be the Ninth Ecumenical Council, which ruled about the uncreated essence and the uncreated energy of God, as well as ruling in an inspired way about hesychasm, the way which we should use in order to reach deification.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council was convoked by the grace of God, and the “decree of the devout and God-loving sovereigns Constantine and Irene, his mother”, as it is said in the definition of faith of this Council. Indeed it is said that
“the Lord God in His good will convoked us the leaders of the priesthood everywhere, with the divine zeal and consent of Constantine and Irene, our most faithful sovereigns”.
They contrast themselves with the heretics who, while said to be priests, in reality are not”, for they have made accusation against the true faith of the Church
“following impious men of the same persuasions”.
Many things appear in this text. First, that the Ecumenical Council is convened in the name of the Imperial Sovereigns. Secondly, that the heretics, while they are priests, are really not, since the apostolic succession is not only the uninterrupted priesthood, but also adherence to the apostolic tradition and teaching. Thirdly, that the heretics repudiate the catholic teaching of the Church and follow philosophers, who have their own opinions and conceptions.
Appearing in the “definition of faith” of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is the orthodox teaching about veneration of the holy icons, because “honour paid to the image passes on to the original” and “he who venerates the image is venerating in it the person of him who is depicted therein”.
In the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” the whole faith of the Church concerning the veneration of the holy icons is conserved.
The possibility of painting an icon of Christ is proclaimed precisely because he became incarnate and assumed human nature in fact, not in imagination. In the person of the Word the divine nature was united with the human nature immutably, unchangeably, inseparably and indivisibly. That is confessed which is different in essences and was united in this way in the one hypostasis of the Logos
“the created and the uncreated, the visible and the invisible, the passible and the impassible, the limited and the unlimited”.
To the divine essence belongs the uncreated, the invisible, the impassible and the unlimited, while to the human essence belongs, apart from the other things, also the circumscribed. For this reason we can make icons of Christ, because He became incarnate. Anyone who does not tolerate “icon painting of the incarnate Word, and His sufferings on our behalf” is anathematised.
Also, in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” it is proclaimed that by bowing before the holy icons and by looking at them, the eyes too are sanctified and the nous is lifted up towards the knowledge of God. It is written characteristically:
“the lips of those sanctifying by the word, or the ears by the word of those knowing and proclaiming, just as the eyes of those who see are sanctified by the pure Icons, the nous is lifted up by them towards knowledge of God, just as also by the divine temples and holy implements and other precious vessels”.
Thus we have the possibility to venerate the flesh of God and to be sanctified by this veneration, naturally according to the condition in which we are, since the flesh of Christ is characterised as
“equal to God and of equal worth”.
The Ninth Ecumenical Council in the time of St. Gregory Palamas was concerned with another doctrinal topic, which is a sequel to the topics that concerned the early Church. In the fourth century the holy Fathers confronted the heresy of Areios, who taught that the Word of God is a creature. St. Gregory Palamas in his time confronted the heresy of Barlaam, who said that God’s energy is created. Furthermore, as we said, the Council “justified” hesychasm, which is the only method that leads man to deification.
We must say that everything in the Ninth Ecumenical Council has all the elements and hallmarks which we cited above to qualify it as an Ecumenical Council.
First, it is convoked by emperors. In the synodical tome of 1341 A.D. it is said, among other things:
“Then when the meeting had gathered, also in the presence of the eternal and blessed ruler… of the convocation and not a few of the most worthy archimandrites and abbots and assembled members of the government…”.
All three Councils which were convoked in this period on the doctrinal topic which was concerning the Church at that time, were convoked by order and in the presence of the emperors.
Then, as we said before, the subject of the uncreated energy of God, as well as what was called hesychasm were serious theological questions. That is to say, they are not subjects that refer to a few canonistic questions, but serious dogmatic themes that refer to man’s salvation. For if God’s energy is created, then we end either in agnosticism or pantheism. We cannot attain communion with God. And if hesychasm, the way of the orthodox tradition by which we are cured and attain deification, is replaced by philosophy, this too destroys the true preconditions for man’s salvation. Therefore these subjects are most serious.
Many contemporary theologians believe that the Councils of St. Gregory Palamas’s time should be considered to constitute and compose the Ninth Ecumenical Council. And this is because they were called together by the emperors, were concerned with a doctrinal topic of great importance, and St. Gregory Palamas, who has attained deification and therefore had personal experience of deification, was battling in them. I would like to refer to the opinion of Father Athanasios Gievtits, who says:
“But we think that the Council of Constantinople at the time of St. Gregory Palamas in 1351, judging at least from its great theological work, can be, and deserves to be counted among the Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church, lacking in nothing as to the soteriological significance of its theology. This Council constitutes the proof of the conciliarity of the Orthodox Church and of the living experience and theology concerning salvation in Christ”.
