Thomistic vs. Orthodox theology

Eastern Orthodoxy Unveiled by JAMES LARSON is a very good article comparing Thomist, Catholic theology with Eastern Othodox theology.

Are there any books that make a similar, more in-depth comparison of Thomist, Catholic theology with Eastern Othodox theology?


The Ground of Union - Deification in Aquinas and Palamas by A.N. Williams

It’s a pretty bad article. He doesn’t understand Eastern theology at all, and I’m not even sure he understands Catholic theology either, since he seems to equate it with his own unique understanding of Thomism. James Larson, while maintaining that he is faithful to the Catholic Church, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of making grave theological errors concerning the liturgy and also concerning evolution, and basically believes that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of the Catholic Church in their acceptance of what he believes are heresies, among which he lists Eastern theology. Essentially, he has an axe to grind, and is willing to distort facts and quote things out of context in order to push his agenda. I would stay away.

Now as for the book mentioned above, Ground of Union, I have heard good things about it.

Essentially, he has an axe to grind, and is willing to distort facts and quote things out of context in order to push his agenda. I would stay away.

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Yes, it leaves many things ambiguous, but for a short article, it’s a good start.

Such as?

What makes it “his own unique understanding of Thomism”?

I’ll check it out.

Here is a very good point-by-point analysis of Larson’s misconceptions.

The article is utter garbage.

Perhaps his most obvious error is when he writes: “if, as Gregory Palamas say, “the Spirit fills all things according to essence”, then creation is not “out of nothing” because it contains God in its original essence.” He seems not even to recognize that this idea that the Spirit (and more generally the divine nature) fills all things can be found in the writings of John of Damascus, a doctor of the Catholic Church. God, then, being immaterial and uncircumscribed, has not place. For He is His own place, filling all things and being above all things, and Himself maintaining all things. Yet we speak of God having place and the place of God where His energy becomes manifest. For He penetrates everything without mixing with it, and imparts to all His energy in proportion to the fitness and receptive power of each.

Exposition on the Orthodox Faith 1.13

Further the divine nature has the property of penetrating all things without mixing with them and of being itself impenetrable by anything else

Exposition on the Orthodox Faith 1.14
This in no way is reflective of pantheism, as he vainly argues, because while the divine nature penetrates all and imparts its energy to all things, the divine nature is never held to mix with anything, nor is it penetrated by anything. It is absolutely not taught that we are made up of the divine nature (that would be blasphemous), or that we mix with the divine nature in such a way that we are not truly distinct things from God.

On top of that, his understanding of the essence-energies distinction is impoverished and obviously quite poorly researched. He cannot even correctly ascertain that energy in this context means much more than simply “what God does”.

The article is suspect in so many areas its just a bad place to start. While your here with this thread though, good place to ask questions with an open-mind.

What is so good about it?

What insights did you gain from it? You defend it below in a very vague way. You don’t explain what you like about it. I myself find nothing to like, except that it reminds me that the Orthodox aren’t alone in engaging in ridiculous polemical exaggerations when describing East-West differences.

If he were right on the fundamental differences, I’d go become Orthodox. . . . :stuck_out_tongue:

Others have done a good job of pointing out the deep flaws in this article. Just one additional point: can you really expect your fellow Catholics to greet with enthusiasm an article that presupposes that many of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century were heretics, including the one who is now Pope? (That seems to be the point of the closing peroration on the “New Theology.”) Yes, sure Eastern theology is incompatible with the kind of narrowly defined, clueless, essentially un-Thomistic Thomism that some traditional Catholics cling to.

But mainstream (and by that I don’t mean what is usually called “liberal”) 20th-century Catholic theology–the theology of Vatican II and the CCC–is certainly not. And your article admits this.


The totally foreign attempts by Eastern authors to explain Original Sin and the Real Presence by eliminating all Thomistic concepts of cosmology and ontology should bring us face to face with the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger. CO, Oct., Nov. 2003]

Hey, if the present Pope of Rome is one with Eastern authors, what’s the problem? :smiley:

Could you please be more descriptive? Thanks

This seems quite different than Palamas. St. John of Damascus explicitly distinguishes God and creation, whereas Palamas seems to confuse them. Palamas continues: “Deification is likewise everywhere, ineffably present in the essence and inseparable from it, as its natural power.” Why does he say, presumably, that “deification” is present in things as their “natural power”? Isn’t this pantheism?

