The theology of St Gregory Palamas (1296—1359) is centered around the problem of the "knowledge of God". Before the "hesychast controversy" began, there was the debate with Barlaam, a Greek monk from Calabria, on the Procession of the Holy Spirit (the much discussed problem of the Filioque), which dealt with the question whether or not man is able to know anything concerning the Holy Spirit. Barlaam, basing his arguments on the apophatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite (today referred to as "Pseudo-Dionysius"), argued that man is not able to say anything that is certain or definite concerning the

Procession of the Holy Spirit, since God transcends all human knowledge. St Gregory, however, did not agree. He affirmed that man is able to "know" God in a certain sense, though he stressed that the true knowledge of God is not a mere rational knowledge which we can achieve by human reason, but it is a knowledge which is given to us by God Himself. Gregory discerned in Barlaam's "apophatism" a form of agnosticism and relativism, which meant, in fact, the end of all theology.

The hesychast controversy which occurred after this discussion dealt with the same problem. The insistence of the hesychasts on the possibility for man to "see" God during his life here on earth, and to see the uncreated Divine Light, led Palamas to develop his theology proper, often referred to as "palamism" (a rather unfortunate term). His theology was focused on the real (and not only mental or nominal) distinction within God between His Essence or nature (which remains unknowable to us) and His "energies", which come forth from it. This distinction is not to be seen as some form of "separation" in God between His essence and energies, as is usually assumed by the critics of Palamas (in his own time, and even today), but as a unique, inexpressible reality which is proper to God alone. Palamas did not make any attempt to explain this distinction in God. Rather, his theology remained to the end "apophatic". The "apophatism" of Palamas was different from that of Barlaam. It was based on an experience of God, while that of Barlaam was based on rational arguments. Palamas' theology was not a theological "system", but the expression of man's experience of God. Therefore the term "palamism", which is often used to refer to the theology of Palamas, is in fact an unfortunate expression. Palamas' theology is not a particular theological system which was something new that he invented. If I use the term "palamism", it is only for the sake of convenience. Palamas' theology was an expression of the antinomy, or paradox, of his experience of God, which implies 1) the reality of man's "deification" on the one hand, and 2) God's transcendence on the other.1 "The same God is participable and not participable": such is, in a nutshell, the teaching of St Gregory Palamas.2

Palamas' theology should be seen as a clarification of the patristic notion of theosis, "deification". The well-known phrase of St Athanasius and other Church Fathers: "God became man in order that man might become god", needed to be explained. What exactly does it mean: to "become god"? First of all, according to Palamas, it has to be understood in a realistic sense. The defender of the hesychasts does not hesitate to say that man in this glorified state becomes "uncreated" by grace. This is a daring expression, indeed, which was also used by St Maximus the Confessor.3 However, St Gregory (with St Maximus) stresses that God always remains transcendent. It is impossible for man to become identical with God or "one-in-essence", homo-ousios, with Him. For in that case, Palamas says, God would no longer be three Hypostases, but "countless Hypostases" (?????????????).4

Palamas' apophatic approach, his refusal to give a rational explanation of the distinction between the Divine essence and energies, did not satisfy the more philosophically inclined theologians. He was attacked not only by the "humanists" of his time, such as Barlaam and Nicephorus Gregoras. After his death — when Thomas Aquinas was translated into Greek by Demetrius Cydones and others — Palamas' theology was also the object of severe criticism by the Byzantine "Thomists" (who, for most part, converted to Roman Catholicism). Only the philosopher Gennadios Scholarios (1405—1472), a great admirer of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, made an attempt to reconcile the theology of Palamas with that of Thomas, attempting to give a philosophical explanation of the distinction between the Divine essence and energies. It should be understood that Gennadios' "Thomism" is to be explained in light of his (Gennadios') interest in Aristotle. He had discovered that Thomas had a great knowledge of, and admiration for, Aristotle. Gennadios' "Thomism", therefore, is to be seen as "Aristotelianism", and not as Thomism in a theological sense.5

In the last century, Russian "sophiology", especially the system of Fr Sergius Boulgakov (1871—1944), represented another attempt to resolve perceived problems with patristic apophatic theology. I will clarify this statement by drawing a comparison between the theology of creation in Palamas and in Boulgakov. In short, my lecture is to be understood as a reflection on the relation between Palamism and philosophy, since sophiology is a combination of theology and philosophy: it is a form of theology within a philosophical context. The word "philosophy" is a broad term which needs to be explained. I understand "philosophy" here in the sense of "metaphysics", in other words, as a reflection on the mystery of God and creation. It is a "free" reflection, which is not limited to the divine revelation in Holy Scripture, though it has its roots there. Indeed, this free reflection on the essence of God and of creation may go beyond the limits of divine revelation. Thus the problem arises: what is the relation beween philosophy and theology? A comparative study between the theology of St Gregory Palamas and that of Fr Sergius Boulgakov should contribute to the resolution of this problem.

