Father Georges Florovsky, D. D.

St Gregory Palamas and the patristic tradition

translated by: Hieromonk Irinej Bulović

pages: 27-38

Abstract

This is a lecture delivered in Salonica in 1959 on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of St. Gregory Palamas ’ death. The author stresses the importance of the famous sayng of St. Vincent of Lerins that Christians ought to keep »what is believed everywhere, always and by all«. However, the antiquity is not the automatic warrant of truthfullness. The true tradition can be only the handing down of the truth (traditio veritatis). The Church is indeed apostolic but also patristic. These two characteristics of hers are inseparable. Only because the Church is patristic, she remains also apostolic, because the Fathers kept alive the apostolic deposit of faith. The teaching of the Holy Fathers is the criterion of the right faith. Therefore, our return to the Fathers is something more than a mere historical going back to the past or antiquity. The Fathers are not only witnesses of the ancient faith (testes antiquitatis), but also witnesses of the true faith (testes veritatis).

The main characteristics of the patristic theology was its existential ring. According to St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Fathers were theologizing in the apostolic way and not in the Aristotelian way. The theology was inseparable from the life of prayer and the advancement in virtues. »The summit of purity is the basis of theologizing«. From the Western point of view, the patristic epoch was replaced by scholastic epoch, which was considered as step forward in theology. According to the schoolmen, the patristic theology is something outdated. This view was, unfortunately, uncritically accepted an the East too. Some among the Orthodox theologians limited the normative value to the seven ecumenical councils exclusively, which would be a golden age of theology, and the later Byzantine theologians would be, according to this scheme, of lesser value. However, the »Byzantine« theology was not a mere repetition of the patristic one, but its organic continuation. The tradition goes on uninterrupted. The living witnesses of the uninterrupted Tradition, after the epoch of the seven ecumenical councils, are St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas. Hence, for those who lived in the stream of Tradition (hesychast monks) there is no chasm between »paterism« and »Byzantinism«. The compiler and editor of »Bhilocalia«, St. Nicodemus of the Mount Athos, was recently canonized as saint. Thus the age of the Holy Fathers continues up to our days. In the liturgical life we are still in the »Tradition of the Fathers«, but we ought to be in the same tradition as theologians too. St. Gregory Palamas was not a theoretician in theology. He was not interested in the abstract philosophical problems. As a theologian he was simply the interpretor of the historical expie- rence of the Church. He grappled with the problems of his own age, which was really a critical one. Even though he knew very well the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Dyonisius the Aeropagite, St. Maximus the Confessor, and the others, his theology was not a »theology of repetitions On the contrary, it was a creative projection of the ancient tradition for his own generation. Its prime source was the life in Christ of St. Gregory himself.

The starting point of St. Gregory Palamas’s theology was the distinction between the »grace« and the »essence« of God. The essence of God being absolutely unknowable, the deification of man means participation into the divine grace, which is partially knowable. This distinction, however, does not create any rupture inside the Deity. His theology is biblical, lit is in the line of the Fathers, it is in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Church.

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