This is also the conscience of the Church. That is why in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” which existed already and was read in the Churches, about the victory and triumph of the Orthodox, they added also “the chapters against Barlaam and Akindynos”, from what is called the Ninth Ecumenical Council. Emperor Kantakuzinos, at the last Council which was concerned with this topic, that is to say in the Council of 1351 A.D., summarised the conclusions of the meetings and decisions, while St. Philotheos Kokkinos, then Metropolitan of Heraklia, assisted by George Galisiotis and the wise Maximos put together the synodical tome from the records. Finally, the hesychastic teaching entered into the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” for the first time, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1352 A.D. in order for the heretics to be anathematised and all who expressed the orthodox teaching to be acclaimed. After the death of St. Gregory Palamas acclaim for him was added.
3. Anathemas – Acclamations
Anyone who reads the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” will discover at once that, on the one hand, the heretics are anathematised and on the other hand the holy Fathers and confessors are acclaimed. For the former those present proclaim “anathema” three times, for the latter the people proclaim “eternal memory” three times at each proposal.
Some people are scandalised when they see and hear such action, particularly when they hear “anathema”. They consider it very harsh and say that the spirit of hatred of other doctrines which the Orthodox Church has is being expressed in this way.
But the facts are not interpreted in this way. The anathemas cannot be regarded as philosophical ideas and as states of hatred for other doctrines, but as medical actions. First of all the heretics by the choice which they have made have ended in heresy and in their departing from the teaching of the Church. By using philosophy they have opposed themselves to theology and the Revelation. In this way they demonstrate that they are ill and in reality are cut off from the Church. Then excommunication has the meaning of showing the separation of the heretic from the Church. The holy Fathers by this action of theirs confirm the already existing condition, and besides this, they help the Christians to protect themselves from the heresy-illness.
There is a characteristic extract from the records of the Fourth congress of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. It says there that the holy Fathers fulfil the word of Christ, in order to set the lamp of divine knowledge “on the lampstand” to shine on all those in the house and not to hide it from them “under a bushel”. In this way those who confess the Lord are helped to travel unimpeded the path of salvation. The holy Fathers
“push away every error of heretics, and if the rotten limb is incurable they cut it off; and possessing the shovel, they cleanse the threshing-floor; and the grain, or the nourishing word, that which supports the heart of man, they store up in the warehouse of the Catholic Church, but the chaff of the heretical wrong teaching they throw out and burn in unquenchable fire”.
Thus the heretics are incurably rotten limbs of the Church and are therefore cut off from the Body of the Church. The heretics must be examined in this light. In this way one can see the Church’s love for mankind. For, as we have emphasised elsewhere as well, when someone employs erroneous medical teaching, there are no therapeutic results, one can never achieve the cure. The same is true with the doctrines or the erroneous teaching. An erroneous teaching which is based on a wrong methodology can never lead man to deification.
It is in this light that we must examine the fact that the anathemas as well as the acclamations are referred to particular persons, because these particular persons are the ones who shape these teachings and as a result win adherents. And indeed it is characteristic that dreadful epithets are used for the heretics. We must add that the awful epithets which are used must not be examined in a moral sense, but in a theological sense, for many of the leaders of heresies were “moral” men. In what follows I would like to look at a few such epithets and some very indicative characterisations.
The iconoclasts who inveighed against the holy icons are called in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” “damaging” to the glory of God,
“venturers against the icon and insolent, cowardly and fleeing”.
Those who started the heresy of iconoclasm, in the time of the Isaurians were called
“sacrilegious and leaders of perdition”.
The Gerontios is anathematised for “the poison of its abominable heresy… with its perverse dogmas”. Heresy is an illness and the heretical dogmatic belief is perverse, because it twists the truth of the revelation of the Church. Anathema is given to
“the raging gathering against the venerable Icons”.
