Published by Oxford University Press on May 21, 2019
St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) achieved a remarkable popularity in the twentieth century. Once denigrated as a curiosity of the dissident Orthodox Church (Graecorum recentiorum), Palamas has become, thanks especially to the work of Vladimir Lossky and John Meyendorff, a central figure of systematic and ecumenical theology. The contributions of Palamas, centering on the doctrine of deification, or theosis, and the distinction between God’s essence, or substance, on the one hand, and his energies, or activities and operations, on the other, have always been met with a certain amount of controversy. And in spite of his current popularity, the situation today is no different. In his new book, Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age, Norman Russell grapples with the contested legacy of Palamas, looking at his reception through history as well as the value of his ideas for Christian theology more generally. Students of patristic, Byzantine, and modern Orthodox theology will recognize Norman Russell as a preeminent, veteran scholar whose contributions include monographs on Cyril of Alexandria (Routledge, 2000), The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford, 2009), and Metaphysics as a Personal Adventure: Christos Yannaras in Conversation with Norman Russell (SVS Press, 2011). Connected to his broader work on deification are also a number of articles on St. Gregory Palamas and the hesychast controversy that have appeared in the last decade, including two important papers, “The Reception of Palamas in the West Today” (in the journal Theologia, 2012), and “The Christological Context of Palamas’ Approach to Participation in God” (in C. Athanasopoulos, The Triune God; Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015).
In this his latest book, Russell builds on these contributions to provide a more expansive account of the phenomenon of “Palamism,” both in its theological dimensions and as a hermeneutical construct in history. The book is divided into two parts: the first examines the ecclesiastical and polemical reception of Palamite theology in both East and West, from the late Byzantine period until today, while the second (entitled “Raising the Larger Questions”) explores the contributions of Palamas to Christian theology, especially as these have been debated over the last century.
The historical overview of the legacy of Palamism, both within and without the Orthodox Church, is concerned mostly with the study of Palamas in modernity. Chapter 1 is dedicated to “the Orthodox struggle to assimilate Palamite thinking,” covering the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. Chapter 2 picks up with Martin Jugie, a pioneering scholar of Byzantine theology in the early part of the twentieth century. Chapter 3, in turn, looks at the groundbreaking work of Fr. John Meyendorff, and his critics, from about 1959 to 1974. And chapter 4, entitled “New Directions since Meyendorff,” brings us up to the current day.
The first chapter, which covers the longest period of time (1338–1917), is also the shortest, though it is undoubtedly one of the most important sections of the entire book. Although it is limited to just twenty-two pages, Russell here recounts some of the details of the nachleben of St. Gregory Palamas through six centuries of Orthodox theological literature, a topic that has been sorely misunderstood and tragically neglected. The Palamite controversy itself (1338–1368), and the afterlife of Palamism until the fall of Constantinople (a topic that includes such figures as Mark Eugenikos and Gennadios Scholarios) is summarized in just a few pages. But this is followed by significant sections on Palamism in early modern Greece, the Enlightenment, and nineteenth-century Russia, culminating in a valuable discussion of the Name-Worshipping controversy. In this chapter, readers will encounter some familiar names, though their connection to Palamas may not be as well known: Dositheos of Jerusalem, Nikodimos the Hagiorite, and Bulgakov in the later period. But it also includes figures such as Damaskinos Stoudites, George Koressios, Vikentios Damados, and Evgenios Voulgaris. In this chapter Russell all but puts to rest the commonly held view that in the post-Byzantine period Palamism was dead letter in the Orthodox Church, having to be revived in the twentieth century. Readers will profit heavily from this chapter, but will perhaps be left wanting more. It may be hoped that Russell will return to this topic in a future study, since the history of post-Byzantine Orthodox theology very much needs to be told, and the ongoing engagement with Palamas only makes that history all the more interesting.
