Eric Lionel Mascall (1905-93): The Famous Dialogue Between a Palamite and a Thomist

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One of my favorite thinkers is the late Anglican priest Eric Lionel Mascall (1905-93), who was a Thomistic theologian who sought to engage with the metaphysics of Psuedo-Dionysius and Gregory Palamas. I really wish he could be here today to comment further on the dialogue between Thomists and Palamists, since it appears to me he was limited in his exposure to Palamism by only having Fr. Vladimir Lossky and Fr. John Meyendorff to shape his understanding. I came across a famous portion of his work “Existence and Analogy” (1949), which is the sequel book to his “He Who Is” (1943), and thought it was worth sharing to show forth the basic framework in the debate that can be shown by a mock dialogue (pages 151-52):

“But in the Palamite theory, God gives himself in only one way, in both nature and grace; he gives himself in his energies. For the Thomist, supernatural grace means a communication of God himself to the creature in the created mode under which a creature can receive him; for the Palamite, it means a communication of the uncreated energy of God though not of his incommunicable essence. It is easy to see the kind of argument to which this can give rise.

The Palamite says to the Thomist, ‘You make no distinction between the essence of God and his energy, and you say God gives himself to the creature in a finite mode. But that must mean that the divine essence is given in a finite mode, and this is impossible. Either what is given is finite and therefore is not God, or what is given is God and therefore cannot be given finitely. In the former case there is no real divinization of man, in the latter case man eases to be a creature. Neither alternative is tenable.’

The Thomist replies, “Of course the whole question is highly mysterious, but you have not been fair to my words. I did not say that God-in-a-finite-mode was given to the creature, but that the creature participated God in a finite mode. The finitude is in the mode of participation, not in the object participated. And here is a dilemma for you, to match that in which you tried to catch me. You say that the creature participates in the divine energy though not in the divine essence. Now listen, either the energy and the essence are identical, or else in participating [in] the energy the creature does not really participate in God. In the former case you have abandoned your own theory, in the latter case it fails to provide for a real divinization of man.’

‘No,’ the Palamite rejoins, ‘now it is you who have been unfair to me. The energy is divine, and therefore in participating [in] the divine energy the creature participates God. God is present, really present, in his energy as much as in his essence. Thus God is really communicated in his energy, though he remains incommunicable in his essence.’

‘Really,” protests the Thomist, ‘this is intolerable. God and his essence cannot be separated. If the energy communicates God it communicates his essence. And then you need my theory to explain how the creature can participate God without losing its creatureliness.’ And so the debate goes on, and there seem no prospect of its ceasing. I think myself that the Thomist has the better of it, but it is perhaps hardly fair to claim the last word.”

Lutheran vs. Catholic Debate on Justification: My Commentary

This was a very lively exchange between Dr. Jordan Cooper and Dr. Robert Koons on the subject of justification. Both presented their respective views extremely well, and these kinds of charitable dialogues are exemplary. I wish we have more of them.


I think one of the most interesting points of the dialogue was when Cooper brought up St. Paul’s use of Abraham in his epistle to Rome. I’d like to take the time here to provide what I think could be said on this matter (although I’ve done so on other articles). So what we have in Romans 4 in Abraham is an instance of a man who receives a post-conversion, yet workless justification from God. The question to the Catholic is how can you have this when the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church say that the post-conversion condition of man is the stage of progressive justification, a progress which involves the increase of justice in the human being by meritorious good works.


The simple answer to this is that when St. Paul speaks of “faith” in Romans, he has the idea of “faith formed by hope and charity”, rather than a mere conviction of God’s promise as true. As such, any Christian’s faith can be identified as righteousness at any point in their post-conversion life if we understand faith to be formed, that is shaped, by the virtues of charity and hope.


St. Paul’s point is that ungodly human beings cannot be made right with God through their natural efforts to adhere to the Law of Moses (that is, everything included in the Sinai legislation), especially not by physical circumcision, but rather through a conversion of heart to believe in the Gospel, where that believing is formed by repentance, charity, and hope. These virtues are themselves infused by God’s grace, and not by works.