Why is energy, then? Is the essence-energy distinction like St. Thomas’s essence-existence distinction?

Thanks for the input

It helped me understand that the Orthodox have an ultra-transcendalist conception of God while at the same time confusing God for creation.


Well, I have found similarities between Modernist as Pope St. Pius X describes it in Pascendi and Orthodox theology, as I’ve noted in my response to the Fisheater’s critique I linked to above.

No, you are reading that quotation incorrectly. Deification is the natural power of the divine nature. It is the energy mentioned by St. John of Damascus which God imparts into everything without mixing. The divine nature does not ever mix with other things.

Energy can mean several things from an operation to actuality depending on the context.

I’ll make a few responses to several of your points.

Apophaticism in Ordodox theology means much more than St. Thomas’s “negative theology” of “we cannot know what God is (quid sit), but rather what He is not (quid non sit).” Orthodox apophaticism says the “human mind can never, even with the assistance of God’s grace, know anything positive about God’s ultimate being and essence.” Just because even the blessed do not understand God as He understands Himself does not mean that God is unknowable.

This is only true in Larson’s grotesque distortion of what he likes to fancy is Eastern theology. The Hesychast synods were in fact convened exactly for the purpose of determining if real positive knowledge about God could be known. Balaam of Calabria argued that nothing could be known of God, but only His created effects could be known. Gregory Palamas, drawing from the teachings of Ss. Athanasius, Cyril, Maximus the Confessor, and the Cappodocian Fathers, argued the opposite, that the acts of God in creation correspond to some sort of actuality in God, which can be participated in by creation through grace (the double meaning here of energy as both act and actuality is quite fortuitous), and thus certain affirmations about God, like ‘God is good’, or ‘God is just’ are true positive affirmations about God. The radical apophaticism which Larson pretends is part of Eastern theology is in fact a condemned heresy in the Orthodox Church.

[quote]St. Thomas relies heavily on Pseudo-Dionysius whenever he addresses our knowledge of God, and his teaching on analogy, which the author of this article does not appear to take seriously, is in basic agreement with The Divine Names. In fact, one of the quotations provided by the author to “prove” Pseudo-Dionysius’s heterodoxy is basically an early version of Thomas’s doctrine of analogy! I suspect the author of this article sees analogy as nothing more than semantic pedantry rather than connecting it, as St. Thomas does, to participation. In any case, God is ultimately beyond any affirmation we can make about him because our knowledge is always tied up with material things. I am not sure how one could reject this while claiming to be a Thomist.

Is that really the Thomist position? We certainly can make true, affirmative propositions about God.

Yes, I think it is rather clear that Thomas Aquinas taught that we do not predicate terms of God and creatures either univocally or equivocally but rather by analogy. He in fact tackles this very question in The Disputed Questions on the Power of God, Question VII, Article VII:We must accordingly take a different view and hold that nothing is predicated univocally of God and the creature: but that those things which are attributed to them in common are predicated not equivocally but analogically. Now this kind of predication is twofold. The first is when one thing is predicated of two with respect to a third: thus being is predicated of quantity and quality with respect to substance. The other is when a thing is predicated of two by reason of a relationship between these two: thus being is predicated of substance and quantity. In the first kind of predication the two things must be preceded by something to which each of them bears some relation: thus substance has a respect to quantity and quality: whereas in the second kind of predication this is not necessary, but one of the two must precede the other. Wherefore since nothing precedes God, but he precedes the creature, the second kind of analogical predication is applicable to him but not the first.

As Pascendi §19 says, some, like the Meyendorff (“the natural state of man as composed of three elements: body, soul, and Holy Spirit”), “hold that the divine action is one with the action of nature, as the action of the first cause is one with the action of the secondary cause, and this would destroy the supernatural order.” The Orthodox appear to deny that there can be substances (subsisting natures).

That is incorrect. This reading is based on Larson’s use of the fallacy of equivocation. It should be clear that what Fr. John Meyendorff means here by ‘natural’ is not the philosophical meaning of the word, but the plain English meaning of ‘how something is supposed to be’. Man is supposed to exist in communion with the Holy Spirit. What he does not mean to say is that the Holy Spirit somehow makes up the nature or essence of man in the philosophical sense.

