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Panayiotis Christou

Double Knowledge According to Gregory Palamas

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


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. á wide meaning for what could not be demonstrated and á narrow one for faith amenable to demonstration.

The theory of α 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 á 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 characterised as double, one as scientific and the other as opinionative; for knowledge and fore-knowledge are also characterised as being double, one of an exact nature and the other of a deficient nature"[xxviii].

 Clement explains that opinionative 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. 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 summarised 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". 

[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. Elenchi4,165b,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