The Teaching of Gregory Palamas on Man
Transcribed by The Holy Monastery of Theomitor, Kifisia
The anthropology of Saint Gregory Palamas is the nerve centre of his theology. His entire system aims at nothing else than the description and definition of the relations among men and of each individual man’s relation with God. He follows man in his striving between the worldly and the divine, the created and the uncreated, and shows the way by which he may reach the state of the uncreated. And it is just this state that becomes man since he is not only a recapitulation and an ornament of the whole creation; but also image of the Triune God for whom the uncreated kingdom was prepared since the foundation of the world.
All physical life and existence is a created result of the divine energy. But the fact that even man is likewise such a created result does not equate him with the other animals. In man, elements of the ultramundane were added and finally the divine uncreated breath was given.
The human body, consisting of matter, belongs to the category of material creatures. The human soul, consisting of ultramundane elements, differs from the soul of animals in that it is firstly essence and then energy; whereas the soul of animals is a simple operation which does not exist in itself but dies together with the body. As an independent essence the human soul is not dissolved with the body, but lives by itself after the separation; as a spiritual essence even though created, it is immortal.
A variety of opinions is found among the fathers as to the manner in which the soul is linked to the body. Gregory, in spite of his repeated reference to the Macarian opinion that it seats in the heart, seems to prefer the opinion of Gregory of Nyssa, according to which the soul is dispersed throughout the whole body as a dynamic element which holds the body together, contains its providential powers and vivifies it.
The main powers of the soul: nous, logos. and pneuma (intellect, reason, and spirit) are simple functions, expressing it as a unique whole. They are not essences. Whenever Gregory speaks of the intellect as an essence, he evidently means the soul itself. His use of Macarian terms seems to influence some of his anthropological formulations and such an influence a may explain his insistence on the opinion that the main fleshly organ of the intellect is the heart. But of course this formulation also served other aims. It emphasises the close connection between the two elements of the human organism since the bodily element is biologically nourished by the heart. Such an emphasis serves to avoiding the predomination of scholastic intellectualism in theology. In any case, Gregory's occasional use of the word 'heart' in a broader sense must not be overlooked. In interpreting Psalm 32, 15, he says, "let us take here the expression 'heart created by Him' as meaning the inner man.
Reason is closely connected with the intellect, from which it is derived, and is sometimes identified with it; so that to distinguish one from the other, as Gregory does, seems some kind of technical enterprise. Lastly, the spirit comes forth from both intellect and the reason, and exists within both. It is the eros of the intellect towards the reason which vivifies the body.
Gregory gives a broad and dynamic character to the much discussed expression "according to the image". He finds image in the whole existence of man and refers it to the Trinity. Man is a creature according to the image not vaguely of God, but concretely of the Triune God, since he has been created by the energy of the whole Trinity and may receive the divine light emitted from the whole Trinity, His intellect, reason and spirit constitute an inherent unity, corresponding to the unity of the persons of the divine Trinity, i.e. Nous, Logos, and pneuma (Intellect, Reason, and Spirit). As within divinity the Nous begets the Logos, and the Pneuma precedes as the eros of the Nous towards the Logos, so within man, ` the intellect bears the reason, and the spirit is projected as the eros of the intellect towards the reason. And as the Holy Spirit vivifies the world; so the human spirit vivifies the body. Thus the image is extended to the whole man, including the body. The real meaning of Gregory’s teaching on this point is: the capability of man to be elevated into a genuine spiritual personality, as an image and symbol of the personality of God. One could call this image microtheos rather than microcosmos. This is the natural state of man.
Moreover the first man had received another gift: the divine spirit which is not a created thing, as are the rest of man’s elements, but an ineffable uncreated divine energy. The final destination of man is to be assimilated with the divine archetype and united with God in one substance, so that he may be called "another God" Now this destination could be achieved only through that infusion of the divine spirit, by which man was clothed with the divine glory and became a participant of the divine splendour.
This is the supernatural state of man. Whether man abides near or far from God depends, as it does for the rest of the reasonable beings, in his will, which means that it is a voluntary, not a natural condition. He is receptive of contrary spiritual qualities, goodness and evil, and may turn towards either. Abiding in goodness means preservation of the divine spirit and of participation in God. Turning towards evil means moving away from God, and such a movement is equal to the death of the soul God neither created nor caused the death of the soul and of the body Death is the fruit of sin which was produced by the will of man.
Man received from the beginning the gift and the duty to live eternally in both soul and body. But life is worthless leas, except when it springs from participation in the life of God. Life to the body is granted by the human spirit and real life to the soul is granted by the divine spirit. That is why the abandonment of the soul by the vivifying divine spirit causes its spiritual death, just as the abandonment of the body by the vivifying human spirit causes its physical death. The soul, when removed from God, only technically preserves its immortality.