However, God does not meddle with nature: “in the works of nature creation [ex nihilo] does not enter, but is presupposed to the work of nature”, and there is a difference between creatio ex nihilo and the working of grace; grace only works on intellectual creatures, so Lossky statement “grace is implied in the act of creation itself” is ambiguous at best.

Grace in the Eastern tradition has always had a very broad meaning, one that does not correspond well to what the term means in the West. That being said, the grace implied in the act of creation is not the same as say the deifying power of God. All Lossky is trying to point out is that creation is in a dynamic relationship with its creator, without any default state. On this point, however, Lossky diverges somewhat from the Eastern fathers who use language indicating that there are natures, capable of being contemplated in themselves (something which Lossky seems to wish to deny), which participate in God’s energies to the varying degrees of which they are capable.

But in fact they don’t do anything of the sort. And anyone who has actually read some Orthodox theology without a serious axe to grind would know that.


Try reading some of the equivalent polemic on the Orthodox side and you might understand–or you might not if you’re really locked into a Neo-Thomist mode of looking at things.

Daniel Clendenin has edited an excellent reader in modern Orthodox theology.

Most basically, the Orthodox position is more in keeping with the general approach of the Fathers. It’s also personally appealing to me–it’s simply more beautiful. . . .

And in fact on certain issues it’s the West that has adopted questionable Neo-Platonic ideas, like the intrinsic immortality of the soul.


Comes back around to Uncreated and Created Grace and misunderstanding.

First Thomas Aquina’s is not Dogma and many Catholic’s follow the Essence/Energies concept. Second it should be noted that Gregory Palamas is not using the word in the same context as Thomas Aquina’s. So one is not contingent on the other thus right or wrong is not an issue.

Last but not least when the author/article speaks of “merit” he assumes everyone has a readily available CCC or completely understands the West and thus lacks specific definition to this aspect.

At any rate the arguement culminates past the article in …

Which if you scroll down to the end of the first page you’ll see…

While I agree a point of contention exists in the immediate above link, this is merely a common dynamic of West and East, well in particular the West whom has greatly elaborated on the Kingdom of God. I disagree that Basil and his brother do not further clarify Palamas postition which I admit by itself comes under attack and for no good reason from my research.

I shouldn’t need to, as it is so obviously trash. However, without re-reading it, which I don’t have time to do now, the suggestion that Eastern belief in the essence/energies distinction is pantheistic, when it actually safeguards against pantheism, is among the most stupid arguments I’ve ever encountered. I also remember a brief section about transubstantiation. The Orthodox don’t use the terminology, but their beliefs about the Eucharist are essentially the same.

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Well, from a quick read through it seems that the writer is making too many unjustified assumptions, expecting that quotations removed from their context can stand alone in explaining the doctrines. Clearly that is not true.

But I do understand the confusion over this Eastern concept. People here tend to assume or even impose on others that we have to accept explanations of it that contradict our own faiths and they never cite just which authoritative church statement says we do. As far as I can tell, the church has simply chosen to be silent on the matter. I’ve also encountered explanations of this that are compatible with the West (OP, do a search for the poster Ghosty’s posts and the terms divine essence, energies, divine nature, created uncreated grace and you’re likely to come across explanations that take into account western understanding and so clear out the debris of confusion from a Western point of view). I don’t deny that there is an understanding that is simply wrong from our point of view and incompatible, I’ve seen it many times here at CAF. But in light of Ghosty’s explanations, I’m tempted to think that the others are more modern developments or misconceptions on Palamas rather than what he really taugh?..:shrug:

Bottom line to understand is that when the West says essence, we mean the Divine nature, whil the term from the East means something more akin to the infinite transcendence of the Divinity in Western understanding (as opposed to its immance) and not divinity itself perse. The problem from our perspective is the idea that God has two parts or that there’s a part of God that is not fully divine- That is simply intolerable to a Western mind because God is not made of parts (he’s perfectly and indivisibly one) and is God/divinity all through (God can never be in anyway less than divinity as that which is not the divine nature is less than God and therefore not God). These are fundamental and not just negotiables. Like I aside, the best way from our side to see the E-E distinction in a non-heterodox way is to drop the identification of essence with the Divinity when discussing this doctrine and to realize that the closest parallel to the distinction in the West is more like “God in his infinite transcendence and God in his infinite immanence”, rather than "The divine (therefore non-reachable) part of God vs the non-divine (therefore reachable) part of God, which, like I said, is downright wrong to us.

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