The subsequent chapter, which begins with the Roman Catholic scholar Martin Jugie and his pioneering work on Palamas, recounts the largely partisan engagement of Palamite theology in the era prior to Vatican II. Here, once again, Russell tells a fascinating, often behind-the-scenes story that includes sections on the St. Sergius Institute in Paris, Fr. Georges Florovsky, the Sophiology controversy, and Vladimir Lossky. Russell also reserves some space in this chapter for Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, whose 1938 monograph on Palamas, written in Romanian, was never properly incorporated into the scholarship of the time.
Russell’s third chapter, on Meyendorff and the response to his watershed monograph, Introduction à l’étude de Grégoire Palamas, is more than a bibliographical study. Russell rightly contextualizes the impact of Meyendorff’s work within the broader social and religious world of post-war Europe and the Catholic Church leading up to Vatican II. The readership of Meyendorff’s seminal study, Russell notes, “was ready to respond” to a book such as his (p. 75). This chapter deals not only with Meyendorff, but with the larger ecumenical stage on which his monograph was received. This includes, especially, a discussion of Eric Mascall and Louis Bouyer in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and the mixed reaction that Meyendorff received from Western Christian scholars, some irenic and enthusiastic, others persistently critical and suspicious.
The longest chapter in this part of the book examines the “new directions since Meyendorff.” This includes an overview of the critical editions of Palamas’s writings that began to appear in 1962 and a survey of the philological, historiographical, and philosophical research that has begun to expand our understanding of Palamite theology in its many dimensions. As a survey of contemporary studies on all aspects of the Palamite controversy, readers who would seek to be up to date on the figure and theology of Palamas will benefit from consulting this section of the book.
The second part of Russell’s book deals with various themes in the theology of Palamas himself. Chapter 5 examines the thought of Palamas as part of the question of development of doctrine, involving a comparison of theological methodology in East and West, a discussion of the relationship between philosophy and theology in Byzantium, and an exploration of the historical exercise of ecclesiastical authority in the Orthodox Church. Chapter 6 examines the topic of human participation in God. Here Russell examines in some detail the Palamite distinction between God’s essence and energies, the problem of “higher” and “lower” divinities, and the relationship between Palamas and Aquinas. Chapter 7 looks, in turn, at the broader question of human communion with God, including a close exploration of divine grace and the nature of the uncreated light seen by the deified.
Russell’s treatment of all of these topics is detailed and thoughtful in spite of being relatively succinct. Each chapter is also somewhat self-contained. The result is that small sections venture into very deep waters (e.g., on the nature of grace) that could readily fill an entire monograph. As Russell notes, though, he is simply raising the larger questions here, and he cannot do justice, in a single book, to the full range of topics and concepts in Palamas’s voluminous corpus.
Students of Palamas will find much to grapple with in these sections, though some scholars will inevitably disagree with certain conclusions and interpretations put forward by Russell. For example, it may questioned whether “Palamas overemphasizes the One’s descent into plurality” (p. 146), or whether the various kinds of participation in God are best understood as “degrees” of participation in the context of cause and effect (pp. 166–67). But Russell must be praised, in his treatment of Palamas’s theology, for going well beyond the usual range of texts to which readers of Palamas are usually limited. Far from relying exclusively on the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters and the Triads, Russell cites widely from the collection of Letters, the treatise On Unity and Distinction, the Antirrhetics against Akindynos, Against Gregoras, and even the writings of Akindynos himself, Theodore Dexios, and others. This means that readers will come across a number of themes from the historical polemic that they may not have seen before, such as the debate over whether the “energies” of God are simply the Son and the Holy Spirit. Though here, again, readers may be left wanting more.
The book ends with a chapter (8) on the potential for a truly ecumenical reception of Palamas outside the Orthodox Church. As a work that sets out to recommend Palamas to theologians seeking to benefit from the broader retrieval of Greek theological literature, I believe Russell’s book does an excellent job of showing how we might move beyond preconceived notions and confessional identity politics in assessing the theological contributions of Palamas. Russell himself does a great deal in his book to show how we can enter more deeply into the extensive writings of Palamas and attend to the wider context of Palamite theology, both in its original historical setting and in its influence throughout history.
Tikhon Alexander Pino
PhD Candidate, Department of Theology,
Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin