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November 14, 2012

Double Knowledge According to Gregory Palamas

By Prof. Panagiotes Chrestou

During his sojourn in Byzantium Barlaam of Calabria, a distinguished theologian and philosopher of the 14th century, took an active part in the discussions concerning two great problems, namely those of the procession of the Holy Spirit and of the monastic hesychia. As regards the former he opposed the Roman Catholic view and as regards the latter opposed the Hesychasts. Since in both cases he employed gnostic criteria, equating philosophy with theology, he provoked strong opposition from Gregory Palamas.

Palamas’ argumentation in this controversy included a series of dual distinctions, among which theory of double knowledge holds a notable place. In this theory we may note three aspects: the distinction between philosophy and theology; the distinction within theology of two ways of knowing God; and finally the distinction between theology and the vision of God or theoptia.

1. Philosophy and Theology

The first distinction is a result of the conflict between Christianity and Greek philosophy, of which the beginnings go back to apostolic times. This conflict reappears from time to time and during the years of the Renaissance dominated the entire intellectual field. The further humanistic studies advanced, the greater was the importance given to the human factor for the knowledge divine; consequently philosophy was appreciated the more.

Barlaam, one of the pioneers of the Renaissance, reached the point of identifying the objects, the method and the achievements of philosophy and theology, supporting his endeavor with arguments to the effect that every human good is a gift of God and therefore all are of high quality. [i] Just as, he used to say, there are not two kinds of health-the one provided by God and the other secured by physicians, -in the same way, there are not two kinds of knowledge-the human and the divine-but only one. Philosophy and theology, as gifts of God, are of equal worth.

On this analogy, the Greek philosophers were raised to the same level as Moses and the prophets; and this tendency was later extended to the point of introducing such persons as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other sages to the iconographic cycle of Greek Orthodox Churches. Barlaam maintained that "Both the sayings of the divine men with the wisdom that is within them and profane philosophy aim at a unique object and therefore have a common purpose, the finding of truth; for truth existing in all these is but one. This truth was given to the apostles at the beginning by God; by ourselves, however, it is found through diligence and purity. Philosophical studies naturally contribute to the truth given to the apostles by God and assist greatly in reaching out to the first immaterial principles". [ii] In maintaining this argument Barlaam should not be considered as a rationalistic philosopher; on the contrary, by further elaboration of this thoughts he reaches conclusions that approach agnosticism. Indeed, he points out the complete inability of man in his natural state to understand the divine and, like Plato and Dionysios the Areopagite, seeks for purification and escape from the material body in other to achieve the vision of God in a condition of ecstasy.

In complete contrast to these, Palamas draws a sharp distinction between philosophy and theology. Certainly this division is not a unique phenomenon during those times. The Averroists of the West were accused and condemned in 1277 because among other teachings they maintained that things may be true according to philosophy and erroneous according to catholic faith, as if there were two contradictory truths. [iii] It is a matter of controversy nowadays what position was reached by the Averroists, and especially by Siger of Brabant, in the distinction they made between the two wisdoms and truths. But it is obvious that they at last had a definite predilection for such a distinction which appears again in Ockham’s philosophy. [iv]

It is extremely unlikely that Palamas had any knowledge of the views of these western theologians. His presuppositions and purposes were entirely different from theirs. When he was obliged to undertake work on this subject, he had recourse to Greek theology before his time and found satisfactory support for his position.

St. Paul, addressing himself primarily to the intellectuals of Athens and Corinth-the sages, the scribes and the debaters of the age-marked the chasm between the two philosophies, the wisdom of the world which as foolishness was abolished and that wisdom of God which is eternal and brings salvation. [v] Similarly, James described worldly wisdom as sensual and Satanic, and that coming from above he calls full of virtue and pure. [vi] The attitude of these two apostles, dictated by missionary needs of the time, did not allow a distinction between two kinds of knowledge, because it entirely rejected the value of worldly wisdom. Naturally this manner of dealing with the matter had serious consequences for the evolution of theological thought up to the end of the second century and also influenced it in some degree in later times. For about a century no attention whatever was paid to the foolish wisdom of the world.