As we said, all the heretics are mentioned in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”. By this it seems, on the one hand, that all the heretics used the same method and in essence coincide with one another, and on the other hand, that both the Seventh Ecumenical Council and what is taken to be the Ninth Ecumenical Council regard themselves as expressing the Church and as a continuation of the earlier Ecumenical Councils. Arios is called a fighter against God and ringleader of the heresies, Peter the Purifier is called mad. The same characterisation “mad” is used of many heretics. Of course they are called mad not in a biological sense, but first and foremost in the theological sense. Barlaam, Akindynos, leaders of the anti-hesychastic teachings and all their followers are called an evil gang. By contrast, for the defenders of the orthodox teachings such adjectives as devout, most holy, and unforgettable are used.
And again I must point out that heresy reverses the true way of man’s cure for reaching deification. If we think that purification of the heart, illumination of the nous is therapy in order for man to take the path to deification, then we understand that heresy reverses this way and leaves man permanently without a cure, without hope of cure and salvation.
4. Some characteristic signs
Of course it is impossible for us to analyse and interpret the whole wonderful and significant of the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”. The reader should go through it carefully and he will discover its importance. But I would like to have us look at some characteristic points which I think are the basis of all that is said in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” but also the basis of the Christian life, and which are the things that show to what extent we possess the genuine mind of the Church.
a) The condemnation of philosophy
In the whole text of the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” it is seen clearly that philosophy is condemned. Both the way in which philosophy refers to and presents God and the conclusions to which it comes are condemned. And of course, in speaking of philosophy, we mean metaphysics as it was developed by Plato, Aristotle and other, later philosophers. We shall see what kinds of heretical teachings are cast out and rejected.
Those are rejected which accept the impious dogmas of the Greeks, that is to say the idolatrous ones, which refer to the creation of the world and to human souls and mix them up with the teaching of the Church. Characteristically it is said: “To those who have promised to revere the Orthodox and Catholic Church, and instead disgracefully introduce the irreverent dogmas of the Greeks about men’s souls, and heaven, and earth, and the other created things, anathema”. It should be pointed out that those who accept the dogmas of the Greeks but present themselves as devout are anathematised. It seems that also at that time there were men who, among other things, feigned reverence and had fine manners but did not accept the dogmatic teaching of the Church.
Yet it is not these works of the philosophers that are anathematised, but the fact that the teachings of the philosophers are preferred to the Faith, and that philosophy is used to distort the truth of the Church. It is not forbidden to study the works of the ancient Greeks, that is, of the pagans, but those Christians are reproached who follow and accept their futile theories. Anathema is pronounced “on those who accept the Greek teachings, not on those who only cultivate them for culture, but on those who also follow these futile doctrines of theirs”. And as we said before, those are censured who prefer
“the foolish so-called wisdom of the profane philosophers”
to the orthodox teaching.
The “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” does not stay on a theoretical plane but also proceeds to concrete topics which it condemns. And, as will be discovered, it refers to basic teachings of philosophy, of so-called metaphysics. Among these is Plato’s teaching about ideas. According to this notion, there are the ideas, and the whole world is either a copy of these ideas or a fall from these ideas. According to Plato, man’s salvation lies in the return of his soul to the world of the ideas. In the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” the holy Fathers condemn this view and those who accept “the Platonic ideas as true”.
The ancient philosophers believed that matter has no beginning and all created things are everlasting and without beginning, and indeed matter is as old as the Creator of the world. Those who accepted these things are condemned. Matter and the world were created by God and do not remain unchangeable.
But also on the subject of creation philosophy differs from theology. It is a basic teaching of the Fathers of the Church that the world was created out of nothing, “out of non-being”, out of “non-existent matter”. This teaching shakes all the foundations of philosophy. Philosophy believes, as we said, that matter is everlasting. So those who accept that “all things did not come into being from nonbeing” are condemned by the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”.
Philosophy also differs on the subject of the soul, and therefore all who accept its views are condemned. The ancient philosophers believed in the pre-existence of the soul, in transmigrations and in the fact that the soul has an end, that at some time the soul will die. Such teachings have also entered into some theologians of the Church, and so they too are condemned. All are anathematised who accept “that souls have pre-existence” as well as all who accept
“the transmigration of human souls, or even that they are destroyed by dumb animals, which are received into nonbeing”, and therefore they deny “resurrection, judgement, and the final reward for the conduct of their lives”.
Likewise all those are condemned who assert that men will be raised with other bodies and will not be judged
“with them according to how they conducted themselves in the present life”.
Correspondingly, also those are condemned who accept the belief of the philosophers that there will be a restoration of all things, that is to say, “that there is an end to hell or a restoration again of creation, and of human affairs”.