Creation: St Gregory Palamas

According to Palamas, the act of creating is an "energy" of God. This act has to be eternal, because all divine "energies" are "God", and are therefore eternal. This does not mean that the world exists eternally. The creation of this visible world has had a beginning and an end, for it is said that God "rested from all the works that He had begun to create". But, Palamas stresses, the "creating power" itself could not have had a beginning and an end.6 In his language, the expression "creating power of God" does not refer to a mere "potentiality" in God. It means a divine "energy", a divine act. It is more than just a potentiality. When we speak of the "beginning" and the "end"of creation, we refer to the "manifestation" or the "result" of that eternal energy of God, and not to this energy itself, which is a divine "power", and which is continuously in motion.7

If the act of creating is eternal, could one say that, in theory at least, the world could have existed eternally? This is a theoretical question ( indeed: a philosophical question), which, as far as I know, Palamas himself never raised. It is another indication of the fact that he was not a philosopher, and that he did not want to raise questions that go beyond the limits of divine revelation. However, a key to the answer to this question is given by his insistence on the divine will as lying at the basis of the creation of this world. God's "will is the origin of all existing things", he says.8 And "will" is also a divine "energy".9

Thus to the question I just have posed: Why did God create the world at a particular "moment", or rather, why did He introduce "time", and why does the world not exist eternally, the answer should be, according to Palamas: because God willed to create the world in this particular way. Again, all this is not explicitly said by Palamas himself, but it is implied in his theological arguments. In fact, this "answer" which one may draw from Palamas' theological reflections, remains "apophatic". Palamas does not want to transcend the limits of the divine mystery.

Palamas insisted that the world was not created accidentally, but belongs to the eternal will and plan or "idea" of God. The divine "energies" are to be understood as the "models" or "prototypes" (?????є??????) of creation. St Gregory makes clear that these divine "ideas" are not to be confused with the "ideas" of Plato.10 His severe criticism of the Greek philosophers is to be seen within the context of the hesychast controversy, his opponents being the Byzantine "humanists" with their predilection for ancient Greek culture and philosophy. It should be noted that in Patristic theology there also exists another current of thought, which considers ancient philosophy as a preparation for the coming of Christ (Clement of Alexandria, St. Justin the "Philosopher"). Accordingly, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, are sometimes represented in Byzantine and post-Byzantine ecclesiastical art.11

Thus Palamas stresses that there exists a close link between the Creator and His creation. In contemplating the nature of the created world, man is able to achieve some kind of knowledge of the divine energies of God. Palamas argues that this natural and indirect knowledge of God has to be distinguished from direct, mystical knowledge of God, the "vision" of the uncreated Divine Light.12 Only the latter leads to real union with God. In this distinction between two levels of "knowledge" of God, Palamas follows the patristic Tradition, especially the Cappadocian Fathers and St Maximus the Confessor. However, he puts a great emphasis on the transcendence of God. At both levels of knowledge of God, the Creator remains always transcendent and unknowable in His essence. It has to be underscored that, according to Palamas, this divine transcendence is not to be seen as the mere result of the limits of the human mind, but that it comes forth from God Himself: God does not will to reveal how He is in Himself; He does not will to reveal His nature or essence. Therefore, when man is granted an experience of God, he"experiences" or "undergoes" at the same time His transcendence. He is aware that God is always more than this experience. Thus, for Palamas, apophatic theology is an experience, and not merely a theological reflection, as it was for Barlaam. The experience of the Divine and uncreated Light is at the same time an experience of the "divine darkness".13 With the Psalmist Palamas affirms that God has "made darkness His abode" (Ps. 18:12). The "mysticism" of the hesychasts, if we may use this term, is not only a mysticism of "Light", but also of "Darkness". This "divine Darkness" is not to be understood in a negative sense, however, but has to be explained as another way to describe the Divine Light in its transcendent aspect. It is the super-abundance of the Divine Light, its overwhelming and blinding aspect. Palamas refers to the "great Dionysius" (Dionysius the Areopagite), saying: "There is an ignorance, but it transcends all 'knowledge'; there is a cloud, but it is more than lightening; and in this more — than — lightening cloud, according to the great Dionysius, the Divine things are given to the saints".14