Therefore, I think that the typical Lutheran exegesis of Romans 4 might miss this fundamental truth when it seeks to make “faith” as passive as possible, so as to only allow for God’s act of imputing the alien righteousness of another, Jesus Christ, to the believer’s account. Faith cannot factor in the formal cause of justification, but can only be purely an instrumental cause. However, if you read St. Paul’s comments on Abraham’s justification, he says that Abraham’s faith was credited as righteousness. Faith, then, is what is being calculated by God to be righteousness. Therefore, instead of faith merely being an empty hand, or a passive instrument through which to receive an alien righteousness, St. Paul describes the believing act of Abraham itself to be the righteousness that he has.


In my opinion, this is clearly proven when St. Paul further describes the cause of Abraham’s justification as it is founded upon the virtues associated with his faith: “Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb; He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. AND THEREFORE, it was imputed to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:18-22)


You see here that St. Paul includes the virtue of hope in the cause of Abraham’s faith being imputed (credited) for righteousness. Secondly, St. Paul notes how Abraham did not “stagger” or waver at God’s promise, which means he pressed on in perseverance. These virtues were formally involved in the cause of the effect of God’s imputation of his faith as righteousness.


But the Lutheran might retort, “Ah, Erick, this is simply just another way to allow for justification by works through the back door. St. Paul’s trying to exclude human works altogether and you bring them back in by re-defining faith as somehow inclusive with virtues that are pleasing in God’s sight…bringing the human subject right back into the picture as the producer of good works”.


But this would be a mistaken interpretation. For St. Paul, the life of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:5) is not something for which anyone can boast in his flesh (Rom 4:3-4). St. Paul contrasts “faith working through love” with worthless “circumcision or uncircumcision” (i.e. works for which one might boast). If the Lutheran wanted to suggest that faith working through love were something that Abraham could have boasted of in his flesh, they will have far too many other passages in the New Testament that directly clashes with this. Faith working through love is a result of God’s grace re-creating the human to be a new creation , renewed in the image of God (i.e. thus circumcision nor uncircumcision avails for anything, but only a new creation). Earlier in the letter of St. Paul, he describes the heart-circumcision (Rom 2:28-29) whereby the Spirit infuses into the human being a new heart intent on heart-deep obedience as an attribute which owes its cause to God rather than natural human works: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Therefore, the presence of the infused virtue of a soul disposed towards God in charity is not a performance of man for which God is put in debt to repay him with the wages of justification. It is the opposite.


All that St. Paul is excluding from Romans 4, then, are natural works performed in order to earn justification before God. Thus, when God infuses faith, hope, and love into the soul, these are gifts from heaven that make us righteous in God’s sight by His own unmerited grace. So we aren’t bringing natural good works in order to achieve justification before God back into the picture, but are rather showing that faith, rather than works, can be credited as righteousness when it is formed by the charity and hope that God supernaturally infuses into the soul. This especially is meant to convince the Jew that the Gentile Christians are fully justified even though they aren’t circumcised, nor adhereing to all the laws of the Sinai covenant.


And therefore, even in the post-conversion stage of Abraham’s life, he can be found freshly putting his faith in God’s promise (Gen 15:6), and his faith is thereby accredited as righteousness, even with no associated work performed (for the presence of infused virtues is itself not a work, per se), simply because that faith is formed by the disposition of the virtue of love and hope, both which order the soul unto God. I think that Lutherans suppose that Catholics must think that working activity in the form of outward obedience must be involved for God to reckon faith (informed by charity & hope) as righteousness, but no outward work is necessary. It would be enough for the act of believing, with no other obedience included, when that act is formed by the disposition of charity (which is not a work, per se), to suffice as a calculated possession of the quality of righteousness.


This above interpretation of Romans 4 makes for a happy harmony with the epistle of St. James. Often, commentators have to suppose that St. Paul and St. James have a different interpretation of faith and works, but with my interpretation, such a hard distinction isn’t necessary. It is only necessary when St. James says “faith alone”, for by saying “alone” he really does mean to restrict faith from any formation or shaping by virtues, but simply the raw and pure assent to certain truths. But St. James does not maintain this definition throughout his 2nd chapter. If you read it carefully, he comes to say that faith was working together with Abraham’s works, and thus faith itself was made “perfect”, and further says that Gen. 15:6 is fulfilled by Abraham’s faith coming to perfection or fulfillment, since is says, “And Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”. For St. James, Abraham’s life of obedience was the fulfillment of faith’s accrediting as righteousness, which means he saw Gen. 15:6 as a foresight, a quasi-prophecy, that Abraham’s faith was formed by the disposition of love and charity, and it only took time for those virtues to act together in the form of works to bring faith to its intended end.