As there are even today, so there were then as well, men who considered the philosophers to be superior to the Fathers of the Church and therefore accepted their teachings. However, all are anathematised who teach that the philosophers, who were condemned by all the Ecumenical Councils, “are much greater, both here and in the judgement to come, than the holy Fathers, all who reject the teachings of the holy Fathers and the acts of the Ecumenical Councils, and all who do not take the teachings of the holy Fathers to be correct and try to “misinterpret them and turn them round” – all these are anathematised. For the holy Fathers are bearers of the Tradition, they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
We mentioned before that all the philosophers had a particular method which they distinguished from the methodology of the holy Fathers. The philosophers used logic and imagination to interpret these things, while the holy Fathers attained illumination of the nous and deification, and in this way received the Revelation. The erroneous method of the philosophers as well as those who use it are condemned by the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”.
By contrast, there is praise for pure faith and the simple and whole heart. Concretely, it says:
” To those who do not accept with a pure faith and a simple and whole heart that which concerns our Saviour and God and our pure Theotokos who gave birth to Him, and who do not accept the remarkable miracles of the other saints, but who, attempting by proofs and sophisticated words, to defame them as impossible or to misinterpret them according to how it seems to them, giving advice according to their own opinion, anathema”.
When someone relies only on logic and imagination, he is on a wrong path. And if we observe carefully, we shall discover that all the heretics take this way. They try, through logic and imagination and by the use of philosophy, to analyse and understand all the doctrines of the Church. By contrast, the holy Fathers use a different method, which is called hesychasm, consisting of purification of the heart, illumination of the nous and deification.
In saying all these things we must again emphasise that the philosophers in their time made a great attempt to interpret some problems that they were trying to solve. But what we can observe is that they employed a different method and therefore fell wide of the mark. By the things said in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”, we are urged not to cease studying the writings of the philosophers and the ancient Greeks, but not to use their method, which consists of conjecture and the rule of logic, and not to accept their notions, because they corrupt the orthodox faith. The theories of ideas, of no beginning and of everlasting matter, of the eternity of the world, of the pre-existence of souls, of transmigration or reincarnation, of the creation of the world out of existent matter, of the restoration of all things, etc. disturb the teachings of the Church and discredit the Revelation.
b) The theology of the uncreated Light
We mentioned before that the Fathers who wrote the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” condemned philosophy and its method, as well as those who follow the ancient philosophies and accept their doctrines. But correspondingly they acclaim the holy Fathers, who accepted the truth of the Church and expressed it in their time through their teaching and confession in the Council. I shall not refer to all these topics, but I especially want to emphasise what relates to the theology of the uncreated Light and the distinction between God’s essence and energy, because this was one of the most central and basic points in the Councils of the fourteenth century (1341, 1347, 1351) A. D.
Barlaam, a real scholastic theologian of that time, who made use of philosophy at the expense of the vision of God and gave central place to his reasoning and conjecture, as is seen from the tome of the year 1341, maintained that philosophy is superior to theology and to the vision of God. He said that the Light on Mt. Thabor was not unapproachable, nor was it the true light of divinity, nor more holy and divine than the angels,
“but even inferior to and lower than this intellect of ours”.
He said that since that Light falls through the air and strikes the sensory power etc. , all the concepts and understandings “are more holy than that light”. That light comes and goes, because it is imagined, divided and finite. According to Barlaam,
“we rise from such a light (rational) to concepts and visions, which are incomparably better than that light”.
Therefore he said that anyone who maintains that the Light of the Transfiguration is beyond conceiving and is true and unapproachable
“is completely mistaken. . . irreverent, and so is introducing very pernicious doctrines into the Church”.
Barlaam said these things because he had been saturated with the scholastic theology of the West, since he certainly did not even know the theology of the Orthodox Church.
At the same time Barlaam was fighting against the distinction between essence and energy in God, and especially against the teaching of the holy Fathers that God’s energy is uncreated.
The orthodox teaching on this subject is set out in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”. It is said that God has essence and energy and that this distinction does not destroy the divine simplicity. We confess and believe that
“uncreated and natural grace and illumination and energy always proceed inseparably from this divine essence”.
And since, according to the saints,
“created energy means created essence as well, but uncreated energy characterises uncreated essence”,
therefore God’s energy is uncreated. Indeed the name of divinity is placed not only upon the divine essence, but
“also on the divine energy no less”.
This means that in the teaching of the holy Fathers,
“this (the essence) is completely incapable of being shared, but divine grace and energy can be shared”.
