Thursday, September 17, 2009

Was St. Gregory Palamas an Augustinian?

In Orthodox theology, there is currently a trend to blame Augustine for everything that has gone wrong in the west. I am not exaggerating: I recently heard a lecture where this point was made repeatedly. Augustine was the villain, who, by saying that sexuality was bad, caused the entire fall of the West. I pointed out similar passages from St. Gregory the Theologian, and the lecturer dissembled, saying something about how Gregory didn't really mean it, but they meant it in the West. It was a pitiful polemic disguised as an academic lecture, and so I will refrain from naming the man so as not to embarass him.

The exemplar of this sort of theology is John Romanides, who makes Augustine out to be a rogue, whose theories on original sin and denial of the Palamite essence-energies distinction has led to a destructive rationalism where we have tried to think our way to God, and, having failed, have become secularists. Augustine fails to acknowledge the proper apophatic nature of any approach to God. Never mind that apophatism is rife within the mystical writing of Western saints, or that St. Thomas Aquinas says, immediately after proving that there is a first cause, that we can not say what God is, but only what God isn't. Any stick will do for those who are engaged in polemics.

That's why I was fascinated to discover that St. Gregory Palamas, the 14th century bishop who is the rallying point for theologians crying "Difference!" to the West, was substantially influenced by St. Augustine. This fact was obscured by Palamas' failure to attribute his quotes, but there are substantial passages from the Chapters which are identical or nearly identical with passages from the Greek translation of De Trinitate, written by St. Augustine. See the article by Flogaus in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

This is not to say that there aren't significant differences between Orthodox and Catholic theology. I think there are convergences, others think there are divergences. But nobody is served by taking potshots at foundational figures in a religious tradition simply to prove a point. Oh, and by the way, the most problematical elements of interpretations of Augustine were condemned by the Church in the person of Cornelius Jansen. Perhaps he needn't be such a polarizing figure.

Anyway, the lecture by the unnamed lecturer, the awful, partisan, polemic trashing of Augustine, has motivated me to dig up Contra Julianum and read it again.


Throwback said...

Great post, Karl, especially the bit about Jansenism. I wish I had a nickel for every time an Orthodox believer of citing some Jansenist nonsense as Catholic and then blaming it on Augustine.

There's a book by Fr. Seraphim Rose on Augustine's place in the East that I've wanted to read for a long time. I might actually get around to it now.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

I read the book by Fr. Seraphim Rose. If you want a book rife with Latin-bashing, then this is a book for you. Though Fr. Rose defends Blessed Augustine, he goes on to insinuate that the West's problems arose from people that misinterpreted Augustine (though he admits that if Augustine had lived in the East, no one would have given as much importance to him as in the West, and so there would not be conflicts over his teachings), and also from the fact that Westerners are "over-logical" (an expression he uses over and over again). In the begining he says that the fact that Augustine was north african made him more given to the passions, yet only a few pages later he says that given that he was a Latin he was "over-logical". Oh well, at least he recognizes him as a Church Father (albeit of minor importance).