Pope St. Leo the Great on the Sacrament of Penance

ritratti pontefici 1879

In the year 452, Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461) wrote a response letter to a certain Theodore, Bishop of Forum Julii (from what I can tell, a city in modern day France, Fréjus, but founded as “market of Julius” by Julius Caesar), on the subject of penance.
While there are so many statements that can be adduced to prove that the early Church understood that Christians can destroy their baptismal innocence before God and (ordinarily) only be restored through the ministry of the ordained priesthood going all the way back to the writings and corpus of St. Cyprian (and associated Carthaginian texts), Pope St. Leo the Great here once again nicely states what was known universally by everyone. He writes:


The manifold mercy of God so assists men when they fall, that not only by the grace of baptism but also by the remedy of penitence is the hope of eternal life revived, in order that they who have violated the gifts of the second birth, condemning themselves by their own judgment, may attain to remission of their crimes, the provisions of the Divine Goodness having so ordained that God’s indulgence cannot be obtained without the supplications of priests. For the Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, has transmitted this power to those that are set over the Church that they should both grant a course of penitence to those who confess, and, when they are cleansed by wholesome correction admit them through the door of reconciliation to communion in the sacraments. In which work assuredly the Saviour Himself unceasingly takes part and is never absent from those things, the carrying out of which He has committed to His ministers, saying: ‘Lo, I am with you all the days even to the completion of the age’: so that whatever is accomplished through our service in due order and with satisfactory results we doubt not to have been vouchsafed through the Holy Spirit.” (Epistle 108)


This should be a source of consolation for everyone who repents. For just as there is something physical and objective like the sacrament of Baptism to procure the cleansing of the soul before God (and a pure conscience), so also as Christ ordained something physical and objective in the sacrament of Penance to procure the re-cleansing of the same soul made dirty from post-baptismal mortal sin. Notice the confidence with which St. Leo speaks about the power and work of Jesus Christ through the ministry of Priests. He would agree that no man forgives sin, but he would resound thereafter with the firm conviction that God through man can forgive sins.


That being said, St. Leo goes on to answer the question of what happens to those who, after destroying their baptismal innocence, fail to make it to a Priest for confession. He goes on:


But if any one of those for whom we entreat God be hindered by some obstacle and lose the benefit of immediate absolution, and before he attain to the remedies appointed, end his days in the course of nature, he will not be able when stripped of the flesh to gain that which when yet in the body he did not receive. And there will be no need for us to weigh the merits and acts of those who have thus died, seeing that the Lord our God, whose judgments cannot be found out, has reserved for His own decision that which our priestly ministry could not complete: for He wishes His power to be so feared that this fear may benefit all, and every one may dread that which happens to the lukewarm or careless. For it is most expedient and essential that the guilt of sins should be loosed by priestly supplication before the last day of life.”


St. Leo here puts a great emphasis on the necessity of the sacrament of confession before falling into death, but then limits Himself to the unsearchable judgment of God on every soul, for it is God alone who is the final judge. Of course, the Church has discerned the possibility of “desire” for penance (c.f. Trent) as sufficient for salvation if coupled with sufficient repentance of heart. Interestingly enough, this letter by St. Leo was cited by Pope Vigilius in his defense against anathematizing the dead. Readers will recall the Three Chapters controversy where the Emperor wished to place an ecclesiastically binding anathema on Theodore of Mopsuestia (and Origen), and yet Rome (aside from Western arguments that could be found already in St. Augustine) was against the idea of condemning the dead, precisely for the reason given here by St. Leo, namely, that those who die perhaps outside of the sacraments are left to be judged by God. In any case, that is a side note. But what St. Leo says after this is quite powerful, and it speaks to the incorrectness of universalism (which is gaining traction in Catholicism and Orthodoxy these days), and even to those who espouse the “reasonable hope” theory:


Hence it behooves each individual Christian to listen to the judgment of his own conscience, lest he put off the turning to God from day to day and fix the time of his amendment at the end of his life; for it is most perilous for human frailty and ignorance to confine itself to such conditions as to be reduced to the uncertainty of a few hours, and instead of winning indulgence by fuller amendment, to choose the narrow limits of that time when space is scarcely found even for the penitent’s confession or the priest’s absolution.”


