Thursday, March 2, 2017

Snake Venom: The Limited Good of Philosophy

Gregory Palamas is one of the brightest saints in God's constellation of intellects. He, along with Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril and Maximus especially, represent the subduing of Hellenic philosophy which, under Augustine's influence, ran rampant in the West and was never resolved (hence the later Medieval period, with the introduction of Aristotle, was an unresolved battle between Plato and Aristotle). Even though these conflicts reared their head in the East, they were much more subdued. It was not because the East was backwards or "mystical" (read as quasi-Pagan), which Western church historians have tended to suggest. Rather, it was because a number of Eastern fathers triumphed over these problems through reframing these questions. Part of this was through a proper understanding of what philosophy was and wasn't.

So, I thought these passages from Palamas were too good not to share. Here, he describes the limits of philosophy. This is a strong claim, but all Christians should agree with him in principle. Here, theology, which is truly "saving knowledge", comes not through philosophy or learning, but is from Above:

But if one says that philosophy, insofar as it is natural, is a gift of God, then one says true, without contradiction, and without incurring the accusation that falls on those who abuse philosophy and pervert it to an unnatural end. Indeed they make their condemnation heavier by using God's gift in a way unpleasing to Him.
Moreover, the mind of demons, created by God, possesses by nature its faculty of reason. But we do not hold that its activity comes from God, even though its possibility of acting comes from Him; one could with propriety call such reason an unreason. The intellect of the pagan philosophers is likewise a divine gift insofar as it naturally possesses a wisdom endowed with reason. But it has been perverted by the wiles of the devil, who has transformed it into a foolish wisdom, wicked and senseless, since it puts forward such doctrines [namely, polytheism or beliefs about a god--CP].
Is there then anything of use to us in this philosophy? Certainly. For just as there is much therapeutic value even in substances obtained from the flesh of serpents, and the doctors consider there is no better and more useful medicine than that derived from this source, so there is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers-but somewhat as in a mixture of honey and hemlock. So it is most needful that those who wish to separate out the honey from the mixture should beware that they do not take the deadly residue by mistake. And if you were to examine the problem, you would see that all or most of the harmful heresies derive their origin from this source.
It is thus with the "iconognosts", who pretend that man receives the image of God by knowledge, and that this knowledge conforms the soul to God.
Nonetheless, if you put to good use that part of the profane wisdom which has been well excised, no harm can result, for it will naturally have become an instrument for good. But even so, it cannot in the strict sense be called a gift of God and a spiritual thing, for it pertains to the order of nature and is not sent from on high. This is why Paul, who is so wise in divine matters, calls it "carnal"; for, says he, "Consider that among us who have been chosen, there are not many wise according to the flesh". For who could make better use of this wisdom than those whom Paul calls "wise from outside"? But having this wisdom in mind, he calls them "wise according to the flesh", and rightly too.
Just as in legal marriage, the pleasure derived from procreation cannot exactly be called a gift of God, because it is carnal and constitutes a gift of nature and not of grace (even though that nature has been created by God); even so the knowledge that comes from profane education, even if well used, is a gift of nature, and not of grace-a gift which God accords to all without exception through nature, and which one can develop by exercise. This last point-that no one acquires it without effort and exercise, is an evident proof that it is a question of a natural, not a spiritual, gift.
This, then, is my conclusion: If a man who seeks to be purified by fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law gains no benefit from Christ-even though the Law had been manifestly promulgated by God-then neither will the acquisition of the profane sciences avail. For how much more will Christ be of no benefit to one who turns to the discredited alien philosophy to gain purification for his soul? It is Paul, the mouthpiece of Christ, who tells us this and gives us his testimony. 


  1. for some reason these quotes remind me of a comment Emil Brunner made in The Mediator about how theologians must remember that theirs is a strictly negative discipline, that theology is not a positively creative discipline. Rather, Brunner proposed, the aim of theology is negative, to assess what is truly spiritual food and what is liable to cause food poisoning or provide a pernicious food substitute.

    I've been making my way through The Mediator slowly but it's interesting that Brunner proposed the scandal of Christian revelation is that it is a gift, that it can't possibly exist within the continuum presumed to exist between human and divine nature presumed by Western liberal and humanist traditions. Brunner proposed that all modern man (in the West) asks of Christ is assistance.

    1. The old view of Theology (particularly among Greek-speaking Church) was experiential knowledge of God and given the grace to speak of it. Hence why, in the East, the title of "Theologian" only belongs to three (the Apostle John, Gregory Nazianzus, and Symeon). The work of philosophy functions mostly negatively, removing blockages, and "spiritual practices", such as prayer and fasting, brace the soul.

      Now, if we construct theology as Brunner is doing, primarily as an academic discipline, then yes, it's purely negative. But this seems to be a hangup for Protestants because of the legitimate fear of idolatry. If this is where we leave off, at best we have a functional atheism. It's here where it can be tricky, and existential crisis becomes the new medium of knowledge.

      I don't want to discount experience, but properly situate it. But, in the end, it's the actual presence of God which makes man wise in knowing God, hence theology proper. I'm sick of hearing how "theology" is some sort of primal category, and hence we can talk about theologies of sex, nature, food, movies etc. This has gotten out of hand and operates as a code for the supreme knowledge. This is where world-view becomes a kind of gnosis.

  2. Okay, so I found the quote I was thinking of:
    published in 1934

    The Mediator: A Study of the Central Doctrine of the Christian Faith
    Emil Brunner, translated by Olive Wyon, The Westminster Press
    From Preface to the German Edition
    pages 14-15
    It is the duty of the theologian to examine the spiritual "food-values" of the faith which the Church offers to the world in her proclamation of the truth—to distinguish the true from the false. The theologian is unable to do this if he does not know the taste of the genuine spiritual food ; theology without faith is impossible. But the function of theology is to criticize and eliminate; it is not positively creative. It therefore requires a mass of intellectual activity which, when its subject matter is taken into account, may often seem like the profanation of a holy thing. Yet the reproach of profanation should be levelled not at the theologians but at those who make this work necessary, because they confuse the language of faith ; those who—more or less deliberately—offer other "substances" in the guise of scriptural truth. Theological critical work is therefore not intended for edification, but, if it is done in the right way, it is most necessary and valuable. The Church needs to use theology as a check, in order to protect herself against "food-poisoning," and against the acceptance of worthless and deceptive "food substitutes." Theology cannot herself create the Divine Food of Life, but she can render yeoman service to the Church, and to the cause of God on earth, by exposing the poverty-stricken condition of Christendom.

    The whole purpose of a reminder is to render itself superfluous. ...