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Can Ratio Fathom the Truth: an Essay on the Triads of St. Gregory Palamas
by Rdr. Yuri Zharikov

This paper was submitted during the Spring '07 semester as a class assignment for course “106 — Survey of the Fathers”. Reader Yuri Zharikov is a biologist by trade and currently holds a term position at Simon Fraser University operating out of the Canadian Wildlife Service office in Delta, BC.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)


There is a deep and fundamental difference between Eastern Christianity and its Western derivatives. The former seeks God. The latter came to be satisfied with mere knowledge about Him but not of Him. This departure from traditional Christian theology by the West, which initially emerged as a minor “methodological” approach to, ironically, provide a clearer definition of the transcendent, with time developed into a wholly disparate approach to what we may call life in Christ or Christian life. Eventually, Western Christianity came to be associated with casuistry and an emphasis on verbal definitions of those things (mysteries) the Church always refused to define [1] “good deeds” to the detriment of inner renewal and exalted mystical experiences instead of repentance and humility. The knowledge about God became a goal in itself — an intellectual endeavour, exemplified by scholasticism or academic theology, almost completely divorced from the actual life. As noted by J. Romanides [2] whereas in the West a distinction is made between the contemplative and the active states of the Christian life, in the East there is no such distinction. But rather, in Orthodoxy one’s whole life becomes a quest not for good deeds, neither for knowledge, or for states or mystic experiences but for God Himself — the only treasure worth striving for (cf. Mat. 6:21).

The West lost or abandoned the principal idea of Christianity: that God can be known, as much as it is possible for an intelligent creature, only through personal deification (θεωσις) — indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart after it has been brought into the state of deep humility by the praxis of pious life and fulfilment of Lord’s commandments (cf. Mat. 5:8). One of the logical consequences of the deviant development in Western theology was emergence of the idea, borrowed from pagan Greek philosophers, that knowledge of God and thus truth can be fathomed by reason (ratio), i.e. via natural philosophy. Historically, this insistence on striving for truth by means of logic and examination of the world around us evolved into empirical science as we know it today, with its inductive and deductive reasoning. A tragic by-product of this development was externalization of God (cf. Luke 17:21) and substitution of the knowledge of God by “knowledge” about Him, which developed first into implicit and then explicit realization that God in or of Himself cannot be known via logic and examination of the external world. The consequence was rejection of a personal God as such. Thus, scholasticism and rationalism mutated into agnosticism and by late XVIII c into atheism. Subsequently science, a legitimate daughter of Western theology, first abandoned and then began to viciously persecute her own mother both in the West (French revolution) and Christianity elsewhere (Russian revolution). To this day science, instead of being used for its proper original purpose, i.e. examination of the physical world, is misapplied in an attempt to steal the fruit of the ultimate knowledge, such as origins of the world, life, and man, and to “prove” that God is not (cf. Ps. 13:1) [3] This brutal but ultimately vain struggle was superbly characterised by our father among the saints St. Gregory Palamas: the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit, but considers this foolishness, mistake, and superstition (1 Cor. 2:14), which he for the most part tries to completely disproof and in open confrontation distort and subject them to doubt as much as he can, although sometimes he does hypocritically accept them, but only in the same way a poisoner would use sweet foods. [4]

The question — can God or anything about Him be known and directly experienced without Himself, objectively, as it were – was at the heart of a polemical warfare that erupted in the first half of the XIV c between representatives of the Western rationalistic (humanistic) theology and the upholders of Eastern traditional theology. As far as Orthodox Christians are concerned, the argument was settled in favour of the traditionalists when in the year 1351 a local council of the Church of Constantinople condemned the rationalists, [5] while upholding the Orthodox view. It was again confessed that the only way to the knowledge of God is through God and that while God cannot be known or experienced in His essence, He can and is known and experienced in His energies (or glory) by those who strive for Him. The struggle between the two positions was respectively spear-headed by Barlaam the Calabrian and St. Gregory Palamas. The former was an Orthodox monastic from southern Italy, who adopted Latin theological views and eventually, after failing to win overwhelming support in the East, converted to Roman Catholicism. The latter, bishop of Thessalonica, was glorified by the Church among Her saints for his valiant struggle for truth. St. Gregory wrote several polemical treatises against Barlaam and his supporters — Gregory Akindynos and Nicephoras Gregoras — the most extensive and celebrated of which is the famous Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts. St. Gregory is also rightfully credited with a synthesis of patristic writings concerning deification and Divine energy. [6]