Not only does the coming-into-being of the world belong to the eternal divine plan, but also the world's end. The divine energies are not only the models, but also the ultimate end of all that exists.15 The experience of the Divine Light is an eschatological experience. It is not merely a form of "mysticism", but the experience, in anticipation, of the Age to Come, the Kingdom of God. I want to stress here that, according to Palamas, the Age to Come concerns not only us, human beings, but the whole of creation. It implies the sanctification of the cosmos, the whole created world.16 It is true that this cosmic dimension of salvation is not frequently mentioned by the Church Fathers, but it is not completely ignored. One can find it, for example, in St Maximus the Confessor. This cosmic dimension of salvation is revealed to us in particular in the liturgical experience of the Church: the blessing of material elements, such as water, bread, wine, oil, fruits etc., are a manifestation of the ultimate aim of the cosmos, that is, its sanctification and transfiguration.

Creation: Fr Sergius Boulgakov

When we look at the reflections of Fr Sergius Boulgakov on creation, we discover many of the themes we just have described.17 Like Palamas, Fr Sergius stresses that the creation of this world was an act of God's will. The "effusion of God's love", which caused the creation of the world, was not the result of any natural necessity, as we see for example in the philosophical thought of Plotinus. God did not create the world, Fr Sergius holds, because he needed us. For, indeed, God does not need us.18

Fr Sergius repeats the patristic teaching of the divine models or "prototypes" of creation, which exist eternally in God. However, he places this in the context of his "sophiology". To his mind, these divine "prototypes" belong to the Divine Sophia, which he defines as the "inner Life itself of God, His nature or essence". He defines Sophia also as the "Divine Glory, the fullness of the Life of God".

Like Palamas, Fr Boulgakov teaches that there is a close link between God and the world. He uses the word panentheism, which he sharply distinguishes from pantheism. The world is "in God", and its final aim is to "reflect the face of the Divine Sophia" and to be "transfigured" by her. This stress on the cosmic aspect of salvation is another theme which sophiology has in common with the teaching of Palamas.

In order to create the world, Fr Sergius argues, a "mediating principle" is necessary. This mediating principle is the "Sophia of creation" ("тварная София" ), which is to be distinguished from the "Divine Sophia". This concept of the "Sophia of creation" forms one of the more complicated aspects of Boulgakov's sophiology. Is it a created, or a divine principle? And why is it necessary at all? Fr Sergius defines the "Sophia of creation" as a "divine power". She is the foundation of the world's being, its entelechia, the "principle of the actualization and finality of the world". From all this one may conclude, that the "Sophia of creation" is a divine principle. The word "тварная" seems to have here the meaning of "belonging to creation" rather than merely "created". That is probably why Constantine Andronikof, who translated almost all the works of Fr Boulgakov into French, renders "тварная София" often (but not always) as "la Sophie de cr?ature". Indeed, Fr Sergius says that the "Sophia of creation" is ontologically identical with its prototype, the Divine Sophia. It is another mode of the Divine Sophia's existence. "Sophia" has two aspects, the "eternal" and the "temporal", that is to say, the "divine" and the "created". "Sophia", under these two aspects, is the common principle and the divine foundation of the existence of all creation.

May we conclude from this that Boulgakov's "Sophia of Creation" is in fact what Palamas meant by the "divine energies"? Indeed, when Fr Sergius speaks about the Sophia of creation in terms of "principle of the actualization and finality of the world", or "divine power", he comes very close to Palamas' concept of the divine energies. Fr Sergius himself, however, does not make any reference to St Gregory Palamas within this context. Why indeed did he come up with this notion of "Sophia of creation"? The obvious reason must be that he identifies the Divine Sophia with the Divine essence or nature. In saying that the world is "in God" (panentheism), one needs an intermediary principle in order to avoid any notion of confusion between God and his creation. One could argue that Fr Boulgakov's silence here regarding St Gregory Palamas does not have to prevent us from seeing a similarity between the "Sophia of creation" and the divine "energies". Could one say that Fr Sergius is saying the same thing, but from the perspective of his doctrine of Sophia?

