March 20, 2022

A Second Triumph of Orthodoxy Over Heresy (George Mantzarides)


By George Mantzarides,
Professor Emeritus of the Theological School of the 
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

On the first Sunday of the Fast of Great Lent, the Church celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresies. The specific historical event which was the basis and starting-point for this celebration was the victory of the Church against the iconoclasts. The latter proclaimed that the use of icons is anti-Christian. They would not accept the veneration of the icon of Christ, nor the honor paid to the other icons or to the relics of saints. This attitude of theirs was not superficial, but came from a more profound denial of the depiction of Christ, which, in the end, led to a denial of his incarnation and his presence in the world as a real human being. The way the conflict over the icons ended shows its heretical nature. It really was a true heresy.

A heresy is not an erroneous theological opinion. Nor is it a misinterpretation of certain points in Holy Scripture or in the Tradition of the Church. As the etymology indicates it is choosing a particular part of theological truth and making it absolute [‘heresy’ comes from the Greek word ‘to lift’ or, by extension ‘to select’]. In other words, heresy, slices the truth into pieces. It chooses a certain part of it, makes it absolute and in this way distorts and affronts the whole truth. When Arius, for example, taught that Christ was a perfect human being, he was not lying. He was telling the truth. But he was not telling the whole truth, only part of it. He omitted to say that Christ was also perfect God. In this way he distorted and affronted the whole of the truth about Christ. He did not acknowledge the union between the divine and human nature in the person of Christ, which is the foundation of our union with God, that is of our salvation and glorification. He challenged the foundations of Christianity and produced a heresy.

So the essence of heresy, as far as Christianity is concerned, is to be found precisely in any challenge to the union between God and humankind, a union which is founded upon the person of Christ as both God and human. In other words, heresy challenges our potential for salvation, which is to say our glorification.

Our glorification or deification is the purpose of our creation. We were created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God. We are God’s creatures and are called upon to be like Him: to be gods. Not, of course, in essence, but by grace as theological language puts it. But this became impossible after our rebellion against God and our subjection to sin. Returning to the ‘likeness’ is our glorification, our salvation.

The whole of the sacred history of the Old Testament, which culminates in the incarnation of God in Christ, reveals the working of divine providence for the salvation of the world. And the Church is the spiritual milieu in which our salvation is initiated.

As challenges to this salvation, heresies presented themselves in the history of the Church on two levels: on the level of the salvation offered to us by God, as was the case with Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophytism and so on; and b) on the level of the way we as people receive and understand this salvation, as in Barlaamism, which the Church opposed, mainly through Saint Gregory Palamas.

The ancient heresies attacked salvation on the first level, that is on the very offer of salvation from God to humankind. If Christ was not a real human being, that is if he did not have a real human body but simply the appearance of one, as claimed by the most ancient heretics, the Docetists, who were opposed by Saint John the Evangelist; or if he was only human, as the Arians later claimed; or only God as the Monophysites taught; or if he was both God and human, but with two separate natures which were not united in a single person, as the Nestorians claimed; or even if he was perfect God but not perfect human as the Apollinarists declared, then the whole task of our salvation would not have been completed in full.

As the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church teach, we are saved when we are received into God, when we are reconnected and united with the source of our life. All the ancient heresies deny, partially or completely, this faith and teaching of the Church. And in this way they challenged the experience which its members had had from the beginning: that communion with Christ, partaking of his body and blood is actually communion with God, participation in divine life.

Iconoclasm was a kind of summary and recapitulation of the ancient heresies. The period of iconoclasm lasted more than a century (726-843) and this time saw a return of a variant of many of the previous heresies. This is why, at the feast of Orthodoxy, there is mention of the condemnation of all the heresies and a proclamation of the unshakeable faith of the Church over the course of its unbroken tradition: ‘As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles taught, as the Church has received, as the Church has received, as the Teachers express in dogma, as the inhabited world understands… so we think, so we speak, so we preach (Syndikon 7th Ecumenical Synod).

Iconoclasm was a form of religious ideology, which cast doubt on and, in the end, rejected the fact of God’s incarnation, which is the prerequisite for the renewal of the world and of our own glorification. If Christ cannot be depicted, this means that he was not a real human person. The icon of Christ declares and emphasizes the truth of divine incarnation. It highlights the presence of God Who came into the world in order to save us.