Likewise in the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” the truth is presented that the Light of the Transfiguration is not a phantom and a creation, it is not something which appears and then disappears, but it is uncreated and a natural grace and illumination and energy. That is to say, it is the natural glory of divinity. And this Light, which is God’s uncreated energy and comes forth indivisibly from the divine essence, appears
“through God’s benevolence towards those who have purified their nous”.
So this uncreated light is “light unapproachable. . . and boundless light and incomprehensible nature of divine radiance, and ineffable glory, and Divinity, supremely perfect glory and beyond perfection, and timeless glory of the Son, and kingdom of God, and true beauty, and lovely in its divine and blessed nature, and natural glory of God, the Father and Spirit flashing forth in the Only-begotten Son, and divinity…”
The holy Fathers are acclaimed who confess
“the divine energy proceeding from the divine essence, proceeding undividedly, and because of this proceeding, the ineffable distinction of the things present, but because of the `undividedly’, the marvellous union of the things shown”.
And finally the heretics who accept such erroneous views, opposed to the teaching of the holy and god-bearing Fathers, are anathematised. By contrast, the holy Fathers who express unerringly the teaching of the Catholic Orthodox Church are acclaimed and pronounced blessed. Specifically St. Gregory Palamas, Bishop of Thessaloniki, is praised. He is praised for two reasons. One because he successfully confronted and defeated the heretics, who were teaching erroneous ideas about these crucial theological subjects and were attempting to introduce into the Church of Christ
“the Platonic ideas and those Greek myths”.
The other reason is because he set forth the orthodox teaching on these subjects, using all the holy Fathers from Athanasius the Great to his time as interpreters. So here St. Gregory Palamas is presented as a successor to the holy Fathers and champion of the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and for this reason his name is given special and particular mention in the “Synodikon”.
The tome of the Synod of 1347 A. D. writes something very important about the value and authority of St. Gregory Palamas and all those monks who follow his teaching. It characterises him as most worthy. And since it anathematises all who do not accept his teaching and oppose him, it says
“at the same time that if anyone else is ever caught either thinking or speaking or writing against the authority of the said very worthy priestmonk Gregory Palamas and the monks with him, and still more against the holy theologians and this Church, we cast our vote against him, whether he be a priest or a layman”. That is to say, whoever speaks against St. Gregory Palamas and his teaching receives excommunication by the Synod. And indeed it is written that we hold St. Gregory Palamas and the monks who agree with him to be not only superior to those against him, or still more, to those sophistries against the Church of God. . . , but we state that they are protectors of the Church and contenders for the right faith and procurers and helpers of it”.
Since even today there are some “theologians” who doubt the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and regard it as neo-Platonic, let us listen to the excommunication and anathematisation of the Synod which we have mentioned, and in general of the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”.
The Church’s theology which was expressed in the 14th century by St. Gregory Palamas concerning God’s uncreated energy and the uncreated Light is closely connected with what is called the hesychastic movement. For a man to attain this experience, vision of the uncreated Light, which is identified with deification, it is not a matter of developing his reasoning and loading his brain with knowledge, but a fruit of his purity, of his nous returning to the heart, and illumination of the nous.
From the acts of the Synodal tome of the year 1341 A. D. it appears that Barlaam was disputing the way of life of orthodox monasticism, the so-called hesychastic way. Indeed, this is also seen from the whole teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, especially his refutation of Barlaam’s views in his well known work “On behalf of the holy hesychasts“. I would like, however, to mention one excerpt from the acts of the Synod of 1341. Barlaam said among other things,
“Of the many things with which one would have the right to charge the lecturer on such teaching, I regard nothing worse than the fact that in undertaking to upset the mysteries of the Christians by inhalations he even slanders the Fathers as having previously thought the things that he is teaching now”.
In the writings of St. Gregory Palamas we see a continual removal of the false doctrine of this teaching of Barlaam, who was trying to shake the foundations of traditional monasticism.
Barlaam had in view the monasticism of the West, which had abandoned the hesychastic method and was busy with a social activity. In the Middle Ages, through the influence of scholastic theology, action (praxis), which in patristic theology is purification of the heart, is interpreted as mission, and vision, which in the theology of the holy Fathers, is noetic prayer and vision of the uncreated Light, is interpreted as mental conjecture about God.
Indeed, inhaling and exhaling, as well as other methods, are psychotechnical methods by which the attempt is made to free the nous from enslavement to the environment and reasoning, and for it to enter the heart, where its real place is, its natural state, and from there to rise to the vision of God. The basic thing is to be able, through the grace of God and one’s own effort, to concentrate the nous in the heart. This is what is called hesychasm and the hesychastic movement. It is the so-called noetic hesychia, about which so many holy Fathers wrote. By this method the nous is freed from logic and acquires its natural and supranatural way. Then it is in its natural state.
