Back in late May I watched a video by a Roman Catholic schismatic, simply for purposes of entertainment. Its topic was: “Eastern ‘Orthodoxy’ Exposed: Their Heretical Doctrine Of God.” I wrote a quick comment and I checked a week later seeing no responses to it. A friend of mine, an Orthodox inquirer, emailed me about the video and I simply pointed to the comment. It was still up at the time. Sadly the comment has since been deleted.
Recently, I was emailed about the video again from another friend who likewise is inquiring into Roman Catholicism and the sort. I wrote the following response, heavily edited so nothing of a personal nature comes up. This amounts to my response to the above video:
The video works under the presumption that logical premises and philosophy somehow are true theology. In fact, I think this whole tendency (other than anti-intellectual baptists) ruins western theology.
In short, the premise of the video is that the energy-essence distinction in God philosophically teaches polytheism (hence the title of the video). He literally tethers his argument to the idea if that if (some of) God’s divine energies are created, this in effect makes God created and therefore turns God’s energies into created gods.
Perhaps this argument makes sense to the armchair philosopher, but if we put down our Aristotle and picked up our Bibles, we would read in John 1 that the Word was made flesh! The uncreated became created! The eternal entered time. Due to the hypostatic union, we cannot properly speak of Christ without referring to His “generate and ingenerate” qualities, as Saint Ignatius put it so early on.
This literally obliterates the argument undergirding the whole video, which of course, is why he deleted my comment. Like Eph 4:6 states,”God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Obviously, this cannot be true of His essence as this would make God’s divine “substance” (which is why we often talk about “consubstantiality” in western theology) temporal–something Orthodox object to–hence the energy-essence distinction.
Western theology ultimately turns God into the Big Bang of sorts…a far away, unapproachable, point of singularity akin to the One of Neo-Platonism that cannot be transcendent. He really is not through all and in all, as this would make God created somehow. Orthodoxy rejects such false philosophy because we are sticking to the teaching of Christianity throughout the ages.
On a secondary note, one may appreciate the video’s side swipes against eastern mysticism. This is not entirely without justification. But, ask yourself. Is the West without sin in this regard? Don’t they have their mystics? In fact, their mystics are worse and practice propitiatory flagellations and the like.
What practice do the eastern mystics have which is suspect? Questionable body posture? (I am personally not a fan of the naval gazing, I think that some well-meaning people are simply cutting off oxygen to their brains and having phenomena that are common to fighter pilots who due to g-forces start having hallucinations, see a science article on the subject here).
The eastern mystics are not encanting demons. Praying with your head on your lap might be painful and bad for your neck, but it is only evil if there is a sense of pride that one can make God do a “miracle” of some sort.
If the mystical side of historic Christianity bothers us, then the obvious answer is Protestantism (or nihilism, as where intellectually the Protestant Reformation has ultimately led.) I suppose that if we do not deal with anything spiritual, we avoid the demons. But, Jesus went out into the wilderness to pray for a long time and was tempted! So, we are not to purposely look for demons, but we are not to avoid the spiritual life of Christianity because of them.
I will offer one final comment. Most of us armchair theologians online, and even those with seminary training, are theological morons. We do not have any Saint Maximus the Confessors or Saint Gregory of Nyssas alive today (or a Thomas Aquinas for that matter.) We are all pretending to understand the theological arguments of fathers which are couched in Greek terms and a intellectual culture centuries removed from ours.
I say this as someone who is actually published in the field of Neo-Platonism! I struggle mightily to follow the arguments of the fathers when they are trying to explain Christian theology in Platonic terms (hence our arguments about energies, essence, hypostasis, etcetera.) I think the vast majority of us would be much better off bowing out and not even discussing these subjects then pretending we understand them, let alone apply teachings based upon an understanding of the said concepts.
This is why I plant my flag not on my own understanding of theology or the Scriptures, but what the Church has always taught. Schismatics are not the Church. This is why when evaluating doctrine, the first question I ask is whether this doctrine is from a body which may be historically demonstrated to be in schism or not.
New winds of doctrine and philosophy are not Her teachings. The Church is Christ’s Body and has a wisdom from God Himself (1 Cor 2:10), and Her mind on these matters has been communicated by the saints throughout the ages. So, in short, I do not have to understand nor deliberate about these things. I can simply stick with what they have always taught.
So, to return to the video at issue, Saint Gregory Palamas is perhaps an outlier (of sorts) among the fathers. I would agree that his application of the term “energy” was different than what we often see in the Cappadocian fathers. But, this is to miss the forest from the trees.
Just as the Orthodox fathers of Nicea contradicted the Orthodox fathers that deposed Paul of Samasata a century previously in their usage of the term “same substance,” what we cannot avoid is that both were communicating the same thing. So, in the third and forth centuries, they were arguing that Jesus Christ is God using contradictory terminology. Likewise, Cappadocians and Palamas were affirming another essential Christian truth–God is transcendent.
We do not experience God through some sort of filter. We experience God Himself. We are literally indwelt with His Spirit. Our cells literally take on the physical matter of the Eucharist. We have a true and metaphysical union with God by grace through faith in Christ.
It was this essential Christian truth that Palamas sought to defend against Western thinkers who were in reality syncretists who taught that Aristotle, Plato, and the Bible were all teaching about the same God. Palamas was not specifically reacting against Aquinas, and in fact at the time of the Hesychast controversy Aquinas was actually viewed positively in the East (the anti-Aquinas thing is more of a result of the east becoming more anti-philsophical than would have been the norm in Palamas day, a move I personally agree with.)
Rather, Palamas was reacting against what would later become Renaissance philosophy, as arguably Barlaam (Palamas’ theological adversary and a teacher of Greek to Petrarch) was one of the first Renaissance humanists! Palamas nipped in the bud the sort of thinking that would be found in the Ficinos, the Miradollas, the Cusas…the thinkers whose approach to divine truth was a mixture of prayer and philosophical contemplation. Ironically, this sort of humanism planted the intellectual seeds of the Protestant Reformation itself.
Palamas was reacting against the idea that knowing God is some sort of intellectual exercise due to his remoteness and unknowability, only perceived in contemplation, Scripture reading, or whatever else. Rather, God is known by experience! Palamas’ writings are an intellectual defense (hence extremely philosophical) of the importance of knowing God apart from philosophy and human reason! Christians can know God, not merely know about God.
In closing, this is why the schismatics who made the video against Orthodoxy miss the mark so badly. They neither respond adequately to the particulars of Palamas’ argumentation, nor do they understand the spirit of Christianity (which is Orthodoxy) itself–God is transcendent and by grace we know God like a bride knows her husband. Beyond this, I cannot pass any more comment because I am already beyond my philosophical depth.