Barlaam and St. Gregory

Barlaam came to the monastic republic of Mount Athos in search of true spirituality, or at least that was the formal explanation given by him. [7] However, while there, instead of learning the skill of the noetic prayer or hesychia, he, after some superficial investigations of monastic practices, became scandalised by two things: claims by monastics-hesychasts of direct experience of God (Divine Light) and of their ascetic praxis. He expressed his views in letters and essays, which were circulated in the ecclesiastical circles of the New Rome with the goal of raising opposition to hesychastic practices and, one could argue, the idea of renouncing the world and all things worldly, in general. In his polemics against hesychasts, whom he branded heretics, Barlaam, stressed two overarching themes: (1) knowledge of God is rational, i.e. arrived at via the intellectual faculty of the soul, and it can be achieved via natural philosophy and (2) God is known only by analogy — no direct knowledge or experience of God is possible. [8] In pushing his points he amply used demagoguery, slander and distortion of patristic texts. [9] Barlaam’s position ran counter to what the Church knew and believed from the earliest times. Namely, that God is directly experienced in His energies, as indeed happened on Mount Tabor, and that intellectual faculty of the soul (ratio) can fulfil only a secondary, auxiliary role in one’s approaching God, but it is completely insufficient for setting a person on the right track by itself. St. Gregory, seeing the dangerous departure of Barlaam’s ideas from Orthodoxy and spurred by love for fellow monastics and holy fathers of the previous times, who were being ridiculed and blasphemed by Barlaam, rose to their defence.

Two ways of knowledge?

In his polemics against hesychasts and Orthodoxy in general, Barlaam relied on a fundamental and completely flawed assumption, namely that there exist two ways to knowledge of God — via reason and via revelation — although in neither case the knowledge is direct. This view reflected the dichotomous (intellectual activity versus contemplation) nature of Latin theology. With respect to reason (Barlaam did not consider himself a contemplative mystic) this assumption led to several implications. (i) Since one’s mental acuity, superficially, has nothing to do with ascetic labours, it followed that monasticism, as exemplified by hesychasts, is useless as far as achieving Divine knowledge. (ii) Likewise, deification, which is inseparable from Divine knowledge, cannot possibly mean elevation above one’s nature since it can be arrived at via natural means — reason. (iii) Ideas of pagan philosophers become sources of legitimate knowledge of God. [10] Plainly speaking, if Barlaam was correct, then a man could not become like unto God in this life.

Starting with the last implication, many fathers, including St. Gregory Palamas himself, studied and used Greek philosophy and sciences as they existed at their time. They used this knowledge to sharpen their theological definitions, write apologies of Christianity and glorify God for the wonders of His Creation. They, however, accorded to any rational human knowledge including philosophy only the appropriate role of a handmaid of theology [11] — a dispensable tool, but not an authentic way to the knowledge of God in its own right. St. Gregory, for example, quoted St. Basil the Great who wept bitterly about the years of his youth spent learning philosophy and science: Many years spent I in vanity <…> striving for the teachings of wisdom confounded by God, but one day, as if being awaken from deep slumber, I perceived uselessness of wisdom of the powers of this worldthat come to nought (1 Cor. 1:22, 2:6). [12] Barlaam’s view of the importance of natural philosophy was quite different and unduly lopsided — that, which is secondary and unnecessary was elevated by him to the pre-eminent position. According to the Calabrian, natural philosophy sharpens the learning faculty, the highest power of the soul, and rids the soul of every evil, because any passion emerges and takes root due to ignorance; philosophy leads a man even unto knowledge of God, because one cannot know God other than through His creation [13] (i.e. indirectly).

