Gregory Palamas: An Historical Overview


This is the first half of our two-part investigation in to the Palamite controversy and its influence on Orthodox theology. Here we will deal with the historical background in which the controversy developed and took place; the next discussion will then take up the particular theological issues put forth by St Gregory Palamas and examine them in more detail. As such, this investigation does not address the theology of the controversy in any more specific detail than is needed to paint a broad picture of the historical situation at hand.
We might understand the historical background surrounding the Palamite controversy in 14th-century Byzantium as being comprised, in Gregory’s lifetime, of two principal phases: first are those events which fall within the scope of Barlaam of Calabria’s accusations against Gregory and his theology, generally within the years c.1330 to 1341; and secondly, those events which were to occur during and after the Byzantine civil war between John V Palealogus and Patriarch Calecas on the one hand, and the Great Domestic, John Cantacuzene on the other. The civil war itself would be waged primarily between 1341 and 1347, though we can extend this ‘phase’ in the history of the Palamite controversy to the death of Gregory on 14 November, 1359—for the political atmosphere which was to have so great a role in this controversy would extend well beyond the official triumph of early 1347.
In this short investigation we will examine the background to the Palamite controversy by means of these two divisions, and thus hope to present a general picture of the historical atmosphere in which the great controversy was waged. Each section will begin with a very brief overview of the historical situation of that time-period, and then will deal in slightly more detail with particular elements which were to be of influence in the greater controversy itself.
The Barlaamite Controversy and the Two Councils of 1341
A. The Historical Situation 1A much more thorough timeline of the events in this period is found in Appendix I.
Gregory Palamas’ early life (pre-1330) is of great historical interest to the Byzantine scholar, and indeed paints a very interesting picture of life in the turbulent era of growing Turkish occupation of formerly Byzantine lands. The theological developments in Gregory’s own understanding were especially great during the years 1317-1329, while he began his monastic vocation and encountered great spiritual personalities on Athos, Mt. Papikion, Salonica, Thessaloniki, and elsewhere. However, as the details of this phase in Gregory’s life do not relate to the development of the Palamite controversy as directly as those which would follow, we will speak relatively little of them in this paper.2 We will consider it sufficient to note, at this point in our study, that Gregory had already begun to write on the nature of the procession of the Holy Spirit, especially in comparison with the Latin view which was then being much discussed, whilst living at his hermitage of St. Sabbas on Athos, in the early 1330’s. He wrote his Apodictic Treatises to this effect c.1336, which would soon play a great part in the controversies to follow.
Barlaam the Calabrian had arrived in Constantinople a few years earlier, c.1330, and there engaged in writing commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius under the patronage of John Cantacuzene, then the Great Domestic. A humanist and perhaps also a nominalist in his philosophy and theology, Barlaam quickly came to be known throughout the capital, and was fairly well respected in the court. His writings must have extended well beyond the field of commentary in their scope, as we know that in 1337, Gregory was to receive at St. Sabbas some anti-Latin writings by Barlaam. In these, the Calabrian had pronounced that efforts at demonstrating the nature of God (in this case, in the person of the Holy Spirit) should be dismissed, as God is ultimately unknowable and undemonstrable to human persons. The very title of Gregory’s Apodictic Treatises betrayed his very different view. Around the same time, Barlaam was also to become aware of the hesychast method of prayer, and immediately began to criticise its ‘psychosomatic technique’ and the possibility of material eyes physically beholding the immaterial God. A dialogue of letters thus ensued between the two writers, with the person of Gregory Akindynos acting as a sort of ‘mediator’ between Gregory, whom he know from Athos, and the often fiery and flamboyant character of Barlaam in Constantinople.