It appears that there is in Boulgakov's thought one major difference with the theology of Palamas, and that is the lack of any notion of God's transcendence. The result is that a clear understanding of the very notion of creation is lacking in Boulgakov's sophiology. Indeed, he is able to say that the world is "created" and "not created" at the same time, because the "Sophia of creation" is identical with the divine Sophia , that is, the divine nature.19 This notion of "Sophia of creation" is unable to respect the total and ontological difference between the nature of the Creator and that of the creation. A pantheistic tendency remains in the sophiological system of Fr. Boulgakov (despite his explicit rejection of the term). This is why his sophiology has been the object of such bitter controversy.

The distinction between the Divine essence and energies, as developed by Palamas, is the only way to give full expression to the deepest intuitions of Fr Sergius and of sophiology. The transfiguration of the world and of all created beings must be seen as the ultimate aim of creation. It is only by accepting the distinction in God between His Essence and Energies (a distinction which, again, remains inexpressible) that one can avoid pantheism and affirm the reality of the deification of man and the sanctification of the world. As Palamas insisted, when all creation at the end will be "enlightened" and "transfigured" by the Divine Light (a foretaste of this eschatological fulfillment of the divine economy is given in the liturgical "mysteries" of the Church and in the experience of the hesychast monks and the saints) God remains transcendent. He always remains the Unknowable, the completely "Other One".

This sense of God's transcendence, of God as the Total "Other One", is lost in the sophiological reflections of Fr Sergius. He writes, indeed, that, in a sense, God is "human".20 This is because, according to Fr. Sergius' reasoning, man is a "microcosmos" and, therefore, the one who "represents all creation". The image of God in creation, he argues, is the "human form". This is how he explains the words of Genesis I:27: "God created man according to His image".21 In fact, he reverses the meaning of this text. Instead of saying "man is the image of God", Fr Sergius holds that "God is the image of man". For the same reason, Fr Sergius is able to defend the icon of God as the "Ancient of Days", that is, God the Father: the first Person of the Trinity.22 However, according to the Tradition of the Church, the only adequate icon or image of God is the incarnate Logos, Christ. The Father and the Holy Spirit, while revealing their "presence", do not reveal their Hypostases. Father Boulgakov's assertion that at the end, at the Age to Come, the Holy Spirit will manifest His Hypostasis, is pure human speculation, that has no foundation in divine revelation and the Tradition of the Church.23


At the beginning of this lecture I characterized the "apophatic" approach to the doctrine of God as the most essential element of Palamas' theology. It is clear that by abandoning this sense of apophatism, Russian sophiology deviated from patristic theology. We have noticed the same "mind-set" in the theology of Palamas' opponents: an attempt to make the divine mystery understandable by means of human reason. Barlaam too, while using apophatic theology, remained on the level of human and rational reflection. Here lies the main difference between "palamism" and philosophy ("philosophy" in the sense used earlier: a "free" reflection on the mystery of God and creation, which may go beyond the limits of divine revelation). It is, in fact, the tragedy of Fr. Sergius — who himself was aware of the "tragedy of philosophy" (the title of one of his earliest books) — that he was more a philosopher than a theologian, and that his "sophiology" as a system contradicts his theological intuitions.24

Russian sophiology represents a stage in Orthodox theology that has turned our attention to some precious insights: especially that of the cosmic dimension of salvation, and that of the liturgy of the Church as the manifestation and anticipation of the transfiguration of the world. Fr Sergius had a strong sense of the cosmic dimension of the Church, of the Church as the anticipation of the restored creation. The theology of St Gregory Palamas, however, with its emphasis on both "deification" and divine transcendence, provides the only truly adequate expression of these intuitions.

*Перевод статьи опубликован в журнале "Христианская мысль", №3, 2006

1 The best introduction to the theology of St Gregory Palamas is still [Лучшим введением в богословие св. Григория Паламы все еще является]: Jean Meyendorff, Introduction ? l'?tude de Gr?goire Palamas. Paris, 1959. English version: John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas. Crestwood, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974 (2nd edition).

2 Triad III, 2, 25: Gr?goire Palamas, D?fense des saints h?sychastes (ed. Jean Meyendorff), Louvain, 1973, p. 689: '????????? '??? ??? ???????? ??????? ? ????? ????.