Some of the apologists, who came from a different background and acted under different circumstances, adopted a different attitude. Our attention is especially called to the position which Clement of Alexandria took towards the problem. He perceived that the initial truth was one, but later dismembered by philosophical schools as that unfortunate Pentheus was dismembered by Bacchae. Although several schools maintain that they posses the whole truth, in reality they posses only a part of it. From this last observation it already appears that philosophy is not entirely valueless, but that the difference between it and theology is fundamental because philosophy has to do with names, i. e. the outward cover, while theology has to do with things, i. e. with essentials. "Thus, since there are two kinds of truth, he says, -one of names and the other of things, -some people prefer the names, viz. Those that are engaged in the beauty of speech, i. e. the Greek philosophers, while the things are investigated by us, the barbarians". [vii] Nevertheless knowledge constitutes a chain in which the elementary lessons serve philosophy as their mistress, while philosophy itself serves theology as its mistress. [viii] Borrowing from Philo, [ix] he employs as representative types Agar the slave and Sarah her mistress, both of whom in turn gave Abraham lovable children but of unequal worth. [x] To Sarah burning with jealousy Abraham says, "although I embrace the worldly paideia both as younger and as your handmaid on one hand, on the other hand I honor and respect your science as a perfect lady"[xi]. It is obvious that, according to Clement, whereas the philosophical systems possess a part of the truth, theology possesses the whole of it. Diadochos of Photike, examining this dismemberment from a different point of view, attributes it to the fall of man and considers it as a division between truth and error. By his fall man "was divided in the doubleness of knowledge". [xii]

Basil the Great links the two kinds of knowledge with the conditions of life which they serve. Worldly wisdom provides understanding of the present transitory life and facilitates a successful passage through it. Divine wisdom provides the weapons for the attainment of the blessed life of the future. [xiii] Not being contradictory to each other, they form, as it were, a tree in which the one provides the leaves and the other the fruits. [xiv]

Coming back to Gregory Palamas, we observe that he does not disagree with Barlaam’s contention that everything that is good is a gift of God and every gift of His is perfect, but he also remarks that every gift is not necessarily completely perfect. [xv] So long as the gifts of God are divided into natural and spiritual, philosophy is a natural gift [xvi] and as such under the influence of evil it has gone astray and changed and in some cases turned to foolishness. [xvii] Of course, under certain conditions philosophy adds to the knowledge of beings. But, since this knowledge cannot be identified with or accounted equal to the divine wisdom, [xviii] it becomes obvious that neither is ignorance always something bad, nor knowledge always good. [xix] For the same reason devotion to philosophy should not be hindered, though its abuse should be strongly criticized. [xx]

The objects of the two disciplines are clearly distinguished. Philosophy aims on the one hand at the exploration of the nature and movement of beings, and on the other hand at the definition of principles of social life. If it moves within these boundaries, it is "a dissertation of truth"; if it looks for something beyond them, it becomes an absurd, useless and dangerous occupation; because it belongs to theology, or philosophy according to Christ, to aim at the invisible and the eternal. [xxi] Now, since the objects of the two disciplines are distinct, the conclusions of both may be true.

This examination shows that according to Palamas’ teaching worldly knowledge and theological knowledge are clearly distinguished and proceed on parallel paths. The destination of each determines its value. The one intended for this transient life is a useful handmaid, but is not indispensable for salvation; the other intended for the eternal life is more precious and is absolutely indispensable for spiritual perfection and salvation. [xxii] This is the only distinction for which Palamas firmly uses the term "double knowledge", διπλή γνώσις or διπλόη .

2. The Two Ways of Knowing God

When we abandon the philosophy of this world and follow Christian truth, we find another distinction. but as in this case the object of the search remains one and the same, the point in question concerns two ways of knowledge rather than the double knowledge.

Barlaam, as an adherent of the unity of the knowledge of God and of the way of knowledge, denied that syllogism could prove the common notions, the first principles and God [xxiii]. He considered that illumination which was granted to all perfect men of ancient times prophets or apostles or even philosophers, was the only means of knowing God. It was given to them after they were cleansed of all impurity by intensive spiritual effort. Illumination made all of them God-seers (Θεόπτες) [xxiv]. Barlaam held that demonstration was applicable only to what was perishable, i. e. to what was liable to change. Palamas, on the other hand, denied to these very things any possibility of demonstration, quoting the Aristotelian dictum: "for the perishable demonstration does not exist" [xxv]. Barlaam took faith, with its very wide connotation, as the basis for knowledge through illumination. Palamas also put it as the basis, but gave it two meanings, viz. a wide meaning for what could not be demonstrated and a narrow one for faith amenable to demonstration.

The theory of a double way of knowledge goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In dividing the four forces of knowing, i. e. sensation, science, intellect and opinion, into two groups, Aristotle maintained that the forces of the first group provide demonstrable knowledge, sensation through sensible objects, science through primary premises; while those of the second group provide knowledge which is doubtful and cannot be demonstrated [xxvi]. In essence the four forces may be narrowed to two: that, of science and that of opinion. In both these forces a confirmatory function is involved, the faith, which according to Aristotle is consciousness of certainty about the truth of knowledge [xxvii].