St. Gregory started his assault on Barlaam’s contention by showing that “natural” knowledge is reflexive, devoid of truth and thus cannot possibly independently lead to God. His initial point was a simple and a very correct observation that learned opinions always differ and are always mutually exclusive, which led him to conclude that it would be mindless to hope that one of them will capture the laws of the Creating Mind. [14] The other point levelled against Barlaam, and yet more critical, was that our mind and reason have been corrupted by the fall and passions darkening our reasoning stem not from ignorance but from corruption of our entire nature. Thus, surmised St. Gregory, how can it be possible in principle to arrive at any true knowledge of God or even of the physical world around us for this matter, relying solely on reason? [15] Any appropriate use of the mental faculty in approaching God would first require its “salvation ”, i.e. renewal , enlightenment and deification in Christ.

Echoing the choir of the Fathers, St. Gregory maintained that deification of human nature cannot possibly occur without the Church both temporally, i.e. before Christ , and existentially, i.e. separate of the Orthodox world-view and way of life , for this deification of human nature is the very reason for the coming of the Lord in flesh: He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. [16] To accentuate this point, St. Gregory demonstrated base morals of many ancient philosophers and explicitly demonic sources of their knowledge. [17] The best and most sophisticated of human minds could not even remotely approach the mystery of Divine knowledge prior to Christianity. Perhaps even more importantly, the best of Christian minds cannot “see” God without first purifying their hearts : <…> [ if ] a man can discover and fathom his God-likeness via natural philosophy <…> then Greek wisemen will have to be recognised as more God — like and superior God — seers to the Fathers, who lived before the Law , and prophets who lived after. <… > And John – the crown of prophesy – did he not spend his whole life, from early childhood to the last days, in the desert? <… > But where in the desert do we see learning of vain, but according to some people salvific, philosophy? Where are the thick books, where people digging in these books for their entire lives <…>? And on the other hand where in these books are the rules of ascetic and chaste life , where narratives of struggle and toil , which would encourage the reader to follow suit? [18]

Here, St. Gregory challenged and at the same time appealed to Barlaam attempting, as it were, to awaken his common sense, to evoke things and ideas he, being brought up Orthodox, surely would have known and could appreciate. That is that deification elevates man above his nature and it is absolutely impossible without labouring hard in the Lord’s vineyard – human heart. Natural philosophy could not in itself enlighten a human mind and arm it with knowledge of God because it was produced by corruption and in itself spawned more corruption by developing worldly pride and vainglory: Thus the knowledge acquired by the external science is not only unlike the true and spiritual knowledge, it runs counter to it. [19] Something else was required. This “something” was ascetic praxis of prayer and piety rejected by Barlaam outright as “omphalopsychia” [20] “messalianism”. [21] It should be noted that Barlaam placed great emphasis not only on any knowledge but, perhaps, appropriately on scriptural knowledge per se. A mere suggestion that practical Christian life, as led by monastics, is more important then scriptural knowledge was a major affront to him. He erred gravely, however, when he assumed that the mind can somehow be enlightened simply by studying scriptural texts, without striving for Christian virtues of hope, patience, and humility, crowned by love. To stir Barlaam and those who might have accepted his views in the right direction, St. Gregory tirelessly kept pointing out that knowledge of God “is taken by violence”: Patience comes from love, because love endureth all things (1 Cor. 13:7), however we, at any, rate, learn to acquire patience through effort, so as to use it as a vehicle to achieve love. <…> All who possess spiritual experience can only laugh at people who not from experience but from their personal understanding arrive at rules to the contrary, for in such things reason is not a good teacher, but rather toil and experience acquired by means of this toil, which yields good fruit, making empty and fruitless reasonings of all the squabblers and accusers. [22] For reason known to God only, Barlaam’s soul remain irresponsive to St. Gregory’s pleas, and towards to end of the Triads, the Father’s tone became much harsher [23] and his treatment of Barlaam’s ideas considerably more poignant. [24]