3 Triad III, 1, 31. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 617. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1140A; 1144BC. See also Meyendorff, Introduction, p. 249= A Study, p. 178.

4 Against Gregoras IV, 58. Ed. P. Chrestou: Gregory Palamas, ???????????, Thessaloniki, 1962, vol. IV, p. 371. Meyendorff, Introduction, p. 255= A Study, p. 183.

5 Hugh Christopher Barbour, The Byzantine Thomism of Gennadios Scholarios. Citta del Vaticano, 1993.

6 Triad III, 2, 8. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 659.

7 Against Akindynos VI, 20, 75. Ed. Chrestou III, p. 442f.

8 Chapter 91: Saint Gregory Palamas, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters (ed. Robert E. Sinkewicz), Toronto, 1988, p. 190.

9 Against Akindynos I, 7, 20. Ed. Chrestou III, p. 53.

10 Triad III, 2, 25—26. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 689.

11 E.g. the procession of the philosophers beneath the "Tree of Jesse" on the external southern wall of the Monastery Church in Sucevita (Moldavia), 16th century.[ Например, шествие философов под "Древом Иессея" на внешней южной стене монастырского храма в Сучевита (Молдавия) 16 век.]

12 Triad II, 3, 16. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 419—421.

13 The experience of "undergoing the negation" (??????? ??? ?????????) is different from, and superior to, "apophatic theology". The latter is only an intellectual way to describe God's transcendence[Опыт "испытания отрицания" (pavscein th;n ajfaivresin) отличается и превосходит "апофатическое богословие". Последнее является только способом описания трансцендентности Бога]: Triad II,  3, 26. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 439.

14 Triad I, 3, 18. Ed. Meyendorff, p. 149. Cf. (Pseudo-)Dionysius, Letter V, PG 3, 1073A.

15 Triad III, 2, 25 (ed. Meyendorff, p. 689): God has "an energy which is the model and end of all existing things". [Бог имеет "энергию, которая есть образец и конечная цель всего существующего". ]

16 Chapter 2. Ed. Sinkewicz, p. 84: "This whole world will be transformed like our bodies, being resolved and changed into a more divine form, so that it will be like us, through the power of the Divine Spirit". [Весь этот мир будет преображен, как наши тела, распавшись и изменившись в более божественной форме, так что он будет ,как мы, силою Святого Духа.]

17 The following reflections are based on: P?re Serge Boulgakov, La Sagesse de Dieu. R?sum? de Sophiologie. [Эти рассуждения основаны на: Отец Сергий Булгаков. Премудрость Божия. Вывод софиологии]Trad. du russe par Constantin Andronikof. Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, 1983,chapitre III: "La Sophie divine et la Sophie cr?e" (p. 37—53).

18 However, it appears that, according to Fr Sergius' theological system, creation is the consequence of the fact that humanity (as a platonic "Idea") from all eternity forms part of the Divine nature, or Sophia. He defines "Sophia" as the "Heavenly Humanity" (Sagesse, op. cit. , p. 65). [Однако, представляется, что, в соответствии с богословской системой о. Сергия, творение является следствием того, что человечность (как некая платоновская "Идея") от века составляет часть Божественной природы, или Софии. Он определяет "Софию" как "Божественную Человечность". ]

19 Serge Boulgakov, L'?pouse de l'Agneau. La cr?ation, l'homme, l'?glise et la fin. Trad. du russe par Constantin Andronikof. Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, 1984, p. 53: "Being founded in the Divine Sophia, the world is not created. It is eternal, because its origin is eternal. But at the same time the world is created and belongs to all that is temporal…" [Имея основание в Божественной Софии, мир не является сотворенным. Он вечен, поскольку его начало вечно. Но в то же время мир сотворен и принадлежит всему, что временно…"]

20 See supra, n. 18.

21 Boulgakov, Sagesse, p. 50f.

22 P?re Serge Boulgakov, L'Icone et sa veneration. Trad. du russe par Constantin Andronikof. Lausanne, L'Age d'Homme, 1996, p. 89f. (Ch. VIII, "Les diff?rents genres d'ic?nes").

23 Serge Boulgakov, Le Paraclet. Trad. du russe par Constantin Andronikof. Paris, Aubier, 1946, p. 272 (Ch. V, "La r?v?lation du Saint-Esprit").

24 See supra, n. 18.