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April 4, 2013

The Way of Purification, Illumination and Theosis

By Metropolitan Daniel of Kaisariani, Vyronas and Hymettus

On the Second Sunday of the Fast of Holy and Great Lent we honor the great theologian and Father of the fourteenth century, Saint Gregory Palamas (1269-1359), the Archbishop of Thessaloniki and the teacher and champion of hesychasm, who defended the Orthodox spiritual tradition and life, opposing the views of the monk Barlaam the Calabrian.

Saint Gregory Palamas and the Calabrian monk Barlaam clashed during the first half of the fourteenth century over a very important theological issue.

In this our short summary we will confine ourselves to a few of the issues of the conflict, known as the Hesychastic Controversy, and the difference between theology and philosophy.

The monk Barlaam, influenced by the Aristotelianism of his era (14th cent.), in which the currant of humanism had begun, believed deeply in the value of classical education, while not denying his faith in God. Teaching philosophy in Constantinople, he claimed that through wisdom and knowledge man could attain moral purity, perfection, and deification. Essentially, he considered as unnecessary the ascetic life of the monks - prayer, abstinence, the exercise of the virtues, and the entire spiritual struggle.

He taught that these do not contribute to the perfection of man. He thought that faith was not enough to relieve the minds of mankind from 'ignorance and false doctrine", and indeed, if anyone reached patristic "passionlessness", it was impossible for him to reach perfection and holiness if he does not give himself over to a "Hellenic education". His views were based on the bizarre notion that human knowledge is a gift of God that peers through revelatory knowledge, which was given through the Prophets and Apostles.

To the contrary, Saint Gregory Palamas argued that there are two wisdoms: one which meets the needs of secular life and intellectual curiosity and the other which leads to salvation. This distinction is justified by the existence of a dual gift of God, some of which are natural and given to all of humanity, and some of which are supernatural and spiritual and are given to the pure and holy.

This God-illumined Father taught that philosophy introduces man to a knowledge of beings, and indeed partially, because the passions of sins have obscured the discernment of man, who philosophizes based on speculation and conjecture, creating contradictions and disagreements. This explains the fact that a philosophical theory is reversed by another, a newer one over the former. The task of theology is the supreme gift of God to man, acquired through asceticism. Those gifted by God with knowledge and wisdom are far superior to philosophers and scientists. Theology reveals God to man, what his human nature is, and finally what is his spiritual condition.

The Church synodically rejected the views of Barlaam and accepted and upheld by the Synodal Decisions of 1341, 1347 and 1351 the teaching of the God-bearing Father, who interpreted unerringly the spiritual tradition of the Church, as it was lived and delivered by our God-bearing Fathers, as the way of the purification, illumination and theosis of mankind.

Source: Democracy, March 31, 2013. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.