Clement of Alexandria reproduces the theory of double knowledge and double faith. "So long as faith is double, he says, the one applying to science and the other applying to opinion, it does not matter if demonstration is also characterized as double, one as scientific and the other as opinionated; for knowledge and fore-knowledge are also characterized as being double, one of an exact nature and the other of a deficient nature"[xxviii].

Clement explains that opinionated demonstration is human, while scientific demonstration gets support by quoting the Scriptures; but in many cases he makes it clear that positive demonstration may be effected even independently of the Scriptures. As we see, a power dominates in both cases, and this is faith which according to the well-known passage is defined as follows: "Faith is a concise knowledge of what is indispensable, while knowledge itself is a strong and certain demonstration of what has been received through faith" [xxix].

What Clement formulates according to the methods of the schools, other Fathers repeat in a simpler form. Theodore Sabaites calls the two ways of knowledge natural and supernatural [xxx], while Maximus the Confessor gives them various names according to circumstances: reason and spiritual sensation [xxxi], habitual and operative knowledge [xxxii], relative and true knowledge [xxxiii]. The first, of them is intellectual and helps in arranging things in the present, life; the second is active and scientific and ensures deification in the future [xxxiv]. In this way Maximus uses within theology that distinction which Basil made between theology and philosophy. The teaching of Dionysios about the positive and negative ways of approaching God is not very different from this theory.

When Palamas confronted Barlaam's argument, he had no difficulty in resorting to this tradition about the two ways of knowing God, of θεογνωσία (theognosia). On this point also it is unlikely that he had any immediate acquaintance with the teaching of the scholastics of the West, though he may have had some indirect information about them.

On the problem of the theognosia there are apparent contradictions on both sides. Barlaam, though he overestimates the value of Greek philosophy, finally denies both philosophical and theological knowledge. Palamas, though he underrates the value of Greek philosophy, accepts the value of natural theognosia. Barlaam's contradiction is removed by his taking refuge from bodily ties in the immediate vision of God in a state of ecstasy; while that of Palamas is removed by limitations of application.

Palamas' position is summarized in one of his letters [xxxv]. The divine lies above dialectics and demonstrations; it is not subject to sensation nor is it subject to syllogism. But the Fathers have bidden us reason about the divine, and the syllogism concerning it they described as demonstrable, giving it this characteristic with the meaning of universal authority. The question here is of a kind of syllogism different from that of dialectics.

As it has been said, Palamas maintains that there are natural and spiritual gifts of God. The natural gifts are not contemptible, for they can lead to a faint knowledge of God. This happens because God is not an abstract substance, but a personality that has manifold manifestations. Clement of Alexandria expressed a similar thought. "The event about God is not one but infinite; there is a difference between seeking for God and demanding information concerning God. In general, accidentals in every thing should be discriminated from their essence" [xxxvi]. Thus also Palamas discerns the essence of God, His uncreated operation and His creatures. on this basis he could say that "some things of God become known, others are searched for some can still be demonstrated, while others are entirely inconceivable and unexplorable" [xxxvii].

What then is known about God? First His creatures and the presence of His power in them. The knowledge of them restored the human race to the knowledge of God even before the law and the prophets; and it leads it there even today [xxxviii], for those who examine the causes of things, acknowledge the power, the wisdom and the presence of God [xxxix]. This is the knowledge which is obtained through the natural intellectual functions of man. It is an undemonstrable and limited knowledge which can be acquired even by men who are imperfect in character and in spiritual experience. Beyond it there is the demonstrable knowledge. In problems concerning the divine it is not the dialectical syllogism, which merely leads to simple probabilities, that can be used, but the demonstrable syllogism which deals with everlasting and permanent and true things [xl]. The use of demonstrable syllogism is effective, because, as we have seen, there are aspects of the theological problem that admit of demonstration. The demonstration is based on the one hand on common notions and principles and on the other on revealed self-demonstrated premises. Thus we find here a combination of natural and spiritual gifts, of which the joining elements are faith and love. According to Palamas, faith is not double as it is in Aristotle and Clement, but one and it joins together the two ways. Transformed through it, man's capacity for knowing becomes godlike [xli] and may come to a position to understand sufficiently what is beyond creatures, i. e. the uncreated operations of God. This second way of theognosia is pre-eminently called "theology".

3. Theology and Vision of God

If we put aside the first way of theognosia, the natural way, and follow now the demonstrable and theological way, we find ourselves faced with a new ramification. The new distinction appears in the field of man's struggle to find God. Ancient ascetic writes distinguished three conditions in the progress of approaching God, viz. the practical, the natural and the theological. These were derived from Origen who held that the believer "through the practical way possesses Christ as his Lord, through the natural theory possesses Him as a King and again through theology as God" [xlii]. Evagrios preserves both the names and the meaning of these terms [xliii], while Diadochos of Photike modifies in some degree the terminology by using the words knowledge; wisdom and theology [xliv].

