Palamas in English: New Translations from Norman Russell

Updated: Dec 23, 2021


Pappas Patristic Institute Norman Russell

English translations of St. Gregory Palamas are surprisingly few and far between. For all the popularity that Palamas has achieved in ecumenical and popular theology, his corpus of writings, which fills six volumes in the printed edition, remains largely inaccessible to anglophone readers. The monumental Triads, for example, available from Paulist Press since 1983 in their Classics of Western Spirituality series, does not contain the entire Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, but only selections.* The more recent translation of the Dialogue of an Orthodox with a Barlaamite, on the other hand, by Rein Ferwanda (Binghamton University Press, 1999), while offering English readers access to an important, if shorter, treatise on the essence-energies distinction, is unfortunately laden with misunderstandings of the text and its theology, thereby lessening its value somewhat.** The most important English translations of Palamas that have appeared to date are the Homilies, edited by Christopher Veniamin (Mt Thabor Publishing, 2009), and the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters (with a critical edition of the Greek text), by Robert Sinkewicz (PIMS, 1988). Both of these works not only offer a complete translation of their respective texts, but also present readers with some of the most important writings in the Palamite corpus. The Homilies, in particular, are works by which Palamas would be known by Orthodox Christians both in the Greek-speaking world and beyond for centuries after his death and canonization; and to the extent that they offer a comprehensive portrait of their author and his wider theological vision, the Homilies are perhaps the best and most accessible introduction that one could hope for to the thought of St Gregory Palamas. Some of Gregory's writings also appear in the Philokalia, vol. 4: the discourse To Xene, the Decalogue of the Christian Law, On Prayer, and the Hagioretic Tome.*** More recently, Kirsten Andersen has translated the important treatise On Participation (in Analogia 4 [2019]: 5-25).


Pappas Patristic Institute Norman Russell
Russell at the 2019 Oxford Patristics Conference

Yet the majority of writings by St. Gregory Palamas, especially as they relate to the historical details of the hesychast controversy that unfolded from 1338 to 1351, still remain largely inaccessible to English readers. It is for this reason that Norman Russell, a renowned scholar of patristic, Byzantine, and modern Greek theology, must be thanked for his enormous contribution in Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam (Translated Texts for Byzantinists 8) (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Russell, whose Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age (Oxford, 2019) appeared the previous year (click here for more information), here offers, as a kind of companion volume to his monograph, a collection of translations of the primary sources of the Palamite controversy and the historical events of Palamas's career.


The Life of Palamas


The collection opens with the substantial Life of Palamas (159 pages), written by the champion of Palamite theology, St Philotheos Kokkinos. Had Russell chosen to translate only this one text, it would by itself make the book worth purchasing. The Life of Palamas is not only a critical biographical and historical source-text, it is a masterpiece of Late Byzantine literature and one of the key hagiographical productions in the century leading up to the Fall of Constantinople. Kokkinos, who deserves to be much better known in the English-speaking world, was a giant of the fourteenth-century Orthodox Church. A spiritual father to the burgeoning Russian Church and an architect of the Byzantine Commonwealth, Kokkinos, perhaps more than anyone else in history, promoted and defended the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, canonizing him as a saint and ensuring that his legacy would live on in Orthodox memory throughout subsequent ages. The Life contained in Russell's translation is thus the definitive biography of Palamas, which serves not only as historiography, but as devotional reading suited to spiritual edification.


The Synodal Tomes


Among the other important pieces contained in Russell's collection are the Synodal Tomes of 1341, 1347, 1351, and 1368. These official, conciliar documents constitute the canonical affirmation of Palamite theology by the Orthodox Church, defending and defining Orthodox theology on the Transfiguration, the light of Thabor, the hesychast experience, and the distinction between God's transcendent essence and his equally uncreated but communicable divine energies or operations. Only two of these Tomes have appeared before.**** Needless to say, the translation of these texts, all in one place, is of inestimable value for those who wish to better understand what was at stake in the Palamite controversy and what features of Palamite theology would ultimately become normative for the Church. Readers will be particularly interested in the Tomos of 1368, written after Palamas's death and aimed at Prochoros Kydones, since the latter's dalliance with Latin theology and the thought of Thomas Aquinas meant that this later Synod was much closer to a confrontation between Orthodox and Western theology than anything that had occurred up to that point (including the early debates between Palamas and Barlaam over the syllogistic method). Once again, were these Tomes all that Russell had chosen to translate, anglophone readers would be in his debt for making

these critical documents available.


Together with the Synodal Tomoi is the Anti-Palamite Tomos of 1347, which provides a wonderful insight into some of Gregory's opponents and the debates that were taking place around the time that Patriarch John Kalekas, turned enemy of Palamas, was removed from office.