However, the two authors were to find no amicable resolution to their differing views. Barlaam would remain persistent in his attacks on Gregory’s standpoint, and Palamas himself was unwilling to admit to the humanist nature of the Calabrian’s own theology. Without ever mentioning him by name, the Hagioritic Tome which Gregory drafted in early 1341 with the support of the monastic communities of Athos, clearly demonstrates a pointed attack at Barlaam’s views.3 This was to be met by the latter’s response, appearing in the form of his work, Against the Messalians, wherein he attacks Gregory by name for the first time.
By early spring, 1341, it was clear that the dispute would need to be resolved by conciliar means. Barlaam, who had already attempted—unsuccessfully—to rouse Patriarch Calecas to his cause, now demanded that a council be held in the capital. Gregory agreed and left for Constantinople, bringing with him several of his closest friends and disciples—including the Emperor Andronicus III, with whom he had grown up, and who would soon support his childhood friend. Gregory arrived at the capital a full seven months after Barlaam, and the latter had already invested much effort in convincing many of his case. Yet Palamas made it his project to speak publicly concerning his standpoint, and turned many to his own view during the spring of that year.
On June 10, 1341, the first council was held in the basilica of Haghia Sophia, presided over by Andronicus III. The gathering was indeed a proper council, as notes Meyendorff, and not simply a sitting of the standing Synod of Constantinople: the hearings were public, general judges from the Imperial Court were present, as were the bishops and several archimandrates.4 However, the council was destined to be quite short, lasting only a single day. Barlaam was allowed to make his accusations against Palamas, but he was soon turned into the accused when the gathered bishops began to question him on specific points of his own theology with which they (and Gregory) disagreed. By the end of the day, Barlaam had realised that the council was not going to decide in his favour, and publicly confessed his error. Palamas freely forgave him.
Andronicus III would die only five days later, in 15 June, 1341. Barlaam seems to have hoped to now make his case again, but soon realised the futility of such an endeavour, and in fact left the Empire for Italy that same year. However, it would now be Gregory Akindynos who would take issue with certain points in Palamas’ theology, as we shall see later. A second council was held in August, this time without the presence of the anti-Palamite supporters of Barlaam, which condemned Akindynos and emphatically upheld the previous council’s support of Palamite theology.
B. The Refutation of Barlaam and its Significance to the Future of the Controversy
The above historical presentation has been rather sweeping, as the dictates of space mandate. However it is important to note the reaction brought against Barlaam’s attacks on Palamas’ theology. The Calabrian was Gregory’s greatest attacker, from the theological perspective, and his challenges to the notions of physical participation in divine union, prayer, and sanctification demonstrate the most substantial of the doctrinal attacks waged against ‘Palamitism’. It is thus especially noteworthy that the Church as a whole utterly rejected Barlaam’s views from the very first. Meyendorff has written that ‘Palamas’s victory had certainly been complete from June 10th, 1341.’5 Indeed, no legitimate council would ever decide against the Palamite position in the entire course of the controversy. It has often been claimed that the Palamite position was already complete at this early point in its history, and all that should come over the next twenty years would be its clarification and extrapolation. Indeed, as we shall see in the next section, the majority of conflicts after the councils of 1341 and the Tome which recorded their proceedings, were to come from principally political motivations.
C. Relationship with the West: Latin Relations in the Controversy
It has sometimes been assumed that the relationship between Constantinople and Rome was of central significance to the Palamite controversy, as it was to many of the ecclesiastical developments in the 13th- and 14th-centuries. We have seen above that it was the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit—a notion currently in hot dispute with the West—that originally served as the starting point of the conflict between Gregory and Barlaam. Yet how far did this interaction between East and West play a decisive role in the development of the Palamite controversy at large?
