There are many interesting things taking place in academia right now regarding Orthodox history and theology, beyond the usual faddish expressions of “theosis envy.” Here I want to take some space to provide some direction. I sketch four relatively recent academic works that I take to be indispensable for understanding the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox tradition. I believe that these works are redrawing the intellectual map, clearing away old mistakes and exonerating St. Gregory of many false accusations.
For all of the books discussed here, I strongly recommend a basic grasp of some philosophy and major figures in Christian history. If you do not have a running grasp of the main ideas of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics or if the names of Basil, Gregory of Nyssa or Gregory of Nazianzus do not conjure relatively clear ideas of their teachings, then there are plenty of other works you should be reading. I also believe that it goes without saying, that if you haven’t read the Bible all the way through at least once, you have more important things to be doing than reading these books.
But on to the books. The first two books will be familiar to long time readers of EP, but I believe that they have demonstrated their quality through academic recognition. These first two works may not be seminal works in their respective areas, but they are getting to the point that they are the point of departure for contemporary discussions and/or necessary reading if one wishes to begin to think about these issues.
The first book is by the Catholic scholar Michel Rene Barnes, The Power of God: Dunamis in Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology, CUP, (repr. 2016). While not devoted to Palamism, the book has substantial bearing on the doctrine of St. Gregory Palamas. The heart of the book is a thesis about the role that different causal theories played in the late Nicene debates concerning the Trinity as exemplified by Gregory of Nyssa and Eunomius of Cyzicus. The value of Barnes’ work is not just demonstrating the dividing fulcrum of different understandings of the relation between cause and effect. In addition, Barnes takes considerable time building the historical background for the concept of dunamis or power and the relation between power as a source and its extension, a sign. Barnes chronicles the history of the idea of a hidden power that produces extensions of itself that can be known, or in other words, signs. This concept is traced across linguistic theory, medical theory and many other fields going back beyond the Pre-Socratics. The book is worth these first few chapters alone.
Next up is of course David Bradshaw’s well known, Aristotle East and West, Cambridge (2007). Bradshaw conducts a breathtaking survey and exposition of Aristotelian metaphysics and the role it played primarily in Eastern theological formation long before the rise of Latin Scholasticism. Part of the real value of Bradshaw’s work is that he picks up the historical story of tracing out the concepts pretty much where Barnes leaves off since Barnes doesn’t delve into the Aristotelian influences. It is therefore very easy to see how the dunamis-sign model gets cashed out in terms of Aristotelian essence-energy model. Bradshaw’s work definitely brought the Orthodox to the contemporary philosophical table in a way that no other work that I know of has.
Third in the list and more recent is Norman Russell’s Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age, Oxford (2019). Russell’s work does what no other work in English that I know of does. Russell lays out the history of the transmission and reception of the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas along with the history of how his texts were preserved and transmitted. At certain points, the history reads like a James Bond film with a highly improbable casts of characters and events all somehow strangely fitting together seamlessly. Rusell’s work explains well why Catholic (and Protestant) figures condemned Saint Palamas’ teaching due to a lack of access to texts, third hand information, and the lack of sufficient philosophical reflection even when said reflection already existed in other quarters of the Latin tradition.
The fourth and final text is the recent work by Tikhon Pino, Essence and Energies: Being and Naming God in St. Gregory Palamas, Routledge (2022). Pino’s work is an essentially shortened version of his doctoral dissertation out of Marquette University. Having read both, the dissertation is about 100 pages longer than the book. This appears to be due to putting sections of translated texts into endnote form and by removing the text. So the value of the dissertation is that you get to see more of the primary sources than you do in the book. That said, Pino is the only scholar alive today who has read the entire corpus of Saint Palamas’ works, which is far more substantial than the Triads or the 150 Chapters. Contra Akindynos for example, is about 500 pages alone and a number of other works by Saint Palamas are of similar length.
Pino’s work analyzes Saint Palamas’ teaching on the essence/energies distinction across Saint Palamas’ entire corpus. No one to my knowledge has ever attempted such a task. Even Meyendorff who was in the past the only modern scholar, at least in the West, to have read the entirety of Saint Palamas’ works did not produce such an analysis. Here we are definitely in Dr. Pino’s debt for his clarifying and analytical work.
For myself, having had my head in this area for over 20 years, Pino’s work is frankly breathtaking. He brings to the surface many texts of Saint Palamas that speak directly to both historical objections to the essence/energy distinction and to current disputes over just what the distinction amounts to. Many of the texts are so explicit that they will be decisive in settling some old and new disputes such as the eternal plurality of the energies, the distinction between energy and procession, and how the EED is compatible with the Christian tradition on divine simplicity. Pino’s work served to confirm many of my own readings and extrapolations from the texts I did have. Pino’s work has simply cleared the floor and set the parameters for the academic discussion of Saint Palamas’ teaching on the EED for the foreseeable future.
What Pino’s work does not do is focus on a comparison between Saint Palamas’ teaching and the myriad of Latin scholastic perspectives. Such an endeavor would have been far too cumbersome, among other things. Here Dr. Pino was quite right to limit the scope of the project to just what Saint Palamas’ teaching on the essence energy distinction expresses. For that alone, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
If you have the requisite background and you are serious about understanding Orthodox theology and the EED, then the four above works are a must. I would strongly recommend reading them in the order I presented them. (If I had to add a fifth book before Barnes’ work, it would be Giovanni Manetti’s Theories of the Sign in Classical Antiquity, Indiana Univ. Press (1993).)
A Note on Book Prices
I am acutely aware of the price of books. The first two books are reasonably priced and are available in paperback. The last two books are quite expensive. It seems Oxford Univ. Press has taken to substantially raising prices on such books the longer that they are out. (Just look at Bathrellos’ The Byzantine Christ, which was about 80 bucks when it come out and now stands at about 240 dollars. When I saw Fr. Bathrellos last Spring he remarked to me that he could not
even afford his own book!) I therefore make a habit of buying them when they come out. Even still, Pino’s book is quite expensive and so is Russell’s. It is important to remember that the academics do not set the price of their books. And besides, you very often get what you pay for.
So here are a few suggestions. You can acquire Dr. Pino’s dissertation form a dissertation printing service for a very reasonable price (I believe around 40 dollars or so). As far as I am able to tell, there aren’t any substantial changes in what Pino argues between the dissertation and the book. The kindle version is also cheaper, though I am not a fan of electronic books, but to each his own I suppose.
If you care about the information and you aren’t picky about the aesthetics, you can try and find either Russell or Pino’s works in used copies. For that route, I’d suggest using Bookfinder.com. This site I have used for many years and accesses booksellers across the planet. I have been able to score not a few gems from local booksellers who had no idea what the value of the book they were selling was actually worth.
All of this has practical import as well. If you are clergy and have noticed an uptick in inquirers at your parish, now is the time to acquire these works. Because I can tell you without a doubt that the topic of the divine energies will come up. Given the current critiques of it out in internet land, not to mention the academic literature, people will find an answer. So here you have an opportunity to provide people with some very good answers.
The days when Saint Palamas’ teaching can be ignorantly maligned are coming to an end in the Western world.