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.”

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

  1. Such arguments monotheism engenders. And all this to achieve the illusion of monotheism with polytheism. “How can humans become gods but we still pretend to be monotheists?” Wouldn’t need to had you just stuck with polytheism.

  2. Pingback: Vladimir Lossky and the Divine Energies: Eric L. Mascall’s Take Away | Erick Ybarra

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