It would seem that we must be somewhat cautious in our emphasis upon this aspect of the controversy. It cannot be denied that the theological disputes with Rome provided much of the atmosphere—especially in its humanist and rationalist tendencies—which served as the spur for Barlaam’s attacks on Palamas’ Apodictic Treatises. It is also certain that the Western views on Palamite theology were to be of importance much later in the affair’s history, when Paul of Smyrna, Legate of Pope Innocent VI, would side with Nicephorus Gregoras against Palamas and eventually affect the conversion of John V to the Latin Church. Yet these moments of external relations with the West come at the extreme chronological ends of the Palamite controversy itself, which seems to have been focused almost wholly internally for the duration of its primary activity. It seems wrong, for example, to say that the controversy was one between Orthodoxy and the Papacy, for the main conflicts between East and West over Palamite theology did not begin to occur in any grandiose form until well after the Byzantine Church had wholly sided in support of Gregory’s teachings; and one would be relatively hard-pressed to find evidence of a specifically ‘anti-papal’ trend in Gregory’s writings. It would seem much more appropriate to say that the results of the Palamite controversy sparked a new debate between Rome and Constantinople, but not that the controversy itself was formulated along Eastern/Western disagreements.
Somewhat more importance might be credited, however, to the influence of culture upon the Palamite dispute. While purely theological differences between the East and West were not largely at play in the controversy, much conflict indeed was based upon the differences in the philosophical and cultural outlooks of these two regions. The prevailing humanism—mentioned several times already—of the renaissance movement in Italy, and indeed of many circles in Constantinople, stood in rather stark contrast to the spiritual ‘practicality’ of the Byzantine (and particularly Athonite) monks. Palamas is known to have studied the works of Aristotle and perhaps—though this is less likely6—Plato; the very thinkers so highly prised by such minds as Barlaam and, to some degree, Akindynos. Yet Gregory’s views towards the importance of such writers in the overall body of theological thought was far different than those of the humanists: he saw a validity to the study of such thinkers, only so far as it assisted in comprehending the truths proclaimed by the Church. Where Barlaam and others would attack Gregory and the hesychasts for diverging from the ‘truths’ expounded in Plato, Plotinus and others, Gregory would respond that these men could only be considered truthful inasmuch as their proclamations agreed with that which the Church professed. Thus a certain philosophical and cultural dispute does indeed seem to have played its part in the course of the Palamite controversy; however, even its role was still not as great as that of the political events of the day, to which we shall turn in the next section.
The Civil War and Following: Theological Controversy Turned Political
A. The Historical Situation7For a more detailed, chronological account of the historical events from June 1341-1368, see Appendices II and III.
Emperor Andronicus III had been dead for only three days before Patriarch John Calecas and Great Domestic John Cantacuzene began, on 18 June, 1341, to vie for the regency of Byzantium. A brief round of initial disputes was followed by an apparent move toward peaceful coexistence; but this was definitively broken in October of the same year, when Calecas and his megas dux, Apocaucos, gained complete power by a sudden coup d’état. The Patriarch had earlier informed Palamas of his plans and asked for his support, but Gregory refused to take sides in a conflict he saw as aimed at tearing the Empire apart. Though he believed Cantacuzene—who had himself proclaimed Emperor in October/November 1341—to be the more Orthodox of the two contenders for power, he did not officially or formally back either side. Yet John Calecas, who had ordained John V as sole Emperor on 19 November, was to react bitterly to Gregory’s lack of support, and quickly came to see him as a great political threat.
To assist in alleviating that threat, Calecas gave Gregory Akindynos a certain freedom to attack Gregory Palamas once again. Beginning in Autumn, 1342, this small freedom would turn into full license, and Akindynos and his supporters would lash out against Palamas with their fiercest efforts of the conflict. In May of that year, Akindynos convinced Calecas to hold a council in judgement of Gregory, who arrived at Constantinople to face his accusers. Seeing the negative nature of the proceedings, he left for Hereclea, and in his absence Calecas convinced the assembled council to condemn all that Gregory had published after 1341 (as a previous imperial Council had affirmed his writings before that date, it would have been a highly controversial move for the Patriarch to now condemn them). Four months later, in September, Calecas had Palamas arrested on purely political charges; first holding him in St. Sophia and other monasteries, but eventually confining him to the palace prison. Here Gregory would remain for four years—actively writing for the entire duration.