The devil, having first, moved away from God, was also the first to be subjected to spiritual death. And he succeeded in seducing man to disobedience therefore to spiritual death. The death of the body is an inevitable consequence of the spiritual death of the soul, which is extended to the human spirit: the power which vivifies the body. But while this death seems natural under these conditions it is at the same time a beneficial concession of God to man, which aims at cancelling the perpetuation of evil and sin.
All descendants of Adam are subject to death, because the whole of mankind submitted itself to sin. We must not read into the fall as formation of inheritable guilt, or collective responsibility. The fact of the fall has effected the whole structure and state of man, the natural as well as the supernatural. And this is the reason why the fall of first man becomes the fall of all men.
The fall withdrew from man the divine spirit which was infused in him and consequently his likeness to God. It ended his participation in the glory of the life of God. But the image of God remained untouched.The fact that it, appears now somewhat dim is due to that loss of likeness, which once rendered it completely clear and gave to it its full meaning.
This is the non-natural state of man.
Gregory, without being pessimistic about the abilities of the fallen man, considers them as limited. Man can serve himself in respect to his worldly needs, but cannot serve himself spiritually. He has the will to perform the commandments of God and can know Him partially through the observation of creation through his intellectual reflection. But, he is unable to know God completely and to meet Him, which is the final object of his life. This good is granted only by the uncreated light which is unapproachable to the fallen man.
The untreated light is divine grace. Meyendorff connects the teaching of Gregory on the operation of grace with the incarnation of the Logos. Romanides refutes this thesis and maintains that grace operated even in Old Testament times, as the classical example of Moses proves Certainly, grace, which proceeds not from Christ alone but from the whole Trinity, existed and operated at all times. It did not however become a possession of fallen man until after the incarnation of Logos. In Old Testament times grace, operated incidentally and apocalyptically. Fallen man having already lost the divine spirit, could not participate in it permanently. Since the incarnation grace operates permanently and becomes subject to participation by man, if he receives the divine spirit anew.
Only a renovation and a restoration of human nature according to its archetype could bring the necessary radical change in the course of mankind. And this change was realised through an unprecedented event: the incarnation of God. "The most excellent of all, Gregory says, or rather the incomparably excellent event is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and especially its last episodes: the salutary passion and the resurrection".
The nature which was assumed by Christ is not that of the species, i.e. the entire human nature, but that of an individual which did not exist by itself previously, but took existence in the hypostasis of the Logos and was united to Him in one hypostasis, It was only this individual nature which contained the fullness of divinity. And it was transubstantiated and deified as a first fruit of our kind. So a new root was created, capable of imparting life to its offshoots. The transubstantiation of the human nature of Christ is physical. The change brought about in man by the renovation is also physical; but the connection of men to that root is not physical as is the connection with the old root of Adam. The connection to the new root is secured by willing participation in the renovation.
Thus we find ourselves before a new state of man, a state which supersedes the simple restoration to the conditions before the fall, for it constitutes a transference to heaven. Man before the fall certainly possessed the enlightenment of the divine light; but now the human nature assumed by Christ was seated on the throne of God and thence attracts men to Itself. The archetype of males is now John the Forerunner, and that of females, the Virgin Mary.
If physical life is a result of the divine energy according to Gregory, then the god-like life of man is a participation in the divine energy itself a participation which leads to theosis, deification.
The first of the basic factors which determine the course of theosis is the concentration of the intellect. Here lies one of the main points around which the acute polemics between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam Calabros was concentrated. The latter, though not a thoroughgoing platonist in all his anthropology, put forth a strictly neo-platonic thesis concerning prayer. - He called for removal of the intellect from the body and mortification of the passive part of the soul, so that the intellect could be devoted to ecstatic prayer and communion with God. This was the only way to attain the true light; since the attachment of the intellect to the common operation of the body and the passive part of the soul fills it with darkness instead of light [xl]. Barlaam considers such an ecstatic condition as well as the grace of deification as thoroughly natural Gregory, on the contrary, characterizes this opinion as the source of all error, both philosophical and theological. He calls for concentration of the operation of the intellect inside the body; or rather inside man as a whole. The body is not something worthless. Why that which may becomes a dwelling; place of God, should not be worthy of having the intellect, as dweller? Such are the presuppositions with which the Hesychasts cast out the law of sin and introduced the power of the intellect into man. They gave to each function whatever is proper to it: to the sensitive, temperance; to the passive, love; and to the reasonable, sobriety.