There can be only one reason why St. Leo would say it is “perilous” to wait and postpone repentance until death is imminent, and that is because the state of sin is geared towards death and it requires the conscious effort of the person to amend himself through the sacraments in order to procure the state of innocence and justification before God. Had St. Leo been of the mindset that all would be saved, or that there is a reasonable hope that all men (Christian or not) who die will be saved, such a sober warning would not have left his pen. It is only because of the more likeliness of the judgment of God that such a sober fear is instilled into the reader of St. Leo’s words. [And yes, I’m aware semi-Balthasarians get around this by saying “hoping” doesn’t in anyway speak to the probabilities of universalism].

Icon Veneration: Apostolic or Development?

Patristics scholar, Fr. Richard Price, Professor of the History of Christianity at Heythrop College (University of London) had his translation and commentary on the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787) published through Liverpool University Press in 2020. A fascinating read. In his notes on the theological history of icon veneration, he summarizes the strength and weaknesses that exist in the debate between the iconoclasts versus the iconophiles (defenders of icon veneration). He writes:


“The real problem for the iconophile case lay elsewhere – in the poverty of support for their cause even in the golden age of the fathers. The iconoclasts were in a somewhat stronger position… The iconoclast cause has few adherents nowadays, outside the heirs of John Calvin. But the iconoclast claim that reverence towards images did not go back to the golden age of the fathers, still less to the apostles, would be judged by impartial historians today to be simply correct. The iconophile view of the history of Christian thought and devotion was virtually a denial of history, in favour of a myth of a religion that had been perfect from the first and needed no addition or subtraction.” – The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), 40 & 43.


I have to say, such commentary is discordant with how the Fathers at the Council themselves thought. Fr. Price completely understands this. He accurately describes them as thinking, as if it were axiomatic, that icon writing and their veneration goes all the way back to the practice of the 12 Apostles. For Fr. Price, this is historically untenable, and plainly so. He rests upon historical scholarship for this conclusion, particularly that of Heinz Ohme, a prominent German (Lutheran) historian who specialized in Byzantine history. Ohme himself claims icon veneration was a massive development of doctrine that took centuries, a development that he thinks the Bishops of the Church in the 8th century would not have been able to dream of (ibid., fn. 155 which cites Ohme, Heinz (1999) ‘Ikonen, historische Kritik und Tradition. Das VII. ökumenische Konzil (787) une die kirchliche Überlieferung’, ZKG 110:3-4, for you German readers).


The historical scholarship surrounding this subject has great pertinence to the contemporary dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. If I had to share my prediction, I would say that most traditional Orthodox would simply say that Fr. Price and the majority of contempoary historical scholarship on this question are blinded by their skepticism and the large chasm that exists between them and the Church Fathers. In other words, I anticipate the Orthodox saying that they will trust the Council Fathers of Nicaea (787) over and against modern scholarship. And this is not at all to be ashamed of, since there might be some good reasons to do so. But I’m not here speaking to the righteness of wrongness of that particular point.

However, in light of the above, I would suggest that, as this relates to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, we would see some more understanding from the Orthodox when modern scholarship equally denies the apostolicity of doctrines upheld dogmatically today by Catholics. Often times we see appeals to what this or that historian says about the late developments of Papal power which proceeded from little to no foundation in early Christianity, without a recognition that this feature can be said of beliefs on both sides. Now, we might appeal to valid versus invalid development, but how often is development of doctrine even conceded as a valid category by the East? It seems that if one is going to play along with the highest of historical scholarship on the subject of icon veneration, there is either the option of saying it was a complete novelty only traceable to the 7th century, or that there was a process of theological development from a time period where there was probably little to absolutely no practice of venerating icons to later stages where such practices were augmented and given fresh theological justifications.


Finally, if the option of doctrinal development were to be taken by the Orthodox to defend the apostolicity of icon veneration (which, admittedly goes contrary to the instincts and assumptions of the Bishops at Nicaea 2), then perhaps there should be less repulsion when Catholics, or even Protestants (arguing similarly to Newman, just in reverse), appeal to doctrinal development in order to show forth the historicity of their respective beliefs.