It is while Gregory is in prison that Calecas made the extremely controversial move of ordaining Akindynos—a formally condemned individual—to the diaconate, then the priesthood, and eventually to the dignity of bishop (c.1344/1345). Here he began to lose the support of the Empress, Anne, who stood together with the Imperial Court in firm opposition to this action. Akindynos was given a position of great power, having in his right the recommendation of new bishops to the Patriarch; and thus he was able to instigate a highly anti-Palamite contingency within the episcopacy. Yet this entire chain of events caused a deep rift to form between Anne and Calecas, and by January of 1347 she had called a council together to depose him. Just previous to this, in 1346, Calecas himself had realised the futility of his anti-Palamite strategy, and had begun to distance himself from Akindynos.
Anne’s council was convened on 1 February, 1347, and resulted in the condemnation of Calecas and a reaffirmation of the Tome of 1341. The next day, Cantacuzene would make a triumphant entrance into the city. However, the issue of contention between the Domestic and John V was yet to be resolved. Empress Anne sent Palamas himself to act as mediator—a task in which he had great success: Cantacuzene and John were soon proclaimed co-Emperors. Calecas, now deposed, was replaced by Isidore Boukharis on 17 May, 1347, and he in turn consecrated a whole host of new bishops, including Gregory.
The anti-Palamite dispute was, however, not yet complete. In May-July 1347, an assembly of anti-Palamite bishops convened in council to excommunicate both Palamas and Isidore. Only a month later, this action was reversed by Isidore and the Synod, who excommunicated all twenty bishop present at the gathering. Another council is held in the months of May, June, and August, 1351, wherein the anti-Palamite accusers, led by Nicephorus Gregoras, were allowed to make their case with freedom. However they were to be ultimately and decisively defeated, and the council recognised once and for all the full Orthodoxy of Palamas and his teachings.
The affairs following the Council of 1351 are as complex as those before. However, we can say that following this Council, which firmly upheld the original Tome of 1341, the victory of the Palamite position was all but completed. The re-outbreak of the civil war between John V and Cantacuzene, Gregory’s captivity in Turkish-occupied Gallipoli, Canticuzene’s abdication, and even John V’s eventual conversion to the Latin Church would no longer have the influence to sway the decision of the Byzantine Church, which now accepted with full embrace the teachings of the bishop of Thessaloniki. Gregory’s death came on 14 November, 1359. Only nine years later, he was entered into the great calendar at Haghia Sophia, to be commemorated thereafter as a Saint in the Eastern Church.
B. The Importance of the Battle for Regency
The import of the battle for regency in the Empire on the development of the Palamite controversy cannot be over stressed; for it was from this arena that the theological disputes of Barlaam and Akindynos were woven into the political affairs of Byzantium at large.
As we saw in the previous section, the Patriarch Calecas had originally been favourable toward Palamas in his disputes with Barlaam in 1338-1341. Calecas seems to have believed that this would have assured him of Gregory’s support during the ensuing civil war, but we have already seen that this was not the case. It thus seems to have been for primarily political, and not theological, reasons that the Patriarch was to turn against Palamas in the years to follow. It is also highly questionable whether or not anything else would have ever been heard from Gregory Akindynos after his official condemnation in 1341, if it had not been for the Patriarch’s desire to use him for political gain. This is evidenced by the staunch disapproval of both Empress Anne and the Imperial Court toward Calecas’ ordination of the monk who had been previously condemned by an imperial Council8—it seems probable that without the political motivations of the Patriarch during and after the civil war, for which he made use of Akindynos to validate his position and offer ecclesiastical support, that the theological disputes surrounding Palamite doctrine would have remained fairly settled after 1341.