The Letters

Russell also includes four of Palamas's many letters: (I) the Letter to Gabras, (II) the Letter to Philotheos, (III) the Letter to Bessarion, and (IV) the Letter to Anna Palaiologina (Anne of Savoy). Though it would be good to one day translate all of Gregory's letters, especially those that go into the most detail about the essence-energies distinction, these letters provide readers with a good taste of Gregory's correspondence during the controversy with Akindynos.


(I) The Letter to Gabras follows, and is concerned with, the Dialogue of an Orthodox with a Barlaamite and seems to address a specific writing of Akindynos. It has as one of its main themes the way in which God is said to be a single Creator, addressing the ways in which the divine energies are said to be the principle or means of creation. This is not only a historical feature of the debate with Akindynos, but remains a question of central relevance for modern theology. The letter thus deals directly with many of the objections that Systematic theologians continue to raise against the essence-energies distinction.


(II) The Letter to Philotheos is addressed to Palamas's friend and ally, Philotheos Kokkinos, when he was still an abbot on the Holy Mountain. This is a shorter letter and is, in the main, less concerned with the theology of the essence-energies distinction as such. It does, nevertheless, outline some of the theological views on either side of the debate, with Palamas affirming his belief that the uncreated light is not outside (ἐκτός) the divine nature, contrary to what Akindynos professes.


(III) The Letter to Bessarion is even shorter and is focused on justifying Gregory's participation in these public controversies and his departure from solitude in order to defend the Orthodox faith.


(IV) The Letter to Anna is the shortest and least consequential theologically, though its historical importance, as an official response to the request of the Empress, is obvious. It provides a very succinct summary of the Palamite confession that,


We worship God in a single divinity (ἐν μιᾷ θεότητι), not only according to the uncreated essence, but according also to the things contemplated and theologized around God - his power, will, goodness, light, life, etc. - which is one and the same divinity of the three Persons, being both essence and illumination and, simply, every divine power and energy. Akindynos, on the other hand, unlawfully divides (διχοτομεῖ) the one God into created and uncreated; and he cuts the one divinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit into two disparate divinities, one truly superior and one truly inferior.

The Debate with Islam

The texts relating to Palamas's captivity in Muslim territory (intimated in the book's title) have been published before.***** Nevertheless, it is convenient to have them in an accessible format and collected into one place together with other documents of the period. These texts are interesting in that they show another side of Palamas. Particularly in juxtaposition to his defense of the essence-energies distinction, Gregory's adoption of classical anti-Islamic apologetics and polemic serves to highlight different emphases than one might otherwise associate with Palamas. To take just one example, although Palamas is wont to stress against Akindynos that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a single three-sunned light, whose common rays are the manifold energies of the one God, in his discourses with non-Christian interlocutors he employs, instead, the Trinitarian image of the Son and the Holy Spirit as the light and the ray, respectively, of the Father. Most readers will not have encountered Palamas in this way, namely as someone explaining basic Christian beliefs (as opposed to dense theological propositions), so this is another aspect of these translations that will make the book desirable to English-speakers.


Conclusion


Aside from the Life of Palamas, the texts translated in this book are presented in chronological order, giving the reader something of a sense of how the hesychast controversy and other events in the life of Palamas unfolded and developed. All of Russell's translations are prefaced with valuable introductions, which, together with the general introduction, provide important information and a good overview for students and scholars alike. Some criticisms of Russell's presentation of the essence-energies distinction have already been discussed by Fr. Alexis Torrance (in his review in Sobornost) and Fr. Alexandros Chouliaras (in his review in the Journal of Theological Studies) and need not be repeated here.


For anyone who is interested in the figure of St. Gregory Palamas and the ecclesiastical events of the middle Palaiologan period, this is an essential volume to own. As already noted, the Life of Palamas alone makes the book worth purchasing, to say nothing of the full set of Synodal Tomoi. Russell has made an important contribution by making these texts more accessible.

 

* The recent translation by Peter Chamberas (Newfound Press, 2021) is an attempt to remedy this situation, but an inspection of the translation prior to its publication found that it bordered on the periphrastic. Whether this was modified in the printed version is yet to be determined.


**One brief example is the translation of τὰ φυσικά. Though this refers to "the things of nature," namely those properties that belong to an essence by nature, or which characterize a nature - a prominent concept in the theology of St Gregory Palamas - Ferwanda translates τὰ φυσικά as "physical things," a rendering that is not only confused, but about as far from Palamas's meaning as one can possibly get.


*** See, also, P.J. Hatlie, “The Answer to Paul Asen of Gregory Palamas: A Fourteenth Century Apology for the One, Grand and Angelic Schema,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 33 (1989): 35-51.


**** Namely the Tomes of 1341 and 1351, in J. Pelikan and V. Hotchkiss, eds. Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale, 2003), 320-333, 334-378.


*****D. Sahas, “Captivity and Dialogue: Gregory Palamas (1296-1360) and the Muslims,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 25 (1980): 409-36.