All the ancient heresies which made their appearance in the first millennium after Christ were dealt with by the seven Ecumenical Synods. The victory of Orthodoxy, which is celebrated by the Church on the first Sunday of Great Lent is presented as a triumph over these heresies which cast doubt on our salvation as this was offered to us by God.

The second Sunday in Great Lent is an extension of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On this Sunday, we celebrate the victory over another kind of heresy, one that cast doubt on our salvation on a second level, on the way we receive and accept it. The leading champion of the Church in the fight against this heresy was Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

Saint Gregory Palamas was born in 1296, of devout and affluent parents. At the age of seven, Gregory lost his father and the emperor himself took over the responsibility for his education, which meant that he was destined for high public office. At the same time however, within the bosom of his family, he also became familiar with the ascetic life and was taught the Jesus Prayer by Theoleptos an Athonite monk and later Metropolitan of Philadelphia. Although the emperor aimed to prepare him for high public office, he himself  preferred the monastic life.

In the autumn of 1316, at the age of twenty, he left for the Holy Mountain, together with his two younger brothers, Makarios and Theodosios. For the first three years of his stay there, he was under the spiritual guidance of the ascetic Nikodemos, at the boundary of the lands of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi. On the death of Nikodemos, he moved to the coenobitic monastery of the Great Lavra and then withdrew to a hermitage.

In 1325, raids by the Turks forced Palamas and other Athonites to leave the Holy Mountain. He went to a hermitage in the Skete of Veria, where he lived for some five years in the strictest asceticism. In 1331, raids by the Serbs forced him to leave Veria region and return to the Holy Mountain, where he continued his life as a hermit in the cell of Saint Savva. It was here he learned about the views of Barlaam, a theologian and philosopher from Calabria, in Southern Italy.

Barlaam was Orthodox and accepted  all the dogmas of the Church as these had been formulated by the seven Ecumenical Synods. So he did not exhibit heretical views on the first of the two levels we mentioned, but on the second: on that of how we accept and receive God’s salvation. Barlaam did not say that Christ and the Holy Spirit are created, as claimed by the Arians and the Pneumatomachi, but he did claim that God’s energy, that is His grace, by which we are saved, is created. This, however, would mean, again, that we cannot enter into a  direct personal relationship with God and we are not united with Him but rather with some kind of created entity. As regards our salvation, this claim is tantamount to what the Arians and Pneumatomachi asserted.

Our salvation is an ontological fact. In other words, it is a fact that envelopes the whole of our existence and is made real by our direct, personal union and communion with God. It is the transmission of the divine life which we lost through our apostasy from Him. We are not saved by learning certain truths or acquiring theological knowledge concerning God. And God does not save us by telling us information about Himself, but by coming to us as a person, though remaining the God He is. He saves us through His life and death, through the Cross and His resurrection.

The whole of the mystery of God’s providence regarding our salvation is summed up by Saint Paul, when he says: ‘the mystery from which true godliness springs is great. God appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory’. This mystery is experienced in the spiritual world of the Church. In essence, this mystery is identical with the mystery of the Church. This is why the Church, which is our initiation into union and communion with God, is called ‘the communion of deification’ by Saint Gregory Palamas.

‘Communion of deification’ means a society of people that prepares and produces gods, gods by grace. This was, in any case, God’s pre-eternal plan for us, as is clear from the fact that we were made ‘in His likeness’. We were to become like Him and share in the grace of the Triune God. The implementation of this plan, however, requires our consent and co-operation. God endowed us with freedom and does not impose anything on us by force. This is why God’s aim for us is served only through our willing cooperation. Since we became distorted through our apostasy from God, we need to strive, by God’s grace, to find our true self again and to proceed with His plan for us. This is the effort to which the Church calls each of us in the season of Great Lent.