The goal St. Gregory set in his Triads was immeasurably greater then simply refuting Barlaam’s claim of a double-way to the knowledge of God, which might not have been that difficult in itself. St. Gregory aimed at synthesizing the whole body of patristic writings describing the process and the means of achieving the sole goal of Christian life — deification. He also strive to demonstrate that the true knowledge of God is necessarily direct — via His uncreated energies — but not analogical as claimed by Barlaam. Thus, throughout the text he quoted abundantly from Sts Macarius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Gregory Theologian, Ephraim the Syrian, and especially Sts Dionisius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor and Symeon the New Theologian. The voice of the Fathers is clear: To speak about God is <…> quite accessible to people spinning in this world and of course this can be done by secular wisemen even with defiled lives and souls. But to acquire God in yourself, to cling to Him in purity and to co-mingle with His ever-un-co-mingled Light, as far as it is accessible to human nature, is impossible if in addition to purification through works of virtue, we do not reach beyond or rather above ourselves, having left together with our physical sensations everything sensual, having risen above thoughts, reasonings and rational knowledge, having fully surrendered ourselves in prayer to uncreated energies and having acquired ignorance, which is above knowledge and in which we become filled with the ever-radiant light of the Spirit, so that we can invisibly perceive the rewards of the eternal world. [25]

Divine essence and divine energy

Man can only know and experience God in his uncreated energies, not essence. This message proclaimed by the Fathers loud and clear was an anathema to Barlaam, who considered the very identification of divine energy as heretical. In his opinion, there was nothing between uncreated Divinity and creation. St. Gregory presented Barlaam’s view on the relationship between the Divine essence and energies in the following way: “Deliberations of the Blachernite [a derogatory jibe for St. Gregory], which run counter to nearly the most fundamental teachings of the Church” says he [i.e. Barlaam] “can be summarised as follows: first of all, while it has been accepted by all and firmly established that the essence of God — maker of the Universe — is fully transcendent and has neither beginning nor end and that anything outside of it is created nature so that between the essence of God and creature no other entity can be found, the Blachenite had the audacity to insert something in between”. [26] This meant, as already could be surmised from the text above, that for Barlaam any knowledge or experience of God could only be indirect or analogical — mitigated by and through creation. Thus his attraction to natural philosophy. He did appreciate the fact that things created can serve only as inexact symbols of the Divine and consequently he viewed apophatic theology as the pinnacle of religious thought. [27] But he did not seem to appreciate the fact that, defined this way, ideas about God remained just that — thoughts expressed in words or a play of imagination — not a knowledge. This is because true knowledge and experience of God, according to the Church, are above all words and they are fathomed not through words but by toil, truth and grace of God and all-governing Spirit, Who bestows on us the vision of that, which an eye has not seen and an ear has not heard (1 Cor. 2:9) . In fact, the very words use d to verbalise theology do not relate to God per se but to His energies or actions semantically indicating either passage, or contemplation, or fire or self-deification. [28]

According to Barlaam, any revelation and experience of the Divine, such as that by Moses on Mount Sinai or the Light seen by the Apostles on Mount Tabor, was an experience not of Divinity but of a temporal and thus created symbol of Divinity. Likewise, experience of the noetic light by Sts Symeon, Dionisius, Maximus and other less known or unknown Fathers was not a sign of closeness to God, but rather a sign of delusion. [29] Here, however, as in most previous instances, Barlaam displayed astounding ignorance of Christian dogma – O ignorance, could only respond St. Gregory to Barlaam’s assertions about created-ness of the Divine Light. Again, relying heavily on the Fathers, he very effectively conveyed and expounded on the concept of uncreated, pre-eternal Divine energies (experienced as Light), which are inseparable from God, yet are not His essence.