We must also recognise, in this battle for regency, the strong emphasis upon mediation that was thrust into Gregory’s hands. His obstinate refusal to take firm sides in the conflict between Calecas and Cantacuzene reflected an ever deepening trend in his own practise, to vie for conciliation within the Empire and the Church. Gregory was, of his own admission, a peace-maker for the Church,9 and felt it his duty to attempt, to the best of his ability, to bring peace to the warring factions around him. How far this would play into the development of his theology is an interesting question; for while Gregory felt a special duty toward reconciliation, he was absolutely unwilling to bend from what he saw as the truth of the faith—and even its right and proper position within the Empire of Byzantium.10
C. A Cacophony of Voices: Multiple Accusers and Multiple Accusations
Another aspect of fundamental importance in understanding the historical background of the Palamite Controversy, is that of the multiple accusers and accusations with which Gregory was to be faced. During the earlier phase of the controversy, his conflict was primarily against a single individual: Barlaam, and after his condemnation, Akindynos. Yet with the outbreak of the civil war and the onset of the intensely political situation which followed, Gregory was rather suddenly faced with accusers from many fronts. And to make matters even more complicated, these accusers were far from united in their attacks against him.
Gregory Akindynos, as we have said, began his conflict with Palamas by following on the heels of Barlaam of Calabria and attacking the notion of corporeal participation in the divine and uncreated. Yet he soon followed this up with several other theological issues: whether or not the energies of God could properly be called ‘divine’; the evidence of what he understood to be an approximation of Messalianism/Bogomil practises in Gregory’s teachings; and others. Patriarch Calecas, on the other hand, was to attack Palamas on the issues of Church authority: who is able to define Church doctrine and dogma (Calecas seems to have been upset, perhaps at Akindynos’ prompting, by the apparent attempt to do so by the Athonite monks in Gregory’s Hagioritic Tome)? Stephen Dushan would attack him for political loyalties; Nicephoras Gregoras would attack him for betraying a philosophical conception of God as simple essence. The breadth of the accusations waged against Gregory seems to have been as great as the number of people attacking him.
This, then, would have great influence on the course of the Palamite controversy in general, and on Gregory’s development and exposition of his own theology in particular. He was forced, in a rather short expanse of time, to defend his position in the face of an incredibly broad scope of attack; and perhaps one of the more remarkable features of his life and work is the fact that he so able did just that.
Concluding Thoughts
This overview of the historical development of the Palamite Controversy will hopefully have shown the great breadth of the theological, social, and political situation which St Gregory Palamas lived and wrote. Decidedly lacking from this paper, as assigned, is any mention of the economic factor in the dispute between the hesychasts and the two opposing political forces—though perhaps it would be valuable to discuss this element in the controversy. Yet the central historical elements have been addressed, and will hopefully have set the stage for the more theological discussion to come in this study’s second half.
Works to consult for further study
Lossky, Vladimir. The Theology of Light in the Thought of St. Gregory Palamas, in In the Image and Likeness of God. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1947; pp. 45-69.
Meyendorff, John (trans. Lawrence, George). A Study of Gregory Palamas. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1964, 1974.
Meyendorff, John (trans. Fiske, Adele). St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.
Palmer, G.E.H, Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. The Philokalia: the Complete Text (vol. iv). London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
Steenberg, Matthew. Deification as the Restoration of Humanity: Theosis in Eastern Christian Thought (research for the Religion Faculty). St. Olaf College, 1998-1999.
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2. A timeline of the major events in Gregory’s life from his birth in 1326 until his appointment as abbot of the Esphigmenou monastery on Athos in c.1335/1336, is found in Appendix IV. [back]
3. Cf. Meyendorff, pp. 48-49 ff. [back]
4. Cf. Meyendorff, p. 54. [back]
5. Meyendorff, p. 56. [back]
6. Cf. Meyendorff, pp. 29-30. [back]
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8. Meyendorff, pp. 77-76. [back]
9. Cf. Gregory, Letter to the Athonites, Coisl. 99, fol. 173v. [back]
10. A fair picture of this committed relationship to Constantinople can be see through an examination of his relationship with the Serbian leader, Stephen Dushan; cf., e.g., Meyendorff, pp. 91-94. [back]