Saint Gregory Palamas is an outstanding guide for the successful completion of this struggle. Above all else, this great theologian of our Church teaches how important it is for us to regain our true self, to bring it to God and to be prepared to receive the great gift of salvation which God offers us. He teaches us how important it is to look deeply into our inner self, to bring our disordered nous back into the heart and to listen to Christ’s invitation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to them and dine with them, and they with me’. It was these truths and this way of life that Saint Gregory Palamas defended against Barlaam. It was these truths and this way of life that were doubted and attacked by Barlaam and like-minded thinkers.

We might say that, with Barlaam’s teaching, we did not merely have an ordinary heresy, but a complete disruption and dismissal of the gift of divine providence. Saint Gregory uses the words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian regarding a similar phenomenon from the latter’s own time. He says it is a teaching which: ‘disrupts the whole of the providence of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ and clearly denies the renewal of the debased image…’.

Saint Gregory Palamas defended the authentic tradition of the Church, which was, initially common to both the East and the West. He strove to remove the divergences which had occurred as a result of the schism. He fought against Barlaam’s teaching that the energy or grace of God is created and emphasized that, through His uncreated grace, God comes into personal contact with us, is united to us and deifies us. In this way he promoted Christianity without misrepresentation, he supported Orthodoxy and kept open the path for our deification.

The breach between the Christian life and the Church which has occurred in modern times has distorted Christianity and favored secularization. And since secularization arose and became confirmed in the West, thereafter being imported into the East, it is not difficult to understand the leading role which Westerners play in this situation. This is why the secular societies in the East are naturally at a disadvantage as regards the secular societies of the West and need to follow them all the time, willingly being painted into corners. We have disdained our own, authentic roots; we have denied our spiritual riches; we have forgotten our transcendent goal; and we have preferred to modernize, wandering barefoot on the thorns of secularization.

At a critical turning-point in history, through his life and teaching Saint Gregory Palamas brought enormous riches to the Greek nation and the Church, not only at the time in which he lived but also throughout the dark period of Turkish rule which followed. Today, also, his person and his teaching are a most valuable chapter which is offered for our support and creative progress into the future. For our progress within history, for our dialogue with the Christian and non-Christian world of our globalized and vitiated society.
In conclusion, I would like to make two observations which are particularly important and apt today. One has to do with the life of Saint Gregory, the other with his teaching.

When Palamas was consecrated Archbishop of Thessaloniki in Constantinople, he went to the city to take up his appointment, but was met with a revolt by the Zealots, who prevented him from entering. Palamas peacefully retired to the Holy Mountain, where he lived as a monk for about a year. Because of ongoing civil conflicts and the rebellion of the Zealots, the king of the Serbs, Stefan DuĊĦan, took the opportunity to expand his authority over a large part of Macedonia. He visited the Holy Mountain and attempted to win over the archbishop who had been excluded from his throne. He made him flattering promises of political power, large jurisdictions, and a great deal of money. To which the impecunious hierarch gave the following noble answer:

‘I have no need of powers, jurisdictions and a great deal of money. If you take a sponge that will absorb a tumbler of water and throw it into the Aegean Sea, it will never absorb the boundless ocean, but will take in only a tumblerful of water; that is, its natural capacity. The rest will be ignored. I long ago learned and it has now become second-nature to me, to live on little and only what is necessary. Were you to give me all the gold on earth, and what lies beneath the earth, even if you took me and doused me in the water of the mythical River Paktalos, I would take no more than my daily food and the necessities. So I neither need nor am interested in discussions about your great gifts and monetary provisions’.

The other observation, as we said, has to do with his teaching. As the ‘preacher of grace’, Saint Gregory emphasized that God’s energy, his grace, through which we are saved, is not created. In other words, God does not save us through some created means that is inserted between Him and us, but rather He comes directly into personal contact and union with us. By the same token, we have to approach God directly and personally. This is why prayer, which was at the center of his conflict with Barlaam, is not merely a remembrance of God or a motion of the human mind towards Him, as Barlaam claimed, but is personal union and communion with Him, culminating in Holy Communion.

Prayer means reference to a person. When we pray, we truly feel the presence of the person to whom we are addressing our prayer. Especially the Jesus Prayer- ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’- which Palamas claimed should be permanently on the lips of all believers. For our own day and age it is his main injunction and counsel for our rectification and the restitution of our communion with God and other people.