True, Divine essence, St Gregory maintained, cannot be directly partaken of by us because it is indivisible and fully transcendent. If we were to partake of a tiniest portion of it we would be partaking of the Whole; thus we would become Gods by nature, which is impossible. [30] Yet, Divine essence, is not the only transcendent entity <…> but all the Hypostases and everything hypostatic in the pre-eminent Trinity is [not] created, [31] i.e. indivisible and fully transcendent. Thus, there is some other uncreated entity, fully divine, pre-eternal, and inseparable from God, yet different from God’s essence. Prophet Joel, writes St. Gregory to further explain his point, said not “will pour My Spirit” but will “pour of My Spirit” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17).If the Spirit is indivisible, what is this emanation of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us, by the promise of God? Is it not the grace of the Spirit, His energy — the action of His essence? However, the spirit of God poured upon us from God, according to St. Basil is not created. Consequently , grace is not created ; and it is this grace that is given and sent and granted from the Son to the disciples, but not the Spirit proper : deifying gift — energy not only uncreated, but also indivisible from the all-holy Spirit. [32]

St. Gregory’s main and perhaps most defeating argument against Barlaam with respect to the difference between the essence and the energy was Christological. In Christ divine and human natures are united un-co-mingledly, yet, the human nature is fully deified. [33] What could possibly effect this deification if no uncreated entity exists between the Divine essence and creation? Tell me , said St . Gregory , why do we confess two energies and natures of Christ if the natural Divine energies are not uncreated? Furthermore, how do we know about His two wills, if as God He does not possess a natural and divine will? What, the will of God is not an energy of Divine essence? Perhaps the will of the Uncreated One is created? Or He acquired will in time and from a time, without having it pre-eternally? What, somebody forced Him to do this or maybe He changed His mind independently? [34]

There was little that Barlaam could put forth to counter these questions. His theological stance was obviously untenable, for, in essence, the heresiarch denied deification to the human nature of the Lord and in doing so he denied deification, becoming temples of God, to any and all Christians. [35] Having realised this, he somewhat changed his argument claiming that even if we were to assume that Divine energies are not created, at any rate nobody would see them had they not become created. Thus, again, the Light of Tabor was created. This however did little to explain away the principal contention of St. Gregory, namely, if energies seen and experienced by us are created we cannot be renewed and deified and thus we cannot be saved for nothing corrupted and unclean shall stand before God (cf. Eph. 5:5).

He summarised the Orthodox teaching on the Divine Light and Divine Energy (or Glory) in the flowing way: So and the elect disciples, as you have heard in the hymns of the Church, unless you have fallen deaf, saw on Tabor the essential and eternal splendour of God, glory of God, which does not, as you basely suggest, stem from creature but is the very ever-radiant light of the original beauty, the very image-less image (ανεισεον ειδος) of Divine majesty, through which man is made like unto God and is granted an opportunity to converse with God face to face, the very eternal and transcendent Kingdom of God, the very super-noetic and unapproachable light, heavenly light, limitless, supra-temporal, eternal, light shining with incorruption, light deifying those being deified; for they saw the very grace of the Spirit, which subsequently indwelled in them, for one is the grace of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, seen by them even by physical eyes, but manifested in such a way that from blind they became seeing and perceived that very uncreated light which in the age to come will be continually contemplated by the saints. [36]


