Contextual Theology: Part Two
By Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
The fourteenth century was extremely important for the Church, because for the very first time Orthodox theology confronted the West’s scholastic theology in the persons of Saint Gregory Palamas and Barlaam respectively.
In this dialogue, it became evident that Saint Gregory Palamas was the bearer and the expresser of the entire theology of the Church, from the first era of Christianity up until his time, given that he expressed the teaching of the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, the major Fathers of the fourth century, of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint John of Damascus, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, etc. During this entire period, the theology of the Church was uniform, changing only in its external formulation in certain points for the sake of various needs. That is why Saint Gregory was also characterized as a traditional as well as a progressive theologian.
Thus, the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas cannot be regarded as “Palamite” theology per se, but as the theology of the Orthodox Church as expressed by him. The same is observed with the teachings of all the Saints.
Usually, the views of heretics would take on the name of the person involved – for example “Arianism”, “Nestorianism”, “Paulicanism”, etc. It is therefore regarded as unseemly to name the teaching of Saint Basil the Great as “Basilian”, of Saint Gregory as “Gregorian”, or of Saint John Chrysostom as “Chrysostomian” etc. As such, it is equally inappropriate to name the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas as “Palamite” theology.
However, at a certain point in time, the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas was in fact characterized by some as “Palamite”. It is my impression that in most cases the term had a derisive nuance, intended to demote his teaching and make it seem like a strange one and different from the theology of the Church. There had even been theologians who in the past had actually written disparagingly about the overall hesychastic tradition expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas.
Eventually, the term “neopalamite” theology also appeared in an attempt to re-formulate and re-interpret the theology of this major Father of the Church for contemporary requirements. And this has created intense concern, because I believe that this is an endeavour to alter the teaching by Saint Gregory Palamas.
For example, a teaching of the Church on the relationship and the difference between Essence and Energy as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas may be analyzed, but, at the same time, the hesychast tradition is rejected as pietistic, though it is in fact the path for a personal partaking of the uncreated energy of God.
And the question posed here is: How can a scientist discuss a theory, when he rejects a practice that confirms it? That is just unscientific. This is why, according to “synodal opinion”, those who do not accept the hesychast tradition as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas and the “monks who are in agreement” are excommunicated.
I have been aware of this mentality for many years now, on account of my preoccupation with the opus and the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas. That is why, when wishing to analyze his teaching and record my conclusions after many years, I did so on the basis of the lives of the sanctified Hagiorite Fathers, who continue to live that same hesychast tradition and experience that Saint Gregory Palamas had been acquainted with and had experienced himself on the Holy Mountain.
Thus, the work that I composed has the title “Saint Gregory Palamas As A Hagiorite”. This aroused the displeasure of certain circles who insisted on interpreting the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas in a contemplative, scholastic and philosophical manner. One cannot however examine hesychast teaching independently of the space where it was experienced, and continues to be alive in to this day.
Consequently, the terms “palamite” and “neopalamite” theology belong outside of Orthodox Tradition and are a danger to the foundations of Orthodox theology.
Part Three will be published tomorrow.