Gregory Palamas and Created Grace

File:Gregor Palamas.jpg
Gregory Palamas 1296-1359

According to Fr. John Meyendorff (1926-1992), one of the most prolific Orthodox writers in the 20th century on Eastern Orthodox theology and history, cites Gregory Palamas on the latter’s recognition that there truly is a sense in which we can speak of “created grace”. I was pleasantly suprised to see this in light of how much the very term “created grace” gets condemned by the oecumenical council of the world wide web. I was also intrigued to see that Palamas appears (if we can trust the citation/translation provided by Meyendorff) to recognize that what effect grace (the uncreated kind, i.e. God) has in the human creature would have to be created, which is certainly one of the driving reasons why the Scholastics spoke of “created grace” in the first place.

“‘There is nothing strange,’ Palamas writes, ‘in using the word “grace” both for the created and the uncreated and in speaking of a created grace distinct from the created.’ In what sense can one use the same word ‘grace’ about fundamentally different realities? We have seen that Palamas was aware of the many meanings of the word; he defined the matter thus: ‘All that flows from the Spirit towards those who have been baptized in the Spirit according to the Gospel of grace, and who have been rendered completely spiritual, comes from the Source; it all comes from it, and also remains it it’…. So the word is the same because the origin is the same; men ‘received by the grace of God, and not through themselves, what they have receive, for God alone does not possess his realities through grace; in this context the word ‘grace’ indicates that it was given to them.’ ‘But‘, he continues, ‘all is not alike in what God gives us… God has said by the mouth of Ezekiel: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh(Ezek 36:26), and, “I will put my Spirit into you” (Ezek 37:5). Do you see the difference between the gifts? The new spirit and the new heart are created things: that is what the Apostle also called “a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), because it was received and renrwed by the coming in flesh of him who first created it; whereas the Spirit of God given to the new heart is the Holy Spirit.’There is a created grace and another grace uncreated,’ he writes elsewhere ‘… but since the gift which the Saints receive and by which they are deified, is none other than God himself, how canst thou say that that too is a created grace’?”

John Meyendorff, trans. George Lawrence, A Study of Gregory Palamas (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Press,1974), 164.

A well known contemporary scholar of Gregory Palamas, Normal Russell, describes Palamas’s theology as accepting the distinction between created versus uncreated grace: “This distinction between the gift as an act of giving and the gift as something received is fundamental. The former (the Holy Spirit in operation) is uncreated, the latter (as grace received) is created. (Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas: The Heshycast Controversy and the Debate with Islam (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 23) Elsewhere, he writes: “Palamas himself considered it vital to distinguish uncreated grace, which is the giving of the gift, from created grace, which is the gift as appropriated by us.” (Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 209).

So it appears that Palamas understands that the effect of uncreated grace (God) has in the human being, understood as being proper to the human creature, is created. If I’ve understood this correctly, this would have gone a long way in aiding the famous ecumenical dialogues that took place in 1953 at the monastery of Chevetogne on the subject of Grace, East & West. In attendence was Fr. Meyendorff, along with Catholics and Protestant theologians. At this meeting, the view of grace and human deification was discussed from the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox point of views. The contributions of each side were summarized in a wonderful book (incredibly difficult to find) entitled The Theology of Grace: And the Oecumenical Movement by C. Moeller and G. Philips (trans. from the French by R.A. Wilson), both Professors at the University of Louvain. It was published in London by A.R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd. in 1961 (both nihil obstat/imprimatur).

Moeller and Philips make a keen observation as they saw the exchange between Fr. Meyendorff and the Catholic party (which included Monsignor Philips and Rev. Father Walty, O.P.). They write:

“The desire of the scholastics to lay down a doctrine of created grace is explained by their different point of view: the East is concerned, as we have already said, with what it is in God that makes it possible for Him to give Himself; while the West is also concerned — though not to the exclusion of all else — with what it is in man that makes it possible for him to receive and take to himself God and His divine life. In other words, the East has never attempted a philosophical explanation of deification; and yet if it were satisfactorily described, the doctrine of the habitus [created grace] would probably be less unacceptable to them; in the same way, catholic theologians, anxious to explain as much as possible about the recipient of divine life, obviously do not deny the ‘uncreated’ character of the life itself; they merely introduce distinctions that are useful to them, but which the East has always distrusted, especially when they are taken from the philosophy of Aristotle.” (p. 9)

I’m sure there are more than one point in that statement which an Orthodox might take issue with (or even a Catholic, for that matter). But the general framework distinguishing East and West on how we get to a real deification was an apt description. Later in the book, they seem to get close to what Palamas said from the citations provided by Fr. Meyendorff, and I’d be curious if they were shared at the 1953 meeting:

“In both cases (Aristotelian/Platonic structure to grace theology), however, there is divine intervention. It can be looked at either in its uncreated source, or in its created effect, bringing about perfection in the creature, and consequently a created perfection. Those who see in grace the introduction of a new faculty (i.e. the new man), see it in its effect; those who see in it the re-establishmnet of the God-like condition of man, lay more stress on the divine, uncreated character of this progress towards deification. But the former cannot forget that the presence of the Holy Spirit (uncreated grace) comes before created grace; nor the other, that grace works in a creature and produces created effects.” (p. 40 – parantheses mine).

It seems clear to me that Palamas does not wish to say that God-qua-action becomes so communicable to the creature that the creature and God’s action become one thing, a mixture of creation and uncreation, finite and infinite. What is proper to the human being remains intact, and this seems to be a bridge on which the dialogue can make for a crossing to speak of created grace. And so, while Palamas might wish to assert that uncreated grace does differ with God’s essence, in some sense, it cannot be said that Palamas is opposed to the very concept of created grace as the scholastic tradition has defined it inhering within the human being.

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