We, people leaving seven centuries after St. Gregory see clearly the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies that in the last days love for God will grow cold and consequently monks will live like laymen and laymen will live like dumb beasts and everybody will only care for vanity and things of this world. Somehow, even among Orthodox Christians — the heirs to the Apostles, Martyrs and Holy fathers — the idea that external observance of a few prescriptions of the Church (so-called “good deeds”) comprises the fulfilment of our obligations before God, has become dominant. Sadly, we only see and care for ourselves. Even when we confess our sins, it is only to avoid punishment, as we think, not to come close to God, not to embrace His commandments and in turn be embraced by His grace. In fact, we often care for and want God only insofar as receiving something from Him, be it even “salvation”. We do not seem to appreciate or are afraid to acknowledge that salvation is God Himself — not something given by Him. And to receive Him we must seek only Him — perish everything else . We are forgetful or mindless of the truth that saying or knowing something about God is not the same as encountering Him. [37] In living our lives and relating to God and nature we rely on ratioratio corrupted by the fall and darkened by passions. Thus, years and decades are spent learning and working, learning more and working more, until our mind becomes cluttered with useless and vain “knowledge” and body feeble and ossified in passions, which we are always to busy to deal with. We bring to God the dry wheat of our old age and in doing so ever remain the sons of Adam, vainly seeking the knowledge of this world, not the sons of Christ seeking Him and His wisdom. How is it possible that it never came to our mind that having striven for the tree of knowledge and tasted of it, we lost the state of divine sweetness and striving only for worldly knowledge now we will never encounter this sweetness again? Having not wished, as decreed, to “work and guard it” (Gen 2:15) we yielded to the evil councillor who sneaked cunningly and by lies fooled us by the beauty of knowledge of good and evil. Apparently, even today those who do not want under direction of the Fathers to work and guard their hearts, he falsely promises exact knowledge of fluid and mutually-balanced celestial spheres with all their properties, knowledge of good and evil, <…>, knowledge of origins of the universe, life and man. For the same reason I would call as both good and evils skills and natural talents to learning languages, power of rhetorics, knowledge of history, fathoming of mysteries of nature, complicated methods of logical compilations, laborious deliberations of the science of calculus, numerous measurements of immaterial figures — not only because all this oscillates according to opinions and changes easily, so as to fit human aims, but also because while all these undertakings are useful for sharpening the eyes of the soul, is it mindless to spend ones whole life till the old age in them [38] because ultimately our ratio cannot fathom the truth and bring us to God.


1. Kucharek , C.A. 1976. The Sacramental Mysteries: a Byzantine Approach. Alleluia Press, Allendale, N.J., 415 pp. (e.g., p. 342: The Byzantine Church’s dislike for any systematic division of the holy things of God appears in Her treatment of the sacrament’s outward signs.)

2. J.S. 1963. Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics II. The Greek Orthodox Theological Review Volume IX ( http://www.romanity.org).

3. e.g. Dawkins, R. 2006., The God delusion. Houghton Mufflin, 416 pp

4. Triads I, 1:9. Here and below references are to the triad, answer and section in theTriads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts by St. Gregory Palamas (Russian text accessed on http://www.pagezh.ru/lsn/).

5. Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 1351 against Barlaam and Akindynos (Russian text accessed on http://www.pagezh.ru/lsn/).

6. Kucharek , C.A. 1976. The Sacramental Mysteries: a Byzantine Approach. Alleluia Press, Allendale, N.J., 415 pp. (p. 361).

7. Triads II, 1:1.

8. Triads I, 1:1.

9. Some commentaries, e.g. of Fr. J. Meyendorff (see Romanides, J.S. 1960. Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics I. The Greek Orthodox Theological Review Volume VI ( http://www.romanity.org)) may disagree with such an assertion, however, here and elsewhere in the text I stick to the opinion of St. Gregory (e.g. Triads, II, 3:6, 14, 38; III, 1:5).

10. Triads, III, 1:30.

11. Triads , I, 1:8.

12. Triads, I, 1:8.

13. Triads , I, 1:1. (the text properly belongs to St. Gregory; we, however, assume that he faithfully transmits the essence of Barlaam’s ideas).

14. Triads , I, 1:2.

15. Triads, I, 1:3.

16. St. Athanasius the Great. On Incarnation of the Word (54:3).

17. Triads, I, 1:15.

18. Triads, I, 1:4.

19. Triads, I, 1:10.

20. Literally “navel-mindedness”.

21. A sect, condemned by the Church, which overemphasised uninterrupted prayer at the expense of Church discipline and dogmatic theology.

22. Triads, I, 2:8.

23. e.g. Triads, III, 1:3, 5.

24. e.g. Triads, III, 1:3, 5.

25. Triads , I, 3:42.

26. Triads, III, 2:4.

27. Triads, II, 3:49.

28. Triads, III, 2:10.

29. Triads, III, 1:11.

30. Triads, III, 1:20.

31. Triads, III, 1:4.

32. Triads, III, 1:8.

33. St. Symeon, the New Theologian. Tenth ethical discourse.

34. Triads, III , 2:6.

35. Triads, II, 1:15; III, 1:31.

36. Triads, III, 3:8.

37. St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 53.

38. Triads, I, 1:6.

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