All the holy Fathers followed the same method, and that is why they ended with the same conclusions. Hesychasm is the only method for man’s cure. So there are, on the one hand, the hesychasts throughout the ages, who are the unalloyed theologians, and on the other hand, the antihesychasts, who theologise with their imagination and therefore end in heresies.
In the Synodikon of 1341 A. D. there is a very meaningful and characteristic paragraph. Barlaam is condemned, because he was accusing the monks
“concerning the holy prayer that occupied them and was often offered by them”.
The monks practised prayer and noetic hesychia because, as the whole Tradition also bears witness, it is the appropriate method for concentrating the nous in the heart. The Synod accepts this method, which appears to have been accepted by all the Fathers of the Church.
But at the same time the Synod also condemns all those who accept the same views as Barlaam and make accusation against the monks who try to live in a hesychastic way, because the monks are doing nothing else but adopting the method which the Church has. It says characteristically:
“But also if any other one of those under him, or any of those who offend in such things, being subject to this excommunication by our humbleness, is seen to be either speaking or writing blasphemously and with false beliefs against the monks, or still more against this Church, let him be excommunicated and cut off from the holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ and the orthodox community of Christians”.
I consider this to be a very important text and reply to those who not only condemn contemporary hesychastic monasticism, but consider it heretical and pursue every means for liberating themselves from the whole hesychastic tradition and assign it a place among the anthropocentric communities or even general religious conventions of life. The statement that they are cut off from the Church of Christ is fearful.
d) The divinely inspired theologies of the saint and the devout mind of the Church
Anyone who studies the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” will surely observe, when he comes to the chapters that refer to the heresy of Barlaam and Akindynos, that this phrase occurs six times:
“against the God-inspired theology of the saints and the devout mind of the Church”.
And indeed he will observe that the Synod uses the same phrase in opposing all the heretical views of Barlaam and Akindynos and in referring to the teaching of the Church on this particular subject. The heretics are condemned because they do not believe and do not confess
“in accordance with the God-inspired theologies of the saints and the devout mind of the Church”.
We must notice that the professions of the saints are characterised as God-inspired. And of course divine inspiration is linked with Revelation. The saints experienced God, they attained experience of divine grace, they knew God personally, they reached Pentecost, they received the Revelation and therefore are characterised as divinely inspired and unerring teachers of the Church.
We should underline particularly the method which they used and the way they lived in order to become divinely inspired by grace. This way is hesychasm, which is made explicit in the three stages of spiritual perfection: purification of the heart, illumination of the nous and deification. These deified and God-inspired saints are the Prophets in the Old Testament, the Apostles and the holy Fathers. Therefore the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” says:
“As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers laid down as doctrine, as the World has agreed, as grace has shone”.
So there is identity of what has been experienced by all the saints, precisely because they followed the same method, they experienced the whole mystery of the Cross, which is our flight from sin, the flight of sin from within us and the ascent to the vision of God.
Furthermore, the divinely inspired teaching of the saints is closely connected with the devout mind of the Church. The Church produces the saints and the saints express the devout mind of the Church. Saints cannot be thought of apart from the Church and saints are unthinkable who have heretical and erroneous views on serious theological questions.
In the Church, as St. Gregory Palamas says, there are “those initiated by experience” and those who follow and revere these tested ones. Thus if we do not have our own experience on these matters, we must nevertheless follow the teaching of those who see God, the deified and experienced saints. It is only in this way that we have the mind of the Church and the consciousness of the Church. Otherwise we open the path to self-destruction in various ways. We must constantly believe and confess
“in accordance with the divinely inspired theologies of the saints and the devout mind of the Church”.
The “Synodikon of Orthodoxy” is an excellent and very concise text which is a summing up of the whole orthodox teaching of our Church. This is why the Church has inserted it in its worship, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and it is read in an attitude of attention and prayer. It is a holy text. And we must harmonise with it all our thinking, and above all, our life.
We need to study it closely in order to recognise what constitutes the orthodox faith and orthodox life. And in fact the orthodox way of life is free of scholasticism and moralism. It is hesychastic and theological.
Our positive or negative stand towards this text shows to what extent we are animated by the orthodox mind of the Church or are possessed by scholasticism. We are of the Church insofar as we are of the holy Fathers.