Palamas, after he had reflected much on natural and theological theognosia, came to the conclusion that the achievements realized in the second way are far more notable than those realized in the first. But in the end he sees that another way opens up, a way that leads to immensely more precious benefits: the way to the vision of God, to θεοπτία (theoptia). Theology is a discourse about God, while theoptia is in some way a conversation with God. There is a great difference between the two, as there is between knowledge of a thing and possession of it [xlv]. Isaac the Syrian, speaking about two psychical eyes, the one for seeing the wisdom of God and the other for seeing the glory of his nature [xlvi], expresses with an image what Palamas describes analytically.

According to Palamas, "God is not substance so that we may only speak about Him, for He did not say, 'I am the substance', but He said, 'I am that I am'" [xlvii]. The being does not spring from substance, but substance results from the being [xlviii]. Therefore, God is a personality that invites us; the personality whose presence we feel and to meet whom we press forward. If the substance of God remains inaccessible, His operations become accessible to us. The purified can by virtue of an excellent spiritual gift see the light of God just as the disciples had done in Tabor  And though this light is called a symbol, it is a natural one and does not exist apart from God; in other words, it is an uncreated operation of His [xlix]. This vision constitutes the beginning of a meeting which ends in the participation in the operations of God. Thus through his vision of God man rises without a bodily ecstasy to a personality that can speak with God and is able to become an associate οf God.


[i] Defensio Hesychastarum 2, 1,4. .

[ii] Op. cit. 2, 1, 5.

[iii] P. MANDONNET, Siger de Brabant et l’ averoisme latin au XIIIe s., 2ème éd., Louvain 1911,V. II, 175.

[iv] Sent. I, prol. ed. P. Bohner, σ. 13-15.

[v] I Cor. 1,18-31; 2, 6-10; II Cor. 1,12.

[vi] Jam. 3, 13-17.

[vii] Stromata 6, 17.

[viii] Op. Cit. 1, 5.

[ix] De congr. 14, 71ff.

[x] Stromata 1, 5.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Capita 88, E. DES PLACES, p. 148,17.

[xiii] In Psalmos, 14, PG 29,256.

[xiv] Ad juniores, 2.

[xv] Defensio hesychastarum, 2,2,11.

[xvi] Op. cit. 2,1,28.

[xvii] Op. cit. 1,1,19.

[xviii] Op. Cit. 2,1,7.

[xix] Op. Cit. 1,3,14.

[xx] Op. Cit. 2,1,2.

[xxi] Contra Acindynum, 6,1, Cod. Coisl. Gr. 98,149/149v.

[xxii] Defensio Hesychastarum, 2,1,5.

[xxiii] Epistola I ad Palaman, ed. SCHIRO 243.

[xxiv] Epistola I at Barlaam, 22.

[xxv] Anal. Poster. 1, 8.

[xxvi] De anima, ed. Of Oxford Γ, 3, 427b/428b.

[xxvii] Op. Cit. Γ,3,428a,sof. Elenchi 4,165b, Physica Θ8,262α

[xxviii] Stomata 2,17.

[xxix] Op. Cit 7,10.

[xxx] Theoreticum, Φιλοκαλία, ed. 1960, 1, 326.

[xxxi] Capita varia, 4, 31

[xxxii] Op. cit. 4,29.

[xxxiii] Capita theologica, 1,22.

[xxxiv] Capita varia, 4, 29.

[xxxv] Epistola I ad Barlaam, 33

[xxxvi] Stomata 6,17

[xxxvii] Epistola I ad Acindinum, 8.

[xxxviii] Defensio Hesychastarum, 2, 3, 44

[xxxix] Op. cit. , 2, 3, 15/16

[xl] Epistola I ad Acindinum, 13.

[xli] Defensio Hesychastarum 1, 1, 9

[xlii] Psalm 126

[xliii] Practicus, prol. and c. 1

[xliv] Capita, 9, 66, 67

[xlv] Defensio Hesychastarum, 3, 2, 12.

[xlvi] Sermo 72, ed. SPETSIERIS, 281.

[xlvii] Ex. 3,14

[xlviii] Defensium Hesychasterum 1,3,42.

[xlix] Op. cit. 3,1,14.

Source: Π. Κ. Χρήστου, Θεολογικά Μελετήματα, τ. 3 (Νηπτικά και Ησυχαστικά), Θεσσαλονίκη 1977.