The concentration of the aims neither at acquisition of learning nor at mere theologizing. To Gregory, theology is an insufficient means for approaching God, because it is "word" or "reason" about. God, while he himself seeks for contemplation of God above "word" and "reason". Theology in its positive and scholastic form, as knowledge and understanding of God, cannot be the goal of the movement of the intellect towards God. Nor in its apophatic form as submersion in the divine darkens should it be the only path for a Christian to pursue. In either form it must be superseded. A man may think of a city as much as he likes, but he will never acquire an exact picture of its structure, unless he visits it. A man may think of gold all the time but he will never possess gold, unless he takes it in his hands. Likewise, no matter how much one reflects on God, one can not acquire the divine treasures. One can acquire these only by experiencing the divine realities [xlv] by reaching the vision of God-the theoptia - which surpasses theology just as the possession of an object surpasses the mere knowledge of it.
Here a second factor is introduced: unceasing mental prayer. Gregory does not altogether reject ecstasy but gives to it its appropriate content. Since he considers even material things as gifts of God, he cannot refuse to give to the body a place in the spiritual experience. This is a thesis of eastern spirituality which may be traced back to Diadochos and Macarios. Gregory sees the exaltation of man to be brought about by an intense effort of the intellect, while the whole man participates in the divine gifts. The peak of this exaltation is communion with God, during which the human powers continue to function. In this sense, ecstasy is an operation by which the powers are elevated above their standard and which proceeds to the divine condescension. Indeed just as God condescends to man, so man ascends to God, in order that their meeting might be achieved.
Prayer is the condition of ecstasy. It possesses the power to elevate man from earth to heaven and to bring him before God. The question is here not one of mere emotion. The whole man is seized by abundant light, the uncreated light of the divine glory which is eternally emitted from the Trinity. The light of mount Tabor, the light which is seen now by the Hesychasts, and the substance of the blessings of the life to come are three phases of one and the same spiritual event composed in a timeless reality.
The uncreated light is not an object which can be sensually perceived. It exceeds both sense and understanding. But in spite of this, both soul and body participate in its vision. How does this become possible? Gregory, following of Photius, expounds a theory according to which the intellect in its elevation acquires a new spiritual sense; and this sense is the light itself. The intellect, when it is seized by the divine light and enters into it, becomes itself light. Therefore in reality it is the light that sees the light.
'Thus man surpasses the state of ecstasy and reaches union with God and theosis. In this new condition there is beginning and progress but no end. Progress is endless. Although the element of the endless includes in itself the notion of imperfection, just and pure men may be called "gods", since they participate in God. They are, however, imperfect gods, and ones not identified or assimilated with the one God in essence. That which is participated in is not His essence. Any thing which is participated in is divided, while the divine essence as a simple entity is indivisible; therefore, that which is here participated in is God's divisible energy.
In order to understand Gregory’s thought correctly, we may use a comparison. Man has the soul as an essence, whose functions are, as we said before, the intellect, the reason and the spirit. If we now posit that a man participates in the intellect, the reason and the spirit of another man, then the functions of these two men are identified; but this does not bring about as well an identification of the essence of the souls of the two men. Such a thing is impossible. Thus on a higher level the spiritual man attains to the energies of God, but remains alienated from his unapproachable essence.
Whenever man does not participate actively in uncreated divinizing grace, he remains a created result of the creative energy of God. His sole relation with God is that of a creature to the creator. But whenever he participates in divinizing grace, he acquires supernatural qualities and, without ceasing to be a created being by nature, he is transferred from the category of creatures to another position. God and man have then life as a common uncreated energy, the former as the natural source, the latter as a vessel of grace .So each man becomes a being without beginning and, end; anarchos and ateleutetos, in the words of Gregory,which go back to Maximos the Homologetes, he enters into the untreated kingdom which is the glory of God.
The establishment of the kingdom has already begun in this world. The soul of man, having been raised by the acquisition of the divine spirit anew, tastes the experience of participation in the divine light and glory. This is an actual experience which makes man a member of the kingdom of God.
However, this participation will be completed only after the second coming, which will abolish the death of the body. The connection of the new man with God remains indissoluble even after the separation of the soul from the body, as the divinity of Christ remained inseparable from his humanity even in his death. Whatever happened to God-Man may be repeated in man. The body will be raised in order that man might be renovated wholly and assumed into heaven. It is the assumption and not the resurrection that is the divinizing gift par excellence to the just.
The resurrection of the sinners consequently has a different meaning. It is also a part of the restoration of the creation but from an opposite point of view. Physical death was for the human race a beneficial concession of God which aimed at cancelling the perpetuation of the evil. Now this gift is taken away, and the resurrection of the sinners becomes their torment.